First it captures their minds. Then it steals their hearts. Before too long, it becomes the experience they base their free time around.
For many people on the Central Coast, surfing--and the stoke that comes along with it--has become a way of life.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- An unidentified surfer gets some just south of the Pismo Beach pier
# Still, there's technically no one "way of life." San Luis Obispo County's ocean waters are home to many types of surfers who approach the waves from different angles.
There's the dawn patrol--a group of surfers who arrive at local beaches while most people are only dreaming about getting barreled in their beds. As the sun rises, so does the steam from their morning cups of coffee. They seek an early morning surf session to start their day before heading off to work, school, the kids, or life's other responsibilities.
Sunrise sessions usually mean glassy eyes and even glassier conditions. At that time of day, waves look like curling sheets of blue-tinted mirrors.
Early mornings on the Central Coast are chilly. Thick wetsuits are mandatory. When breath can be seen, booties, hoods, and even gloves become serious options. The cold conditions reveal that Central Coast surfers are some of the most committed on California's coastline.
Then there are the weekend warriors. After five days of dealing with the stresses of their jobs and family lives, this group of wave riders washes away worries with the outgoing tide. Saturdays, Sundays, and every free holiday find this group seeking spiritual salvation at SLO County's most popular surf spots. For them, surfing is a spirit-supplying vitamin.
Flopping around in the whitewash, trying to stand up on their boogie boards, are the little groms. Usually thrown into the surf game by their families, these youngsters get introduced to the benefits of the beach at an early age.
And, as the years go by, some of these little surfrats evolve from snot-nosed groms to young hotdoggers--and then into some of the county's top-notch surfers. And when the pinnacle of this group hits its aquatic prime, the spirit comes alive while they ride the waves of some of SLO County's most significant seas.
From young to old, from the every-dayers to the once-a-weekers, surfing means different things to different people. Here are five of their stories.
The Wilkie brothers
Surfing runs strong in the Wilkie family bloodline.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- The Wilkie brothers keep surf in the family.
# On seemingly any given morning, the young Wilkie brothers--Isaac, Joel, and Seth--can be seen shredding the faces of an array of Morro Bay beach breaks. In the ocean, these brothers have a need for speed, crave cutbacks, and a find fascination with floaters.
The shortboard-surfing, blonde-mop-top trio was raised on the Central Coast. Their father, Andrew, introduced them to the local surf scene at an early age. But it wasn't until the family moved to Costa Rica for a yearlong stint that the boys truly developed an affection for riding waves.
According to their mother, Hilary, as the water temperature warmed so did the Wilkie brothers' feelings toward surfing.
"That's when they really started surfing at least once a day," she said. "For them, the warmer water was a little less scary and they totally went for it."
Though Costa Rica's water temperatures were much more inviting than the chilly Central Coast's, the conditions there were much heavier. Still, the gnarly seas proved beneficial, as they prepared the young guns well.
"The waves here are a lot smoother and a lot easier than Central America," said Isaac, the oldest brother at 14 years old. "Here, it doesn't really hurt when you fall."
Maybe Isaac is still in the invincibility stage of his life--where he can easily shrug off a gnarly spill, wipe off the snot, and paddle back out for another attempt. Or maybe he's that good. Either way, he and his brother Joel, 11, are no longer scared to carve their fins--or their names--into waves.
Now, Isaac and Joel both compete in surf contests and share the same dream of getting sponsored. But they're not a pair of Lance Burkharts. They're smiling, down-to-earth kids with positive outlooks who enjoy surfing and competing against their peers. Though they both thrive on the adrenaline of contests, they truly dig a laid-back session with the fam, where the stress of competition is far removed.
"It's fun to surf with my brothers because we encourage each other a lot," said middle brother Joel. "We get up in the morning and run down to the beach together every day."
Trailing not far behind his big brothers' footsteps on the daily run to the beach is 9-year-old Seth, the wildcard of the bunch.
The surf seed has already firmly rooted itself in the boys' way of life.
"Now it's nearly addictive," Hilary said of her sons' surfing regimen. "It's like they need to fulfill their need."
And when one of the brothers catches a good wave, they share the magical moment with all around.
"If I do really well on a wave I get real excited. I replay it in my mind again and again," Isaac said. "I tell my mom and dad and friends about it all day."
For some, surfing is a form self-medication. If they don't get to ride any waves, their soul begins to dry out.
"If I spend two or three days out of the water, I start to get
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- Lance Cpl. Travis Dodson reflects on his first-ever surf session.
