My First Time
Updated: Feb 2, 2019
The headline was brief and stirring: “STORM SURF!” It was accompanied by a quarter page photo of a huge, gnarly wave. I mean gnarly in the literal sense. The pictured wave was tall and it was thick and looked like a gigantic crushing machine; it was surely a monster. In black and white newspaper print it looked absolutely sinister. It was the offspring of a colossal tempest thousands of miles away. The paper said twenty to thirty foot storm generated waves were pounding the California coast. The west coast surf spots famous for big waves today, like Mavericks, The Cortez Banks, and Nelscott Reef, were virtually unknown in 1969, so twenty foot waves were considered a rare occurrence. In my teenage mind, this was of course a once in a lifetime event! Imagine Oahunorth shore big surf had been specially delivered for southern California surfers. I had to see this gift of nature. Actually, I had to surf it! Even though I had woken up before dawn (I’m a morning person – it’s a curse), I felt it was urgent that I get to the beach right away. These waves wouldn’t last forever! Getting to the beach would be a problem. I didn’t have a car. I was reliant on my parents to let me use one of theirs. But my dad had already gone to work taking his with him, and my mom would need hers for work later. The obvious solution was to hookup with one of my friends who had a car of their own. But circumstances conspired against that idea. It was so early it was still dark out; I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call someone. This was in the days before cell phones, so there was no way to target my call to the one person I actually wanted to speak to. My call would ring every phone in the house at once. If the family phone rang in the living room or kitchen… or master bedroom for that matter, it would no doubt have woken up a grumpy parent who didn’t want to have their early morning sleep disturbed by an indolent teenager. The only way I could see around this mess was to walk over to someone’s house and contact them in person. Obvious to me was the fact that walking is highly inefficient compared to telephoning, and it was going to result in precious time wasted. The next vexing question was who did I know with a car that I could roust out of the sack that early in the morning, with the least chance of doing nothing but making them angry, and the most chance of coaxing them to drive me to the beach? My usual surf buddy was Gilbert. He had a car and he was always up for surfing. But his parents were strict. If I woke them up they might be miffed and put the kibosh on the whole deal. Maybe Gilbert was not the best first choice. I went down my mental list. Ah, ha! Kelly and Mike. They were brothers I’d been close to since elementary school. Both of them were easy going and I reckoned I could game their emotions in my favor. And Kelly had a car! What the hell? These were big waves! How could they refuse? With my hastily thought out plan in place, I had to get going. Time was not standing still, and walking was going to take up valuable time. The sooner I got moving the sooner I would get to the beach. To prove my case to the guys I grabbed the front page of the newspaper and stepped out into the early morning dimness. I was off in a rush to get to Kelly and Mike’s house. From my parent’s house it was a two and a half mile walk. It would take about 40 minutes to walk there, and the time spent in transit might give everyone a little bit more sack time. Thankful for that, the extra sleep might lessen the chance they would just grump out and say “go home!” Still, I was stretching it out; I was burning up the pavement with long, quick strides. I wanted to get to the beach before the epic surf flattened out, bid adieu, and said “so long, sucker. The party’s over.” As I walked up to Kelly and Mike’s house I didn’t see Kelly’s car out front. That sobered me a bit. I hadn’t considered he might not be home, but I still had to wake someone up; that’s what I came for. Kelly and Mike lived in their garage which they had converted to a bedroom. It was more secluded than a regular room in the house and made the perfect enclave for a teenage boy hang out. What it also had was its own side door, which I found unlocked. Excellent! I glanced at Kelly’s empty bed, but I didn’t let that reality sink into my mind just yet. Mike’s bed was closest to the door and he was in it sleeping like an enchanted princess. But I wasn’t going to wake him up with a kiss. “Mike, Mike!” I shook his shoulder. “Charlie? What the hell?” He wasn’t happy to see me but at least he didn’t start swinging. “Mike, check this out,” and I shoved the newspaper in his face. He propped up on one elbow and took the paper in his free hand. He attempted to fix his not-yet-fully-operational eyeballs on the picture and headline I was promoting. He squinted in the impossibly dim light. “What am I looking at?” “It’s storm surf, man. It’s huge. I’m thinkin’ we gotta surf this. You wanna go?” “Are you kidding? You’re crazy.” “No, I’m not. It’s gonna be amazing.” I was hoping it wasn’t going to require an extensive sales pitch, or an argument, and possibly a bribe to talk him into going. Mike flopped back onto his pillow.
