Biting It

If you surf or are a fan of the sport then you’ve undoubtedly seen this:

If you don’t surf then let me explain. That encounter occurred while 3x ASP World Surf League champion Mick Fanning from Australia was waiting for a wave in the final heat of the competition at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. This is the closest a professional surfer has ever come to being eaten by a shark during a WSL event, in front of hundreds of live spectators and thousands watching televised coverage on TV or online. Fortunately for Mick and the sport of surfing, Mr. Shark was distracted from his mission to see what Auzzie surfer tastes like when he got caught in Mick’s leash (“leg rope” to Auzzies and South Africans). The thrashing you see in the video, including a good whack to Mick’s face, was the shark freaking out because it was trying to free itself from the leash. Mick handled the situation incredibly well and dealt the creature several blows on the back with his fist, leading surf legend Derek Hynd to compare him to the Flintstone’s Bamm Bamm.* It seems that the shark was as panicked as Mick and got the hell out of there. If the tangling and thrashing weren’t enough to scare him off, rescue boats quickly responding to the emergency very likely had him questioning who was in greater peril.

In the wake of the “attack,” there was a lot of talk about shark attacks and sharks in general in the media and among surfers. Social media was rife with stories of close calls and scary encounters with sharks. And those of us who spend a lot of time in the water felt compelled to share our own experiences concerning “the man in the grey suit.”

The reality is that if you spend time in the water, the likelihood that you’ll encounter one of these apex predators is considerable. And as a surfer originating in a place few surfers hail from, I’m often asked by family, friends, and acquaintances, “What about sharks?”

My reply, “If it is my destiny to be killed by a shark while doing something I love more than anything, then so be it. I would hope that you will be happy I died doing something I loved,” may come off sounding cavalier, but it’s sincere.

In my thirteen plus years of surfing and kitesurfing regularly, to date I’ve had three close encounters with sharks. I described the second one, which occurred while I was kitesurfing right out in front of my house in an earlier blog post. My first encounter was really just a sighting, but there were only two of us out at Nine Palms that evening and when the shark swam through the face of a wave, my buddy Fernando, son of a local rancher, caught the next wave in, leaving me to consider my fate. I was still a beginner and my lack of skills pressed me to praying to whatever deity might be listening that I would catch and ride the next wave in, rather than flail and fail. Plagued by a mental image of being up to my neck in the dark blue surrounding me, I nevertheless did catch a wave and made it to shore without incident. Neither of us saw the shark again after that initial glimpse of him cutting through the wave face.

My most recent encounter affected me a bit more profoundly than the other two. Like my second encounter, this time I was kiting. I’m at the stage in kite surfing where I’m still learning how to maintain control of my kite while I ride a wave. With the energy of the wave pressing you on, it’s easy to outrun the kite, which makes the lines go slack and the kite to fall out of the sky right into the impact zone of breaking waves. It’s tough, but not impossible, to relaunch a kite once it’s been smacked around by the white water on the inside and that’s exactly what happened on this particular day. My kite was lying in the water, the wind gently pulling it and me towards the beach while low tide exposed the sharp lines of rocks along the way.

I’m pretty stubborn. Often to my own detriment. There comes a time when you gotta say enough is enough and give up, but I usually push myself beyond those rational limits. This day was no different. In exchange for my persistence trying to get the kite relaunched, I got dragged across those rocks on the inside. This is when I lamented my choice of bikini over wetsuit. Had I been wearing my spring suit, my thighs would have been protected from the sharp rocks. Thanks to my vanity (I wanted to work on my tan), I instead got a long gash along my left upper thigh. The scar remains an indelible reminder of my bull-headedness and the following incident it likely precipitated.

I got back to the beach and inspected the wound. It was bleeding, but not heavily and the gash was not as deep as I thought it would be. I decided that if it stopped bleeding, I’d relaunch and try my luck at riding waves again. I’d caught that wave without reminding myself of the intricacies of wave-riding with a kite. All my hard-learned lessons came flooding back to me as I watched the kite fall out of the sky. I knew could do this!

I dragged my kite and board back up the beach to the take off spot, rinsed the blood from my wound and patted it dry. I reran the lines to the kite, making sure everything was in order, and reinspected the cut. The bleeding had stopped and I rationalized it was really just a scratch, nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing that would get the attention of a grey suit.

