Sea Notes

Ryan Birch and state of surfing

A nice series of south/west swells poured into our window recently and gave us reasons to celebrate, along with reasons for concern. The good news is that the sand banks are back and many of the old haunts were peeling magically. The bad news is that there were just too many surfers competing for too few waves, and even the once remote spots were advertised on video cameras revealing them, shy and naked, to the entire expanding surfing world. The solution for some is to get a bigger surfboard, while others take things further by adding a paddle, or riding a kayak (Boneyard has recently been dubbed “Boatyard.”) Paddle power solves the problem for one surfer but creates more problems for those of us trying to ride as short a board as possible in a diminishing resource.
While once a breeding ground for some of the world’s top surfers )Brad Gerlach, Joel Tudor and Rob Machado among them), there are currently few in the lineup capable of making the international splash that they have. One of them is named Ryan Birch. Birch, whose father Jerry made a name for himself as a surfer in Maui, is among the most open minded divers and talented surfers we have seen in years.
I first saw him riding the smallest board in the smallest waves, gaining speed from nothing waves and snapping hard where others were flailing. He was 14 years old and showed similar promise to the kid we once called Mouse (Rob Machado) who forged his skills and reputation decades ago on the same little reefs and beach breaks. Like Rob, Ryan is interested in riding a variety of surf craft. I first became aware of this several years ago when Birch and a friend of his were out launching themselves into a six-inch surf on rough pieces of plywood. Next I saw Ryan pick up longboarding quicker than anyone since Joel Tudor, hanging a legitimate and stylish 10 within months of knee paddling out, and standing out among the pack at the highly competitive Cardiff Reef.
During our first south pulses, Birch could be seen on a six-foot Alaia board, made all the more interesting because he had adopted Carl Ekstrom’s invention (asymmetry) to the tail. When I stroked out that afternoon, I actually thought that the kid was standing on the reef, since he was sitting so low in the water. He was, however, sitting on that thin and narrow slab of wood, catching waves among those whose boards had 10 times the volume, hitting the lip, cutting back, sliding 360s on the inside ripples, taking them to the sand.
Of course there are many others in our area with promise that could take them above our current mediocre pack. They generally avoid the old man spots that I find myself retiring to these days, preferring instead to ride the snappy and hollow sand bars that summer is famous for. I hope these kids don’t become discouraged when faced with a sea of massive boards and paddles, unable to compete for waves with the old guy who obviously has more go power. Advice to the old guys: sit out a few sets and give the kids a chance to make their move into the waves that can launch them into greatness. Some, like Ryan Birch, will claw their way past you and leave you in their wakes. Others will give way or give up, sitting in quiet disgust, wondering if they will ever get their turn.