Surf's Up! And Look Who's Hangin' 10.
By Judith Strada
“SURF’S UP, I’M OUT. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.” This recording’s on my answering machine a few mornings a week when the surf’s looking good and I’m free to duck out to the beach for an hour or two. Like a lot of other professional people who have long since outgrown adolescence, I can’t wait for the next swell.
“When the Simpson case was on,” says veteran surfer Stephen Anear, a deputy district attorney for San Diego, “they branded Kato Kaelin the prototypical Southern California surfer—because he’s an airhead and has long blond hair. They figure that’s what a surfer is, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Stereotypes do die hard. But don’t worry about our egos. We’re having too good a time offshore to give that stale stereotype a second thought. That’s if we’re not too busy onshore working as doctors, lawyers, astronauts or Nobel Prize–winning scientists. Or writers. Actually, only one of San Diego’s surfers is an astronaut, and only two hold Nobel Prizes, so far as I know. And according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, of the estimated 1.62 million avid American surfers (almost half of whom surf off the coast of California), the core age group is 16 to 25. But many bright young surfers grow up, get degrees, find jobs and continue to find time for the waves. To others, surfing comes late in life.
“Learning to surf didn’t hurt my pride so much as it hurt my arms,” laughs Nobel laureate Donald Cram, 77, who took up surfing in 1958 at the tender age of 40. In 1987, he won a Nobel Prize in biochemistry for his life’s work in molecular recognition, which, he thoughtfully explains, is “where two molecules recognize that they know each other and interact in a certain way.” Cram, who taught at UCLA for almost 50 years, spends his summers surfing at San Onofre, a mellow beach break north of Oceanside.
An athlete since his early years in Vermont, Cram likes a good physical challenge as much as an intellectual one. “I have a general notion,” he says, “that you die a little bit every day when you get past a certain age, and the thing that ages the fastest is the will. If you have the will to take the plunge, you can usually work the body up to the physical state to take that plunge.
“Surfing’s a very good catharsis for my work. It gives me a big release, allowing me to sit still for long periods of time and then,” he adds, laughing, “have relatively short periods of violence. You fall on a 15-foot wave, it’s like being slammed down by a 10-ton avalanche of violent water. Your arms and legs feel like they’re being pulled off your body in angles you didn’t even know they could go.”
“The first couple of weeks were colorful,” quips American Airlines Captain Jim Gildea, 53. No doubt. When you’re a husky 6-foot-4 male, riding an 11-foot longboard for the first time in your life at age 50, you’re prime entertainment for the beach crowd. Gildea, who was a Navy pilot in Vietnam, has been a commercial pilot since 1969.
At first, Gildea paddled out off Pacific Beach four to five times a week on a borrowed board. “In the beginning, I measured my riding time in seconds,” he says. “Eventually I could stand up on the thing. Then I put surf racks on my truck and began thinking seriously about buying my own board. That’s when my wife thought I’d really lost it.”
Actually, as fellow surfers know, he had found his place of exer-cise and contemplation, just offshore. “The waves have a way of showing you where you fit into the scheme of things in life,” says Gildea, who believes surfing has made him a bet-ter pilot. “My reflexes are getting sharper—and I guide the plane now, more than force it around. With my crew, I run more of a team concept now, which I learned when I got out there to catch some waves. You take one, I’ll take one; you go left, I’ll go right.”
The ocean is a powerful magnet. Says Gildea, “The ocean was like a friend when I was growing up. You saw it, and regardless of what was going on, the ocean and waves were consistent and there was a sense that everything was going to be okay.”
Another professional who’s drawn to the aesthetics and athletics of surfing is Dr. Ross Rudolph, 55, head of plastic surgery at Scripps Clinic and a life member of the Surfers’ Medical Association. He first paddled out off La Jolla Shores when he was 40, thrashed around like Gildea and got the hang of it. Rudolph finds niches of time to surf, just as other doctors find time to golf. “I go Saturday and Sunday mornings, when I’m usually off, and I try to go Tuesdays or Wednesdays, late in the day, depending on my schedule.”
Rudolph knew he wanted to be involved in some form of water sport. “My wife and I tried sailing, and that seemed like an awful lot of work. Then I tried surfing. Surfing was clearly the way to go. First of all,” he says, “surfing’s good exercise, particularly for a plastic surgeon, because it strengthens your upper back, shoulders and neck. Exactly the muscles that tend to get tired during a long surgery.
“But it really is more than exercise,” he comments. “Someone once described surfing as a wilderness experience 100 yards offshore, and there’s something to that. There really is a feeling of separation from the land.” Pods of dolphins swim by, seals pop up, schools of fish dart under you, and the waves come.
“You’re out there, trying to harmonize with what the wave’s doing. It’s a very satisfying feeling to be able to do that.”
If you see a small, incredibly fit woman catching any wave she wants off the North County coast, you’re likely watching physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Lori Malkoff, M.D. She’s a skilled surfer, confident and comfortable in 10-foot or better waves.
