Have you ever wanted to leave everything behind, get on a sailboat and explore the world while in search of the perfect wave?
Not only is this possible, but we found someone who has actually done it and decided to pick her brain about ecology and surfing.
Liz Clark, nominated 2014 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic, sat down with us—virtually—from her boat in French Polynesia and gave us a unique perspective.
What perspective is that, you might ask?
Well, Liz sailed a 2500-mile loop through French Polynesia’s outer islands and definitely trumps my twenty-mile trek from Ojai to C-Street.
What follows is my interview with ex-local Santa Barbara surfer and all around sea goddess Liz Clark.
Yes—we receive our greatest pleasure from the sea and Mother Earth, and therefore we should be the first to want to give back to the source of our sport.
Surfers are more connected to what’s going on in our local oceans and we need to be the canaries in the mining caves that help inform others.
We need to be ocean stewards and educate others about the current state of the oceans and the urgency and importance of restoring their health.
I became interested in ecology and environmental issues ever since my family took a trip to Mexico on our sailboat at age nine. On that 5000-mile trip, I experienced two types of oceans. One, the most pristine ocean environments in remote parts of Baja and the Sea Of Cortez, full of healthy sea life.
Those beautiful images were unfortunately contrasted against the sewage and trash filled bays of populated areas like La Paz, Manzanillo, and Puerto Vallarta.
That trip remained with me for years, those passions and curiosities never faded and I decided to get my BA in Environmental Studies from UCSB. While on this voyage, I’ve been on a quest to understand how to shift our thinking back towards care and stewardship for the planet.
I see so many amazing young people with a true desire to change the world for the better through whatever their passion is—art, permaculture, hunting, technology, social media, and engineering.
There are so many people in upcoming generations who understand the undeniable connection we have to the planet and each other. These incredible people are working to re-establish that harmony in their own lives and communities.
I also see people trying to better themselves, inspiring change in others around them. Social media networks and the internet are accelerating change because they allow information to be spread so quickly.
This is a huge advantage that we have in this time to turn the tide on non-beneficial ways of thinking and educate people on environmental issues that matter to all of our lives and the generations that will follow us.
I constantly see plastic trash in the sea and on beaches. Island ‘landfills’ are spilling over with plastic trash that is being imported with goods. The nearshore environments are always more polluted near populated areas.
Most shocking, though, has been the marked decline I’ve witnessed in fish populations and coral health since arriving in the South Pacific 7 years ago. This is part of what made me decide to stop eating fish when it was possible.
There are very few local fishing regulations and lots of international boats vying for tuna and offshore species. Most of them are taking fish without respect for the limits of the fisheries. Even though my personal impact is small, I just didn’t want to put more pressure on the fish and reefs than there already is.
One thing I’d like to mention in regard to turning around our environmental crisis—how important each of our individual decisions are in shifting the paradigm towards sustainable living.
After years of feeling helpless to the enormous problems that we are facing, I shifted my focus to what I can do versus what I cannot.
Now I understand how powerful it can be to just change your own actions, work on your personal evolution and peace—develop compassion, educate yourself, and make choices and votes that move the consumer demand and laws towards conscious living while respecting all life on Earth.
When we take this positive angle on it, there is so much we can do every day to have a positive impact and promote change.
For more on Liz please see the website www.SwellVoyage.com.
Ok, I know I usually write about green business and everything ecological, but let me start by saying there is nothing more organic than staying alive (keep reading).
I have been through some crazy situations in my life but this hits the top three for sure.
I have lived through a category 5 hurricane in Jamaica, I was chased by armed bandits by car through corn fields in the hills of Puerto Escondido, and I was on a boat in Indonesia (returning from G-land) when ‘the’ tsunami hit. However, the event that happened a few weeks ago in Rio, Brazil, in some ways trumps all of the aforementioned.
I am still unraveling the feelings around the experience and not sure where those disjointed perceptions will land.
While on a surf trip to Brazil this summer my partner and I went to dinner down the road from our apartment in Barra, a suburb of Rio. This particular restaurant had the best pizza I have ever had in Brazil: the cheese tasted like it’s flown in straight from Italy and the garlic was fresher than a northwest swell in October.
During dinner we spoke a lot about our stay in Rio, in fact we were leaving the next day so it kind of felt like a review of the last few weeks of our trip. The conversation was super positive, people had been so gracious to us, kind and helpful—everyone from the bus drivers to other surfers in the water.
We finished dinner and went to take a bus home. We discovered that you can take a bus for $2 or a taxi for $20 and as we’d learned the lay of the land, we had tried to take more buses than taxis.
Unfortunately we got on the wrong bus. Once we realized it, we got off and tried to figure out where the next bus stop was. We saw one a few hundred yards down the road and walked to it to wait for our ride home.
We stood there alone and I had a strange feeling inside, like something was not right or was about to happen.
And then it did.
As we were standing there, two guys on a motorcycle rode up to us in the dark. I stepped forward to see what was up and once they got closer I noticed the guy on the back had a strange look on his face.
I looked down at the rider’s hands and he was pointing a .45 Magnum at me. You see, I know a thing or two about guns, in a previous life (earlier in this one) I would have been the one holding a gun (with a badge) and I put guys like this one behind bars. Maybe in some kind of twisted universe this was my karma.
A .45 will rip a hole through you big enough to put your entire arm straight through the exit wound. As they approached the gunman said something in Portuguese but even if he had screamed in my ear I wouldn’t have heard what he said, my whole world and all my senses were concentrating on that gun. In what seemed like a nanosecond
I told my partner to run and we bolted out of there like lightning running toward the oncoming Brazilian traffic. We didn’t turn around until we had sprinted quite a distance, there was no sign of them following. We ran across the road and flagged down a taxi to take us home.