I had a relatively good session from there on out and managed to catch some waves without dropping the kite. An hour or so into the session, I checked in with my thigh muscles. They were fatigued, indicating t was time to start tacking North to the one sandy spot where I could get to the beach without crawling over rocks. It was just as I began to tack upwind when out of my peripheral vision I saw something grey leap partially out of the water. A small black grebe that seconds earlier paddled along the water’s surface had disappeared.

My heart clenched as adrenaline surged through my body and my head spun.

A walrus. It had to be a walrus, I thought fully entering denial.

And then another voice spoke up, an annoyingly intelligent voice. Walrus don’t eat grebes, Dawn. And there are no walruses here.

My mind buzzed like a pinball machine on full tilt and I drew a blank despite attempts to rationalize what I’d just seen as something else, anything but a shark. It turned next to the cut on my leg. I had to accept that it was possible that the small amount of blood I was likely leaving in the water had brought one in.

Just get in. Just focus on what you’re doing and get in. Don’t fall.

But of course I fell.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I hurled the epithets as I grabbed my board and hurried to get back up and moving after blowing the turn back towards shore.

“Fuck!” I swore again when I got closer to shore and realized that it would take at least three tacks to get up wind enough to where the beach was sandy.

I gritted my teeth and managed to turn and head back out to deeper water without falling. I focused everything on the task at hand, working my way upwind and eventually making it back to shore. I breathed a sigh of relief as I prepared to step off my board onto sand and brought the kite high overhead to the neutral position. That’s when I discovered that the wind had turned offshore near the beach and by bringing the kite overhead it was met with the force of a wind that pushed it back out to sea. It arced and plummeted into the sea behind me where the opposing onshore wind pushed it gently back towards shore. The lines went slack and I was powerless to do anything as it slowly floated into an area full of rocks just South of where I stood. The next thing I heard was a loud “pop!” followed by the hiss of air escaping. The kite had run into the sharp edge of a rock, much like my leg had earlier, which cut through the leading edge, an air-filled tube-like bladder that gives it structure.

Maybe it was the stress of seeing a shark consume a helpless little bird right in front of me, the prospect of similar treatment or maybe it was just frustration with the vagaries of kiting, but I lost it at that point. I totally lost my shit and screamed (to no one in particular as there was no one there to hear me anyway), “I hate this fucking sport! This is the dumbest fucking sport ever!!! I’m over it!!”

And in that moment, I felt alone…terribly fucking alone and I came close to crying. I felt the tears knocking at the door and I very nearly let them come. I came damned close to walking away from that kite bobbing gently among the jagged rocks with it’s fucked up lines and torn leading edge too. Very very nearly.

But I took a deep breath.

Considered the options.

Then put my head down and carefully picked my way over those goddamned motherfucking rocks and pulled my kite off them without doing further damage to me or the kite. The lines were caught in the rocks and it was all I could do to keep from having a total melt down every time I pulled on one of them and realized I had to disconnect it from the kite before I could extricate the mess from the grip of those tenacious rugged rocks.

It was almost dark when I finally had the whole maddening mess packed up and was driving along the beach towards home on my ATV, jaw clenched in anger.

That was six months ago and I haven’t kited since. The kite is still in its bag, torn, sandy, and neglected. And after watching Mick’s experience with the shark, I asked myself whether that was a function of the hassle that is learning to kite surf or if it is more about the shark.

Compared to surfing, kiting is definitely a higher risk activity where sharks are concerned. You go into deeper waters where sharks like to travel and you have the considerable potential of breaking down out there. Even experienced kiters have kitemares and end up losing entire kites or boards out at sea. The boards are too small to paddle back in on and the kites are a serious liability once they are disabled. Once when my kite failed I had to swim a good half mile to get back into shore, dragging the kite as the leading edge took on water. Getting to shore was a Herculean effort accompanied by nerve-wracking thoughts of what could be lurking deep below me.

Despite these experiences my passion for surfing keeps me returning to the water. I wonder though, if I had a serious close encounter with a shark the likes of Mick Fanning’s, how soon would I get back in the water? Would I even be able to?

It’s a crossroads I hope never to confront.

