Thursday, August 18, 2016

Playing Doc's Games

[ed. I've mentioned William Finnegan's Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days before (here's an excellent review). Just read it. This essay, originally published in 1992, eventually became part of the book.]

Wise Surfboards, the only surf shop in San Francisco, is a bright, high-ceilinged place flanked by a Mexican restaurant and a Christian day-care center out in the far reaches of a sleepy working-class seaside suburb known as the Sunset District. Bob Wise, the shop’s proprietor, was talking to a small group of local surfers one winter afternoon when I stopped in. “So Doc, who can see the surf from his window, calls me up and says, ‘Come on, let’s go out,’ ” Wise said. “So I keep asking him, ‘But how is it?’ And he goes, ‘It’s interesting.’ So I go over there and we go out and it’s just totally terrible. So Doc says, ‘What did you expect?’ Turns out that when Doc says it’s interesting, that means it’s worse than terrible.”

Wise was talking about Mark Renneker, a family-practice physician and surfer who lives in the Sunset District. And so were two young guys I overheard a few days later at a windy overlook on the south side of the Golden Gate. We were watching surf break against the base of the long black cliff beneath us—the spot down there is called Dead Man’s, and the tide was still too high for surfing it—when one of them pointed north and howled. Across the Gate, which is a magnificent stretch of water running from the Pacific Ocean into San Francisco Bay, giant waves were breaking in a shipping hazard known as the Potato Patch. Although they were several miles from where we stood, and wind-ripped and horribly confused, the waves had, because they were so big, the three-dimensionality of waves seen from much closer. “Hey, give me your binoculars,” one of the young guys said to the other. “Doc’s probably out there.”

Actually, Mark was working that afternoon at a clinic in inner-city San Francisco, but the kids on the cliff were not misinformed: Mark had tried to surf the Potato Patch—an idea so farfetched and scary that those who knew the area, but had not talked to the witnesses, invariably refused to believe it. Since these guys were not, I knew, San Francisco surfers, of whom there were only a few dozen, their remarks meant that Mark’s notoriety was no longer confined to the city.

That morning, I had stood on another overlook—a sand embankment at Ocean Beach, in the Sunset District—and watched Mark demonstrate some of the qualities that gave him his peculiar status among other surfers. The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore. Getting out looked impossible, and the waves looked not worth the effort anyway, but Mark was out there, a small black-wetsuited figure in a world of furious white water, throwing himself into the stacked walls of onrushing foam. Each time he seemed to be making headway, a new set of waves would appear on the horizon, bigger than the last and breaking farther out (the biggest were breaking perhaps two hundred yards from shore), and drive him back into the area that surfers call the impact zone.

Watching with me was Tim Bodkin, a hydrogeologist, surfer, and Mark’s next-door neighbor. Bodkin was getting a huge kick out of Mark’s ordeal. “Forget it, Doc!” he kept shouting into the wind, and then he would laugh. “He’s never going to make it. He just won’t admit it.” At times, we lost sight of him altogether. The waves rarely gave him a chance even to clamber onto his surfboard and paddle; mostly, he was underwater, diving under waves, swimming seaward along the bottom somewhere, dragging his board behind him by a leash attached to his ankle. After thirty minutes, I began to worry: the water was very cold, and the surf was very powerful. Bodkin, aglow with schadenfreude, did not share my concern. Finally, after about forty-five minutes, there was a brief lull in the waves. Mark scrambled onto his board and paddled like a windmill in a hurricane, and within three minutes he was outside, churning over the crests of the next set with five yards to spare. Once he was safely beyond the surf, he sat up on his board to rest, a black speck bobbing on a blue, windblown sea. Bodkin, disgusted, left me alone on the embankment.

I knew how Bodkin felt. Mark’s joy in surfing adversity had often appalled me. Earlier that winter, he and I had been out together in big surf at Ocean Beach. We paddled out easily—conditions were immaculate, the channels easy to read—but we misjudged the size of the surf and took up a position that was too close to shore. Before we caught our first waves, a huge set caught us inside.

The first wave snapped my ankle leash—a ten-foot length of polyurethane, strong enough to pull a car uphill—as if it were a piece of string. I swam underneath that wave and then kept swimming, toward the open ocean. The second wave looked like a three-story building. It, like the first wave, was preparing to break a few yards in front of me. I dived deep and swam hard. The lip of the wave hitting the surface above me sounded like a bolt of lightning exploding at very close range, and it filled the water with shock waves. I managed to stay underneath the turbulence, but when I surfaced I saw that the third wave of the set belonged to another order of being. It was bigger, thicker, and drawing much more heavily off the bottom than the others. My arms felt rubbery, and I started hyperventilating. I dived very early and very deep. The deeper I swam, the colder and darker the water got. The noise as the wave broke was preternaturally low, a basso profundo of utter violence, and the force pulling me backward and upward felt like some nightmare inversion of gravity. Again, I managed to escape, and when I finally surfaced I was far outside. There were no more waves, which was fortunate, since I was sure that one more would have finished me. Mark was there, though, perhaps ten yards to my right. He had been duck-diving and escaping the unimaginable just as narrowly as I had. His leash had not broken, however; he was reeling in his board. As he did so, he turned to me, with a manic look in his eyes, and yelled, “This is great!” It could have been worse. He could have yelled, “This is interesting!”

