Note: This was written 3 years ago this week after the most incredible surf session of my life but the photos are a few randoms taken of HB while I lived there that fairly accurately portray what the words are describing. It needs a little editing but I consider this to be the best piece of writing I’ve created. I hope it brings a smile and desire to go surfing…
I guess there’s no guarantee any time of day is the “magic” time to go surf—you take your chances every time you head to the beach—but some of my favorite sessions of all time have come prospecting for gold when the sun is sinking low in the afternoon. Typically it’s a smaller, mellower crowd of people looking to wind down their lives after working or learning or just living all day. The sun warms the surface water a degree or two, which makes trunk sessions in the Summer no problem and Winter sessions become bearable. Sunlight hits the water at a different angle and everything looks slightly different, calmer. Yes, I love surfing in the afternoon.
While the wind/wave conditions might be better in the morning and those believers in the dawn patrol will tell you it’s the best time to surf bar-none, I have my reservations. Dawn patrols are more crowded and typically filled with surfers who are on a strict schedule and have to be out by a certain time or risk being late to school or work. Desperation and determination lead to the ugly side of surfing as aggression and stress levels rise from a palpable tension in the water felt by those involved in—and those observing—the childish behavior. I don’t have anything against dawn patrol sessions, I just typically leave it to a different group of surfers.
Compare that to the afternoons: a laid back schedule where the only ticking clock is the sun setting in the West and darkness tells you it’s time to go home. You don’t really have to be anywhere, anyway, right? It’s more of a relaxing nightcap of bourbon instead of a caffeine laden coffee drink to get you running at full-speed as daylight breaks. In the afternoon you’re there to surf, not worry about what comes next in your daily routine. Afternoons are all about living in the moment and that forgotten time of the day can be quite rewarding.
One afternoon in recent memory sticks out more than the rest. It was 4PM on an unseasonably warm Monday in January as Santa Ana winds warmed the air like a convection oven. The tides over the last week had been crippling. High tides robbed even the strongest swells of their life while low tides greeted you with a vast, damp desert of sand as a distant lineup beset with frothy closeouts awaited those brave enough to paddle out for the inevitable beat-down.
The sand on the beach had been moved around more than a 2nd string shortstop over the last couple weeks as the sheer cliff of sand in front of the lifeguard towers eroded by relentless 6.5’ high tides had grown to a straight 4-foot drop in places. With proper photographic technique and perspective the scene might have resembled a miniature San Onofre if you could somehow make a nuclear reactor appear in the distance.
Today, however, was different. Much of the sand had been returned by the uncooperative ocean; the looming ½-foot low tide two and a half hours ahead didn’t seem to have any ill effect on the playground before me. About a hundred yards from the water’s edge were a dozen or so heads waiting patiently for their daily bread. Today’s bread was better than most as the first wave rolled through: a solid head high, mechanically clean wave that peeled forever; no close-out death barrels on offer today. Light offshore winds kept the surface glassy and provided just enough resistance to hold up that extra second needed to throw a razor-thin barrel large enough to hold this surfer. The hot air had me sweating in my wetsuit and the visual stimulus in front of me raised my body temperature a couple degrees, no doubt. I’d wasted enough time putting the leash on and prying myself into the wetsuit: let’s get wet.
That feeling of being hot and uncomfortable was quickly replaced with the feeling of being cold and uncomfortable, and now wet. The water was definitely colder today than the last time I went out…a lot colder, but I didn’t care: there’s liquid gold in them hills and I was due.
Today’s surf vehicle was an iguana green 6’1” canard quad fish I had made six months earlier by a small shaper who made incredible sleds. I’d grown fond of fishes a while back and this was my newest toy. My added weight from a holiday season full of bountiful and numerous meals coupled with the weight of a wetsuit was mitigated by the extra width and thickness of the fish. The sound of my hands breaking the water was all I could hear. No cars on PCH, no birds, no watery white noise, nothing.
Paddling out I witnessed my first real perfection of the year. Beautiful lined up waves pitched with enough force and speed to throw a thin-lipped barrel crashing down the line, breaking the eerie silence with a hollow static. Sunlight refracting through the lip looked like a Coke bottle in the setting sun. I’d always wondered why surfers referred to the color of a pitching wave in the afternoon sun as a Coke bottle. Today, I wondered no more. The color was mesmerizing, the sound hypnotic. My heartbeat accelerates with anticipation as the wall of water pitches forward and I, in step, duck under. I surface on the other side as the last foot of the lip is sheared off and rains hard down on my face, still numb from the chilly water.
