The Spirit of Surfing

Rincon Invitational 2016, Third World Surf Co

This past weekend, I did something I vowed never to do. I drove away from good waves. A combo swell had been pumping through Santa Cruz. The previous days had been filled with double and triple sessions, numerous barrels, and near perfect conditions. But on Saturday night, I packed up and headed down to Santa Barbara for the Rincon Invitational.

The Rincon Invitational is a different kind of surf contest. Teams are invited to compete based on their positive contributions to the surf community. The competition is not based on individual performance, but on the number of waves team members share with each other.

In the mainstream world of surfing, sharing waves is not the norm. In fact, over the past few days of the swell, I had hollered at a few people who had dropped in on me, unwilling to share when I was in the priority position. Admittedly, a few people had hollered at me as well. During the Rincon Invitational, the only hollering would be my friends and I encouraging each other to “Go, go, GO!” as we flew down the line. In years past, we’ve gotten two, three, four, sometimes even five or more people on a single wave. During our rides, we’ve been known to high five, jump on each other’s boards, and join hands.

The team that I compete with, Third World Surf Co, is comprised of a group of friends I have been surfing with for the past ten years. Our team captain is shaper Jason Kline and Third World Surf Co is his brand. Each year in February, Jason organizes a camping trip to El Refugio, El Capitan, or Plaskett Creek. All of us get together for a weekend of surfing, campfires, and good times. In April, we compete in the Rincon Invitational.

Over time, the nature of the camping trip has changed. The early years were filled with heavy drinking and debauchery. I remember waking up at 3am to the sound of an out-of-tune guitar and people singing Rocky Raccoon. I emerged from my tent to find people stumbling around the campfire, making out on top of picnic tables, or passed out on the ground using a rock or skateboard as a pillow. These days, I am more likely to be woken up by a crying baby. The same people who were once drunk by the fire are now married, raising the next generation of surfers.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the essence of these gatherings. They embody some rare, pure ideal, a core component of the spirit of surfing that’s difficult to articulate. When I attended the first camping trip, I had just started surfing, yet I could already sense porcupine-like spines beginning to rise from my skin, bristling against rebuff and rejection from the surf elite. The group I met in Santa Barbara included some exceptional surfers, but they embraced me as an equal, inviting me to surf new spots and encouraging me into waves. Since then I have brought friends and family of various ages and surfing levels, who have always received the same warm welcome.

During the El Niño of 2010, we braved torrential rain, knee-deep mud, and a tsunami at El Capitan. I drove in with a carful of people during a downpour, and Jason met us in a slicker, soaked through. He directed us to set up our tents under the bathroom awning, assuring everyone that he would go to town that night to buy rubber boots for us and wooden pallets to stand on. The next day, we surfed in 20-knot storm wind until a lifeguard called us out of the water with a bullhorn, on account of the fact that a tsunami was coming. Later that evening, the conditions cleaned up. We returned to the water for head high waves and glassy barrel sections, rewards for toughing out the storm.

During this year’s El Niño, we again faced rain and boggy mud pits at El Capitan. Toddlers in rain suits splashed in the puddles as their parents wrangled with wet, muddy tents. Everyone pitched in and helped each other, taking turns cooking food, watching children, and hauling loads of equipment to and from the parking lot. The next generation of surfers learned how to tough it out and work together, from parents who had learned years before.

Now, two months later, I took one final look at the perfect waves wrapping into Santa Cruz from the cliff at Pleasure Point. I prepared to tough it out and drive to Santa Barbara, where I knew the Channel Islands were likely to block the magnificent swell stacking up in long lines before my eyes. Beautiful as it was, it could not keep me from a tradition that had become such an important part of my life, and a group of friends I had come to cherish.

I arrived at Rincon just as the fog was clearing. A long board was waiting for me on the beach. Jeff and Nicole had driven it down from Santa Cruz especially for me, without my having to ask. “Get yourself a plate of barbequed chicken,” Jason said. “There’s drinks in the cooler.” It was a beautiful sunny day. I sat among my teammates and their families to enjoy it.

Before our heat, we formed a circle to go over our strategy. Non-competitors were allowed to surf during the event, and we would lose points if we burned them, so we planned to send a few people up to the top of the point to block for our team. The set waves were fast, and the non-competitors looked competitive. Heidi expressed reservations about surfing, nervous that she might get in a non-competitor’s way. “Let’s surf tandem,” Jeff offered. “Just stand on the front of my board and I’ll take care of the rest.” Jason lifted his 5-year old daughter, Kaia, onto his back. “Watch out for us when you’re taking off,” Jason cautioned. “I don’t want her to get scared.”

The green flag went up, signaling the start of our heat. For the next hour, we surfed head high Rincon with just a handful of people, sharing waves and having a blast. This is what surfing is about, I thought, as Jason took off on a wave with Kaia’s arms wrapped around his neck and Max, Kaia’s godfather, reached out to give her a high five as they all shared a wave together.

Sometimes, when I reflect on the passage of time, I miss the days when our lives were a blank canvas; when we had every brush, every color at our fingertips. But at the same time, I cherish the pictures we have painted, and everything we have shared. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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