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Surf & Turf

Daniel Arreguin drops in on a set of big waves along the Fort Bragg coast. (photos by Connor Jay)

Daniel Arreguin drops in on a set of big waves along the Fort Bragg coast. (photos by Connor Jay)

By John Beck

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It’s still dark, well before 7 a.m., when Bob Miller sends this text: “waiting for a call from a dude that will give a heads-up on a certain spot and then I might go there.”

Like most surfers along the North Coast, his choice surfing spots are well-guarded secrets. That’s why it’s no surprise when Miller doesn’t name the spot or offer an invitation to tag along.

The day before, the National Weather Service issued a beach hazard alert warning of waves between 7 and 10 feet and breaking around 17 seconds apart along the coast from Sonoma to Monterey counties.

The night before, TV weather forecasters warned of sleeper waves and nasty rip currents. “Don’t turn your back to the ocean,” is the mantra.

Longtime wave chaser Bob Miller loads his car for an early morning surf trip from his home at Carmet Beach north of Bodega Bay.

Longtime wave chaser Bob Miller loads his car for an early morning surf trip from his home at Carmet Beach north of Bodega Bay.

There’s no need for a reality check. This is not the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. Or Huntington Beach. Or even the giants of Mavericks down by Half Moon Bay. This is the craggy, unsung North Coast around Bodega Bay, ravaged by unpredictable waves that pound relentlessly one day and turn to glass the next.

World champion Kelly Slater doesn’t drop by often. And there aren’t a lot of sponsorship opportunities.

Still, the hearty, grizzled, cold-wave surfers who return day after day, week after week, are more than a little stoked about the way the week is shaping up. Morning surf reports on Surf Line and Magic Seaweed websites project swells of 7 to 10 feet at Salmon Creek Beach, the most popular surf spot in Sonoma. But the parking lot is empty at sunrise, except for a couple cooking breakfast on a hibachi. A state parks lifeguard swings through in his truck and, seeing no surfers on the water, heads north on Highway 1.

A half-hour later, Miller, 46, who owns Bob’s Surf Shack in Bodega Bay, texts a sunrise photo of the wave break near his house at Carmet Beach. It’s followed by a text that reports: “other spot got report tide is killing it.”

When we finally catch up in the Doran Beach parking lot, he’s given up the chase, resigned to waves smaller than expected.

“There are other guys on that hunt to grasp that full-on power right now,” he said. “So as I’m driving over here, I’m passing guys who want the bison and not just the squirrels.”

Because of the angle of approaching winds against the wave break, it’s “becoming a little crummier and funkier” at Salmon Creek, Miller said. On the other hand, Doran can take a 10-foot swell and turn it into a “fun 4- to 5-foot wave and right now, in time, that’s nice and comfortable and I can do it in an hour or an hour and a half,” he said. “There are guys north of here who might be staring out at the water and spending an hour analyzing and then going out and spending two to three hours in the water just to catch the one to two fat waves.”

As more cars and trucks pull into the parking lot, each person stops to ask, “Hey, Bob, how’s it looking so far?”

Already out on the water is the most prolific surfer the North Coast has ever seen: 65-year-old Dale Webster, the Cal Ripken of the surfing world. He’s been surfing every day since 1975; Dec. 31, 2013, marked 14,000 consecutive days on the water for Webster, catching at least three waves a day.
Known as the “Daily Wavester,” he holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive surfing days, and he’s been featured in myriad magazines, from Surfer to Sports Illustrated.

But today he’s admittedly not in a good mood. He’s had a rough weekend sharing waves with “kids who show up with these imported surfboards from China that they buy for $100 at Costco,” he said.

And don’t get him started on stand-up paddleboarders who “charge a sport on their credit card.”

Doran is the beach where, on gnarly days that were way too rough to surf anywhere else, Webster sought refuge and extended his record. Without Doran, there would likely be no record and no “Daily Wavester.” Now he’s a little bitter about how things have changed over the years.

