Panic moments are sprinkled across my timeline like Carolina Reaper pepper flakes—Highway One spinout, big Ocean Beach, the Northridge earthquake, cuckoldry exposed, Ocean Beach again, preschool treehouse fail, and really big Ocean Beach. Each episode blindsided me. By nature, I do not seek thrills. Yet looking back now, all snuggled up into a risk-managed late-middle-age, I am proud and fond of my small collection of terrors.
Yesterday’s downbeat socially-distanced holiday brought to mind my favorite panic of all, which took place 40 years ago on a hot drunken Manhattan Beach 4th of July, when a dozen fellow patriots and I, in a spreading nimbus of Coors fumes, shambled from our beach umbrella redoubt for an afternoon bodyboard session. Scott Williamson, a friendly non-surfing football player too heavy and well-muscled to paddle effectively, brought up the rear. Scott was the whitest person I’d ever seen this side of a Johnny Winter album cover, and when I dropped into my first and only wave of the day, his red hair and hillocky pink-tinged back glowed before me like a beacon. I only got a foot or so of air as I launched off Scott’s right scapula, but the hilarity soared, and my laughter was in full convulsive open-mouth exhale as I pearled the landing and took in a pint of tar-scented South Bay ocean. I was down for no longer than three or four seconds, but it was full panic start to finish, combined exquisitely with manic joy. Back on the beach I bent over and choked and drained and snuffled, then healed myself with tap water and Doritos.
I won’t say that running Scott Williamson over was the greatest moment in my surfing life. But I won’t say it wasn’t, either.
Which brings up my favorite piece of Mark Cunningham scripture, as follows: “Bodysurfing is fun—there’s nothing more to it.” (My second favorite is, "never bodysurf with a pair of mismatched bumfuck fins.”) Cunningham is of course the world’s most revered bodysurfer. For many of you, he is the only revered bodysurfer, but that is because so little attention has been paid to bodysurfers over the past 50 or so years.
Bodysurfing got a lot more attention in the earlies; Ron Drummond wrote a whole book about it, and Russell Hughes’ one brush with fame came with this endless board-free ride in the ’68 World Surfing Championships, as seen on Wide World of Sports. Bruce Jenkins, in this excellent Mark Cunningham profile, highlights some of the first great bodysurfers.
The surf leash broke up surfing and bodysurfing, which up to that point had been forever united (wipeout, lose board, bodysurf, repeat), and not long afterward Cunningham more or less became our one-man repository for what some people think of as the purest form of wave-riding.
It is often said that Cunningham is amphibious, which is true but incomplete. Yes, he is amphibious. He is also Ferrari. He is chinchilla fur, knee-length and silk-lined. Cunningham is as powerful and smooth as he is fish-like, in other words. He wanted to bodysurf Pipeline the way Lopez board-surfed it, and he did. No tricks, no wasted motion. Just mindful Zen-infused chinchilla-trimmed Ferrari perfection from takeoff to beach landing.
Finally, I have to tell this last story, even though it is self-serving and makes it appear as if Mark bought his way into EOS, which of course he did not. While roaming a distant corner of the Surf Expo trade show in Orlando two years ago, I found Mark sitting alone at a booth, his magnificent head of white hair full and lofty, looking every bit the hawk-nosed crinkly-eyed younger brother of Nick Lowe.
A perennial EOS subscriber, Mark clapped me on the back and raved about the site and the importance of surf history and this and that, and maybe because I did such a good job at maintaining cool he suddenly reared back and said, “Are you still taking donations?” I nodded. He pulled out an ancient two-tone Velcro wallet, ripped it open and fished out the only bill therein, a twenty, which he looked at for a moment then folded once and handed over. He frowned. “That’s not enough,” he muttered. With a snap of the fingers, he squatted down, rummaged through a duffle bag, and came up with a shrink-wrapped box of Mauna Loa chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, which he also handed over, then once again clapped my back and sent me off with more uplifting remarks.
Dammit, he did buy his way into EOS!
Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next week.
P.S.: Friends on Oahu, help me out. Is Point Panic the second-best wave on the South Shore, after Ala Moana, or does it just look that way here?
[Photos: Darren Crawford and Julien Roubinet]