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Stalling for Depth

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Here’s a rich little pull from the TSJ backlist comprising man-made waves, father and son surfing, trespassing, and tube shooting. Harbor Bill Mulcoy and son Josh are forever stamped with the Santa Cruz harbor mouth story. Here we learn about their relationship with the heavy break, and listen in on ripping examples of the cat-and-mouse escapades that have always been a part of the surfer ethos. —Scott Hulet


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It’s illegal to surf the Santa Cruz Harbor mouth and Bill Mulcoy knows it. That’s why he parked on the north end of the jetty. More discreet. Quicker getaway. Most of us don’t think about getaways when we go surfing, but on this clear afternoon in the fall of 1984, it’s a good thing Bill did.

It’s the type of day he lives for: rising swell, dropping tide, just a few friends and his 13-year-old son, Josh, as company. Bill sits outside of the pack; nobody challenges him. He motions for his son to come closer. Josh is improving. He can take off a little deeper.

A set rushes in. Bill likes the second wave. He paddles toward the rocks, airdrops, lands, and pulls in, missing the jetty by feet. He rides the barrel into the channel and kicks out. Josh is on the next wave, mimicking his dad. He’s close to the tube, almost in it, but he took off wide and missed the cover-up. He rides until he reaches Bill, and they paddle back out together. They’re sitting, breathing the crisp air, and squinting into the horizon when the boat arrives.

It comes in hot, sirens spinning, voices barking, “You’re under arrest!”

Bill turns to his shivering son, “Go to the car, now,” he says. He paddles toward the Harbor Patrol boat. Josh paddles toward the car. He hasn’t made five strokes when he hears his dad yelling at the officers about his right to surf, the stupidity of the law, and their small-mindedness. Josh isn’t allowed to use the words his dad is shouting at the men.

He has been waiting for ten minutes. His hair’s dry and shoes are on. He paces the length of the car. Finally, Josh sees his dad running toward him up the beach. Phew. He gets closer. Why isn’t he slowing down?

“Stay here. Don’t move. I’ll be back at dark,” he tells Josh, and just keeps running.

Bill runs up the beach. The Harbor Patrol boat follows in the water. No doubt they’ve already radioed reinforcements on land. He paddles around a headland to the next beach, then runs on wet sand until it ends. He hits the water again. Staying inside the surf line, he paddles the mile up to Steamer Lane. The Harbor Patrol boat patiently follows. There’s nowhere else to go.

The Harbor Patrol boat patiently follows. There’s nowhere else to go. The lineup is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, people taking advantage of the big west swell. Harbor Bill paddles through the crowd. Or did he stop? Wait, that’s him on that wave! No, that’s not him. He’s over there, by the cliff. It’s getting dark. Bill is a chameleon. Bill is gone.

The Lane is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, people taking advantage of the big west swell. Bill paddles through the crowd. Or did he stop? Wait, that’s him on that wave! No, that’s not him. He’s over there, by the cliff. It’s getting dark. Bill is a chameleon. Bill is gone.

Josh sits at the car, waiting as he was told. The sun set 40 minutes ago. Where is his dad? He looks toward the ocean, waiting for him to emerge. Did they catch him?

Knock, knock. A rap on the window behind him. It’s Pops, thank God. He climbs into the car, still in his wetsuit, and drives off without saying a word.

*

When Josh talks about the harbor, his voice rises an octave and he moves his hands, but his words are serious, like he’s fighting an internal battle to decide whether he adores or resents the wave.

Steamer Lane wasn’t an isolated incident. It happened a lot, actually. Or some variation of it. He’d paddle to Pleasure Point, hide in the jetty’s crevices, bury his board in the sand, and walk away. He’d become famous for his elusiveness, which made the overzealous officers starved to catch him. He was a phantom. They constantly questioned surfers and spectators.

“What’s his first name?”

“Harbor.”

“What’s his last name?”

“Bill.”

For years his legend grew, until Surfer magazine unmasked him in 1985, running a photo of him slotted at his namesake with the caption, “Harbor Bill Mulcoy.”

Josh answered the door when the police came to arrest his father.

