Derelictus in Flagrante

“SURFING AFFECTS YOUR LIFESTYLE,” writes former pro surfer Mike Doyle in his autobiography Morning Glass, “like no other sport I know of…The surf is only good at certain times…If you’re a serious surfer, you have to design your life around it.” Vince had suggested the book, remembered Doyle as an interesting figure. So, I’d picked it up at Santa Cruisin’ – a local longboard store and all-around temple to surfing’s golden age (which, in the minds of the current wise men, appeared to have been sometime in the mid-1960s, coincidentally when they were all young). In the world of surfing, Doyle’s could certainly be called a representative life. He was born in 1941 in Inglewood to a working, single mother, and by fifteen, he writes, he “had already accepted the old [Polynesian] tradition of the waterman” as his own, and “set about the long process of mastering each of the waterman’s skills,” such as surfing, paddling, rowing, rough-water swimming, line fishing, and spearfishing. All this made for a very Pacific Rim version of frontier manhood, back when surfer trucks were upholstered with Polynesian cloth and guys living in driftwood tiki huts collected Coke bottles for food. Even lighting out for the territories after high school, Doyle moves to a communal Quonset hut on the North Shore of Oahu. Lifeguarding at Santa Monica, sailing to Tahiti in a catamaran, surfing giant Hawaiian waves, swimming the entire twenty miles of Kauai’s Na Pali coast, whoring with the power elite of Peru. winning countless contests, and being voted best surfer in the world in 1964, Doyle achieves the life desired, but not without sacrifices.

As friends like Hobie Alter make enormous fortunes on the mushrooming beach-lifestyle industry, with Tom Morey inventing the Boogies board, Howey Sweitzer inventing the sailboard, Jim Jenks founding the Ocean Pacific clothing line, and Bruce Brown making his Endless Summer,” Doyle never quite does. He leaves a lucrative job with Catalina swimwear because, “today I would be entrenched in some fortress-like mansion in Del Mark, with a huge mortgage, high blood-pressure, and a job I hated.” Fair enough. He then founds Surf Research, selling the first surf wax, a fin attachment for nose riding, and surfer granola. But when business cuts into playtime, he and his partners call it quits: “We didn’t want to be surf moguls,” Doyle writes, “we wanted to get our water time, be healthy and happy.” He invents the first monoski, but doesn’t develop it, makes Endless Summer Suntan Oil, and again sells his share; opens a surfwear store, and cashes out yet again. He even sells motivational tapes for girlfriend Terry Cole-Whittaker, “high priestess of yuppiedom” — no honor in poverty, control your own destiny, prosperity as a divine right. But eventually her growing mysticism drives him on to other things. Two marriages end quickly, and at forty-eight Doyle moves to Baja alone and successfully reinvents himself as an artist, selling oil paintings to tourists. “I’ve lived my whole life around the patterns of the ocean,” he reflects, a”and I’ve taken a lot of criticism for that. I’ve made a few women unhappy, I’ve made some employers unhappy, and at times I’ve made myself unhappy, but I can’t help it, I’ve always known what my priorities are…If the conditions are right, I’ll walk away from any job or any woman to to spend a day in the water with my friends.”

Though not a professional, Vince too had lived his life around the patterns of the ocean, scheduling only morning classes in winter so he’d be free for evening glass-offs, afternoon classes in spring so he could work while the northwesterly winds blew. Office hours and appointments were always timed to leave outgoing tides available. Vince had even failed to deliver a final exam once because of a good surf session, but I suppose he hadn’t exactly walked away from it. Nor had there been any friends along. He’d just stopped at the beach for a surf check on his way to campus, got a little mesmerized by the empty perfection before his eyes, and forgot all about the exam. Not until he’d left the water a few hours later did he get that nagging feeling. Walking aimlessly around campus, hair wet and sinuses draining, he was suddenly confronted by a very concerned department chair. But that was a rare lapse: Vince had held the same job for fifteen years and had been married to the same woman for longer. While he might have left her in the lurch for the off lunch date, he certainly wasn’t walking away.

