Saturday, October 29, 2005

Can I bring you home in my suitcase, Mr. Lifeguard? (Topanga Point)

I changed my return ticket for the second time so I could go surf today, thinking I would go to Topanga again. It was the first fully sunny California day, as I was driving there the sun and the music (my favorite 60s psychedelic CD) all came together and it was like, Yes, this is what I came to California for.

Get to the parking lot, suit up with the music on. Down to the sand with the blessing of some guys in the peanut gallery who seemed slightly retarded. Down on the beach and the music stops.

It was totally different from the first two times. About 20 feet of rocks that had been covered by water the day before were now exposed. I swear I could point out the very rock I always landed on. Although I thought I had planned this to arrive near high tide, something was very wrong.

The guys who were out were getting waves and avoiding the newly exposed rocks, but they knew how to turn. I didn’t.

I stood there for a while, finally deciding to wait a couple of hours, at which time the tide, according to Surfline, would be just past high.

I left, telling the retarded guys I’d be back. I got some coffee and drove to Malibu, where the waves were once again small and perfect. I had some fun shooting an amateur surf video (i.e. playing the music loud in my car while shooting surfers with my telephoto lens). Then I went and bought 3 Malibu T shirts. (Rationale: I was at Topanga, which is technically in Malibu, and I “surfed” there as well or better than I ever have in my life, hence I deserved the T shirts.)

When I got back to Topanga, the situation hadn’t improved. What had changed was, the wind had come up and the waves had turned crappy. Had I gone in earlier, I would have caught waves. Now there were only four guys in the water, and in short order they left and I was all alone. I tried, but there was nothing. Nada. Nothing to do but get out. I’d drifted way down the beach so it was a long walk back.

I’d stayed an extra day to surf and now there was no surf. It was too late to go somewhere else; it would be dark in an hour.

I’m feeling so bummed out, and here comes an LA County lifeguard in full regalia---they’ve got these really spiffy red and blue uniforms. He comes up to me, tells me he’s “impressed” with my “stamina”. He’s apparently been watching me today and the last time! I take the comment on stamina in stride, as I do compliments on my paddling, etc. But then he goes on to say that my surfing was good! He might’ve actually used the words “almost got it” as have so many people over the years that I cringe whenever I hear them. But coming from this guy, a good looking guy about my age who is going out of his way to be helpful and encouraging, I don’t mind hearing them again. He tells me my stance is good (good!) and that I wouldn’t fall off if I just stayed down lower. He says not to pop up to full standing because that way there’s more to fall over, which makes sense. He says that if my front foot faces the wrong way as it always does, just turn it. He also says that the only thing holding me back from standing is that the waves don’t have enough push in them.

I don’t exactly believe that, since these little waves have more push than what I usually get in Rockaway, but I spare him the story of how I’ve tried for two and a half years without success, because the sun is shining and it’s my last day in California and this nice man has just handed me the opportunity to end a somewhat discouraging surf trip on a positive note. I’ll take it, the way guys who’ve just had a really good ride on a challenging day will get out after that, because what more could you want really?

His name tag said Bertholet and he didn’t have a wedding ring. Why aren’t there lifeguards like this in New York? Why can’t I find someone like him, an older guy who isn’t bald or fat, who likes to surf and isn’t married? I would like to have taken the handsome M. Bertholet home with me.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Stroke for stroke with the Malibu boys

Today my presence was required in downtown LA at ten a.m., but I figured there would still be time for surfing this afternoon. However, the proceedings went on longer than expected. I cut out somewhat ungracefully at 2:40, thinking that’d give me plenty of time to get to Topanga by four. Wouldn’t you know I got lost? I still don’t know how it happened. But I ended up lost in a neighborhood where no one spoke English, and by the time I got myself straightened out and to the beach, it was 4:40.

The waves were about the same as two days ago, but there were fewer people. No women, only fix or six barely postadolescent boys. They were talking about papers they had to write for school! Of course no one spoke to me, but they weren’t unfriendly either.

