Birdwell Blog

The Tactile Joys of Surfing California
In California #025

Surf memories lodge in the brain in interesting ways. There’s the more literal representation: a set of bottle-green waves rising from the kelp beds, steepening, and peeling in almond-shaped glory. There’s the peripheral stuff: surf check in the parking lot at La Jolla Shores; peeling off booties, gloves, and hood after ducking into icy A-frame barrels at Manasquan Inlet. There are the colorful characters: Fruit Loop from Malibu, Bad Vibes Bob from San Francisco, The Lobbyist from Rockaway.

            As a child of the 1970s, these blue-sky memories boil down to a faded, dogeared copy of the book Surfing California. Edited by Bank Wright, delivered to the world in 1973, Surfing California was in effect a guide to surf breaks, but it had a flesh-and-blood-like quality, it had a voice, character, and personality. And it instilled fear in my 12-year-old, surf-stoked ass.

           

            Take, for instance, Tijuana Sloughs, near the U.S./Mexico border: “A spooky big-wave break. Heavy rip currents, frequent sharks, blinding fogs and massive clean-up sets…for some reason it’s never crowded.”

            Or Navarro Rivermouth, near Fort Bragg: “Hardbreaking sandbar peaks. Needs a two-to-eight-foot winter swell. Medium tide depends on sand flow from river. Caution: Sewage at rivermouth attracts many large sharks.”

            Or Hollywood-by-the-Sea, in Oxnard: “Take heed…unfriendly locals rip off unattended autos.”

            Then there’s the spots that piqued the imagination.

            Point Mugu Missile Range: “All kinds of point and beach surf along three miles of government property. Consistent surf all year but access is heavily restricted. Comment: Very little is known of the area and likely will remain that way.”

            Or Mote Creek: “A seldom surfed peak break a few miles south of Point Arena…Land is private, but owner doesn’t mind visitors.”

            Or Harbor: “Downcoast currents deposit sand along the north seawall creating right lines across harbor entrance. Takeoffs are steep with tubes to follow. Takes a two-to-eight-foot winter swell and low tide. On big swells rides past the second jetty are possible. Breaks every winter.”



            I was a scrawny seventh grader when my parents bought me the book. I read it before going to sleep at night. It permeated my dreams. Of the hundreds of breaks listed, I’d surfed exactly five. Surfing California starts at the Oregon border and works its way south to the Mexico border. And so in those 173 pages, I was hopping on the bus right around page 107.

            My father was a serious reader, and he marked his books up with a red Bic ballpoint. Following suit, I underlined my spots: Leo Carrillo, Zuma, Malibu, Lighthouse Jetties, Santa Monica Beach. My goal, of course, was to underline as many of those spots as possible. But what I thought was just garden variety ego and competitiveness was in fact the beginning of my global surf odyssey.

            Surfing California cracked open a whole pen-to-paper thing. Along with underlining every spot I surfed, I kept a notebook in which I recorded my surf sessions: wave height, quality, how well I surfed. That led to contests, and those too I kept a log of (see pic). I might have surfed a lot more of the spots in Surfing California, but shortly after graduating high school I jumped on the ASP world tour, and got to mentally underline a whole new caliber of surf break (Pipeline, Jeffreys Bay, Kirra, La Piste, Mundaka, Arpoador).



            Today, we have Surfline and Magic Seaweed offering up digital versions of my beloved book. And while they’re a lot more convenient (you can check it on the cams, and get the swell forecast—all on your phone), I miss the tactile and dogeared experience of Surfing California. It was a launch pad for surf dreams. It perpetuated myths, and spawned them, too.

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