There is nothing like having a gun stuck in your face to get a little perspective on life.
It’s strange because in that split second that I saw the gun I had no fear, I knew exactly what I had to do and there was no question about intent or motive. The guy was too far away from me to charge him and I knew instinctively that it would be difficult for him to hit a moving target (i.e. us running) from the back of the motorcycle as they inched forward in the opposite direction.
Let’s be clear, it wouldn’t have been impossible, a bullet travels much faster than a human but I knew that was the chance we had to take. I also knew that even if we gave them our wallets and money they could still have shot us dead in the street, and I wasn’t going to test that theory.
I know how ruthless Rio gangs are and if you haven’t seen the movie Cidade de Deus based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, you must watch it to get an understanding of how easily a life can be taken.
I knew that I’d go down fighting or running my ass off, I hedged on the latter as our best option and somehow all my instincts knew this and I ran like a cheetah.
Of course later I doubted everything, I should have tackled the motorcycle, I should have gone Bruce Lee on them and done a flying Jeet Kune Do kick.
I should have taken the bullet for my lady as she got to safety, but the reality is that what happened happened, and nothing else matters. I never thought I would die taking a bullet in Rio, but damn, you just never know what life is going to deal you.
I wanted to write about this experience to help remind you of the preciousness of life and also to pass along a few tips if you happen to venture to Brazil for a surf trip:
1. Don’t hang out in dark places at night, stay in well lit areas.
2. Stay in a hotel close to the beach that has security.
3. If anyone approaches you by motorcycle don’t stick around to see what they want.
4. Don’t take a bus at night in Rio, grab a taxi.
5. Celebrate your life TODAY, you never know when it will be over.
Life is about clear perception and how you show up in each moment, it’s about the awareness surrounding your daily movements, and it’s about a vital living action. This is why we all love surfing so much, it puts us in ‘the zone’ with very little effort. I hope these tips will help you have a safe trip as you venture to unknown places in search of that perfect wave.
I never thought I’d end up here, buying a sweet new Capita snowboard of the year, decked out with K2 bindings and Nike boots. Topped off with my Ukrainian roommate’s sweet jacket and my awesome green Burton snow pants. I always figured I’d be somewhere on the coast, hypnotized by the waves, either trying to ride them or just staring at them through a lens.
Surfing was always on my mind. At the age of nine I fell in love with just watching it on tv. As I grew tired of the constraints of sitting down and staring at a box full of images I decided I wanted to be out there instead. My mother feared for my safety, as any good mother would do. So surfing was out of the question. As hard as it is to believe, I was a good kid and never sneaked out to hit the waves.
Instead I grew up swimming in the ocean. Being born into a family of athletes, particularly mermaids, knowing my way through water was essential. My favorite thing to do was swim out to the crashing thunder of the water and many times go past that point. Float around and get tumbled with the current, a good back massage if you ask me. Luckily in El Salvador the sea floor of many beaches is pretty flat and steady for meters to come, so I rarely ever feared for my safety… or sharks. Central America is blessed with lukewarm water, and good visibility; many times I can see my feet no matter how deep I go.
I eventually got tired of not surfing, as much as I simply loved just being in the ocean, surrounded by that salty smell and ocean breeze, I wanted to experience that thrill of catching a wave. So one day, at the age of 21, I finally did it. And boy do I remember it like it was just a few hours ago. I’ll never forget my first wave; the adrenaline rush, the happiness, the pure bliss of gliding over this powerful force of water. I smile now just thinking about it. The last wave I caught I was riding a 7foot rental board. The next wave I catch I hope to be doing better.
An opportunity came at me with the name of South Lake Tahoe. Heavenly to be precise. I’d never really been much of a winter fan: cold and snow means layers of clothing and equipment; the opposite of surfing and coastal living. Just the thought of it made me cringe. I was in for a surprise. Just as I remember my first wave, I remember the exhilarating feeling of flying down a mountain racing my friends to the bottom. It took me a few weeks to get the carving down, icy snow isn’t as forgiving as water. With California’s drought, ice patches became a norm. I learned to love them.
Working at Heavenly Ski School I learned so much more about both sports, getting tips from instructors and simply riding as many days as possible, with as many people as I could. I met some of the craziest and coolest kids from all over the world, loving the same thing and learning just as much as I was. I eventually went to the park and started hitting boxes and jumps, nothing extraordinary, just ollies here and there. Going down double black diamond canyons on the few powder days that we had was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in ages. The fact that id gotten so far in a short period of time filled me with joy.
Injuries are common, especially with difficult snow to work with and the speeds one can reach with ease. I wasn’t an exemption. Here and there friends were breaking wrists and collarbones, getting knee surgeries and separating shoulders. One small concussion set me back about two weeks. That didn’t stop any one of us from trying again and simply enjoying what we love to do. Some call us crazy, I’d rather go with passionate or wild, or simply in tune with life and living it how we love.
Surfing water, or surfing snow, the thrill that is connecting nature with your mind and body at incredible speeds is insurmountable.
The ability to physically balance ourselves as we stand and move around is mostly taken for granted because so much of this functioning has become automatic ever since we as infants learned to roll over, crawl, stand, walk, and dance. Balance becomes important in sports, some sports more than others. It became obvious how important balance is to surfing when you first tried simply to sit upon a shockingly undulating surfboard, and that was just the beginning.
