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.
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!)
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.
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?