(clockwise from top left) The entry to Northern Light Surf Shop in Bodega; Patrick Corrigan begins to “glass” a surfboard, applying a layer of fiberglass; the workshop where boards are made and repaired is in a small barn behind the surf shop; surfboard builder Ed Barbera, one of only a few people who shape boards by hand, eyes his handiwork in progress at Northern Light.

(clockwise from top left) The entry to Northern Light Surf Shop in Bodega; Patrick Corrigan begins to “glass” a surfboard, applying a layer of fiberglass; the workshop where boards are made and repaired is in a small barn behind the surf shop; surfboard builder Ed Barbera, one of only a few people who shape boards by hand, eyes his handiwork in progress at Northern Light.

“In the ’70s, if you acted up, you got called out on it,” Webster said. “Now in the age of political correctness, nobody can comment on somebody being out there on a surfboard they bought at Costco for $100. Now they’re surfers, too, and you can’t tell them what to do because they have a surfboard.”

All over the world, from Southern California to Australia, surfing has always been a territorial sport. When “Locals Only” signs didn’t do the trick, surf gangs with names like Bra Boys, Da Hui and Bird Rock Bandits would physically enforce the code. In the surf documentary, “Down the Barrel,” one surfer paddles up to another and punches him in the face for surfing where he’s not supposed to be. While not quite as confrontational, the same territorial resistance exists on the North Coast.

Headed out to join Webster on the water is Heath Lesik, a 32-year-old Windsor firefighter who lives in Bodega Bay. He caught his first wave at age 9 at Doran Beach, learning from his dad, Mike, who grew up surfing in San Diego.

In 2005, a 14-foot great white shark attacked surfer Megan Halavais at Salmon Creek Beach, wounding her right leg and leaving tooth marks in her surfboard, shown by state park Ranger Bill Walton. Halavais is still surfing the North Coast today.

In 2005, a 14-foot great white shark attacked surfer Megan Halavais at Salmon Creek Beach, wounding her right leg and leaving tooth marks in her surfboard, shown by state park Ranger Bill Walton. Halavais is still surfing the North Coast today.

Addicted to the rush ever since, Lesik describes surfing the North Coast, from Marin to Mendocino and beyond, as “a love-hate relationship. Sometimes you go two weeks without surfing and you can’t wait to get out on the water again, and other days you’re putting your wetsuit on and there’s frost on the beach and you’re thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

He openly admitted, “I know it sounds selfish, but things have changed and you see a lot more people coming out and a lot more competition for every wave.”

In a sparsely populated region like Bodega Bay, it’s common to get surfers commuting several hours from inland towns, and they’re often seen as poachers with no respect for locals.

“It’s funny, you’ll hear guys claim that Salmon Creek is their local break, but they live like 45 minutes away in Santa Rosa,” said Megan Halavais, 28, one of only a handful of women who surf regularly here. In 2005, she was attacked by a 14-foot great white shark while surfing at Salmon Creek, suffering wounds to her right leg. It took about a month until she got back in the water on her board, she said, but it took years until the trauma “faded into the back of my mind and now it’s not the biggest thing I’m worried about.”

Like Lesik, she estimates there are 50 hardcore surfers who get out three to four times a week or more. They do it for the obvious adrenaline rush and thrill ride, but what keeps many coming back is the constancy. Amid all the variables that may change in their lives, the ocean is always waiting for them, another set of waves rolling in, each one a bigger challenge than the last. As Webster said, “I’ll keep doing this until I can’t do it anymore.”

Halavais has seen changes in surfer attitude over the years.

Daniel Arreguin sheds his wetsuit after a winter surfing session at Fort Bragg.

Daniel Arreguin sheds his wetsuit after a winter surfing session at Fort Bragg.

