Kookery loves company

Surfline screenshot of Hatteras

Surfline screenshot of Hatteras

I had to work Saturday to make up one of the countless snow days we had this winter. School on the weekend feels wrong, like that instant when you realize you’re listening to a Miley Cyrus song on the radio, but for the whole day. When I’m not working, I’ve been doing everything around the house while my wife finishes her final months of nursing school and helps transition her grandmother into a nursing home.

Now it’s Sunday morning. The kids have eaten breakfast. The dogs have been out. The last load of laundry is in the dryer. And my phone lights up with a text.

It’s from Ken. “Any chance you would go to OBX with me today?” He isn’t trying to “Ken” me. He’s offering to drive me to Hatteras and deposit me in front of a well-formed sandbar, where all I have to do is slip into my suit, paddle out, flip around, take a few strokes, hop to my feet, lean ever so slightly, then just stand there, maybe scrunch just a tad and tap the brakes, let a groomed lip pitch over my head and envelop me inside a churning cold-water womb, howl back at Ken who is paddling past my tube-view window after his own in-and-out, hold that position as the wave spits me onto the shoulder, remember that no feeling in life matches the thrill of getting barreled, wonder why I have chosen to spend nine months of every year inside a classroom rather than forging some sort of career that allows me to follow the whims of Mother Nature, paddle back to the peak, acknowledge to Ken that the last few months of not surfing have been a colossally poor decision, repeat for the next few hours until we can no longer feel our feet or form coherent sentences due to our faces being numb from the forty degree water, smile stupidly because that’s the face that is now frozen in place, change into some warm clothes and get back in Ken’s truck, exhale a breath of satiation as the heat blasts from the vents and brings sensation back to my face but doesn’t alter the fixed smile, run into Mama Kwan’s to cap the day’s perfection with an order of fish tacos, and float the rest of the way home atop a fluffy cloud made of waves ridden, food devoured, and camaraderie enjoyed, laughing all the way.

Or, I could stick to my guns and text back, “No thanks buddy. Maybe next year.”

I used to wish for a devil wind to whip the surf to shreds any time I couldn’t go to Hatteras. For the first time in my life, I sincerely want my friends to score good waves, even when I’m not with them.

I text Ken a screenshot from the Surfline cam in Rodanthe a few hours later and ask if he’s there. “Nice,” he writes, “after I decided not to go. I’m a kook.”

Comforting to know I have some company.
Speaking of company, the blog just went over 10,000 views in just over two months, so it seems I have plenty of company. (Half of those views are by my parents, but 5,000 is still a decent amount.) People from 57 countries around the world have dropped in to see what I’m up to. What the hell are you people doing? “Quit surfing” the blogosphere and go surfing! And you three people in Hungary, whoever you are, you just need to find an ocean.


The title of this post matters not

Looking into the Promised Land at Burgerworld

Looking into the Promised Land at Burgerworld

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve been up to the mountain.” Nice place – warm, palm trees, waves, WIFI. Truly paradise. And like the good doc, “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.” (Can I get a hallelujah? No? Fine, be that way.) Unfortunately, I cannot shake the reality that having stood atop this peak, any direction I move inevitably leads downhill.

Yes, I’m less optimistic than MLK. I’m not a fucken saint. Unlike him, I am concerned with longevity. And for me, not just for my people. But as I look forward, I see my gradually declining ability to ride waves.

I have a disease. It’s called “Competitive Bastarditis.” I contracted this condition by having an inkling of talent in an era where waves were ridden to the beach, aka the eighties. Not easy to shake that mentality even when I realize the futility and impossibility of trying to “outsurf” another human. For me, surfing has been – in addition to all the wondrous things like escape, and nature, and camaraderie, and fun – about progression. For 30 years, I’ve improved, mostly during the first fifteen but subtly during the second. This rare affliction (CB) strikes a small percentage of surfers, and it’s nearly impossible to cure.

I should consider myself lucky. Most guys my age have already rolled halfway down the hill. I won’t dare claim to have had any miraculous ability; that isn’t the point. I will say, without boasting, that I surfed as well in 2013 as I ever did.

Furthermore, my surfing met its soul mate last year when I made a pilgrimage to surfing’s ultimate playground, Indonesia. (Thanks again to DB the airline mile fairy.)

