When it is acceptable to cry at a surf contest

A more comfortable chair than it looks.

A more comfortable chair than it looks.

I’ve never cried while watching a surf contest. I’ve been thrilled a few times, angry lots of times, and I’ve been bored more times than I’d like to admit. But I’ve never had a tear well up in my eye in the process of viewing people in colored singlets attempting to outsurf one another. Hadn’t, at least, until today.

After competing in hundreds of amateur and pro events, covering dozens of others on the world tour, and watching as a fan forever, suddenly, today, tears. Do you want to know when someone cries at a surf contest?

When you see a six-year-old kid learning to surf at The Jetty with his dad, getting pushed into whitewaters as you ride into the shorebreak.

When that kid is 14 and he comes to your Sunday morning surf training, and you give him a few tips but can’t tell him the one thing holding him back, that’s he’s a scrawny kid and just needs time to fill out.

When the kid is 18 and starts traveling all over creation and immersing himself with good surfers and good waves and slogging his way through the trials and tribulations of international competition, a many year process, during which he may as well be in witness protection because he’s buried so deep in the ranks.

When he is 20 and you watch random events online, where the kid is surfing crazy fast but is still scrawny and unconfident, not unconfident in his ability, but unconfident in whether it is okay for him to knock off the best surfers in the world, even though he’s surfing better than they are.

When he is 24 and you tune in online and see that this year is different because the scrawny kid is filling out and gets pissed when he loses to the best surfers in the world, because he should be beating them and he knows it.

The man slips into a nice little day at The Jetty.

A nice little day at The Jetty.

When the kid comes home to the event that hasn’t been won by a kid from The Jetty since 1981, the year before you started surfing, and you’ve surfed this event countless times, made the finals a handful of times, once even came in and were told you won and were chaired up the beach on the shoulders of the guy who won back in ’81, but you ended up in second and had to watch another guy from Florida, or California, or Brazil, or New Jersey somehow finish on top and you feel like you let people down and you wonder if a local surfer will ever break through.

When you pedal to the beach to watch the kid’s first heat yesterday, and you track him down before he paddles out to assure him, You got this.

When you catch the rest of his heats online, heats in which he is fast, but also cool, radical, powerful, and dominant.

When he knocks out last year’s champ on the way to the final.

When he’s losing the final until the waning minutes and he scorches another jetty right that eliminates all doubt.

When the final horn blows and the kid enjoys a victory lap with his arms raised in elation.

When his friends don’t wait for him to hit the sand but rush into the water and hoist him onto their shoulders.

When that ’81 champ carries the kid’s board behind them and the entire procession has stoke shooting from their pores like fireworks.

When the beach screams with something it hasn’t been able to scream with in forever, something like pride.

When you feel that pride coursing through your veins and it causes the skin on your arms to erupt into little bumps and the hairs to stand at attention.

When the look on that kid’s face is the greatest look ever invented, that of pure joy.

When that stuff happens, your eyes get a little moist. Tears aren’t running down your cheeks, not like when you watch Rudy, but you can feel the moistness. You know that you had a little something to do with what is unfolding, just a tiny bit, because that kid once looked at you and said, It can be done. And he went out and did it.

Selfie with the man.

Selfie with the man.

And you know what you do then? You do something you haven’t done in years. You go down to a bar on the strip at almost midnight, even though you have to start school early the next morning, and you walk into that bar and see a mass of people toward the back. It isn’t the normal mass of people, downing drinks to try to forget that some out-of-towner swooped in and looted the top prize. This mass of people is celebrating.

You make you way into the middle of the mass because the kid is in there somewhere. You find the kid and he’s still coherent. His eyes light up. He’s honored that you made this effort. You’re honored that he’s honored. You lean in towards the kid and you say, You’re the man. And you step back to let everyone else tell him. And you walk out of that bar with your faith restored because it only took you 30 years to prove that good things can come from surf competition.


Get a real job

Representation obligation leads to subjugation by corporation.

Do representation obligations equal subjugation by corporation?

