Swell Fire

It’s April now, and we’re a few months past the talk of the town here in Los Angeles. I am, of course, talking about the strike by the Writer’s Guild of America. For those of us caught up in the strike—and by that I mean either participating, being unable to work because of it or both (we Screen Actors Guild members were there, standing side by side with the DGA, hamming it up for cable news crews everywhere)—the strike had the feel of being the “bad”cop in a mediocre crime drama. It may or may not have been necessary, depending upon whom you listen to, but it was grimly inevitable and provoked no end of snickers and eye rolls from the rest of the cast. Speaking personally, I think it got the job done but I hope it does not get hired for any near-future episodes.

Anyway, to get by as our bank accounts dwindled and “reality programming” filled the time slots with mercenary vigor, many turned to other means of expression. Some took their overflowing talents to the even-smaller-screen and turned out ground-breaking web series. “Wainy Days”, “Horrible People”and “Maria Bamford”” come to mind. (If you haven’t seen ‘em, well, say goodbye to your 52” plasma screens.) Some finally got to that novel they’d always wanted to write (results forthcoming, we assume). Others took that Real Estate Exam once and for all.

Me? I went surfing. And watched the state burn.

Back up: One upon a time, I was a New Jersey skate kid. For several years in the mid-1970’s, I spent every waking moment doing fakies in badly built half-pipes, grinding my axel on pool copings long since demolished, and dazzling Amy DuBois with my otter-nimble slalom through Coke cans on Evergreen drive. And let’s face it, everything move we had on those boards was a total lift from images we saw in the now iconic, SKATEBOARDERMAGAZINE. Guys like Jay Adams and Tony Alva were our heros, and we all did our best layouts and “rail grabs” in our grim little New Jersey lots with California on our minds. And here I’d been, mere miles from the beach for the better part of 2 decades, without ever attempting to master the sport that started it all. Surfing. The California Dream. I wanted in.

So, about 4 years ago, I began surfing. Now, to be clear, I’m no Laird Hamilton. I started surfing when I was 42, when most guys my age are selling their long boards to finance colonoscopies. It was a daunting and, quite frankly, ugly start. But with the tutorial patience of my sensei, surfer/environmental engineer John Wingate, I paddled out on a summers day in 2004 and never looked back.

Which brings me to the Writer’s Strike. It’s fall 2007, and after 2 years of drought and unspectacular winter swells, California is lighting up. It’s a virtual wave park. And, me being no damn scab and therefore unemployed, I had full license to get off land and float around. The strike, it might be said, was the best thing that ever happened to those of us in the industry that surf.

Here’s a random report from the water:Fire- October 21, 2007Gaviotas, Mexico 6:30 am. Sunday. It’s me, Slatty, Wingate (my sensei), and Peter Michelena. We are a middle-aged bunch who had no business visiting a strip joint after a drink filled dinner. But, we’re here in Baja and we’re obliged to participate in local customs (our wives and significant others will no doubt be sympathetic to our situation when we report our findings at a later date). Our stucco and terra-cotta rental looks like it’s been raped by a frat-house and and we’re all moving like turtles on roofies, but the sight of steady sets marching in from the south has us guzzling down energy drinks and wrestling on our wetsuits. Greying soldiers, we’re struggling past our hangovers to paddle out for not-so-dawn patrol. Sensei, who passed on the lap-dances and was up at 5:30, is not amused and the situation would be tense if Slatty and me weren’t so nauseous.

Once we make it down the narrow alley way to the beach, the scene becomes clear. Overnight, the surf has jumped up considerably, and most of the other tenants of this gated resort have found their way out to the line-up. The sets are pretty consistent at, oh, let’s say 6-9 feet. Unlike the island-blocked waves that show up in Santa Monica Bay, these buggers are open water swell that bring a whole lot more water and momentum to the equation and I, a mediocre paddler at best, get a nice case of butterflies as I watch the larger waves smash the bluff and surrender back into the rip current. But Sensei and Michelena are already out on the water, and so Slatty and I have no choice but to follow. Slatty, a newly christened surfer with a swimmer’s build and nasty competitive streak is navigating his longboard through the tsunamis of whitewater coming at us disappointingly well. Me? I’m getting knocked around like a discarded cup in a flushed toilet. 2 paddles forward, 100 yards back as each concussive wave breaks on my head and drives me and my 9’ Robert August Tuff Lite back toward the rocky beach.

4 waves later, and I’m choking on Mexican whitewater and staring straight up at the walkway, where 6 guys from San Diego are laughing at my sad rejection from the sea. Fuck it. I’m not going to die in full view of a crew drinking warm Coors for breakfast. With arms like over-cooked spaghetti, I haul my drowned kitty ass back onto the board and make a life or death sprint forclear water beyond the breakers.

Wheezing, I miraculously find myself “outside” where the water’s too deepfor the wave to break. Thankfully, no one seems to have noticed my sorry approach to the line up. That’s because the swell is on. Guys take off around me like raptors taking flight on healthy ridge-lift. The offshore winds are warm, the waves are glassy and though I’d like to vomit and die,it’s about as perfect a Baja swell as you could ask for. Down the row, I can see Peter and Sensei each launching into rights and lefts and taking long rides to the south and north. Slatty turns and paddles into the first bona-fide overhead wave of the set, his prematurely grey hair lit like a lantern, and is gone amidst a chorus of hoots and shouts. That’s the one thing about surfers, yes, they’ll eat you alive if you screw up in the line-up, but they give props when they’re due. I get mine. The best of these waves shapes up around me like a ride at Six Flaggs. Like I’m raised aloft on the back of some blue leviathan and catapulted toward shore. Ok, let’s face it, these wave aren’t Mavericks, but they’re bigger than I’m used to. On take off, my legs buckle slightly and as I extend them, the acceleration forces a loud, involuntary,“Whooooooooop” out of me. The rest is time travel.

