Learn to surf like an Old Man
“Brah, this is junk,” he said squinting at the pure, white powder. Untouched, it lay in soft, smooth mounds, with the exception of a lone pair of ski mobile tracks. Woody lifted the mirrored sunglasses from his red, chapped face, revealing the white sunglasses-shaped tan line that every ski patroller sported.
“Sixty-three days, brah,” he said simply, strapping into his skis.
“Sixty-three days until what?” I asked, stamping into my snowboard.
“Sixty-three days until you learn to surf, Nosebone,” Kai said, flicking the frozen septum piercing in my nose.
Sixty-three days later, I drove down a dirt road into San Onofre State Beach’s parking lot. Rock star parking lines the pavement, just a few steps from the beach.
San Onofre State Beach is technically within San Diego County but claimed by Orange County. It’s home to surfing legends Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison and Hobie Alter. San Onofre was also immortalized in the Beach Boy’s 1963 hit, “Surfin’ USA.”
Established in 1971 by Governor Ronald Reagan, San Onofre State Beach is separated into three areas: San Onofre Bluffs, San Mateo Campgrounds and San Onofre Surf Beach. Surf Beach has three distinct breaks: The Point, Old Man’s and Dogpatch. The windy bluffs, tidal wetlands and vegetation also keeps Surf Beach looking identical to what the missionaries saw 234 years ago. In 1776, Father Junipero Serra established Mission San Juan Capistrano spanning a smattering of coastal towns like San Clemente, San Onofre’s closest town. The beach is flanked by Pendelton Marine Corps Reserve and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. These seemingly disturbing facilities have allowed San Onofre to remain undisturbed for twenty coastal miles without threat of commercialization.
I passed by open tailgates looking for Kai and Woody. Strangers nod, smile and shaka. The shaka is a Hawaiian/surfer greeting with the pinky and thumb extended. The hand is shaken to say “aloha.”
“Hey, Nosebone! Ova heah,” I heard from between a dinged, lemon chiffon Volkswagen van and a white, lifted Hemi with two longboards in the back.
A picnic table groaned with the weight of trays loaded with kalua pork and macaroni salad. Mop-headed kids chased a Labrador wearing a neckerchief. My friends were in dripping boards shorts, their calves and biceps ringed in island art.
A pair of old men in flip flops and Hawaiian shirts played a ukelele and beat on a drum. The drummer belted out a rousing song in Hawaiian as three rows of men danced, bellowing refrains. The dancers were a mixed crew. Mostly seniors with silver hair and skin toasted for decades under the consistent California sun. A couple of kindergartners and their dads urging them along, “You know this dance, son.”
Old Man’s is called that for a reason. Easy consistent waves lets the old-timers ride their heavy, vintage balsa boards. It also provides a great classroom for teaching the grandkids to catch their first wave.
“Nosebone, this is Pretty Boy Pete, he’s gonna teach you to ride today,” Kai said pointing a beer bottle at a man with roasted brown skin and sun bleached, saltwater tousled hair. Pretty boy indeed. He flashed an even, white smile and shook my hand.
“You ever surf?” I shook my head. “No worries, yeah?”
“No worries.” We walked over to a small clearing in the sand, a no-fly zone even Hoku (the lab) didn’t bound into. Pretty Boy Pete sat me down in front of a surfboard.
“Catch,” he said, tossing something. I caught it. It’s a credit card.
“Scrape.” He knelt across from me and began to scrape the old wax from the board with another card. “We’re gonna scrape the old wax and apply some new. Wax off, wax on yeah?” he winked. “That way you get to know the board better.”
Once the grimy grey wax was scraped off like filings, he handed me a white bar of wax. The wax rubbed sticky bumps onto the board’s surface, hence the name StickyBumps. The warm smell of vanilla surrounded me and I started to feel like a surfer.
Surfing originated in the Polynesian Islands. As early as the 15th century, the people were known to enjoy he’e nalu (ancient Hawaiian for “wave sliding”). The sport was perfected in Hawai’i, with the ali’i (royalty and higher classes) establishing board shapers, prayers and special wood to be used in surfboards. Only the koa, ‘ulu and the wiliwili trees were allowed to be used for surfboards. Before construction, sacred rituals were performed to honor the tree’s offering. Ancient Hawaiians used four kinds of boards: the paipo (PA-ee-po), a 2-4′ body board, the omo (O-mo), an 8-12′ mid-sized board and the kiko`o (key-KOH-o), a 12-18′ board. The olo (OH-lo) was reserved for royalty and was 18-24′ long.
