Friday, January 23, 2009

Surfing the Times

Someone on the New York Times editorial staff has a hard-on for surfers lately. In the last week, the Times has had two online front-page feature stories on surfing. However, Fosco doesn't really blame them. After all, Fosco lives just a few blocks from one of the most famous surf spots on the West Coast and he finds the whole sport/pursuit pretty fascinating (although the physical attractiveness of most surfers has been greatly exaggerated).

Fosco's favorite surf story in the Times actually dates from 2006. It was this article on the intrepid surfers of Lake Erie. Fosco is a Midwesterner by birth, and so he finds it fascinating that surfing is possible on one of the Great Lakes. And here's an image that has stuck with Fosco for over two years:

It was the kind of day that lives mostly in Cleveland surfers’ fantasies. Pushed by the storm’s winds, water the color of chocolate milk rose 10 feet in the air before slamming onto a beach of boulders and logs. The temperature was 40 degrees and falling. One surfer, Vince Labbe, climbed onto his board only to get blown backward by 40-mile-an-hour winds.
"Water the color of chocolate milk"! I love that image. It's absolutely disgusting. But at least the waves must be nice, right? Well, not really.
The strongest winds and waves come in winter, just before Lake Erie freezes. Waves up to 10 feet have been surfed, but the largest swells are usually chest-high. Instead of curling into a vertical wall, the waves are round like haystacks, and they collapse onto the shore like soggy paper.
Wait. It gets even worse.
Surfers learn to avoid ice chunks the size of bowling balls. Some wear goggles to surf through freezing rain, which can sting their eyes like needles. That is a bad idea, Mr. Labbe said, because the goggles freeze to their faces.

Surfers watch their friends for signs of hypothermia, urging them to leave the water when their eyes glaze over and their words slur. Ear infections are a common affliction.
And you thought Pacific "surf bums" were deluded... Surfing in Cleveland is clearly an insanity on par with something out of the DSM-IV (or Mormonism).

Happily, the Times published a second article on the Great Lakes surfing scene last week, with an article on surfing Lake Superior. Believe it or not, surfing Superior is actually colder than Erie.
“It’s warmer in the water,” said Markus Barsch, 21, a tree trimmer from Ashland, Wis., and one of a dozen surfers who had shown up to shred on a 20-degree day.

Surfing in a snowstorm may sound like a direct route toward hypothermia or certain death. But on Lake Superior, where surfers ride all months of the year, thick wet suits, gloves, hoods, booties and petroleum jelly smudged on exposed skin all form a protective shell against the crushing cold encountered by wave catchers in what is one of the world’s most unlikely surfing scenes.
What do you even say about something like that? Except "jeez."

Yet if you prefer warmer waters for your surfing, there are other dangers, according to today's Times article on the surf gangs of Oahu. It seems that the famous surfing sites on Hawaii's North Shore are under the control of a surf gang called the "Wolfpak." Seriously. However, before you laugh too hard, you should know that these are guys to take seriously:
The most notorious member is the group’s enforcer, Kala Alexander, a professional surfer with muscular tattooed arms and “Wolfpak” inked across his knuckles. In 2007, Alexander starred in “The 808,” a reality television series about the Wolfpak and the North Shore, and appeared in the films “Blue Crush” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But he has also gained fame for YouTube videos that show him pummeling surfers on the sand several years ago.

“The code is to respect other people,” Alexander, 39, said. “People come over here and don’t respect other people. You’re going to run into problems if you do that.”

That is what happened to Chris Ward, a 30-year-old professional from San Clemente, Calif., and runner-up to Kelly Slater last month at the Pipeline Masters. In November, Australian publications reported that Ward cut off a local surfer while riding a wave at Pipeline. He was banished to the beach, where a Wolfpak member smacked him in the head. Without providing details, Ward confirmed that the incident happened.
Dude, you so can't cut off another surfer. Yet while all of this may sound either a bit silly or a bit dangerous (depending on your temperament), there are those who argue for the necessity of gang control of the best surf spots as a way of keeping order:
As surfing has become increasingly popular, some say fear of violent reprisal ensures order and safety at congested and perilous surf spots like Pipeline.

“It’s a dangerous environment, and without a self-governing control pattern it would just be chaos out there,” Rarick said.


“It was crowded when I came here,” Alexander said about Pipeline. “A lot of people in the water, not much respect. Where I grew up on Kauai, you respect everybody in the water, especially your elders. Don’t step out of line. We just brought that mentality over here.”
Hey, remember the episode when Paulie said that about the Newark garbage business?

Actually, Fosco's favorite part of the article was his discovery that his (recently-married) college roommate Derek Ho was actually a surf star in Hawaii before Harvard:
At the time there was a void in the Pipeline lineup as those who regulated the waves during the 1990s, like Derek Ho, Johnny Boy Gomes and Marvin Foster, had grown older and moved on.
You know someone for fifteen years and this kind of thing still comes as a surprise.


Jill said...

I was a surfer groupie in high school. Two memories were Funion breath and root beer schnapps. The "foodie" that I am today cringes with embarassment.

FOSCO said...

"Funion breath and root beer schnapps."


carol said...

I've lived on the North Shore of Oahu for over 25 years and I have a surf school. I teach visitors how to surf - most say it's the highlight of their vacation. I also know the wolfpak boys and while the news story is accurate, it only applies to pro surfers not the public at large.