Storm surf, a term rarely used any longer, was once popular in the surfing lexicon. Its meaning was obvious in one sense and less so in another.
Evident in this storm surge meant just that – the ocean was subject to a nearby storm system. Less obvious in that the waves, as disorganized as they were, were going to be ridden.
There were magazine photos of big, ugly chunks of water being traded by the hard-charging team whose names we all knew: Mainlanders Buzzy Trent, Greg Noll and Pat Curren ranked high on that list.
California’s version of storm surfing is like a late variant of COVID, unpleasant but usually not deadly. For me, growing up inland meant that every time I went to the ocean, I went paddling. Therefore, storm surfing was part of my surfing experience.
It was in the winter of 1964 or 1965 when I drove to Newport Beach and rowed after a week or two of heavy rain.
The surf in the aerial double range was glassy, with a hint of a northerly wind warning it was about to blow.
The waves were breaking hard and lacking in definition, peaking in one place and then another before closing in on the shore. The water was dark brown after being soaked with mud picked up from the Santa Ana River jetty. The waves were literally heavy, weighed down by all the dirt they contained.
After a tough paddle I caught the first wave I saw, fell to the bottom and swung my board up and over. The board made it, but I didn’t, and I got stuck on the bottom before being pushed out the back of the wave.
Once on the surface, I found my board right next to me and came out. I caught another wave and somehow did every section before the ocean crashed and I retreated over it. On the following waves, I found myself just as victorious.
A set much larger than anything I had put together that morning loomed on the horizon. I ran to meet him, left late and felt nothing but air under me. I tried to hang on, hoping to reconnect with my board and reach the bottom where I thought I was lying.
Instead, I spun and got hit hard in the thigh by my rail before being slapped awkwardly. My head was buzzing and I was in pain.
This wave had more force behind it than anything I had ever experienced this side of Hawaii. He pushed me to the bottom and pinned me to the bottom of the ocean.
Once that wave lost some of its power, it rolled me over the hard sand. My right shoulder hurt and I thought maybe I had dislocated it. Luckily, I hadn’t.
I realize now that no wave could hold someone that long and I was now in the grip of a next wave.
My world was dark when I remembered my uncle’s advice: “If you ever feel like you’re drowning, breathe water; the body does not know the difference between it and the air, and that will make death easier.
I was delirious when I swallowed the first puff of mud and began to reminisce about my short life as I fell asleep peacefully.
The next thing I knew I was on the beach, spitting salt water, alone in the rainy afternoon and grateful for the breath of life.