I noticed with some satisfaction that as we were all paddling out next to each other I had no trouble keeping up with the boys, prompting me to create this new Mastercard commercial:

Roundtrip airfare, JFK to LAX: $0 (paid by company)
Roundtrip ticket for dog: $0
Car rental: $0
Nine nights in LA area hotels: $0
Surfboard rental: $200 (not paid by company)
Going stroke for stroke with a Malibu boy half my age: PRICELESS

The above refers to paddling a surfboard only, but you already knew that.

These well-shaped waves have really brought home to me that I can do everything well except stand up. There’s nothing wrong with my paddling or wave-catching abilities.
There was one, maybe two, waves today where I did let go of the rails, and on one of them I stayed up on the board a little bit---by which I mean less than one second. Still, that fraction of a second was palpable.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Gnarly tattoo (Santa Monica)

I didn’t surf today because of other obligations. But get this: I woke up today with the most incredible rash on my right shoulder.

It is in the shape of a perfect spiral executed in dotted, dull-red lines, and it extends down about ten inches from the top of my shoulder and is about five inches wide. When I saw it in the mirror it scared the crap out of me. It is such a perfect and seemingly planned design that the word “rash” doesn’t seem accurate. It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t itch and it isn’t raised. Rather, it looks like someone came in and gave me a henna tattoo while I was asleep.

My book mentions “strange rashes” caused by polluted waters---but as strange as what looks like some kind of mystical cult symbol? All the newspapers have reports today about the water quality in this area, with Malibu and Topanga earning grades of F. Basically I’ve been surfing in human waste. But can that cause a mysterious spiral tattoo?

Later I went into the surf shop in Santa Monica and showed it to the guys, thinking they’d say, Yeah, we get that all the time. Instead they said, “Gnarly, dude! You got drunk and got a henna tattoo!”

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

REDEEMED (Topanga Point)

Today, for only the second time in nearly two weeks, the sun came out. I’d already returned my fiberglass board, but now I decided to stay in CA longer, even if it meant using a foam board. I got one in Santa Monica, a beat up generic thing with “rental” written on it. Might as well say “Kook”.

Absolutely nothing was going on at Sunset. So I drove up to Topanga. By this time it was four p.m. and if there weren’t any waves I was just going to continue up to Malibu and take some video, since what I shot before didn’t come out for some reason.

But there are, miraculously, little waves, looking about perfect for me. So I joyfully suit up, feeling a little trepidation about the board.

It turns out to be fine. The board is like a tank---easy to catch waves on, easy to (try to) stand up on. And the waves are really helping. They seem almost as good as the ones at Malibu---but this is a much easier crowd. It gets bigger as the afternoon goes on, but is never more than about ten people, mostly young boys. Even though we’re closely spaced I’m able to get as many waves as I can. Most people are going right instead of left as I’m used to. This means I can sit way over on the left and no one will run over me if I take off straight to the beach.

People seem to be looking out for each other more here. Less competition. Eventually, one of them says Hi to me, and later we have a two-sentence conversation about his board (leashless---I help return it).

I don’t know if it’s the board or the waves or both, but I find myself catching waves at exactly the right times and making the drops perfectly. I mean, I’m actually enjoying the drops. At home I often can’t make them---there’s little room for error on closeouts.

So now I’m actually looking for the drops. And on a couple of waves I get it. I get confirmation of what I’ve always suspected but rarely experienced: there’s a space that opens up when you make the drop right, that makes it easier to swing your legs under you and get them all the way onto the board. Your arms and the waves are pushing the board down so that there’s an incline which allows gravity to aid you in getting your legs under your body. Have I said that right? It said the same thing, in different words, in one of my surf books. But the Paskowitz guy seemed to be contradicting it when he said he teaches people to stand up in whitewater. “Isn’t there something that happens when you catch the wave that makes it easier to stand up?” I asked, but he said no. I think he’s wrong.

