Many people have asked, “What does it take to be a pro surfer?” Literally, nothing but an entry fee. Any bozo can enter a professional event and by definition “be” a pro surfer. In 1988, after graduating from First Colonial High School with honors*, I became one of those bozos.
I must point out that Kelly Slater was just a really good 16-year-old kid from Florida at the time. Being from Florida, or anywhere else on the East Coast, meant that however hard you ripped in little waves, you couldn’t hang with the pros when conditions got serious. And thus, you didn’t matter. We were the bastard stepchildren of the sport (no disrespect to bastard stepchildren).
With no travel fund, much less a salary, I set out in late June with nothing but a few bucks from graduation to make my debut at the Garden State Pro in Seaside Heights. While others equated 1980s Jersey Shore with used syringes and Bon Jovi hair, for me it represented the land of opportunity.
Just before leaving, I took part in my first photo session, if you wanna call it that. SURFER lensman Dick Meseroll waded into the knee-high slop at First Street with his water housing, and I did everything I could to run him over. Mez was a pro, and since his camera was aimed at me, even if it was only to protect his face from my board, I felt like a pro too.
There was nothing dreamy about the world tour back then, unless you were a hungry youngster looking to get a start. With no such thing as the interweb, contests venues were based on proximity to crowds rather than good waves. Every contest held an open trials beforehand, and sixteen lucky trialists squeezed into the main event. There, guys like Tom Carroll, Martin Potter, and OMG Wes Laine waited to squash any cocky young upstarts. Amazingly, after a couple days of surfing I found myself in the last round of the trials, one heat from vast fame and riches, or at least a paycheck and a good beating from one of my heroes.
On a cold, foggy morning, I pulled up my fullsuit and prepared to announce my arrival in the world of pro surfing. With under five minutes until my shot at Main Event glory, I sensed the last thing I wanted to feel at that instant, an unwelcome visitor rearing its ugly head – the dreaded turtle head.
I had to poop, but there wasn’t time.
The moment was too big. I couldn’t let this chance slip. The horn blew, and I paddled into an ocean that had plummeted in temperature overnight due to upwelling. In other words, I wasn’t about to unzip my suit to drop a deuce.
Halfway through the twenty minute heat, a dense fogbank rolled in. The announcers called us back to the beach to wait for the fog to pass, which could happen at any time. We were told not to leave. My big moment was becoming an endless nightmare.
This turtle was no shrinking violet. He refused to retreat into his shell. A frantic search of the boardwalk turned up nothing. There were pizza slices and funnel cakes at every turn, but nary a porta potty or public restroom anywhere. And the more I roamed, the more my little friend longed to be free.
The fog finally lifted, and my three opponents, my turtle head, and I were all sent back into action. With my effort focused on the preventative clenching of my bum, my surfing suffered. I likely wouldn’t have advanced either way, but my delicate state guaranteed epic failure.
Thankfully, it finally ended, and I was able to flee the event sight to track down a delivery room. Labor went well. It was a girl, and I named her Snooki. I never saw the little shit again, but I hear she’s done well for herself. (True fans know that Snooki was born six months earlier, but I couldn’t resist.)
For the record, the event sponsor skipped town with the checkbook just as the finals wrapped up, leaving some angry pros wondering why they’d just spent a week in New Jersey. At least I only had to spend two days there without getting paid. I consider that a win.
*I didn’t technically graduate with honors. I had a 2.97 GPA, but at graduation I figured out that all the honor students had an asterisk on the index card they handed to the announcer as they ascended the stage. I scrawled an asterisk on my card, and I was announced as an honor student (but not an honorable one.)