A Matter of Size

ancient Hi surfingNo, that’s not what this blog is about. Get your mind out of the gutter.

I just got back from a surfing/kiting trip that took me North up the Baja peninsula to a special spot that is even more isolated than where I live. Not only is it considerably cooler there than here, it is also arguably one of the best places in the world to surf . But it turns out it is also a great place to kitesurf as favorable winds come up most afternoons. This combination of wind and waves is ideal. The learning curve was steep and a few kites were critically injured along the way, but I finally seem to have figured out how to surf along the face of a wave while connected to a kite without letting it overpower what I want to do on the wave or to fall out of the sky right into the impact zone where the waves get to eat it for lunch. It’s not called the “impact zone” for nothin’.

On this visit to Baja Special Spot #1, the waves were small enough to make most people pack up their gear and head elsewhere. We’re talking ankle slappers here, knee ticklers at best. However, I was fortunate to find myself in the company of master boat builder Dennis Choate. Dennis owns DenCho Marine and tackles difficult and high-tech projects such as the design and construction of large ocean-racing sailboats with gusto. He also loves shaping surfboards – big ones, little ones, single finned, tri-finned and quads. A look around his large three-bay garage and multiple storage rooms revealed that he has a particular penchant for making boards that you might call tankers. His quiver boasts several boards over 10 feet in length. The longest one measures 14 feet and is intended as a tandem board, but on our second day out, Dennis rode it solo all the way to the beach over and over again.


Tandem Surfing with Waikiki beachboys

After trying the 9’2” I’d ridden on my previous visit and having it stall out soon after I popped up, I realized I wasn’t going to get very far on that particular board in the tiny surf. One of Dennis’ friends was getting out of the water and asked me if I wanted to try the 12-foot board he’d been riding. It was a board that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the big surf at Makaha in the early 60s – gently pointed nose, pin tail, but wider around the middle than a more modern gun and with very subtle nose and tail rocker. To my delight and great pleasure that board glided me along the faces of the little waves where the shorter board had stalled. Gradually I figured out where to stand to get it to turn, how to stall so the faster section of the wave would catch up with me, and I took some walks towards the nose and back again. Standing there erect, feeling the energy of the wave push me and that massive board forward, the wind in my face, I recalled an image I’d seen of Hawaiians at the turn of the 20th century standing tall while riding their large wooden surfboards straight in to the beach at Waikiki. In that moment I imagined I shared the pure joy of gliding along those small waves with those original surfers across the ages.

My last wave that morning was a good one – a little larger than the rest (maybe thigh high) – and it took me all the way into the beach, a ride of some 400 odd meters. Dennis and his buddy commented later that they’d seen my ride from the restaurant on the beach. “Just like Waikiki, but without the crowds” said Dennis, making the stoke rise in me once again at the memory of that pure feeling.

The next day as Dennis and I sat and waited for a set to appear, he on the 14-foot tandem board and I on yet another board he’d shaped – this time a narrower wine red 12-footer with softer rails, and a blunter nose and tail – I remarked at how much fun it was to surf such tiny waves, and how much I appreciated the boards he’d shaped that made those rides possible.

Dennis smiled knowingly and replied, “Probably 90 percent of surfers have never experienced what you are talking about. They are too caught up with riding short boards and bigger waves. They look at surf like this and think it can’t be ridden, but that’s because they don’t have the right equipment.”

A wave that was barely a ripple on the water’s surface, probably under six inches in height, passed under us.

“You see, you could have caught that wave on the board you’re riding.”

I considered what he said and wondered at how many people missed out on the fun I was having. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up surrounded by surf culture and came to the sport so late in life, but I’m surprised that so many people would turn their noses up at small, but still very fun surf. Admittedly, an 12-foot board is not an inexpensive toy, nor an easy one to haul around. I could barely carry the boards I’d ridden, resorting to an awkward bear-hug technique to get the boards to and from the surf. I tried carrying one on my head, but it was so heavy I could feel my neck straining under the load. Then it occurred to me, what I really needed was a Waikiki beachboy. Joyful glide and muscle rippled beachboys! Super tanker surfboards are sounding better all the time!