Weeks later, I learned that, from a record-keeping point of view, Mark had indeed found that afternoon’s surf interesting. He stayed out in the water for four hours (I made the long swim to shore, collected my board, and went home to bed) and measured the wave interval—the time it takes two waves in a wave train (surfers call it a set) to pass a fixed point—at twenty-five seconds. It was the longest interval Mark had ever seen at Ocean Beach. Mark could make this arcane observation—I have never heard another surfer even mention wave interval, let alone measure it—with authority, because he has been keeping, since 1969, a detailed record of every time he goes surfing. He records where he surfed, the size of the waves, the direction of the swell, a description of conditions, what surfboard he rode, who his companions (if any) were, any memorable events or observations, and data for year-to-year comparisons. Thus, the entry for Sunday, December 22, 1985, recorded, among other things, that my leash broke on the twenty-first day of that surf season on which Mark had surfed waves eight feet or bigger, and the ninth day on which he had surfed waves ten feet or bigger.

Mark’s logbook also showed that the longest period of time he had gone without surfing since 1969 was three weeks. That happened in 1971, during a brief stint in college in Arizona. Since then, he had twice been forced out of the water for periods of slightly less than two weeks by injuries suffered at Ocean Beach. Otherwise, he had rarely gone more than a few days without surfing, and he had often surfed every day for weeks on end. Jessica Dunne, a painter, with whom Mark has lived since college, says that when he doesn’t surf for a few days he becomes odd. “He gets explosive, and he seems to shrink inside his clothes,” she says. “And when he hears the surf start to come back up he gets so excited that he can’t sleep. You can actually see the muscles in his chest and shoulders swelling as he sits on the couch listening to the surf build through the night.” In a sport open only to the absurdly dedicated—it takes years to master the rudiments of surfing, and constant practice to maintain even basic competence—Mark is the fanatics’ fanatic. His fanaticism carries him into realms that are literally uncharted, such as the Potato Patch. “One thing about Doc,” says Bob Wise, who has been surfing in San Francisco for almost thirty years. “He keeps open the idea that anything is possible.”

With me, Mark for years kept open the possibility that I might rise before dawn on a winter day, pull on a cold, damp wetsuit, and throw myself into the icy violence of big Ocean Beach. I came to dread his early-morning calls. Dreams full of giant gray surf and a morbid fear of drowning would climax with the scream of the phone in the dark. For most surfers, I think—for me, certainly—waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive, each with a distinct, intricate personality and quickly changing moods, to which you must react in the most intuitive, almost intimate way—too many surfers have likened riding waves to making love—and yet waves are not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace can turn murderous without warning. Somehow, this duality doesn’t seem to haunt Mark. His conscious life and his unconscious life have a weird seamlessness. His surfing dreams, as he recounts them, all seem to be about recognizable places on recognizable days. He notes the tides and swells in his dreams as if they were going into his logbook. If he’s upset when he wakes, it’s because he was looking forward to riding one more dream wave. His voice on the other end of the line at dawn was always bright, raucous, from the daylight world: “Well? How’s it look?” (...)

Riding a serious wave is for an accomplished surfer what playing, say, Chopin’s Polonaise in F-Sharp Minor might be for an accomplished pianist. Intense technical concentration is essential, but many less selfless emotions also crowd around. Even in unchallenging waves, the faces of surfers as they ride become terrible masks of fear, frustration, anger. The most revealing moment is the pullout, the end of a ride, which usually provokes a mixed grimace of relief, distress, elation, and dissatisfaction. The assumption, common among non-surfers, that riding waves is a slaphappy, lighthearted business—fun in the sun—is for the most part mistaken. (...)

The science of surfers is not pure but heavily applied—and completely unsystematic. It is full of myths and superstitions—the widespread belief that a full moon brings big swells, for instance. It also suffers from a fatal anthropomorphism. When you are all wrapped up in surfing them, waves seem alive. They have personalities, distinct and intricate. They act, you react. It’s a tender, intimate relationship, and it can thus come as a shock when the wave turns out to be not only insentient but, on occasion, lethal. Wave love is a one-way street.

It is also platonic, in that it trades heavily on the ideal. Surfers have a perfection fixation. Its origin is in the endless variety of waves, and in their ephemerality. Surfers seek a rare and specialized kind of wave. When a great break is discovered, world surfing attention focusses furiously on the reports, the photographs, the film. How good is it? How consistent? How difficult, how dangerous? Could I ride it? The ocean being what it is, no place is perfect. Every wave has its virtues and its flaws, and even at the same spot no two waves are ever exactly the same. No break is good on all tides and winds and swells—not to mention flat spells and storms. Still, great surf spots always arouse the fantasy. What if that magnificent wave keeps breaking just like that for another four hundred yards? What if the next wave is just as good? What if it stays that good, hour after hour, day after day? Surfers are always looking for better waves, and the platonic ideal, the perfect wave, keeps them travelling to the farthest reaches of the globe; it kept me on the ocean roads for years on end. There is a dense and growing lore, a grand arcanum of the world’s waves, which complements the localized jargon, the cabalistic code through which surfers trade the secrets of their avocation.

Local surf cultures, meanwhile, sprout and flourish near virtually every ridable break on earth. In some places, such as southern Brazil, surfing is a rich boy’s sport, taking the social place of polo or the hunt. In most places, it’s a multiclass affair, as it was originally, in old Hawaii. I’ve surfed with yuppie architects and stolid crab fishermen in Ireland, with the sons of campesinos and the sons of oligarchs in Central America. Everywhere, though, one finds the same complicated, passionate attention to minute details of local waves, weather, and coastline. Surfers are like farmers or hunters in their rapt absorption in nature’s vicinal habits and vagaries. Ask a voluble local about seasonal variations at his home break, and he’ll still be diagramming offshore canyons in the dirt an hour later.

by William Finnegan, New Yorker |  Read more: Part 1 and Part 2
Image:Tim Finley