One constant through my decades of surfing was a desire to be Tom Curren. In addition to aping his style in every way, I shared his notion that working in the surf industry was like a polyp. “Can I live with the polyp?” he asked in an interview with Matt Warshaw. A second constant was a rendering of a mountain and wave at the nose of all my boards. Nothing more than a mylar decal, meaningless to most of humanity, it was my polyp. My blessing was my curse.

By my mid-twenties, my work experience was scant. I’d delivered Coca-Cola with Mo “Daddy” Sanford a couple summers, then delivered Chinese food for a few years. Neither got in the way of surfing, nor were they what you’d call serious jobs. With Mo, most of what I did was laugh. Getting a few bucks afterward was a bonus.

Riding waves was bringing in a few hundred dollars a month, but as a married man with bills to pay I needed something more substantial. Besides, my car reeked of chow mein. Quiksilver, where I’d been a team rider for nearly a decade, already had a world beater from the East Coast. What they didn’t have was someone to stick around and do their dirty work, aka promotions.

When the boys in the OC doubled my monthly retainer to a cool grand, my only questions were, “Where do I sign?” and “Will I start acting different now that I’m filthy rich?”

The logo gets me over the ledge in Mexico. Photo: Mez

The logo gets me over the ledge in Mexico. Photo: Mez

The euphoria lasted all of a few hours as there was important tasks to be done. My first directive was to cut half of the surf team, which had swelled beyond control thanks to an ill-advised local tryout. No problem, I was friends with these kids, I’d just dial them up and let ’em down easy.

“Whaaaaaat?! Nooooooo, you can’t do this!” The first call, to a grom in Sandbridge, didn’t go well. The poor country boy was distraught, certain we’d made a mistake. He’d been surfing every day behind his house and was expecting a ticket to join Slater on tour when the axe fell.

I weathered his breakdown and assured him the sun would rise tomorrow, but that wasn’t the end of it. I got a call from his mom, then his dad, both insisting their child was on the verge of greatness. By the end of my first day, my hair had turned mostly gray and I wished I hadn’t deposited my check.

My job description, aside from overseeing the surf team, was to promote the brand, to make people think that Quiksilver was the coolest thing since the Harlem Globetrotters. “This is a dream job,” Lord Business told me, before making me learn and sing the ‘Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team’ song that would later be popularized in The Lego Movie.

Lulu, queen of the sticker hungry Mexigroms circa 1991.

Lulu, queen of the sticker hungry Mexigroms circa 1991.

The job had perks, most notably the summer runs up the coast with Matt Kechele. I used to doodle surfboards in my notebooks with the Matt Kechele Airlines logo from Quiet Flight. He was a pioneer of aerial surfing, a charger at Pipe, Kelly’s first mentor, and a world tour competitor. His legend status was cemented by the fact that older guys in VB seemed to hate him although they didn’t know him. I didn’t know Matt either, beyond getting schooled by him in heats from the moment I turned pro.

Keck is the quintessential ageless grom, a middle-aged Tom Sawyer, always ready with a joke (This guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but cellophane panties. The doctor looks at him and goes, “Bud, I can clearly see you’re nuts”) and always in search of adventure. I was lucky enough to join him as he surfed for eight hours straight in Costa Rica, hunted giant rats in Cuba, scored epic unridden surf off the Indies Trader in the Caribbean, and taught thousands of kids to surf in between.

I learned to run camps from Matt, and I’ll never forget the first one we did in Ocean City, New Jersey. There was a deaf kid in the group, but Matt didn’t know it. Keck was giving his introductory speech on safety, and the deaf kid wasn’t looking at him. “Hey kid, pay attention.” I tried signaling for Matt to cool it, but he didn’t get the message. “Hey kid, over here. Quit staring off into space.” Finally, the boy’s friends piped up, “He’s deaf,” and Keck melted into the sand.

Huckleberry Finn and Matt Kechele, birds of a feather.

Huckleberry Finn and Matt Kechele, birds of a feather separated by a century.

