The Kook Judge hits the Surfrider’s Cleanwater Westport Surf Contest

It was Tom Burns who got me the gig, two days of judging at the Cleanwater Surf Contest in Westport. Oh, I knew it would be exciting, thrilling, and I’d get some food, a place to stay, and a hundred bucks. Professional. Professional-ish. Pro-Am. Yes, I could see myself moving up the ranks, hitting the World Surf League’s Qualifying Series, then the World Tour; France, Portugal, Honolua Bay; explaining to Joey and Potts why I gave Kelly Slater a 12.9 (out of a possible 10); talking them into supporting the number.

“I have to agree, Joey; it was an incredible move. Total commitment, risking… ” “Me too, Potts; and, sure, why not factor age into the mix of Speed, Power, Flow? Say, Erwin, it’s a lay day in another surfing mecca; what do you have planned?” “Well… oh, hi, Strider. Um, maybe see what’s on HBO, maybe a nap.” “I hear that, brother; but for me, the excitement is just about out of control.” “It’s flat, man, sideshore chop; raining like a cow pissing on a…” “So, folks; another lay day here, with new judge Elwin Dence explaining best surfer of all time Kelly Slater’s remarkable…” “It’s Erwin.” “Huh?” “Huh?” “Huh?” “It’s Erwin, boys; not Elwin.” “Thanks, Rosie; love how you say my name.” “And, Erwin, what is on HBO?”

That was my image. Here’s a shot of the actual conditions on Saturday at Westhaven Jetty, Westport, Washington:

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Gosh, it makes you want to suit up and run for the water. Actually, unprepared because I had to work my ass off to finish a job on Friday, I sort of packed, then got up before three am, threw stuff together, made sure I used the bathroom (this is sooo critical- for any surf trip) and headed down Surf Route 101. Then the McCleary Cutoff. Then Highway 8 (I think), then the twenty miles from Aberdeen to Westport, arriving only a little later than head judge Gary Milkie (not sure of the spelling) would have liked. The first heat was about to start, and the judging tent was set up about 75 yards from the main contest area. You know, where the out-of-the-water action is happening.

This is the head judge, Gary; quite a serious guy; and a spotter, checking his Facebook status

This is the head judge, Gary; quite a serious guy; and a spotter, checking his Facebook status

Despite Tom… wait, I should say that I originally met Tom while I was volunteering, trying to make a few bucks for the Olympic Peninsula Chapter of Surfrider, a couple of years ago. I did a crappy job as a heat check-in guy, and a shaky job as a flag changer. “Is it red and green; just green… what?” But, hanging with the judges (who mostly are about my age; I thought I did pretty well. “Red up; no, it’s orange… oh, and, way over there, yellow’s up. No, he’s down. Greennnnnnn!”

The next time I volunteered, two years ago, I signed up early, and put myself in the spotter position for all day Saturday. Evidently, it was revealed later, some other volunteers were a bit perturbed by my hogging of the position. As usual, perturbation noted, not dwelled-upon (they should’a signed up earlier). I did have one chance to judge when Tom had to go the 75 yards (imagine a triangle, bathrooms, main event area, judges tent) to go number one (he says). I was doing fine until two surfers took off on one wave, splitting the wall, three more on the next wave, one of those way down the beach.

“Errrrr! What?” “Put the pencil down,” Gary, whose normal position is stalking behind the row of five judges, asking constantly for a wave count, said. And I did.

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Hey, look; I have to go. I’ll get back to this; wanting to do it right. Tonight, and I’ll upload some of my photos. These were taken by Tom Burns. That’s Sonny; Larry; me with the Seahawks cap under the hoody, concentrating (probably commentating); Gus, one spotter also concentrating, another spotter probably concentrating while trying to keep his parts warmed.

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Again, I’ll be adding more later. “No, I gave him a 5.6. Oh, it’s old guys in this heat? 5.9.”

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There’s no instant replay here. Just getting this from my GOPRO to here took about three heats worth of time. So, we have… no, I have to go. Now that the photos are on this site, I’ll move them around and tell a few tales that, if my performance as a judge doesn’t do it, will keep me from being invited back. No, nothing serious; but, well, you probably can see why judges and on-air talent are different (I wanted to say) animals.

Tom Decker and Jeff Parrish

                        TOM DECKER AND JEFF PARRISH

“You almost killed your buddy. You’re a kook and you shouldn’t be surfing here.”

Jeff Parrish is married to Ruth (formerly Hodgson) a schoolmate of my daughter, Dru, so, yeah, I’m about Jeff’s father’s age.

Jeff and I had a few (each memorable) sessions on the Straits, he coming from Seattle, a ferry and thirty miles before I had to leave home to rendezvous at Discorery Bay. Or, several times, usually around Christmas, he would be at his in-laws’ house.

Frustrated with trying to ride a thruster in typically small conditions, he purchased a long board on Craigslist. This day was probably his second or third time on that board.

Jeff was, he said, so desperate for surf that, when we met at McCleary, he agreed to do the driving. He wanted to try Point Grenville, one of the first places surfed in Washington, a place off limits to non-natives for years.

Because my son Sean had worked on his Masters in Public Administration degree at the Evergreen State College in Olympia along with those in a concurrent Tribal Program, I had checked out Point Grenville. Since nobody told me I couldn’t, while Sean was busy, I walked out onto the beach. I could see how it might be good, imagine hippie/surfers camping on the bluff.  