******

*After Fanning’s run in, Hynd was the first person to paddle out to the empty line up to catch a few overhead waves, further proving accurate my assessment that he is the Nutty Professor of Surfing. When I questioned his sanity by internet chat, he suggested, knowing we share a similar level of passion for the pursuit, that I would have done the same. “No one out…swell was building.” ‘Nuf said.

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Fear and Kiting in Los Cabos

DSCN0401Parental Advisory: Dear Mom and Dad, please don’t read this. I know how you feel about me kiting and this isn’t going to help. Love, Dawn

I don’t kitesurf in the summer heat. I consciously decided that kiting is a fall and winter sport for me because it’s hell getting the gear rigged on the hot sand. I’ve come close to heat stroke a couple of times. But on my first foray out this autumn, I came close having a stroke for a very different reason.

It’s always difficult to motivate to go out the first time after my summer break; I know from experience that half my equipment is going to fail because it’s been sitting around for months in the summer heat. The glue that they use to seal the valves in particular is degraded by high temps so when you try to blow the kite up, one or more valves go “pop!” and you’re S.O.L unless you know how to do repairs, which apparently I don’t. I tried to replace a valve last year, followed the instructions carefully, watched YouTube videos on how to do it, but failed terribly. I can’t even tell you where I went wrong.

My neighbor Walker, who’s a kiter, was here this week and convinced me it was time to get the kites out. The wind was blowing a good 25 to 30 miles an hour, the water was crystal clear, and it seemed as good a time as any to get out there. And I was glad to have some company for the first foray in many months.

Walker is an enthusiastic kiter. He’s been doing it since the sport was in its infancy and went through the hell of using kites that didn’t have all the built-in safety features that those of us starting up much later benefit from. He’s got some great tales of harrowing near-death experiences that I’m glad I got to miss out on. His enthusiasm means he was down on the beach at the first sign of whitecaps. I dragged my feet, experiencing the resistance borne of the knowledge that it was probably going to be a bit of a nightmare figuring out which of my well-used kites was flight worthy. Sure enough, after I got down there and helped Walker launch his brand new 7M Sling Shot, I tried three different kites, including one of Walkers that he’d offered up, and none of them were operable. Walker had forgotten to bring the bar (essentially the “steering wheel”) down for his 6M that I was hoping to use and before launching he suggested I jerry-rig it with my own bar. I knew this was a bad idea and did it anyway. The kite is different than any of mine and sure enough, when I launched it, it immediately dove to the beach and crashed, flew back up and dove, over and over again as the lines twisted on themselves. Frustrating!! Not to mention not so good for the kite. Before I could get it under control, it nose dived into a sundried porcupine fish, which penetrated the heavy nylon of the leading edge, but thankfully not the bladder and a foot long hole tore through the canopy. That kite was out of commission until it could be repaired.

Meanwhile, as I struggled to get the next kite (any kite!) rigged, Walker was out there flying back and forth across the water, intermittently crashing the kite into the water’s hard surface and then struggling to relaunch because he was under-powered. It was apparent from the tangled mess of the lines on the bar I was trying to rig that I didn’t deal with that issue before putting them away for the season. My bad. Untangling lines requires the patience of Job and after trying to get two other setups rigged, mine was waning. Walker came in while I was deep in the tangles.

When I explained what the hold up was, he offered me his brand new kite. Although he’d been underpowered, we reasoned it would be perfect for me because I weigh considerably less than he does. After a half-hearted protest that the kite was new! I thanked him profusely and got out there.  Employing what patience remained, I timed it right to get out through the heavy shorebreak without mishap and was up and whizzing out to sea trying to remember the subtleties of the sport.

Fifteen minutes into my session, I’d just tacked, heading back out to sea, when I leaned back and took a look down to marvel at the crystal clarity of the water backed by the white sand bottom and contrasting black and mottled brown rocks. The water was so clear it looked like it was only a few feet deep. I’d begun to turn my attention back to the surface and the kite, when I sailed over the outline of something that resembled a shark.

BigMouthWait…WHAT?!

