By Tim Ryan
Standing outside the terminal at San Francisco International Airport at 10 p.m. in a 50 degree temperature and a brisk west wind while guarding 84 pounds of four boards, three pieces of luggage and two back packs, another traveler approaches me and says, “So, I guess you’re going to surf Mavericks, right?”
I’m impressed that he thinks for even a brief moment that at 68 I would be able to do that. For a very brief moment – and I mean brief – I wanted to say “Yes!” and detail what’s it like to ride mammoth winter swells of Waimea and Half Moon bay. I had to burst his bubble saying “Uh not exactly.”
I explain that Steve my surf partner and I have temporarily returned to California to relive our surfing days of the 1960s and 70s that rarely included riding waves higher than 8 feet. That’s still our limit.
He looked at me, smiled, said goodbye then walked away seemingly disappointed. The fact is I was never good or courageous enough to rides waves like that, or wanted to. Always a 6-foot and under guys, Steve and I don’t consider anything over 10-feet to really be fun and that’s what this trip is about.
Where was Steve? He was standing at the curb semi frantically eyeing down every airport shuttle hoping it was ours.
“What did that man want? Steve asked.
“He assumed we were here to ride Mavericks,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” Steve said.
I brought two 9-foot-plus long boards here so I had to use a unwieldy SUP bag to carry them. It was late, Steve was sleepy, grouchy and impatient – four sneak on three-ounce bottles of Kalua on an airplane will do that. Steve can be the proverbial worry wart. His concerns? 1. The shuttle wouldn’t take our boards; 2. The shuttle would never come.
The shuttle did come and the driver took our boards. He insisted we lay the boards over the shuttle’s seats and they had to come through the front door. They covered nearly all the space front to the back of the shuttle on one side. That would be fine if we were the only ones on the shuttle. But we weren’t.
The driver made six stops after us. Imagine the look on the faces of tired – no exhausted – travelers when they climbed on board and the first view was our stack of boards. As Steve and I rested in our seats near the rear of the vehicle, we watched families of various ethnicities and ages crawl around or climb over our boards then squeezing into to a seat. Naomi, a 67 year old grandmother from Redding, California and just returning from a missionary visit to Haiti, tired of seeing frowning passengers so she literally climbed and crawled over our boards to make room for others.
“So I’m guessing you’re going surfing?” she said. “That must be such a great feeling.”
We made it to the hotel; the passengers left the shuttle uninjured and at midnight we lugged our gear up the stairs to our second floor room. Steve bitching about why I had to bring two 9-foot boards.
“One is a thruster and one is a single,” I said.
The silence was deafening.
The next day we took the BART to the Fisherman’s Wharf area to pick up our camper van. (Check it out below). It’s 19 feet long about 7 feet high, has a kitchen in the rear with an electric refrigerator run by its own battery, two bench seats, a table and plenty of storage. We were stoked.
Nick, the San Francisco manager at the business, threw in without charge, an outside table, an extra beach chair, surf racks, a GPS, and extra container of propane for the stove.
Then we headed to Ocean Beach hoping – well kinda, sorta since the temp was only in the high 50s and water low 50s – to check the surf hoping it had some rideable size and shape. Bumpy, onshore winds, 3 feet and gray skies. The wetsuits went unpacked.
With nothing else to do, we visited a couple of classic surf shops in the Sunset Beach district a few blocks from Ocean Beach – Mollusk, and Wise Surfboards.
Spent nearly an hour at the Wise shop talking story with salesmen Dave and Rob who couldn’t have been more polite and helpful.
They were nearly as stoked about our trip as we are. They gave us suggestions about where we might find glassier surf than Ocean Beach which at several miles long is exposed to all kind of wind and swell.
Steve and I agreed we had to get in the water the next day “somewhere,” he said.
I agreed, adding that Ocean Beach had to be our first go out since I wanted to start in a place I had surfed several times before. Steve had never surfed there but agreed unless it was too big to get out.
We had planned to attend a showing at Mollusk of former Surfer editor Jeff Divine’s photos and his new photo book, but after a “gut-filling meal” – Steve ‘s words – at the down home-style Tennessee Grill, we opted for a good night’s early to bed sleep to be prepared for the next day’s surfing.
Sunday was clearer than the previous morning. The surf in the 3 to 5 foot was smoother, peaky with far less wind – probably considered glass to Ocean Beach locals – and relentless, meaning the shorebreak pounded onto a shallow sand bar and never stopped roiling through.