You can see her at “surfers point,” in fine natural balance. She most often pops fluidly to her feet, quickly in readiness, and perhaps turns for a left breaking, or right breaking wave, in relative ease. Forward-to-back balance looks quite tidy. So does her side-to-side, shifting into turns. Her board, for this created written image, is short and wide with two deep tail fins. Floaty, as well. She told me that the first board she ever had was much longer, and it had a meaningful-to-her “Yin/Yang” symbol on its surface. As we know, the yin-yang is an ancient and very fundamental symbol of balance. This iconic image inhabiting the surface of her board became a reminder for, not just kinesthetic equilibrium in surfing, but also for more profound, interior, and life-sized balances of opposites that allow for health and sanity, as well as effective activity.
In the photo above, you can see a display of balance, and of the power to which balance contributes. Martial Arts is another sport/discipline/challenging-activity that often reflects back to the practitioner how aligned her actual balance is in a given moment. This woman has been a martial artist for much of her life. There seems to have been a notable synchrony and synergy between these two deep-going physical practices, surfing and martial arts. The Taoist symbol of Yin/Yang was particularly emphasized in her Korean-form studies of Taekwondo.
Some might say that all things in life get their qualities and very nature from a myriad of simultaneous, always ongoing, balanced pairs of opposites and larger complex constellations. Consider, with a little self-protective humor, how conditions would be on planet earth and upon earth’s oceans, if delicate balances that hold our earth and tides in their customary alignments, if our solar system with moons rotating, revolving and coursing through the heavens, and if larger galaxies with partly unknown physical laws and dynamics were disrupted. Waves to ride on? Hah. Hard to imagine.
Ventura local, Cynthia Kerr, a fun surfer to watch and to chat with on the shoreline, is a youthful player within las olas. To see her work the waves, it is not obvious in the least that she is approaching mid-life. The fact that she is still and increasingly dedicated to evolving the royal gift of surfing speaks to her strong inner basics, in an ever-maturing self. These basics seem to allow her to move forward with grace and potency.
I have in this introduction waxed airily philosophical – let me return to solid earth and the water we know so well.
At the flower shop-coffee place, A Secret Garden on Main Street, she recently commented that along the way, much before taking up surfing 10 years ago at age 40, she had learned the importance of keeping “beginner’s mind.” Cynthia spoke at some length during the interview about the birth of this disposition to approach each moment, each situation, each task by returning to “the basics.”
Korean Taekwondo Master, Chung Lee, began teaching Ms. Kerr when she was 13 years old. She has since studied with others. There was a time in her adolescence when she would come into class with a not-uncommon cockiness for that age and stage of learning, and her teacher would tell her to drop the ‘tude, that she wasn’t as good as she thought. She laughs as she tells this. During the next 30 years of training she got to practice that which she had actually digested from those long-past teen-age years and from a martial discipline’s lessons. “Go back to basics.” With kicks, punches, and a wide range of movements, don’t get sloppy, have your feet properly placed.
She asserts that in her 27 year career as a new homes’ sales representative, keeping beginners mind has allowed her to engage with many different people and diverse situations with effectiveness and with sufficient inner ease to survive a complicated industry.
About two years ago, Kerr decided to leave Taekwondo. For many years she had told herself that she would get her 5th degree black belt at age 50. There was something particularly aesthetic and compelling about these numbers and symbolism. In an act of growing responsiveness to what she was feeling deeply and perhaps to an emerging sense of being free from the past, from a level more meaningful than ambitious resolve and the pleasing of others, she dropped her membership and regular practice before she turned 50, content to be with her 4th degree, and she transitioned to yoga. Not only does yoga seem more age and stage appropriate, but she has been surprised by how demanding are the basics of suppleness and physical strength. She says with a smile that she is surprised also to not miss Taekwondo one bit – she has moved on to another ancient art that has perhaps a finer synergy and synchrony with surfing.
She is staying with surfing, her primary love, and one can see how her general athleticism and ongoing return to basics informs her surf ability and style. This attention to strong form can be seen in the above photo of her at age 27, high, knife-edged side-kick striking hard.
It is worth mentioning that there seems to be an over-arching theme that she has learned to keep her eye on while in the water with other surfers and within her general daily life. Yes, stay with beginner’s mind, and, also, if something is not working, and sometimes if it isn’t fun, stay flexible and find balance, make changes and adjustments, move on as feels necessary.
A large chunk of our pleasant interview time was given to her highly adjustable new love, Trixie. “Trixie” is a 5’ 6” mini-Simmons style board that is her current favorite, when conditions permit. Though she is ready with long and mid-length performance boards that she enjoys riding, when a friend lent her a mini, immediately she caught three sweet rides. She was hooked by its rightness for her. This is a common story, finding a good fit. So, within the week, Cynthia had one made for herself.
Cynthia was not entirely new to short boards, and you can see her on a small hybrid in El Salvador during a surf camp, October 2013, in the below photo. Here is some of what she says about her pink planing-surfaced shortie:
“I wanted to be more playful on the wave – discovered shorter was better, like a little magic carpet under my feet [smiles ongoingly as she tells the story]. It was fast; it was skatey. I just went ‘this is what I want; this is how I want to be surfing; this is how I want to play on the waves.’”
Cynthia had a lot to say about surfing on various boards. In the few months that she has been riding a mini, she notices that having worked the short board for a while her longboarding has improved – her legs have gotten stronger and she is better able to feel how to crack the lip and carve bottom-turns more deeply. But she had the most to say about her new pink Simmons type. Here are a few more enthusiastic comments:
“The board is very intuitive.” “I can control it better. And I can let it do what it wants to do on the wave.” “I’m getting the skills to ride it when it does what I don’t expect it to – so there are still some skills that need to be gained.” “I have taken it from where we park our cars all the way to the stairs. I was able to ride it up to the top, bring it down and out around the section and cut back, you know, back into the energy, and then cut back again into the face, and even do pumping.” She remembers waves where, “I got to do everything.”