Rabbit Kekai ca 1945

A ripped Rabbit Kekai, the quintessential Waikiki beachboy, circa 1945

How about you? What’s the longest board and smallest surf you’ve ever ridden?

A Pound of Flesh

According to the January, 2007 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine a surfer can look forward to about 13 acute injuries for every 1000 hours surfed. I estimate I have surfed over 5000 hours in total since beginning to surf in April, 2002. Based on the Journal of Sports Medicine’s estimate of injury frequency that means I’ve had the potential to incur more than 65 acute injuries while surfing thus far. I’m ecstatic to report that this has not been the case.

Sure, I have had plenty of minor lacerations while surfing, including several that could have used a stitch or two as evidenced by the series of eye-shaped gouges that run down my right shin. There was also the time I needed eight stitches to pull my scalp back together after my board landed tail-first on the top of my head. The worst injury I’ve had to date (knock on wood!) was a herniated disc in sloppy, blown out three-foot mush. That injury took a long time to heal, so maybe I paid a healthy portion of my surfing injury dues that way.

Two days ago, in anticipation of a Northwest swell that I’d been monitoring on Surfline, I drove the three hours to the west coast of the peninsula. It had been well over a month since I’d ridden any really good surf. The season is over here until next April and the winds have been blowing since early November. I’ve been itching for a good swell like the one on the way.

I arrived in time for a short evening session, but the swell had yet to arrive and the wind chop was messing with the little bit of swell that was coming in. So I cracked a cold Pacifico and watched from a friend’s palapa as the sun dropped out of the sky and disappeared into the vast ocean. I prayed for clean conditions and good surf the following morning. I was in bed before 10 that night.

As a rule I’m not an early riser, but, in anticipation of what boded to be some great surf, I was up, powered down a smoothie and was on my way to the beach by 7:30am. The spectacle at the beach was all I’d hoped for – glassy conditions and perfect A-frame waves breaking in series a long way down the beach. It was big, with some of the set waves a good 10 feet on the face. The bigger waves were closing out, so I stood on the beach to assess where I should surf and where to paddle out before going out. As I pulled on my shorty wetsuit, excitement and anticipation of a day of surfing surged through my body. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running to the water and jumping on my board without waiting between sets.

The water felt good and I felt strong. The pain and stiffness in my shoulder was completely gone. Half way out to the take off zone, a set arrived and I began to duck dive the first, smaller waves. When I felt myself going backwards on the first dive, I reminded myself that I was in the Pacific Ocean now, not the gentle Sea of Cortez. I had to dive deeper. After a couple of successful dives, a set wave appeared well outside of where I was. As I prepared to dive, I saw another surfer’s board fly up into the air and braced myself for what was clearly a powerful wave. My timing was off and the white water was on me faster than I’d expected. I dove, but too late, and the force of the whitewater ripped the board from my hands and sent me tumbling underwater. After the wave passed, everything went calm, the water bubbled and foamed around me and I began to float back up to the surface. But the calm was short-lived and WHACK! Something hit me hard on the jaw. I knew immediately it was serious and implored the powers that be, “Please don’t let my jaw be broken, please don’t let my jaw be broken.” I floated to the surface and tentatively touched my jaw where the board hit it. Another wave was breaking outside and I had to dive under it as I tried to assess the damage. My jaw was intact. “Thank God,” I thought. I got back on my board and began paddling to the outside where my friend Alec was sitting. The waves kept coming. The sets must have been eight or nine waves in total. Between waves I touched my jaw and looked down to see blood. As I continued paddling I saw a large drop of blood fall from my face into the water. “Not good,” I thought. Alec confirmed  my thinking. “Yeah, probably needs two or three stitches,” he said, “you better go in.” I figured regardless of how bad it was, he and the other surfers didn’t want me sticking around. The men in the grey suits would be getting a whiff of “injured animal,” aka “dinner” before long.

But there was no way I was going to paddle in – the waves were perfect. I had to catch at least one. With encouragement from the guys sitting near me, I took off on a wave and rode it to the beach.

Cursing my shitty duck diving skills, I got dressed and headed to the local clinic. I was glad that unlike at home it was only a 15 minute drive away.

