Nostalgia can be dangerous at a certain age. But rest assured it hits everyone sooner or later and surfers are not immune. When I was a gremmie in the ’60s, my father and his friends would tell of 20-foot waves in Hermosa Beach and the then-empty waves at Malibu. The men riding Old Man’s at San Onofre would speak about the times before foam boards (what they called flexi flyers) and how in my day kids had no idea how to ride waves.
I rode a contemporary wave through the ’70s and ’80s, keeping up with changing times. Then, around the end of the 1980s, I saw someone ride a longboard in the way they used to ride them and I nearly cried thinking of the smooth glide of those old planks and the surfers that rode them.
I was recently on that most dangerous of nostalgic vehicles, Facebook, when a link from my old friend Richard “Slick” Dowdy appeared on my screen. I pressed the button and the title “Stone Steps” came up, followed by the words: “No cell phones, no permits, no tattoos, no cops, no fights,” before launching into a history of a surf contest that can never be repeated again, the Stone Steps Invitational.
Dubbed by Dowdy and co-founder Jim Jenks (who later helped start Op) the 33rd year of this annual contest mixed beer, music and waves with a love-in type atmosphere that I have never forgotten. There I saw Jenks, Mike Doyle, Fred Ryan, Tommy Lewis, Donald Takayama, Mike Purpose, Terry Fitzgerald and a throng of lesser knowns, downing resin buckets of beer, before paddling out into the grinding little beach break. I think Doug Erickson, one of the best surfers in the area at the time, eventually won that one.
By the time I entered the Stone Steps contest, it was being called the 39th annual. I had spent the evening with that year’s eventual winner, Donald Takayama, at the South Cardiff Lodge, coming home long after closing time, sleeping for about an hour and waking to find that my heat was under way.
I poured the suds-filled bucket down my throat, proud of not spilling a drop. I paddled out and lay there, sick, on my board, drifting out to sea, hoping that a wave would not arrive and capsize my 6’10” Brewer mini gun. By the time we were called in, I had still not caught a wave and paddled to shore to join old friends and make new ones behind the stairs.
Maybe as a result of this humbling experience, I quit drinking shortly after my first and last surf contest. Anyway, I attended Stone Steps only twice more after that, and then as a spectator watching the late, great Tommy Lewis and one of the all-time greats, Hawaiian-born Donald Takayama, battle it out for first place.
Of course Stone Steps was a bad idea. At least the legal profession would think so. And so the tradition was never passed on, but died suddenly, when it became nearly impossible to do in broad daylight. But Chris and Justin Cote, who grew up at Steps, had heard all the stories and so they, along with some friends and international surf stars like Sunny Garcia, managed to perform a reasonable facsimile of Stone Steps, which by now would be nearly as old as I am.
I miss those days. My liver does not.
Filed Under: Sea Notes