Two Surfers, Two Coastlines
What can the stories of two men who have surfed for most of
their lives tell us about the sport? How
have the cultural and historical differences between New England and Southern
California shaped the way they see themselves and the way they approach wave
Woody , a Cape Cod native, and Bill, a long time San Diego surfer who moved with his family to Cape Cod in the mid 1990's, share
with us the history of their surfing lives. Given the vast differences in
conditions you'd expect their paths to diverge wildly, and in some senses
perhaps they have, but the core values of the surfing lifestyle tend to merge
and meld rather than divide and, in the end, these two surfers have found common
ground and a shared vision. Today,
despite the great differences in their backgrounds, their stories have merged.
According to both of them, the best is yet to come.
The Life of an East Coast Surfer
When I was just starting out as an east coast surfer, in my
early twenties, I’ll never forget what this non-surfer kook said to me:.
“Surfing on the east coast is a farce.”
Over the years, I have also heard the same type of comment “parroted” by others. Some
thirty years later, I know for sure, that I could have said to that dude and
others; if you don’t surf here, you don’t know anything about surfing here!
Surfing has been my passion for 37 years, and I wouldn’t have traded my
east coast existence for anywhere else.
For sure, surfing on the east coast is not as highly touted
as the west coast or Hawaii. The
east coast is a lot less consistent than the west coast of the Pacific, and even
the west coast of the Atlantic. The
west coasts are blessed with more waves due to the Coriolis effect, in which
the weather systems for the most part are moving from west to east.
That is they move out and away from the east coast and blow most of the
waves across the Atlantic to the western shores of Europe, England and
The waves the east coast gets from various fronts, lows,
northeasters, and tropical storms, vary from almost nothing at times, to
our typical one
day swells, and the occasional two or three day swell.
When those rare week long swells show up, they are greatly appreciated.
Flat spells allow you to get ahead on your work schedule so you are
prepared and ready to go for the next perfect day.
I didn’t have the luxury of living anywhere near an ocean
beach that had surf. As it turned
out, it was more of an advantage than a disadvantage.
Eventually, I figured out that I lived and worked
strategically in a location on the upper Cape that allowed me to travel an hour
in four different directions to find a wide variety of beaches to choose from.
I was able to combine whichever of four different swell directions were
happening, south, southeast, east, and northeast, with any one of my numerous
beaches that would be the best on any particular day.
Then I would factor in the local wind direction, and this would narrow
down the choice to at least one, or sometimes several spots to choose from.
I was always very selective on when and where to go, as I was
only interested in going out in the best of conditions.
This limited the number of times I could go surfing in a year, but I was
into quality versus quantity. I
probably averaged only about 30 surfs per year, but these were excellent days.
In 1986, I was able to go 48 times out of 365 days, which doesn’t seem
like much. If you didn’t mind
less than perfect conditions, and you had the time, you could go more often, and
many people do.
A lot of surfers today consider it part of their religion
to travel the world for their fair share of waves.
I once had the travel bug when I was younger, but gave it up
after a major disaster, and this location was not even really considered third
world. After that reality check, I
made it a point to limit my exploration and adventure to those nearest far away
places, close to the safety and comfort of home.
Over my long surfing career, I was rewarded with some
spectacular days of surfing, well beyond what I could ever have imagined.
Best of all, I was able to accomplish all of this while holding onto a
great job, using my days off, flexible vacation time, and after work trips to go
to the beach.
Those after work, evening sunset and moonrise surfs at the
outer Cape were the perfect ending to some of the best days of my life.
With some discipline, and balance, I had the best of both worlds.
I was able to eke out a surfing lifestyle without hardly ever leaving my
home state of Massachusetts. With
an occasional trip to Rhode Island, and a boat at my disposal to surf my secret
spots on several private islands, I made the most of the waves that the east
coast gave me.
Southern California Roots: Bill's Story
I started surfing when I was 10 years old, about the time
my brother Jeffrey and I were able to drag our loggy Duke Kahanamoku popout
across the hot sands of Ocean Beach, San Diego.
That was the beginning of a long and happy passion for wave riding that
continues to this day.
Yesterday I broke in a brand new Dan Wexler performance
longboard in the crispy low tide beach break lefts on the Cape Cod National
Seashore. We had a northeast swell,
the remnants of Hurricane Ivan. The
sun was warm, even if the water wasn't, and an offshore breeze lifted a thin
veil of spray off the lip of every wave. I
couldn't help but reflect on the journey from southern California to New
England, the story of my surfing life.
To grow up as a surfer in San Diego means having literally
hundreds of surf spots to choose from. If
you include the coastline from Trestles to Ensenada, all within an easy hour
drive; the number must be over a thousand.
The good news is that when it's good, there are plenty of
places to choose from. The bad news
is that there are so many surfers nowadays; that almost every one of those
thousand spots has a snarling and aggressive crowd chafing shoulder to shoulder
for every single wave.
It wasn't always like that.
When I first started surfing, in the early 60's, there was still enough
of everything for everybody. When a
good swell hit and the point breaks started to light up, the crowds at all the
local breaks thinned out, as surfers migrated to the high profile spots like Windansea,
Swamis, and Blacks Beach. Our
family vacationed in Solana Beach and I remember my brother and I having
Cardiff Reef to ourselves for days at a time.
