I got out of my old Toyota truck, stood on the ridge, and looked out at the Pacific Ocean. Walls of water were rolling in big and breaking with massive sprays of whitewash being blown by the January wind. Each gust tore across the ocean’s surface, rushing against me and stinging my face and eyes. I was looking for a good set of rideable waves and a way to get out past the breakers. This was all part of the surfer’s ritual.
Standing and examining the waves on the beach at Salmon Creek in Sonoma County 70 miles north of San Francisco, I wasn’t sure if I should paddle out. Going out alone in pounding surf was something I had done many times before and this was a regular surf spot of mine, but I knew I had risked my life more times than I could count. Now fast approaching 40 years old, I had grown more cautious about my choices and this was where a number of shark attacks had also occurred.
Another truck pulled into the parking lot near me and an older man with a long, scraggly, gray beard got out. Wearing a thick shirt under a Carhartt jacket, jeans, and Ugg boots, he took a stance on the ridge and stared out at the ocean twenty feet from me.
After ten minutes, both of us watching the water, he looked at me and asked, “You going out?”
I turned my head, thought for a moment, and replied, “I don’t know, dude. It looks pretty gnarly out there. It’s closing out all over, but I’ve seen some shape on a few that could be rideable.”
“Well, if you go out, I’ll go out,” he said. “What are you riding?”
“I’ve got a 7’8 Bazooka. It was shaped by Vernor in Santa Cruz. I love it.”
“Seems like the right one for today. I’ve got my boogie board.”
I thought, wow, this guy is not young and he plans to go out with only a little boogie board. That’s insane. Curious and a little concerned about his well-being, I realized I’ve got to paddle out with him.
Salmon Creek sits between Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed some of his movie The Birds, and the small coastal town of Jenner, where the Russian River pours into the sea. Seals like to hang out by the river mouth and relax in the sun. Sharks like to float nearby and eat the seals when they leave the safety of the beach.
Salmon, as locals sometimes call it, is an open ocean spot, meaning that most waves are produced by hitting sand bars that build up on the ocean floor. The waves during the spring and summer are usually small and blown out by the wind; a churning mess of mostly unrideable surf. But during the fall and winter, the wind grows calm and the waves will climb up to ten and twelve feet. Sometimes bigger.
Today, it was big and the wind was whipping, but thankfully it was an offshore wind smoothing out the waves and making them clean and glassy.
“What’s your name?” asked the graying boogie boarder as he started putting on his wet suit.
“Gentry. What’s yours?”
Sam and I had begun another part of the surfer’s ritual: putting on our wetsuits and getting our boards ready. Over the years, I had become adept at getting naked in parking lots except for a towel to put on my suit. The water would be 55 degrees when we hit it, so I wanted everything covered but my hands.
The smell of the ocean was thick on the air. Seagulls passed overhead. When I took my board and began to wax it, the smell of the wax took over my senses.
There is nothing like the fresh smell of wax going on a board right before you paddle out into the water. Applying it, the smell is mystical, like the wax of a candle being lit before a ritual. The aroma mixes with nerves and excitement, becoming a ceremonial act.
“Ready, man?” I yelled over to Sam who had his boogie board under his arm.
“Let’s do it, bro!” Sam returned.
We wandered down the dirt path that led to the beach, watching the ocean as we walked to judge its size and the best place to enter the water.
Surfers measure waves in different ways. Some measure by the frontside, which is what you see from the beach. Others by the backside, which is what you see when you’re out on the water and the wave passes.
A majority of surfers, including me, define the size of the wave in comparison to body size. A waist-high wave is about three feet, and a head-high wave is six feet. Overhead is about eight feet, and double overhead is twelve. I had stopped surfing anything triple overhead and bigger, but I still had friends that pursued those mammoths.
This day, the waves were pushing double overhead. Not a size that made it easy to paddle out. I looked for riptides that could pull me out over the waves and scanned for a lull in the rhythm of the sets. Skill and experience reading the ocean are extremely helpful, but so is luck. The ocean is in control.
You receive an unspoken badge of honor if you can get outside without getting your hair wet, but that didn’t seem possible. I knew when a wave came, I’d have to “duck dive” under it and hope to go deep enough not to get dragged back by the force of water.
I have learned a lot about people by going surfing with them. Those with big egos are humbled quickly after being smashed in the face by fast-moving liquid and then thrown to the bottom of the sea. And those who have low self-esteem and catch their first ride are changed forever. I’ve seen smiles bursting and confidence beaming on faces that say there is nothing like riding the sea. The first ride hooks you and the feeling never leaves.
Sam and I were far beyond our first rides and we knew that Mistress Pacific would do whatever she wanted with us. We were in her watery hands and we’d need to listen to her, watch her, and explore her chaotic contours. There was nothing worse than spending twenty minutes paddling to get outside and have a set come in, pound down on your head, take you to the beach, and have to start all over.