“When I first started, there was a crew of these old guys who were super local and really aggro and nowadays all those guys have really mellowed out and they have families and are just out there to have fun,” she said. “So it has softened up a bit, but there have been so many swarms of more surfers on this coast that it’s coming back to that aggressiveness on the water.”

Unwritten rules of surfing etiquette amount to basic common sense, like not cutting someone off on a wave, respecting the people who were out there before you, getting out of the way of another surfer and honoring a general wave rotation where you share and take your turn.

“And at spots that aren’t as obvious as Salmon Creek and are more remote, you don’t just paddle out there to a group of guys and act like you own the place,” Lesik explained. “It takes awhile until you get that respect and you’re not treated like a tourist.”

But no matter if you were born and raised in Bodega Bay or you drive from Vacaville to surf, one thing everyone agrees on is you can never predict what’s going to happen on the unruly North Coast.

“Just when you think you’ve got it made, Mother Nature can shut you down,” Lesik said.

A surfer and a state parks lifeguard, Nate Buck, 33, estimates he’s rescued about a dozen surfers from peril since he moved from San Diego to Bodega Bay in 2000.

“The conditions can change very quickly and this coastline is more exposed to the raw power of the ocean,” he said. “It’s a lot more raw and rugged compared to Southern California.”

And then there’s the cold. The average June water temperature at Newport Beach is 66 degrees; Bodega Bay is typically 15 degrees colder, a chilly 51 degrees that month.

His advice to beginning surfers is to know your limits and not panic.

“If you see that there’s nobody out in the water when you’re going out,” he added, “there’s probably a reason for that.”

For Halavais, the dicey North Coast has become a litmus test and a proving ground for any surfer:

“I always say if you can surf our coast, because it is such a fickle place, and you’re able to surf our coast well, then really you can surf anywhere and be a confident surfer.”

  • Miki Dora

    Good thing you didn’t try to interview the wrong guy out there or they might have punched you in the face and broke your camera. Waves are a limited resource. The more people use surfing for profit, write stories about surfing to further their careers, expose new people to the possibilities of trying surfing… the more crowded the water gets! Media coverage is a selfish pursuit that only helps to benefit those in the media… it does nothing for the people who’s passion is surfing. If anything it damages the sport and negatively effects those involved in it as you see by the comments. But you folks in the media care little for the people who you effect with your stories do you? Magazine stories, internet coverage, photos and video are all destructive tools that only help to gain outsiders money and attention while the people you write about suffer the consequences of your clueless actions! And naming surfspots has ALWAYS been taboo in the surfing world but you know little about that rule… obviously. Go write a story about golf or baseball where exposure doesn’t do any harm and stay away from our oceans.

    • bradpipal

      Guess what they have no beach inland?
      And more and more are here…
      People like to balance on a board, get lift, be wet, and feel air..
      It’s called surfing..
      This why the moratorium of several coves for Abalone…
      Shut down…

    • bradpipal

      WalMart people drive to the coast, drink beer, make u-turns on the highway.
      And envy you, want to see you wipe-out, and pay nothing for the parking.

    • gern blanston

      “Waves are a limited resource.” Wrong, it’s exactly the opposite and this type of attitude only comes from the mouth of a greedy little bitch. There are plenty of unridden waves, especially on this coastline. As Skip frye said, “Share a wave and hoot a kook.”

      • Burrito Bandito

        Good, surfable waves are most definitely a limited resource. Not every wave is good for surfing.

        • gern blanston

          You are missing my point.

  • Immortal Illumined

    my dad grew up surfing salmon creek and doran everyday…and he lived in santa rosa…his ashes are spread over doran

    his best friend was rip raddigan

    shove off miss megan, wise shark

    • gern blanston

      what in the hell are you talking about, “will always be our local break more then yours,” ? The ocean belongs to EVERYONE.