I was lost for a while on this board that’s six inches shorter than mine, because there’s no longer any way to fit my toes on the board. I’ve been taught to use my toes to push up. The only times I’ve been able to stand and balance have been when I’ve done that. I slid my right foot along the board as T. said to do, which is the only way I’ve ever been able to get that foot pointing in the right direction so I can try to balance.

But this other way, of creating a space by making the drop, seems to be another way---a necessary way on a shorter board---of doing almost as well, and without the need to use my knees. I say “almost as well” because even when I successfully got my feet on the board this new way, I could not balance the board. Not even close. And because I couldn’t balance, I couldn’t let go of the rails with my hands.

Still and all, for me this was a superspectacular day of “surfing”. Those two rides that made me go, “OH! That’s how it’s supposed to be!”---a feeling I haven’t had before---made it spectacular.

Add to this my first California sunset, with the Santa Monica mountains (or whatever they are) in the background, and I am actually having fun and don’t want to get out even after the curtain finally closes on the orange-red ball and it gets too dark to make out, any more, whether there’s rideable wave coming towards me.

Monday, October 24, 2005

DENIED (San Onofre)

I drove down here on the PCH---three hours---after Abraham Paskowitz said he could give me a surf lesson at San Onofre. But he called an hour before we were supposed to start telling me the conditions were too bad! He’s a Paskowitz, couldn’t he have predicted this yesterday and spared me the drive, the expense and the frustration? I mean, there are guys in New York who can confidently and fairly accurately predict what the waves are going to do a measly one day in advance, shouldn’t a member of America’s self-proclaimed number one surf family be able to do the same?

He says the waves are four feet and choppy, and Surfline has put up a warning about dangerous rip currents. “We never get a yellow flag,” according to him.

This not only disappoints me tremendously but leaves me with no plans for the day. Miraculously I get my internet service working in this new hotel and check Surfline for somewhere, anywhere else I can go. The closest thing is Doheny, with 1-2 foot waves looking good on the cam, but it also has a yellow flag warning about hazardous currents. Yet there are clearly people surfing there.

Yes, but they’re probably not by themselves, but with buddies who would notice if they got carried out to sea. I remember the recent front page article in the Rockaway newspaper about a local woman surfer who got caught in a rip current and had to be rescued. She was in her 40s. Is there anyone more invisible than a middle-aged, not- or no-longer attractive woman? “No one saw me, no one heard my cries for help,” she told the paper. Indeed. Probably a shark wouldn’t even bother to eat her, preferring a Bethany Hamilton.

I’m almost certain I could have handled myself in a rip, but I couldn’t answer the question “Who would save my sorry ass if I were carried out to sea?” So I decided not to go.

(As I’m writing this later, having had more experience of California beaches, it occurs to me that there was probably a lifeguard on Doheny Beach who would have been glad to save my sorry ass. But that didn’t occur to me at the time, being from New York where lifeguards are a summer-only phenomenon, and sometimes not even that. Who would have thought there would be one in October?)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Buffer me, Gramps

Today I woke up in Ventura County thinking I would like to try Ventura Point or the Harbor, but then I checked Surfline and they were too big for me. The other breaks looked smaller, so I decided to drive by, check them out, and go to the one that looked best.

Leo Carillo wasn’t crowded, and the waves looked small and nice. But there were lots of rocks at the entrance to the water, and I didn’t know how far out. If I went straight in, it was a pretty short ride and I’d hit them in a couple of seconds. Everyone who was taking off was turning and going down the line. But I don’t know how to turn, so I didn’t see any way of avoiding the rocks.

Not knowing how to turn sure limits my surfing choices. If I could turn, I would be much more confident and could even take off on the same wave as someone else (at a safe distance, of course) knowing I wouldn’t crash into them. But in order to turn you’ve got to be able to stand up long enough...I feel like I’m years away from that point.

So I backtracked to County Line. It was four to five feet. No way was I going out. It was quite a scene this Sunday afternoon, cars parked all along the PCH, and a large peanut gallery. More cute bods per square inch than I ever have seen in New York.