I stood on the beach, did some stretching, pulled on my hood, velcroed my leash to my right ankle, and started walking toward the water. There was no need to run hard at the ocean. It was better to save our energy and wade out slowly until we needed to paddle, and Sam would be kicking, which was really difficult, even with fins on his feet.
My hands went numb within seconds when the water hit them. I kept walking out through the water, holding my board to one side until I was to my chest. The whitewater started to hit me with force, and I knew it was time to get on my board and begin paddling.
Sam was still near me in a parallel line but not for long. I got out over a couple of smaller waves, and he went out of sight. I saw a gap between sets, so I went for it, stroking deep and long.
Out on the horizon, I started to see bumps and I knew a set was coming soon. My blood started to pump harder and my breathing was heavy. Beyond those big breakers was somewhere to rest and begin to study where the best place would be to drop in and catch my first wave.
I felt the first wave of the set bulge up under me and I made it just up over the lip as it broke. Then, I turned my head and saw the wind catch the spray, blowing a rainbow in the air. Getting over the next two waves was easy. I had made it out, but Sam was going to get trounced by a series of nine-footers.
I sat and rested, sticking my hands under my armpits to warm them, and looked for Sam as I rocked on the sea. The last set had knocked him to the beach, but he was standing and trying to make it outside again. This guy was a champion and I admired him.
Sitting there under the gray clouds with the gulls on the air, I felt the calm after the rush. I knew that sea otters, sea lions, and other sea life were somewhere under me. Sharks were too, but I kept that out of my head. Getting “sharked out” is a self-created mental issue, but I did have some experience with the large fish who swam under me in the darkness.
A few years before at Salmon Creek, a guy had paddled out to me by himself. I thought it was strange because it was a flat day. He got near enough to me to call out, “Hey man, my friend just saw a shark chasing a seal! You should probably get out of the water!”
We paddled in together acting cool and discussing our boards but never again mentioned the potential to be devoured.
The next day a woman got attacked on her longboard in the same spot. She survived with stitches and teeth scars, but I’ll never forget the bravery of that unknown surfer who paddled out to warn me that day.
After surveying the breakers for a while, I found a peak I believed I could drop on and catch a piece of the shoulder before it closed out. If I did that, I could make a bottom turn, race back up the wall and get a good ride, maybe even a tube. If the wave closed out on me, I could be chucked forward, buried in water, held under, tossed around in the “washing machine”, and all kinds of other nasty surprises.
I saw the lumps on the horizon start to increase and knew the set was coming. My pulse quickened. I started paddling slowly so I could feel the wave. It picked me up quickly, letting me know it was a steep wave, and I maneuvered so I could drop down the face at a right angle.
No hesitation and few thoughts happen in the seconds before dropping in.
Paddle hard. One more paddle. In it. Push up. Throw feet forward. Stick it. Drop. Go. Look right. Knees. Dig in. Turn. Bank off the lip. Back down. Follow the line. Go. Faster. Watch the line. It’s closing. Ride up. And out. Airborne. Adrenaline. Woo!
In the water. Swim up. Look for your board. Get it. On it. Set coming? Yes. Paddle. Can I make it? I think so. Go. Hard. Up, up, and over the lip. And back down the other side. Calm.
It all happens rapidly and in slow-motion at the same time. Then the ride is over and you’re there again looking, surveying the horizon, wanting more. A water junkie’s liquid addiction that feels like praising Neptune in an oceanic hallelujah at the same time.
When I was back outside in the tranquil water, I said out loud to no one but myself, “Nice wave. It’s going to be a good day.”
I caught waves like that for an hour. They were nearly all steep drops that turned into fast rides with heavy waves breaking over my head or right behind me. I was eaten by Mama Ocean a few times, but I got back outside quickly and never got sent to shore.
Each time I paddled back out after a ride, I looked for Sam.
There may have not been much I could do if he did get in trouble, but I watched for him. I would be a witness if nothing else. His head could be seen bobbing here and there. Even though I knew he was getting thrashed, I hoped he was getting at least a few good belly waves.
By this point, a few other surfers had been alerted to the excellent surf the day offered and I saw a couple of them paddling out toward me. I had had enough and would be gracious. They could have the break all to their own.
I caught one final ride in, not as big as some of the others, but enough to take me all the way to the beach. Propelling me like a rocket. Near the shore, I found the sand under my bootie-covered feet in the deep and walked back up onto the landlocked world.
As I wrapped my leash around my board and started for my truck, I saw Sam catching one in, bouncing on his boogie board like a little kid. This made me grin.
When I was changing, Sam approached me and said gleefully, “Hey, thanks, man. I told my wife a few years ago that I wouldn’t go out alone after I turned 70.”
“You’re 70?” I asked surprised.
“Sam, I hope I’m still going out like you when I’m 74.”
He smiled through his wet beard and walked to his truck. It was our one and only surf session together and an inspiration to keep paddling out no matter what age I reach in this life.