Bintang brothers

Bintang brothers

In April, my brother and a couple friends and I went to the Mentawais. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the rare adventure that manages to exceed expectations. We didn’t even catch it good, but from where I was standing it was so perfect a place that I’m still not convinced that it’s real. I have pictures, but you can do anything with computers these days.

One thing I realized on the trip was that I never want to eat a giant, writhing tree maggot even if it is good luck. Another was that if I ever make it back to said paradise, it will be as a lesser surfer. There’s no way around the fact that I was on the mountain looking down. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s harder to swallow than the aforementioned tree maggot.
I honestly don’t know if this idea was in the back of my mind when, six months later, I made the decision to take a leave of absence from surfing. The impetus for my experiment formed after I read a piece in The Surfer’s Journal last November about quitting surfing. What the author, Brad Melekian, said was that it doesn’t happen. Sure, we fade away due to mounting responsibilities or injuries, but surfers can’t just stop surfing. I’m like a little kid in that when someone tells me I can’t do something, I want to do it.

If I hadn’t taken this year off, I would have compared all future years to 2013, when I was clinging to my peak in the best waves in the world. As it is, I can come back and compare future years to 2014, when I didn’t ride a single wave, a meager bar that can be topped by a boogieboard in a bathtub.

Again, I’ve only recently thought about that whole mountaintop thing, but it makes sense. No matter how far my skills deteriorate, and how long I’m stuck surfing crappy waves, anything will be better than this.

I believed wholeheartedly that part of surfing is progression. Stop progressing, and you may as well not surf. With that thought, I paid a visit to my most elderly surfing pal Smitty, a 57-year-old kid who was also part of Indo journey. I wasn’t expecting wisdom, just some thoughts on how bad it sucks to grow old.

"Judge me by my age, do you?" Wholly Smit, that dude is 57!

“Judge me by my age, do you?” Wholly Smit, that dude is 57!

“I was never what you’d call a good surfer, but I never thought about progression,” Smitty said. “I think of it as evolution.” Wholly Smit! Despite being a yoga instuctor, a life coach, and really short, he’s not someone I’d consider a Yoda figure. Wisdom was nevertheless flowing from his lips. “A different board or drawing a different line on a wave. It’s all about living in the flow.”

Yoda he is not, but give him another eight hundred years.

The post that changes lives, or the Little Lebowski Surfing Achievers and proud we are of all of them

Surfers ride waves. Waves are a limited resource. There often aren’t enough to go around. I run a surf school. Surf schools create more surfers. Nature doesn’t make extra waves. Should I feel bad?

I don’t.

I really should see myself as a traitor, like I’m selling surfing out to the masses and ruining it for the hardcore regulars.

Yeah, not so much.

It’s not like I’m American Express, or Hollister, or Matthew McConaughey. Oh, you didn’t see Surfer, Dude? No? You’re lucky.
not dude
I might feel bad if I didn’t put my background as a pro surfer and educator to work in building a curriculum that creates responsible little watermen. Yes, I used the word “curriculum” when talking about a surf camp.

People who want to surf are going to learn, with me or with another program, or on their own. On their own, now there’s a concept. There was no such thing as surf camps or foam logs when I was learning. It took me a year to be able to consistently catch and ride waves, but many of my campers are self-sufficient within a week. Kinda pisses me off.

My surf school, as I’ve indicated, won’t be affected by my experiment this year. I’ll still be at camp every morning this summer to see that the show is running smoothly. Sure, not surfing would be easier if I stayed away from the beach, but nothing easy is worth doing. And it’s boring.

Which brings me to my idea. I was racking my brain to come up with a productive use of my time away from surfing, something that could potentially make a difference. I’m not religious, and I firmly believe in the separation of church and surf, yet I’m driven to use my poverty of waves to help and enrich others. Like Arthur Ashe said, “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

Here’s the best I could come up with. There are lots of kids out there who want to surf but cannot afford the cost of camp. Plenty of them live within a few miles of the surf but never experience what the ocean has to offer. This summer, I will personally teach any of them, and I’ll do it for free. That’s right, free surf lessons. If a thousand kids want to surf, great. If no one takes me up on this, I’ll be forced to do something drastic, like water birding.

All I ask is that each student write a letter/email explaining why he or she wants to surf. I promise to resist my teacherly urge to correct their grammar. Or at least try.

I’ll need your help. Spread the word to any people in need of stoke but without the necessary means for a – necessary means for a higher education. Do you really want the water bird pulling up at your local spot?