At first I didn’t believe my eyes, and started looking around at the white caps, hoping one would resemble a shark and I could laugh at my paranoia, but that was denial at work. I considered further what I’d seen: it’s shape was distinct–a wide body, tapering to a long tail with an upright caudal fin that only one type of fish in the sea possesses, light grey on top and white underneath at the tips of its fins and a as I passed overhead, it flicked that tail once to impel itself forward, an unmistakable motion. As the reality that I had indeed seen a shark, a rather large shark, slowly sank in, I felt the vice grip of anxiety rise and take hold of my chest. I began debating what to do. I was still on a course that took me out to sea, to deeper darker waters, but away from where I’d seen the shark. I needed to give him time to continue on his way North. Unfortunately, my mind then had him pulling a U-turn and coming to see what that “thing” was that flew overhead. I wondered Are sharks curious? The darkness of the deeper water was frightening because of all that it could conceal. I decided it was time to tack and head back to shore, but with all that anxious thinking I was distracted and blew my turn. I sank into that deep, dark blue water up to my neck, and anxiety turned to panic.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!” I said as much at myself as to myself. Get up and get going! I silently commanded.

And so I did, saying a little “Thank you God,” as I got up to speed without the kite crashing and exploding on impact (not an uncommon occurrence where I am concerned). I was headed to shore.

This is where the way my brain works frightens me a little; on my way back to shore, it occurred to me that I’d only been out kiting a short time and I began rationalizing that the shark was long gone. He’d obviously just been cruising, there was no evidence of him being in hunter mode. When the time came, I did not go to shore, I turned that kite and me strapped to my board and headed back out to sea. True or not, I’d convinced myself I was safe above water and blocked out the possibility of kite failure, major wipe outs, the wind dying, and several other instances where I’d be back in the water up to my neck only minutes after seeing what I estimated to be an eight-foot shark.

It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of blocking out when it wants to ignore the facts. I’d almost forgotten all about that shark, when on my next tack, I lost control of the kite and it shot right to left, yanking me out of my board straps and flinging me a good ten feet downwind, before crashing into the water with a resounding WHUMP! Suddenly, I remembered Mr. Shark. Pushing the question of where my board was aside, I concentrated all my attention on the kite and after a few nail-biting failed attempts got it relaunched. I looked back hoping to see my board bobbing on the surface nearby. It was nowhere to be seen. Shit! Where is it? I could feel the anxiety putting its stranglehold on me again. Desperation wrapping its suffocating arms about me, I began to body drag upwind in search of my board. I recalled thankfully that it has red footstraps, unlike the two boards I’d previously lost in scenarios similar to this one – white, I’d concluded, is a STUPID color for a kiteboard; they just disappear among the white caps. The recollection of losing those two boards at sea taunted me now. Would I find the board or have to body drag all the way back in? Please God, no. A couple of drags of about 30 feet, first one way and then the other and I could see the board bobbing in the wind chop. I relaxed a tiny bit. Quickly, I regained the board, slipped my feet into the straps, and power-stroked myself up and out of the water. I could breathe again.

A few more tacks and I wiped out again, this time though I didn’t crash the kite and remained close enough to the board that it was visible. I decided I’d tempted fate enough and it was time to go in. I couldn’t relax out there except when within easy reach of the beach. But there was a big swell in the water that day, so every time I got close to the beach, a huge wall of water would loom up behind me threatening to send me into shore ass over tea-kettle like a big piece of flotsam wrapped up in my lines. I imagined myself riding those waves and pulling out gracefully by launching myself like a bird, as I’d seen advanced riders do on Maui. As I approached the shore, I got my opportunity as a wave began to grow behind me. I rode it partway in before pulling the kite up to stop my forward momentum and skidding to a remarkably graceful halt before I crashed on the sand. Using the kite’s pull, I exited the water in a series of small hops. The sand never felt so solid, so secure under my feet.

Walker was no longer on the beach, so I did a controlled crash to land the kite. When I ran over to deflate it, what I saw made my breath catch in my throat. The plug for main intake valve was open, probably popping under the pressure of one of Walker’s more dramatic crashes. The only thing keeping the kite from deflating was the stopper, a little plastic ball that plugs the hole under back pressure. I was reminded of one of the earliest lessons we were taught by the instructor at Action Sports Maui: Always rig your own kite and if you don’t for some reason, double check the rigging before launch. I’d been in such a rush to get out there, I’d forgotten an essential lesson. I was lucky the kite hadn’t deflated when I crashed it way out at sea.