Aside from many memorable shenanigans with Matt, my work experience with Quik was utterly forgettable. The bloated marketing department was filled with guys who carried the task of “making Quik seem cool” into every facet of their being. I was a round peg doing everything in my power to avoid being squeezed into a mountain-and-wave-shaped hole.

All I wanted was to keep surfing and avoid getting a “real” job. Somehow, I held on to the position from 1994-2006, through a one-year stint as a teacher, two years as a full-time editor for Swell.com, another year writing Kelly’s book, and finally as a full-time Quik employee with benefits and stock options, even a company car for a time.

Handing out stickers was hardly my mission in life, but it paid a helluva lot of bills.

In the end, after more than 20 years with the company, during which (despite my inability to take the job seriously) I’d say I was worth what they paid me, the money tree finally ceased yielding fruit. They said I could stay to run surf camps. My golden parachute was the privilege to continue promoting the mountain and wave, only doing it for free. I respectfully (cough, cough) declined. Peeling those stickers off the nose of my boards, while bills were stacking in my mailbox, was strangely liberating.

2004 OBX Pro, trying my darndest to violate my contractual duty to let my team riders win.

2004 OBX Pro, trying my darndest to violate my contractual duty to let my team riders win.

Even if I’d been a good company man, best case scenario I might’ve held out a few more years. Once the economy tanked, they canned even their most corporate of yes men. It feels good to have gotten out with at least a shred of my soul intact.

What kills me is something I heard from one of the marketing gurus after I surfed to the finals of the ECSC pro division in my mid-thirties, eliminating a few young Quik athletes along the way. Rather than being stoked for me, he reprimanded me. “Come on, dude,” he said, “you’re not supposed to beat your teamriders.” I was never very good at faking it.

No homage

"Go, son. Learn to surf! Be miserable." Note my effeminate running style. I guess that's why "gay" used to mean happy, because I'm really happy in this photo.

“Go, son. Learn to surf! You’ll love it here.” Note my effeminate running style. I guess that’s why “gay” used to mean happy, because I’m really happy in this photo.

There are worse places to be a surfer than where I live, but not many. Trust me; it’s really fucking bad. I know this because 1) I’ve surfed here as much as anyone during the last 30 years 2) I’ve traveled to lots of places that are good for surfing so I know what good is, and 3) My son has been pissed off at me for ten years for not persuing a job offer in California. He looks at me like I’m a complete idiot and repeats the same question. Why?

I see his point. But before attempting to get to the answer, I want to explain what we’re dealing with for anyone who might not be familiar with my hometown.

We almost never get waves. The Atlantic flatlines for weeks at a stretch, and it does so on a monthly basis. When we get what we consider waves, and we’re jumping around like Juggalos at an ICP concert, most surfers would look at the ocean and go, “Meh.”

The reasons for our area’s ineptitude are as plentiful as cops on the resort strip. We can blame it on the continental shelf, the direction of the earth’s rotation, the Jet Stream, Laird Hamilton (rumor has it he was in town recently, and we all know he deserves plenty of blame).

"Can anyone tell me how to get to the beach? Wait, is that my daughter getting her ass spray painted with ...lost logo?"

“Can anyone tell me how to get to the beach? Wait, is that my daughter getting the …lost logo spray painted on her ass?”

Waves that miraculously manage to find their way here are met with a shoreline as straight as any in the world. Aside from two jetties and a pier, which provide minor help, there is nothing to prompt incoming swells to make their final act memorable. As a result, our waves tend not to pitch or peel so much as crumble. Imagine a timelapse video in reverse of Joan Rivers’ face through the years, and you trying to ride the chunks of plastic as they fall off. That’s what we’re dealing with here, and it ain’t pretty.

The best waves break in the designated surfing zones, which get as crowded as legitimate surf spots, but without any sort of merit-based pecking order like you’d find at those other spots. Here, the mentality is, Biggest board wins. In most cases, logs and SUP’s serve as crutches for those too feeble to catch waves using skill alone. It’s sort of like “Survival of the fattest.”