Zuma was small and deserted---depressing as hell. So I ended up where my heart had been all along---back at Surfrider. I felt like maybe this time I could figure it out.

The waves were just as small as yesterday, the crowd a little smaller. Some of the same people were on the beach still or again. Even some of the same surfers were there again.

This time, in order to increase my chances of getting a wave, I concentrated on observing my fellow surfers and making a mental map of the lineup. In short order I got a sense of who could surf and who was just sitting there hardly trying for waves or missing them. (And one mottled gray head popping up from time to time without a board---a seal!)

Again I paddled for, and most definitely would have caught, five or six waves, only to have to pull back at the last minute to avoid a collision. These were such nice, forgiving waves that even when they crashed on your head (or were about to) they were easy, not like Rockaway closeouts that clobber you.

An older gray haired guy sitting next to me tries for a wave, blows it, and a second later this young kid comes speeding down the line, so Gramps is definitely lucky he didn’t catch the wave, because he would have gotten smacked. At one point where there were multiple guys on the same wave, I saw one of them actually push the other guy out of his way---actually grab him by the shoulders and push him off his board. This was so aggro that a bunch of us in the retard section couldn’t help exchanging looks and smiles.

That mellowed things out a bit, so I decided to start up a convo with Gramps. (Grandfathers are a demographic I have great success with.) So I threw out a line like, “Every time I go for a wave someone’s on it,” and we got started.

In between he was occasionally trying for waves, so I figured that if he kept doing that in the same spot of me, the good surfers would have no choice but to pull off the wave before hitting him, and once they did that I would be in a good position to take off on the rest of the wave without worrying about them hitting me. I was trying to set up a situation where Gramps would act as a buffer between the good surfers and me, thus giving me what looked like my only chance for a ride at Malibu.

It didn’t work, though; Gramps never caught a wave and the good surfers never pulled back.

Afterwards, though I’d been no more successful than the day before, I was ridiculously glad I’d tried Malibu again. I thought that now I deserved a T shirt saying “I surfed the retard section at Malibu.”

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Almost a dry hair day in Malibu

Today I was supposed to drive to Ventura. I had checked the Surfline forecast before leaving my hotel and for Malibu it said “Flat-Fair”. How can conditions be fair if they are flat? On the cam, it didn’t look completely flat, and it was crowded. I had been scared of trying Malibu but figured that if it was flat, even I could handle it.

So I decided to drive to Ventura via Highway 1 so I could check it out.

Before I even left one of the Paskowitzes called me back, returning the message I’d left on the surf camp answering machine, and in about a 20-minute conversation tried to figure out if he could help where everyone else had failed. “I have a 100% success rate,” he boasted, just like every other instructor I’ve brought down to 99.8%. Well, I couldn’t figure out if he could help or not, but he was willing to give me a lesson and I was willing to try. We set it up for Monday.

After that I nearly decided to go south instead of north, but decided I had time to do both.

On the way from LA I decided to try to find the Sunset break I’d been told to try, but not realizing there are two Sunsets, ended up on Sunset Avenue in Venice instead of Sunset Boulevard in Santa Monica. The Saturday afternoon Venice boardwalk fleamarket/sideshow was worth seeing, and it reminded me a lot of New York City before they banished all the homeless people. Apparently they all ended up here, except they now clutch their earthly possessions in cheap wheeled luggage instead of shopping carts. I ended up buying a $10 watercolor of a surfer woman from a man who, I was told, had been living under a tree for twelve years.

I didn’t stay long on the boardwalk because I had left the dog in the car. This was the first time I’d ever left her alone like that for any period of time. God bless doggie senility.

After that, I found Sunset Blvd. But the sign said only six miles to Malibu, and I was determined to see it.

What a spot, what a wave! People hanging out as if they’d always been on this beach and always would be. When I saw all the dogs in the parking lot, I knew I was going to like this spot.