Taylor volunteered at Operation Restoration, a weeklong event that introduced a group of wounded soldiers to the therapeutic values of surfing just south of the Pismo Beach pier. The soldiers, who made the travel from a Texas-based medical center to the Central Coast, either lost their limbs or suffered severe burns while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though Taylor wasn't involved in the military, he understands what it's like to live as an amputee. When he was 16 months old, he developed proximal focal femoral deficiency and doctors had to remove a majority of his left leg.
He says the power of surfing has helped him overcome times of emotional distress.
"When times are tough, you just go out and get a good surf in and you just feel so much better," Taylor said. "Even if the waves are crappy and the conditions aren't good, just to be wet is a total change of attitude. It's the best therapeutic medium you can come across."
Lance Cpl. Travis Dodson came to the Central Coast seeking similar therapy. The 21-year-old former Marine Corps machine gunner lost both of his legs in a grenade blast in Iraq on Valentine's Day.
Having never surfed before, he sat in his wheelchair and stared out into the ocean. A hood pulled over his head and dark sunglasses obscured his facial expressions. But it wasn't too long before he revealed what was going on under the shield of his clothing and accessories.
"Just sitting here watching the wave feels good," he said. "I'm going to try to do a handstand."
After Dodson slipped on a wetsuit, a volunteer helped him into the water and the rolling white wash. He rode the waves on his belly, and though he held the board tightly--like every other newbie--he often fell off. When he returned to shore, he bore a stern look on his face--maybe he was disappointed for not trying a handstand?--but it wasn't a look of regret it was the look of stoke that only surfing can provide.
"I'm excited. I got the endorphins going, but it's relaxing," he said, pausing as if he realized just how confusing his statement was.
Though the emotion of stoke can be difficult to express, Taylor summed it up well.
"You can't compare surfing to anything else," he said. "It changes your life forever."
Dodson may have lost his legs in war, but, for a while at least, he had found peace in the ocean.
Tucked away in his self-made Paso Robles surfboard-shaping shack is Dave Martinez. He wears a mouth guard to keep out the dust while sculpting a 7-foot-1 gun--a board he intends to ride this winter at his favorite SLO County surf spot: Killers.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- Dave Martinez shapes a new beautiful board.
# Martinez, 51, is a grizzled waterman and an experienced shaper. The amount of fiberglass particles underneath his fingernails reveals just how much work he's put into the Central Coast surf scene.
Martinez first came to the area while on vacation in 1973. His temporary escape from the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles happened to coincide with a big swell. Shortly after his epic stumble into SLO County, Martinez made the move north to the Central Coast.
Within a year of surfing various SLO County surf spots, Martinez began shaping surfboards.
What started as a hobby eventually became his business. Over the past 30 years, Martinez's company--Outlaw Surf Designs--has progressed from shaping surfboards for amateurs to producing high-quality shred sticks for the pros. His wife, Hollie, airbrushes artwork onto the boards, so surfing in the Martinez household has truly become a family affair. And that connection extends well beyond their home.
Martinez says he gets the same stoke whether catching a perfect wave himself or watching someone else do the same on one of his boards.
"When you get a barrel--you know the feeling," Martinez said with a smile. "I get the same feeling when someone rides my board and likes it. To help give someone else that same feeling makes me feel great. It's then I know I've done my job."
With that attitude, Martinez obviously isn't one of those grumpy old watermen who chases inexperienced newbies out of the water. He understands that, as time goes on, crowded lineups at popular breaks are pretty much inevitable.
"More and more of the kids that are coming to the colleges are winding up in the water," he said. "They find a surf break and go back with tales. There're more people coming up here surfing, mainly 'cause of the word of mouth."
Ultimately, he admits that the influx of new wave riders helps benefit his business--and he says that there are enough waves for everyone.
"Everyone surfs only three to four spots," he said. "There are still so many spots that don't even get surfed."
Like the veterans searching for some sort of peace on the waves, Martinez finds surfing to be a sort of therapy in addition to a pastime and business.
"I get in the water and all my problems disappear," Martinez said. "Even after all these years, it's still exciting."
The Surf Mamas
Pushing a toy tractor through yellow-colored sand, a young boy builds a sandcastle during a sunny weekday morning at Yerba Buena Street beach. He's totally in the zone--at that age when sandcastle construction reigns supreme. The only thing able to pull his attention away from his construction is a cinnamon-flavored graham cracker.