The next day when I related this experience to my buddy Meisy, he laughed and pointed out that when I body drag using the kite to move upwind to retrieve my board, I essentially turn myself into big fishing lure. Thanks Meisy, the image of a shark clamping down on me like a baited line will haunt me every time I lose my board from this day forward.

Caged Creativity

The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.

Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception

 I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]

When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.

Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:

Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.

Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”

The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.

When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:

“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”

Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:

Am I living authentically?

When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades.  Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).

Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.

It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”

Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.

Crossing Paths: Mickey and Me

A few weeks ago, I heard Mickey Muñoz was going to be at my local surf break for the filming of a documentary about East Coast Surfers. Even though it was the afternoon and I only surf at that time of day if it’s epic, I made a special effort to get my ass down there to talk to him because I hoped he’d agree to let me interview him as part of the project I’m so excited about. [What shall we call the project? Give me suggestions in the comments below will you? “the project I’m so excited about” will undo my already worn out keyboard.]

I was introduced to Mickey a month earlier by Wingnut Weaver, star of The Endless Summer II, and so, as I walked towards where Mickey and a couple of other people stood on the beach checking the surf, I banked on him remembering me. I don’t really think it mattered whether he remembered me or not – the words, “Mickey, we met about a month ago…” were barely out of my mouth and he was giving me a kiss on the cheek and putting his arm around me like we were best friends. Okay, I guess being a sun-kissed blond has its perks. Mickey proceeded to introduce me to the guy standing next to him – none other than Corky Carroll, the man credited with being the first professional surfer.

I listened as Mickey told one of his signature tales to a rapt audience. By the end of what turned out to be quite a yarn about the effect rain has on Baja journeys (turning them from 1 hour to a day or more), I was boiling hot. We were all standing in the hot September sun! I quickly mentioned that I hoped to interview him and then said, “It’s hot! I gotta get wet!” He agreed and said he’d meet me in the water.

Surfing with Mickey Muñoz turned out to be an uncommon pleasure. I was a little freaked out to discover there were a couple of guys with video cameras in the water with us and one on the beach, but Mickey was so relaxed that he quickly put me at ease. We talked and laughed between sets and I did my best to stay out of his way as he wielded his stand-up paddle board like a man half his age (he’s 75 years old!).

Mickey wielding a mean paddle.   Photo by John Charles Jopson

Near the end of our session together, we got onto the topic of localism – people who think they own their home break and who bring a shitty attitude into the water. He was surprised when I told him his is not the only break on the East Cape to suffer from this negative influence. He considered what I said, turned to me and said, smiling, “Those people have forgotten how lucky they are. Look at where we are! We’re in one of the most beautiful places on earth, sharing waves with just the two of us out. How many people can say that?” I will always remember the breadth of his smile as he spoke from the heart. Mickey Muñoz may be the most stoked surfer I’ve ever met. The title of his book No Bad Waves is a perfect reflection of his attitude.

The sun was approaching the horizon and the camera guys had long ago packed up and left, when Mickey turned to me and said, ”Been a pleasure surfing with you,” as he caught the next wave and surfed off. I sat out there and felt the trail of positive ions lingering in the air behind him flood over and into me. I felt blessed.

Several minutes passed and I looked towards the beach where Mickey remained, standing next to his road-weary Isuzu. I figured, like me, he was just soaking in the energy of the fading day, taking in the perfect little waves peeling off the point. As I sat squinting towards him, it occurred to me suddenly that maybe he was taking a leak! Thankfully he was backlit by the setting sun. I caught a few more waves before he left and, perhaps inspired by our talk and his stoke, I danced more than rode my board across their faces. He was gone the next time I looked over as I paddled back out to the take off spot.

The next day I emailed him to establish electronic communications. I expressed what a pleasure it had been to share the waves with him. His reply came quickly and to my delight began thusly, “I enjoyed our surf session also, you’re a good surfer.” Those last four words made me gush to overflowing with pride. I looked around and the only ones there to share the moment with were the dogs. No matter, I pointed at the screen and said, “Do you believe it? Mickey Muñoz, big wave rider and shaper extraordinaire said I’m a good surfer!” They lifted their heads lazily and looked at each other perplexed, as though they were saying “What is she going on about?” But they got into the spirit and thumped their tails against the floor in applause.

