I woke up this morning to the distant rumble of breaking waves and knew that the first winter swells had finally arrived. In the past we called the first big north swell to roll through Swami’s “opening day.” It’s been a few years since I threw myself into the middle of the pack to compete for set waves, so I’m not sure if the tradition lives on or not. Regardless, opening day arrived about a month late this year, on Reverend Martin Luther King’s day, Monday, Jan. 15 to be exact. That seems appropriate since riding waves is at its core, all about freedom.
I have no doubt that most of the hardcore surfers in town sought out waves unencumbered by the Continental Shelf like those near our home. A few, no doubt, took boat trips to offshore islands where they would test themselves against the full brunt of the Pacific. Others journeyed north or south in hopes of finding waves big enough to make up for the long wave drought we’ve experienced in the winter of 2017-2018. I didn’t rush out there as I had in winters past, but sat watching from the Cardiff bluff as 40 or 50 surfers competed for half that many waves while I contemplated seasons past. Lost in my daydream I envisioned the swells, the people I rode them with and the houses we lived in.
I have lived in some luxurious surf houses, not in terms of fine structures, but the views they afforded. I have had the privilege of seeing Sunset Cliffs laid out in my front yard like a diamond highway. I lived in a beach shack above Swami’s where we paid nothing except a few dollars to have the water turned on. I lived in a beachfront house in Gisborne, New Zealand, and at the appropriately named Animal Farm, near Shark Pit in Lahaina.
One of my favorite surf houses, however, was one I shared with two of North County’s top surfers at the time, the late Pat Flecky and big wave legend Ken Bradshaw. The house was in Cardiff’s oldest tract, just east of the freeway. Unlike some of the condemned structures I inhabited in the past, this one was livable even by non-surfer standards. It was clean, well-carpeted and freshly painted. None of that, however, distracted from the stoke that echoed off the drywall whenever a swell arrived.
I was a year too late to witness Bradshaw pacing the front room in anticipation of the 1969 swell by which all others are measured. It was then, he and everyone who saw him surf realized that he would one day make his name on the North Shore of Oahu on waves with many times more volume than those of our humble home.
Opening day arrived as usual in early December of that year and Ken, Pat and I pulled into what was then the dirt parking lot at Swami’s, before dawn, trying to estimate the size of the waves rolling through in the dark. The rule was that if a wave broke from the outside peak, all the way past the lifeguard tower, it was opening day.
The sun was just starting to peak over the hills as we tore into our wetsuits and watched waves peel beyond our sight. Opening day was on, and we were there to greet it. There were already half a dozen surfers in the water and we knew them all by name. They greeted us and gave us room as we paddled out into the peak, and I watched from behind as Flecky disappeared from view, not to be seen again until he was well clear of the lifeguard tower. I watched a wave rise the kelp, paddled into position, and took the drop, just a few strokes behind him.