Monday, August 04, 2008

Favorite Photo Blog

I have a lot of feeds from some great photo blogs but The Big Picture a blog on the Boston Globe's website is by far my favorite. Every few days they publish a set of photos around a similar theme. Today's is surfing. Follow this link, the pictures are breath taking. This is one worth bookmarking.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Winter Surf

It is cold in Northern California in November. At least in the morning. It warms up later, but at 6:30am on Thanksgiving morning, I was wondering what I was doing as I turned on the defroster in the car to clear my rear window as I pulled out of the driveway. Coffee. Breakfast could wait until later, but I needed coffee right now.

”It’s 41 degrees*!” announced an older gentleman, as he noisily entered the coffee shop. “Winter has arrived!” he declared happily. I recognized him. I think he lives at the top of my street and is always wearing a trilby. Almost four years here, and I still don’t know everyone on the street.

“It’s 41 degrees,” I muttered to Thomas, a work colleague and sometime surf buddy as he hauled his board onto the roof rack. He shrugged. “It’ll warm up when the sun comes up. At this time of year the water is the same temperature all day anyhow.” I shuddered; up to yesterday, it had been almost a year since I braved the chilly NorCal breakers where even in the summer you need a wetsuit. Thomas was wearing a tee shirt. Only on the coldest days have I ever seen him in anything heavier. His tanned face betrays how regularly he surfs, though given how early he hits the beach, it was hard to understand how he got so brown. Dawn Patrol, he calls it. He often hits Lindamar beach in Pacifica pre-dawn and surfs before work. I was once this committed. But kids, work, a torn meniscus, and a million other little things have seen to it that the taste of saltwater is no longer a constant in my life. From the minute I tried surfing, I was bitten. Every weekend, I was the bane of friends, rousing them from Saturday sleep-ins to drive down the coast and paddle into the water. I was the only one who sustained over the long term. Surfing is hard, the learning curve is steep, and most of the surf breaks around San Francisco are not suited to beginners. And the beaches that are suited are crowded. There are few point breaks around here, so before you can catch a wave, you have to be strong enough to paddle through a maelstrom of white water, trying to avoid being washed back to shore by incoming waves, and on occasion having to suffer through the scare of a big wave hold down. That is never pleasant. Did I mention the water is cold? Ireland cold. It’s hard as an adult to keep the kind of focus necessary to learn how to surf. Despite all that, it’s worth it. In the parking lot where I work, there is an old beat up Jeep with a peeling sticker proclaiming, “Surfers Walk on Water.” Silly maybe, but true never the less, and most of us will do what it takes to repeat the experience. A side benefit is the deep relaxation you get after a few hours in the water. The laid back surfer/stoner cliché lives.

The car dips down the steep hill on Highway One just above Pacifica and the ocean stretches before us. The sun is rising and there are no clouds to block the bright orange light, as we squint, palms on forehead, at the Pacific swells, rolling in from the horizon, lining up to break on the pier at Sharp Park. We don’t surf there, no one does. The break is thick and nasty, and the pier makes it too dangerous. We drive past, up over two more hills to Lindamar, a sheltered beach at the end of a long narrow valley, surrounded by a steep, sharp hillside. Pacifica is often shrouded in dense fog, gray and gloomy despite its pretty location, but in Lindamar, the airflow down the mountains can hold the fog at bay and you can often surf in a circle of sunshine surrounded on all sides by fog. It’s a strange place, a mix of red necks, Silicon Valley worker bees, idle beach bums, trailer park denizens, and San Francisco hipsters drawn by the close proximity to the city. People might also prefer Lindamar since Ocean Beach, a break on San Francisco’s western edge, is a wide open, heavy, experts-only beach break, not to be attempted by the faint hearted. Lindamar is less taxing, and over the past few years has attracted a lot of beginners. Much of the growth in surfing is driven by women in their late 20’s and early 30’s – this is not lost on Thomas. Single, he has dated a bevy of surfer chicks, and maintains that Lindamar is the new bar scene, and certainly far better than

The parking lot is almost full. Everyone is getting in a surf before the gluttony that is Thanksgiving. We quickly change, shivering despite the bright sunshine. A quick stretch and it’s into the water. I paddle into the first wave as it breaks, sending freezing water rushing over me and straight down the back of my wetsuit. Ok, I’m awake now. The white water isn’t that heavy, so after a few duck dives, I find myself on the outside. It’s a gorgeous morning, I gaze back briefly at the beach and the surrounding mountains, the sun seems warm after the cold paddle out, and I spend a few minutes resting and soaking up the warmth, listening to the cackle of a few seagulls arguing nearby. A seal breaks water, and swims curiously past. You can feel the surfers tense up. Seals are cute, but they are also shark food, and we are in the middle of what is delightfully known as “The Red Triangle" (aka a Great White breeding ground).

Quickly, I catch a small ripping wave, a short few thrilling seconds, but enough to give a boost to my confidence. I had surfed yesterday for the first time in a year, and didn’t catch anything, I was rusty, my timing a half second off. I kept having to yield to another surfer on every wave I went for (basic surfing etiquette, when more than one persons goes for a wave, the first one up, nearest the wave’s breaking shoulder, owns it).

