Caleb Crozier hates school. At ten years old, he’s already been deeply afflicted with the surf-bug, a potentially irreversible illness that destroys tolerance for time spent on fifth-grade fractions or capital cities. As far as Crozier’s concerned, the only activity worth pursuing when not surfing is skateboarding, and that holds a distant second place.
Although he would rather pursue “tasty waves” (as described by Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) than go to school, Crozier’s no dummy. His head is full of surf-knowledge, which he shares with me on a hot Wednesday morning in early August.
Crozier boys talk surf
History: “Back in the day, it was all like this,” he says, gesturing at a group of 10 to 12 longboards propped up against a guesthouse behind the Encinitas home he shares with his parents and older brother, Micah. “Like, in the ’60s, there were no shortboards.”
Geography/Spelling: “My three top surf spots that I want to go to around the world are Cloudbreak, which is in Fiji, Teahupoo in Tahiti — that’s spelled T-E-A-H-U-P-O-O — and Ovahimba. That’s in Namibia, in south[ern] Africa, on the Atlantic side.”
Farrah talks surf
Math/Physics: “Every square foot in a wave is 60 pounds of pressure. So a ten-foot wave is 600 pounds of pressure pushing you down, and I’ve had that happen. It’s not fun.”
Dawn Patrol: “You get up at, like, 5:00 [a.m.], pack up, check the surf, drive down, and get in the water before the sun rises. Afterward, a lot of surfers go get a donut at — well, we call it Tom’s Donuts [officially Leucadia Donut Shoppe].”
Crozier family. Caleb: “My brother does steezie stuff on the longboard. I’m more of a radical, like, ripper-shredder.”
Image by Howie Rosen
It’s clear that this ebullient kid whose lopsided mouth bears only one large front tooth (the other hasn’t grown in yet), eats, sleeps, and dreams surf. His big dream is to “become a pro surfer and travel around the world and to buy my parents a house — like Kelly Slater [11-time world champion surfer].”
Pro surfer Isaac Wood at Bird’s Surf Shed. "I had bosses that all surfed, and they would come back and be, like, ‘Oh, you missed it. It was so good!’”
Image by Howie Rosen
Crozier can hardly be blamed for caring more about waves than sitting in a classroom all day. He was born to avid surfers who have made the sport a family affair. But as much as his father, Tim Crozier, surfboard-shaper and owner of Blackbird Surfboards, understands the need to surf, he also believes in the importance of education. Dad often uses surfing as leverage for chores and homework.
The lesson for Little Crozier is the age-old You don’t always get to do what you want. But all he has to do is take a peek at the surf community around him to see a number of people striving to prove the opposite.
Feeding the beast
Farrah, a 25-year-old UCSD grad. This week she’s going to register a domain name for a new blog for female surfers — “SoCal Betty.”
Image by Howie Rosen
A recent entry on The Mermaid Chronicles, a blog created by local surfer Devon DeMint (née Holloway), shows the surfer’s obsession in pictures. At the tail end of a cross-country road trip with her husband, DeMint posted a series of photos of herself standing in waveless locations (a lakeshore, a city street, a forest, a cornfield) holding her surfboard and looking lost. The final photo shows her riding a wave in green ocean water. The caption reads: “The beauty of this country has blown me away, but I’m always my true self at sea.”
As lovely and poetic as that sounds, DeMint admits there may be something less pretty (and perhaps more savage?) behind her need to surf.
Linda Benson today, at 68, with her Rail Grabber invention.
Image by Howie Rosen
Over the phone, she tells me, “The root of it is potentially my introverted, individualistic personality, where I like to go out and fend for myself and figure things out, and train, and try to understand.”
Further exploration of her blog belies that fighting spirit. In many of the photos, the five-foot-two-inch blonde smiles and looks serene, and in many of the posts, she muses on the sweet side of life. But I imagine it’s her inner challenge-tackler that will prove most helpful in the realization of her dream of becoming a professional surfer.
Sixteen-year-old Linda Benson. Benson “just happened to be in Hawaii ” during the filming of Gidget Goes Hawaiian. She got the job of Gidget’s stunt double. Later, Benson was a stunt double in Beach Party films.
In June 2011, DeMint quit her job as a preschool teacher. She now works two days a week as a nanny, manages the property where she lives, and takes the occasional babysitting or surf-lesson gig. She also has sponsors that pay for ads on her blog or give her free gear. Otherwise, she lives on money she’s saved by living frugally.
She admits that her need to surf borders on obsession.
