Surfing, Not The Web

“We’re waxing down our surfboards,
We can’t wait for June.”
SOURCE: The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ USA”

I’ve been getting my gear ready to go surf Frigates Passage in Fiji. Ten years ago I swore to surf Frigates at 70, so now I gotta go do it. Hate it when that happens. Frigates is a natural channel through the western end of the barrier reef around Beqa Island, or “Mbengga Island” as it’s spelled on some charts.

bodysurfing iiiii

I’m a decent surfer, but not a good surfer. All the guys I surf with are better than I am. But it doesn’t matter. The thrill and the passion are the same. I started out bodysurfing the cold green waves of Northern California a few times a year as a boy. I loved it, but then in my twenties, I moved to Hawaii and learned to board surf in the warm blue waters … and I never looked back.

In Honolulu, when I first learned to surf I was the office manager at a business one street inland from Waikiki beach. We hired out day laborers to other companies. Most mornings we’d have thirty guys or so at the early muster looking for work. I rode my bicycle to work. I’d get up at five and strap my surfboard to my bicycle. I’d ride to the ocean and was out in the waves before dawn. It’s a mystical time of day to be surfing. I called it “surfing by braille” because it’s hard to see the incoming waves in the dim light.

Then slowly the shape of the incoming waves would become clearer with the rising of the sun. After surfing the dawn break, and watching the first surfers come out with the dawn, learning from them, I’d ride a final wave in. After a quick shower at the beach station in front of the hotels, I’d hop back on my bike and ride the few blocks to work. As soon as I unlocked the front door, the office would fill up with men who were half-asleep, hung over, crabby. I’m sure I was unbearably chipper and upbeat. But dear heavens, what a way to start the workday!

Here, I’ve been working on my bodyboard, getting it ready to take to Fiji. Some years ago I gave up surfboards and took up bodyboarding. You use a short wide board that you lay down on. Below is a photo of some moonstruck calf with more albondigas than gray cells bodyboarding at a famously huge California surf break called Mavericks …

bodyboard 1

What led me to bodyboarding was that one day I realized an undeniable truth—if you never stand up on your surfboard, you’ll never fall off your surfboard. I bought a good bodyboard and fins, and I gave up both standing up on and falling off of surfboards.

My wonderful brother emailed me once to ask me why I liked surfing. I answered him roughly as follows:

On a day of sparkling sunshine, I’m sliding down the face of a wave at an insane rate of speed. I take the drop and I bury the left rail of the board and turn to scream along the face of the wave. If I make it, I pick my time and blow up over the top before it breaks. Then the wave crashes behind me as I paddle back out to sea.

And if I don’t make it over the top, the wave crashes on top of me. I wrap my arms and legs around my bodyboard, and I’m in the washing machine, tumbling over and over a few feet above a razor-sharp coral reef, and once I come up I have to fight my way out through the incoming waves, diving down to the bottom in the crystal clear water, hanging on to the reef and letting the wave pound above me, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of tropical flora, fauna, and fishies …

I mean … sparkling sunshine, adrenaline, razor-sharp coral, underwater gymnastics, what’s not to like?

Curiously, this didn’t seem to convince him … go figure.

However, there was something I didn’t like about my bodyboard. The bottom was white. What you might call “fish-belly white”. And in the tropical waters, I didn’t like that color at all, not one bit, because of the gentleman that surfers sometimes call “the man in the gray suit”. This is an oblique way of referring to members of the noble and ancient tribe of sharks.

Regarding my own relationship with sharks, as they say, it’s complicated. When I was fishing commercially as a young man, we used to eat the thresher sharks that we’d get in the nets from time to time. However, once I started doing a lot of diving in the tropical waters and hanging out with the sharks, I decided to cut a deal wherein I would forswear eating them and mayhap they wouldn’t eat me.

All I can say is, so far, so good. Since then I’ve spent time with lots of sharks underwater. I was as curious about them as they were about me. Neither one bit the other.

Now, I don’t surf where I live here on the northern California coast. Mostly because it is cold and I’m a tropical boy … but also because of the man in the gray suit. Here’s an example. My friend came in from surfing here one day. His eyes were what we used to call “sanpaku”, meaning you could see the whites all the way around the iris. I asked him about it. He said he’d been out surfing at Salmon Creek, the local break, and he’d gotten spy hopped by a great white shark.  They are an unusual shark. They will “spy hop”, meaning they hang vertically in the water and stick their heads above the surface to look around for prey. YIKES!

bodysurf III

“Man, what was that like?”, I asked.

“It had big black eyes and it looked right at me. It was the second scariest thing I ever saw”, he said.

Second scariest, I thought? Say what? … stunned, I asked, “Dude, what have you been doing, that being spy hopped by a great white shark was the second scariest thing you’ve ever seen? What was the scariest?”

He said, “The scariest thing I ever saw was when that great white’s head disappeared back under the surface …”

Made sense to me.