On the way to the hospital it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have any money. My wallet was locked in the house where I was staying, my friend was in the water surfing and I didn’t have a key. But I thought, “This is Mexico, not the United States,” and figured the doctors would trust me to return with payment after they treated me.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were no other patients in the Emergency wing of the small hospital. After being escorted to the exam room, I told the doctor about my financial conundrum. To my dismay his face turned from concern to doubt as he told me he would have to talk to the hospital administrator. The administrator appeared promptly and began telling me they couldn’t treat me when I stopped him mid-sentence and offered him my iPod as collateral against my bill. To my great relief, he agreed without hesitation.

Before long I had six stitches expertly sewn by a baby-faced Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, an x-ray indicating that I had not fractured my jawbone, a prescription for antibiotics and a bill for 2241 pesos ($162 US ). I handed over my iPod and headed back to the beach with a plan to get some crazy glue and get back in the water.


Before: It looks pretty minor all cleaned up.
After: Six puntos (Spanish for stitches) and a lot of swelling the following day 
Keala Kennelly after her face got up close and personal with the Teahupoo reef. In comparison, my board gave me a kiss.

At the beach it was apparent word had gotten out that I’d messed myself up. Everyone I asked seemed to think it would be unwise to get back in the water. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off I began to believe they were right. I was spent from the pain and excitement of the morning. Plus the doc had said I had to stay out of the water until the wound closed completely. “Anywhere from seven to ten days,” he said, “otherwise the wound could open up.” I gave it a second thought and pictured my beautiful sutures ripping out of my face to leave behind a ragged bloody mess that would never heal nicely. I looked at the picture perfect peeling waves and then down at the gaping scars on my shin. My attachment to a relatively unscarred face won out. Had the wound been anywhere else on my body I would have paddled back out.