“There are times when it’s pouring down rain, [with] really windy and terrible conditions, and I’m, like, ‘I don’t care. I’m going surfing.’ One time, I had pneumonia, and I was home sick from work, and I was, like, ‘Yes, I have the day off! I’m going surfing.’”
This, she says, is less obsessive than she’s been in the past. One year, her family wanted to go to Greece on vacation. DeMint put up a stink because there would be no waves.
“I’ve tried to mellow out. My husband’s family really likes to go to the lake [Lake Nacimiento in Monterey]. I’ve brought my surfboard, even though it’s hours from the ocean. I paddle around [on the lake] and just try to surf behind the boat.”
As exhausting and inconsistent as professional surfing may be, DeMint says she’s up for the challenge. She declared it for the first time at 16. Today, at 27, she declares it still.
“I’ve always felt best in the water. I’m trying to get the most surf time possible. [Surfing] is something I need to do.”
“It’s bits and pieces”
One thing every serious surfer has in common with Caleb Crozier and Devon DeMint is the burning desire to, well, surf. Some must contend with the burden of school; the rest, with the burden of paying bills. For Crozier and DeMint, the dream of a professional surfing career looms as the one surefire way to create a life around the sport.
Google “how to become a pro surfer” and you’ll get approximately 624,000 hits in under a second. The eHow site offers the easiest set of instructions. The first line reads: “Buying surfing clothes and at least one surfboard will get you started…” (Well, sheesh, even I can do that.) WikiHow gives only two steps: “Write to potential sponsors…” and “Compare the offers that you receive.” They do, however, also offer five tips, such as “networking” and “marketing yourself,” and two warnings. The warnings can be paraphrased as, “It’s unlikely that it will happen for you.”
No matter how likely or unlikely it is for the dream to come true, getting paid to surf is a common desire among the stoked. Local pro Isaac Wood says that the job involves more than catching waves and buying your mom a house.
Now 32, Wood has been surfing San Diego waters since age 4, when his dad first took him out at Torrey Pines State Beach. At 13, he entered his first contest; he received his first sponsorship at 16. By 20, he was traveling to global surf contests, his expenses paid by sponsors.
I meet Wood for the first time at Bird’s Surf Shed on West Morena Boulevard, where he helps out around the shop. Six-foot-two and casual in flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, he wears his sun-bleached hair long. He looks like a professional surfer.
“I did decent in contests,” he says of his early days, “but it wasn’t consistent. It would be one contest I’d win, and then I wouldn’t win another one for six months.”
After six years of travel, the pileup of bills and the exhausting lifestyle began to wear Wood out.
To make matters worse, in 2005, Clark Foam, the company with a virtual monopoly on foam surfboard blanks, shut down without warning and left a big hole in the board business.
“When there are no boards coming in, and your sponsors are going, ‘We can’t pay you. We’ll just give you an IOU,’ I’m, like, ‘I can’t do that for my rent. You can’t just give [a landlord] an IOU.’”
Around that time, Wood decided he needed something to fall back on. He went to school to get his AA degree and became a Ford-certified mechanic. For several years, he worked in dealerships, making $35-plus per hour, and only surfed on weekends and after work.
“It was a neat job, and I can always go back to it, but I was miserable. I had bosses that all surfed, and they would come back and be, like, ‘Oh, you missed it. It was so good!’”
In 2010, after a series of contest winnings gave Wood’s confidence a boost, he left the dealership and went back to surfing full time.
“It was, like, ‘Whoa, three in a row!’ I haven’t won three in a row, even when I was surfing every day. All my surfing went to a whole new level after that point. I’ve just been doing well in contests ever since.”
These days, Wood lives off sponsorships and winnings, but not only is he making less money than he did as a mechanic, he also has had to trade a simple go-to-work-and-get-paid-for-your-time formula for something more complex.
“Every time I get a contest result, when I make it to the finals, [my sponsors] will pay me a percentage of my winnings or they’ll match it. Anytime I’m in a magazine, they’ll give me photo incentive, depending on the size of the photo. When you have seven or eight different sponsors, they all kick down a bit for each photo. That kind of stuff sustains it.”
For example, if Wood places in a contest, a sponsor such as Dickies might double the $2000 cash prize. They might give him the same amount in products; he can either keep them or turn around and sell them.
“Sometimes, a winning will be two grand, but it cost you five grand to get there. So you’re blowing money just to be on the world tour.”
Occasionally, a sponsor will pick up the tab for travel to the contest, because they want the exposure the surfer’s presence will give them, even if he doesn’t win.
