An essay about surfing from one of our favorite Roamers, Chris Dodds. We call it, "Doldrums"
Every surfer can relate to that nasty feeling, the merciless virus that plagues entire surf tribes for weeks, or even months, on end. The symptoms include depression, restlessness, irritability, spasms, weight gain, weight loss, constipation and/or diarrhea, and in some severe cases, death. (Wait, really?)
I’m talking, of course, about the terrible, awful, no good, very, very bad phenomenon known as a flat spell. Be it unfavorable weather patterns, or perhaps the unsavory wrath of Neptune, sometimes our favorite pleasure machine just shuts down. The simple pleasure of checking the waves becomes an exercise in depression that is best avoided. Ditto for Surfline, Magic Seaweed, and even the farmers almanac. Your wetsuit is thoroughly dry, your favorite stick collects dust, and you may have even washed your car. All past signs of comfort and pleasure are now just somber reminders of inescapable despair. Even the future (aka the premium extended forecast) is a bleak, dark and dreary stretch of dark-grey colored 0-1ft boxes.
You could choose to give it all up and end it now, or find another hobby. You decide that life may still be worth living and that indoor SUP yoga may just be your new thing. You know they offer it in the marina as well, so you could even do it on the water, but you simply can’t bear the sight of an idle big blue. Who knows, maybe moving inland isn’t such a bad idea.
Nonsense man, snap out of it! Plenty of our tribe have faced this foe before and have come out alive, frothing even. Yet, until the wave pool is as ubiquitous as Starbucks, one must venture out in search of wavier pastures.
The options all depend on 1) where you live 2) time and funds available 3) time of the year/swell activity. Being an LA-based surfer means you have quite a few options within a day’s drive, but if everywhere from Northern Baja to Jalama is flat you’ll need more than a day to have enough time for a proper strike mission. If time/funds aren’t as much of an issue then you can check the charts and book a flight from LAX to either Costa, Nica, Panama, Peru, or Hawaii and be ripping world-class waves by sundown.
While that luxury of endless time and funds isn’t a reality for most, the chances of scoring with a buddy, two days time, and a combined $200 is high. Obviously the more money (and time) you have makes it easier, but if you’re tight on cash you can still score. The time of year is also a big factor, summer time and your best bet is the southern route deep into Baja. That is a story in and of itself so I will focus on the Fall/Winter/Spring months and the road to Winterfell (aka North).
“It’s been a long, long ride
I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight
Under the stars or
Maybe in your bed, alright.”
It had been flat for what felt like ages, aside from the one 2-3ft day weeks before I couldn’t remember the last time I got a proper turn on a wave. I happened to check Surfline outside of my usual surf bubble…about 400 miles outside to be exact, to a little place called Santa Cruz. I was mind-surfing more than anything, expect to see similar, if perhaps slightly better conditions. Just my luck, there was a huge swell en route to NorCal that would peak in 3 days time. In Santa Cruz, Surfline predicted 8-12 ft and green on Friday with 12-15 occ. 18ft and ORANGE on Saturday.
My brain struggled to compute with what my eyes were seeing. You just didn’t see those types of numbers and colors on the trestles/porto/rincon forecasts. Up until then I was fairly certain that sort of thing only existed in Hawaii…18ft and Epic conditions…
I immediately texted my trusty surf companion Jay Fish aka El Gringo Loco and pitched the mission. We both had limited amounts of time but we figured that if we took work off Friday, came back Sunday night, we could make it happen. Aside from a short stay years earlier, neither of us had ever been to Santa Cruz so, aside from it being one of the most storied surf towns in the world, we didn’t really know what we were getting into.
The best case in such scenario would be to have a homie who is a local ripper with an extra bed (couch will do just fine) for you to crash on. Next best would be to have a sick man-van and do your homework on where to surf. Well, we didn’t have either of those things but I happened to know a few comrades up there who said we would be welcome at their house.
