Another Nearly-True (but still fictional) Story from Surf Route 101

La Marea Esta’ Subiendo [The Tide is Rising]

Her assumption must have been that an incoming tide brings things in, in toward shore. That’s when she would show up at Windansea, looking over at or walking the high tide line; scraps of driftwood and plastic and seaweed. I can’t be sure if she showed up for the middle of the night tidal pushes. I certainly didn’t. I was really only there when I thought there might be overhead waves.

But, I did see her there; I knew why she was there. One of the La Jolla locals who also surfed Crystal Pier was kind enough to explain, on a flat day, up in the parking area, careful not to have any other locals see him talking to someone who lived outside, even if just outside, the acceptable local zone. My not-really-a-friend even translated the phrases she kept repeating.

After my first attempt at surfing Windansea, I always checked it out when it was too big for any break in Pacific Beach. I’d given up on big days at Sunset Cliffs, my original choice, after a bad experience at Luscombs.

To this day it was the tube of my life. Everything being ‘locked in’ was supposed to be: Time slowing down, a thousand mirrors bouncing off the wall of the wave, a crystal chandelier exploding, the only sound wet rumbling-thunder; but, no, it was not at all peaceful. After the initial drop there was no choice but the tube; but I had to, had to make it. All I saw, peripherally, in an infinite moment, was the cliff, to my left, through the curtain.
Oh, yeah; the curtain; thrown over me…one…two…three… tighter… then pulled back. Open face. Breathe. Yeah; all the cliche’s, except, except…

… except I was the only one out; tubed but scared shitless; no less so after I made it to the shoulder, well within the shadow of the cliffs, standing, stretching, just cruising over the last of the dark, fat wave, even unable to celebrate my survival, my victory. The sun reflected in a variety of stripes and lines and sparkle on three more waves in the set. Paddle!

I caught more waves, dropping in on the shoulder, driving down the line. It took three waves before the memory of the first ride came clear. What was; what could have been. Even if I hadn’t made it, I told myself, I would have been all right. Still, my breathing quickened. Wave of my life. It was, I (again) told myself, enough for this day. I wasn’t scared; but I was, I guess, reluctant.

Sorry; too much explanation. This wasn’t my plan for this story.
Quicker: I tried to time my exit. Retreat. I could see the set hitting a reef farther out, an indicator. Three waves. I paddled out, over the first three, turned, held my position; caught the third. No tube; but a long wall. When it went fat, I straightened-out. There was backwash hitting the bluff, energy from the first two waves reflected from the point. My thought was I’d climb up the cliff (it’d worked before, but there were people there to grab my board as I scrambled up). The time I spent trying to find a place to land allowed the next wave to break hard, clean. I got worked, pounded, feet in river-type rocks, board bouncing against sandstone. And another, and another.

I had no choice but to leap onto my board, back into the next wave. I decided to paddle toward the cove. I paddled to my right, then toward shore. Almost there, a wave (six feet, at least) crashed down, right on my feet. In the cove!
I just hung on. There’s catching the soup; part of any surfer’s learning curve; and there’s this: I was engulfed. It’s like the wave smothers you, rolls over you; a heavy piece of driftwood; but then you’re pulled, or sucked, back over the energy and blasted in front of it. I’ve made it through this so many times. Not that one. Somewhere, probably when I was separated from my board, hands still clutching the rails, then violently thrown against it, I let go. Sorry. When I thought I was at the surface, I inhaled, still six inches left of a foot of churning foam. I coughed, inhaled again, coughed, got enough air for another wet cough.


I was gasping, confused, in another shadow, suddenly aware I was cold, cold and caught in the turbulence of too much energy from too many directions. Still, I wasn’t scared. I knew I could make it to shore, some shore; even if the rip took me north, toward that pinnacle rock; even if… I told myself I would not drown. Never.

And I did make it to the non-beach; still coughing; breathing in, coughing out, leaned over, hands on my thighs.

