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.
"I thought my head had been knocked off," says Starr, smiling, "but I didn't know I had been cut until I reached up and felt my hand sink into my face." He shrugs. It's nothing; everyone has war stories.
Thirty-three-year-old firefighter Betsy Kaimmel remembers almost drowning at Ocean Beach, but says she still goes out three or four times a week.
"It just gets in you," she says. "You have to go out."
On Ocean Beach, I watch from under an umbrella as four surfers battle the steely gray water, slowly forcing their boards through the white-capped barrier, paddling, disappearing under waves, re-emerging, resting, and paddling on. Everyone walking along the beach in the early morning drizzle stops to watch the heroic progress. It only takes about 25 minutes but, even from the beach, it seems a agonizing process. The surfers rest, floating near enough together to talk. After a time, the first surfer in the lineup takes a small but well-formed wave, riding the nose for about 20 seconds before the tiniest miscalculation puts him too close to the break in the curl, and he is hurled off his board with whitewater crashing down around him. Then, it's back to paddling.
"You have to be a masochist to surf through the winter on Ocean Beach," says Terry Rochester, a longtime surfer who will not reveal his age for fear of losing his placement in the lineup hierarchy. (If other surfers think you might waste the wave because you're not in top form, they drop in on you, ostensibly stealing your placement.) "It's survival of the fittest out here. Northern California surfers are a much hardier crew, a little more stoic. We have to contend with cold water, wind, and, of course, sharks. The Red Triangle reaches from Tamalpais Point to Año Nuevo to the Farallone Islands. It's pretty sharky out here."
Back at Yerba Buena, near the "Learning Curve" wave video loop, 35-year-old Llewellyn Ludlow describes that perfect wave, the kind of wave that makes you talk to yourself. Ludlow, who has surfed 85 out of the last 100 days, once caught such a wave, in a "secret" spot not far from San Francisco.
"It was late, and I only had one friend left on the beach. I asked him to stay and watch so I would feel safe. It took 45 minutes to paddle out, but the wave was 15 or 20 faces high. I dropped in, and my hair was in my eyes, but I knew I was inside. I was caught on the inside for nearly 20 minutes. I stretched my arms in the air and couldn't feel the ceiling. When I knew the thing was going to throw, I cranked a bottom turn, and reached out my hand to feel the wall. It was so, so soft. It was like brushing my palm over a baby pool. I've never been in closer communion with nature, ever. My friend watched the whole thing from the shore. From that day forward, he has been known as the Witness."
Nearby, Daniel Shirkten relates a similar story between huge grins and far-off looks. "I guess you can't really get that sort of vibe in a museum, can you?" he says. "For that, you sort of have to go to the source. You know?"
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