And, so on.
Let’s return for a moment to her insightful thoughts contemplating the importance of her attitude and beginners’ mind. “I try to be very mindful of what I am doing when I am surfing.” ”Actually, I have lived with a beginner’s mind, so, every time I go out I still think I’m probably the worst surfer out there, and I, you know, I want to stay out of people’s way so I don’t hurt them or they don’t run me over. But I try to be very mindful of what the ocean is doing that day, and what the wave is doing that day, and what I’m going to be doing on the wave, and every day is different. And every wave is different even within the day. So you just never know. I mean…” Cynthia continues eloquently and enthusiastically about the richness of where surf meets self.
By the way, she is so NOT the worst surfer out there, I aspire to have her natural ability and board competence. Hah.
Shifting tone maybe slightly and moving to a more general theme, we acknowledge that many surfers are not oblivious to spiritual associations, sensibilities, and feelings. Cynthia spoke of this, and she said what we have heard others say. “Surfing is my church.” She elaborated as many can, and then she spoke of some slightly more unusual experiences.
Cynthia had long been afraid of drowning, and big waves and thumping conditions have daunted her. Early on, these wound up her fight-flight-freeze instincts. We can relate. She has had, later, some experiences where, in being thrashed and held down, somehow she was able to release from the primal anxiety. Sometimes she has played with that and intentionally stayed down, in peace. More surprising have been some experiences where she felt she was “embraced,” “where I felt some arms around me, holding me.” She does not say this as a metaphor. Cynthia now considers the ocean, in a sense, to be her “soul-mate,” and it carries with it a great fulfillment. She is so drawn to the immersive hug and feel of fresh ocean water on her, that as she is coming out of the water at the end of a session, she frequently will turn around and walk back into the water for another full and tasty head dunk.
Later, as we inquired into this experience of being held by surrounding arms, she said it reminded her of wings enclosing her. Angel’s wings. Cynthia also spoke of a couple of other land-based, car-driving episodes where she had an intuition, and/or “heard” a voice recommending that she pull over. She received further felt-touch with a sense of physical force and guidance to stay over. This strange-experienced mandate counter-balanced her normal inclinations to get back on the road since she didn’t understand where any danger was. Then, in one incident, the old lady driver came fast over the rise, drifting around, on Cynthia’s side of the road.
I like to hear these sorts of stories, as I, in my typical scientific mind-set, try to sort wheat from chaff, clear shoulder from blurry foam. This may not always be possible. Some things we don’t understand, and perhaps the resulting felt mystery allows us to experience in a richer way.
It is clear, Cynthia, articulate woman and fine describer of surfing, has been living her richness, and maybe, increasingly, is opening farther to the rich fullness that we all strive for in surfing and in life.
SO true, right?
~Volunteer (noun), ‘a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.’
“None of this is possible without everybody coming together. I mean, these people are a little crazy to commit to a week of their vacation time, to pay for their flight –they pay extra to come down here, and work mixing cement, carrying buckets of gravel, on this hot weather… And: THAT’S ‘vacation’. Crazy people are the ones making things happen!”
These words were eloquently expressed by an AMAZING human being. My new buddy, who I’m honored to have met a few months ago, Lissette.
Lissette Perez, from Southern California with Cuban-Salvadoran parents. She’s in her early 30’s, a shining example of what an empowered super woman combined with a wide-eyed sweet girl should look like.
She has been living and working in El Salvador for the past 6 years, where she co-owns and runs Azul Surf Club. A beautiful tropical comfy beachfront surf hotel in the tiny coastal town of El Cuco, El Salvador.
She has become a thriving business woman with eagle eye awareness. Fully equipped with both UC Berkeley and flawless street smarts under her belt. She grew up accomplishing her lifelong goal of volunteering overseas (and still is).
Hardheaded and untiring, always seeking for creative ways of living a socially-conscious existence. She has been described by her peers as both sweet and tough. Always carrying a bright smile on her face that reveals her instinctive wisdom, sensitivity, and clarity –plus a ‘stoked with life’ vibe!
Lissette says, ever since she can remember her family’s modus vivendi has been all about helping others. She has gained the virtue of intuitively recognizing what is lacking around her in the community. Then sets herself the intention of doing whatever is needed to fill in the gap and bring harmony and balance to the equation.
That’s how she created The Soul Project.
Working in collaboration with Surf for Life, they’ve built El Cuco’s first high school ever with the help of several surfer volunteers, and a couple of über-talented carpenters/surfers to come in and build new solid wood desks for the students. (Wooden surfboard builders, perhaps?)
Last year, Lissette found enough resources and volunteers to help build a communal bridge for the school children. They literally had to cross a river to get to school every day (which is waist high on rainy season).
Throughout the year she collects donations for school materials, meals, and other essential necessities for the kids. Handouts are sent to her from friends or strangers abroad and from guests that stay at the hotel who are stoked to get the chance to contribute. Most of the times she gathers the money from her own pocket, which she obtains from savings earned through Azul Surf Club.
Kids are, and have always been, Lissette’s number one priority.
Btw, I love this idea she came up with: a ‘Drive-by’ Santa for Christmas. Just picture how that one goes. (She wears the Santa suit!)
The next challenge she’s got up her sleeve: To build an outpatient clinic for the community.
She’s currently looking for volunteers for this project now. 😉 Interested, anyone? She says that if you gather together a group of seven of your buddies and want to come down to volunteer with The Soul Project, you can all stay for free at her hotel –hard to say no to that, trust me!
