Windansea, Chris O’Rourke, and the Neanderthal

“Neanderthal,” the Kid said with the deepest voice he could manage.

The first time I decided to surf the famous Windansea, a foggy, glassy, afterwork afternoon, December of 1971, there were, maybe, eight or ten surfers clumped around the peak. Trish was waiting in the car. I must have promised to take her somewhere.

Newly married (very, November 20), we lived in Pacific Beach, across the street and just up from Tourmaline Canyon. PB, but practically La Jolla; right where Mission turns to La Jolla Boulevard. So, why not Windansea?

When I got out of the water at dark, after something less than an hour, my bride asked me why I, notorious wave hog, hadn’t caught more waves.

“I was lucky to get three or four.” The waves I did get were insiders or those waves the various members of the local crew were a little too far outside for. And, competing for the scraps on the inside with me was this Kid. It was Chris O’Rourke, before he became famous, notorious even, before he got cancer. He would have been twelve or thirteen, and was begging the older surfers for waves.

“Can I go? Can I have it? Can I go?”

It worked. For him. I didn’t try. Wouldn’t. Ever. Though I’d also seen several of the surfers out that evening in PB, they were either also being denied waves or were part of the pack, defending their home peak.

The main feature of the rights is, and always was, the steep drop. Bottom turn, hit the shoulder, cut back, bounce a bit, hope to have enough speed when the inside section jumps up. The lefts offered a longer ride, but, no, I wanted the rights. Always.

Sitting on my board away from and on the side of the peak that would favor going left, but hoping for a sneak-through right, I exchanged a glance in the waning light with the Kid. Not quite a nod. He turned to the group, and, in a stage whisper, with a nod to make sure they knew who he was speaking of; said, “Neanderthal.” Then, louder, maybe, “Ne-an-der-thal.” Everyone looked. Most chuckled.

I did surf Windansea again, without the freeze-out, but only on those days when most other nearby spots were closed-out. Oh, there were some spots along Sunset Cliffs that would hold a bigger swell. After getting brutally washed against those cliffs once, having my board end up in a cave the next time, finding myself in the biggest tube of my life another time, the choices being- make it or end up against the cliff; I ventured back.

Oh, I made the Sunset Cliffs tube, figured I’d beaten the odds, looked for a way in.

On my first bigger wave session at Windansea I lost my board on two of my first three waves- nailed by the lip on the drop on the first, not having the speed for the inside section on the other. Swatted. On my second swim-in, someone had, nicely, pulled my board from between two of those big, soft-looking rocks, and set it on top of one. Tourist, no doubt.

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A COUPLE OF YEARS LATER, competing in a Western Surfing Association contest, I was in a heat at Luscombs (sp?) at Sunset Cliffs for second place finishers in previous heats. Only the winner would be advancing. Lined up for the wave of the day, there was that Kid again.

“You going?” He must have been in the contest, but, at this moment, I was the surfer wearing the jersey.

“Oh, yeah.”

I went right; pretty sure he took the left, probably aceing-out some other competitor. Even if he didn’t, the right was better; and I won the heat; probably my sweetest victory in a brief WSA career.  

I can’t say I witnessed Chris O’Rourke break any rules of proper surf etiquette. All these year later, a thousand miles plus away from Windansea, if I run into someone with a connection to La Jolla (and I have), his name is part of a list of La Jolla surf alumni. Folks from there know their local surf history surprisingly well.

“Neanderthal? He called you a Neanderthal?”

“Oh, yeah.”

I can never help but say that with a bit of pride.

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