In court, Bill refused to admit guilt. He knew the law was unjust. A lawyer took his case pro bono, and they fought for three tiring years. In the end, the charges against him were dropped. He’d won. But the publicity of the case spoiled any chance of him returning to the head of the harbor lineup, and the stress wore on his family.

To Josh, the harbor isn’t just a wave. It shaped his childhood. It shaped his career.

*

He arrives at the harbor. It’s a sunny day in late fall, similar to the ones he surfed with his dad. The tide is going negative. The buoys are 10 feet at 15 seconds. What made an epic day in 1985 is the same in 2010.

The scene has changed though. Today when the harbor breaks it’s an event. People loiter in the street, watching, waiting for the day’s first wave to go square and spit and signal kickoff time. And when that happens every pro and wannabe in town paddles out. Their friends drink beer on the beach and commentate on the action. While the Harbor Patrol still gives tickets, these days it’s mostly the crowd you hide from.

Josh watches for a moment, engine running, then pulls away. He didn’t see any waves break, not yet. But years of studying the wave tells him it’s about to turn on. He finds a parking spot away from the circus and suits up.

When Josh talks about the harbor, his voice rises an octave and he moves his hands, but his words are serious, like he’s fighting an internal battle to decide whether he adores or resents the wave. To Josh, it isn’t just a wave. It shaped his childhood. It shaped his career.

In the water he waits with the pack for the next set. He can’t go deeper. Nobody can. The crew has pushed the takeoff zone to its limit. Any farther and they’d be grinding the jetty.

He’s gotten four good ones already. Another and he’s going in. Greed causes problems out here. Waves pass him. He lets them roll by, lets the groms get their share. He’s focused, knowing exactly which wave he wants.

Here it is. His wave. A few guys turn for it, but stop when they see Josh paddling. The photographer on the jetty cocks his camera. The one in the water gives two frog kicks and positions himself in Josh’s path. Snapsnapsnap-snapsnap. Shutters release on automatic fire, and Josh is a direct hit, frozen in time as the sandy tube rains above his head. He lets the wave do the work, ushering him across the sandbar, spitting him out the end. He bellies to the beach.

On the shore, he stops to watch the sun singe the Westside. Then, turning toward his car, he sees the top of the Harbor Patrol boat speeding between the jetties, headed for the surfers.

Away

It doesn’t concern Josh that he can’t understand what the people are saying or that they look different from him. Blond hair. Ashen complexion. Blue eyes that look like they’ve been diluted by milk. Doesn’t concern him in the least. In fact, it’s a good sign.

He follows the grumpy crowd down the narrow aisle, watching them jostle past each other with a disregard for personal space. They stow their baggage in the overhead compartments. They check their ticket numbers against the labels of each row. Josh doesn’t bother. He’s 47C. He’s got a ways to go.

He plops down in his aisle seat and turns up Waylon Jennings on his iPod. Not a chorus passes before he feels a tap on his shoulder. He looks up to see an elderly man with bushy gray eyebrows smiling down at him.

In the water he waits with the pack for the next set. He can’t go deeper. Nobody can. The crew has pushed the takeoff zone to its limit. Any farther and they’d be grinding the jetty. He’s gotten four good ones already. Another and he’s going in. Greed causes problems out here.

“Sorry,” he says. His accent is thick. “I’m that one,” and points to 47B.

“Oh. No worries,” Josh says as he rises to let the man pass.

He moves to put the iPod buds back in his ear, but his new neighbor speaks.

“American?”

“Yeah, I am. You?”

“No. Of course I am not American,” the man says and laughs. “Tell me, why you visit my beautiful country? A holiday?” The man’s hand is on Josh’s forearm now, leaning close.

“Yeah, sort of. I’m going to see the coast.”

“That’s wonderful. You go to see the glaciers?”

“Well, actually I’m going surfing. This is a surf trip.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m going surfing. To ride the waves.” Josh speaks slower and makes a wave with his left hand, his right index finger the surfboard.

The man laughs, delighted. “Oh, my friend. You cannot surf where we go. It’s very cold. Snow. You must visit Hawaii.”

