Old (and new) Friends, Acquaintances, Others, and More Magic

First, thanks to all those who have been supportive of realsurfers.net in its inaugural year. Thanks to those who have written back (like Corky Carroll, just to drop one name- and I plan on bugging him for any photo of James Arness at San Onofre for a future story), and those who have found my site, and, kindly, connected their network of friends. And thanks to anyone who, maybe surfing around the internet, came upon real surfers.

That some of my stories featuring wonderful characters (real people, actually) have touched others who knew these surfers better than I did in my brief encounters with them touches me.

I realize the whole site appears dis-organized. Maybe my memory is like several competing big ass storms at sea, a little too close. Each story leads to another, others, and there are sets of stories. I get interrupted by some rogue thing, some new adventure I just have to write about.

It has been a great joy for me to work on this; and I’m still in the drop-in, line-up phase, not free-falling, but hoping to catch an edge.

Thanks for dropping in.


What I’ve picked up on is just how many wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to share a few sessions with in my lifetime obsession with this splendid distraction. While I continue to find new adventures, meet new real surfers, I also miss so many of my early surf compatriots. We were lucky to surf and to come of age in a time that now seems magical.

Oh, it all seems magical to me; and the magic continues; out there, lines on the horizon, a first wave showing on the indicator, lining-up, raising, steepening. Swallow the lump in your throat, turn, partway, set, paddle like you mean it.

My we all have even more magic for the next years.

Speed Run, New Friends, Parking Lot Surfing, and The Beast


I convinced Keith Darrock to do a Straits speed run a few days before Christmas. Because my daughter, Dru, was home and our small town offers no excitement to compete with the dangers of Chicago, and despite her having gone to a casino with her mom the night before, she asked to go. Early

The tide wouldn’t be perfect, the swell was forecast to drop, but, supposedly, slowly. Archie had already expressed no interest in going early, gambling on my favorite spot, hurrying back. And, he had surfed my (and his) backup spot the day before, reported the swell ‘weak.’ He had, nevertheless, surfed his usual three hours. Archie did have some plans to show up there (the backup spot) on the high tide rather than risk getting skunked farther out and waiting. And I could call him with real conditions on my way back.

Sharing my usual pre-surf anxiety with Keith and Dru, I revealed my en route wish (and often, prayer) list. First, I request some kind of waves (preferably the rights that only show up at lower tides); then bigger, better waves, then glassiness; then lack of crowds.

Keith admitted he really doesn’t like sharing waves. “What about with me?” “I’m not afraid to take off in front of you.” “Really? You know I ran over Archie’s board?”

Accidently. Still, Keith had taken some pleasure in spreading my name around the small but rabid (and yet polite) Port Townsend surfing community when I ‘circled’ the lineup on a glassy but increasingly crowded afternoon. Yeah; well I already explained (and wrote about) that it was a sort of accidental wave hogging.

So, on this morning, the swell was, indeed, weak. The rights were weaker than the lefts. I did have a fear that I would (again) push someone to go and we’d find conditions where I could cruise around on the SUP, catch a few fin-draggers, and be pretty happy, but my ride-sharer might not be so thrilled.

But Keith was game, suited up quickly and paddled out.

As he did a minivan drove up, a guy got out. As often happens on the Straits, It turns out I’d run into him before; twice, in Port Townsend, checking out the conditions from the parking lot. In fact, he and I had dared each other into going out in a gale. While he caught a few, I got thrashed, putting the first ding in the SUP by going sideways over the falls.

Adam is in the seafood business on the Hood Canal, near the Hamma Hamma River, farther down Surf Route 101. To my chagrin, though he spoke of surfing the backup spot, he suited up, paddled out to join Keith, who had already tucked himself into a couple of occasional and small semi-barrels.

“This’ll be fun,” I told my daughter, she checking the rocks for a few nice ones.

“It’s still bigger than Sunset Beach,” she said. Another story, but she did bring me back some coarse Sunset Beach sand.

I went out, caught as many waves as I could, tried to share. Keith dropped in on me once, I dropped in on him once (different sections, really), and I called out Adam for taking off on a wave Keith could have ridden, and choking. Sort of nicely.

