By Tim Ryan
There are a few surfing spots in the world where if your roots, spirit, and stoke are simple and pure for this avocation that some call a sport, you’re a bit overwhelmed just by being at the place.
In California these spots may be The Ranch, Malibu, El Capitan, Steamer Lane, Lower Trestles, and WindanSea.
Regardless if there are waves, it’s the set up, the surrounding ocean, the sounds be it ankle biters or thick wrapping perfection. Even with eyes closed your senses follow that cracking from outside to shore break. And you probably mind surf each wave.
This day, a week into our surf journey, we’ll return to the legendary right point break where Santa Barbara County meets the Ventura County line.
Whether you surf this special spot once or consistently, there’s no forgetting favorite days and waves, even sections of waves, and hurried paddle outs because nearly all sessions here become lasting impressions.
In January 1964, my now deceased best friend, Dennis – the brother of Steve my surfing companion on this nostalgia trip – and I made our first foray away from L.A. County surf – some 80 miles north to Rincon.
(The word rincón can be translated to ‘spot’, ‘place’ or ‘corner’ (like a corner in a room). It can also mean ‘remote corner’ or ‘outpost’, but it depends on the context.)
We knew what we wanted to see, but there were no guarantees of a swell running just simple surfer hope. These were the days of no wave reports, no leases, only thin Short John O’Neil wetsuits to ward off mid 50-degree water, knee paddling to stay dry, and thick paraffin wax for our decks. We drove to Rincon on faith but also the thrill of just being there. If there were no waves at least we could say we had been there, right?
It was a cold, foggy day when we parked along the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway directly in front of the break. (You can no longer park there.) Only one other car was there and the sun was just starting to win its battle against the thick mist.
Sitting on the seawall that protects Highyway 101, Dennis and I heard a roar then some crashes around first point. We squinted to catch a glimpse.
“Well, it sounds like it’s breaking,” Dennis said.
The tide was low; exposed rocks stretched from the cove westward into the fog. The best point break we had surfed up to this time was Malibu, perhaps a minor league wave compared to Rincon. Where would we paddle out and not get caught inside? We waited.
Then the fog lifted like a theater curtain. We saw an empty six-foot wave wrapping and bending around first point then into the cove never sectioning almost cartoon like in its perfection.
“Jeeeesus,” Dennis said.
“All it does is peel. God, it’s a freight train,” I said.
I remember this lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach watching the green, glassy wave spiral for a few hundred yards before its last bit of energy expired on the seawall.
“So it’s real,” Dennis said. “This wave is real.”
For a brief moment we were silent. Then without saying a word we hurried into the blue VW van sliding long boards out, hurried to suit up, then climbed down the seawall to a dusty trail, gingerly stepping into the frigid ocean.
Bone chilling. Shrinkage.
After taking a couple of small shorebreak waves on our legs, we hopped on our knees paddling furiously to beat the next set. Dennis was paddling ahead of me then looked back smiling. He was happy; so was I.
The fog still hovered when we heard another clap around the point. A second head-high, mossy wave became visible, but this time with a surfer wearing only blue palaka pattern canvas trunks riding morning glass in full trim and crouching. The curling wave stretched out in front of him for a hundred yards.
The surfer was also smiling.
I’ve never forgotten Dennis’ yell: “He’ll never make it!”
“Hell, we’ll never make it over that wave!” I responded.
But this lanky solitary surfer knew Rincon. He stood, dropped under sections, stepped forward into full trims, gentle, functional cut backs, smooth as silk bottom turns, then a stall for the tube. His silhouette clearly visible inside this cool wave of color.
A moment after the surfer jetted by us the wave’s lip blasted Dennis and me off our boards, which we clung to like life preservers.
We didn’t waste time talking but frantically climbed back on, then paddled beyond the impact zone where we sat silent contemplating for a brief moment the most perfect wave we had ever seen in this first year of our becoming surfers. My teeth chattered; we both shivered.
We sat at the point with only three of us out. Cars stacked with boards began arriving on Highway 101.
Another head high set lumped on the horizon near second point. We didn’t know the takeoff spot so we sat still.
Dennis was a bit too far over so I snagged the first wave, cheating on the takeoff. I nearly spun out but my fin reset. After a cautious turn, I trimmed and let the wave have its way with me. The lip pitched and bowled. I squatted. I still vividly remember this shimmering wave allowing me inside again and again. Really, my first tube.
Only a surfer knows that feeling.
We were astounded not only by Rincon’s consistent shape, but how this gift of nature – at least this morning – improved our fledgling performances. Our usual brief nose rides were longer here. We had gotten tubed before, but this time we actually made it out. Cut backs were more fluid with the energy of the waves getting a major assist for that.