Image (33)

Two surfers were half-sliding down a steep trail in the corner of the cove. One of them yelled out, “Man; your board hit sooo hard!” And I saw a board; half a board, on the rocks to the north. “That’s it; broken,” I thought. Then; “Wait, my board’s red.” My board was, had to be… I jumped back in the water. I found my red board at the top corner of a cave under the sandstone. I had to swim in; the tide still rising, the waves still coming.

It’s a little bay, really; Big Rock on the south end, Windansea in the middle. As I said, I knew (four waves in an hour on a six foot day for a twenty year old wave hog) only to surf it when it was big enough that the pack at the peak (there has always been a pack at the peak) couldn’t maintain tight control. I’ve never surfed the breaks outside or north of the main break, only surfed the main break; never went left. Steep drop, then fat shoulder; juke around, try to have some speed for the inside section. The day after the tube of my life, while successfully negotiating quite a few waves,  I lost my board three times at Windansea. Not on the drop; but, once trying to backdoor the peak, twice not having enough speed on the inside section.
Someone, probably a tourist, on the second wipeout, was kind enough to place my board up on the high rocks; protected from the waves and the rising tide. When I came in, retrieved my board, felt the new ding on the rail, looked at how much more crowded it was than when I’d gone out, thought about where I was supposed to be, I had to pass by the woman. She looked up; first at my board (no, my board was red), then at me. I smiled. No, I was just someone who wasn’t the man she was still looking for. She really didn’t see me. Not me. She looked past me and kept talking:

“No he visto el cuerpo,” I have not seen the body.
“Nunca se ahogaria.” He would never drown.
“Nunca.” Never.
“E’l debe ser tan frio.” He must be so cold. “Tan Frio.” So cold.

There was a sudden crowd at the palapa, more at the railing; some were pointing. I looked around, scanning the lineup. A board hit one of the big rocks to my left. A hollow, solid thud. On the next wave it drifted back out, moving in the rip toward Big Rock. I just watched it. In moments, it seemed, two lifeguards passed me, passed the woman, both leaping into the shorebreak. As everyone watched the rescue, I looked at the woman.

The guy was all right. Kook; never should have been out there.

The woman looked at her watch, crossed herself; the last move, smoothly executed, seemed to be part of her own ritual, her fingers pointing out to sea, then to her lips. Her hand opened, fingers fanned. She reached into a pocket on her coat, pulled out car keys. She did notice me. probably staring, as she opened the door to her (I was surprised by this) fairly new, fairly expensive car. When I didn’t look away, she gave me- not a smile-  maybe a bit of a nod.

The tide was going out. “La marea esta’ bajando.”

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.”


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 or at Kirk’s site (which you should check out)

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (Part Four)

Spring 1968- Another Saturday- Grandview-

The surf was small and choppy. The rights weren’t working at all. I was the only one out on the lefts when John Amsterdam waded halfway out, staring at me as I surfed.

Staring, judging for himself.

Donn Franzich, on the beach, had already told John that I, the entire unofficial surf team from Fallbrook Union High School, had won my first heat at what may have been the first annual (San Diego radio station) KGB/Windansea Surf Club San Diego County High School Surfing Contest.

Yeah, it was a Saturday, but nobody from my local church would have gone down to La Jolla Shores to watch such sinfulness. I had talked Donn into driving me. He was a Fallbrook resident because his father worked in the bigger (than San Diego) city, L.A., and believed his kids should be raised in the country; avocado trees and a horse or two on a mini-ranch. Donn’s, and some other Dads, were home on weekends.

Two girls rounded out our group: Bill Buell’s sister, Margaret Brown (maybe half-sister, technically) and this blonde Officer’s daughter (name long forgotten- sorry) had talked their way into going along; not really like dates, not really girlfriends, but, sure, girls.

My heat had started at the very moment the city and nearby homeowners had allowed the contest organizers to crank up the public address system. The contestants were listed, including: “The pride of Ocean Beach, and a member of the Windansea Surf Club…” And others. And then, “From Fallbrook… I didn’t know they had surf in Fallbrook.”