My First Custom-Made Surfboard

In September 2002, six months into learning to surf Cremin announced, “I think it’s time for you to get your own surfboard. I’m ordering one for myself and I think you should get one custom made as well.” My heart leapt at the thought. Then my finances reared their head.
He seemed to read my mind when he said he could probably get me in on the “bro deal” with his shaper and that it would cost around $500. I’d just made $700 that week renting Kent’s casitas, so I let the promise of a custom surfboard carry me away. 
Cremin discussed the design with the shaper and they agreed on the shape and length the board should be. I had no idea what kind of board to get, but I knew I was in good hands.
The day before he drove to town to pick up our boards, I passed Cremin on the road. “Tomorrow’s the big day! Come over around five to get your board,” he yelled through his open window. I walked on air the whole next day. At five o’clock sharp I pulled into his driveway in my pickup truck. I called to him as I disembarked and he whistled in reply. I heard the creak of the screen door, the whack as it closed and then the flip flop of his sandals as he made his way down the stairs. He had a twinkle in his eye, a gentle smile on his face and said nothing as he disappeared into the garage. With my right hand I squeezed the fingers on my left, shifted from one foot to the other and back again.
He returned with her in his outstretched arms. She was the whitest, shiniest board I’d ever seen. So new, so unblemished. I reached out and ran my hand down the length of her – smooth, slick and fragile. She was long and wide with a gradually pointed nose and a squared-off tail – eight feet six inches long by twenty two inches wide and two and a quarter inches thick. Cremin said it was a “fun shape,” not a longboard, yet too long to be a shortboard. He said it would allow me to transition from the tank I’d been riding gradually down to a shorter board.
I took her in my hands and marveled at how light she was compared to Cremin’s huge blue board. I turned her over to examine where three translucent green fins adorned her underside. The shaper’s brand name was scrawled in royal blue cursive on both sides a quarter way down from the nose – Downhome. Over the stringer near the tail T-BOY 2002 was penciled in capital letters.
T-Boy is the nickname of the shaper, Tom Gaglia, whom Cremin had come to know in the 60s during his days on Maui. When the surf in Hawaii got too crowded they ended up in southern Baja following a wave of big name surfers like Flippy Hoffman, Micky Muñoz, Pat Curren and Mike Doyle.
Over the course of the next couple of days several surfers from the village came by to see my new board. They shared my excitement and even offered to take me down to get her wet for the first time. Her baptism turned out to be in tiny two foot surf I’m almost reticent to waste ink on, but the following spring when the southern-hemisphere swells arrived, she made my surfing better by degrees. 
Two years later I was ready for a shorter, narrower board and contacted T-Boy with my request. With the arrival of the new board, I tucked the 8’6” in the wall rack and all but forgot about her.
Today her glass is yellowed and brittle with age. When I run my hand over her underside, her once smooth surface is now riddled with pock-marks and scars. A line of bumpy white resin runs twelve inches long and one inch wide from her nose towards the tail, evidence of the first of several run ins with the rocks at low tide. I still remember the crack and hiss of the glass and fabric ripping, how my stomach lurched and my chest contracted at the sound. I jumped off to one side, but too late. As I bobbed in the water next to the huge barnacle-encrusted rock, I pulled her back to me and inspected the damage. It was like someone had taken a chisel to her and dragged it through her insides.
I run my hand along her squared tail and then reach up and feel along the right side of my scalp. There is it – the scar that she gave me in return.
It was first light and the sun was just cresting the horizon, deep fading to brighter orange. The water was dark grey flecked with liquid silver, shimmering in the pale light. The faces of the waves averaged six feet. I paddled her out and sat waiting in my usual spot, just outside the rock boil at the third peak.
The rising sun dazzled along the horizon making it difficult to see the waves in their march towards shore. Suddenly, I saw a perfect one rising and coming towards me, giving barely time to decide. At the last possible second, I took a few strokes forward to meet it, then spun the board around to go. I stroked hard twice and felt the wave begin to lift me, but I was too late for the take off and it pitched me over the falls. I didn’t sink down into the depths like usual, but popped up to the surface like a cork. Just then my board, thrown into the air right above me, ricocheted back out of the sky, one corner of the tail smashing onto the top of my head. The force of the impact crumpled my neck to the right with a disconcerting crunch, so that at first it was my neck I was most concerned about. I raised my head gingerly, moved it left and then right – everything seemed to be working. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to my head. I reached up to feel the spot where the board had connected and discovered a lump the size of a rather large plum. Looking at my hand, I wasn’t surprised to see a considerable amount of blood. 
There were more waves coming. I was sitting in the impact zone and I had get out of there. I grabbed my board and paddled out through two more waves. Once the waves passed, I called my friend Mario over to take a look at my head. “How bad is it?” I asked him.
“I can’t tell. There’s too much blood. Wash it off in the water.”
I leaned forward and swished my head in the water, rubbing it gently with my right hand. That’s when I became aware of a throbbing sensation. I lifted my head and, where I had dunked it, the radius of a dark red opaque circle expanded before my eyes. Then several silvery and yellow-tinged fish came flying out of the depths, darting back and forth through the blood stain.
This made Mario laugh, “Wow! Look at that! You chummed the water with your blood!”
I didn’t find it amusing and moved closer to him so he could look at my scalp. “Enh, it’s not that bad,” he said.
“Do you think I need stitches?”
“Nah, but you better go in or you’ll attract sharks.”
At home I took a shower to clean the wound and get the blood out of my hair. It was incredibly painful and I felt my face getting hot as I rubbed gently all around the cut. After I towel-dried my hair ever so carefully, I decided to see if I could get a look at the cut. Leaning over the bathroom counter I turned this way and that until I could see the back right-hand side of my head in the mirror. My hair lay on top of the cut, so I tried to pull a section to one side, but when I heard a sucking sound that made my stomach lurch and my knees go weak I stopped. That sound was my scalp pulling away from my skull.
I drove to Cabo Pulmo where Doc Raley and his wife Nurse Carol stitched me up and gave me a place to rest until the dizziness wore off. Turns out I needed six stitches and had a mild concussion.
It occurred to me when I pulled the truck into the garage that evening that I hadn’t inspected my board for damage. I wondered which was harder – my head or the board’s glass job. On the right corner of the tail was a spider web of cracks with several strands of brown hair sticking out from the center. 

Traveling Surfus: How to package your surfboard for safe arrival at its destination.

On November 23rd, travel to the beautiful island of Maui was undertaken. Travel to the Hawaiian islands for this blogger requires transporting equipment to surf. This includes boards, leashes, bathing suits, board shorts, rash guards, sunscreen and surf wax – most of which is very small and portable. All, except the most important piece of equipment, the boards.