Why don’t we discuss ways we IMPACT the community around us when we go on surf trips.
“Let’s not forget that everybody’s on vacation, OTHER than the locals. Let’s be conscious. If you’re gonna come in, make sure to leave a good footprint,” points out Lissette.
When we’re away on holidays, we usually focus on how WE are being treated (by hotel and restaurant staff, local surfers in the water, people on the streets.)
Let’s take a moment here to consider the other side of the coin, how are we treating THEM? The working class local community, whose jobs are, after all, mostly focused on serving us, the visitor.
Let’s not forget these are amazing people who have lived all their lives on these newly-discovered coastal towns, we’ve chosen to travel to. Towns and villages which happen to have phenomenal waves right outside their backyards.
Local people who’ve been born and raised there, with big families and kids going to school. Who are just trying their best to lead their day-to-day lives as normally as they possibly can and as they’ve only known how to: very simply.
Humble men, women and kids who will only get ONE: first and only impression of us. So, let’s try and be conscious of the example we’re putting out there.
You looked up to them. Wanted to imitate them. Not just on the water. You wanted to walk and talk like these coolest dudes ever.
Let’s be more responsible about how we act around local kids and teenagers. They look up to us, like big brothers (or sisters!). They seek our attention and approval, and it’s up to us to influence them well and teach them values.
So, “if you want to give them stuff (clothes you don’t use, surfboards, sneakers), that’s awesome, but please don’t give it ALL to the ‘cool surfer punk kids’ who hang out around you all day long! Also try and find the hardworking kids who go to school everyday and who help out their families at home,“ Lissette advises.
The majority of local surfers are hard working people. Most likely they’ve had to work all day, and if they only have one hour to surf, let’s try and give them that nice spot while they’re out there surfing on their free time.
Remember that ‘consciousness is created’. You have the power to choose how you’re spending your money.
“Ask the people at the hotels/hostels you’re planning on staying at, if they give back to the community. Choose to stay with someone who’s doing something worthwhile, socially and environmentally,” Lissette adds. “Set the example. That way you will help other hotels want to imitate the socially conscious ones and set the example too.”
It turns into a chain reaction.
If you have a week’s stay, it only takes a couple of hours tops; to go out, explore the area, and give back to the places and people you see fit.
Lissette shares some ideas, “Bring an old laptop down and give it to the local school. Take a bottle of aspirin and give it to the clinic. Bring with you clothes from back home that you don’t wear anymore, give it to the church.”
Definitely, doable stuff that makes a big difference.
All those little choices you take, make a huge impact to the community around you and your surf trip.
“If every single person picked one thing they were passionate about and if everybody committed just four hours a month, let’s say, one hour a week; if everybody could do that, the world would be exponentially a better place.”
Thank you, Lissette for sharing this knowledge with us and for being so awesome.
Like we say at Wave Tribe, “doing the right thing is always a good thing (and it feels good, too!)”
Let’s get out there and share the stoke!
The final day of the 2013 Pipe Masters and Triple Crown of Surfing on Oahu’s North Shore was a really special day. It was, in one word, surreal. In two- holy s#*t! In more words- stunningly beautiful, enormous, ominous waves in short sets, ridden by a gathering of the world’s best, vetted pro surfers, who are absolutely not in the business of disappointing- themselves or fans.
One couldn’t have asked for a friendlier crowd of spectators, despite numbering in the thousands Saturday December 14- a real testament to how much the Hawaii-born sport is not just respected but embraced by its people to this day.
For me, the day began in Waikiki, where I caught the bus to the North Shore at the mall. Knowing that a new NW swell had arrived overnight bringing 10-to-15-footers at Pipeline, it was imperative that I get an early start and, sure enough- it being a weekend, and with the final day of heats sure to be “on”- the empty bus instantly filled to standing room only.
Two plus hours of travel seemed like an eternity. And the return trip took three hours, given the let out. I will never take that North Shore bus again; it’s too damn long of a ride, even if it did pay off in spades. Word to the wise: Rent a car or, better yet, carpool.
We cut through the lush Ko’olau Mountain Range on the Pali [highway], meandered through Kaneohe on the east shore passing Chinaman’s Hat (a lone, conical offshore island named for its appearance), went up and around Oahu’s northernmost point and passed the shanty shacks and humblest of homes that have dotted the pricey North Shore for decades.
Unfortunately, with just 15 minutes to goal, yours truly had to pee so badly that if I didn’t get off the bus, I was going to cause my parts real, structural damage. So, at the Turtle Bay Resort stop, I got off and headed for the nearest trees to relieve myself. Hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. What I didn’t notice was that another woman was in the same boat, and on my tail so, needless to say, we squatted and winged it the rest of the way together.
Twenty minutes later, we hopped on another bus and soon arrived at Pipeline, where traffic was a single-lane claustrof#*k in both directions, and cars and vans were angularly parked like sardines on the roadsides, to fit as many as possible. North Shore residents and advocates of “Keep[ing] The Country Country” draw their line with this very kind of public invasion. They argue there’s simply no infrastructure to support further development without an accompanying increase in traffic impacting natural resources. It’s pretty obvious.
My travel buddy had been to Pipe before, because her boyfriend was one of the in-water surf photographers, so she led the way to the beach access path. While I was focusing on my footing and navigating through the foot-deep, churned-up sand, I was totally unaware of what I’d see when it things opened up. And, man, did it ever!
