Night Crawler

The Art of Surfing

"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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