Getting a surfboard from point A to point B, several thousand miles and three plane flights away can be a snap in the most positive sense of the word, provided you have the know-how to package your boards for arrival safely on the other side.

Surfboards are constructed of fiberglass over a foam core with a “stringer” made from wood that runs down the center. The stringer gives the board added strength along its longitudinal axis, however, the rest of the board is FRAGILE and susceptible to being damaged or “dinged.” Let’s put it this way, it’s called “fiberGLASS” for a reason. Remember the Samsonite luggage commercial? With this in mind, traveling long distances with a board requires something extra, something special to protect them from the “gorillas” working at the luggage department of your local airport.

I recalled my very first surf trip to the wilds of Sayulita, Mexico, where I was schooled in the method by a real So Cal Old Timer.

“The first step is to remove the fins from the board.”

It used to be that fins were fixed, glassed right into the board and I guess some shapers still do this, but it’s increasingly uncommon. Both the boards to be prepared in this case have removable fins. I packaged each set into Ziplock bags with their respective screws and fin key (two different systems for connecting the fins to the board).

Step 1. Remove fins.

“Pipe insulation is the key,” he reported. “Use it to protect the rails and you’re more than half-way there.”

Step 2: Protect the rails with 1 inch pipe insulation.

“Wrap the whole thing with bubble wrap taking special care to cushion the nose and tail.”

Step 3. Wrap it all up with bubble wrap – the big bubble kind.

“I like to protect the whole thing with cardboard too. I just cut out a big piece of cardboard the size of the board and duct tape it over the bubble wrap.”

Step 4. Cover the deck and the bottom with cardboard to protect them from projectiles.

With both boards’ rails protected with pipe insulation, wrapped completely in large-bubble bubble wrap and the cardboard protecting the deck and bottom of each board, the last step was to get both boards into a single board bag. This avoids paying additional handling charges for more than one board at the airport. At anywhere from $50 to $200 per board bag, this is an important consideration. [I’ve even heard that some airlines are asking how many boards are in each bag and charging accordingly!]

Ideally one would have a travel bag that is designed to hold more than one board. It is also ideal to have a board bag that is only about six inches longer than your longest board. In this case I have to make due. Fortunately, the “man” has a 10 foot long board that is at least 30 inches wide. His board bag should be an adequate travel bag for a couple of my shorter boards, albeit a good two feet too long. First the 7’6” is placed on the bottom, cushioned by its board bag, then the 6’10” on top of the longer board and its bag is placed on top of that for added cushioning. The noses and tails are wrapped in beach towels and my wet suit. Then the whole thing is zipped…not quite shut.


Remember in the 80s when those tight tight skinny jeans were in style (I think they recently tried to make a come back)? They were so tight that it was necessary to lie on the bed to get them zippered and often a metal clothes hanger was necessary to draw the zipper closed. Well, that’s the memory conjured by the first attempt to close that board bag. The two zippers stopped short of the closed position and the bag lay there still open in an open-mouthed Rolling Stones-esque taunt.

I try adjusting the boards’ position in the bag so that their widest point is aligned with the widest section of the bag. I remove the board bags added for extra cushioning. Still too tight.

And then I remembered Lady. When I was a kid, my Aunt Lillian had a horse named Lady. Like any red-blooded Canadian girl, I loved horses and loved to ride, but sadly Lady hated to be ridden. She would do everything in her considerable power to avoid being ridden or to stop the rider short. She would refuse to walk or she would get you to the far end of the field and then start to buck like a rodeo bronc. But her favorite and most common move was to fill herself with air as we saddled her up and then as we’d walk through the field she’d slowly empty herself with very smelly and saddle-loosening results. If the rider wasn’t careful, she could end up sliding South with the saddle and dumped on the ground under the horse.

The extra air between the boards in the form of multiple layers of bubble wrap was acting just like Lady’s air-filled stomach and would have to go. So, “pop!” they went as I squeezed them like so many pimples on an acne-faced teenager. Gradually the space between the two boards shrank and, low and behold, the board bag closed. No wire clothes hanger required.

The final result.