Adam didn’t last too long. He got out, drove off, still in his wetsuit. Dru accused me of chasing him off. “No. Not really. And, it turns out Keith knows his wife. So, we’re all, like, friends now. Yay.”

There were now three other vehicles (rigs in the local lingo) in the parking area. Many others had pulled in, checked it out, and continued further toward the coast. Or given up. A random set showed up and two guys who had been parked a while, kind of creeping-out my daughter, started suiting up. Headed back, we passed many rigs with boards headed for the Straits. “Good luck,” I said, “Glad we went early,” Keith said. “You were kind of a wave hog, Dad,” Dru said. “I’m here to surf,” I said.


My head may actually be that large, proportionately. Or we can call it a cartoon.

The next afternoon Keith texted me to report there were waves at a rare mysto spot near Port Townsend. I couldn’t go. A couple of local shortboarders, good surfers, Aaron and Nolan, both of whom know, first hand or by reputation, of my wave hogging ways, were heading out to hit the critical takeoffs. I’m determined to ride the spot. Not this day.

Later, my new friend, Adam (he had my number from the thrashing session), texted me (under the name Adam Wipeout) to ask me about waves at the above not mentioned spot. Possessing a Bluetooth but needing my hands for working, I called him back, kept painting.

It turns out Adam has a friend who took some long distance photos of the mysto spot, going off. “Yeah, so I hear.” Adam said, after doing some parking lot surfing the day before, he ended up surfing “really fun waves with, once the tide filled  in and the Seattle surfers left,” with some guy whose name he told me but I instantly forgot (if I saw him three or four times, I might bother). Adam’s new surf friend, he said, had checked out the spot we’d surfed earlier.

“He said he noticed ‘the beast’ was out,” Adam said.

“Wait. Me?” “Yeah, he meant you. I asked. ‘ You mean Erwin?’ He described you. It was you.”

“Wait. Why do I have to be the beast?”

“Maybe he meant your commitment level,” Adam said, unable to come up with a reasonable and/or flattering explanation.

“Okay. Hey, if you’re going some time; give me a call; maybe we could…”

“Oh. Okay. We’ll see.”

“Okay.” It might be my larger-than-the-average-(good) surfer size, my intensity in the water; doesn’t matter; I’ve decided to own it.

“They call me the Beast, and I’m here to surf.”

No, really; I’m nice… while parking lot surfing. 

Holiday Greetings to Weekend Warriors

There were waves this week on the Straits. Not as good as it can get; but, as my friend Archie texted me after a Monday session, ‘surfable.’ On Thursday, with the buoys showing an adequate swell if at the proper angle (and it was at an angle usually almost guaranteeing- there’s no real guarantee on the Straits- just better odds), Keith called me en route, over the rocks, to a spot that sometimes provides a critical drop, and, some of the sometimes, a long wall, all when the wind is pushing those properly-angled ground swells into frothy unsurfableness. 

Keith was on his lunch hour and was supposed to call me if he was successful. Last I heard was, “Uh huh; there’s a wave. Uh huh.” “Hey, call me back and tell me what…” “Yeah; gotta go.”

I’ve had several phone conversations on the subject of going. “Can’t. Can’t. Gotta work. Next time I’ll… Next Monday… um… we’ll see.”


One of my favorite winter surf runs- in the northern part of the northwest, that season would be between Labor Day and Memorial Day, is the late afternoon speed run, arriving an hour before sunset. This close to the winter solstice, that means being in the water by 3:30. Sometimes there’s a glassoff, or a shift in wind direction. An off-season (flip the above holidays) variation is the Sunday afternoon run to the coast. With it staying light until after ten close to that solstice, one could be headed out while most of the other surfers are headed back to the city.

It’s a conceit of mine that, since I’m self-employed, I can go surfing when it’s breaking; middle of the day; middle of the week; avoiding the weekend and the, yeah, you were ready for this, the weekend warriors.

This isn’t my only conceit, of course; just one that trips me up when the peak of a winter’s worth of swells falls on Sunday; when I just have to have to work, and, headed east in the morning, I pass multiple surf rigs headed northwest. On my way home, sometimes I pass the same vehicles, the driver no doubt blinking, passengers napping, each with a smile.