After Jeff and I made the hour drive from Aberdeen, we saw as much as we could from the bluff, then went to town to get a one day pass or something. With most of the folks on the Reservation busy with a funeral, the person on the other side of the glass at the police station said, “Just go. Just today, though. Huh?”

We drove across a couple of little creeks to the far end, a little hook of a bay. We could paddle across to a point with what looked like four footers breaking with some shape. I was for it. Instead, we drove an hour back to Aberdeen, twenty miles farther to Westport.

Days at Westhaven State Park can be divided into two categories: Days you can paddle out through the waves, and days when you must either paddle out along ‘the wall’ or jump off the jetty. This was a ‘wall’ day, six feet plus, with, maybe, five guys out. One of those guys, we would soon discover, was Tom Decker, long known as one of several local enforcers.

Another surfer was making the long walk from bluff to water at about the same time as Jeff and I. He was telling me about how he’d just ripped it up at the Groins on his new board; but now the tide was too high, and, oh, hadn’t he seen me before at Twin Rivers? Probably.

Paddling next to the jetty isn’t exactly easy, either. There’s still a version of the extra-deep Westport impact zone, bouncy chop, waves to duck under or crash through. Partway out I heard the unmistakable sound of a surfboard smacking full-on into a rock. The owner of the board was swimming. “My son’s out there. Tell him I’m going in.”

“Okay.” I never saw his son. Once I thought I’d made it out I was instantly confronted with an outside wave. I turned turtle, and, I swear, instead of being pushed back but clearing the wave, my big board me hanging onto the rails, was lifted, straight up, just like a submarine broaching way too fast. Or, think whale rider, upside down.

The waves offered two options: A quick left toward the jetty, or a longer right, followed by trying to fight back out. The longer the ride, the worse your chances. So, catch the soup in, battle the wall back out. And, seconds after getting back out again, there’s another outside wave. This is another Westport feature; a wave six inches higher can break fifty yards farther out.

On one particular outsider, the only other surfer who wasn’t Tom Decker, Jeff, the guy who ripped the Groins, or me, decides he should make a bottom turn as close to me as he can get without actually touching. And I get thrashed by the wave.

Three or four waves into the session, my ears already plugging up, I notice Jeff is hugging the jetty, the peak at least fifty yards away. I also notice Tom is sitting inside of me, I’m getting cleaned up, and he isn’t. I also notice Tom and the Groin Ripper are now engaged in some verbal fisticuffs.

Tom Decker was the first surfer I saw ripping across six foot lefts at Port Angeles Point, on the Lower Elwha Reservation. This was early 1979, before access there became restricted. Tom lived as close to the waves as he could, surfed as often as it broke. I borrowed a wetsuit from him a couple of times, negotiated for its purchase, didn’t end up buying it.

When I surfed in my second of the Ricky Young-run longboard contests in the late 80s, early 90’s, seeing Tom was to be in my heat, I told a local I’d heard Tom had moved to Bellingham or something, tried his hand at video production. “Maybe, but he’s been living here awhile.” Yeah, he won that heat, but didn’t win the next.

Still, it’s not like Tom would recognize me. I saw Tom on one of the trips I’d made to Westport with Sean while he was still attending Evergreen.  Each trip featured a late session, a stay at one of the several No-tell Motels, an early session the next morning, sand left in the shower. Mr. Decker was in a car at the pot-hole scarred parking lot overlooking Halfmoon Bay, inside the harbor. He had a dog and a short board inside.

One observation that is almost always true about a guy over fifty who rides a very short board is this: He knows how to surf.

I asked the guy if he knew Tom Decker. He looked me over for a moment before saying, “Yeah, I know him. (another moment) He’s an asshole.”

Back to the jetty session. Evidently the Groin Ripper had irritated Tom by trying for several waves and not catching them. Criminal. I told Jeff I was getting out. I could barely hear, and getting constantly caught inside was really pissing me off.

Jeff and I both went for the same peak, side by side. Jeff started to pearl, bailed to one side, his board jumping, sideways, toward me.

When I came up I was shouting. “Damn it! You do something like that in Hawaii, they’ll kill you.”

That’s what I’d heard, anyway. I caught the next wave. I beat the first section and was going so fast, busting over little choppy sections, farther and farther from the jetty. For some reason I was almost laughing. I caught some soup, proned into a reform, did a few turns. When I got to the beach, Groin Ripper was waiting, ready to report on the unwarranted verbal abuse an the walk back. “Who is that asshole, any way?” Well.

On the next wave, Jeff came in, practically sprinting past us.

By the time The Ripper and got to the bluff, Jeff was down the path and Tom Decker was the only guy out. I guess that would have made him happy.

Sometime after we’d changed out, loaded up, headed back, towards McCleary, after I apologized for snapping, Jeff asked if he’d almost killed me.

“No, not really.”

“Well, that’s what that guy said.”

“Oh.” It’s rude to take a nap if there are only two of you in a car. Somehow, and I’m pretty sure I told Jeff this, I felt kind of good. Tom Decker had pretty much called everyone around a kook. But, not me. Trying to clear my ears, I guess that made me kind of, I don’t know, happy.