*

He’s been to Hawaii, a requisite for professional surfers. Same with Bali. But surfers have pillaged these Meccas for years—where’s the adventure? While it’s nice to visit places with the comforts of home, warm water, and guaranteed waves, you must ask yourself, how excited are you to read a book when you already know the ending?

For Josh, the excitement is writing the book. It’s plane rides with nervous anticipation for what he’ll find when he lands. Another slab like the one he found in Scotland? Or will he get skunked like on his trip to Russia? Maybe he’ll discover more pointbreaks, like the ones he found in Alaska? He still can’t believe the small Alaskan town actually gave him the key to the city.

To further distance himself from neatly packaged surfing vacations, Josh carries his preferred form of accommodation on his back: a tent. He’s finished with trips where the crew surfs and then retires to the hotel, everyone on their respective computers, absorbed in an online universe, forgetting the world outside. No interaction with the locals. No bonding with friends. No adventure.

*

He has to hurry. The sun is falling fast. His thick boots squeak on the snow as he searches for wood that’s dry enough to burn. Tim and Sam are looking too. The wind cuts through their jackets and aches their joints. If they don’t get the fire started soon, they’re going to bed cold. That’s miserable anywhere—but especially in Iceland.

He’s finished with trips where the crew surfs and then retires to the hotel, everyone on their respective computers, absorbed in an online universe, forgetting the world outside. No interaction with the locals. No bonding with friends. No adventure.

It’s been onshore for the past three days, leaving the beachbreak out front in ruins. The occasional wedge hardly makes it worth putting on all that rubber, but they came here to surf, so they grit their teeth and paddle out each morning.

Whose idea was it to come here, anyway? They joke. It’s easier to joke now that there’s a fire burning. The three of them sit on stumps and lean toward the flames, their backs to the ocean breeze so the smoke doesn’t blind them. The flame’s light reflects off the snow and casts a glow on their tents. “Built to withstand the harshest of conditions,” Josh’s tent was advertised. If nothing else it’s strong enough to drape his wetsuit over. Flashing back to the last couple of mornings, it’s laughable that he’s still trying to dry it. Freeze? Sure. Dry? No.

They eat pasta from the pot, three forks. Timmy and Sam drink hot tea and offer it to Josh. He’s torn. If he doesn’t drink it he’ll be cold and dehydrated. If he does he’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. And once he gets all those little heating packets broken and lined inside his sleeping bag, the last thing he wants is to get up and pee in the snow. He passes on the tea.

They talk of girlfriends, some becoming wives. They talk of varied career paths, the WQS, and their favorite photographers. They talk of past journeys, and this one—how bizarre to be camping in the snow in Iceland. They talk of the glaciers they saw earlier in the week. The icebergs. What will the rest of the week bring? The beach out front has potential, but the conditions need improvement.

They will talk until the fire dies. But first, they must adjust their stumps to the other side of the flames. The smoke is starting to blind them.

Home Anew

It’s a spring day in Santa Cruz. The sun is bright, the hillsides in bloom. The waves are small though, and the northwest wind of the last few days has chilled the water to sub-50 temperatures. Josh checks the waves from the cab of his Toyota Tundra, weighing his options.

An SUV with two men inside parks next to Josh. They’re professional surfers too, but they’ll take the day off today. The waves aren’t good enough to paddle out, and there’s no sense in driving up north with this wind blowing. The driver leans over his passenger and motions for Josh to roll down his window. He does.

The flame’s light reflects off the snow and casts a glow on their tents. “Built to withstand the harshest of conditions,” Josh’s kit was advertised. If nothing else it’s strong enough to drape his wetsuit over. Flashing back to the last couple of mornings, it’s laughable that he’s still trying to dry it. Freeze? Sure. Dry? No.

“What’s up, buddy? We’re going to get an 18-pack and go golfing. You wanna cruise?”

Josh chuckles. “Thanks, but you know I don’t golf. I’m heading up north.”

“Suit yourself. Good luck finding anything that’s not blown to pieces.”

The men drive away. Josh drives away too, north of town, wondering if the surf world will ever expand its myopic view on ocean sports.

He stares a half mile down the beach and sees it—a fast, sectioning right that runs for 50 yards before closing out. He looks out front—a sea of kiteboarders weaving in and over the waves, out and through each other. Bees humming around a hive.