Still, there wasn’t a surf-crazed teenager in the county who got more waves than Vince; he surfed every day without fail, and often surfed twice a day, even in the smallest, coldest, rainiest, most all-around miserable conditions, when even guys with the day off were inside watching videos. I loved being with him, loved our endless conversations and the unshakable sense that this unlikely use of time mattered. We spent one day in particular that winter that I remember clearly, just after I saw the whale. Vince sometimes seemed frustrated or depressed while surfing, but usually, like that morning, he beamed and quivered with childlike enthusiasm. As I pulled off into the gravel to meet him, Vince was already running — not jogging, but outright sprinting — down the dirt road. Age forty-five, clean khakis and sun cap, board under one arm, pack on his back, bounding through the fields on a Monday. I looked as I stopped, but Vince just waved over his shoulder and kept going. It was a fine day for flying, I noticed, as two big hawks carved clean, flapless flight lines over all those little rodents, more interested in each other than in breakfast. They dodged and stalled in a winter light that made color and line appear to radiate from within. Frogs croaked in the stagnant puddles along the tracks, and a ghastly pile of dead fish lay in the grass, the garbage of careless fishermen and somehow quite profane: rotting on a plastic bag, flies buzzing about, so close to their sea. Vince was already half-naked in the new grass when I got to the cliff, surrounded by the little yellow oxalis blossoms that sprinkled all the thistled seed rows.

“Well,” he said, looking at me with disdain, “will we be dilly-dallying any longer?” He quickly brushed off his wetsuit, reached into an arm and pulled it right side out. “Have you, or have you not, observed that these lively little waves are going entirely unmolested?”

It was true, not a soul in the water, but the tide was still a little too low.

Image: Adobe Stock

He damned himself as we scurried down the path: “My poor neglected wife,” he said, “to be married to such a delinquent malingerer.” Then he turned back to me, admonished me to haste, and said yes, the tide was, as yet, a bit low, but that the push should soon begin to give the waves more muscle. A storm had ripped the overgrown kelp off its moorings and heaved it up onto the beach in rotting, stinking piles of stranded subtidal forest. Our feet sank into an off gassing bed of decaying sea life, and beach hoppers and sand fleas exploded up in clouds that quickly hid again in the wet shade of the pile. A small niche, theirs, a narrow livable world. Buried deeper in the weed were crabs, spiders, worms, and sponges, all dying their seasonal deaths. A crowd of little white sanderlings rushed out along the border ot the draining wash, poked into the sand like woodpeckers into a tree, then scampred back before the returning foam; movement much like the autumnal clouds of sparrows in the Northeast, a body without a head, reeling in response to some matrix of wind and reflex. My grandmother, before she died, told my father she’d always felt like one of these tiny foragers, scurrying back and forth after who knows what. Dad himself had told me their names and what they ate. Just after getting married, he and my mom had moved to Balboa Island near L.A. He’d worked at a cement factory, and when the plant closed on rainy days he’d walk on the beach watching birds. Dad had never been inclined toward naturalism — ordered his life through story and laughter rather the security of a carefully named world — so I found it difficult to imagine the calm and melancholy he’d have needed to be open to such minutiae. But when I saw those birds now, and watched them pole in the sand, I suspected he’d loved the celebration of the mundane in their tiny lives, their gracious, if Sisyphean, survival.

“Derelictus!” Vince said, echoing Willie as we sprinted to get around a big corner of rock.

“Indeed, derelictus in flagrante.” We hadn’t timed it right, turned up into a dripping cave just as a wave filled it to our hips. Surf lice crawled by the thousands across the slimy black ceiling, and as the water pulled out, rounded, head-sized stones of surf cobble rumbled out like broken bones. Across a few boulders, we passed the foundational platform of an old jut in the cliff line, a perfect jumping-off point for higher-tide sessions. But the tide was low enough to walk clear to the Point and skip some paddling— over wet black shelves and miniature beaches, out into the water to round a rock, then back again, always following the sandstone cliffs. Next to walls of dripping moss, and again a microverse: encrustations of tiny sand caves, tube-worm colonies, their bigger holes now inhabited by purple rock crabs. Millions of young anemones coated another bounder, their wet, dime-sized mouths closed to the desiccating air. Vince said there was more sand this year than usual; it filled cradles in the rock, beached over little gullies. We waded to our waists between two crumbling, guano-covered sea stacks, then up a natural staircase of little ledges to the very front of the Point: a floor of striated, pitted stone below loose cliffs hung with purple-blooming ice plant. Then, the remnant of the recently fallen arch: a sixty-foot tower of sediment, absurdly cut off from the continent, top grasses dwindling, rodents no doubt fled. High tides had already washed away the bridge’s debris, and its remainder stood as an eroding earthen totem, a core sample of the alluvial plain. Someday, it would be shale bristling with barnacle and bivalve, eventually a submerged reef.

