Surfing with Sam (Part Dos)

Continued from

The only sound came from the water lapping gently against my board. I let myself be idle, like a sea lion lazing on a buoy. I hummed a Lady Gaga song that had been stuck in my head all morning, but found I was not annoyed. I wondered what Lady Gaga would do in my current situation, and figured she would feel rather at home in a full-length rubber suit not unlike a catsuit. I could see her now, determined to surf while wearing platform shoes covered in raw meat.

I snapped out of  daydreaming as my board started to rock. There was movement on the horizon and I paddled toward it. Way out there were perfect, mesmerizing little waves forming and folding gently, over and over, as in a wave pool at a water park.

The foggy lassitude that had hitherto dominated my morning was replaced by a determination to paddle with purpose. I focused on a wave, turned around started paddling hard, but it passed by without me. I began to turn around again and was startled to see an anomalous wave headed my way, bigger and faster than the others. Without much time to make a decision I made a quick adjustment on my board and started paddling furiously into it. I felt the wave pick me up, I hopped up to my feet with my signature wobbly grace, and by a stroke of uncharacteristic aptitude I stayed upright.

What took place next can only be described as a fluke. If there hadn’t been any witnesses I wouldn’t believe me either, and even so, I’m not sure my recollections can be trusted. Either way, kindly entertain the possibility that for about five seconds I was surrounded on all sides by a tube of turquoise water, because that, somehow, actually happened.

No one ever told me (nor did I ever inquire) what happens when the barrel closes out because, well, it seemed unnecessary. I just braced myself and sort of fell back and got tossed around for a few seconds, getting thwacked on the side of the head by my board. An undignified end to an otherworldly experience.

Breathless from a combination of shock, euphoria and want of air, I hoisted myself back onto my board and found I was no longer alone. There were several pairs of bewildered eyes watching me.

Surfing with Sam (Part One)


Image from

The fog was thick. The kind of fog that makes amateur photographers squeal with delight as it rolls through the Golden Gate Bridge. The pea soup-like mist that muffled the sound of  Jack the Ripper’s footsteps. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it, but fog is foe when you want to go surprise-free surfing.

Feet in the sand, I looked out at the gray air and water, one indistinguishable from the other. My wetsuit put up extra resistance as I shoved my arms through the sleeves. The Velcro of my leash’s ankle strap made a prickling noise as a hundreds of tiny hooks snapped free from tiny loops.

There are some people that aren’t bothered by fog. They’ll say, “You can’t see the waves from the shore, so you just have to find out what they’re like when you get out there.” This is one of the ways surfing teaches flexibility and adaptability. You can’t always see what’s ahead. Or what’s about to land on your head. And so on.

There were lots of sets coming through and I couldn’t paddle out to the lineup so I gave up for a while and sat on the sand. Someone else came in, carrying two halves of his unlucky board, white foam protruding from shiny black. He was  smiling in disbelief and muttering about how it could possibly have happened. Then someone chided me for sitting out on the sand so I went back out; also, my hands were starting to turn purple in the air.

I was in the line up almost instantly, inadvertently taking advantage of a rip tide. It gave me the impression that the conditions had mellowed, explaining why it was so easy. I glided up next to Ben, who looked amused to see me. I paddled over a cresting five-foot wave and then another, unsure what to do next. I knew I couldn’t leave the same way I came. Taking one in didn’t seem like a possibility, but pointing myself toward the shore and paddling wasn’t the most appealing option either.

I raced over a wave that felt determined to suck me over the falls. As it passed, the sky started to brighten and the water flattened out. I sat up on my board and scanned the horizon which was now a visible line. There had been several surfers around but now it was as if they’d evaporated with the fog. Looking over my shoulder, the shore was disconcertingly far away.

The Happiest Waves in America

This past Easter weekend, while most of my friends back in L.A. partook in the pastel-colored, sugar-laden pagan traditions of dying eggs and baking pastries, I got a taste of the SLO life in the Happiest Town in America. And a bit of cold seawater as well.

Ben and I decided to spend the long weekend in San Luis Obispo, whose acronym SLO suits the town pretty well. Past cozy Ventura and picturesque Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo is far enough to qualify as a road trip and a thousand miles away from the L.A. mentality. Recognized as the Happiest Town in America, SLO boasts wide sidewalks (apparently this is linked to a town’s happiness), stringent smoking laws, beautiful beaches, plenty of bike paths, and countless hiking trials. A utopia for anyone who’s not a sun-shunning goth, no?

Ah, happiness. Is it the fresh air? Hike-induced endorphins? Or just SLO's wide sidewalks?