The waves aren’t big, hip high, with a shoulder high swell hitting every so often. However, they are breaking steeply on the sandbars and I have a long board, so it is going to be hard to catch the bigger ones. Suddenly, I’m further outside, with a sizable swell rolling toward me, and I’m alone, no competition. I turn towards the beach and paddle hard. The swell catches me just as it hits the sandbar and jacks up into a steep wave. Too late, I realize, it may drop out from underneath me, sending me free falling, head over arse, into the maw of the wave before it crashes, pummeling me into the ocean floor. But, I am committed at this stage, and as it catches me, I jump into a squatting position, grab the outside of my board to stabilize it, and turn hard right. My timing is perfect and I am right on the breaking shoulder. I straighten up and dash down the wave, while other surfers paddle furiously, both to get out of my way, and to avoid a hammering. I bottom turn in the shadow of a wall of water and swoop back up the wave face; hitting the lip before turning back down. Pushing my weight onto my front foot, I make the next section, and turn sharply left rushing towards the beach. It seems like an eternity, but for the next few seconds, I am caught perfectly in the curl of the wave, weightless, walking on water, even watching the sun glint off the emerald water and soaking the hillsides in an early morning glow. A few more short turns and the energy that probably started with wind thousands of miles away in the open ocean peters out, and I am left standing in the white water, exhilarated. I haven’t caught a wave that big in a long time. “Woo hoo” yells a neoprene hooded surfer nearby. “Dude, that was steep. I was sure you were going to get creamed, well done!” This is unusual. Surfers are a taciturn bunch, concentrating on incoming swells, adjusting position to catch a wave, or to avoid a pounding or a collision with some beginner, all of which doesn’t leave time for much conversation.

I paddle back out, and pull up beside Thomas. “Killer wave”, he says. “Biggest of the day, and no one fighting you for it. Nice Thanksgiving present!”

My arms are pleasantly tired as I drive home, and my mind is clear and relaxed. I am looking forward to the day’s festivities. We have a large group of friends coming over, and I need to get home to do some cooking. “Daddy, did you catch any waves?” my eldest shouts, as I open the door. “Oh yes I did,” I declare.

* 5 Degrees Centigrade


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Train I Ride

Shane and Tram Tracks_20060924_0006This is the N Judah, as it heads overground at Cole Valley. On Sunday, we were en famille at the Cole Valley Fair, one of the many neighborhood fairs that happen in September. Shane is fascinated with the trams and trains, and even more fascinated when they go underground. He insisted we go to the mouth of the tunnel and wait for the tram to go through.
As I have mentioned before, many weekend nights can find me on the N, heading to some of my favorite hostileries. One of my favorite things is sitting on the N, listening to music while observing everyone observing everyone. It being San Francisco, there is always the requisite freak on the train. On Saturday it was an overweight black guy, rapping along at volume to whatever was on his iPod. He was so excited by the music he insisted on removing his shirt. However, my favorite is the Wet Swimsuit Guy. He is youngish, extremely tanned, always dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a dirty denim shirt unbuttoned to the navel, with lank shoulder length, sun-bleached hair. He is always swinging a swimsuit in circles over his head, and depending on whether the tram is leaving Ocean Beach or heading towards it, the swimsuit is either wet or dry. I can only conclude that he regularly swims at Ocean Beach. I surf at Ocean Beach, (or at least I did until my kids arrived), so the mind boggles. Here's Surflines description of OB, (as it is known locally).

On a lot of days at Ocean Beach, just getting out can be a major accomplishment. Depending on swell and tide and sandbar, on many days there is a 200-yard "zone of death" in between the beach and the lineup. It can be as hard to get off the beach and out to sea for a surfer as it was for a marine to get from sea to shore on the beaches of Normandy. It takes knowledge, skill, strength and courage, but the deciding factor on a lot of days is still dumb luck.

A University Of California Berkeley study stated:

"Ocean Beach is the most hazardous and dangerous piece of shoreline associated with an urban environment in the whole United States."

Apparently over 10 people a year had drowed at OB before the Beach Patrol started. I can see why, and as such, I have a healthy respect for OB. If I haven’t surfed there for a while, I spend a few days at surfing other beaches until my skills are sharpened. Being caught on the wrong side of a large wave on OB was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. To get out to the swell, you paddle out to just beyond the point where waves are breaking; this is often incredibly physically challenging, sometimes more than surfing the damn wave. When you get out, you need to keep an eye on the horizon, mostly to make sure you are in the right position to catch some sweet surf, but also to save yourself a turn through the washing machine. Every so often, a wave can break further out from the shore, and if you are between it and the shore when it breaks, it can pick you up and toss you around like driftwood. In smaller surf this is disconcerting; in big surf it can be dangerous, especially if you get thrashed by a string of large waves. It happens to every surfer occasionally, and it is always terrifying. The waves are a lot more dangerous than the sharks...

Wet Swimsuit Guy is obviously a little touched, he mutters to himself as he swings his wet swimsuit around on the tram. This might explain why he chooses to brave the icy waters at OB.

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