19 April 2009

"In Search of Captain Zero" Review

This book came out much earlier in the decade - before I started surfing - but I've just gotten around to reading it. And in fact, I had one false start a few months ago when I first picked up In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road by Alan Weisbecker. A perceived tendency toward flowery phrase and convoluted metaphor led me to put the book down after a dozen or so pages and move on to something else (No Kidding, a fun read by my friend Wendy Tokunaga, who has a new book coming out this fall). But unless it's really awful, I have a rule that I always give a book 100 pages to engage me before deciding if it's not worth my time to continue. So I gave Captain Zero another chance, soon finding it hard to put down. And going back, I can't see what put me off initially.

The story follows Weisbecker as he travels south from California to Costa Rica in a camper with his dog Shiner and his surfboards, in search of his disappeared former surfing buddy, friend and partner in crime, Chris a.k.a. Captain Zero. The statute of limitations having past, Weisbecker is free to tell tales from their colorful drug-running past. One escapade involved running a pot-filled ship aground in the waterfront backyard of a Grateful Dead fan, who after getting a slice of the cargo for the inconvenience and damage, offered to build them a dock so they could come back any time.

Eventually Weisbecker does find his friend, but no spoilers here. Something I really enjoyed about the book is his ability to capture the surfer mindset, all the ways our brains work differently from those who never ride the waves. For instance, after noting that Eskimos have many words for snow, which some experts believe means they perceive snow in a different way from a person raised in the tropics, he observes that:
"As a surfer, I don't merely notice more about the sea's condition than a hayseed from Nebraska upon his first viewing; it's an altogether different world out there that I'm perceiving.... The surfer analyzes the sea's finish to gauge how it will hold the edge of his planing surfstick. This perceptual phenomenon is automatic and so deeply ingrained as to be beyond volition. And it can be a distraction. When a movie cuts to a beach shot with waves breaking in the background, it matters not how dramatic the cinematic moment, how drastic and ingenious the plot turn - my mind is immediately absent from the narrative proceedings, I'm off on an imaginary surf check, assessing the size and the health of the swell up there on the silver screen, noting the wind direction and state of the tide, maybe muttering for the actors to please step aside for a moment so I can see if that boomer behind them holds its shape through the inside section."
So true. I can't go for a walk on the beach anymore without constantly checking the waves. And more truisms:
"Only one thing better than a solo session... and that's a session with a good friend."

"Sizable though that wave was, I wasn't going to drown from a hold-down and I wasn't going to get impaled on the reef. Absent these two dangers, there is nothing... real... to fear out there."

On going back out after a bad wipeout on a heavy reef wave: "I've been told that skydiving is scarier the second time than the first, the reason being that the second time you know from experience what a ridiculous, stupid act jumping out of an airplane really is. It's not just ridiculous and stupid in theory. You've done it, so you know. And you also know just how fearful you're going to be when you get up there and you're in the open door looking down. Your fear is now a fear of fear."
On the difference between long- and short-boards, Weisbecker says:
"One result of the move to the shortboard was to put the surfer in more intimate touch with the wave by melding the surfer with his equipment, the overall idea being to make the surfboard 'disappear.' For the highly evolved surfer, the surfboard goes where he projects it with no thought of the board itself; and the rider's feet, once planted, rarely shift more than a few inches during various turning and trimming maneuvers. In contrast, the longboard is turned from the back and trimmed for speed from the front, making movement along the board sine qua non to that approach. The end result is that the wave-riding vehicle becomes much more of an active psychological factor in the surfer/wave equation. In other words, the longboarder is much more aware of his equipment. On the face of it, the Zen factor would seem to give an edge to the shortboard approach, with its theoretically 'purer' relationship with the wave. In practice..."
Well, I've typed enough. Pick up the book if you want to read more.

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