Surf Writers and Swimming with Sharks

Surf Writers and Swimming with Sharks

The beautiful NorCal coastline of Santa Cruz is a little over an hour’s drive from my home. This means, on the rare occasion when surf and schedule synchronize, I can grab my board and catch a wave. I’m far from an expert and prefer to surf swells referred to in surfer lingo as, ankle-biters. These waves are so small they’re a struggle to catch. I’m amazed when successful, and find myself standing on a piece of fiberglass that seems sizable one minute and small the next while I struggle to keep from being tossed into the sea. All this is so addictive that I paddle back out, repeating the pattern until my arms lay like limp noodles, filled with such fatigue I can barely pull myself through the water.

I once read about another water sport, sailing, described as, “hours of absolute boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Surfing is similar, as the boredom of bobbing around waiting for waves is sometimes broken by sheer terror when the occasional rogue version, winds its way toward the horizon, gains height, and heads straight for me. This is when I find myself making deals with the Devil, the Lord, and any other spiritual being willing to let me sell my soul and survive one last time. I’ve experienced moments of being held underwater longer than I like, had sand enter spaces no self-respecting speck should be, and been surrounded by sea creatures it’s best I deny are there. Most of these creatures are harmless, even adorable, such as the furry sea otter and the sneaky seal. However, I’ve watched enough Shark Week to know, where there are seals and sea otters, there’s also the big man in the gray suit, with rows of teeth designed to eat these cute creatures in one big bite. I’m referring, of course, to the great white shark, whose scientific classification, Carcharodon carcharias, is as big a mouthful as the jaws of the beast itself! I fondly refer to this species as, Old Whitey. This shark grows to a similar size and girth as the Volkswagen Van that some surfers drive as their vehicle of choice. I’m well aware Old Whitey is out there, deep in the depths, swimming in the shadows, and sheltered by the seaweed. I’m not ashamed to admit that I fear him and have been spooked with false alarms, created in my own head while sitting on my board, legs dangling like bait in the murky water. Sadly, this has resulted in spending more time sitting on the shore than time spent surfing.

When back on land, I occasionally engage in another form of surfing, otherwise known as perusing the web. One website I visit often is, where I scare the dickens out of myself reading about other people’s misfortunate encounters with the big gray man. This site documents all shark encounters along the Pacific Coast of North America, where I often enter the water, and is intended to inform ocean visitors of shark activities and attacks. It’s educational, entertaining, and all too easy to cast aside as incidents that happen only to other people. Statistics show that I’m more likely to be hit by lightning than struck with the jaws of Old Whitey. However, the waters of Santa Cruz are these shark’s home, and I, an uninvited guest in their natural habitat. And, when wearing a black wetsuit, one who resembles a tasty morsel to these sharks, who have poor vision, but the target skills of a sharpshooter. I’ve seen these impressive skills in action while watching various nature programs and documentaries. Some sharks come out of the depths with such speed they hit their target well out of the water, and toss seals around like rag dolls before chomping down and finishing the job. This is not how I plan to exit planet earth and will try my luck with lightning. So, I still hit the waves, finding safety in numbers while staying with the crowd, waiting for the next ride.

In 2005, I read a fantastic book written by Harvey MacKay titled, Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. The book doesn’t explain how to leave a surf session with all four limbs. Instead, how to successfully navigate the corporate world, full of predators, and outwit their maneuvers with savvy business style and grace. I highly recommend any business person familiarize themselves with MacKay and his teachings. But, don’t take my word for it, the reviews speak for themselves.

Santa Cruz is a surf mecca with Jack O’Neil sightings, and Frosty, from the movie, Chasing Mavericks, just other faces you’ll see in the crowd. When I first began surfing, I was enamored with the legendary Santa Cruz resident, Johnny Rice, and had the awesome experience of riding with him on the same wave. He was in his seventies, kneeling on a board shaped with his own hands, riding a three-foot wave, with a smile on his face. He was hooting and hollering “party wave,” inviting others to join, which, of course, we did. After the session, I walked along the sand, carrying a yellow foam board, and ran right into him. The only thing I could think to mumble was, “someday, I’d like to own a Johnny Rice board.” He answered, “cool, but I like your board too.” Wow, what a kind thing to say to a random woman, carrying a cheap, sponge board. Mr. Rice, who radiated warmth and youth, passed away a few years later in 2015 at the age of 77. I consider myself fortunate to have crossed his path and to have exchanged a few words with him.

It’s a little know fact that the famous Santa Cruz surf area designated, Pleasure Point, was once a seedy section of town, where men found pleasure with the type of women who charge for their services. Hence the name, Pleasure Point, and the rest is surfing history. The entire area of Santa Cruz, is cool, eclectically charming, and still somewhat seedy. Local Santa Cruz-ians wouldn’t have it any other way.

Surfing extends beyond sport and even reaches into the world of art as indicative by the fact that surfboards adorn the walls of those who admire their beauty. Shaping surfboards is an artistic craft completed by the hands of those who love the sport. It takes patience, an eye for detail, and a high tolerance for dust. But, it’s quite cool to witness a piece of foam become a beautifully crafted floatation device, custom made for a lucky surfer recipient. Boards are made in any combination of color, shape, and size ranging from the short 4-foot version, most difficult to master in the water, to long 10-footers most known for hanging ten.

For years, when not dragging a 9-foot board into the water, I’ve lugged my camera to the cliffs of Santa Cruz that overlook the surfing scenery, in an attempt to capture the art of catching waves. It’s a hobby that will never grow old as both surfers and surfboards make for excellent, athletic, and artful subjects. The ocean is the playing field and serves as the best medicine for an amateur photographer seeking escape from the daily routine.

So, for now, I’ll stay in the space between the safety of the sand, and the wide-open, welcoming waves. Where sofa surfing while watching Shark Week is chilling, yet won’t keep me from entering the water. When the art of surfing is not defined by the size of the wave, but the smile on the face of those who participate. Where wetsuits and gray suits may one day collide, but according to statistics, it’s more likely you’ll be struck by lightning. I suppose this means the odds are in my favor so I’ll take my chances. Surf’s Up!

Postscript: The legendary, Jack O’Neil, passed away in June 2017, at the age of 94. He’s forever memorialized in my mind as a man, kneeling on a board, eye-patch in place, while surfing the waves outside his home at 38th Ave. He surfed well into his eighties! And, even when in his nineties, I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of him sunbathing on his balcony while enjoying the sound of surf in his back yard. RIP Jack O’Neil…surfer, inventor of the wetsuit, founder of O’Neil Surf Shop,  Philanthropist, and legendary citizen of Santa Cruz, California. I hope you’re somewhere hanging ten with Johnny.

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