Once, after a dawn session just north–soaring straight into the blinding orb of the sun, paddling toward front-lit surfers who glowed golden against a stormy-black western sky— I had taken a wave to the beach and grabbed my backpack. It was a gorgeous Sunday morning without a soul on the mile-long white strand, and I’d climbed up to this same tower. At its base that day lay a six-foot decapitated cylinder of exposed organs, torn, muscle, and shattered bone: an elephant seal slaughtered by a very big shark. Sparrows overhead, a few wildflowers fluttering around an old farming windbreak, and only the sound of the sea, a white noise one stopped noticing. But no carnage today as we climbed the tower’s side and walked out its base rock to yet another separate little planet of life: the splash zone, never truly submerged, often dry, supporting organisms that needed only occasional wetting. Bird detritus lay everywhere: guano, downy gull feathers, bits of garbage brought over to eat from the nearby municipal dump. Tide pools filled eroded places in weaker strata of the upended rock, and giant green anemones circled these micro-verses like gargantuan maws fringed with hundreds of living, adhesive teeth.

Small crabs scrambled carefully among them, prying at mussels. (The anemones had planted themselves, but were not fixed, could slowly migrate, as could the turban snails, the little conical shield limpets.) An ancient-looking gumboot chiton, red-backed mower of sea moss, was out of place here in the sun– Costanoan food.

Vince put down his board to stretch, looked constantly back at the cliff in rapture at the break’s vacancy and gripped with fear of someone coming. He thought he saw movement along the trail:

“Interlopers?” he asked.

I looked. “Nope.”

“No lope?”

“No lope.”

“True No Lope Mutual Fun?”

Vince was notorious among his many close friends for two things: first, a voracious appetite for waves. He’d compete relentlessly for every wave, even resort to aggressive and dirty tricks among friends; it kept you scrambling for your share. Second, he had an almost pathological tendency to swear that wherever he’d just been surfing (without you) had been perfect. Definitely better than wherever you’d been at the same time. Even if you showed up only an hour after he did, you could count on hearing how that hour had been the best hour in years. This all meant more to Vince than just having fun; it was a barometer of the very quality of his life. If you got more waves than he, or made a better choice of breaks, he seemed to feel he was losing what little power he had left in the world. Still, it would’ve taken me a lifetime to learn on my own what I learned from Vince in a year, his exhaustive knowledge of the tide, wind, and swell matrix for every local scrap of reef and sandbar that had ever been known to produce rideable surf. And in spite of his fierceness in the water, Vince was wonderful company: very wry and quite sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others. He knew when he was stepping on toes, and often seemed embarrassed about it. But he never stopped— surfing was the one part of life in which he was giving no ground.

A half mile north, a big set was on its way. No point in jumping now, so we just looked around: out at the front of the shelf, ridges of barnacle- and mussel-encrusted rock reached into the water, intertidal communities exposed by lows, submerged by highs, taking the full brunt of the swell. Spiked purple sea urchins bristled along the walls of a bathtub-sized pool, nestled in the private little cavities they’d carved in the rock. The organic doors of acorn barnacles were closed now to hold in moisture, but at high tide they’d open — lives regulated by the cadence of waves, the impact and retreat. Another set stood up over the now-submerged shelf, boomed into the platform, and sprayed foam against us and into the pools. Vince got impatient, started walking up and down, looking for somewhere to go, irked at the consistency and length of the sets. Then he just went, clambering over the precarious ridges of barnacles. As he stood exposed out on a little knob of mussels, a green wall rolled toward him; he leaped up and it surged under like a bull beneath a toreador, crashing into the rock behind him. He landed in the surf prone on his board and he scratched hard as another wave pushed him into a current, swept him left into a seething soup. Then, a lull, and he made it outside. Board in my left hand, right grabbing mussels, I scrambled down to the impact zone, through deep pools with little waterfalls pouring off terraces, and out onto a barnacled prow. I waited for a surge to roll along the wall toward me as Vince had done, then jumped. Unfortunately, my board’s ankle leash caught on a horn of rock and yanked my board out of my hands just as I leapt. I landed without it in the surf, stuck in the now-dropping water of the boneyard, a depression full of erratic boulders. Two strokes back, I grabbed the rock and lay flat as a first wave impacted my back and threw my board against the stone; another threw it against my shoulder, and then there was a lull. I slapped at the caught leash line just as another big-set wave appeared outside; Vince was yelling at me to move.

