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[whitespace] Surfer Taking the Plunge: A Santa Cruz surfer heads for his natural habitat.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

How to Catch a Wave

Or how not to ...

By Rob Pratt

MY INTRODUCTION to surfing two years ago came abruptly: "Why don't you learn how to surf and write about it?" an editor told me. I eagerly called down to Club Ed Surf School and scheduled a lesson. And there I was in newsprint three weeks later very publicly (and very awkwardly) standing up on a foam-top barge, wobbling toward shore on a less-than-radical 2-footer.

The surfing obsession hit hard. I had quit smoking and told everyone within earshot--both in and out of the water--that I was taking up surfing. Then I did a bunch of stupid things, the sort that newbies do all over the world. I blundered in, assuming I knew what was going on when I had no clue, and I ended up in spots where I didn't belong--sometimes dangerous ones--all because I didn't watch what was happening around me.

For a newcomer, surfing in Santa Cruz can be daunting. With a culture built up over most of a century, the local surf scene guards against encroaching wannabe surfers with an argot that obscures the common names of surf breaks. For instance, say "Indicators" to a landlubber, and they give you a curious look. A local surfer, however, knows it's the spot just out from the West Cliff Drive surfer statue.

Newbies--both new-to-the-sport and new-to-town surfers--shouldn't paddle out at these spots without learning a bit about the local scene. That's one of the mistakes I made. Eager to catch as many waves as possible, I paddled out at places like Jack's Peak (at the end of 38th Avenue, just out from Jack O'Neill's cliff-hanging house) and earned malevolent glares from regulars for not waiting my turn on the waves. Of course, I didn't fully learn my lesson, and later I repeated the mistake of not watching what was happening, nearly killing myself in the process.

For the next two months, I kept surfing, mostly at Cowell's Beach next to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf but also at Jack's. And then in early October, the first sizable northwest swell of the season hit. The popular breaks had crowds of surfers riding gorgeous 6- to 10-footers and crowds of gawkers watching from shore. It was Surf City in full effect.

I paddled out at Jack's Peak. Somehow I must have recognized that I was out of my element because I now vividly remember that all the people suiting up on shore that day owned sleek boards entirely unlike my 9-foot classic. I sat out there for a long time, pitching high into the air with each passing wave. Starting to feel a little seasick should have provided the second clue that I was in literally over my head. But I didn't realize what a touchy situation it was, and I bellied down and paddled for a wave, a good-looking 6-footer.

I jumped into position and rode to the bottom of the wave. But I hadn't yet learned about angling to "make the wave" and get out of the way of the plunging lip. I got nailed--rinsed in the froth like socks in a washing machine. Half a dozen more waves slammed into me. Gasping for air, I fought a losing battle to stay at the surface and breathe, and I thought of nothing else until I saw that the next wave would slam me into the rocks.

I don't exactly know how I made it in. Only the terror of that moment remains in silent nightmares and twinges of fear when I look over the lip of a big wave before taking off. But it's a good fear--the remnant of a bunch of lessons about surfing and life learned in one crystalline moment. All of those lessons about being aware of my surroundings and about knowing my limitations I have carried with me out of the water. And all of them have become a big part of the way I have made Santa Cruz into my personal hometown--or maybe it's the way Santa Cruz has left its indelible mark on me.

When he's not waxing his board, Rob edits Metro Santa Cruz's arts section.

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From the September 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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