We packed up my car and left LA around 11 pm on Thursday night. I had recently discovered Bulletproof Coffee, I had also recently bought a very large thermos (128oz). We were all jacked up when we arrived at the house after doing nothing aside from knocking back cup after cup of oily, fat-infused coffee, driving fast and talking story for hours. Sleep didn’t come easy, it may not even have come at all…
6:30am: First light and the first thing I did was make more coffee. We were like junkies, only that instead of drugs we were health fiends who had brought our own butter and coconut oil halfway across the state.
7:00am: Not knowing anywhere else to go, we left the house and made our way to Steamer Lane.
7:30am: Park. Froth. Ooh and Ahh along with everyone else on the cliff as perfect bombs cruised into the bay.
8:00am: Still frothing. Still Ooh’ing. Still Ahh’ing.
8:30am: Fully torqued + fully soaked by this point. Wanting nothing more than for coach to put us in the game (but still not ready). Despite the savage amounts of coffee, the lack of sleep was beginning to feel real in the face of these cottage-sized waves. We nervously started to stretch and work on our breathing.
8:45am: MASSIVE set rolls in and catches everyone inside. Middle peak broke way outside at what must have been 18ft. We then become “distracted” and go check out the surf history museum and the cool VW van in the parking lot.
9:00am: Convince ourselves that was a rogue set and that the tide was starting to fill in and that we’ll be fine… If only we knew the best place to paddle out. I thought for sure the best move was to hop off the point like I had watched a bunch of guys do. But I also thought it was a bit intimidating, just cruising on up to the point, at the lane, in Santa Cruz, and jumping on in like it was no big deal. Jay was also intimidated and opted for taking the stairs down to the massive, jagged boulders and jumping into the bay. (In hindsight, that was a bad idea.)
9:15am: Always keeping an eye out to sea, we’re suited up and carefully crawling over the big, slippery boulders. It’s kind of terrifying standing on the edge like that when the ocean is heaving and you’re getting severely misted by the waves crashing a few feet from where you stand. I don’t really like to linger in those types of situations, preferring to just go for it before I psych myself out. So I waited for a wave to roll in and jumped right as it broke against the boulders to catch the backwash into deeper water.
Those first few duck dives, while scratching like mad to get out into the lineup, were very intense. My head felt like it was going to explode. The water was maybe 52 degrees, a solid 10 colder than back home, and while I had thicker wetsuit and booties, I had no hood and the ice cream headache was very real.
11:30am: After a precarious exit, Jay and I hugged it out—absolutely stoked that we had survived. It was easily the biggest day either of us had surfed in California and, while we had some close calls, we bagged some amazing rides.
Most of the two hour session was an adrenaline-fueled black out that I can’t really recall. There was one moment that sticks out, after catching a few good rides I remember thinking, “this isn’t too bad, I’ve got this dialed.” So I positioned myself as the next set came through and put my head down and paddled like hell for the first wave. It jacked up like a insane beast right as I popped to my feet and it launched me like a corn kernel in a popcorn machine.
I fell for what felt like ages and came down on my side with such force I almost had the wind knocked out of me. It was the longest hold down of my life; adding to the fear was the cold, dark water and the fact that there were three waves left in the set. I apologized to Neptune and Poseidon for being so cocky in their realm. I vowed to be humble from that moment forward, if they would just let me live. They simply replied, “boy, sit down!”
The good thing about near-death experiences is that they undoubtedly make you feel alive. You may be terrified, but you feel totally and fully alive. I’m not saying you need to almost kill yourself when you go surfing, far from it. While surfing bigger waves does make any flat spell, and all it’s various ailments, feel like a distant memory, the simple act of surfing any wave makes life more worth living. Whether it’s 2ft and mushy, or 20ft and barreling, surfing, that is, standing sideways and flying on water, kisses your soul. You escape the tyranny of mundane and mandatory obligations and you briefly glide with the gods.