The young boy's mother, Gwenn Krossa, is far removed from her child. In fact, she's in a completely different element: the ocean. A moderate northwest swell combined with slightly offshore winds to produce rows of waist-high waves peeling like potatoes on razorblade spindles. Riding the waves on a longboard, Krossa, like her son, is in the zone.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- Surf Mama Erin Hadley is all smiles as another mama heads into the ocean.
# With the knowledge that a group of fellow surfing mothers are onshore--looking after her boy and other kids--Krossa is set free, both physically and mentally, to enjoy the comfortable conditions.
In an effort to spend more time in the water on days like this, a group of young mothers--mostly from Cayucos and Morro Bay--recently formed a unique surfing/babysitting system. The group, unofficially known as the Surf Mamas, meets every Monday morning. Half of the mothers gather on beach blankets about 200 yards up from the shoreline and keep a watchful eye on the group's children, which gives the other mothers an opportunity to go out and get their surf on.
"It gives me a chance to get some surfing and gives my son a chance to play with the other kids," Krossa said. "It's great because it gives the kids an opportunity to be outside and experience nature."
According to the group's founding member, Erin Hadley, the Surf Mamas came to be about 18 months ago when she and a handful of other young mothers who enjoyed surfing got together one night at a local coffee shop.
"We discussed what would be appropriate, and we agreed on one rule: A child can't go down to the water without their own parents," she said.
Since the meeting, everything has been smooth sailing--or rather smooth surfing--for the mamas.
"For me, it's great exercise and good for the soul," Donna Burke said of the surf-babysitting system. "For the kids, they love it. It's the way to go. We are all supportive of each other."
According to the mothers, the group has helped children learn about water safety and environmental conservation. While the kids gain aquatic knowledge, the moms gain that stoke.
"Sometimes just one good wave makes the day," Krossa said. "Just being on the face of a wave for a few seconds can put a smile on my face hours later."
Chad Kaimanu Jackson
When the waves really start to pick up and the conditions become too big and too powerful, the majority of local surfers stand onshore, marveling at the 20-foot giants. Perhaps they wonder what it would feel like to drop into a two-story wave that could easily barrel a bus--or end their life.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
# Or maybe they live vicariously through the few watermen who have the courage, talent, and technique to successfully ride such beasts.
Big waves are a reality for Chad Kaimanu Jackson. When massive swells hit the Central Coast, the 28-year-old professional surfer finds tranquility. In conditions where most other surfers would panic and soil their wetsuits, Jackson has the ability to squeeze himself into tight spots, draw radical lines, get in the tube, and make it appear he's skateboarding on the waves.
"He wants the biggest, gnarliest waves," Azhiaziam owner Mike Jones said of Jackson.
Jackson's aggressive style in the water has many media outlets throbbing over him. In Transworld Magazine's January to May 2007 surf exposure-o-meter, Jackson ranked as the 33rd most covered surfer in the world.
But the recent fame hasn't changed the Central Coast local.
"In the water, he's an aggressive, amped up surfer," Jones said of Jackson. "Out of the water, he's super cool. You wouldn't think he's the charging type."
Jackson, who was born and raised in Cayucos, started riding waves at an early age and attributes a lot his success in the water to an older crew of surfers who took him under their wings--or fins, as it were.
"We've got a really good surf community out here," Jackson said. "Guys like Tony Foster and Ryan Blackburn really helped us as kids. I would look at those guys and want to reach that high-talent level."
All grown up, it's apparent that Jackson has reached and surpassed his mentors' level of surfing talent. With youngsters now looking up to him--kids the age of the Wilkie brothers, running to the beach each morning for the thrill of feeling the water--Jackson feels it's important to be a positive role model.
"We enjoy the ocean and want to be stewards of the coast," he said. "We want to promote environmental awareness and coastal protection and work it into surfing."
In an effort to help endorse his environmentally friendly views, Jackson and his friends have begun shaping a line of surfboards made of less toxic materials, such as non-petroleum foam and hemp cloth.
Though Jackson now lives a traveling lifestyle and surfs some of the world's most exotic waves, he intends on calling Cayucos his home for years to come--a sentiment surely shared by surfers who've found their slice of stoke paradise off of San Luis Obispo County.
"It's beautiful here, and it's really community-based," Jackson said. "There's just so much aloha spirit around here on the Central Coast."
Contact Staff Writer Kai Beech--if he's not in the water--at firstname.lastname@example.org.