Below the text of his email was something even more special and I now knew what he’d been up to while he hung on the beach that evening. He’d been taking photographs of me riding the waves!! Thanks Mickey for making it look so good.

Photo by Mickey Muñoz

Alive and Writing

I know that from where you’re sitting it looks like I haven’t been writing, but I have, I tell you, I have! For now, anyway, you’ll have to take my word for it. Okay, I’ll be honest and admit that there’s been a lot of surfing and procrastination. Even some foot dragging and downright reticence. But since I last posted here and promised you a blog about the second half of my trip to California, what seems like such very long time ago, I have accomplished the following as far as writing is concerned:

I’ve dusted off my memoir, given its structure some serious thought, cut the several of the opening chapters (saving them of course in a file that I’ll probably never be able to find if I decide I need to exhume them) and taken another stab at writing parts of it. I’ll tell you in all honesty that reading 50 Shades of Grey inspired me to write some of the juicier bits, particularly one scene that involves a dive instructor.

I’ve written copious emails (one of my weaknesses and a way in which I waste bucket-loads of time, but I am here to contend that some of those emails are written in the manner of letter-writing that existed in the early 20th century, long before email and when consideration was given to the literariness (wow, that’s actually a word!) of personal communications. In the case of famous authors and poets anyway, it’s as though they knew that years later biographers and their readers would be judging their letters alongside their literary works).

I’ve journalized. [Yes, that is the correct verb for writing in a journal and according to my dictionary “journalled” is not a word, but I use it to describe this action all the time. Perhaps my dictionary needs updating?] I’ve done this to deal with the mounting anguish I’ve felt because I haven’t been posting to my blog, I’ve generally been misbehaving and none of it has involved a MAN. I’ve been writing the classic stuff of existential navel-gazing that any writer worth their mettle is practically required to do. And I’ve pined in my journal. I’ve pined for my lover. Any lover.

Most recently, I’ve been working on an essay I was asked to write for an online journal called Anthropologies. It describes, albeit in extreme shorthand, my experience working on community-based conservation when I first moved here to Mexico.

And lists…I’ve been writing lists – grocery lists and lists of all the things I should be doing, including chores, repairs and writing. After I make my lists, I promptly go surfing even though it’s not on the list.

I’ve also been mind writing, but hardly at all, because I’ve noticed mind writing mostly occurs a lot between actual writing sessions. So if I’m not doing one, I don’t do much of the other.

Aside from writing, I’ve begun conducting research related to an article I’m going to write examining a topic related to the history of surfing. I’ve even conducted two interviews related to said article and set about arranging several others. I don’t want to reveal too much just yet (don’t want to get scooped!), but I will tell you that this project has me more excited than I can say and I’m looking forward to the entire process, particularly the interviews, the people I will get to meet as a result and the knowledge, both specific to the article and about surfing in general, that they may impart to me.

I haven’t just been writing either – I’ve been doing one of the most important things a writer must do – I’ve been reading:

  • Deep in the Wave by Bear Woznick which I will review here at some point in the coming weeks;
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, which if you haven’t read and think it is anything like the movie, then I will save you the trouble and tell you it is a stretch to say it is even remotely like the movie. There is not even one mention of her romance with Denys Fitch-Haton (played by the lovely Robert Redford in the movie), which clearly was the raison d’être of the movie.
  • Some of the poems in Handwriting by Michael Ondaatje, always worth the time for their beauty and ability to inspire;
  • Several articles in the current and back issues of The Surfer’s Journal (the bible of surfers everywhere);
  • I’ve been picking up and putting down Man Without A Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster by Markus Wolf, but I finally put it down in order to read:
  • Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.

Millay was an early 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning poet to whom the expression “burning the candle at both ends” is attributed. So far my favorite part of the book (probably because it introduces some much needed levity to what is a depressing story) is when the author describes how Vincent (as she was called) helps her sister Norma, who’s just moved to bohemian Greenwich Village from conservative Camden, Maine, get used to life in the city.