The waves were the long perfect peelers I’ve heard about and have been in search of ever since I started surfing, but had never seen. Until now. Here was what I’d come to California for. And they were small, and looked easy to surf! Yes, it was crowded, but I’ve seen just as many people out in Rockaway in the summertime. There were about 30 to 40 black dots in the water, all heading for the peak in what actually looked like a line, I mean the kind of line where everyone waits their turn in orderly fashion. It couldn’t be that, though, could it?

I tried to ask an Asian guy on the beach, but like all guys in their 20s, he couldn’t conceive of the fact that an obviously middle aged woman could be a surfer. So he ended up telling me that I should go get a video if I wanted to learn to surf!

Now I felt like I could leave the dog in the car for a couple hours. As I was suiting up I felt gloriously confident. This was it, the mecca of meccas, the wave that would finally make me a real surfer! Even if I didn’t dare reach for the peak, I could easily take some of the little insiders as I saw people doing.

I’d not even expected a chance to surf Malibu, but here I was, already grinning, anticipating the triumphant phone calls home: “Guess where I am? I rode the waves at Malibu!”, as well as the T shirt I would happily buy myself later, proudly proclaiming “I surfed Malibu!” I was about to earn the right to such a shirt.

I paddled out competently, encouraged by the sight of dolphins in the lineup, cutting my foot only a little bit on the unforeseen rocks. I had thought Malibu was only for experts, but I could see there were other beginner surfers here. Just like Rockaway, it has a retard section. I would not be the worst surfer at Malibu!

Maybe not....but close. The waves that had looked so easy to catch from shore were nearly impossible to find in the water. I was way over on the shoulder, yet figuring I could still catch a wave because they were so long. That wasn’t how it worked, though. Every time I was in position to paddle for a wave, someone else was on it and would pass in front of me, someone who’d started his ride so far down the line I hadn’t even seen him take off. So he appeared to come out of nowhere, was going very fast, and had no intention of stopping, falling, or getting out of the way for me. There may be retards at Malibu, but there are also surfers of stellar ability (including, I was told, Allan somebody who used to be famous in the 80s). So every time I almost had a wave---and I did---I had to pull back to avoid a collision with Joe Used-to-be-a-Famous-Pro-Surfer. Here, you couldn’t count on anyone blowing a takeoff or falling off a wave.

As a result, I had dry hair at the end of my first hour at Malibu. I hadn’t even fallen off my board. Eventually, sometime during my second hour, I caught one small wave, which led to a long ride, but not long enough for me to figure out how to get to my feet. My Malibu wave count remained at one until I got too hungry to stay in any longer.

I let my dog out and she mixed vaguely with the West Coast dogs and tried to bite the golden retriever. Then the idiot followed me into the shower where she drenched herself in cold water and emerged shivering pitifully. But not before she relieved herself on the sands of Mecca. I figured that now I could go search the local gift shops for the only T shirt I deserved: “My dog crapped on Malibu Beach”.

Manhattan Beach kicks my ass

“You should go out now, instead of waiting for something better, because it might never be better.”

This has been my surf mantra all along, and it suits New York which really never is better, but I didn’t expect to hear it repeated by someone in California. But that is what the old man coming out of the water in Manhattan Beach as I was getting in said to me. Well, first I asked, “How’s the surfing?” Not “How’s the waves?” because I could pretty much see they were closing out and breaking close to shore. His answer was “Fantastic” and it didn’t occur to me right away that this may have been sarcasm.

There were only three or four people out, young boys, and before long they got out and I was all alone---but not before I’d pearled in my first takeoff attempt and could swear the one with all the tattoos on his back was laughing at me.

Next attempt I tried to move forward on the board---it’s 3” shorter than mine and I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be---and the wave knocked me off my board.

When I finally got a wave, there was a steep drop that happened before I had a chance to try to stand up. I still don’t understand why that happens sometimes. D. says it’s because the waves are mushy---does he mean closeouts? Is it from the wave closing out in back of you?