Every so often, perhaps a handful of days each year, the waves get taller than an average adult. In other words, “overhead,” the gold standard for surfing. Most of these days, the wind is blowing in some direction other than offshore, so the surf is choppy. Or, the tide is high and so the waves are fat. Or, without any coves or headlands to provide shape the waves shut down all at once. Going to the beach can be like going on a blind date expecting Megan Fox to answer the door but finding Redd Foxx instead. All you can do is laugh.

Rarely, the elements come together to produce waves that well-traveled surfers would consider good. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, provided such conditions. I checked the surf for eight hours until the wind finally switched. For one glorious few hours, guys were standing inside barrels and we thought we’d found Nirvana. By the next morning, the surf looked like what was found of the lead singer of Nirvana.

Most people in town realize how bad our waves are and therefore do not pay surfing much attention. Unless Jim Cantore is on the boardwalk raving about this year’s Storm of the Century, the beach is simply a place they go to plop on a towel and work on their skin cancer. Otherwise they lead perfectly normal lives, deftly stepping around that old surfboard in the garage in order to get in the car and speed off to work. Surfing, around here, pfft!

Check the guy in the white pitching a tent in the background.

Check the guy in the white pitching a tent in the background.

Miraculously, at this moment a fellow resident, an absute ripper named Michael Dunphy, is ranked 18th on the World Qualifying Series. He’s one big result away from becoming the first surfer from here to make the elite level since OMG Wes Laine back in the ’80s. And outside of hardcore surfers, no one in town has ever heard his name. Mike Dunphy, is that the guy from Modern Family? The town doesn’t care.

That is, until this week. The final week of August is the one week that is different. Like moths to a flame, residents flock shoreward for The Big Contest. Dust ’em off and wax ’em down, it’s surf week.

$urf this, $urf that, everything $urf. Except it isn’t. Surfers laugh at this place; they come here for the money, nothing more. And these days the surfing is an afterthought, swallowed up by a sea of skate ramps, volleyball nets, flag football games, vendor village debauchery, “rock” concerts, freestyle motodemos, beer tents, boobkini contests, and 5K’s. Navigate through that obstacle course, and you may see a few wavelets ridden. It’s about surfing like Costco is about surfing. “Yeah, we got some boards in the back, but you’re gonna buy a bunch of other crap on your way there.”

As you can see, surfers love coming here.

As you can see, surfers love coming here.

Enough about the surfing paradise I live in and on to answering my son’s question: Why would a surfer willingly subject himself such dismal conditions? Compounding the dilemma was the fact that I dragged the poor kid onto a surfboard before he could walk, so I got him into this mess. Why?

Maybe I stayed precisely because of the dismal conditions. I loved that surfing around here made me something of a renegade. It’s not like in California, where your sister, your doctor, your principal, and your grandmother all surf. I’ve met people surfing on the West Coast, and when I told them where I was from they replied, “Whoa dude, is there even an ocean there?” Yes, that is an indictment of Southern California geography classes, but it’s also because, why the hell would they know there’s an ocean here?

I was proud of the fact that I could surf in spite of living in such a wave-starved place. The Underdog Story personified. While others complained about the meager surf; I learned to revel in it. I’ll show California. I’ll have just as much fun, and go just as far, surfing shit waves as them surfing good ones. And I did. I made it. I outsmarted everyone, myself included.

Meet Michael Dunphy. Kid is killing it. Let's support him in his bid to take over the world.

Meet Michael Dunphy. Kid is killing it. Let’s support him in his bid to take over the world.

PS: Go Dunphy! Bring it home, boy.

The Airpump Rumpus

Behold the greatest thing to happen to air since Michael Jordan.

Behold the greatest thing to happen to air since Michael Jordan.

I can’t remember the last time somebody wanted to fight me. Must’ve been the Hawaiian dude I asked to be quiet while we were watching a movie, somewhere around ’92. He promptly stuck his fist through the living room wall of our North Shore rental, turned to me, and deadpanned, “Mo betta if it’s ya face next time, yeah?” All had been peaceful in my world since then, the only person wanting to ring my neck being my wife. That is, until I made the mistake of stopping at a gas station to get some air in my tire.

