There are unwritten rules that surfers live by: Take a wave to shore instead of paddling in, don’t be a wave hog, don’t drop in on someone, especially if they have a board half the size of the one you’re riding.
There are more rules, many of which are covered in Shaun Tomson’s “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.”
Two rules I have attempted to live by ever since I was old enough to think I was to never litter and to always pick up discards small enough to carry in my pockets.
All real surfers hate pollution, at least the visible sort. But there’s another type of pollution, a type not visible but nonetheless evident from Rincon to Baja and beyond. I call it verbal pollution, and this foul menace contaminates lineups internationally like an oil spill.
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I confess to having done exactly what I am about to rail against — complaining about bad surf or my fellow surfers and cursing wave hog offenders. As an environmentalist, I am adding verbal smack-downs to the list of things that need to be eliminated from our sport if we hope to return to a pristine environment.
I was surfing Swami’s on a good-sized swell when a knee boarder took off in front of me and hovered at the top of the wave. As I turned off the bottom and began climbing up the wave, he was air dropping, down.
The result was a mid-face collision that left my two-day-old Caster Channel bottom with a deep gash in the rail. I screamed at the knee boarder, and he responded by paddling in and scampering up the stairs.
Once I gathered my senses, I pursued him into the parking lot to say I was sorry and that I should leave and he should stay. By the time I arrived, however, he had his windows tightly rolled up and was peeling out for home.
Less than a decade later I was out surfing Cardiff Reef, again on a new board, and with my same old bad attitude.
This time there was no collusion, but the crowd was overpowering to the point that I was unable to catch a single wave on my 6’10” board, surrounded as I was by a sea of boards 3 feet longer than mine. I was fuming as I took the whitewater to shore and began walking home.
As I walked, I made under-my-breath comments at most everyone I passed, focusing most of my venom on a man awkwardly dragging two bodyboards through the damp sand by their leashes. Worst of all, he looked happy.
As we passed, I avoided his joyful eyes, looked at the ground and said, “Who’s this jerk,” under my breath, in the way any coward might.
I climbed the empty lifeguard tower and looked down to see him and his young son taking their silly little sponges into the shorebreak.
Then I saw him, really saw him, his prostatic leg gleaming in the sunlight like a badge of courage. Shamefully, I lowered my head and wept at the realization that I was, in fact, the jerk in question.
The ocean gives us everything and asks for nothing in return.
Still, I had blasphemed against it and, indirectly, the God I believe created it. I was ungrateful for a gift I had enjoyed since childhood.
The man with the prosthetic leg may have traded a limb so I could be free to ride waves.
Maybe not, but his sheer joy and appreciation of the ocean that day made me a better, richer, more grateful person and a true environmentalist.