“I told my sixth-grade teacher all I ever wanted to do was live in a tent on the beach,” says Malkoff, 37, who occupies a home right above her favorite reef break in Encinitas. “I’ve pretty much gravitated toward the ocean ever since.” Malkoff, a gifted competitive swimmer as a girl in Toledo, Ohio, switched from chlorinated to salt water at 14. She’s been in love with surfing since then.
Malkoff is frequently the only woman out when the big ones roll in. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association estimates only 12 percent of surfers are female, and of those, few surf at Malkoff’s expert level. She is sponsored by local surfing legend Skip Frye, who confirms her belief that “you take the right tool for the job,” meaning different-size and -shape boards for different wave conditions. Malkoff has seven Frye boards, from a 71/2-foot shortboard to a big 91/2-foot noserider, shaped to facilitate walking up to the nose and “hangin’ 10” toes over the tip. And then she’s got her big-wave “gun,” made out of foam and fiberglass, not steel.
“But the ocean’s too fickle to make it my only sport,” says this surfer, golfer and skier. “Surfing’s only good during certain swell directions, certain wind directions, certain tides. It’s something you can wait for. The ocean will eventually send you some waves.”
Packing a 10-foot-2 “gun” in his garage, and not afraid to use it, is prosecutor Stephen Anear, 48, who’s been surfing off the coast of Encinitas since he was 11. “I’m a surfer by more than avocation. It’s a lifestyle for me,” says Anear. He’s shaped his own surfboards, been the president of Swami’s Surfing Association three times and currently rides for Encinitas Surfboards. All of which made him the perfect prosecutor to try—and win—a landmark case in 1981, in which for the first time a surfboard was cited as a deadly weapon.
In his early years as a deputy D.A., Anear traveled to Hawaii twice a year to catch the transitional swells. It’s more difficult to schedule surf time now, given a wife who’s a professional rodeo barrel racer (when she’s not working as a deputy D.A., too) and the arrival of a baby girl this spring. But when the waves pick up, and he’s not in court, Anear makes his way to the beach.
“I caught my first big wave—12 to 15 feet, maybe more—on December 13, 1962,” he says. “It ended in a horrendous wipeout,” which was bad—but worthy of inclusion in John Severson’s surf-film classic, The Angry Sea, which was good.
A gnarly wipeout is a badge of distinction for any surfer. Six years and thousands of waves later, Anear was ready for Hawaii and the winter swells that slam down so hard you can feel reverberations through the ground, blocks from the beach. “The first big Hawaiian wave I took off on was at Sunset Beach,” he says. “It was terror at the beginning of the ride, and sheer joy at the end.”
“I can still remember thinking This is it, I’m going to die,” says accomplished surfer and NASA astronaut Jim Newman, 38, recalling one of the biggest waves he’s ever ridden, caught off La Jolla during high school. “I was on a shortboard that I had totally wired. I took off; it was a steep drop but I made it, then the wave bowled out in front of me.” He just stood on his board, waiting for the explosion that never came.
“The wave went totally over me. I got the best tube ride I have ever had”—meaning the breaking wave enveloped him in its hollow, rolling tunnel until he shot out the side, victorious. Newman, who graduated from La Jolla High School in 1974 and did his doctoral work at Rice University, is a “goofy foot”—he surfs right foot forward.
Big waves travel fast, but nothing like the 17,500 miles an hour the earth moved beneath Newman’s feet during his seven-hour spacewalk. That was during his first space mission, aboard Discovery in September 1993.
“As any surfer knows, the true pinnacle of a person’s career is to make it into Surfer Magazine,” quips Newman, who did so shortly after his spacewalk. “A friend of mine from high school wrote and said, ‘Jim, when I heard you’d become an astronaut, I thought that was pretty cool, but when you made Surfer Magazine, I had to write to congratulate you.’”
Avid surfer Tim Flannery, 38, third-base coach for the Padres, just might have more surfboards than baseball gloves. “I ride everything you can think of, long and short. I’ve got at least a half-dozen boards here, some more in a little barn in Northern California,” where he surfs a secret spot. “My wife complains about the number of boards, but I say, ‘You can’t play golf with just one club.’”
Baseball’s off-season is Flannery’s prime surfing time, when the winter waves start to come and the fair-weather, warm-water surfers stay home. “Northern California has some of the most powerful surf. I get in shape for it, lift, work out, but it’s not a survival thing for me. I definitely know my limitations. I probably surf better now than I did 15 years ago because I know more and I’m wiser.”
Flannery, who grew up surfing off Leucadia, surfs for exercise and pleasure only. “I can’t stand competing for waves. I’ve done that all my life in baseball. It’s a spiritual thing for me. It’s my church, where I go for peace and quiet, to unplug. When I think I’m going to break, surfing clears my mind. My house, so close to great waves—being with my son, who also rips—it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Does he think he’ll ever give up surfing? “No. I’ve hurt my shoulder, my ankle has blown, and I still go down and sit on the beach, and I’m still surfing.”
Judith Strada surfs the ’net as well as the sea.