Random thoughts of a fish out of water

1. I’ve been hearing from more and more people about how they’ve considered taking a leave of absence from surfing. In all my years of riding waves, never once did I imagine quitting (other than for this project). In fact, I’ve long envisioned myself as a decrepit geezer on the last day of my life paddling out at The Jetty, catching a shitty little wave, barely getting to my feet, paddling back out, painfully sitting atop my board…and keeling over. I still do.
old surfer
All the stuff that accompanies surfing – the competition, the industry, the money, and especially all the blabbering – I could easily do without. I’d be happy to ride a few waves, then go about my business.

That being said, if you’re even thinking about quitting surfing, you obviously feel much differently about it than I do. And my advice to you is, do it. You already have.

2. You know how as soon as you get a new car you start to notice the same model all over the roads when before you rarely saw one? I’m feeling that way with non-surfers. I used to look around and think, Man, there are so many damn surfers. Now that I’m not one, I see everybody else. And believe me, everybody else is a lot of people.

The first weekend in March, my brother and I took the rugrats to Grommet Island, a playground right next to The Jetty. It was a beautiful day, and the park and boardwalk were packed. People stood around watching their kids play.

Behind them, perfect little waves peeled off in both directions. Two guys on longboards were having an epic session – drop-knee cutties, Astaire-ish cross-stepping, and noserides from here to eternity. I watched them ride waves, then turned to the parents at the park, and none of them had noticed. All they cared about was their kid going down a slide. Meanwhile, I was crawling out of my freaking skin.

Being a good parent isn’t easy. And considering the countless stories of great people with bad parents, sometimes I wonder if the effort is worthwhile. Maybe my next experiment will be to start drinking heavily and forget my kids’ names.

3. During the second weekend in March, much of the East Coast scored clean, overhead waves, some of the best of the year. Surfers up and down the Eastern Seaboard climbed, dropped, snapped, carved, and even got barrelled. All of my favorite things.
va beach barrel
I got in the water too. I swam back and forth across a pool like a Seaworld show-whale. Down and back, down…and back. My options – freestyle or doggy paddle. My eyes burned from the chlorine. The pool was crowded. I had to share a lane with some girl. I kept pace with her for three or four lengths. Then I rested. She was a machine – never stopped. The bitch lapped me. Several times.

When I got out after half an hour, I sat on the side of the pool to catch my breath. She was still going. She glanced up at me for the slightest instant as she made her turn. I swear she looked like a shark.

In the shower I accidentally saw some old dude’s saggy beanbag. Or was that a mirror? Kidding, but twenty-five years ago that old man was me. More to the point, I’ll be him in twenty-five years. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Brightside, got to find a brightside. The ocean is still below 40 degrees. The pool was 84.

4. My favorite day of the year used to be the Monday after the East Coast Surfing Championships. The beach is empty, fall is in the air, and there are always waves. Now, that day is my first day back at work after summer vacation.

Since getting a job where I get home at 5 p.m., my favorite day has been the first day of Daylight Savings for obvious reasons. I was excited a couple weeks ago when I realized that day was coming.

Excited, then not so much. Another hour of sunlight tacked onto the end of every day is another hour that I cannot surf. Fuck.


For those who were excited to see me gasp and flail like a fish out of water, enjoy! This day’s for you.

You don’t have to go to college to surf


My civics classroom, while a hub of democratic discussion, is an absolute monarchy. Some of my students might go so far as to call it a dictatorship, with an emphasis on the first syllable.

Other than my extremely genuine picture with Adrian Peterson, the décor is all about surfing. My students are not. Out of my nearly 100 eighth-graders, only around five have ever tried to stand on a surfboard. Roughly half cannot swim and have never stepped foot in the ocean. They can tell you anything you’d like to know about basketball, gangsta rap, hair weaves, or Call of Duty. Oh, and of course U.S. government (I hope).

