When I paddled out Sunday, just after dawn, there was nothing special about the waves. The mediocre right point break in North Los Angeles was a little lumpy and crossed up. Few were actually lining up and running longer lengths along the cobblestone shoreline. Still, it was good to be out in the water after a few days’ break.
Smoke hovered over the water due north from the so-called Sand Fire that continued to burn in the Santa Clarita area. The fire burned over 33,000 acres and forced thousands to evacuate their homes. The grey plumes in the distance served as a reminder that picturesque morning, water hovering in the low 70s, not to take that moment for granted, and how lucky each person was to be out there in recreation – lives and belongings presumably unthreatened by the blaze burning farther inland.
All was friendly in the water, many electing to ride longboards over alternative craft.
A dad was pushing his kid into waves – he couldn’t have been more than 10-years-old. “Rad,” I thought. Father and son sharing a moment. Dad passing stoke and love for the ocean onto son. Son experiencing the fun of wave riding over and over. “Let the kid have all the waves he wants,” I thought to myself. “It’s a small day. Mellow. And think about how much more each wave matters to him.”
I managed to pick off a few in between. I noticed the kid was getting a few too. Then, out the back one wave came through that was lining up better than most, a little bigger, breaking farther out. One leash-wearing longboarder took off, probably mid-50s or early 60s. He went straight down the line with some speed. I turned to watch the wave break behind me. I noticed the kid had gotten the wave right before and was sitting in the impact zone. The two looked like they might collide.
They didn’t, but the longboarder got angry. I was out of earshot, but he had harsh words for the kid. Something to the effect of, “You need to get out of other people’s way, and watch where you’re going.” He paddled back to the top of the point.
The kid paddled back to dad in tears. Dad swam over to the longboarder. They had words. “You have a right to be here, but go somewhere else. Your kid’s in the way,” said the longboarder. “Do you feel good about yourself making a child cry?” said dad. No fisticuffs, but lots of words.
The longboarder was clearly in the wrong. After another wave he paddled through the lineup back to dad and son: “Young man, you know it was just because you were in my way, right?” Wow, dude.
I talked to dad a little later. “Guy’s an asshole,” I said.
“He drops in on paraplegics too,” said dad. I didn’t know what to say.
“A while back a paraplegic guy showed up to surf this spot – dragged himself across the rocks to get out in the lineup. If a guy’s gonna do that he deserves any wave he wants out here, as far as I’m concerned. But that guy had no mercy burning him.”
I wanted to quit surfing that day. I was over it. “What are we doing?” I thought.
How did that one wave have so much significance in that guy’s life that he felt the need to yell at someone a third of his size and probably one-sixth his age? And not only that, he had a good run. He juiced maybe a solid 60 yards out of the thing before needing to go around someone who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And dropping in on a paraplegic? That speaks for itself.
I say what are we doing, because I’m not a saint. There are definitely things that set me off: disrespect in the water, traffic. But, that one moment caused me to question all of that. Why do I feel better about my day if I speed past a guy going exactly the speed limit or even slower? Why do I give the stink eye to guys that burn me? It’s all so superficial and meaningless in the scheme of things.
Whether it’s the fire in Santa Clarita, police shootings or shootings of police, acts of terrorism, you name it, the world has become an especially hostile place. Surfing is simultaneously a release and refuge from the absurdity – a communing with the ocean in a sort of baptismal way. But when surfing simply becomes a source of added conflict, well, what good is it then, if it’s just making things worse?
We’re all just bickering over meaningless waves while someone’s whole life is smoldering up the road.