The only place I know of that doesn’t charge for air is Wawa, so being the tightwad that I am, Wawa is where I go for air, even when it’s out of my way. They got these bitchin new airpumps where you punch in the appropriate tire pressure and it beeps when it’s finished. And did I mention their air is free? I should know by now that everything in this world comes with a price. If you think otherwise you probably believe the Kardashian’s are real people.

Someone was parked at the spot designated for the airpump, so my wife pulled the car into a spot three spaces away. I asked her to park closer, but she ran inside for a coffee and left me to fill the tire. When the customer finished and pulled away, I tried to stretch the hose three spaces rather than repark the car. It didn’t work.

I found a video of this Wawa scrum on the Interweb. Not sure if it started over the air hose or if one of them grabbed the last apple fritter.

I found a video of this Wawa scrum on the Interweb. Not sure if it started over the air hose or if one of them grabbed the last apple fritter.

I pulled out of my space to park closer, and in the meantime another car swooped into the airpump spot. I parked next to them and walked over to grab the hose. That’s when things got interesting.

The driver of the other car, a redneck sporting Fakely’s and a Nascar cap, hopped out from behind the wheel and barked, “Wought the fuck you think yer doin?”

“I’m just getting some air in my tire.”

“You think you can just cut in front of me?!”

“Oh, no. I was already here, but the hose wouldn’t reach.”

“Look at the fuckin sign.” He graciously pointed out that he’d parked his crappy old American sedan in front of the ‘Airpump parking only’ sign, proving he was capable of reading compound words.

“Yeah, that’s what I told my wife when she parked the car over there.”

My adversary preps for battle.

My adversary preps for battle.

Nascar was apparently getting confused from so much thinkin, and he had heard enough. He yanked off his Fakely’s and cap and took a step in my direction. “You wanna jump?”

Now I was the one confused. “What?”

“You wanna jump at me?” He was by this point, in the parlance of our time, all up in my grill. I had a decision to make. I could hand him the hose, happy to have avoided a senseless conflict, and allow Karma to have her way with him. Or, I could say, “Fuck you, dipshit,” and resume filling my tire with free air like I’d come to do.

This undoubtedly would have sent Nascar into a tizzy, and I would have soon found myself on the losing end of an MMA battle. In the Wawa parking lot. Over an airhose. With my kids watching from inside the car. The headline would’ve read, “Local Teacher Arrested in Airhose Melee,” but history would remember the skirmish as “The Airpump Rumpus.”

I coulda been a contender.

I coulda been a contender.

Unfortunately, the result was preordained. I’ve never been a proponent of violence, which is a nice way of saying I’m a huge pussy when it comes to physical confrontation. A favorite quote of mine, from John Gregory Dunne, states, “Violence is the way stupid people try to level the playing field.” I handed over the hose, or as my daughter saw it, he snatched it out of my hand. I need to get her eyes checked.

Considering the miserable existence¬† Nascar probably leads, I’m happy to have provided him the opportunity to feel good about himself (although that was anything but my intention). He left the scene feeling like he was nine-feet-tall and could take on Chuck Norris. I, on the other hand, felt like a complete wuss. Lucky for me, I have this seldom-read forum to poke fun at his sorry ass and exact a modicum of revenge. The pen, or in this case the blog, is indeed mightier than the dipshit.

Biggish wednesday, thanks a lot Bertha!

This view is currently for sale by owner, I'm guessing for around $2 mil, if you're interested.

This view is currently for sale by owner, I’m guessing for around $2 mil, if you’re interested.

I’m not freaking out. I don’t have a blood pressure gauge, but my breathing appears mostly normal. Every five minutes or so, my chest tightens ever during inhalation. I have to consciously help the air in, then out. I believe it is my body sensing another overhead set pouring across the nearby cobblestone points.

I’m back in Rhode Island. It’s the middle of the day and I’m sitting on the deck of a rented cottage overlooking a score of tiny sailboats moored in Quonochontaug Pond. A more peaceful setting I cannot fathom. Beyond this visage of harmony lies the Atlantic, where thankfully obscured from my view, the fruits of Hurricane Bertha beckon. All things considered, it’s the biggest test of my year thus far.