One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a
certain freedom of languarge in the Village that mustn’t shock her…”So
we sat darning socks…and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched.
Needle in, shit. Needle out, piss. Needle in, fuck. Needle out, cunt. Until
we were easy with the words.”

I am a third of the way through the book and so far I find Millay to be an unsympathetic character, selfish and manipulative, particularly where men are concerned. I’ll let you know if my opinion is altered by the time she dies.

There is so much I want to share with you! I do hope you’ll check back here in the coming days or better yet why don’t you subscribe and get my posts delivered direct to your email so it’s super easy for you to get the latest on my adventures over the last five or so odd weeks. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Double pinky finger promise!

Is the Kid Really Dead?

Icy surfing in IcelandIt’s the day before Summer Solstice and it’s only 79 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I’m considering whether I need to put a sweater on because there’s a brisk breeze blowing in off the sea that is chilling me as it hits my bare shoulders. A week ago, I had to put a lightweight hooded sweater on over my t-shirt in the middle of the day and resorted to donning full length yoga pants because I was so cold. The mercury didn’t get much higher than 77 degrees that day. Normally at this time of year I’d be sweating in shorts and a tank top. Conclusion? This is possibly the coldest June in the history of Baja’s East Cape. However, before you accuse me of being melodramatic, and in the absence of any definitive long term historical proof, let me say instead that it is definitely the coldest June I’ve personally experienced in this region.

Admittedly, this is only my eleventh June in Baja. Eleven is neither a big number, nor is it small in the context of time passage. But it is more than a handful and a decade plus one. Never before in the month of June have I needed to put a sweater on in the middle of the day. Remove my t-shirt? Definitely. Change my sports bra because it’s soaking with sweat? You bet. Take a shower and lie down under a fan on high in the middle of the day because it’s 105 degrees outside? Several times. But put on more clothes at what is the hottest time of day? Never!

Air temperatures have been uncharacteristically low because they reflect sea water temperatures, which have been near frigid. Since the middle of May, they’ve fluctuated wildly between extremes. From 84 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 62 degrees the very next – that’s a whopping 22 degree drop.

The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit a surfer needs to wear. Wetsuit thicknesses are measured in millimeters (mm) and water temperatures of 62 degrees mean wearing a full-length wetsuit of at least 2mm thickness or going out for super short sessions in which your muscles tend to seize up. I don’t own a 2mm full suit.  My shorty suit wasn’t up to the job and on more than one occasion I got out of the water with blue lips and legs that were numb from the knees down. By the end of several sessions, I had to blow into my cupped hands between sets in an attempt to warm my frigid digit. It took all my willpower to put my hands back in the biting cold water and keep my arms paddling for the next wave. Back on land again it took almost an hour of sitting in the direct sun to warm up again. While I know that there are many a surfer who experiences this regularly and to an even greater extent, bear in mind that we’re talking about surfing in the normally tepid, turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.

I have furthermore never seen the sea turn green. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d been teleported and was surfing in South Central California when overnight the water changed from its characteristic turquoise and azure blues to a brilliant emerald green.  Apparently the colder water resulted from an upwelling event that brought nutrients from deep down in the sea to the surface causing a serious algal bloom. Then there were the jelly fish, or, as I like to call them, the Helly fish, feeding on all that phytoplankton. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ve never seen so many large gelatinous jelly fish in the water here. The water was amuck with them and more than once I managed to squeeze their fire-wielding tentacles between my leg and my surfboard to produce the kind of stinging you only wish upon your worst enemies. The resulting welts were impressive and the itching lasted for days.

It’s not just June weather that’s been strange. May was uncharacteristically cool and foggy too. From the middle of May onwards we’ve had the equivalent of what Californians call June Gloom in the East Cape – fog, wind, and shockingly cold water.

So what gives?

At first I thought it was because it’s a La Niña year. La Niña is a period during which sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean are lower than normal by 3-5 degrees Celsius (6-9 deg F). In the United States, an episode of La Niña is defined as a period of at least five months of these types of conditions. The name La Niña is Spanish for “the girl,” analogous to El Niño meaning “the boy,” the term used for periods when sea surface temperatures are abnormally high. The only trouble is that according to meteorologists the period of La Niña weather conditions that began last year ended in March. In other words, La Niña is dead.