Image: Adobe Stock

The line came free and I almost jumped, but then it caught yet again, so I stretched on my stomach across this bulge of barnacled stone, thrashed at the cord until my knuckles bled, and then realized I’d run out of time. The water level dropped several feet below and the greenish-gray wall swelled and boiled toward me. I took another step up, dove into a cubby hole, and held on as the foam boomed and rumbled over each bulwark. Water hit my left side and tore me off the cliff, just like that— airborne backwards, then falling again into the boneyard with terrible inevitability. I knew if my head or neck hit any of the rocks down there, I’d be in big trouble. But then I was deep underwater, rolling around without hitting a thing; surfaced near my board, pulled myself on, and paddled outside giggling hysterically in one of my reflexive reactions to close scrapes. Vince kept asking if I’d been hurt, found my laughing a likely indication of trauma-induced shock. When I’d calmed down, he suggest I be more careful with my leash.

A six-foot curve rolled through the still water. No accident that it steepened and broke right at a patch of kelpL the weed’s holdfasts clung to the same submerged rock that broke the wave. Properly speaking, between friends, the wave was mine, but Vince paddled hard across my bow to take position and I didn’t have much fight in me. I just let him have it, picked up the air sac of a feather boa kelp (pneumatocyst, to be precise— what a great word!) and contributed to entropy, popped it in my fingers to feel the little burst, smeared its clear mucus in my palm, and wondered how much trial and error it had taken to mutate such a system: air sacs alternating with leaves, floating the whole plant high enough to photosynthesize. Enough people have told me what a pain I can be— opinionated, self-absorbed, a poor listener— and still managed to love me for better qualities, that I’m especially sensitive to the value of learning a person’s whole story. Ince spent the water time he did only partly because of his love of surfing; the larger reason, and one many surfers also feel, was that he had no choice. No combat infantryman came back from Vietnam delighted by what he’d seen, least of all a resolutely anti-militaristic surfer like Vince. All I knew about his tour of duty was what I’d heard from Willie: that after a year in the field, Vince’s antiwar agitation got him six months in a Marine Corps jail. To this day: no veterans’ T-shirts or bumper stickers, and few political opinions on wars big or small. He’d occasionally drop something eerie like, “Let me see, how long’s it been since I killed anyone…twenty years?”, but he never got into specifics. Maybe war had nothing to do with Vince’s fierce claim to waves, with the way he looked after number one in the water, but it would’ve been adequate explanation for me. Adequate for several hours daily of staring into the great beyond, rising and falling with the sea, blowing off steam and having some honest-to-God, just-for-me fun in the process. Even adequate for snaking me once in a long while.

A nearby loon spent half an hour trying to swallow an oversized carp, literally having bitten off more than it could chew. The foot-long fish protruded eight inches from its beak, jerking. Every time I paddled out from a wave, the fish was another inch or two down that swelling throat. (Imagine the indigestion! Like swallowing a cat whole.) The otter backstroked past and I caught several small, quick little waves that wobbled over boils and exposed rocks. Then another lull— waiting, drifting, rising and falling, splashing about among these billions of little dramas. At least the game gives one a small enough lens to get a piece of the world into true focus— shore-fronting lands like these are the oldest natural communities on earth, their cliffs cross sections of layered pasts, geological time scribed between stratified ashes of Costanoan controlled burns and shell middens. And surfing leaves no trace: the carved wall vanishes, the smacked lip falls anyway. I dropped into a wave as a string of thirty-three pelicans bent and waved over swell and trough, then felt a tear, and my board spun out: a fin, cracked in the debacle on the Point, had torn off. But the water level had risen too much anyway. The waves were sluggish now with the extra depth, and Vince wanted to keep today’s lunch date with his wife. We both caught last waves and, just as mine lifted over an inside rock, I flopped off. When I came up: two boards. My baby, my “Shaped for Dan,” chopped in half. Vince didn’t notice at first, just stood panting on the shale and wrapping his leash around his fins. He was looking at me with sheepish curiosity, perhaps wondering if he’d been too aggressive in the water. Then he noticed the tragedy and I saw a small smile; I waited for a comment about how he’d never broken a single surfboard, how you should never do whatever I’d done. He treated his tools like children, and never, ever loaned them out. When we stepped into the trail gully, the roar vanished. I could hear my feet. A bird’s chirp was clear among the brambles and hemlock, stunted sword fern and horsetails. Then Vince seemed to catch himself. The advice never came, and he mentioned a spare he had in his garage, insisted I use it until I got another. 

Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast.
256 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Daniel Duane has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Review, California Sunday Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Men’s Journal, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and many other publications. He is the author six books, including the surfing memoir Caught Inside, and his work has been widely anthologized. Duane won a 2012 National Magazine Award for an article about cooking with Chef Thomas Keller, and a 2017 IACP award for Narrative Food Writing for a profile of Harold McGee. He has twice been a finalist for a James Beard Award. Duane holds a PhD in American Literature from UC Santa Cruz and has taught creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Weil, and their two daughters.