At the end of the access, I looked up and, Boom! My eyes widened like saucers to the sight of 180 degrees of the biggest, longest, bluest waves I’d ever laid eyes on. “Holy s#*t!” I said out loud. I’m talking goosebumps. This is what I’d been missing. Travel buddy probably thought I was a cave dweller instead of Kama’aina.
Spectators sat 30 people deep for a quarter of a mile of the beach. Not knowing the etiquette for sitting down and essentially creating the next front row, I asked a group if we could set up in front of them. “Sure. Just don’t stand up,” as they pointed to folks standing up at shoreline, shamelessly blocking everyone’s view on the ground. “Got it! Thanks.”
The sky was clear, it was 80 degrees, and a closer-than-normal sun, it seemed, reflected off sea spray at each end of the beach from the sheer force, with which these monster waves crashed onshore. It was freaking dreamy. I could stare at this every day, and lot of folks do, including John John Florence- Hawaii’s local favorite- who allegedly lives on just the other side of the event tents. Pipeline IS his backyard, and he was already in the water. What timing!
Florence caught a big ‘un, did a cutback and went airborne at the end just to dig in and showboat. We ate it up, and he brought us all to our feet. His score had him in first place. It was looking like Kelly Slater would get his wish to go up against Florence after all. This was definitely the place to be.
Each surfer’s drop looked like they were literally falling in slow motion, but the actual rides were near-instantaneous, heart-pounding. No binoculars needed but, if you blink, you miss it. I’m no expert, but the waves (height is measured in Hawaii by the front face) looked like 10-15 feet, glassy. You’d see the deep, marine blue wall of water form, heighten, crest, and then just unleash into super long barrels, not all of them rideable. Then, not more than 10 seconds later, another would form right behind it. Crash. I heard a testimonial from someone who’s seen 50-foot waves at Pipeline that swallow up the entire beach, sound just like a jet engine when they crash, and actually reach the road, requiring closure. If you’re paying attention, it doesn’t take long at all to get a sense of I better get ready to pick up and move my stuff when this one washes in. A few times, the announcers had to ask wading kids to get out of the water.
Photographers and videographers were everywhere, armed with those big, fuzzy microphones. I hate being in the lens, but there was no escaping it. The call booth was also nearby and announced from a megaphone, loud and clear, who had priority and each surfer’s score.
Not 30 minutes later, Kelly Slater was up. Guy got swarmed just trying to get in the water, but he looked like he expected it, has proven himself to be a pretty good sport. He was up against Joel Parkinson at that point, but I was lucky enough to see rides from Sebastian Zietz and Mick Fanning, as well. My knowledge of particular surfers is limited to around 10 but hardly diminishes my appreciation for their mastery and the dangers.
Slater, emerged from one after another 50-to-100-foot-long tubes that got so tight at the end, you never expected him to make it out. Oh, but he did, and the applause he commanded was just as rousing as what Florence got. On one wave, Slater duped the announcers, who were saying there was no way he could emerge. But, he sure as hell did, it was awesome, and he scored a perfect “10” from all three judges. You gotta give Slater this: He knows how to work a crowd.
Heat after heat came and went, I made a few more acquaintances and, four hours later, made the executive decision to head home. Right before the final heat between Slater and Florence. I know what you’re thinking, Why?! Eh, at a certain point, I get it and need to vamoose, particularly from massive crowds. Plus, I wanted to get head start on the traffic headed back to town.
In the end, Slater won, and Florence came in second.
Slater said this:
“It was spectacular. To have all these people, all these fans, all this build-up- on a weekend, with the best waves we’ve had all year, perfect Pipeline and south waves- I mean, you couldn’t have written a better script. It was a great day.”
If you haven’t yet been to one of the three arms of North Shore competitions that comprise the Triple Crown of Surfing, you have 10 months to plan. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and an event you will not forget.
– – – –
Written by Purna Nemani, a Wave Tribe friend and awesome human being living in Hawaii.
Stoke is so full-being delicious.
Stoke is a gift from life.
Stoke is also heightened and finds its royal qualities in a life well-lived.
Stoke Is Big.
On any given day our personal stoke can feel very big.
Life Is Big.
We are fortunate to be living in this surf-stoking time in history and in this stoking place.
Time and Place are Vast
far beyond this contemporary slice,
far beyond the modern coastal offerings, far beyond our human race’s place,
in this evolving and graced planet
within a mysterious universe.
Yet, here we are surfing. Wow.
Stoking The Stoke
Damn, we are lucky.
I have heard that how we live our twenty-four seven lives makes a difference in our surfing worlds. This makes common sense to me. When we feel good, content, fresh, lively, and in enough balance within ourselves and our fairly complicated lives, we probably invite even more stoke into our minds and tissues.
We are not always quite there, but stoke can still sneak in. We paddle out, in whatever state we are in. Sometimes, we begin still distracted, sometimes pissed, sometimes bummed, sometimes full of juice. And feeling the caffeine. Hah.
An hour or some later, we have been flushed out, filled up, re-aligned, and re-balanced. Inside we are often barely containing the MoTown, “I feeell good!” Ooh yeah!
What is it about surfing, anyway? Ok, the surf-gods smiled on us. Or, stoke is just that potent. Stoke rules.
Though nothing substitutes for the real deal, surfing itself, we can maybe break it down a little why the activity of surfing includes within its results so much fun, healthy benefit, and returns to sanity.
Roger Walsh, a non-surfer, a practical philosopher, doctor and teacher, actually, has looked carefully at what makes for happy healthy living. I have heard him speak and he would probably love to surf, if the whole accident of time-place-circumstance had been different for him.
