I was a good swimmer as a kid, but small and skinny, and I went from alert to panicky in a flash. Couple times a year somebody would have to pull me from the ocean. I got rescued on the north side of Santa Monica Pier once, which isn’t quite the same as getting rescued from a wading pool, but close. One morning during sixth grade, probably Christmas vacation, 1971, I peddled off to Venice Breakwater with my 5′ 4″ Russell twin-fin, and the surf was big. Legit double-overhead—to a grownup, that is; triple-overhead to me—and good, really good, the best I’d seen it, long clean tapered lefts smashing off the north end of the breakwater and running down the beach toward P.O.P. I was scared, but not frozen. My surfing over the last few months had jumped forward. That summer I’d been coming along nicely, well out of the beginner stage, but now suddenly I was a “hot kid”—the older guys said so.
A trough ran along the lee of the Breakwater, so I paddled out next to the rocks, timed it right when I got to the far end, and hit the lineup no problem. A few guys were out, not many, maybe 10. I knew most of them. The first wave I caught wasn’t much, but while paddling back out a bigger one slipped through, and I turned and caught it without thinking. In my 11-year-old way, I crushed it. I remember so clearly having this thought: a bigger wave is easier to ride than a small wave. Speed equals control. I paddled back out and sat, a bit inside the others, like I always do, and just rode the high. Possibly it was the best moment of my surfing life.
Five minutes later, a half-hour later, I don’t recall, but the biggest set of the day arrived. There I was, furthest inside. Never had a chance. Bailed under the first wave and felt my marine supply bungee-cord snap like an old rubber band, and along with my board went all that new confidence. Came up hyperventilating, and treaded water as the second wave loomed, broke, rolled forth, and dragged me into a violent zero-gravity underwater spin. Came up from that one gasping, wild-eyed, mewling. And there to my immediate right, huge and calm, was Allen Sarlo.
Allen was in 8th grade. Already an excellent surfer, and already looking like a cartoon thug, with huge arms, thighs, neck, and shoulders, a broad nose and brow, and full mustache. He kept his board in our basement. Had a crush on my mom. “Your mom is super cute,” he’d say, which she was. “And really cool.” Nothing pervy. I liked Allen.
Allen put his hands around my tiny waist as the third wave in the set rumbled forth, said “Take a deep breath,” and pulled us both under water. The wave churned overhead. We swayed a bit, but there were no flips or somersaults. Four or five seconds later we popped up on the other side. Another wave. Same thing. Hands around my waist, down, noise and a little shaking, then back to the surface. The set was over. “You okay?” Allen asked. I nodded. We both swam to the beach.
My big-wave program never really recovered. I grew, but remained slender. I would never be able to anchor myself underwater like a gun emplacement, the way Allen did. I would always be freaked about getting caught inside. Years later, in San Francisco, I wiped out on plenty of good-sized waves, and it never bothered me—even the violent ones. My blood was up in those situations. If I had the courage to push into a big wave—usually I didn’t—than I was already ahead, I’d already won, the accomplishment was in pocket, I’d proven something to myself. Better to make the wave, sure, but wiping out never erased the achievement of taking off in the first place.
Getting caught inside? Whole different can of worms. I dreaded it, dreamed about it, built it up, navigated against it. I never got that fear under control.
Although one thing helped. At some point, maybe halfway through my 20-year run at Ocean Beach, I figured out that if, while getting caught inside, I orient myself to the beach instead of to the far side of the set—if I actually turned and faced the shore when the wave was looming and basically put an X on the beach as my new destination—the experience was a lot easier. The beat-down was still awful, but the motion itself had a kind of purpose now, in that it was taking me closer to where I wanted to be. Part of the mind-fuck all those years was that I was projecting to the far side of the set. That was safety. And that was not going to happen—so let the panic begin. Look to the beach instead. Home, Poseidon.