An offshore-fanned beachbreak—with a skilled crew in attendance—offers a fitting test track for homegrown designs.
Words by Christian Beamish | Photos by Russell Holliday
Light / Dark
Was it an ad for Zinka in Surfer Magazine, circa 1984? A Cessna on the desert runway. The righthander reeling in the background, swept clean by offshore wind.
Somewhere in that period, word raced through Newport Beach that Richard Woolcott had broken his neck surfing there and was brought home tied to a door. His spine was intact, but his injury cast a pall over the place. My teenage thinking was that if someone like Woolcott, a solid goofyfoot in any lineup, could get wrecked by the wave, its consequences might be unequal to its rewards.
But over the years, compared to the scarier slab-reef setups that began to emerge, I came to see the place as merely fun, not in any way death defying. Accidents happen after all, and usually in silly, small-wave conditions. So I honed in on the sandbar, that distant spot from Surfer mags of yore, and sought a couple of traveling companions from the fabric of my California-area connections: Simon Murdoch and Jackson Newell, pals from the Central Coast.
I’d met Simon about five years before at a remote beach that he and his buddies hiked into, and I was impressed by his Santa Barbara-smooth style. He’s got a scary big-wave program too, lurking remote reefs with little in the way of safety or backup other than his fitness and a willingness to swim. I didn’t know Jackson, but Simon’s vouching for him meant something. They arrived at my place late in the evening. We each loaded a couple of boards into the minivan my wife Natasha and I drive our two kids in, closed the automatic sliding doors, and motored down the highway in soccer-mom stealth-mode.
The plan, as my dad used to say, was to “zig when the world zags,” and jump on the first swell of the season. A couple of years into a twin-fin jag and loving the whip-sharp drive in point surf and beachbreaks alike, I wanted to see how a 6’2″ MR-style wing swallow I shaped handled the torque of hollow waves.
The man at the gas station told us the best stop in town for tacos. We found the place and tucked into four apiece, watching the asada sizzle while the cocinero chopped with swift precision on a worn woodblock. Then it was out to the old fish camp where they built a jetty spur since I was last there. A nice righthander bowled off the end of the rocks, sling-shotting across a sandbar in the middle of a small bay. Big, sleigh-ride peaks avalanched off the far end of the rock point and rolled along the shelves in almost-good form, steepening up further inside though lacking the draw and wall of a properly functioning point.
But we were surfing anyway—in the sunlight-sparkle, cold-water joy. Simon rode a 7’2″ swallow-tail that he designed and shaped with Gregg Tally of White Owl Surfboards lineage. It was finned with twin-hatchet keels, which seemed to compliment the somewhat pulled, wide-point-forward outline. Stroking up the broad face of a set wave, he casually turned and dropped in under the cascade, letting the board run flat out through the bowl then arcing into one of his flowing carves. First wave on the new board and it looked like it was an old fave.
Jackson made a good account of himself as well, riding a 6’10” two-plus-one setup that his buddy had garage shaped. It’s all flow with these guys. Not posing. Just traversing sections. Letting board speed accumulate, then banking hard. Good, solid surfing.
Keeping the twinnie in reserve, I rounded out the 7’2″ program on a two-plus-one channel bottom I shaped that looks pretty good, except that I glassed the fin on too far back and a touch off-camber, producing a disconcerting hum through turns. This error in fin placement aside, I have yet to achieve the characteristics I’ve envisioned in a “performance” single-fin, despite the numerous versions I’ve shaped since the mid-90s. Under seven-feet, single-fins don’t accelerate like multi-finned boards. I’ve rarely gotten the Michael Peterson-style arc I’m seeking—but then again, I am no MP.
I was happy to pay $40 that night for a hot shower, clean bed, and a locking door, particularly since we’d only copped a few fitful hours of sleep on the floor at the home of a friend of Jackson’s in San Clemente after driving down from Santa Barbara. The pangeros at the fish camp gave us some snapper they couldn’t sell, and the nice ladies at the hotel restaurant fried them up for us. We drank margaritas, told the waitress she was guapa, and enjoyed not cooking on a camp stove in the dunes.
Many miles still laid between us and the wave.
My mind’s map of the desert had us simply following the curve of the coastline out to the point, then making the short hop to the spot. But the reality was a long-slog south before cutting across west, and then working back up the coast. Around noon, we grabbed a sixer of Tecates and some reinforcements at a cervezaria. Simon took the wheel, and I read aloud from Jackson’s copy of The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf: “Drake and about 20 men were employing a pinnace—an open boat with oars and sails—to intercept Spanish merchantmen coming and going around the mouth of the Chagres, taking from them merchandise, money, and other valuables.”
We enjoyed the descriptions of small boat raids and a hidden Caribbean anchorage as we drove past vast salt pans stretching off towards the sea and shifting dunes claiming half a lane in places. The beery glow and Drake’s exploits helped dissolve the miles as we climbed a pass and continued along a rising-and-falling road of dirt and loose rock. We finally spotted the glittering blue ocean in the distance, but it wasn’t until late evening that we reached the lineup.
Long hours in the minivan, the beers, and probably the years left me out of sync when we finally paddled out. A hefty set wave swung my way, but my arms were lead. The second I pulled back I saw that I would have made it, the gusting offshores holding up the wall for a potentially long tuberide. I turned myself towards the clear-blue water, absorbing the loss and feeling the general pulse of the ocean. Another wave soon came, but I got in late and a work-around bottom turn had me wearing the lip.
I got one final peek at a beautiful, squared-up section and my new buddy Jackson grinning at me from the shoulder as I went Davy Jones into the sandbar, thinking about Richard Woolcott.
But I clicked in eventually, banking through a midface speed line, the wave morphing into a sand-sucking cavern. A half-step forward and the twinnie locked-in, MR and Brewer’s punk rock brainchild proving its viability. I’d laid out the plan shape like MR says he does it: wide point six-inches forward of center, wings at eight-inches up from the tail. But we’re finding all manner of ways to get down the line in this postmodern moment. Veteran pros Torrey Meister and Timmy Reyes got tubed on three fins and launched airs. But the twin-fin is a different groove of speed, flow, and control. And shaping—linking rail bands in clean facets with the planer—hearkens to something ancient in us: experimenting with curves in the water, a lineage of incremental innovations in seafaring.
With night falling and the light fading fast, I stroked into one more wave and felt that lift and carry, that recurring enchantment of possibility.