The concept of surfing because it puts you one with nature, clears your soul of bad vibes, and can make you a more humble person. Does not include the following: surfing for money, making fun of groms, spending more money on equipment(board, suit, etc.) than most people spend on food in a year.

I'll have more to add later when I can think of better ways to describe it.

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 riding? 

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 Ireland

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.

An embarrassment of riches

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 home.

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.

Paradise Lost

Localism.  It's 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 surfing. 


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.

Transcontinental Migration

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 suitDamn 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 days.

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 Tortola anyway.

Soul Surfing

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.

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