Small, sloppy waves on the south side of the pier. An indestructible
soft-top long board that could survive a submarine torpedo.
Waist-high waters directly in front of a lifeguard station.
Yeah, I was scared to death.
I've been surfing for about two years, first picking up the sport
in Santa Cruz. Sure, I have braved colder waters, climbed up cliffs
and worried about the occasional shark, but nothing scared me more
than the thought of paddling out with someone who was much better
It was July 19, two days before the big crowds started converging
on the city for the U.S. Open of Surfing, and here I was scheduled to
participate in an assignment in which a pro surfer would be
"teaching" me how to surf.
I gleefully hammed my project around the office, bragging that I
was actually getting paid to surf for the day -- but secretly I had
many reservations about my little escapade.
You see, despite its popularity, surfing still seems plagued by a
general discouragement of new people coming to the sport. There's
actual some logic behind this -- there's so few good waves in
Southern California, and more people at the lineup leads to crowds
and fewer waves to go around.
There are even terms to describe this. If you've been surfing
since you were a kid -- no older than age 16 -- you're a "core"
surfer. If you're like me, who started when I was 23, then you're
just some dumb "kook" or a "barney" who flops around in the water.
So, by surfing with a pro surfer for the sake of journalism, I'm
totally opening up myself to being discovered as a "kook." But the
ridicule would be short, and it sure beat writing another piece on
the Orange County Sanitation District, so I agreed to go along.
Before I could paddle out, the public relations people made me sit
through a half-hour press conference. As I was listening to one beach
bum describe how the U.S. Open was "the sickest contest in surfing,"
I caught a glimpse of Taj Burrow, last year's Open champ.
"Well, here goes nothing," I told myself, before walking up to the
big-shot Aussie and introducing myself.
In a moment of characteristic uncoolness, I even told Taj I was a
"huge fan." Despite my fawning, he was really friendly, cracking some
joke I pretended to understand.
OK, if that went well, then maybe this surf lesson wouldn't be so
bad after all. I headed over to say hello to sportswriter Mike
Sciacca, who proceeded to introduce me to my instructor for the day
-- Holly Beck.
Oh my gosh, Holly Beck! Probably the most famous woman in surfing.
Although she would later get eliminated in the early rounds of the
U.S. Open, Beck is the third-ranked American female surfer in the
World Qualifying Series and recently starred in the WB reality
series, "Boarding House: North Shore."
OK, not only was I surfing with a pro surfer, I was paddling out
with one of the most famous babes of the sport. For a 25-year-old
single guy, there are few things worse than being embarrassed in
front of a beautiful woman.
Of course, it was too late to turn back, and her publicist told me
I would win her heart if I asked about her nonprofit group,
International Women's Surfing. I pulled up a chair next to Beck and
launched into some wordy diatribe about the disparity between prize
money for women versus men when this older fellow came over and told
us he, too, was a journalist and would be participating in the surf
His name was Steve Dilbeck and he was a sports columnist for the
Los Angeles Daily News, and this was his first time surfing in many
OK, I thought to myself, at least I'm not going to be as bad as
And I wasn't. We all paddled out together, and Dilbeck could
barely get over the baby-sized waves, let alone actually balance on
any part of his board.
What a kook, I thought, fearfully positioning myself to catch the
first wave, as I had to get it over as soon as possible.
The wave came. I stood up on my board and rode one of the shortest
waves of my life. Before slipping off the side, I dinged myself for
terrible form, complete lack of style and a shrinking rash guard
encroaching up my gut.
I dreaded turning around, fearing the mockery I would receive from
the "core" surfer babe. I look over my shoulder, caught Beck square
in the eye and almost fell over when I saw what she was doing.
She was cheering. Wait, for me? Yes, she was cheering for me.
Moments later, Dilbeck came screaming by, belly down on his board,
clinging for dear life as he headed straight for a group of
nine-year-old girls. Narrowly avoiding complete destruction, I looked
over and there was Beck, cheering for Dilbeck.
"Good job on your first wave," she told him.
Wow, she genuinely wants him to do well. And she is actually going
to help me improve.
In later conversations with Beck, she said that she's too grown up
to mistreat people in the water. Surfing is a business, it's her
business, and it would be really dumb to discourage people from
getting interested in her business. It's more important to educate
people, she said, and hook them up with waves that match their
For us, that meant three-foot sloshes in waist-high water. After
my subtle epiphany, I got a little more comfortable with Beck and was
able to openly discuss my obvious limitations in the water.
I needed to work on my timing a little more, she said. Slow down
and concentrate. Think before I paddle into a wave. And practice,
After about 90 minutes and a dozen decent waves, we headed for
shore. Dilbeck was ecstatic. Apparently he had reconciled his own
guilt that he had lived in Surf City for so many years but had never
been out in the water.
"I'm a surfer," he told some scared kid as he carried his board
under his arm.
Beck laughed at Dilbeck's antics. I smiled and secretly thought to
myself, gosh, what a Barney.
* DAVE BROOKS covers City Hall. He can be reached at (714)
966-4609 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.