I wondered, recently, if they knew anything at all about surfing. So I asked them. From their replies, I discovered they were more knowledgable than I imagined. Their answers ranged from ridiculous to insightful, and often amusing. Here are some of the more entertaining responses (with authentic spelling preserved):

-Surfing is a sport in which you stand on a board and pull off slick tricks. You musn’t do it as a rookie or you could drown.
-One surfing move is the hang 10. I know this from the back of a shampoo bottle.
-Can’t surf in the sand.
-Sufering can be very dangerous.
-Some people end up living at the beach because of it.
-When you surf its good to have cleared your mind before and to be happy and free your mind.
-It’s a sport you win by being in the longest distance and longest on the board.
-You attempt to ride a wave by gliding against the wave while it makes the circle thing.
-The bigger the board the easier it is to use so generally beginners use these but more experienced surfers use smaller boards.
-Skate boarding on water with out wheels.
-You get a surfboard, go towards the ocean, then catch a wave going back to shore. You can be a 4 year old or even an 80 year old grandpa.
-Surfing is quiet.
-I know not a single thing about surfaing except that the object is to ride a wave in the most awesome way possible.
-There are various extensive tricks to learn, and that a large amount of safety hazards are present.
-You need patience because sometimes you can try your hardest but the wave will let you down.
-They put wax on the board to make it smoother.
-Things you need before you surf: a bodysuit, a surfboard, and knoledge on how to surf.
-I know that if you are in the middle of the ocean and catch a fish, you should let it go and not put it in your pocket and continue surfing.
-If you are lucky enough you won’t get eaten by a shark.
-Beyonce likes to do it on her surfboard.
-A board is about three feet long and flat.
-You don’t have to go to college to surf.
-If you fall you get saved by life guards.
-You have to wax surfboards to get them all grippy and stuff.
-A person gets on a wood board and rides waves.
-There are multiple ways of surfing such as boggy boarding.
-Surfers usually wear a wet suite.
-Surfing is most popular in California or New Mexico because they have better waves than the Atlantic Shore due to gravitational pull coming from the moon.
-You get on a bord that looks like a long skate bored and you get on top of it and ride the waves.
-The trick of it is to do it while you’re on water.
-Don’t wear a shirt or you’re lame. And you gotta be tatted so you can look cool.

I think I Ken

Ken doing his soul good by leading his favorite cause, www.wavewarriorssurfcamp.org.

Ken doing his soul good by leading his favorite cause, http://www.wavewarriorssurfcamp.org.

There were some people who I couldn’t wait to tell about quitting surfing. I knew they’d see the warped logic in it, and I was right. There was one friend who I dreaded telling, because he’d think I’d lost it. Again, I was right.

Ken and I have been tight since the ’80s, a decade that I like to say he still lives in. He rides the same standard thrusters in all surf, quotes the same raunchy comedies, and cracks the same jokes he did when Reagan was in office. Not only that, he surfs almost as often and just as well as he did back then as a charter member of the Hotline “Soul” Team, ‘Brotherhood of Slashers, Thrillseekers, and Dogz.’

The first thing Ken texted me when he heard was, “Do I need to do an intervention?” He followed with, “Might not want to let it go on too long, could hurt your surf camp business.” He never stops thinking about business.

A couple weeks later he came with heavy artillery, hurling cliches such as “Live for today,” “You have a gift,” and , “Inspire the youth.” Then, the big one, invoking the spirit of my best friend Jeff Hunter who passed away suddenly at age 24. “If Jeff could speak with you today, he would tell you to stop being so silly and catch a wave for him!”

I believe Jeff would have loved the idea of a year off, maybe even done it himself, but I decided to let Ken think he had me. “Let me know when you’re surfing,” I texted a couple days ago. “I’m in.”

He called back a few hours later and said, “The good news is there’s nobody out. The bad news is that’s because there was nothing to entice them.” Then, thinking he might lose me, he added, “Actually there’s a little wave, and the tide’s coming in. It’s time, let’s rock and roll.”

Chicks dug the 1980's Ken doll

Chicks dug the 1980’s Ken doll

Ken’s specialty is talking friends into joining his daily half-hour sesh. We call it getting “Kenned” when he convinces us to paddle out in absolute crap. You might think the reason is misery loves company, but Ken is never miserable when he’s surfing. As long as he can climb to his feet and go, he’s stoked.

I pulled up to The Jetty and saw he’d Kenned one other sucker. He is, after all, a salesman, one of the best surf reps in the biz. While they struggled to make headway along the knee-high dribblers, I sqeezed into my hooded 5 mil, boots, and gloves, giggling the entire time.

Ken didn’t see me until I was waist deep. A wave of stoke, easily the wave of the day, washed over him when he saw that he’d Kenned me. The feeling vanished just as fast when he saw that I had no surfboard. I was walking into the 38-degree surf carrying nothing but the smile on my face.