“If you do win, and you have five or six sponsors that will match your winnings, well, now you’ve made a pretty decent little chunk to last you until the next contest.”
Then there are the photos, sometimes arranged between the surfer and the photographer.
“A lot of photographers depend on the surfers to say, ‘Hey, the surf’s good. Come down and meet me here on this day.’ Essentially, what you do is you go take as many photos as possible. Then your photographer will [pull out] the best 10 or 15, send them to the magazines, and whatever the magazine doesn’t want, it goes to the sponsors and they look through. If something [runs], you get incentive [from your sponsors] off of every photo, whatever the size. That can go $1500 to $3000.”
Sometimes, the sponsors are the ones requesting the photos. They’ll send the photographer and the surfer out with a list of shots they want — air shots, nose-ride shots, and so on. They’ll then use those photos for advertisements, brochures, or fliers. Again, they pay Wood for use of his image.
There are other sponsors who pay a salary instead of offering a per-image contract.
“They’ll say, ‘It’ll be cheaper for us to pay you a salary than to pay you every time a magazine comes out. But you gotta be at these photo shoots and these contests.’ It’s a game. It’s bits and pieces, and you’re constantly shuffling these things. I make a third of the money I was making [as a mechanic], but at the same time, it allows me to do the things I want and do my own schedule.”
His schedule these days is to get up and take his wife to work (at Surf Diva surf school in La Jolla). He’ll then surf Windansea for a couple of hours before heading in to Bird’s Surf Shed. Because Eric “Bird” Huffman is one of Wood’s sponsors, they have an understanding that when the surf is good, Wood will go back into the water at any given point in the day.
“One day it’ll be one o’clock, the next day it’ll be four.”
After a pause, he says, “It’s work. It’s just how you work it.”
Take your meetings at or near the beach
Bob Marley wasn’t thinking about surfing when he sang “Who Feels It Knows It,” but according to Scott Bass, founder of the Boardroom International Surfboard Show, the sentiment still applies.
“It’s indefinable, the power [surfing] provides. It’s almost too poetic. Until you’re hooked, you don’t get it. Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
It’s a warm Monday afternoon in July, and we’re sitting at a picnic table on the beach at Cardiff Reef. The morning started off hazy, but now the sun is beginning to break through. Families lounge under brightly colored umbrellas and tents. A handful of surfers bob out on the water, waiting for waves. When we’re finished here, Bass will change out of his short-sleeved white button-down shirt and jeans, into his rash guard and board shorts, and join them for an hour or so before his next meeting.
For now, the fast-talking former editor of Surfer Magazine regales me with a four-part hypothesis about what makes surfing so addictive.
First, there’s the physics. When you think about it, he says, “these waves were formed by some crazy, low-pressure system,” and surfing is about the transference of that wind energy, and trying to capture its power.
The second part is what Bass calls the “Darwinian” angle. “When you go in the water, subconsciously, you know you’re going into the food chain. There was just a 15-foot shark [sighted] off La Jolla.” When surfers come out of the water, they’re energized by the idea of their own survival.
Third is the “incredible joy of getting wet, exercising, and ridding yourself of anxiety. When we paddle out, it’s just like being 12 all over again.”
For the fourth part, he conjures visions that, while not quite surf images, recall our fundamental connection to the earth. “When we’re in our cubicles, we’re not close to nature.” When you come out of the water, though, you feel as if “you’ve reaped and you’ve sown.”
Bass takes his eyes off of the waves and looks at me through his sunglasses. “I’ve answered that question [of what makes surfing so addictive] a million times,” he says. He pauses. “That was the best [answer].” He smiles.
Back in the day, Del Mar was Bass’s hunting grounds.
“We’d wake up at my mom’s house, grab our surfboards and skateboards, cross 101, and surf our brains out. We’d stash towels in the bamboo. I was a complete tow-head. That hasn’t changed at all. Fourteen-year-old groms are doing the same thing today.”
“Young surfer kids. It’s from ‘grommet.’ Australian slang. Now it’s universal.”
Today, Bass is 47 and has two kids who he says are “full groms. The gnarliest groms. They’re completely grommed out.”
Running the Boardroom (an annual consumer show focused on the shapers, designers, chemists, and others who use their skills making surfboards) is a full-time job. Bass keeps long and odd hours. He spends a lot of his day driving his Toyota Tundra up and down the coast to networking meetings and events. He keeps his surfboard and shorts ready in the back of the truck.
“I’m at my office right now.” He gestures around us at the sand, sun, and water. His arms are covered with sun-bleached hairs. “I can surf from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. and be in San Clemente by 6:00.”