A joke I heard on a Saturday when the only ones on a project were the drywall contractor and me, the painting contractor. Though he has a crew, this was a small job that had to get done. “So,” he said, “if you’re self-employed, you only have to work half a day.” I waited patiently for the punch line. “And you can choose which twelve hours you work.”

These days, and for a while, we count ourselves lucky to have work. And if we do… have to work.

I won’t whine about the times I’ve worked close to waves I’d have rather have been riding.  No, I will. There was one afternoon, years ago, painting a house just above Stone Steps. It was perfect. So glassy. Surfers just off work were filling in the lineup. I was painting. It was after my regular job; a side job; and it had to be done. 

I’ve had discussions with Archie about how, mid-week, mid-winter, we know (at least recognize) most of the surfers at the several spots we prefer. Yet, each time the forecasts and the actual conditions give surfers a reasonable hope for something ‘surfable’, there are a few new faces in the parking areas. Hopeful expressions on people who called in sick, took a day, took a chance.

And, Archie (who worked long hours, every day, for months in Alaska) reported, in a cell phone discussion on how he wasn’t really interested in going with me on the only version of a trip I could make, a pre-dawn start and a quick return; on Tuesday, with very small waves he was going to pass on, four people went out.

I, no doubt, would have joined them. Let me extend my most sincere wishes that everyone can find a few waves to put that subtle smile on our faces. Warriors, whenever we can make it. 

San Onofre Tales & Phillip Harper and the Sailfish

San Onofre is surfing history.

Particularly for the early surfers who parked on the beach, camped out there, built a few palapas, rode the rollers. It seems, to those of us reading about it, checking a few photos, a friendly sort of place frequented by people who saw themselves as rebellious and wild, but, by today’s standards, quaintly so. 

Located (I know you know this) near the northwest point of the massive Camp Pendleton…wait. I should explain, just to be clear, that Camp Pendleton is roughly a triangle, with Oceanside at the lower point, San Clemente north, and, twenty miles inland (as the seagull flies) Fallbrook. That’s where I was raised, and, from my house, I always sort of believed, if I stood on the fence on the front edge of the property, and looked west, somewhere just over those coastal hills, that late afternoon glow was a reflection off the unseen water, just below our horizon, at San Onofre.

At some point the San Onofre Surf Club made a deal with the Marine Corps allowing club members access past the guard shack, down a winding little road along a riverbottom, and then past the railroad trestles (yeah, those Trestles), then near the Officers’ Club, the buildings a last remnant of a time when the entire area was part of a Spanish Land Grant. Nice location, in some trees in a usually sedate (wave-wise) cove right between Church and San Onofre.

Beach access was also given to Marines, and dependents. In Fallbrook, most of my friends’ dads, or moms, or both, worked on the base or were Marines. Kids of Marines came and went, on some three year cycle. My family was in Fallbrook because, once there, my mom didn’t want to move the increasingly large family elsewhere. Though my father remains a Marine (of the Corps, to the core), he went to work splicing telephone cables all over the base for the rest of his career.

Children of Civil Service workers didn’t have beach parking privileges, and any other surfers granted access on the base had to park in a lot* separated by those whispy trees particular to windy parts of California. I think, of all the times I went to San Onofre, mostly between 1966 and 1969, whoever I was with got to park on the beach.



There were fishing boats offshore, seagulls circling them. The waves were glassing-off, decent sized, and it wasn’t even crowded for a Saturday afternoon. Phillip had talked my parents (my mom, mostly) into allowing me to go with him. My mom loved Phillip from all the times he went to the beach with her driving the big wagon, he almost like another one of her seven kids. She probably bought Phillip’s ‘otherwise I’ll have to surf alone’ argument.

“Just don’t go 101,” she, no doubt said. “Slaughter Alley? No, Mrs. Dence, we’ll go across the base.”

Phillip had a vehicle, probably the VW truck that he and I tried to sleep in on the cliff above Swamis. There’s a house there now, and, somewhere after midnight, we were rousted by the cops.

Wow; I got immediately off subject.

Okay, so we were 16. “We have our parents’ permission,” Phillip said, me backing him up with a “Yeah; we do.” “Well, kids; you don’t have ours.” “So, what do we do, Officers?”