SLO, being home to Cal Poly, is also the quintessential college town where Ben spent his undergrad glory days. He’s graduated and moved back to Long Beach, but some of his good friends are still in the area, and we stayed with the one and only Sir Avery Cromwell (whom I still owe $12 in refreshments–hope you’re reading this! And you have my hairbrush!) in Morro Bay, an easy 10 minutes north of Downtown SLO. Avery has this cool old two-story house a few blocks from the beach, with a guest room (no floor for us!), a crotchety old cat, a nice roommate and a well-stocked bar for entertaining. A good host he is.

After some jovial banter and reminiscing, we walked to join the rest of the Cromwell Clan for dinner at Hofbrau at the harbor, with lovely sunset views, for pitchers and German-style comfort food. Then we went to a bar nearby for pints of the ubiquitous Firestone DBA and games of pool and shuffleboard. Firestone, when combined with pure skill, makes me a fairly decent player of both.

We got up early enough on Saturday morning to go surfing at the Pit. The Pit is right next to the Rock. I don’t know why neither have better names but in any case, the Rock makes for an easily identifiable landmark and meet-up place as well as a great backdrop for surfing at the Pit. Which doesn’t look like a pit? What do I know.

What I do know now is what about 53 degree water feels like and I’m really glad I bought booties to keep my toes from going numb. After the initial iciness, I got used to it and warmed up pretty quickly. The waves seemed pretty small as we suited up, but there were frequent sets of growing waves and I decided against paddling through the breakwater to the line up. Ben started catching waves right away, as usual, and eventually Avery and his brother showed up, waded on past me with kind words of encouragement as I briefly stood up on some whitewater. Which was completely fine with me, even when Avery’s dad paddled on out to the real waves. Baby steps…

Ben and Avery, looking mighty pleased with themselves after their shred sesh.

After a while we took off for nearby Cayucos, where Ben’s friend Dane lives, and we had delicious smoked fish tacos and hung out in the backyard until we went surfing again. There’s a good spot about six seconds away from Dane’s place. This time the guys debated whether or not to bring longboards since we were expecting small surf, and they did. Once again, while the teasing baby waves sparked some optimism in me as I struggled to put on wet booties, they somehow grew to shoulder high by the time we paddled out past the break. This session for me turned out to be mostly a practice in turtle diving and paddling into shore. But the whitewash was too mushy to surf so I sat and watched. Needless to say, the others were more successful but still had to work to hold onto their longboards.

That night I had a glimpse into the nightlife in Downtown San Luis Obispo, through Peach & Frog Pub, Bubblegum Alley, and another bar with $2 cans of Tecate–score! There we met up with another surf buddy, Ross, whose mellow demeanor was at odds with the harrowing surf tales that he and Ben shared with me.

We started Easter Sunday morning by putting on cold wetsuits while it was drizzling, but I wasn’t complaining, in spite of the fact that my cold wet booties were putting up a staunch resistance to my feet. Maybe I whined a little. No one tells you that putting on the gear is half the battle.

Finally we paddled out into the “kiddie pool,” no big deal. The waves got a little bigger, but I was still assessing my options. A little bigger still, and it was back to turtle dive practice, which lead to a massive brain freeze and me trudging to the car, not entirely defeated but ready for a hot shower.

I kind of looked and felt like Ben's Wienerschnitzel antenna topper at one point.

Last on our itinerary was something more familiar: a hike at Bishop’s Peak, which is the highest in the chain of nine peaks between San Luis and Morro Bay. I’m pretty good at hiking. It’s like walking, but harder. The fog had lifted and it was no longer drizzling, so the hike afforded us a great view of SLO, the surrounding mountains, vineyards and fields, all the way out to the ocean. It was a great way to get some terra firma exercise, but Ben had to do something to make the activity a bit dangerous, namely the Leap of Death. It’s pretty self explanatory and I don’t want to give anyone ideas by going into detail.

I had to give Ben a piggy back ride half way up, but it was worth it.

And so, it was with fond memories and achy limbs we left the Happiest Town in America and its waves that happily taught me a lesson or two.

Shreddin’ the gnarl in California with a surf legend

Every day I eagerly anticipate the arrival of’s “Unpacked” e-newsletter, showcasing a single brilliant destination or product you absolutely must know about. A service that complements your experience, Unpacked entices you to “Travel smarter with our daily insider tips on hotels, hot spots, gear, and more,” and their methods are effective. I’ve added at least 30 things to my bucket list since I signed up for this, from riding the revitalized Orient Express, which appears to take you on a magical, champagne-drenched ride through Narnia, to driving cross country in my top-of-the-line Eddie Bauer Airstreamer and unloading my kayak at every opportunity.