Anyhow, the man in the gray suit is why I ended up painting the bottom of my bodyboard. A flash of white in the tropical ocean means one thing to a shark—prey. So my solution was three coats of primer, and then three coats of enamel on the bottom of the board. I’m not sure it will stick, it’s plastic, but worth a try.

I’m paranoid on the subject because of a friend of mine. Mike lived on Vanua Levu Island in Fiji, and he worked on Taveuni Island. It’s about a five-mile run across the channel between the islands. Every day he’d run across in a small outboard skiff. He’d run the skiff up on the beach, offload his briefcase and lunch and the like, and then move the boat back out a bit off the beach and drop the anchor in waist-deep water. Then he’d jump in, walk ashore, and start his day.

One day he was doing his usual morning run. He anchored up and went to jump in the water. A tiger shark just happened to be passing under the boat. When Mike dropped in next to the shark, it instinctively turned and bit at the white flash of his legs.

Unfortunately, it hit his femoral artery. He bled out before he could make it to shore. Go figure.

And as a result, call me paranoid, but here’s what the bottom of my bodyboard now looks like …

bodyboard IIII

To get the paint to stick, I first had to remove the surfboard wax from the part of the bottom where I grab onto the rails. Now, even on a good day wax is a relatively boring substance, including surfboard wax. I mean, other than color and melting point temperature, it’s just … well … wax. All pretty much of a sameness. There is little to tell one hunk of wax from another.

So what is a poor surfboard wax manufacturer to do in order to distinguish his indistinguishable wax from his competitors indistinguishable wax? Enter one of the most outrageously successful examples of branding ever, the most popular kind of surfboard wax, Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax.

bodyboard II

So, what does Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax have to do with sex?

Absolutely nothing!  That’s the beauty part.

It is plain old bog-standard surfboard wax plus pure marketing genius, including “QUICK HUMPS” and “THE BEST FOR YOUR STICK”. Amazing.

Anyhow, I am overjoyed. Soon I’ll be leaving once again for some place where I need “6X: TROPICAL WATER” surfboard wax. Gotta say, 6X, that’s my kind of number.

Rain again here. We usually have thirty or forty inches a year. This year we’re over a hundred inches (2.5 metres). The forest is aboil with flowers, the grass grows thick, the redwood trees drip water. Foxes abound, feeding on plentiful voles. Hummingbirds feed on an abundance of nectar. When the trees and grass are happy, everyone is happy.

I wish that same happiness to all of you, where your every thirst is quenched.


24 thoughts on “Surfing, Not The Web

  1. Willis, have you ever surfed the break at Carpinteria? I wanted to do so for years, then long after I made it back to TX, I started working with a software group based in, guess where… I’d call leave a message and they’d get back after their morning break-fest (sorry, couldn’t resist). Sigh. Their literature and website had an aerial of that beautiful break. The software, it was for seismic interpretation, so they’d be forced to travel to places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Perth, mostly places with no known shore break at all… not.


    • That’s an old theory. I saw a video with the crazy shark lady testing that striped wetsuit with her partner next to her in a regular wetsuit. Both wore stainless steel mesh underneath and were feeding sharks. There was no discernible difference in the sharks’ reaction to the two wetsuits.



    • If I were surfing here, where marine mammals are the preferred food of the whites, I might have considered it. But I surf in the tropics, where there are no seals or sea lions, and white-bellied fishies are the preferred food of the local sharks.

      Plus, in any water a white flash is more visible than black … anyhow, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


      Liked by 1 person

    • Saw a documentary on wet suit colors and sharks using dummys. They ended up calling it “yummy yellow” for a reason. No yellow for me, not on my boogie board, not my fins, not on my noodle, not on my trunks.

      I have only seen one shark in 26 years while swimming in the Gulf ( I know there were probably hundreds I did not see). My wife and I had gone to a new beach facility created by Sarasota County just north of the Venice pier. So there I am casually hanging out floating on my noodle in about 8 feet of smooth, light blue water, hat and sunglasses on early one Sunday morning just enjoying the peacefulness of it all. My eye caught a rather large fin about 50 yards away moving towards shore. I have been around dolphins and this was NOT a dolphin. It disappeared under so I had no idea which way it went. I suddenly realized what an idiot I was. Did I mention this was near the Venice pier? What do people do on a pier early in the morning? The fish! With bait! So why am I floating nearby, legs dangling below me in an area known for bull and lemon sharks with live bait in the water? Dumb ass is all that I could think.


  2. Not sure about that color scheme.
    There was a documentary about Great Whites hunting seals somewhere off South Africa where the sharks would lurk low underwater spotting the seals silhouetted against the light above. The seal fur was very dark, so they stood out especially well.

    Meanwhile, respect! Think it is great that you are keeping up with your dreams.