Some four hours later Dennis and I met on the beach, both having wiped out from exhaustion, losing our boards to the cove, then doing the rock dance over small, jagged stones. Certainly a slow dance though any pain was subdued since our feet were in a state of hyperthermia.
The ride back to Hollywood was uncharacteristically quite for us. We were exhausted, cold, hungry, elated and satiated. It was the first of hundreds of surf adventures to Rincon.
We would eventually share waves with Renny Yater and George Greenough and Lance Carson and Mickey Dora and Bob Cooper and Bob “Pork Chop” Baron, all legends at the time. Their styles influenced us though we knew we were poor copycats.
I recall that day to Steve as we head toward Santa Barbara. We’d been stumped by sloppy waves and brisk west winds along the Big Sur coast. We’re hoping for any semi-smooth point break waves anywhere.
The coastline between Gaviota and Ventura hasn’t changed much but just inland there’s large scale residential and commercial growth. In some spots the crops have become red tile roofs of Spanish-style homes. It was inevitable.
Surfers surf; developers develop.
We stopped at Santa Barbara’s Beach House on State Street to talk story with friend Roger Nance. A Beach House salesman with wet hair whispers to Nance that Rincon “has waves, not many people out.” No discussion about size. It’s late April so any size now is a spring gift. We bid a quick aloha to Nance and head to Rincon.
The parking lot is nearly full, but we find a spot. Surfers of all ages are either coming out of the water or going in. They’re all smiling and friendly.
The surf is a consistent three to four feet with an occasional head high. Medium outgoing tide. Rocks exposed. Mostly makeable gentle tubes. Walking over the rocks and looking seaward we see two keiki surfers – maybe 11 years old – get barreled on separate waves.
A good sign.
A slight southeast wind causes the waves to crumble a bit soon, but still the rides are at least 75 yards. Sand has settled inside so tubes are an equal part green and brown. Most of the 20-plus surfers in the water are polite and willing to share. Or is it because we’re old?
Steve says he’s going to sit inside the cove. I agree, but as usual Steve decides to paddle beyond first point. His first wave is shoulder high. He turns fast, steps into full trim, then moves to the nose hanging five. Several surfers watch the the old master do his thing.
As the lower tide begins to close out that wave, Steve back peddles and straightens out. The expression on his face tells me he’s stoked.
I cheat on the take off on a frothy wave. The guy paddling in front of me looks towards me and yells “Go for it!” Is this for real?
I bottom turn into a speeding section, trimming, extending my right hand to simply touch the wave’s lip. I love doing that!
For a moment it’s like my eyes are a fisheye lens. Looking ahead, I see the number of houses lining the point on my left, the seawall dead ahead, the steep hillside across the highway, La Conchita Pier a mile away to my right, the wave’s bottom sucking out below me, sand and rocks, froth and eel glass. I close my eyes oh so briefly then open them and pull out. I’m very happy.
I do so love this place.
Rincon over the decades helped refine Steve and my styles. On small to medium size days the wave bloated our egos. On bigger days like in the double overhead swell of January 1969, it was humbling but the Queen allowed me to survive.
During that same swell a few days later when the size mercifully had dropped, I paddled out under dark, gray skies. How could I not surf this swell until it ends. I rode for hours even when a high ride filled in and the backwash off the seawall sent surfers riding too far down the line flying.
I climbed and dropped on shimmering wave faces gliding longer that I had ever ridden anywhere before. I was confident and cocky; a bad combination. I paid the price.
The backwash refracted from the seawall as I was making another bottom turn. It struck the wave face at the same time I turned sending me falling into the trough. A desperate reach for my board failed.
My beloved three-stringer, $175, 10-foot Phil Edwards Model washed toward the seawall. The wave lifted the board up its face, clutched it in its lip, demonically held it high, then slammed it into the seawall, snapping it cleanly in half. All three stringers severed.
Rincon holds a special place for me but not just because of its waves. I would retreat here in dark times to diminish emotional pain. When I went through a divorce in the early 1970s, my dog Tasha and I slept in my van for days on the highway fronting Rincon where I would often cry myself to sleep then surf to exhaustion the next day. That could mean three sessions.
I needed Rincon. Can you understand? I needed to be physically exhausted; I needed to feel accomplished and believe that I could do something right. I needed to surf well and powerful and stylish. Whether or not I did that I don’t know, but The Queen granted me that privilege and helped me believe I had.
Aloha for listening.
Next Go Out: El Capitan memories then fun waves at California Street