I wouldn’t have considered these mushy waves---like yesterday’s they had more power than Eastern waves of the same size.

I caught maybe 3 or 4 waves in an hour, average for me. On the last one I got to my feet somehow (undoubtedly by putting both knees to the board) and really tried to think my feet into the right position. For a second I may have had it, but only at the end of the ride.

I always surf two hours. That’s my rule; it takes that long to give it my best shot. But today I really wasn’t having any fun at all. So I got out after only one hour, telling myself that I’d surf another beach later. I left my wetsuit on and checked out El Porto, but decided it wasn’t worth it; then drove all the way to Santa Monica. Did you ever sit in a wet wetsuit for, like, two or three hours? It gets progressively unbearable. By the time I got there I couldn’t wait to get the thing off, waves or not. There were no waves.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Huntington Beach Pier, CA!

When I allow myself to admit that I am attracted to someone, it always has to develop into a big Broadway production. It’s never just a community-theater revival of Mame.

Aargh, the unrequited lust of the middle-aged woman. Painful as is it, it was worse when I was in my twenties...wasn’t it?

Sorry, this is supposed to be a surf blog. In between and during surfing, I can’t stop thinking about N., and what it would be like to make love with him. There are about thirteen thousand reasons why this idea is completely insanely ludicrous, but Reason #1 will suffice: He’s married.

Somehow this does nothing to reality-check my fantasies. Ah well, fantasies are harmless, and as with surf fantasies, usually much better than the reality would turn out to be even if it could.

Anyway. I am in Los Angeles on business, but aim to get in as much surfing as possible. I had to go all the way to Huntington Beach to get a real surfboard, because it turns out that there is nowhere within an hour of LA that rents them----only foam beginner boards.

So this is why I ended up at Huntington Pier, which was not part of the plan for this trip. The waves were just like Rockaway and so was the setting: the pier on the left taking on the role of the jetty with surfers arranged in order of ability from good nearest to worst farthest away. I did what I do at home: move down the line to get out of the way of the better surfers, ending up where the waves were no good.

But the thing is, when I paddled down closer to the pier, I noticed that a lot of the surfers weren’t really that good. Some were just riding straight in. Down where I was there were mainly boogie boarders, young boys, and an obvious beginner surfer who was waiting until the waves broke to take off on them. I must say that wasn’t a bad strategy, because if you got a wave just after it broke it had quite a bit of power to it, much more than NYC waves of the same size, and the rides were much longer than at home.

I did manage to take off properly on a couple of 2-foot waves, but of course then had all the problems I usually have. These waves weren’t going to fix that.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Surfing drunk?

3-5:40 PM
The usual place

Surfing demands the utmost of your physical and mental abilities. If you’re not at peak, you can’t surf. Or at least I can’t. No point in trying.

I don’t understand those guys who surf (or say they do) when they’re drunk or stoned. How good do you have to be to be still able to do it drunk?

(Side note: I am writing this on a nonsurfing day, sitting on ********* Beach, as I write this the next day, a nonsurfing day, a day when I’m just glad to be in the water without a board; and there is a guy close to me, an old guy, sleeping in just his underwear, and the underwear has holes in it. Gross.)

Bottom line: I can’t even try to surf unless I’m 100%, and even then I can’t do it. And so I knew I shouldn’t have tried to go out today...

So even though the waves were small and good, I wasted them. I hardly caught anything. I did try to get up when I caught them but I was using my left knee. Is this progress---I used to use my right knee? But even if I managed to get up by cheating this way, I couldn’t stay up. Once I got both feet on facing forwards---? Only once did I stay up more than a half second and that was because I was up long enough to remember to bend my knees.

The only time I even got rides were not when I used my left knee; they were when I concentrated on my right foot and knee and slid the foot across the board to get it turned before planting it on the board. And those times I did not move or use my left foot or knee at all that I was aware of---I think my left foot stayed where it was when I was lying on my board.