Thank you, Drew Todd, for texting me 37 images (no exaggeration) of perfect waves this week.

Thank you, Drew Todd, for texting me 37 images (no exaggeration) of perfect waves this week.

This morning at camp I told myself, Maybe this torture has gone on long enough. Maybe it’s time to put an end to my experiment. I’ve made it seven months; what can I gain from holding out?

I stuck to my guns, not because I thought of some grand reason to abstain but because there wasn’t a big set breaking at the moment camp ended. I turned around and didn’t look back. It’s okay, I tell myself now. It isn’t about me. If not, then who? The kids, think about the kids. This day will stick with them. A milestone.

Do I look stressed out?

Do I look stressed out?

There are the twins, Harry and George. Their sibling rivalry is 10 years old and just getting started. Harry paddles directly outside. The swell is peaking. He sits for 45 minutes and gets a bomb, well over his four-foot head. He rides straight in, but on the drop alone it’s the wave of his life by a mile. George sees it and must compete. He charges out and gets cleaned up by a monster set and washed to the shore. He’s rattled and stewing while Harry beams.

Emily, who two days ago could not stand up on her board, stricken with a teenage growth spurt that has left her as gangly as a newborn fawn, is now outdoing her sister Zoe. She eventually tires of endless whitewater straights and asks to go “kinda outside” to get an unbroken wave. I pull Emily through a procession of waves, spin her around and shove her into a stomach high reform. A nosedive looks imminent, but she finds her feet and ekes out of certain annhilation. Wave of her life. She wants more.

Jackson, every wave he paddles for, his mouth is wide open. When I say wide open, I mean he could fit his fist in it, no problem. Shit, maybe both fists. Let’s just say he makes the dude in Munch’s scream painting look more tight-lipped than a guard at Buckingham Palace.

I yell, “Close your mouth,” as Jackson whizzes by, but his friend assures me, “He does that in every sport.” Maybe so, but in tennis or golf he’s only gonna get a mouthful of air or the odd mosquito, not a gallon of seawater.

Last twenty minutes of camp, after whitewaters all morning, Jackson says, “I wanna go out there.” I love to see this progression, and I point to an instructor to escort him through the shorebreak. Moments later, mouth agape, he’s flying down the face of a head-high plunger. Wave of his life.

Then there’s Xander. Eleven, been coming to camp for three years. Goofyfoot, only goes left. He’s been falling off a lot this week on knee-high closeouts. Not enough time for him to set his stance or set an edge before the wave flop onto the sandbar. First thing this morning, he’s out the back with the thirty other surfers who have descended on Fenway for this “wave event.” An instructor is with him, just to provide a small push and make sure he stays out of everyone’s way. I look up from nearshore whitewater duty, and Xander is tearing down the line on an overhead peeler, going left towards the jetty of course, looking solid and unfazed like a miniature Occy. A dozen more times he’ll repeat this scene. It’s just four-foot Rhode Island, but it may as well be Pipeline.

To the other campers, the other surfers, the instructors, and the parents on the beach, Xander is a legend. He could never surf another day in his life, but the accomplishment of being eleven years old and taming moving mountains will serve him well. Fifty years down the road, his grandkids playing in the shorebreak, he’ll remember this day.

Xander rolls into a beauty and heads for the time of his life.

Xander rolls into a beauty and heads for the time of his life.

As for me, Bertha won’t be the end of my struggle. The tropics are heating up, and others temptresses will come in her wake. Camp is winding down for the year, but this thing is far from over. Doubts are multiplying, and vicarious enjoyment through my students will not be an option. What then?

*I’ve changed these kids’ names and thought I should let you know

He got game, but he don’t want it

You know you're a good surfer when you see people in the mall wearing shirts with your picture on the back.

You know you’re a good surfer when you see people in the mall wearing shirts with your picture on the back.