“I dunno. It’s early. I was asleep. I wish I was still asleep.” “I know, but the waves are huge. You’ll forget about sleep when you get there. We’ve never seen waves like this. And they won’t last forever.” “You’re crazy,” Mike repeated. “This is gonna be great. It could be a once in a lifetime thing.” That sounded pretty lame and cliché, but that was pretty much the best I could come up with. Mike just laid there with his a forearm arm over his eyes. I was afraid he might fall back to sleep but then, without opening his eyes he asked “Are you driving?” “Ah, no. I can’t get a car. Can Kelly drive?” I was thinking about not having seen his car out front and his empty bed, but I didn’t want to invoke reality by asking about where he was out loud. I was afraid of a superstitious jinx, I guess. Mike rubbed his eyes and tried to organize his drowsy recollections. After a few seconds he directed me to look at Kelly’s rumpled but otherwise empty bed. “Kelly's gone. He's driving totally across the country with Dave. You knew that!” "Oh, Yeah! With Dave, your grandfather." "Yeah." “Jeez I totally forgot about that,” I said with obvious disappointment. "They left a couple of days ago. They're gonna be gone like, forever." “Shoot, he's gone. Well, good for him; bummer for us.” I moved to a nearby chair and slumped into it with my arms hanging limp to the sides and my head cocked back. I stared at the ceiling in the near darkness. "Damn it!" A minute or so passed and we said nothing. I was feeling too disappointed and sorry for myself to formulate a plan “B” yet. I needed to do some serious teen-angst brooding first. Mike broke the silence. “If you get a ride I’d go.” “Great,” I thought with some disappointment. Mike wants to go but he is not part of the solution. Still, it was good to have ally and I wanted him to be a part of history with me. “Well. We gotta get a car,” I offered up. I sat back in the chair waiting for inspiration or for Mike to have a breakthrough idea. Still enjoying the comforts of bed Mike asks “what about Steve or Gilbert?” Steve worked at Ralph’s Grocery store, and I knew he would be at work on a Saturday. “Steve’s working. I guess we need to see if Gilbert can drive.” “Ok. Come pick me up if he he’s going.” What? Come pick him up? Crap! I was back to point zero and on my own to find a ride. It was still too early to call Gilbert’s house so I was going to have to walk there. Gilbert lived a mile and a half from my house in the exact opposite direction from Kelly and Mike. Now I had to cover the two and a half miles back and the mile and a half extra to Gilbert’s. Jeeze! This wasn’t going smooth at all. That was going to take me about an hour and 15 minutes. I was having a bit of a panic thinking I might miss the big surf altogether. By the time I retraced my steps back to my house I was getting hot and winded from the race-walking pace. I went in for a glass of orange juice and a cheap frozen pastry before I headed on to Gilbert’s. Sitting at the breakfast bar, enjoying the cold juice and “carb rush”, the desire for walking the rest of the way to Gilbert’s house was waning. “Hell with it” I decided. I was going to call and take whatever heat his parents handed out for waking them up. And after all, it wasn’t that late any more. They just might be up by now. At any rate, I was going to call and not walk. I called Gilbert’s number, and phone seemed to keep on ringing. “Oh man,” I was thinking, “everyone’s asleep.” “Hello?” a husky voice finally answered. “Gilbertl? Did I wake you up?” “Yeah.” “Sorry. Did I wake up your mom and dad?” “They’re not home. The rest of the family went camping. They left yesterday, but I had to stay home because I’m scheduled at work this weekend.” There was nobody home? There are no other family members there to disturb? I could have called two hours ago? Are you kidding me?!? I filled him in on the scheme: “Do you want to go to the beach? The surf is up big time. It's record storm surf. I’m talking bigger than we’ve ever seen it.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. I’m in. When do you want to go?” “Now!” I said with emphasis. “I wanted to go a couple of hours ago but I didn’t want to call and wake up your parents.” “They’re not at home. They went camping,” Gilbert repeated. “Yeah, I kinda got that. Can you drive?” “Yeah. Can you pitch in for gas?” “Yeah, and Mike wants to go to. Can we pick him up?” “Yeah, that’s ok. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