I waited through a couple smaller, less shapely waves for one that would confirm or deny that what I was seeing was real. Had I had been stricken with “surf-goggles” and the size and shape of the waves had been nothing but wishful thinking, blinded by the desperation for a good surf that was long overdue? The answer, it seemed, had arrived. I recognized my wave from a hundred yards away like spotting a loved one at the baggage claim from afar. It wasn’t one of the biggest waves I’d seen in my short paddle out to the lineup but it was solid; shoulder high, at least, and growing. More importantly, it had potential; it looked damn good.
Kind of like this…but think 100% glassy, and a lot less “I’m going to destroy you”
Turning and paddling immediately to catch up to the wave, I feel the tell-tale force of the wave picking the fish and I up for a ride. Taking one more good stroke I pop up and make the turn immediately; no drops necessary on this liquid half-pipe. I’ve got my bearings and I’m looking down the line at the building blue carpet being rolled out before me and holy shit: I’d never seen this before. In magazines, videos, daydreams, yes…but never in person. I pump like mad to keep enough speed to stay a while as the canard quad fins keep me glued to the high-line of a wave that had swelled to over head high and a lot meaner than when it’d started pitching. A couple of big pumps and a quick snap off the lip later I find myself at the bottom of the wave carrying the crescendo for just 1 last measure and lean hard on the rail, confidently ascending the wave with speed and precision I didn’t know I possessed; I was THAT guy I admired on THAT wave but had always seen from afar. I look up at the pitching lip and have a decision to make: be smart and kick out the back and be thankful for what I got, or make things interesting and go out with a bang. The decision, it seems, is a foregone conclusion as I instinctively transfer my weight—eyes widening from the inane decision made by the devil on my shoulder—and aim for the barrel with gusto conjured from some place deep within me I didn’t know existed.
The closeout was inevitable; the wave had seen enough of me and wanted to expire itself after a journey thousands of miles in the making. A few more meaningless yards meant nothing to the wave, but they meant everything to me. Time stood still as I carefully composed the last few measures of this opus in my mind. I spotted my target a few feet up the face and deftly positioned myself in the tube as the lip pitched. The tube was hollow enough that a slight squat was all I needed to keep the liquid guillotine from claiming its intended victim. I held my breath in anticipation of either making a successful —albeit close— exit, or being blindsided at Mach 1 by an unseen variation in the otherwise perfect wave. The sound echoing off the liquid walls was deafening; I could barely think. Squinted eyes recognized bad news a short ways in front of me. This barrel was about to implode, violently. Time to get out of here, and fast.
I promptly exited stage left as the closeout—too distant to navigate—surpassed the speed of the fish. I looked back at the hell I had just left behind; a second earlier it was heaven. The wave did everything I wanted it to do, as if it were somehow reading my mind or connected to me on some level. But now, it was a shoulder high wall of foam; the remnants of a wave that had confirmed that this was going to be no ordinary session. I didn’t know what to do after the ride ended. My face was cold and wet but the water around my eyes was warm and swelling and the chills running down my spine came from inside, not in response to the colder-than-sin water. The smile on my face was only the tip of the iceberg of happiness fighting to escape; I was beyond stoked.
Things continued like this for about an hour and a half as we all took turns sharing the beautiful waves on offer before the big red sun disappeared into the horizon. The afternoon-shift and I slowly made our way in, looking for one more morsel to top off an already bountiful session. We’d all gotten to the point of being surfed out and riding in prone would surely be no crime this day.
My feet touched ground in the knee high water and the silhouettes of boats, oil rigs and Catalina in the distance contrasted against a rapidly expiring maroon sky. Huntington Beach can be downright beautiful when it wants to be and this afternoon was proof. The sound of PCH was still absent and the perfect waves were the only sound as the afternoon sky yielded to an inky nightscape. It seemed too good to be true, but there I was physically and emotionally exhausted from a once in a lifetime session—in Huntington Beach of all places—trying to comprehend what had transpired over the last couple hours.
This moment, this feeling confirmed what I already knew but never had experienced so deeply: sometimes convention and necessity to surf the dawn patrol are overcome by the unconventional and decidedly selfish times to go searching for some afternoon gold. My prospecting mission was a success and I hit paydirt. This afternoon’s waves were perfect, by any standard. This was a session I’d be able to recall every minute detail of for the rest of my life.
I miss you, HB. I love you, surfing.