Without doing any research, I’d say that at least half of Unpacked’s daily features are hotels and their various packages offered. As a PR professional specializing in hospitality and travel, I’ve even pitched Concierge a package or two. (They were respectfully declined, not being high-end enough I’m guessing.) Usually I quickly skim and delete these emails because my budget wouldn’t exactly cover a suite in Dubai. Plus, to be honest, they are boring.


This blew me out of the water, so to speak.

Subject: Shreddin’ the gnarl in California with a surf legend

Here’s the Deal

Tuesday, April 19

Endless Summer Ultimate Surf Package, Laguna Beach, California

The Pacific Edge Hotel’s new Endless Summer Ultimate Surf Package channels the spirit of the seminal 1960s travel and surf documentary by pairing you up with one of its stars, Robert August (pictured back in the day, far right), for a one-on-one day of surfing, searching out perfect breaks along SoCal’s storied coast.

It don’t matter if you’re grom, random stander, or bona fide railer, you’ll also get a place to crash overlooking Laguna Beach in the 129-room, brightly painted boutique property. Also provided: Endless Summer swag, including a six-pack of lager and a DVD box set. Plus, after a day in the waves, you’re invited to chillax with August and his surfer son Sam over sundowners and appetizers on the beach. Righteous!

Endless Summer Ultimate Surf Package available April 19, 2011 through March 31, 2012; starts at $5,200 (must book 21 days in advance)”

And here’s the package described on the hotel’s website (Unpacked gives it to you much more eloquently and uses the appropriate lingo like “grom” and my fave “chillax”):

The “Endless Summer” Ultimate Surf Experience

Endless Summer Ultimate Surf Experience

The iconic surf documentary The Endless Summer® follows two young surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave, giving birth to the “surf and travel” culture. Pacific Edge Hotel, Joie de Vivre’s official Endless Summer® hotel located in the heart of Laguna Beach, is celebrating the spirit of the film by creating something extra special for guests in search of the perfect wave… and the perfect travel experience. Starting Now through March 31, 2012, when guests purchase a comfortable and cool Beachfront Room they can truly live The Endless Summer® and embark on a one day, one-on-one surf adventure with Robert August, one of the stars of the film and a world-renowned surfer. After catching waves with August at Southern California’s most legendary breaks, the guest will have the opportunity to sit down and chat with him and his son, surfer Sam August, over cocktails and appetizers on the beach. The package also includes Bruce Brown’s “‘The Ultimate Summer’ DVD set” and a six-pack of Karl Strauss’ Endless Summer Lager. Guests also have the option to add on one of August’s custom made “What I Ride” surfboards (boards start at $870). Package cost starts at $5,200. Must book 21 days in advance.

Offer valid March 31, 2011 – March 31, 2012. Twenty One (21) days advance purchase required. Rates subject to space availability and minimum night stay requirements. Taxes and gratuities not included. Surf lesson included for Two (2) Persons, additional lessons can be added at an additional fee.

Obviously, what makes this the ultimate ($5K) travel experience isn’t the DVD set, Endless Summer Lager, staying in a luxe Beachfront Room or even surf lessons, but the opportunity to share the stoke with a true surf legend. To hang out with Robert August, who surfed previously unsurfed, pristine waves around the world in The Endless Summer, is probably as close the average guy with $5,200 burning a hole in his pocket can get to imitating the global surf experience. Especially because you’d have to go back to the 60’s to even come close.

Here’s what I’ve been trying to get to all along, though: $5,200 could have taken August and Michael Hynson on their epic tour thrice over. (Again, no research done here. I just wanted to say thrice.) Aside from their plane tickets, it didn’t appear that they spent much on food, lodging and transportation. They once spent a whopping $30 for a luxury hotel room in South Africa, and a few bucks on gas, but otherwise expenses didn’t figure prominently in the film. After all, surfers are known for having low-maintenance, frugal lifestyles.

So. Is it really “celebrating the spirit of the film” if you’re essentially buying time with someone who you’d otherwise never meet? Plus–I wince just imagining it–what if you were to drop in on his wave or smack him with your board after you wipe out? Paranoid hypotheticals aside, I just don’t really get it. On the surface it’s a really neat concept, and of course I would jump at this opportunity under a different context, but this package reads like a Make a Wish Foundation opportunity, one that costs you $5,200 plus applicable taxes and fees.

I think I’ll just get a six-pack of my choice, forgo the special edition box set to watch the film streaming on Netflix, and shred some gnarly whitewater. Maybe someday, when I’m a world-renowned surfer, Mr. August and I will chillax without money changing hands. If either of us are still alive by then.