He recently started, in collaboration with a couple of other people, a not-for-profit organization called, “8 Ways To Wellbeing”, and below I include a link to the website. I think you will see immediately from the illustration of a flower how surfing engages so many of the pedals, so fully. Like me, you’ll probably be nodding, “Yep. Uhuh. For sure. Got that. Totally, Of course. Well, daah.” And with a little stretching how we live, we can easily taste all 8 – through a surfing life!
For this small blog article I am just going to show the illustration and mention briefly the 8 categories of experience, the 8 Ways to invite more stoke into our lives and the world.
Though this website is still minimal and in skeletal form, if you look around a little you’ll see that there will be a PBS documentary film released and there has been some solid thinking about the issue of health and well-being.
Stoking The Stoke
Let’s start somewhere on the flower shown at the above link – see how surfing stacks up as one single activity that fulfills so much.
Nature – on the moving platforms of strange shapes and sizes, sitting, looking out at sky, land, and ocean, breathing fresh air. Hah!
Recreation – just check the smile on your face.
Relaxation – bingo. Though maybe we are animated with charged energy, motion and emotion, check us out after a session. For me, the afterglow of alignment lasts for hours. Post-coital (almost) bliss.
Nutrition – maybe we can work on that one. Because I am an old guy I have to pay attention to this so I do fairly well with my eating. Top tier competitors probably find out quickly that they have to take nutrition seriously to be at their growing, creative, slamming edges – stoking their metabolic furnaces with balanced and high-value food.
Exercise – snort! You gotta be kidding!
Relationships – though as I mentioned in another blog piece, how we are feeling at given times about socially relating on the water varies, and some bros are more sociable and relational than others. Within the amorphous global and local wave tribe, we are usually not solitary. There is time for being solo, sure – but behind it is a knowing that we are not alone. And that is cool.
Giving Back – this can happen in different ways and of course some surfers do more than others. And, we each vary in what has to be most prominent in our sometimes demanding lives. Yet, we know and appreciate that there are Wounded Warrior surfing camps for soldiers trying to get healthy again, and special events for special needs children where their otherwise challenging lives become lit up for a time. Maybe, also, we don’t want to underestimate how our own personal surfing gains spread out naturally to those we come in contact with from our lightened moods and attitudes, everyday. Hang loose. Get it done. As Kelly Slater has been quoted as saying, “I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it’s almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time.” This is another example of giving back.
Spirituality – I’ll end the flower assessment with Laird Hamilton’s words. “For those searching for something more than just the norm. We lay it all down, including what others call sanity, for just a few moments on waves larger than life. We do this because we know there is still something greater than all of us. Something that inspires us spiritually. We start going down hill, when we stop taking risks.” We aren’t Laird, and we may even be groms, but we have an inkling of what he speaks.
Life becomes fresher, cleaner, more vivid, on the water and in life at large, stoking the stoke.
– the beginner, doug honeyman
The lone surfer was the first one on the water the day of the swell. The brief but strong pulse filled in over night and should begin to fade around noon – get out here early, he thought. Paddle out was on an easy lull, could be a mellower day than forecast. The sky was an overcast dark before dawn, a tiny amount of diffuse light in the sky over the shoreline hills. Looking in the direction of the crashing beach-sounds there was that small glimmer on the textured water. Looking west the grey of sky blended closely with the grey of water, making it tricky to see anything coming. Yet there appeared to be a black line on the horizon and watching its approach with alertness, the line grew in thickness. He remembered that this was a wave interval of 19 seconds according to the buoy when he awoke at 3:30. Hmm, how far away is this wave? If it’s moving slow, this could be big.
The horizon line continued its gradual progress with still increasing thickness and with a mild lightening to greyness, there was the hint of an OMG-moment – this could be a wave of the day, yikes, to start off with. He pivoted and began to paddle, not knowing quite what he was in for and when he would begin to feel lift under the back of his board. Glancing over his shoulder, his attention galvanized, his body flooded with readiness, he accelerated his stroke, and whispered with a vaguely ironic smile, “It’s a good day to die.”
Almost regardless of size, steepness, speed, surface of the sea floor, or even level of surfing competency, many of us have experienced analogous feeling of being up against our limits or some unknowns that awoke primal fears and primal responses of readiness to engage with it. Since sometimes one feels too committed to the situation to find an acceptable alternative to going ahead, we fight (and cooperate), rather than flee or freeze. For a beginning surfer, a breaking waist-high wave may elicit dread, then inner resolve, and next the rush of having survived and perhaps even felt some nascent control within the bubbling whiteness or smooth steep shoulder. That a challenge can be daunting is universal, but the experiences had are individual and relative to each person and each situation.
There are many links between dying-death, and surfing. A book could be written, maybe has been written, about surfing and demise. Books’ worth of thoughts and information are also available regarding life’s constant but sometimes hidden shadow which is the fear and angst of demise, where the Final Destination does not, in that anticipated timing, actually arrive. Some great surfing films and videos have chronicled aplenty the implicitly felt risk and hence heightened interest by surfers, as well as by a broad, primitively, and vicariously stirred non-surfing audience.
The whispered quote of the lone surfer above has been attributed originally to Native American Indian warrior, Low Dog, who fought Custer with Chief Sitting Bull, or sometimes to Crazy Horse, according to Wikipedia. However, truth is, more likely it was the frightening tremulous wave-like chant of warriors’ “Hokahey!” that was let loose toward encroaching forces, which means something like, “I am ready for whatever comes.” or loosely, “Let’s do it.” Nonetheless, the iconic phrase that today is a good day to die, which we may have reinvented, goes deep into our often submerged existential awareness, that death may come at any time. Some say, for surfers, librarians, and all people, it’s good to keep this fact foreground. Don’t get to taking life for granted because, to paraphrase Heraclitus of Ancient Greece, “The only constant is change.”
