I shaped myself a fresh Twin Fin for the Rincon Classic this year. Being a competition model, I added two black and white checker stripes over silver/grey paint for that vintage racing look. I gave serious consideration to shaving my hair into a modified Mohawk/mullet, complete with a couple of lightning bolts cut into the sides to let my competitors know I was out for blood. Fortunately, I contained my visions of grandeur not only for morning school drop-offs and my daughter’s mortification, but also because I limped from the field of battle in defeat—washed out in my first heat due to poor wave selection.
The sting of losing was as sharp as it’s ever been. From the corner of my mind where rational thought still ruled, I observed the rest of my conscious self nearly overcome with shame and embarrassment—two distinct sides of a bitter coin. I felt shame for the way my carefully formed game plan had fallen apart once I hit the water, for the way I paddled about desperately looking for a wave as everyone else in the heat got into good ones on what was a stellar day of surf at the Rincon. The embarrassment came from my John McEnroe-worthy outburst of frustrated cursing as the 20 minutes of the heat drained away and I had only two middling waves to show for my efforts.
One of the guys sitting in the afternoon glare off the water to the west, waiting for the next heat to begin, called over as I was laying into my wide repertoire of expletives: “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” A gentle taunt, no doubt meant to nudge some perspective my way, but I was too bitter to see it and replied, “Yeah, I f------ love this s---.” I held it together once on the beach where my loving family were proudly sporting their “Surfboards California by Christian Beamish” T-shirts, but the next few hours were pretty rough. It was as if all the defeats in my competitive surfing life—from the first Boogie Board contest I lost as an 8-year-old in Laguna Beach, to the last heat I failed to make in the National Scholastic Surfing Association before shipping out with the Seabees—were concentrated in this one, additional loss.
Recently turning 50, one would think I’d have come to a place of acceptance for my surfing lot in life. Apparently not. As my friend Scott Hulet, editor of The Surfer’s Journal, says, “We’re playing in the sand box” as surfers. Clearly, there are much weightier issues looming than my personal performance in the next-to-the-oldest-guys-in-the-contest division of the Rincon Classic. But that familiar wound was right there, having wanted so badly to do well but falling short, yet again. It’s the thing that has meant the most to me in my life—this surfing thing. It’s always lit up every one of my senses with joy, wonder, imagination. As a kid, I wanted to be part of it like what I saw in the magazines, but always doubted how it could ever be. Of course, there was never anything more to it than getting out there and being a part of it, which I have certainly done, but something—some fear, insecurity—long kept me reaching for a ring that I never fully believed I could grasp.
Objective validation of the skill I’ve acquired over 40 years of wave riding must drive me still. Of course, the best moments of my surfing life have come at a great remove from either contests or cameras, and have often involved long days of solitary sailing and a stretch of reef late in the day shared with only seabirds and seals deep in Baja California. But surfing for me is a weird mix of pop-culture imagery and a deep soul stirring—the bright flash of surfing idols and the mystery of the sea. “Success” in wave riding is a changeable notion. There is the most basic level of success in merely being able to paddle out and catch a wave. Attaining some level of skill, and advancing to more challenging line ups is another. Still another form of success is maintaining one’s life so that surfing remains a possibility, even as the demands of adulthood urge one shoreward.
But was I ever confronted by my fragile ego at the Rincon Classic! Who knew I had so much riding on what I could do in 20 minutes against five other wetsuit-clad middle aged men? A friend sent over a video clip of a couple of my waves from the heat, and looking them over I’d say I surfed them competently. Naturally, there were two other waves in the heat that I should have, or could have, ridden that might have made the difference had my positioning in the lineup been better. My friend sent a note with the video saying “Motivation for 2020!” and she’s right. I might have to rock the Mohawk next year after all, complete with lightning bolts shaved in (apologies in advance to Josephine). Now that I am by any definition “middle aged,” my thoughts on surfing success are slowly evolving, and I think it’s time to accept that I’ll probably never be a very good contest surfer. But I am resolved to keep getting out there anyway, and to enjoy the dance with less cursing.
Christian Beamish is an editor at Coastal View News. He is also the former associate editor of The Surfer’s Journal and author of “The Voyage of the Cormorant” (Patagonia Books 2012) about sailing into Baja aboard his self-built, 18-foot beach boat by sail and oar. He lives in Carpinteria with his wife and two young children.