On the beach, Josh prepares his kite and board. His kite is two meters smaller than most for maneuverability and control. And there are no foot straps on his board. In fact, it’s the same board he would have surfed had he paddled out in town today.

Josh maneuvers the kite through the whitewater, past the circus, and toward the right-hander. Speeding along the coast a half-mile out, he admires the view—secret reefs, empty beaches, pine-filled valleys—this part of the coast is untouched.

He angles toward the sandbar, timing his arrival with an approaching set. It’s chest high and crumbly, but Josh sees a glassy section among the chop on the second wave. He tilts the kite and zips at it, bottom turning and unloading on the whitewater lip. He fades down the face and sets up for the next turn. Now he’s just surfing. His friends from this morning are probably on the back nine by now, ten beers deep.

*

It boils down to water time. If an activity involves water, surfing, wake surfing, or kiting, Josh is into it. But if it doesn’t leave his hair wet—golf, tennis, or partying—he’s over it.

With this simple formula, he’s had two successful decades as a professional surfer, five years as a kiteboarder. At 38, he surfs better than he did ten years ago, so why slow down? His peers are in and out of rehab or negotiating life after surfing, but Josh is optimistic about his future. He’s got the genes for it, after all.

Harbor Bill is in his sixties now, still riding the same size board as Josh. He lives in Kauai, leading a simple life with surfing at its core. When they get together today, as it was in ’84, it’s all about the ocean. When will they surf? Where will they surf? For how long will they surf?

At 38, he surfs better than he did ten years ago, so why slow down? He’s got the genes for it. Harbor Bill is in his sixties now, still riding the same size board as Josh. When they get together today, as it was in ’84, it’s all about the ocean. When will they surf? Where will they surf? For how long will they surf?

That last question is a sticky one. It leads to sunburns and sore shoulders in a battle to see who can log the most tube time. It’s usually a draw.

 

Away Into Tomorrow

Josh squints into the pre-dawn horizon, trying to distinguish waves from the gray clouds in the distance. The water is warm, but a breeze coming off the high mountains gives him chicken skin. The glow from the east is brightening, turning the rain clouds a deep red.

A wave approaches, feathering over the sandbar. He paddles toward the steep sandstone cliffs, deeper. Each stroke means a fraction of a second more in the tube. Josh spins under the lip. He’s up. He’s in. The beach and the jungle disappear from view. He’s encased in water, speeding toward the tunnel’s exit. The sunrise bounces off the clouds and paints the tube walls crimson. Josh is 53, and this remains his favorite part of surfing.

Walking up the beach to his house, he passes two locals heading toward the surf, brown boards under their arms. They greet him with smiles.

“¿Qué tal, Josh?” asks one of the locals.

“Bien, Rodolfo. ¿Y tú?” His accent is thick with gringo. “Bien, bien, gracias. Hasta luego.”

“Okay, hasta luego. Have fun.”

Katie and Jessica are already up, preparing a breakfast of pan y fruta. He gives them kisses and sits down to eat. He looks at “his girls” and can’t believe his luck. Winters in Santa Cruz and Jessica’s summer breaks here in Mexico. His wife, his daughter, and sand-bottom tubes all-year long.

“Daddy can we go surfing?” Jessica asks after breakfast. Her head is tilted, brown hair falling in front of her face.

“Sure, kiddo, let’s do it.” It’s the best part of Josh’s day. They hadn’t planned on kids, but having Jessica proved to be the highlight of his life, especially during moments like these.

They walk down to the point, not hand-in-hand. At 12, she’s too old for that now, but they’re close. In the water, Josh paddles slowly so he doesn’t leave Jessica behind. If there’s a big set, he’ll even push her. He wonders if she’ll ever get too old for that.

In the lineup they join a small crowd, equal parts tourists and locals. Tourists nod at Josh. Locals shake his hand. He lets a set pass, and then paddles toward the sandstone cliffs. When he’s in position, he turns toward Jessica. She sits on the inside and over, waiting for the smaller ones. He motions for her to come closer. Jessica’s improving. She can take off a little deeper.