We actually drove halfway home before Phillip pulled over, asked himself and me, “What would Bucky do?”**

“He wouldn’t go back home,” each of us said. “No way.”

Still, by the time we got back to Swamis, others were in the water. Three, five… others.

But, at San Onofre, that Saturday afternoon, between sets, a fish leapt out of the water. It was huge, with a spear-like nose, and mid-leap, mid arc, seemed frozen in the air. Both Phillip and I saw it, looked at each other. Maybe one or both of us screamed. Phillip broke (first) toward the beach. He paddled so fast he almost outran a wave, but didn’t (of course), and it broke right on his back and he had to swim.

I’d like to think I gave him a lift.

When Phillip and I got to the shallows we looked back out at the glassy afternoon waves, sparkles on the incoming lines, the fishing boats motoring back and forth offshore.

San Onofre, we told each other, and others (critics always mentioned ‘Old Man’s’), was a place where you could make the waves as difficult as you wanted. You could ride like an Old Man, or you could take off behind a peak. Indeed, there was at least one guy out, “Probably on the Hobie team” Phillip said, who was back-dooring the peaks, ripping across the faces.

“Why’d we paddle in?” One or both of us asked. I’m guessing we laughed, paddled back out, warily scanning the water around us, at least for a while.

*This will show up in a story of “Bill Birt, ‘Skip-rope,’ and the Stolen Racks.”

**Bucky Davis was a surfer, probably my second surfing hero, and dated Phillip’s sister Trish. He’ll show up again in a (not yet written) San Onofre story, “’Cowabunga!’ and ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned.’”

In fact, telling that story is the reason I started Real Surfers.

We’ll get there.

Thanks for coming along.

Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi

Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi

Weekly (until I run out of them) Bill Birt Story
Before I posted it here I ran my story, “The Ghost of Bill Birt,” past the only friend from my Fallbrook surfing days I’m still in contact with, Ray Hicks, now living in Carlsbad, and still surfing.
“What a character,” Ray wrote, also mentioning in the e-mail the story he claims he’ll never forget; the one about Bill and the octopi at a minus tide 1967 San Onofre.*
With the rest of some subgroup of Fallbrook Sophomore surfers- Phillip Harper, Ray Hicks, probably Mark Metzger, Billy McLean, me, standing around a beach fire between sessions, standard practice in those days of short john wetsuits, Bill was down with the old beachcombers and the young kids examining the tide pools.
You should bear in mind that most of us were sixteen, Billy fourteen**, and we didn’t get all excited about sea urchins and starfish and the like. That is, we wouldn’t want someone else in our group to see us get excited about the perfect sand dollar. We were, no doubt, talking about whether we’d go out again, comparing rides; some talk, no doubt, about girls- so much more mysterious than waves.
So, here came Bill, glasses on but fogged by salty damp air, trudging up the fairly level beach- maybe more like marching- huge smile on his face, and, when he got close enough, we could see he had an octopus wrapped around one arm, another sort of cradled at stomach level.
There was a moment of…”Wait! What? Hey!”
Bill threw one of the live creatures onto into the fire. It just as well could have been a grenade. We all leapt backwards.
There were, of course, other first verbal reactions, most one syllable; or an extended “Shhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiii…..” Someone may have shrieked.
No, not me.
And if I did; well; there was an octopus in the fire!
Bill looked at each of us, each of us equally horrified, and said, quite matter-of-factly, lifting the remaining octopus, obviously still alive, to eye level, moving it in a circle for each of us to appreciate. “This one’s smaller; we’ll eat it first.”***
*Because one story leads to another story, or even another group of stories, in writing this I discovered I have to tell more ‘San Onofre Tales.’ I’m working on it.
**Billy McLean is another character from my past. His slightly-crazed personality, his knack for getting otherwise-peaceful friends into trouble, no doubt aligns with some member of at least one subgroup of your own surfing contemporaries. I’m working on a few Billy McLean stories (physically wincing at the thought).
And, of course, I have a few more on Bill Birt.
***The second octopus went back in the tide pools, all of us marching down to make sure; someone apologizing to it for the murder of its friend.
No, not me. And if I did…