  3. Congrats Willis…. go feed the rat!!!
    I grew up in So Cal and surfed until I left for college.. in the 60’s it wasn’t sharks it was stinging jelly fish.. having one of those suckers slide down your board toward your crotch while waiting for a wave, certainly got your attention..
    In college I started backpacking and that started my love affair with the mountains.. while the sea is a draw and has provided great experiences and memories, the mountains are my passion.
    I believe as we grow in years we need to do things that get the juices flowing and create a bit of anxiety.. I started setting decadal goals to do something special that I had to train or work to accomplish and enjoy.. when I turned 50 it was Dodger Fantasy Camp, at 60 I qualified and ran the Boston Marathon, and last year for 70 I went heli skiing in BC…
    Willis keep going for the adventure it keeps you young.. I hope you catch the big one and shoot the curl..

    Carpe Diem..


  4. I had never heard the term “spy hop” before, but the thought of the “man in the gray suit” submersing after the spy hop (esp. if your presence has been noted) gives me the willies. I’m sure there are two questions on your mind at that point: how hungry is he? do I look like dinner?
    Maybe a third question: where is he now?


  5. The comments remind me of a song I heard while driving yesterday –
    Walkaway Joe by Trisha Yearwood; here is the line:

    But fate’s got cards that it don’t want to show

    When young, it helps to be really lucky. I’ll refrain from indicating episodes of my good luck, but consider the opposite:

    BANDON, Ore. – A 14-year-old girl from Eugene was killed when a log rolled on top of her … Police said preliminary information indicates the girl was playing on a log in the heavy receding tide when the log rolled on top of her.

    May Fate be your friend.


  6. Willis,

    Enjoy your trip!

    As far as letting the sharks be and never being bitten by one, I did the same with a copperhead snake and a rattlesnake. To date I have never been bitten by one. Go figure. I still wouldn’t trust either but it raises a bewildered smile whenever I tell someone about it!

    As far as the paint job goes, don’t paint fishes on the bottom! I painted a canoe light grey and then used a stencil to paint many smallmouth bass on the bottom. On the mural’s maiden voyage across a lake to join up with some friends that were camping I had literally schools of bass rise from the depths to the surface. That had never happened before. If I purchase a boat for fishing you can bet that the bottom will have the same mural and a long handled net


  7. Willis,
    Interesting part of the world you are off to. I spent 1978-79 working in Suva with time in Deuba (Deumba) and Pacific Harbour; plus quite a bit of time on an exploration camp in the Koroba Saba Saqa mountain range (pronounce koromba samba sanga). A delightful part of the world. Drinking at the bar at Pacific Harbour we looked straight out on Beqa; bu I never went there. Your surf beach would be at the right end of the island from my chosen viewing point.
    I guess my body surfing days on the east coast of Australia are far in my past. The 75 year old bod is not up to the beating it would get.
    I knew many places to drain a bottle of Fiji Bitter; from the Grand Pacific Hotel, via the Golden Dragon, all the way to Pacific Harbour. The days of being young and bullet-proof.


  8. Hope you enjoy your board surfing. I also grew up in San Diego and enjoyed body surfing once my body numbed up a bit to the cold. Also enjoyed scuba diving and wind surfing. My wife and I are making our annual pilgrimage to Maui in about a week and I can’t wait to get my fix of boogie boarding and snorkling.

    I’ve had a few experiences with sharks but fortunately nothing up close and personal…. but I always expect to see them when I am diving or snorkling… preconditions me from sucking too much air I guess. I’m not sure color has much to do with being more attractive to a shark. I’m always watching the sharks body movements in anticipation of what it might do.


  9. His eyes were what we used to call “sanpaku”, meaning you could see the whites all the way around the iris.

    FWIW, san is Japanese for three, so sanpaku means ‘three whites’ — white showing below the colored iris as well as on the sides. A sign of poor health, or so the macrobiotic folks tell us.


  10. Have fun Willis, and Happy Birthday! Never done anything on waves other than body surf, off Plum Island, MA. Most anything on the water is a good time.


  11. Please excuse a land-lubber, but what is the purpose of wax on your surf board?

    I moved to Norway (where I met my personal ex-Fiance) as an adult and had to learn about waxing cross-country skis as an academic exercise as opposed to just growing up with it the way most Norwegians do.
    On that basis, I understand the concept of glide wax front and back with grip wax in the middle and the grip wax is chosen based on snow temperature (and condition). Waxing is so important to nordic ski racing that national teams have waxing specialists and the top countries (Norway and Sweden for example) have a purpose-built waxing trailer (the size of a shipping container) which is driven between competitions! Races are regularly won (or more often lost) due to waxing choices and there is nothing quite as disheartening to watch as your favourite being over-taken down a long slope by someone with better glide.

    However, I really don’t get why you need to wax something that is already pretty slippy in water (even wooden surf boards are varnished i guess). And even more so the requirements for different waxes for different “water”. [I noted that the picture above refers to “6x: Tropical” and also “Base coat: Tropic-warm-cool]

    A blog post on surf-board waxing would be most appreciated – especially if written with your customary attention to empirical assessment!

    Have a good trip!


    • Rob P points out that surfboards are already pretty slick so asks “why wax them”?”

      It is because the boards are too slick to hold onto, to adhere to when paddling out, and to stand up on when doing that kind of surfing. So the different temperature-specific waxes for surfboards are supposed to be a bit sticky at the water temp where they are used.


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