As opposed to the loping,casual bottom turns of my local waves, I’m digging my rail and ricocheting off the bottom, launching back up to the lip and gliding over early morning glass, a mercury smooth face glinting gold as the Baja sun makes its appearance over the dry hills. For the next hour, that’s how it goes. About 20 of us, all trading waves, howling as this late season, south swell fires away.

And then it all goes to shit. Approaching from the southeast is a wall of brown dust a few thousand feet high. Not too thick but…eh…strange. And with it, the sea turns to white. It’s not something I’ve seen before, and I guess I’m not alone because everyone’s looking south as a clear line of demarcation between still blue water and whitecaps advances. And…BOOM!. We’re all knocked sideways as the Santa Ana comes.

Suddenly our idyllic off-shore is blowing us backwards off the waves. Paddling into the sets becomes nearly impossible and the palm trees are shedding fronds which pin-wheel dangerously across the sky. We try to make the best of it, but I finally decide to drop into the spray and take my last perfectly respectable 6’ wave into shore.

So much for Baja. The Santa Ana’s have come with a vengeance. The air is full of brown dust which is covering our cars, blinding our eyes and turning our much beloved swell into “Victory At Sea”. There’s nothing left to do but pack up and go home.

Not so fast. About 4 miles from the border at Tijuana, the traffic is backed up to a standstill and it’s snowing. Ash. Turns out that somewhere just past the Mexican border in San Diego, and all the way up the coast to Ventura, this epic Santa Ana as fomented a world on fire. And, with 2 years of drought under California’s belt, it takes only hours for nearly all of them to get out of control. Meanwhile, Slatty and I pass the time pondering the use of items for sale by the locals, who are casually wandering through traffic and ash with their babies at their sides. As we pass each fruit vendor, we contemplate how ill we would get, and who would vomit first. Such is the sad state of a gringo’s bacterial tolerance. By the time we get to the actual guard gates, huge brown clouds are billowing overhead and the US Border patrol is looking sinister behind particle masks. We have to keep our windshield wipers on to see through the ash. 2 hours and 4 miles later, we’ve got our ID’s out and a surly guard who delivers this terse narrative: “The highway’s been closed on and off. You might not make it home. We got fires all up and down the coast and it’s all getting worse. Good luck.”

To call our drive north surreal would be to offend it. Cars crawl over vast stretches of sun-less, smoke shrouded asphalt. Our otherwise blue-bird perfect sky is streaked at odd intervals by conflagrations sometimes faraway and sometimes right up against the roadway. Overwhelmed fire crews scream in the distance and both helicopters and planes drop retardant in vain on fires advancing upon communities already in evacuation mode. The now famous October fires of 2008 are on.

As we approach San Clemente, we get an idea. It was not perhaps, an altruistic idea, but neither was it without poetry. The San Onofre Power Plant stands atop cliffs that rise a hundred feet or so above the sea. This area is known to surfers as Trails, the less-glamorous, distant cousin to Trestles, just to the north. Whereas Trestles is home to a world-class “a-frame” wave that attracts pros from around the world, Trails is a long series of beach breaks at the bottom of a long-ish hike that are usually not worth all the effort on an average swell. But this is no average swell. On a hunch, we pull off the 15 and drive down past the power plant, with visions of the Apocalypse dancing in our heads.

We park at trail head number 4 and walk out to the bluff. To our left a long plume of smoke rises from the San Diego hills and wraps around us as the sun slowly sinks behind it. The world is cast in orange light. From the cliffs we can see sets coming in from the horizon. And below us, almost impossibly, an easy half-mile of coastline with no more than 6 surfers out, gorgeous sets peeling left and right, glassy and beautiful, protected by the cliffs. We had, in effect, this haunted and beautiful scene, entirely to ourselves.

It’s a vision that makes you clap like an idiot child. It’s a vision that makes you jump up and down, and then hope nobody else finds out. If you don’t surf, then think of it like this: You’re a paleontologist, and during your hunt for fossilized dinosaur tracks, you stumble upon a live Brontosaurus. Playing piano. Well.

Epilogue: While Hollywood picketed studios and pondered career moves, the fires burned for 5 more days. Several hundred thousands of acres lost, many homes, and millions in damages. What started them? Some natural reasons, some man-made, but all made more dangerous by the two seasons of built-up fuel, thanks to drought. Simultaneously, surfers experienced one of the best weeks of surf in recent So Cal history. Santa Anas are a mixed blessing. On a good swell,they bring epic conditions. In a drought, they bring fire. Such is life in Southern California, and life goes on.

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One Comment

  1. John says:

    I surfed Hurricane Agnes on LBI, New Jersey, in 1972. My experience was exactly as you describe. Terror in paddling out to the lineup, fear while sitting in the lineup, passing by perfect wave after perfect wave, and then finally dropping in on a wave that was five times bigger, at least, than anything I had ever tried. And then, being totally out of balance, out of control, and terrified out of my mind, which somehow translated into radical moves from bottom to lip & getting tubed in a double overhead. I did that three times and rode the last one into the beach. The waves were still great, but I was too afraid to keep doing it.

    One of the best experiences of my entire life.

    When I got to the beach all kinds of people ran up to me to pat me on the back and congratulate me on my mad surfing skillz. I didn’t tell them that what looked like great surfing was just an uncoordinated kid spazzing out.

    Thanks for the Wainy Days link. I just about passed out laughing.

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