He was smiling as I pulled into the parking lot, maybe with a a little too much exuberance for the stoic early morning beach vibe. His tween face was turned toward the sky as he excitedly waved a hand at the concrete, while an older lady next to him fought with an inside-out wetsuit.
I parked, suited up, and hauled my board down the wooden stairs to the beach. Winds were light and offshore, the sun was peeking through what had been a week-long barrage of drenched clouds, and a swell had filled in overnight.
I paddled out and easily caught a few waves, thanks to the thick volume of a new longboard. The guy that shaped it for me, in his late-80s now, also made a board for my dad over a half-century ago. That yellowing beast stands in the corner of my living room, still seaworthy, but a heavy missile in the wrong hands.
The board, not my dad.
I turned for a decent-sized left and took a high line to outrun the chaos breaking behind me. Just as the wave was starting to pitch over my back shoulder, I passed the kid I’d seen in the parking lot. He was paddling over the wave on a flimsy, blue foam board from Costco, nodding at me and smiling the same huge smile he’d offered the sky.
I saw him again in the lineup when he sat a couple of feet away from me, violating the unsaid surfers’ personal space protocol. He had barely enough board under him to keep from sinking, and every few minutes he’d splash the water with both hands and yell something unintelligible.
I couldn’t tell if his outburst was lined with joy or frustration, so I left him alone.
A bigger set rolled through, and I didn’t want to get caught inside, so I paddled for the first wave. I looked back to see if anybody was watching out for the kid, because there was a lot of water moving around. The second wave had already reduced everyone to scrambling ants, so I focused my attention down the line and raced toward home.
I didn’t want to fight my way back out there, so I let the water carry me to the sand, picked up my board, and started climbing the stairs. I kept an eye on the ocean, wondering what happened to the kid, when another overhead set showed on the horizon. The first wall of water rose to a peak over a solitary surfer, who dropped in late, powered out a bottom turn, and took a perfect line.
On a flimsy, blue foam board from Costco.
I watched him ride the wave all the way in, throwing spray off the top and cutting back whenever he got ahead of the section, with the grace and power of my childhood surfing hero.
The ghost of Tom Curren.
The wave deposited him in waist-high water, where he started splashing around and smiling his huge smile. He waved his hand at the older lady on the beach, the one I’d seen struggling with his wetsuit in the parking lot.
And paddled back out.