With the car facing the ocean, we parked on the north side of 39th Street in Newport Beachjust about at the intersection with West Oceanfront. The sky was gray and dreary with costal overcast, but the air was warm for December. A weak Santa Ana weather condition was causing an offshore breeze. As I got out of the car, that same breeze was comfortably fresh on my face and it rustled my hair. The wind was dry, which implied that even with the overcast, it was going to be a comfortable day on the beach. We were preoccupied getting our paipo boards and fins out of the car, but we froze in mid motion when we felt the ground shake, and then heard the deep, thunderous rumble of a crashing wave. We caught each other’s gaze and chuckled “whoa!” expressing nervous expectation. “We’re gonna die,” Mike said drearily. Mike is very funny, but I wasn’t sure he was joking. Gil and I just looked at each other. Never before had we heard the discrete sound of a single wave crashing when we were that far from the break. From where we were it was normally possible to hear the white noise of all the waves mangled and mashed together, but with the offshore breeze that was blowing that day, even that sound would have been unlikely to detect because the wind would blow the sound out to sea. The volume of a single crashing wave and its accompanying ground vibration was unnerving and thrilling. With renewed purpose we got our boards, locked the car, and headed for the water. The beach was humped up into a slight dune between the street and the water. Stepping from the pavement onto the sand we could not see the ocean over that rise, but we did see the top of a massive wave crest and fall. I don’t think we said anything to each other. We kept on walking with our eyes fixed on the sight ahead; waiting to see if another wave would confirm that what we just witnessed was genuine. With a measly paipo board under my arm I was feeling under equipped. Perhaps I should have brought something more sea worthy – maybe aircraft carriers would have been appropriate. When we topped the high point and walked down toward the water another huge swell was rising to attention as it approached the beach. After crossing thousands of miles of open ocean there was no more deep water for it to lay low in. As the water got shallower, the swell had nowhere to go but up. And it did. Like a giant rising up from a chair, its huge mass got taller and broader. The wave took on a perfect form for riding. It had a steep, smooth face. It crested and broke left, and continued on for about seventy-five yards before collapsing into a mass of foam and sudsy turmoil. Predecessors of that wave had already ripped the “KEEP OFF GROIN” warning sign from its iron post twenty feet above the water. The groin was wall of rust colored sheet-steel about ten feet tall that extended into the water fifty yards or so. Its purpose was to prevent beach erosion. It made this site at the end of 39th Street a great surf spot by creating a shallow sand bar on its north side, and focusing a north swell back onto itself creating a wave peak that would break perfectly left. Today the waves were ignoring the groins existence, but the sand bar was working wonders on the waves form and personalities. These were massive waves, twenty feet tall, thick, and bestowed with awesome power. Waves like these, huge and rideable, were mostly unknown in to Californiasurfers in 1969. The swell that first generated fifty-foot waves in Hawai’I, and now these twenty-footers in Southern California, emanated from three overlapping storms in the Pacific: The first was identified on November 27, off the Kamchatka Peninsula. On the 28th, the fast-growing east-moving storm met with another low pressure area and doubled in size, and by the following day 60 mile per hour winds were blowing across a front measuring 2,000 miles, from just north of Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands. Furthermore, the storm remained nearly stationary for more than 24 hours, helping to generate even bigger swells. Meanwhile, a third storm, smaller but still powerful, began tracking along the initial storm’s wake.
(Warshaw 2004, 619)1 There were thirty or forty people standing and watching the colossal waves at the groin. A few were surfers with their boards. They had come to ride big waves that day, but their enthusiasm had succumbed to second thoughts and better judgment when they saw the genuine hugeness of the waves live and up close. A grand total of only two brave souls were actually in the water riding the waves. Both of them were riding with skill, making it look easy. As well formed as the waves were, maybe it was easy? One rider was a standup board surfer; the other was knee riding a piapo board. I was admiring the compact, efficient style of the paipo boarder. My interests had gone to paipo boarding in those days, following gurus of the sport like George Greenough2 and Ron Romanosky. When the standup surfer got to the bottom of one of the waves, it looked like the fluid wall behind him was three times his height over his head. We watched for about 15 minutes. We remarked about the wave, the surfers, and the missing signage on the groin. Finally I asked if they wanted to go in. “No,” Gilbert said. “What about you.” I looked at the wave coming in. Neither of the two surfers was riding this one. “I want to, but I’m not going out there. It’s too fuckin’ big.”
