Night Crawler

The Art of Surfing

The Art of Surfing
The surf culture -- once a fringe domain of hardy, freewheeling spirits who aspired only to ride the perfect wave -- has, over the last 40 years, permeated mainstream society in nearly every way. Beach-side lingo such as "aggro," "amped," "stoked," "shredded," "doobie," "cool," "styling," and "wasted" rolls off the tongues of kids in the Midwest who have yet to see the ocean; the Beach Boys and the Ventures have given way to newfangled acts like the Mermen and Man or Astroman?; on weekends, businessmen who are lucky to catch a wave in their claw-foot bathtubs don Hawaiian shirts and press into "tiki" bars to drink overpriced mai tais; in television marketing -- for everything from soda to shoes -- where surf is often swapped for the more "extreme" sports of snowboarding and bungee jumping, the salable image is still that of the lusty, wild-eyed, sun-bleached thrill-seeker who will avoid a day job as long as he's able to walk erect.

In the early '60s, there were fewer than 10 coastlines in the world considered hot surf spots. Now, surfers can be found anywhere there is a tide, from Alaska to Tanzania. Media exposure -- beginning perhaps with the wildly popular 1964 documentary Endless Summer (Bruce Brown's provocative, heartfelt answer to Gidget-style cant) -- and advances in technology -- among them changes in the size and weight of boards and the comfort and warmth of wet suits -- have drawn the most unlikely people into the water and abetted a slowly expanding, seemingly incessant surf explosion, even here in San Francisco, where surfing conditions are anything but ideal.

Outside the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, hundreds of people wait under a crisp May moon to join the colorful throng gathered inside for the museum's summer exhibition "Surf Trip." The surf sounds of musical group Pollo del Mar waft from the main ballroom over the rum-saturated lobby where breathing room, much less standing room, is as hard to come by as an easy ride on Ocean Beach. Despite the proliferation of bright Polynesian-inspired garb and plastic leis, the real surfers are easy to spot: Their casual mien, permanently wind-blown hair, well-worn Hawaiian shirts, and rugged, but oddly timeless, sun-baked faces are impossible to miss; they stand together in clusters, sucking down museum booze, gesturing to fellow wave-riders, and looking through the crowd of overly coiffed museum denizens who have come to gaze at "surf art."

"I don't know brah," says 28-year-old Santa Cruz resident Daniel Shirkten to his pal. "I'd rather be fully zonked under the stars, but we can hang with this for a while, if you want." After discussing the merits of kind bud, Shirkten launches into a jubilant tale about being on the water the morning before: "I was fully shredding, and the waves were going ballistic. Then, you know, I fell into the pit and almost brained some poor speed bump." (Translation: I was pulling off some great moves and the surf was incredibly good. Then I got caught in the zone where waves break and nearly crushed a boogie boarder.)

In the main exhibition hall, beyond an army of life-sized hula girls who bear machine guns, herpes sores, and track marks, and who were created by Kevin Ancell, 51-year-old Rich "Woodie" Wood stands in flip-flops, shorts, and a baseball cap, regarding a row of custom surfboards.

"My boards should have been up here," says Wood, who works at the ding-repair shop Neptune Surf Boards in Pacifica. "I only restore classic boards with old-style resin. They would have been the most colorful boards here." The growing museum crowd, including a Carmen Miranda look-alike complete with fruit, surges around Wood and his friends, who withstand the tide like ruffled, leathery birds. Wood, who has been surfing since he was 12, sighs and acknowledges that he doesn't go out as much as he used to. It isn't that he doesn't love surfing, or that he's suffered three major knee injuries and lost his renegade-surfer brother to skin cancer ("Wear sun protection," Wood advises solemnly); it's the crowds.

"I can't handle it. The crowds are flipping me out," says Wood. "It's very difficult to be an individual nowadays. It's not personal anymore. Everybody's into it. The leash has to be surfing's single greatest downfall; it instantly put 100,000 more people in the water, people who don't hold on to their boards [and are] a hazard to anyone else in the water."

Contending with the same problem, local surfer Kevin Starr has taken to exploring higher latitudes and colder waters -- Iceland, the Aleutian Islands, Antarctica -- where there are fewer people around. He talks about floating in ocean surrounded by ominous mountains; sharing water with leopard seals, whales, albatross, and penguins; watching a friend ride a wave as it broke over the sloping section of an iceberg. But his most treasured memory is of a "secret" location not far from San Francisco, during a windless fall day near sunset, with waves twice his height and dolphins gliding through the channels.

"It's fun living in San Francisco and surfing," says Starr. "There are a lot of really educated surfers out here, and you can have some pretty good conversations while you're waiting for a wave." Or recuperating from the grueling struggle one faces getting past the break. "There are no well-defined channels at Ocean Beach," Starr continues. "It can take you 45 minutes to get 200 yards. I've seen it take two hours. That must be a record. In some ways it's really unpleasant, but it keeps you fit." Starr regards a painting by friend Jessica Dunne depicting Ocean Beach bathed in an imaginative sherbet sunset with the Doggie Diner dog head benevolently overlooking a surfer. Like many of the surfers at the art opening, Starr is a little disappointed by most of the exhibition, calling it "oddly morbid" before recounting the origin of the sun-washed scar that trails from his right eye down his cheekbone.

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