Paddling beyond the breakers, three dozen surfers formed a floating semicircle of mourners in the chilly waters at Surfers Point in Ventura.
The Sunday morning congregation was quiet, even somber, as Erin Quinn cast a lei of yellow, purple and red flowers into the calm, gray waters. She opened a small wooden box and scattered ashes of her late husband, Nick Vlaco, onto the waves that he loved to ride.
"Nick, you'll be missed, but never forgotten," said Robert Perdue, a veteran waterman with long sun-bleached hair who joined in the eulogy.
At that moment, a massive swell swept through, lifting the carpet of surfers and then dropping them again like a brief roller-coaster ride. The sudden surge seemed like the ocean's nod of agreement to those straddling their boards. They broke into a chorus of hoots, yips and yowls.
The ritual "paddle out," as it is called, surfaces more frequently these days as aging baby boomers refuse to relinquish the beloved sport of their youth. Its roots are in Hawaii, where the beach boys of Waikiki have had their ashes scattered at sea for decades. More recently, it's been embraced as part of California's surf culture.
Although the ceremony varies, it usually involves releasing ashes and flowers into the water, followed by a prayer and a few words from friends. The ritual signifies more than just returning the departed surfer to the ocean as a final resting place. It's a symbolic way for him to rejoin his friends in the surf they shared.
For the past year, Nicholas F. Vlaco spent nearly every morning with his buddies at Surfers Point, which is across from the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Although he moved to Ventura only about a year ago, he quickly fell into a group of regulars who surf whenever there are waves, or just hang out along the Ventura Promenade when the ocean is flat.
Vlaco was one of the younger members of the pack at "the Point," as the locals call it. He died suddenly at age 36 of natural causes while camping in Yosemite with his wife and three children June 19. Physicians speculate that it was heart trouble, but are still not sure.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he was fit from surfing. His business was taking off, crafting sheet-metal hoods over stoves and installing heating and air-conditioning systems. He delighted in his marriage of three years to Erin Quinn and their combined family of three children. And he was well-known for his boyish enthusiasm and irrepressible spirit.
"That's why it hit everybody so hard," said Jerry Wilson, one of his surfing friends. "He was only 36 years old, a big guy and so healthy, and the next thing he was gone."
Like most surf spots along the California coast, the Point has a crew of enthusiasts who, no matter how cold it gets, tug off their clothes in the parking lot, wriggle into wet suits and slip into the surf--all before most people are out of bed.
Vlaco, who had grown up surfing in San Pedro as a teen-ager, fit in easily with the local crowd. He was a loud and gregarious character who seemed to love nothing more than to share some laughs, beers and waves with his buddies.
"He had a great attitude out in the water," said Steve Walden, a professional surfer and popular Ventura surfboard maker. "He was always up and smiling and excited. It was his enthusiasm that rubbed off on a lot of people."
About 6:30 one morning, Perdue was standing outside his parked car checking out the surf. His tape deck blared music with a catchy Congo-drum rhythm. And Vlaco showed up. "Nick started dancing," Perdue said. "Then we all started dancing trying to put our wet suits on."
Unlike other famous "point breaks" such as Malibu and Rincon, the Point is less competitive. There's an easy camaraderie among newcomers and the regulars. For the most part, locals do not engage in hazing to chase away visiting surfers. And many of them don't mind sharing waves with each other.
"Nick always said this is the friendliest place he's ever surfed," Quinn said of her late husband. "There is a real fellowship."
Rich Phelps, a young surfer befriended by Vlaco, remembers sharing many waves with him.
On one big surf day, Phelps was riding a wave and found himself deep inside the breaking wave as if he were inside a barrel--the ultimate experience for a surfer. It was then, he said, that he heard Vlaco's voice from behind him. "Don't bail. Coming up behind you," he said, reassuring Phelps that there was room for two inside the wave.
"We both got barreled," Phelps said, savoring the memory that bonded them forever. "He was a good surfer. He had a lot of control. I still hear his voice echoing behind me."
Phelps canceled out of a surfing competition in San Diego County to join the ceremonial paddle out for his friend. "It was something I had to do," Phelps said. "I can compete another day."
All told, 36 people paddled out beyond the breakers to honor a fellow surfer. The congregation included three "Cove boys," who drove up from his hometown break, called "The Cove" in San Pedro, and a few relatives.
His wife Erin, an associate dean at the USC School of Medicine, paddled out on one of Vlaco's six surfboards. His brother, Marty, rode tandem with Vlaco's 8-year-old daughter Tamara on another. His sister-in-law, Sheila Quinn Kelley, was riding a third while his parents watched from shore.
After the brief ceremony, the surfers spread out and caught waves to shore.
"This is how one surfer pays tribute to another surfer," said Perdue, perhaps Vlaco's closest friend in Ventura. "I know I would want this. And I think Nick would want this too."