We both looked at Mike.
“No way!” he protested. “Don’t look at me. You’d have to be crazy to go out there. “ “Or really good,” I said. “Yeah, really good… and crazy,” Mike added. So we continued to watch waves like we never imagined we would see on our beach. We watched the two surfers ride these incredible ramparts of water with ease. We were jealous of their fun and adventure. I wanted to go out into those waves in the worst way. I wanted to carve a line with my board across the unmarred face of one of these behemoths. I wanted at that moment in time to be brave. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make my feet take me to the water. I couldn’t take up my board and surf. I could only admire the waves and be disappointed in myself for my spinelessness. We watched the pair of unknown wave riders for most of an hour. They both got out of the water about the same time the waves started to lose their shape. They were still beautiful waves, but now they were empty. Being intimidated by the surf at 39th Street, but still wanting to surf something that day, we decided to go north to Huntington Beach and see if there was something there we could handle.
When we got to Huntington we scoped out the surf for awhile. It was big there as well. There were two breaks happening – inside and outside. The inside break was typical Huntington in size, but nothing much to ride unless you were looking for a bubble bath. It was rough inside; lots of chop and swirling currents. The outside break was more remarkable. These waves were big and long; bigger than we had ever seen at Huntington. They didn’t have the beautiful shape of the beauties at Newport. It looked like they were coming in sets of 4 or 5. The first waves of the set would close out (the whole wave break at once), but the later ones were more agreeable and broke mostly right, opposite from the breaks at the Groin. It was hard to figure the lineup on those waves as they seemed to break wherever they wanted. And we couldn’t figure out how big the outside sets were. Unlike the waves at the Groin that were breaking only about thirty or forty yards out, these were breaking so far out that perspective seemed to shrink them, and the break was so far beyond the end of the pier that it was useless for a comparison. We guessed maybe ten feet. After looking it over, and not wanting to go home without riding the big surf we came for, we decided to paddle out and give it a try. Mike stayed on shore while Gilbert and I entered the cold December water. He hadn’t even brought a board that day. I don’t think he ever intended to risk his life by getting pounded to death in a giant washing machine. In retrospect, he was the wisest of us three. Gilbert and I set to paddling out - well kicking out - on our piapo boards. Getting through the inside breaker and chop was a struggle. The currents would wash us up the beach then down. Finally after many minutes of this we moved into a stretch of relatively calm water. We were a bit winded from the initial ordeal, but able to take a breather. There wasn’t much between us and riding epic surf now but a stretch of open water. As we got closer to the outside break it started to get difficult again, physically and mentally. We had to push our way through the turbulence of every broken wave since there was no way around them. The pier was now far behind us, and getting farther away as we ventured out to sea. Every time we looked back at the pier it got smaller in the distance. We looked at each other for some comfort. Gilbert’s face had gone white and his wide-open eyeballs didn’t do much to comfort me. I’m sure he saw about the same expression on my face. “We’re way the hell out here, man,” I said to Gilbert. “This is really weird.” Gilbert noticed my reticence. “I know. It’s freaky.” With a spin of his head each way he checked our surroundings. He looked me in the eyes. “We came this far. We gotta go for it.” I nodded a commitment and we kept heading out to catch the wave or our lives. Finally! We made it out past the break and a chance to rest. Our little piapo boards didn't provide much of a platform for comfort. We clung to them tightly. There were no leashes in 1969 unless you were walking your dog. Lose your board, and you were a free swimmer – and it was a long swim home. It was a forbidding and uncomfortable feeling of isolation looking back at the beach. It looked like a distant planet. We were alone out there; only the two of us in what seemed to be the middle of the ocean. It wasn’t long before saw a big set coming so we maneuvered inside to get better position. As the swells move closer they got bigger… and bigger… and BIGGER! Holy shit! We had seriously underestimated the size of these things when we were on the beach, and nothing this big had rolled in while we were on the way out – at least not that we had noticed. The first wave closed out and almost sucked us both over the top as it broke. With our fins and our fear we kicked as hard as we could and barely managed to escape the suction of the massive wave behind us. The next wave formed up quickly. It looked