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.

  • Jmac

    Getting caught inside is always at the top of any surfers don’t want to be there list. We’ve all had them. One I can remember was at Blacks in the late 70’s. Surfed there all the time. Stroking for the shoulder on triple-quadruple over head days only to find another, bigger monster out side of that one…Looming! Yep, almost drowned at Blacks. Still loved it!

  • david carson

    i don’t know allan, only ran into him once when i was judging the stubbies pro at trestles. after losing a close heat, mr sarlo climbed up the back of the huge judging tower, and called us, the judging panel, “fucking niggers” before he was restrained and taken away.

  • Tyler Dirden

    Awesome Mat ? great fun read! did some time traveling while digesting ? I got worse to tell…we will spare you.
    I never did charge the cove because of that… Stuck to the points or bays to tame things a little bit…
    ? Is it something that some are born with? Luck of the cosmic draw?
    Or is it like coffee- something you develop a taste for?
    I’ve never tackled anything above Haw 8ft myself without trepidation and severe internal dialog…… Aloha

    • Matt Warshaw

      I do think its something you’re born with. Just the ability to not panic. You’re never held down for that long, it just feels like forever, and the lizard brain kicks in. I knew this all along, but could never calm myself. Any time I surfed when it was over 8 foot I was forcing it.

  • geri

    I’ve that same experience. “And there to my immediate right, huge and calm, was Allen Sarlo.”

  • Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
    1960 North Bird Rock. Double Overhead. Buzzy Trent starts yelling at me before I even made it to the takeoff at the reef. “What the hell are you doing out here?!? Blankenship! Is this your doing, your brought these assholes out here?!? What are you thinking!?!” He never stopped. “You little fucks! You’re gonna get killed, you’re about to die! You’re gonna get caught inside and you’re gonna die!” Bruce Bernstein and I were staying at John Blankenship’s home up the street from Wind an Sea. Two kids from Topanga Beach, spending a week with one of surfing’s earliest living legends.
    John had thought we two 12 year-olds might enjoy experiencing North Bird before we went out at Wind an Sea. Standing on the dead end street the peaks peeling over the North Bird peak looked to be surfable, but they were 1/2 mile away. As we paddled out each wave seemed twice as big as the previous, each set bigger than the earlier one.
    After his ‘greeting’ I looked at Trent and glanced at Bruce, what I didn’t say was, “This guy’s an asshole, what does he know?” Bruce was already spinning his egg beater legs to move away. No one explained us, not Blankenship, no one. We were who we were and that’s all that we were. Young boys and the sea.
    And, of course, Trent was correct. I noticed he rotated ever so slightly and began slowly paddling, ever so slowly, away from the reef, toward outside. And I looked up, toward the horizon and my stomach dropped. There was no horizon. What I could see nauseated me. I started paddling. Pulling hard, away from the reef, toward the channel. I passed by Bruce who panicked. “What?” He saw the terror in my eyes. My mistake, other than being in the water at all, was thinking I’d made it. That the peeling wave that caught Bruce and pitched him up and back over the falls was the last wave in the set. It’s not that I let up, I was still wheelhousing my arms, but mentally I relaxed while making it over the shoulder to discover the next wave was already breaking.
    It was a long long swim.
    I sat inside to recover, and decided I couldn’t go in until I rode a wave. Just one. I must have turned inside myself, because as I paddled back out in the channel Buzzy paddled by me. “Hey! You little fuck, you survived! And you’re coming back for more!?!” and kept right on paddling.
    I rode two waves. I’d never had the sensation of dropping into a wave, quite like that. Down and down to the bottom to turn. Topanga an Malibu were get up and go waves for me, the Bird Rock reef-thing was new. Memorable. I can feel it now, the acceleration coming out of those turns.
    John told us that night at dinner that he’d admonished Buzzy for his initial treatment of Bruce and I. John could do that. He claimed Buzzy said something like, “Ah, it’ll do ’em good. They should be scared out there!”

    • Matt Warshaw

      Your story makes my whole morning. Yeah, see, that’s the difference. I could be relentless. But only if I wasn’t scared. If I got a good scare, like you did, I was SO done for the day. Never would paddle out and try again. Good for you, that’s a life-changer. Thanks for posting Jim.