The actual fifteen minutes was a blur; paddling, surfing, caught inside. I had taken a couple of lefts, ended up out, I’d feared, of the contest zone. Fifteen minutes after the end of the heat my parents showed up, grownups, in shopping/sinning/going-to-a-grownup movie clothes, lumbering across the sand.

I say ‘lumbering’ because, at that moment, I was a little embarrassed by the inland parents of the inland cowboy surfer.

“I don’t know,” I told them, standing, my contemporaries still seated on towels; “one guy in my heat was…they said… probably not good.”

Ten seconds into my parents’ walk back to the car my heat’s results were announced. They both stopped, then turned toward me. “And, in first, from Fallbrook…” It was probably the only time I ever saw my mother leap into the air.

No, I was no longer embarrassed.  My parents, who had taken me on several ‘practice’ trips, who had sat in the car in the almost empty parking lot at 15th Street in Del Mar near dark, were there and the coolest parents on the beach.

What I had won was the opportunity to compete again the next day. My parents would let me borrow the good car.

But now, at Grandview, it was sunny and small, and with Donn and the Officer’s daughter making out against the bluff, Bill’s sister asleep and adding to her sunburn, John Amsterdam was judging me. Harshly. Again.

-August 1968, Lupe’s Left Loopers- Mazatlan, Mexico-

It was never my idea. I never would have thought of it.

Phillip must have heard some discussion of surfing summer waves in Mexico in conversations between his sister’s boyfriend, Bucky, and his friends, friends like John Amsterdam. I was fine with the North County’s beaches.

The increased crowds of summer weren’t such a bother. Oh, maybe kooks and those rich guys from Texas who rented places on 101 by the month, who thought four foot was kind of big, and who went after all the local girls with a certain gusto; and a high rate of success.

Phillip’s stepfather, Vince Ross, was for the plan all the way. “A real learning experience,” he said.  My parents and Ray Hick’s mom had to be talked into the plan. With Ray’s father in Vietnam, Phillip and I went over to try to convince his mother that her son wouldn’t be hauled off by bandits or Federalies. Somewhere after we had changed her mind, I was told (not too subtly) to shut up before I talked her into not even allowing him to hang out with us.

Phil’s younger brother, Max, would even out the crew. We’d be taking Vince’s fairly-new Mustang. Each of us sported fresh haircuts (so we wouldn’t be mistaken for hippies). We had visas granted us, with Vince’s help, on our second trip to San Diego to get them.

Evidently, the first time the people at the Mexican Consulate thought I had been, somehow, sarcastic or disrespectful (really, they were closing and said we’d have to come back and I said we live fifty miles away and, wow, I did enjoy that elevator ride, and…). This time I smiled politely and kept my mouth shut.

My portion of the expenses was (and I forgot this for years) contributed mostly (if not totally) from my sister Suellen’s baby sitting money, borrowed by my parents, probably never paid back (in kind).

My Dad, reluctantly, and at my Mother’s urging, when Phillip came over to convince my parents, gave us some ‘manly’ advice. In the backyard, away from my Mom and annoying siblings, he told Phillip and me that we should avoid any people trying to sell their daughters to us for, “you know… you know.”

Oh, yeah; we knew. We giggled anyway.

“Just wait until you meet a nice girl,” he said, “have sex with her.”

Shocking. Phillip and I would laugh about it later.

So, two and a half days and twelve hundred miles from Fallbrook, there we were, watching choppy six foot waves peel off a jetty. Mexicans on old surfboards Gringos had left behind or sold cheap were out.  One of them fell, got caught in the rip, swimming hard but not moving. Eventually, another surfer gave him a rest on his board, let him off in the surf zone. Seconds later, he was back in the rip.

“Did we come all this way to watch someone drown?” Ray asked. About the time the boardless surfer made it into the shorebreak and onto the beach, we applauding, I turned. Several other surfers were a ways down the little brick wall we were draped over.

John Amsterdam.

He didn’t look happy; even with Phillip. He and the two guys he was with got into their vehicle and moved on, maybe toward some newly discovered Mexican Malibu. Or maybe to discover one.

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.”


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.”


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.