He tried giving me his board, but I’ve built an immunity to his sales tactics. “Come on, dude,” he insisted. “It’s good for the soul.”

I hung out for a few minutes, even gave Ken a push into a wave. It was the fastest his board had moved all session. I love Ken like a brother and respect his dedication to surfing, but I couldn’t fathom how fighting to churn out some forward momentum and eking out a closeout reo a few times each day could benefit anybody’s soul.

Watching him rhythmically pump down the line as if chugging up a hill on a hand car, I flashed on the notion that surfing had him in some kind of mindless, meditative trance. I saw him as The Little Engine That Could, chanting the mantra, “I think I Ken, I think I Ken.”

Could that be part of surfing’s grip, the repeated spurts of turning off the mental static, a form of athletic meditation? For guys like Ken, whose minds are always working, those precious seconds are the only reprieve in the course of a day. In that regard, it’s at least good for the body and for the mind.

Getting Kenned, and stepping out to spend a half-hour goofing around with your friends like were you a teenager, maybe that’s good for the soul.

Drivin’ South Part Two

All alone on the road to somewhere.

All alone on the road to somewhere.

The more I went to Hatteras, the more I realized how lucky I was to live within surgical-striking distance of the best surf on the coast. This anemic strip of sand offered the perfect foil to First Street – isolation compared to crowds, power to weakness, and tuberides to turns. For every young East Coaster, there comes a day that lets you know if you’re up to the challenge.

During my senior year at First Colonial High, I skipped school one winter day to make the trek. I don’t recall who I went with, but at some point they left because the wind wasn’t cooperating. That afternoon I found myself in the back seat of a blue Ford Bronco that was purchased illegally. The owner had bought the car using money paid to him for, get this, riding waves.

That concept, getting paid to surf, actually making a career of riding waves, had inched its way into my consciousness during the previous few years. By 17 I knew there was no better way to earn a living. It was all I wanted to do. As we barreled down Highway 12 at 90 m.p.h. towards an afternoon glass-off in Rodanthe, I felt like a rock star.

Beside me was Ken Hunt, and in the passenger seat in front of me was Brian Brennan, both a few years older and both studs of the Eastern Surfing Association’s Virginia District. I was among royalty. And on the driver’s throne, with his big right foot flat on the floor, was the king himself, OMG Wes Laine. Although on the downside of a stellar career, he was still among the world’s top surfers.

I flashed on my schoolmates suffering through seventh bell and wished they could see me at that moment. Our vehicle could’ve plunged off the Oregon Inlet Bridge and I’d have died a happy kid. All of a sudden, we passed the only other humans we’d seen in a while, two cops in an unmarked police car. So much for making the glass-off; OMG Wes Laine was about to be carted off to jail.

For five minutes, our fearless leader was harangued on the side of the road by the officers. These dudes were no Ponch and John; they looked more like Bubba and Junior. Then, to our shock, they got in their car and drove away. And with a devilish grin, OMG Wes Laine hopped back behind the wheel and continued towards Rodanthe. The officers, it turns out, were on their way to a cookout and had their minds set on some Carolina barbecue rather than a bunch of paperwork back at the station.

Moments later, we were donning full wetsuit armor and leaping off the pier into our own smorgasbord of surf. I’d never jumped off a pier; in fact I’d chickened out back home when I’d had the chance. There was no way I was backing down in front of these guys.

Does this suit make my butt look big? Photo: Michael Davis

Does this suit make my butt look big? Photo: Michael Davis

We traded overhead bombs until dark with nary another soul in sight. I followed the boys’ lead and went on anything that came my way. It’s funny that I don’t remember any single wave from the session, yet I recall minute details from the ride down and especially the ride home.

We stopped for beer and, per tradition I was told, a big bag of crab-flavored potato chips. The empty bottles, I’m ashamed to say, were used for full speed target practice on road signs. Turns out I was a decent shot, at least until I finished a second cold one and began to lose control of all motor skills.

With around a quarter of the bag of chips remaining, Ken used his fist to crush what was left into a fine powder. I was then informed that it was the initiation of the new kid to devour whatever crab dust was still in the bag. They could’ve told me to gnaw the bloody fur off a roadkill opossum, and I’d have asked, “Should I eat the maggots too?”

The crabby finish failed to leave a stench on a flawless day. In all my travels, I’m yet to find anything better than a good day down south. Then again, it’s not the waves that I remember.