After a year of riding waves every day, one surfer decided to keep going.
By Morgan Sliff
Light / Dark
In the summer of 2015, I made a decision. I was 24, sitting cross-legged on my old bed at my mom’s house. June gloom was slinking in. I had just left my husband. I hadn’t surfed in five years. My career had become mundane. I’d pursued a new degree to shake things up, but even that interest had started to feel fabricated. I’d previously thought that these social norms amounted to me having my shit together, but I was watching my castle fall to pieces.
From the next room, my little brother’s drum solo hammered like rain. And the noise in my own head became just as intolerable as David’s clamor.
I decided that I was going surfing.
I’m used to surfing bad waves. Hermosa Beach has its golden moments, but the average wave’s disposition is a mile wide and closed out. But, growing up, that never mattered.
As a child, at my grandmother’s house, I often cracked open dusty books filled with images of waves. The bombings compelled her to leave Hawaii, but when she did, the Islands came with her. My fanaticism grew from her makeshift museum of shells and stories, like when Duke Kahanamoku once swept her off the beach and ferried her through the surf. At my mom’s dolphin-figurine-fraught house,
I often requested dinner in the tub, and I spent years being yelled at to get out of pools before I was ready to explore the ocean. Christmas in 1998 came and there was only one thing on my list: a used 7’6″ Becker. Mom said that Santa must be speculative because I had never ridden a surfboard, but 8-year-old me confidently boasted that surfing would be my favorite thing in the world. I was right.
I slid off the bed and combed through my ex’s dusty Al Merricks. We used to surf together, too, until we didn’t. I eyed a yellowing single-fin and dragged it to the water’s edge, threw my weight on the board, and was instantly punched in the face by a wave that seemed to say, “Where the hell have you been?” I was home. I paddled out and spent the next hour forgetting.
Over the next few weeks, surfing nearly every day, what broke open exposed an emptiness of little direction and no sense of purpose. But one thing was clear: I liked being in the ocean. Something clicked. Each day, the water made me feel better.
So, on July 22, 2015, I made another decision: I was going to surf every day for a year, no matter what.
On day four, in the Hermosa Pier lot, I befriended an unlikely duo: Frank, an artist and surf coach, and Boris, a nimble-mouthed Russian wearing sunglasses that were nicer than my car. Both were too well-dressed for 7:30 a.m. I excitedly shared my goal with them, and Frank volunteered to keep count by drawing the day’s number on napkins, which he would change out each morning in the window of our new breakfast spot, Brother’s Burritos. Boris, with a grom’s impatience, sucked down a cigarette and pleaded with us to hurry the hell up and get on with it.
In August, we became a quartet when Jose Barahona, the head shaper at Becker, started surfing with us. He surveyed my board and said, “If you’re going to surf every day, you’ll need proper equipment.”
Jose’s shaping room was ankle deep with foam dust. Surrounded by 1960s relics and crumbling photographs, we talked about his tutelage under golden-era shapers and our unpleasant commonality: divorce. I had a new friend and, after a few hours, a new 9’6″ sculpted piece of foam. After another week of glassing, out came a blue single-fin with airbrushed seagulls replicated from a tattoo on my shoulder. The ocean was sheet glass as I paddled it out for the first time.
Over the next few months, the streak wasn’t exactly easy. There was a nearly boardless stint on Lake Michigan, and a late return flight home had me sprinting across the sand at 11:45 p.m. I received contemptuous glares from my boss over my damp hair and sleeping at my desk. On a bleak day 127, I darted to the South Bay’s kiddie pool, hoping to find a rideable wave along a torrential coast.
I paddled up a set, didn’t make it over, and was flipped up and slammed down. I crawled to the beach, shaking and spitting out sand. I sought refuge at Brother’s, gathered my courage, and paddled out again.
The streak and I were separate but connected bodies. At the behest of my local paper, I wrote a daily blog called “The Endless Session.” The waves, months, and entries flew by. I traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador for the first time. There was my first hang ten, and, later, my first concussion. I donated a piece of my toe to the reef in mainland Mexico. I enjoyed big, beautiful El Niño at home with Frank, Boris, and Jose. I surfed all around California with new people. And, even better, alone. No matter how windy, small, or wild, there was always a corner to find and a little sliver of good to bring back to land. I was feeling better.
On a cloudy, 1-foot day 317 in June 2016, I lost my board and heard a terrible sound wrench from my body. After a montage of lifeguards, doctors, and MRIs, my nightmare proved true: My right shoulder was torn. I’d be in a sling for weeks, with my one-year mark only a month and a half away. I tried to surf one-winged, but even the weight of my own body walking across the sand cut like a knife. My new surf family, realizing that my insanity wouldn’t allow me to give up, stepped in and began pushing me into waves. In the weeks to come, I mastered one-armed popups. With one week to go, the sling came off.
The day arrived, and the waves at Hermosa Pier were uncharacteristically good. After surfing, we ate at Brother’s, then went to Becker, where I was tearfully surprised with a stunning blue longboard shaped by Jose and imprinted with Frank’s numbered napkins. The sun fell, people went home, and things were different. I was different. All around me, the world seemed to shimmer and shine.
Still, the next day, I went surfing.
Another year went by. I quit my job at the hospital, moved into a tiny studio made tinier by many longboards, explored different countries, and found work as a writer. Boris and Frank were as dapper as ever, and we remained on a revolving door of 7:30 a.m. surfs bookended by coffee and breakfast.
But December 2017 felt cold. My normally composed younger brother was struggling, and his music struck an angry chord. His depression medication wasn’t working, and he was desperate to find one that would. Even the laugh that I often procured from tiptoeing into his room and tackling him from sleep was no longer there. On December 31, I dropped my laundry at my mom’s house while she was out of town. On New Year’s Day, I came back. The front door was barred. I pounded hysterically. I busted through the garage and fell to the floor screaming. My brother—my favorite person in the world—was hanging lifeless from the stairs with a belt around his neck.
The shine left everything. David was gone, along with whatever I had done to make myself whole. There was only one thing I really knew how to do, and that was walk across the sand.
But surfing was different. In the ocean, David’s death—and his guitar and his drums—were all on loudspeaker. Land was less somber, but more violent. I surrendered to an angry edge, rediscovering my place as the big sister protecting him from the homophobes that used to shout, “Gayvid.” It took thousands of waves to melt that chip off my shoulder. The water hurt, but my legs kept moving. They knew what I needed.
Eventually, the darkness lifted. It took years, which I counted in waves. Therapy, both in and out of the water, helped. But the thought of him will never hurt less.
Last July, I took down my never-ridden prize—the napkin-numbered board—and surfed it on my fifth anniversary where it all began, at the Hermosa Beach Pier. Leap years and all, it was 1,827 consecutive days.
As my friend Ryan McDonald wrote, “Streaks need an end to become meaningful; we fence our lands to better convey the vastness of our holdings.”
But Ryan is a surfer. He knows that surfing doesn’t follow rules.
People like to ask me why.
There’s no single answer. At the beginning, it was about putting pieces back together. During injuries, it became about using grit and creativity to break through what felt like brick walls. Through the darkness, it was about healing. And now, it means hitting pause and making sure that I give myself a gift each day, no matter how much life piles on.
When the sun comes up tomorrow, I might surf. Frank might draw on a napkin, and Boris will probably wear jeans that could cover a tuition payment. But we’ll all end up at Brother’s, eating breakfast and talking about the moments that count—whether we’ve counted them or not.