23 March 2014

Sharing the Stoke at Rincon

Every year, the San Diego Surf Ladies send a delegation to the Rincon Invitational, a most unusual surf contest held at the famous break just south of Santa Barbara. Last year, I bailed out when I saw the miserable surf forecast, viewing the infamous traffic of Los Angeles as a hurdle 2-foot waves could not induce me to overcome. This year, SDSL allocated the 10 slots based on length of club membership, and I was second on the alternates list. Only a few days before the contest, I got notice that a space was available. The forecast was equally miserable but I'm trying to live by the adage that you will regret more the things you did not do, than the things you did do, so I said yes.

As I traverse Orange County and then LA, the 405 freeway swells at times to 14 lanes wide with random bouts of stop-and-go traffic. I'm traveling not only in space but back in time, past exit signs that conjure memories of jobs including my first after college, lingering shudders over law school, the ghosts of exes and "where are they now" thoughts about friends vanished into the mists of an era before social networking. Only one of my few remaining LA-area friends is free to meet me for lunch, and we catch up over delicious vegan plates at Santa Monica's Native Foods. Then it's back on the road for another hour, up to my hotel in Ventura.

The hotel is divided from the beach by the elevated freeway, and after I check in, I drive under the rushing cars to get a look at the surf. It's as small as I feared, even at C-Street aka Surfers' Point. Rising tide and a breeze have scuttled the conditions so even the longboarders struggle to ride the knee-high waves. 
I decide it's not worth putting on a wetsuit, and instead walk along the paved coastal path, past kiteboarders furling their sails, the loud buzzing of race cars at the adjacent speedway, and a mentally ill woman who is yelling random curses at the kiters and race car drivers in turn.
Lake Ventura
Well before sunset, I drive 20 more minutes north to the Carpinteria State Beach campground where one of the Ladies has pitched a tent and others plan to sleep in their cars. I'm quietly glad I joined too late to get a spot in their campsite, which is completely devoid of privacy and lacks any sense of a wilderness experience or view of the ocean, hidden behind dunes. Team captain Stephanie tells me C-Street was "awesome" a few hours before I arrived, but she's a longboarder, so I take that with a grain of salt. The other campers - Eva, Suzanne, Emy and her boyfriend Jeff - have walked into town and I join them on the patio of a Mexican cafe, drinking wine from a plastic cup while munching tortilla chips and guacamole. As darkness falls, we return to the campsite, where Katie has the fire burning warmly to ward off the evening chill. We chat over snacks and more drinks as Jeff burns sausages and carrots over the firepit. Jeff says, "I'm not very good at finding things. That's why I became an archaeologist." I call it a night and cross the dark campground to my car in the day-use lot, finally finding a bit of wilderness above in the awe-inspiring blanket of stars flung across the night sky.

Driving north again the next morning, I see Rincon from the 101 freeway, a group of contestants bobbing like corks in flat water. Ah, no. Sigh. A few of the Ladies are in the parking lot and we walk down the dirt trail to find the others already on the beach. The surf looks as disappointing as I'd feared. Eva, Suzanne and I suit up and get back to the beach just in time to pull on yellow contest jerseys and paddle out behind the others, taking the long way around per instruction. There are patchy sheens of oil on the water near shore, and a bit father out, Eva holds up her hand, covered in tar that has glommed onto her longboard. I've picked up a little too, on one of Rocket's rails and in the wax on the deck. The latter become unfortunate brown spots on the butt of my wetsuit. Just to the south of Rincon is a pier that leads to a small island. I've heard it's used to offload oil from the platforms that dot the sea in this area, and that palm trees were added after locals complained about the industrial look of the facility.
One-foot Rincon
Our hour of alone time at Rincon has begun. It's just the 10 of us plus Jeff, who's taking photos with a GoPro. There are seven longboarders and two other shortboarders, Suzanne and Alice. 
A few of the Ladies sometimes forget that the waves are meant to be shared, but most happily accommodate drops-ins. I catch a surprising number of waves on my 6'2", often straightening out to let someone else join me. 
The waves are breaking shallow over the cobblestones, and I starfish when I fall, trying not to ding body or board. Lisa and Allison hold hands while they ride side-by-side. Emy tries a headstand; she doesn't make it, but we cheer her anyway. 
My internal frown turns upside down and I'm smiling, surprised at how much fun I'm having on tiny gutless waves because we're all surfing with a true spirit of aloha, sharing and giving. Then the hour is over, and we pick our way back to the beach over rocks and seagrass while the red-jersey team takes the peak.
Me, Michelle, Eva, Alice, Emy, Stephanie, Allison, Lisa, Katie and Suzanne (photo by Jeff)
Still dripping in my wetsuit, I speak with Glenn Hening of the Groundswell Society, who's been organizing this event for 17 years and is also a founder of Surfrider. "We wanted to reverse field on the typical surf contest," he tells me. The contest was originally run like any other and was used as a fundraiser to bring sewer service to the houses fronting the break, but after 10 years it became all about sharing the stoke. And conditions have been better before. A few years ago, Glenn recounts, "Shaun Tomson rode a beautiful 5-footer" all the way down the point, by himself. "That was one point. One surfer, one wave, one point." In the next heat, "we had a whole family sharing a wave. Eight surfers, eight points." It's not about what you do on the wave, he posits, so I ask, "No points for Emy's headstand attempt?" He thinks for a moment and says maybe they'll have to add a rule for next year to acknowledge that. "We want people to have fun!" 

While there wasn't anyone else interested in surfing tiny weak waves at the iconic peak on Sunday, at future Invitationals with better conditions, Glenn envisions sending "playground monitors" out with contestants to make sure everyone is having a good time. And that's partly ensured by the nature of the participants he invites. Everybody wants to surf uncrowded Rincon, Glenn states, but he asks the groups that apply "what have you done for anyone lately?" and rejects those that don't have a recent history of public service. Rincon is the reward for sharing aloha in and out of the water.
Top o' the path, which is much shorter than the one to Trestles
That's some sticker collection
San Diego Surf Ladies and friends
Hey, little doggie! Didn't you read the sign? You're not supposed to be here...
Eva and Suzanne
Sharing Surfers (Total surfers on the shared waves)
1 – Rincon Pit Crew – Team Heeley
2 – Black Surfers Collective
3 – San Diego Surf Ladies

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