The Coast News Group
The rear edge of the storm. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

A storm surf memory

Storm surf, a term rarely used any longer, was once popular in the surf lexicon. It’s meaning was obvious in one way and less so in another.

Obvious in that storm surf meant exactly that — the ocean was being subjected to a nearby storm system. Less obvious in that the waves, no matter how disorganized, were going to be ridden.

There were magazine photos of big, ugly chunks of water being negotiated by the hard charging crew whose names we all knew: Mainlanders Buzzy Trent, Greg Noll and Pat Curren ranked high on that list.

The California version of storm surf is like a late COVID variant, unpleasant but usually not deadly. Growing up inland for me meant that whenever I made it to the ocean, I was going to paddle out.  Therefore, storm surf was part of my surfing experience.

It was during the winter of 1964 or 1965 when I drove to Newport Beach and paddled out after a week or two of hard rain.

The surf in the double overhead range was glassy, with a hint of north wind foreshadowing that it would soon blow out.

The waves broke hard and lacked definition, peaking up in one spot then another before closing out on shore. The water was dark brown after being infused with mud picked up in the Santa Ana River Jetty. The waves were literally heavy, weighed down by all the dirt in them.

After a difficult paddle-out, I caught the first wave I saw, dropped to the bottom, and swung my board up and over the top. The board made it, but I did not, and I found myself pinned to the bottom before being pushed out the back of the wave.

Once at the surface, I found my board right next to me and paddled back out. I caught another wave and somehow made each section before the ocean caved in and I pulled out over the top. On the next few waves, I found myself equally victorious.

A set much bigger than any I had ridden that morning loomed on the horizon. I stroked out to meet it, took off late and sensed nothing but air beneath me. I tried holding on, hoping to reconnect with my board and make it to the bottom where I thought to prone out.

Instead, I spun out and was hit hard in the thigh by my rail before being slapped down awkwardly. My head was ringing, and I was in pain.

That wave had more force behind it than anything I had ever experienced this side of Hawaii. It pushed me to the bottom and pinned me to the ocean floor.

Once that wave lost some of its power, it rolled me along the hard-pounded sand. My right shoulder ached, and I thought I might have dislocated it. Thankfully I had not.

I realize now that no one wave could hold anyone down this long and that I was now in the grip of a subsequent wave.

My world was black when I recalled my uncle’s advice: “If you ever feel you are drowning, breathe in water; the body doesn’t know the difference between it and air, and it will make dying easier.”

I was delirious when I took in the first lungful of mud and began to recall my short life while drifting peacefully off.

The next thing I knew I was on the beach, spitting up saltwater, alone in the rainy afternoon and thankful for the breath of life.

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