Windansea, Chris O’Rourke, and the Neanderthal

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, we lived in Pacific Beach, across the street and just up from Tourmaline Canyon.

Yes, it was 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, 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 was a steep drop. Bottom turn, hit the shoulder, cut back, bounce a bit, hope to have enough speed when the inside section jumped up. The lefts offered a longer ride, but, no, I wanted the rights.

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” in the deepest voice he could manage, “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 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- once nailed by the lip on the drop, the other not having the speed for the inside. 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.

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 advancing. Lined up for the wave of the day, there was the 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 surprisingly well known list of La Jolla surf alumni. Folks from there know their surf local history.

“Neanderthal? He called you a Neanderthal?”

“Oh, yeah.”

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I’d like to thank Kirk Lee Aeder for responding when I e-mailed him with a few questions about his friend, Chris O’Rourke. Kirk is renowned surf photographer and the author of the O’Rourke biography, “Child of the Storm,” and said my story “Sounds just like him.” The book would be a proper addition to your surf library. You can find the book at Amazon.com or at Kirk’s site (which you should check out) kirkaederphoto.com

Bill Irwin Called-Out Butch Van Artsdalen

                        Bill Irwin, Butch Van Artsdalen, and the ‘Call-Out’

“It was at practice. I was a defensive lineman; Butch came running at me. I didn’t really know how to tackle. I just picked him up and dropped him on his head. He didn’t like it much. Later, he said something to that effect in the locker room. I said, ‘You want to take it outside?’ He said, ‘sure;’ but then, I guess he thought the better of it. I was way bigger than him.”

Bill Irwin was a sophomore at La Jolla High School; Charles M. “Butch” Van Artsdalen was a senior. Butch, who would soon be dubbed the first “Mr. Pipeline,” already had a reputation as a talented surfer. Any description on his surfing included his willingness to get into a few more than his share of physical confrontations.

This isn’t about Butch. A surfer who could ride waves of consequence switchfoot, who could prevail in the lineups at Windansea or Pipeline, Van Artsdalen died of alcohol-related issues before he reached forty years old.

Bill was more interested in chasing girls, diving for lobster and abalone, and body surfing La Jolla spots like Boomer than board surfing. When I told Bill that, in early Bruce Brown movies, even surfers who had lasting reputations (my example- Dewey Weber) just didn’t surf all that well if compared to today’s longboarders.

“Maybe he just didn’t shoot them in good waves.” I added, not to seem too harsh.

“Well,” Bill, who admits to having owned a ‘really long’ board said, “Back then we weren’t so much surfing as plowing.”

Bill went on to play college football, to work various jobs, from drywall hanger to flower salesman; to crew on other people’s sailboats, to co-write two movie scripts that sold but were never produced (“We made money,” he told me, “that was the point.”). He lived in the San Francisco Bay area as the counter-culture was evolving, eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest, settling into a career designing and building custom homes.

I say settled. A General Contractor, by definition, is the person who makes sure the materials and, more importantly, the subcontractors, are on the job when scheduled. This requires that even the nicest General sometimes has to be, well, tough.

And I am one of those independent subcontractors with a schedule of my own. Though we could discuss surfing at length, Bill has no time to hear excuses. Bill has a sort of Honor-among-Tradesmen code. A person must abide by his word.

Now, this honor thing really only works with people who are also bound by some similar sense of ethics, those of us who feel compelled to respond to “You said you’d be here tomorrow” with “Okay, then I will.”

“SURF THE COYLE!

One of my first jobs for Bill was a new house at the very end of the Coyle Peninsula, twenty miles into the Hood Canal. There was no running water available, and my brushes and rollers were all soaking in brownish water after hurrying from my last job. I thought it was perfectly appropriate to clean out the wienie roller I’d be using to pre-stain some boards by dipping it in the new finish, rolling the increasingly-correct color on some freshly-hung Tyvek (brand name) house-wrapping.

The Tyvek would all be covered by siding, so, in keeping with a surfing theme, and because I had a sign painting background…in a perfectly-professional one stroke lettering style… “Surf the Coyle.”

“Unprofessional,” Bill said, quite displeased. “Who’s going to see it?” I asked. “I saw it. And it’s tough, because I actually kind of like you.”  “Well, you don’t have to like me, Bill.” “Oh, yes, I do; otherwise I won’t hire you.” “Oh.”

“YOUD BE AMAZED.”

I didn’t meet Bill until after he had a debilitating stroke, fifteen years ago. “Just bad luck,” he says.

His left leg remains stiff. Accounts vary as to whether he was more volatile before or after. He did have a reputation for being a very hard worker, very productive, and he was always nice to clients. Always. Almost always.

I wasn’t a client. Still, Bill has a certain formality, and really, the worst he really ever said to me is, a few descriptives deleted, is “I’m very disappointed.”

It was once Bill’s desire to retire to Hawaii. He spends a certain amount of time there each spring. Several of his employees (carpenters, not subcontractors) went with him and his wife, Mary, to Maui a few years ago.

This is almost an aside. Mary, Bill’s second wife, is another La Jollan, one of the girls he chased in high school. Unlike Bill, Mary did ride a flexi-flyer inside the storm drain, deposited on the sand at Windansea. He introduced me to her as, “Erwin, he came from Fallbrook.” “Oh,” she said, appearing properly snooty for more than just a few seconds.

“How does Bill do, you know, in the water?” I asked his lead carpenter, Jessie Justis.

“You’d be amazed. He does really well.”

No, I probably wouldn’t be amazed, even surprised. Bill’s a fighter. Or, sometimes, he doesn’t have to.