  • respectful

    Wow…..my husband surfs…and many friend.I always have this argument with many surfers.The whole entitlement thing…of I deserve more than you?Stay out of the line up?Just because your parents choose to live 1 hour from the beach,you are not local enough?I deserve the wave more than you do….I am here more?If you were going somewhere other than where your parents happen to raise you(since seniority seems to be an issue)and someone said,I have more right to walk down this road than you do…or I get to walk down this road first,is sheer selfishness?We are all humans,and have the right to do what touches our heart?What if your child or family member came to walk down my road…wouldn’t you want me to be respectful,and allow them the experience?If not,I feel sorry for you?This whole entitlement thing,is a repercussion of a separatist perception of reality….which I am shocked to witness surfers buy into,seeming their love is the water and waves…which should give you some sense of connection to something more magnificent than yourselves?It does not matter what you love or do in life…all have the right to enjoy?It seems to me there are too many rats in the cage…that is what you should be focused on.Really you are mad because every year millions of new babies are born…soon they will want to surf,and they need jobs,and houses and space to survive.I live in Santa Cruz….I have been going to my beach on the north coast my whole life…and no one used to go to my beach(do I sound similar)and now it is over-taken by more surfers and wind surfers and bay area people coming to surf for a day…and bla,bla,bla.I really do not like people taking over my beach….and how dare them take my parking spot….I have more rights to park there than they do…I been there longer.Guess what,We are all the same,Noone is above or below another…and as long as we perpetuate that consciousness….on all levels,we will never get anywhere as far as respect.There is no social or environmental issue we can fix until we address the issues of over-population…..My husband and I have made a conscious decision to not have children……so you can have space on the WAVES…..You are welcome!!!!!! Surfers please stop being stingy and possessive!!

    • Burrito Bandito

      Wow…my husband works…and many friend. I always have this argument with many workers. The whole entitlement thing…of I work more than you…I deserve money more than you do.

      This is what you sound like to people who actually surf.

      Waves, like money, are a limited resource. Just like people compete for money, people compete for waves. And just like the real world and money, there is a system (called an “economy”) to determine who gets what wave.

      Things like how good of a surfer you are, how long you’ve been waiting for a wave, where you are sitting when a particular wave comes, and yes, how long you have been surfing that particular wave. Each surf spot works slightly differently. Not all of them are the same.

      But that’s the way waves are distributed, and it’s been like this ever since the demand for surfable waves outpaced supply. You may not like it, and that’s fine.

  • Facebook User

    thanks bob
    now we know to only shop the original bodega surf shop NORTHERN LIGHTS
    hope your treated the same way if you can afford to travel
    what happens when miller drives to mendo,”fucking poacher”
    bob stick to portuguese and school beaches, those are your local beaches not fifteen minutes down the line not jenner ,fort ross, sea ranch or anything north of goat rock.
    pretentious dicks and dickesses
    bob now that i know what you look like i will sit inside you every time i see you
    BOYCOTT BODEGA BAY SURF SHACK
    if you don’t want us then we don’t want you

    and yes born and live in sonoma county and surf all of it since 86′
    and won’t be intimidated by your locals only rhetoric
    megan you are proliferating a position that diminishes your credibility

    • Surf shack

      Hey there friend make sure u mention this when your by the shop here on the coast, that’s wright on the coast. U will sure be able to get a free sticker, and remember there’s a lot of alfull things going on in this world let’s not focus on such meaningless garbage. You might want to donate some of that energy on your local surf rider organization they could probably use it.
      Make sure you have fun. And we love northern light! Roots bra! Ps hey cris/B oh and happy mothers day, mom. Sup Sebastopol skate night riders!!

      • Facebook User

        To little too late BRA, and you’re not living aloha either, you have serious mental instability if this is your approach to life
        No I will not be supportive of your hypocritical agenda or should anyone with a conscious
        And this meaningless garabege is your business and reputation

  • Facebook User

    Delete my post about the other side to the coin
    Boycott somoma magazine exploiting your backyard
    Boycott bodega bay surf shack bunch of elitist
    Miller is the pucking poacher
    Delete it again will just prove my point