I can honestly say I have never seen a better senior citizen surfer than Mark Donnellan at Swami’s. I wish I had a photo of his perfect cutback to illustrate what I mean. For those who have witnessed his act at inside Swami’s over the past 40 years or so, you know exactly what I mean. Silky smooth, always in the right spot, fast and on edge.
There’s something about his minimalistic style — and what’s lacking in his approach. Without excess motion, the stillness of the upper body and the subtle positioning of his arms and hands stand out. His surfing complements, rather than competes with the waves he rides. Here, let me explain something: A criticism we old-school surfers often have of modern surfers is that they seem to move against the wave, rather than with it. That struggle tends to put them in radical, but awkward positions. The subsequent recovery puts them off balance, requiring flapping arms to keep them from falling. While their acrobatics can be amazing to watch, it’s a bit jarring for someone brought up in the Phil Edwards era when style was paramount. Of course Edwards and those who flowed from his elegant family tree: Skip Frye, Gerry Lopez and Rob Machado to name a few are, with the exception of Machado, not performing as radically as today’s rippers.
This is nothing new. Back in the ‘70s, World Surfing Champion Mark Richards’ chant, “Rip, tear, lacerate,” was taken up by an entire generation. The response from those in the style camp was “Let it happen,” a phrase that meant you flowed with the wave and let it dictate your movements.
Back to Donnellan — I watched him only two days ago, merging through heave traffic, avoiding others and finding waves other surfers didn’t even realize were there. The wave he caught, which was no larger than waist high, would not have provided much of a canvas for a lesser artist, but Mark was quickly up, turning, cutting back and moving in trim as the wave beneath his feet peeled along the reef. The act brought me back to words “the Godfather of soul surfing” Skip Frye once uttered, “Watch a pelican glide.” Ever since Frye said those words I have carefully observed pelicans gliding on waves of air above the water without any excessive flapping on their parts.
Prior to Mark’s mastery of the reef he is dedicated to, the recently deceased Kenny Mann ruled inside Swami’s with his own brand of righteous grace.
Those two knew each other well, surfing and working together, initially at Sunset Surfboards, which was then located on Highway 101 in Encinitas, before moving and morphing 30-some years ago (has it really been 30 years?) into Moonlight Glassing in San Marcos. Kenny was the sander, and Mark was a glosser and a polisher. As such they both had access to the best boards before the rest of us had ever heard about them.
But working around surfboards is a secondary reward for a surfer. The best part is that it is piecework and can be done after dark. Because of that I would often see Mark show up at the beach around mid-day — stoked as any gremmie and surfing in a way they won’t be able to match for many decades.
I’m getting off my computer and on to the beach, where I hope to see Mark glide effortlessly over the waves without ruffling a feather.