The light is mesmerizing among the gray-white beach, the white foam on the tips of the waves and the gray-white horizon.
The green water of the breakers reflect a verdigris copper, cast from smoke that turned the moon blood red on the prior eve.
It is highwater. We begin walking the quarter mile to the beach. A few of the dozen or so surfers gathered at the parking area recognize my companion, Larry Moore, a veteran surfer. Nods and smiles are exchanged. Moore has been surfing the north Pacific coast for 52 years.
We approach the beach and ascend to the highest point on the dunes, where several figures of varying ages stand, sit and kneel — all watching the waves. Keen eyes scan the waves and wait for the right conditions. Some of the younger surfers spread apart, allowing room for Moore — a subtle show of respect.
We return to the parking lot. It’s obvious that some unuttered, mutual decision has been made. The stoke level has raised a notch or two, even though the so-so surf conditions may not warrant it. The younger surfers are prepared to go and return to the beach before us, quickly entering the water while Moore and I stroll along, clucking and cackling like a couple of old roosters.
On the beach, Moore zips his wetsuit up. He suddenly gives off a distinct air of command. This is his element. Quickly, he attaches his leash to the board and plows off toward the surf like he’s after something. In the water, the younger surfers spread out and make room for him, just as they did on the shore.
A growing interest
Cold-water surfing on the North Coast is popular. The North Coast has become a destination for surfers, largely because modern improvements in wetsuits enable more comfort in an ocean that does not vary far from 55 degrees yearround.
Even in this COVID-19 era, surfing is an attractive physical activity. Surfing, being a solo sport, is all about social distancing. Locals and tourists alike can, and mostly do, spread out on the break and keep safe.
According to Dennis Smith, owner of Seaside Surf Shop, the growth of surfing has shown no abatement. Surfers who are idled by the pandemic still go surfing. Tourists come to the North Coast to surf because the chances of finding yourself alone on a wave are greater than on California beaches, where warm water and proximity to a large population make competition for every wave.
Lexie Hallahan, owner of NW Women’s Surf Camps & Retreats in Seaside, said the pandemic caught her off-guard this season, her 15th.
“The shutdown really cost us. All of our camps were planned out and we had to miss all of the first part of our season, three and a half months,” Hallahan said. “That won’t happen in the next sessions. We’ve made changes that will allow us to offer programs for women, as well as men and whole families safely, while still keeping it fun.”
The rise in the number of female surfers has increased exponentially since the 2002 release of the women’s surfing film “Blue Crush.”
“That was the one event that changed the image of surfing as an athletic activity for women,” Hallahan said.
Women’s surfing was given a boost last February when Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira conquered a 73.5 foot wave during a competition in Portugal.
Business meets community
Surf shops have always been among the drivers of the local surf scene. Josh Gizdavich’s Cleanline Surf celebrates its 40th year in Seaside and Smith’s shop was established in 2003.
Online marketing is driving the surf industry, along with other sports equipment and apparel companies. It’s a growing market and most shops now sell online. Advertising appeals to one’s emotions and dreams. The sense of freedom, stoke and self-reliance are powerful attractants. With the north Pacific, there is always an element of danger — this too can be an attraction.
Among offshoots of surfing are SUPs, stand up paddleboards, and kiteboarding. A paddleboard is shaped to use riding waves like a surfer but the rider stands on the board and catches waves by paddling.
The beach in Manzanita is the most popular on the North Coast for kiteboarding, which is just what it sounds like. The operator rides the waves on a special surfboard, operating the kite with flying lines while suspended from the kite by a harness. Then, the operator flies up into the air at death-defying speeds, only to splash down in the waves to fly again.
Surfing magazines that have driven and reported on the industry since its inception have visibly suffered during the pandemic. In May, Surfer magazine, the first popular surf publication and a model for all the rest, announced its last edition, citing the pandemic as the cause. The surf publication business, like other print publishing endeavors, is languishing in the shadow of online powerhouses. Some industry analysts predict the same fate for the others.
Catching waves, together
Jacob Moore is in his early 30s and grew up on the Long Beach Peninsula. He is a homegrown surfer of 17 years, having learned how to surf in the peninsula’s limited surfing spots.
While his eyes don’t gloss over at the talk of surfing like the old diehards, he is a dedicated surfer. He admits that Oregon’s beaches offer better opportunities for catching a ride.
A talented singer and mandolin player, Larry Moore (no relation), is a member of the local “crabgrass” band, Brownsmead Flats. In a long, rambling conversation, we reflect on the parallels of music and surfing — waves, of course. Rhythm. Timing. Randomness. Balance. Agility. Strength. Judgment. Respect. The list goes on.
Like the loose-knit music community of the North Coast, local surfers also have such an unspoken, informal community.
There’s nothing like the respect and fellowship of homies. To illustrate — when legendary Seaside surfer Jack Brown died in 2015, the Seaside surfing community did just what he would have wanted — they all went surfing together.
I asked both Moore’s if they ever thought of quitting, which elicited lots of head shaking. Away from the beach, you would never know that these men are both stoked on surfing. But for both of them, surfing is not just a sport or a pastime — it’s a way of life, a way of being.