like the side of a two story house. It scared the crap out of me. We repeated our desperate efforts and again just barely made it. My heart was pounding and I was sucking air for all the oxygen I could strain from it. In an instant the next wave stood up in front of us. Gilbert was in position and he had little choice but to take off on it or be crushed. From the edges of my vision I caught a glimpse of him sliding off to what was undoubtedly an appointment with the Davey Jones Locker welcoming committee. I’m certain I heard his signature yell, “bonsai!” and he was gone. There was no time to savor Gilbert’s fortune or fate; I had to deal with the malevolent giant in front of me. I was too far out for this wave and struggled to duck dive through the top and not get sucked over the falls. By this time I was starting to panic. I was getting seriously low on stamina, and there was not an instant to catch my breath. I was kicking with my fins as hard as I could and looking at a wall forming right in front of me. Another behemoth! My heart was hammering out of my chest from exertion and terror. There was no way I could make it through another wave; I was too tired and too far inside. So as I started to climb the face of the wave I turned around. The face was so steep it took very little effort to take off. In an instant I was screaming along the face of a nicely formed right break. The face was not glassy but it was smooth. The chop in the water in front of the wave gave in to the mass and power of the wave and laid down in front of it as if in respect. From the thrill of the ride all my energy seemed to return and I was quickly on my knees, but holding on to the rails of my board with both hands. I was scared for my life but screaming at the top of my lungs from the exhilaration! “Whaaaa!” I have no idea how long the ride lasted. It seemed to last forever, yet it was over in an instant. As the wave started to close I went back to prone and turned toward the beach. The immediate deceleration scared me. I didn’t want to be over taken and have the wave crash on my back, but I was saved. The wave had broken behind me, and as it caught up to me I accelerated again and was push forward in a mass of foam and turbulence. I clung to my board and rode the foam in as far as I could; I’d caught my big wave and I was wrung out. The wave settled down almost flat as it moved off the outside sand bar and it left me stranded between the breaks. I was still beyond the end of the pier. I saw Gilbert paddling in fifty or sixty yards ahead of me. It looked like he was done as well. “I thought you guys were dead!” Mike told us as we came out of the water. “Me too,” Gilbert said through breath heavy from exertion. “You guys are crazy,” Mike scolded, a bit peeved that we had left him alone on the beach with nothing but to watch us perish. “I went to the end of the pier to watch you guys and you were way fucking farther out than that!”
I looked at Gilbert.
“We were way the hell out there. Holy shit. Did you catch that wave?”
Gilbert shot me a broad grin.
“Hell yeah! I ate it at the end and almost drown, but I got a great ride!” Then Mike was back at us: “That’s the last time I’m going to the beach with you guys. I don’t want to be the guy to tell your moms you fucking died!” Mike was brooding a bit; I didn’t blame him. “Ok, Mike, you’re right. We won’t do it again,” I assured him. “Right on,” Gilbert added. “The next time you’re going in with us.” “Forget that!” Mike responded. Gilbert and I broke into laughter, and Mike joined in. This was all pay back to Mike who had freaked us out on another day, when he hitched a ride on a rip tide heading to Honolulu! But that’s another story.
There is a first time for everything one does. Sometimes it’s a memorable experience; sometimes it’s forgettable. I caught my first big wave in 1969, and to tell the truth, I’ve never really thought about it much. I went through fear of drowning and nearly becoming shark chum to do it. I paddled (well kicked) my dinky piapo board to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But for all the adventure, the waves at Huntington didn’t touch me like the surf I cowered from earlier that morning. Lying in bed that night I was saying to myself “I should have tried! I should have tried!” So I accidentally ended up dancing with a rough and rowdy dancehall girl because I lost my nerve with the beautiful and sophisticated temptress. I’ve told the story of the temptress many times over the years, and seldom remembered the dance hall girl. Real surfers - surfers who ride big waves as a matter of course - will think this story is silly and overstated. But it’s not really about big wave surfing. It’s about first times and missed opportunities. It was my first time that day, and it should be the main story. But the wave I remember is the one I didn’t ride. 1 Warshaw, Matt, The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005, Print 2 Further reading about George Greenough: Campion, Drew, George Greenough (1941 -), Surfline, http://www.surfline.com/surfing-a-to-z/george-greenough-biography-and-photos_821/