After a day of surfing, it was still possible to go snorkeling and pop a few
abalones or grab a spiny lobster out of a hole for
dinner. The water was clean and
there were long stretches of shoreline without a single house hovering over the
waves. The police frowned upon
sleeping on the beach next to your campfire, but even if they caught you, the
penalty was a gentle nudge to wake you up, and a firm suggestion that it was time to head
Surfing's style points were different back then as well.
Like Tiger Woods compared to the average pudgy old duffer in a golf cart,
the top surfing pros today set a performance level that is beyond the wildest dreams of the
average surfer. Most of the
surfers I knew as a kid were still influenced by the more spiritual aspects of
surfing rather than the staccato drumbeat of competition that drives most of the
California surf world today. My
personal hero back then was George Greenough, an inventor and explorer, who
challenged the conventional wisdom and pushed the limits of surfing in every
direction. Surfing back then was about freedom and sprit rather than money.
such a part of the surfing landscape these days that no one even bothers to
complain about it anymore. When I
was a kid, it only took a few weeks of surfing at a spot for you to earn at
least a nominal place in the lineup. A
few days of, "the hairy eyeball," then somebody would give you a wave
or two, and a chance to earn some respect.
From there it was up to you. These
days, "if your Dad didn't surf here, don't bother paddling out."
The environment began to deteriorate noticeably in the mid
1970's, the result of too many people stressing a fragile system.
Lobster became a rarity and the abalone stocks were so badly depleted
that they haven't recovered to this day. Water quality warnings began to appear,
letting us know that it wasn't safe to go in the water for fear of infectious
diseases. Ear infections became as
common a complaint as surf knots were a couple of decades earlier.
The beautiful soaring brown pelicans were put on the critically
endangered species list.
I relocated northward over the years, one step ahead of the
developers. Point Loma, to Pacific
Beach, to La Jolla, then Del Mar,
Cardiff and Leucadia, where I made my last stand. When
the madness finally caught up with me I just threw in the towel and quit
I took a ten-year furlough from the sport I loved because
it was more painful to see first hand what had happened to it, than to pursue
other interests and just look the other way.
I wandered in the wilderness of hang gliding, sailing and windsurfing and
tried not to think about the waves. The only board I kept was a Lis fish kneeboard that occupied my attic and seemed to glower reproachfully at me from
time to time. As it turned out,
that board triggered my rebirth as a surfer when a new friend saw it, found out
that I'd once surfed and invited, insisted, that I come out with him.
I was introduced to a surf culture that had a fault line
down the middle. On the one side
there were the jumpy little guys in Day-Glo wetsuits poking their pointy
shortboards at each other and slashing ugly lines across the face in pale
imitation of the pro surfers they emulated.
The lineup was like a battleground.
On the other side of the fence were a handful of longboarder spots that I
instantly connected with. The crowd
was older, in some cases way older. They were more open to newcomers, even
friendly if you showed some talent and respect in the water.
I was home at last.
Then, we moved to New England, which is about as far,
culturally and geographically, as you can get from San Diego and still be in the
United States. My wife is an
oceanographer and she got a job offer that was too good to miss, and we both
wanted to get our kids out of the cultural impact zone that southern California
had become. So we moved to Cape Cod
in 1995, and I assumed my surfing days were over for good this time.
I didn't entirely give up on the idea, but I was pretty
dispirited. I'd seen the
once-a-year articles in the surf mags showing guys in steamer wetsuits carving
long lines across gray windblown Atlantic beach break sets. It looked gnarly and
grim. The party line from my west
coast surf buddies was that the continental shelf absorbed most of the
energy from incoming swells, and that all I could expect was small blown out
wind swells. It turns out that you
usually find what you look for, and my initial solo surf expeditions here on
Cape Cod pretty much confirmed my expectations. I looked hard for surf the first
spring we were here, and even ventured into the 40-degree water a few times
protected only by my inadequate 3mm full suit.
Damn near froze to death, and the fun quotient was absolute zero.
It took awhile, but I've slowly made the transition to an
east coast surfer and in the process I found out that nearly all my assumptions
were wrong. There's excellent surfing to be had in New England, and that
includes the ambience in and around the water.
There are fewer surfers here, and I'd characterize the mood out in the
water as friendly but wary. Nobody
wants to see what has happened to surfing in southern Cal repeated out here.
There's still room to earn your place in the lineup, just like the old
I'm still a novice at the arcane computations of wind and
swell that combine to create perfect conditions a few dozen times each summer here
in New England, but I’ve got a small posse of surfing buddies who are slowly
filling in the blanks for me and providing the kind of camaraderie in the water
that I thought I'd never see again. We
don't have a thousand places to choose from here, and the swells don't come
quite as often, but when it's good there's no place better.
I guess one small part of the stereotype was true: the
winters here can be downright dreadful, but that's when we fly to Puerto Rico or
Hurricane Karl is sending us a nice south swell this
weekend and my surfing buddy Woody and I are heading down to an island secret
spot for a few days of uncrowded waves. We'll
anchor in a small cove, probably by ourselves, and surf the long fast lefts that
wrap around the rocky point. In the
afternoon we'll go spearfishing for Tautog, or cast our lines for stripers. Maybe we'll cook what we catch over a campfire on the
beach. It'll be quiet and calm and beautiful. Soulful.
This article was written for N'east magazine and is posted here with
permission of the magazine and my co-author Woody.