A book that affected me a lot a few decades ago, and the name of which is one of my favorite book titles ever, was written by Stephen Levine. The classic, Who Dies? How cool is that for a book title that simultaneously drills deep into the truth of life with a question, and that also has the obvious answer contained in the question? Well, daah, noone escapes; everyone dies, though the when, how, and what comes next, remain mysterious.
When Jeff Clark of Mavericks fame’s friend Peter Davi died in the water at Ghost Trees in Monterey County, Clark was quoted by Fox News as saying, “The ocean is a place that really has no conscience. It’s something you have to be prepared for. You live your life to the fullest, do the best you can and keep going.”
There is so much that could be spoken of on this topic of dying and surfing, yes? We could get heady with the stories and theories of “the hero’s journey” as presented by psychoanalysts and scholars Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Or with some of the mythic legends, like waterman/surfer/humanitarian, Eddie Aikau. Or surf warrior and early-death-recipient, Mark Foo. We could look at the killing by “gang” mentality and maybe the underbelly of surf territoriality and machismo as suggested in the tragic ending of pro surfer Emery Kauanui Jr’s life at La Jolla, CA in 2008. So many other fun tales of being thrashed by nature’s forces. It is always stimulating to hear of or imagine into death by shark. Hah. Sometimes humor and bravado seem to be the way closest at hand to deal with death and our fears about it.
Or, for further stretches to our morbid and comical interests, we could look at the parallels between the French phrase, “petite mort”, the little death, that characterizes the orgastic climaxing of sex with, perhaps, a surf climaxing of sorts in a green room or a raucously exhilarating drop down a large wave face. The aftermath is a momentarily fresh psychological and maybe spiritual resurrection.
So, it is being proclaimed that there are only two sure things in life: death and surfing 🙂
Ok. Enough frivolity in the face of such a poignant and potentially sacred theme, dying and death.
the beginner, doug honeyman
Surﬁng can be said to be simple, yet complex. A joy, yet much more than that. Playing, and also a working for self-development and for life. We each could riff on about its importance to us, take a personal cut through what it means to surf. Here’s one brief and rambling slice of the moment.
As surfers, most of us prefer conditions that aren’t crowded, eh. We may not want to be completely alone, we may prefer to have our buds with us for a few laughs and to generate extra social excitement, to heighten our surf stoke, and synergistically, our competencies. But maybe sometimes we want just for the quiet presence and company.
At times, however, some of us may be thinking, “‘Kooks’, out of control beginners, and
non-local or local surf-protocol ignoring bozos, ‘stay out of the way’, or ‘over there’.”
Bumper stickers are amusing that say: “If you don’t surf, don’t start!” – and other
There are two sort of opposing sentiments – one is that the more in the surf tribe the
merrier, and the other, captured by these crack-up slogans are, we don’t want any more
peeps in the water around here.
If we wanted to philosophize a bit, we might say that the former looks more like an
abundance attitude and the latter more based on thoughts of scarcity. Personally, I,
probably like many dudes, try to ﬁnd a dynamic inner balance that works, of both
showing enough aloha spirit and yet not being abused by the situation.
When a friend or family member wants to take up surﬁng, we often feel it differently.
“Yeah, come on out, we’ll get you on the water. Nah, no sharks, no agro, no worries”
Sometimes, we like to think that there are ﬁxed rules, clear and decisive ways that
people are supposed to behave on the water, like the strong principle that you don’t
drop in on someone else’s wave and you honor the “right of way”. Some dudes get
majorly emotional, especially when they are jacked up with stoke or their personalities
are generally aggressive. Though we’d like things to be black and white, clearly right
and wrong like that, actually, sorry, life’s more complicated – “it depends on the
You know, this looks more like a right-breaking wave to me – someone else is thinking
left – whoops! Or the common dilemma when someone is hauling down the line as
you’re paddling out. One of those awkward positions of do I try to stroke hard toward the
wave and get out of the guy or gal’s line, or do I stop suddenly here in the water for him
to rip by. Can be a doe-in-the-headlights moment.
Yet most noticeable are those quirky inner decisions to think it’s fun or funny that one of
your own bro’s dropped in on you – very distinct from this stranger from a different clan
who’s violating your space and your wave. &*?@^%))!!!
Sometimes, it’s a zoo out there, a circus, feels like a melee, or roller derby. I sure don’t
like it so much when that’s going off, so I’ll try to ﬁnd a mellower spot to surf, or call it a
day. As richly healthy, life-enhancing, beautiful, and deeply satisfying as surﬁng can be,
no one said we were fully good-hearted and entirely rational. We want our share, too.
As we know, surﬁng is many things, has numerous levels, a variety of dimensions. I’m
pretty new to surﬁng, started as an old guy, and those who have been at it for decades
know that surﬁng is a potentially deep-going affair, life-style, and tradition with
opportunities for spiritual feelings and insights.
Some people have in their nature or are at a stage in life when they want to compete
with those around them, exercise their rapidly expanding skill-set, test their inner mettle,
go all warrior on a contest with rules. There can be a ﬁxation on, “Who is the best, who’s
number one?” Much learning and interior beneﬁt can come from this, no? Although not
exclusively, this is often related to younger age – these intensities seem to be part of
who we are as full humans, as human animals.
Others draw different nourishments and ﬁnd very personal expression in the more
mellow and maybe subtle ways. Some might say, “The best surfer is the one that has
the most fun.”
Some might say with a smile, “It’s all good.”
~the beginner, doug honeyman