A couple of days before a swimmer had drowned after being caught in Ocean Beach’s notorious riptides. Sitting in our car even at this day’s small surf, riptides dotted the beach in every directions.
I told Steve about his brother Dennis and I surfing here a few times but up at nearby Kelly’s Cove in Short John O’Neil wetsuits and how hard the waves broke here and how uh exciting and unpredictable the takeoffs were.
“We always got caught inside here,” I said. “The rip and currents pull you in every direction.
“Wonderful,” Steve said.
We prepared to suit up. Steve hadn’t worn a full wetsuit for some five years when he surfed California. It had been some 12 years for me.
I hoped that we would at least be in the water for as long as it took us to suit up.
I had a lot to put on. A full Patagonia R4 wetsuit with accompanying booties, gloves and hood; the Heated Wetsuit top to be worn under the full suit. A light weight Lycra body suit and Lycra surf socks. The Lycra material makes it easier to get the wetsuit gear on and off since my suit is lined with a thin layer of Merino wool.
In 20 minutes I was “dressed” and ready to surf. We found what looked like a channel and headed out. Even close to shore it was easy to feel the the strength of the side shore current. I can’t image what it would be like to surf here on an overhead day.
Some 50 yards from shore my fin hit the sand on an itinerate sand bar where waves pounded. The bad news was I seemed to be stuck in a vortex. Steve, of course, was 20 yards ahead of me. The good news was my wetsuit gear had completely prevent any water from entering the suit. I had the heated vest on its lowest temperature level of 110 degrees. I felt totally unaffected by the chilly ocean temperature of 52 degrees.
One of the larger sets of the day came through and pounded me and swept me south in churning, foamy water. Not great traction for paddling. Steve barely made it over the set but got outside. His silhouette faded as I was going sideways more than forward.
Stopping to catch my breath wasn’t an option. By the time I barely made it outside Steve was up and riding his first shoulder high wave on his 6-6 fun Simmons shape shaped by Terry Martin ? Now I could rest and recoup my energy. I slid off my board to just float. Water still hadn’t penetrated the suit.
I closed my eyes and said words to Dennis, Steve’s brother, who died eight years ago after surfing with me on a near perfect head high southwest swell at Diamond Head. He had just turned 60 when he suffered a massive heart attack.
“Are you listening Dennis?” I said. “Remember the times we would surf Ocean Beach after staying in Santa Cruz? We both made some pretty steep drops in those days; we both pearled a lot. We got pounded and loved it. You were my best friend back then.
“Now I’m out here with your little brother. And he certainly can out surf both of us at 64 even on our best days. Now he’s my best friend so a sort of legacy exists with your family.
“Steve won’t admit it, but he takes care of me. Yeah, he complains but he is always there to help me when I need him. This trip is about us and you my friend. I love and miss you. We all do.”
I see a shoulder high set approaching and paddle quickly to where I think it will peak and it does. It’s a left. The steepening swell lifts me and I frantically paddle not wanting to miss it.
I slide down a smooth face angling left zipping through easy to make sections then digging a rail on an and get slammed by the wave’s lip.
Steve catches two more waves before my next right. It’s zippy and sectiony and, yes once again, I get slammed. Another rail dip. My attempt to straighten out is slow at best and weak certainly.
I get two more rides and then i get caught inside and dragged even closer to the Mexican border. That’s it, I’m done. I belly ride white water to the beach then make the trek back to the camper van.
I’m tired but happy. I got the wetsuit gear on easily and I was warm in cold water. At one point I turned off the heated top because I didn’t need it.
Steve followed me a few minutes later, declaring proudly that he had caught five ways but had a hard time nabbing more shifty peaks.
“A point break would have been easier,” he chimed. But he was smiling.
Several people stop by our camper van to ask about it. One hundred percent loved the van’s outside fish mural and interior layout.
As we leave San Francisco, the sun is shining and it actually feels warm. Steve is insistent on having Mexican food as we head to Half Moon State Beach for our first camper van camping. We eat at a Mexican/Peruvian restaurant in Pacifica where we enjoy a sumptuous meal and Mexican beer.
We tap the bottles to our meager success at Ocean Beach and I say “To Dennis.” “Yes, too Dennis,” Steve says.
Next stop is Half Moon Bay then on to Santa Cruz. A west-south south west surf is rising and we’re guardedly excited.