Nowadays, you can buy a good, factory made board. A hand-crafted surfboard is still sought out for stellar performance. The board I used was hand-shaped by legendary shaper, Dean Cleary. Cleary began shaping surfboards forty years ago in a shed on Sixth Street in Huntington Beach. He’s currently one of the few noted Americans who specialize in kneeboards. Most hand shapers custom make your board, working with your skill level, physical attributes and desires to make a board that becomes a part of you.
“Now, we’re gonna pop-up and paddle.” Still on land, not even close enough to feel the spray of the ocean, Pete had me pantomime paddling out, pushing up quickly to a standing position and feeling like a big dork.
“Good job,” he smiled. “Okay, some rules, then we ride. If you can’t follow the rules, you don’t need to surf, girl.” He listed each rule on his fingers peppered with words like “inside,” “break,” “peak” and “curl.”
- Don’t surf alone: Even expert surfers have been known to crack their head open.
- Give right of way: The person closest to the upcoming wave gets to ride it.
- Don’t drop in or snake a wave: No snaking around someone or jumping in front of them to steal the wave.
- Paddle behind: Don’t cut across someone riding a wave.
- Hang on to your board: Sometimes, it’s easier to let go and duck under. Don’t. You might injure someone.
We waded out to knee high. The water is icy but the warm sun soon negates the chill. Pete placed the longboard on the water. I strapped the leash to my ankle and lied on it, paddle position. Then he lied on top of the bottom half of my body. I looked back, stunned.
“Paddle,” commanded Pretty Boy Pete as if using a stranger’s tush as a pillow is an ordinary experience.
I paddled towards the horizon. Pete shouted instructions and advice. “Paddle through the wave if it’s too big to crest.” My arms burned from the exercise. Pete stopped us and slid off. I sat up and straddled the board, the wax comfortingly warm under my thighs. I looked back and saw that we were only 10 yards from the shore. Pete stood in the neck-high water. He pointed to various landmarks so I can get my bearings. He showed me how to join a line-up though we were far from the motley line-up of leather-skinned longboarders, tow-headed kids and even dogs curled up on the nose of a couple of boards.
“You can take this one!” he said, perking up. “Turn around!” I thrashed, managing to point the board toward the shore. I saw a small wave beginning to form a few yards behind me. “Paddle!”
I began to paddle. “Paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!” I paddle as if sharks were trying to eat me. “Stand up!” I heard him yell as the swell lifted my surfboard. I popped up like I practiced on the beach. … And launched myself off the side of the board. I belly flopped into the salt water. The board tugged to reclaim me.
“How you?” Pete asked slipping into pidgin. “You wanna quit?” he asks looking at my face. ”Go have a beer. Chillax.”
“I wanna do it again,” I said. A snowboarder’s maxim states that if you fall, do it again immediately or you’ll be too scared to try it ever again. I knew it applied here, too.
“Alright,” he said, eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face. We paddled out, waited and caught the wave. He shouted directives. I popped-up, this time remembering my stance. The wave swelled and carried me. It felt like sliding across a highly polished floor in brand new socks but better. It felt like flying.
San Mateo Campgrounds
RV hookups, hot showers and a quick walk to the beach. Sleeps 8 per plot. Starts at $30-65 per night. Make reservations at Reserve America.
1-800-444-PARK (7275) or www.reserveamerica.com
Stunning ocean view and a great location. Sunday market for local flavor.
Summer rates: $175-375, studio or one-bedroom
Winter rates: $125-225, studio or one-bedroom
533 Avenida Victoria
San Clemente, CA 92672
Old Man’s tailgate party atmosphere encourages sharing food. If you bring shareable snacks, you’ll be sure to join the impromptu potlucks.
A local favorite, there’s a reason their tag line is “world’s best tacos since 1986.” Cheap, tasty and filling, Pedro’s provides fuel for a good day of surfing.
Open 7 am – 10 pm daily
2313 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente 92672
San Onofre State Beach
Call park for hours.
$15 per vehicle. $35-60 per night if you camp on the campgrounds.
830 Cristianitos Road
San Clemente, CA 92672
Surfboard wax in various scents and temperature scales.
Dean Cleary Shaper
Forty years of hand-cfrated surfboards at a reasonable price.