I don’t claim to be good at anything (except making egg sandwiches and smartass comments), but I’m good at surfing. It’s a fact, and important to know for what I’m going to tell you. I have no clue why I’m good, and I don’t take credit for it. Many have devoted just as much time to the pursuit as I have, and still suck. I cannot explain it; it just sorta happened.

First, let me say that one of the earliest lessons I learned about surfing (and about life in general) is that anyone who tells you they’re good at it is lying. In 1983, a new kid at Lynnhaven Junior High said he could surf. My friend Chris and I went to the beach with him, and the kid couldn’t paddle through waist-high waves, much less catch one. Although he fully deserved to be frog-marched out of the cafeteria in front of the entire student body for such a transgression, I won’t mention his name (but he’s a friend of mine on Facebook if you want to make guesses).

Anyway, two years after my first wave, I was winning local surfing events, and a year after that I was contending for an East Coast title. I have no doubt that I became so enamored with surfing because I was good at it. It wasn’t the other way around. I absolutely love surfing, but I’m not sure I’d love it as much if I grew up as a kook.

Getting a trophy for surfing was nice. Getting free clothes for surfing was pretty cool. But getting money, just for surfing, now that was freaking awesome.

In 1990, my life changed when somebody decided that a good use of their hard-earned cash was to pay me to ride waves. My brother Derrick, who was born with two superpowers – wicked creativity and the ability to convince people to do stuff, suggested to an upstart local surf shop that I was worth some dough. The owner of that shop, Mike Basto, had worked for Op, then still a behemoth within the industry. Mike convinced Op that they too should be paying me, and just like that, checks began arriving in my mailbox. Monthly. For riding waves.

I immediately flew to California to compete in a U.S. tour event in Imperial Beach. Op had signed a guy from San Diego named Taylor Knox, who was making a helluva lot more loot and happened to be in the same event. When we met up in the fourth round, I wanted to show Op that they’d mixed up our deals. Intent on proving my worth, I won the heat. Next round, with nothing to prove, I floundered.

1990 Op East at Sebastian Inlet. I beat Taylor in this one as well.

1990 Op East at Sebastian Inlet. I beat Taylor in this one as well.

When a passion becomes a job some people burn out and move on to something new. Not me. I wanted the checks to keep coming. So I surfed. A lot. When I wasn’t surfing, I went to college, or delivered Chinese food for extra yen, or hung out with my girlfriend. But surfing, and doing so competitively, came first.

Eventually, the girlfriend became a wife, and cats and dogs and fish and kids needed to eat. I needed to surf well, and I did. I won professional events up and down the Eastern Seaboard and earned the title of East Coast Pro Champion in ’97. (The tour disbanded the following year, so technically I’m the champ 18 years running. Take that, Kelly!)

By 2006, I had no fanfare but could still throw a decent fan of my own, even in the middle of winter.

By 2006, I had no fanfare but could still throw a decent fan of my own.

Being a good surfer afforded me a lifestyle people dream of. I got paid to do the thing I love above all else and traveled a good portion of the globe at others’ expense. I couldn’t have been luckier if Angelina Jolie had adopted me.

Furthermore, riding waves kept me from having to speak, which I abhor. Talking was my brother’s gig, so discovering that surfing could pay me and¬†speak for me made it all the more attractive. Whenever I felt uncomfortable in my skin, which was any time I was around people, I knew that when we got in the water they’d see that I had something to say. Surfing was my life support as well as my voice.

Indonesia 2013. The kid still clinging to his identity as a good surfer.

Indonesia 2013. The kid still clinging to his identity as a good surfer.

I don’t paddle out looking to prove myself anymore, but as soon as I see some guy ripping I turn into a monster. My mission in life becomes ruining his session, showing him how we did it back in ’90. You can take the kid out of competition but you can’t take the competitor out of the kid. By the way, I’m the kid in that parable.

I’m not bragging. I hate that I’m so damn competitive. Riding waves shouldn’t be this way. It should be relaxing. It should be a release. It should be fun. The best guy in the water, it is said, is the one having the most fun. I just realized that that saying could be taken two ways. Is he the best guy because he’s having so much fun or is he having the most fun because he’s the best guy in the water? Does it matter?