THE FIRE INSIDE
by Gerry Lopez
Surfing astonishes me still. Even after almost 50 years of steady pursuit I find my inner fire for the experience, though cooled on occasion, still can be stoked up into a blaze that all but consumes my attention toward everything else in my life. For those who don’t surf, this somewhat juvenile passion is difficult to understand. But for those who do, this internal heater room fuels that private smile and keeps us coming back for just that one more wave time and time again.
I surfed the first time when I was 10 years old. For the next 7 years I enjoyed it with friends but it was only recreation. During my first year away from home attending a Southern California college, on a weekend surf safari to Baja Mexico, the fire inside suddenly burst into a conflagration. I was resting on the beach after a long session at an obscure spot called K-38 1/2, trying to warm up in the sunshine from the chilly below-the-border water, when an unusual thing happened. The waves were perfect and my vantage point ideal as I watched them break empty of any riders. I closed my eyes but the picture continued to play in my mind. I saw a surfer riding across a wave, something I had witnessed before while dreaming of surfing, but this time I recognized the surfer. I was astonished to find he was me. In my mind’s eye was a clear picture of myself, riding a wave and performing maneuvers I had never been able to do before. I was completely astounded, closing my eyes tighter to replay this picture; I hoped it would not fade away. It didn’t and even better, I was able to think about things I had watched other, more skilled surfers do and see myself doing the same. It was a moment of surf/self visualization and instantly I was warm from the inside out. The flame that had been barely kindling before suddenly flared. The meandering direction of my surfing took on an immediate focus. From that point forward the fire inside burned hot. I became a surfer for life.
Over the following years, many things happened to fuel those fires. In 1967, the Shortboard Revolution began in Hawaii and I had the great fortune and privilege of owning the surfboard that was its opening shot, an 8’- 6” mini-gun made by Dick Brewer. Each new surfboard led surfing performance to a higher level at the various surf spots. Ala Moana, Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, all kept the fires burning. Close friends pushed each other to new places of progress and innovation. Surf traveling added more fuel. Discovering Bali, G-Land and the splendid surf of Indonesia prolonged the stoke for many years. Windsurfing and wave sailing opened new doors and broadened our horizons. Tow surfing into the big waves that had been unattainable before was a huge stoke. Surfing the snow on a snowboard kept it going all the more.
My affair with the mountains and the snow had marooned me inland for the last 15 years, 200 miles from the coast. The surf fire seemed to have dwindled down to a pilot light level, still able to flare under the right stimulus but little more than a warm glow. It seemed my job of building surfboards did more to keep the fire alive than the few surf trips I took. I felt like I was on hold for something, surfing was always on my mind and in my soul but the physical part had shrunk. Then something happened.
I discovered stand up paddle surfing. Not that it was anything new. Beach boys like Joseph “Scooter Boy” Kaouiki had been doing it in Waikiki back in the late 1940’s. Leroy and Bobby Ah Choy also played with it on their tandem surfboards using outrigger canoe paddles.
Then Laird got into it. He asked me to shape him a board which I did out of a huge 12’-8” tandem blank. The shaping task was an ordeal, the glassing part even worse. The final product was so big and heavy only Laird could pick it up by himself. But he was stoked, his smile showing it was just perfect for what he had in mind. The only bummer was he wanted another dozen just like it right away for all his friends. I shuddered at that thought and began thinking fast in another direction. Another good friend and great shaper, Ron House, had said in a recent conversation that surfboard work in Southern California had slowed down. I called him and without mentioning much about the down side of the task, somehow talked him into getting involved in Laird’s big board project. Ron rose to the occasion, his and Laird’s relationship bloomed and currently Ron House stand up boards are on the leading edge of this new sport. But the years went by and I never gave it much of a try. I took an Indo boat trip with Laird, Dave Kalama and a big group of others to some fabulous waves. There I was able to witness firsthand Laird’s expertise at stand up paddle surfing in any and all waves that didn’t required the use of a tow-board and jet ski. It was an incredible and unbelievable show. But still I lagged. I found the boards too big, the balancing tricky and keeping it going in a straight line difficult. Yet those visions of Laird kept playing through my mind. I was impressed by the ease with which he paddled into any wave, and his precise maneuvering to make the big 12’ board fit into every part of the wave.
I got myself a 12’ Mickey Munoz SurfTech board and a KIALOA paddle to try on my own. I paddled all over the local lakes. That was easy on the flat still water, but several attempts in the ocean waves didn’t offer much hope. This sport was really hard and Laird’s quick mastery of it seemed beyond belief even for him. I went to visit him in California and we got in a good surf session at Point Dume. He danced around on his board like Fred Astaire. I felt like a klutz, but I watched him carefully.
The next week I went to visit Sparky Longley of Rainbow Sandals who was just getting into stand up paddle surfing and we met Ron House down at San Onofre. Ron had some beautiful equipment and showed us some entry level technique that made everything easier. San Onofre, the slowest wave in the world, was the perfect stand up paddleboard playground. I stayed out for hours totally hooked on the new sport.
Ron sent me a fantastic 10’ stand up board with a thruster fin set-up. Meg and Dave Chun of KIALOA Paddles made an almost weightless carbon fiber paddle for me to try. I practiced on the lakes to improve on the most difficult part of learning this sport. To ride waves, one needs to see them first, paddle out to meet them, then turn around quickly to catch them. That’s the hard part, to turn around fast while still maintaining a forward momentum to be in a position to paddle into the wave at the right moment and in the right place. It sounds easy but believe me, it's not.
The first surf day finally came. A nice swell was breaking on a well formed sandbar, but a lot of regular surfers were in the line-up. I was careful to avoid them and pick waves for which they were out of position. I had fun and the best part was standing up. I stayed warm while everyone else shivered in the ice-cold water. I went several more times and began to better understand the subtle nuances of Ron’s fine board as well as improve my paddle technique. Then there was a morning I woke up to a perfect swell breaking on an outside sandbank. The roving line-up made positioning an impossible task on a regular board but easy work with the greater mobility range of the stand up board. The paddle blade is much bigger than two hands increasing the power of each stroke tremendously. The peaks were all over the place but I could chase them down and paddle into many that would have been impossible to catch on a regular board. Sometimes on a wave, sections would pop up ahead. By taking a few hard strokes, I was able to speed up and easily make it through. Using the paddle to pivot off of, I could make that 10’ board turn on a dime. The glide of the big board and power available with the paddle smoothed out the lines I was able to take on any given wave. Getting caught inside proved a formidable obstacle but there were times when a little speed going out and a little fancy balancing rolled me over some big whitewater that I thought for sure would knock me down. I also began to pay more attention to what was behind the wave I was riding and managed to escape getting trapped by pulling out at the right moment. But many of the waves that the other regular surfers were not interested in were fair game for the stand up board. My wave count went up enormously. I was stoked. Before I knew it, 7 hours had gone by, several different groups of regular surfers had come and gone and I was still feeling pretty good.
After that I watched the surf forecasts like a hawk. At any hint of waves, I would make the 4 hour drive to go surfing. The fires inside are roaring again, driving 200 miles for surf once seemed absurd but now it hardly makes me blink. Am I nuts or what? Keep surfing!