So I’m still scratching my head. If this weather can’t be ascribed to La Niña (abnormally low sea surface temperatures) then what is causing these cool sea breezes the temperature of which seem so abnormally low?

Sharin’ the Stoke

If you surf you belong to a fellowship that defines part of who you are. In Dana Brown’s documentary Step into Liquid, Kelly Slater, the undisputed King of the sport states,  “Once you’re a surfer you’re done. You’re in. It’s like the mob or something. You’re not getting out.” What he’s saying is that it’s more than a sport, it’s a passion, a way of life that grabs hold of you and won’t let go. My current lifestyle is a testament to how my own surfing baptismal in the waters off Costa Rica 12 years ago was as life changing as marrying into the Corleone family.

The longer I surf, the more it also becomes apparent that the surfing world is tiny. Case in point, how I landed the opportunity to work on the Maui Jim Women’s Adventure Series.

It was late last summer when I pulled up to Mysto Surf Spot #9 on my ATV with Peanut on board.  There was a young blond woman sitting under the shade of a palapa watching the waves and the people riding them. She turned and regarded us with curiosity. The rig in all its surf gear-laden glory and Peanut’s charisma made an impression. We struck up a conversation and quickly discovered that we had some friends in common…one an iconic figure who was featured in the sequel to the surfing world’s most iconic movie, another the daughter of the director of those iconic films (feel free to speculate on who I’m talking about in the comments section below). I was the one doing the name dropping and in what I would learn is her usual humble nature, Mary gave me no indication of her surfing world status. Heck she didn’t even tell me her last name. The words “professional surfer,” “longboard champion,” “Patagonia ambassador,” “Ambassador for the United Nations Environmental Safe Campaign and the 5 Gyres Institute,” “MTV’s reality show Surf Girls,” “Maui Jim team rider” never left her mouth. I figured she was just some average California surfer chick looking for some warm water surf. Ha!

Before I left the beach that day she was inviting me to crash at her place in Ventura, California on a trip I planned to make there. A few Facebook conversations, a massive ah ha moment when I realized who I’d had the pleasure of meeting and a couple of months later, I arrived on the Central Californian Coast. I was shocked and pleased in equal measure when Mary actually responded enthusiastically to my emails asking if we were still on for some Ventura adventures.

Who's warmer? Mary or the boom man?

I met her on the Solymar beach where a crew was filming some of the footage for Maui Jim’s promo of the Women’s Adventure Series that I posted in my previous blog. Watching Mary work provided additional insight into this woman’s patience and professionalism. She remained stoic and uncomplaining as she slowly froze in the fading light of an increasingly chilly November day. I got chilled in long pants and down vest just watching her try to stay warm in her board shorts and tank top. Watch the video again and see if you can tell her teeth were chattering between takes. Like I said, the woman is a professional.

Over the next couple of days she was a great hostess showing me sights like the surf break at C-Street and the Patagonia flagship store –  and making sure I got to sample some of the wonderful organic produce and wine grown in the area. We didn’t manage to surf that trip, but what I came to learn over the course of those few days is that Mary is the definition of the aloha spirit – warm, welcoming, generous – and a very hard-working business woman. So you can imagine how enthusiastic I was when she casually mentioned that perhaps I could join her in teaching on a series of surf and yoga retreats. Yeah, I got pretty excited. 😉

My niece charges into the surf on her inaugural surf adventure. The board is a classic Bing noserider gifted to me by Bing himself.

It’s been a dream of mine ever since learning to surf to share the stoke with which it infuses me with others. In 2006, I took my niece out in the placid waters of Nine Palms and although we had to abort the mission due to an unforeseen bout of motion sickness that ended with her chumming the water, she has since gone on to hone her skills in the waters off Ecuador, Peru and British Columbia. The following summer I  coached her mother, my oldest sister, into her first wave. The excitement on my sister’s face as she paddled back out to me after catching that wave was beyond rewarding. So it is with great excitement and a sense of deep privilege that I thank Mary Osborne for this opportunity to share my love of the sport with other amazing women during the Maui Jim Women’s Adventure Series retreats. So what’s holding you back? Come and share the stoke!

Mary Osborne Surfing El Salvador from Ryan W. Murphy on Vimeo.