The drive to create a surf-centric life is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1970s, Bass says, business-savvy surfers created the soft goods — T-shirts and such — that would eventually bring surf-cool (think O’Neill and Quiksilver) to the masses. But, he claims, those guys weren’t as interested in popularizing the sport as they were in financing trips to “our Nirvana,” as Bass calls Indonesia.
“It all circles back to selfishly pursuing this act of riding waves.”
In search of...
As interesting as I find Scott Bass’s four-part hypothesis on the why of surf addiction, I’m more intrigued by something else he said: Until you’re hooked, you don’t get it. Only a surfer knows the feeling. In an attempt to understand, for example, why anyone would (ever, in a million years) want to participate in a dawn patrol, I coerce a friend of a friend to take me out and make me a believer.
It’s a gorgeous, clear August afternoon, and the borrowed shorty wetsuit I wear (it’s called a spring suit) has a lovely slimming effect. As R and I make our way down the slope from the street to the shore at North Pacific Beach, he carries the longboard on his head. I follow behind happily, already feeling on the edge of some wondrous new world. I anticipate the knowing I’ll behold in the next hour or two.
Because it’s the middle of the week, the beach isn’t crowded. A few sunbathers, a handful of families digging in the sand, and five to seven guys participating in a formal surf lesson and practicing the “pop-up” on the sand near an orange tent. Out on the water, ten or so surfers bob on their boards. Newbies, according to R.
I start down to the water, but R calls me back to the sand. For the next ten minutes, he plays Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid, making me wax on, wax off with my pop-up. It’s harder than it looks, and I’m clumsy at it. I figure it’ll be easier on the water.
I am so wrong about that.
After 40 minutes of saltwater up my nose, sand in my teeth, back pain, and a headache from the board banging the back of my skull, I drag myself onto the sand. Learning to surf, I decide, is not as much fun as surfing appears to be.
I will not be able to purchase a house for my mother on surfing money alone.
Later in the afternoon (after returning the spring suit, but before washing what’s left of my non-waterproof mascara off my face), I make my way up to Tourmaline Surf Park beach, where the parking lot is rapidly filling with the cars of after-school/after-work surfers.
Here I meet Farrah, a 25-year-old political science graduate from UCSD. She’s unstrapping her board from the top of an old Toyota Corolla. Farrah has been surfing three times a week for “three solid years,” and this week she’s going to register a domain name for a new blog for female surfers — “SoCal Betty.” While I pull seaweed from between my teeth, she offers the following advice (and a huge smile):
“All you need is a good attitude and a strong core. You gotta be okay with wiping out and looking foolish.”
A woman named Crystal, here with her husband and three daughters, tells me that the only way to get the stoke is to put in the time. The 37-year-old personal trainer and nutritionist has just come in from the water. She puts her board down and peels off her wetsuit to reveal a camouflage halter-top bikini and washboard abs. Yes, she says, the core muscles are important, but they’re not everything. Once you get up, there’s a hell of a lot more to figure out. She caught her first wave this past weekend — after four years of practicing.
Her husband has been surfing all his life. It’s his dream come true that she and all three of their daughters now surf.
“It’s like a bond with our family,” 12-year-old Skylar says. “It’s in our blood.”
Back in the parking lot, I meet 18-year-old Natalie Figueroa, who is waxing a board leaned against the back of her petite white pickup truck. Figueroa wears a rash guard, tiny bikini bottoms, and large, round, blingy earrings. She surfs four times a week, waits tables, and goes to school at Mesa College, studying radiology. Her plan is to “make a lot of money” as an X-ray technician, then move to Hawaii and “go pro.”
This lofty goal, she says, has driven her friends away.
“My friends aren’t great surfers. When I’m not working, they want me to call them, but I’d rather be in the water.”
Fifty years later, still feeding the beast
The uninitiated might assume that the need to surf goes away as a person gets older, maybe settles down and has kids. But San Diego is home to many for whom the drive never dies.
Standing in line at a Solana Beach Starbucks, Linda Benson could easily pass as a grandmotherly type. At five-foot-two, her petite frame, short white hair, and slightly arthritic fingers suggest frailty, vulnerability — a laughable idea to those who know her. In the San Diego surf community, the 68-year-old is known as “a legend,” as per Eric “Bird” Huffman; “an outlaw”; and, in Bass’s words, “a pioneer.”
In 1959, Benson was the youngest ever to enter the Makaha International contest. She was also its first female winner. The previous September, two months before her Makaha triumph, she won the first ever U.S. Open of Surfing Championship. She won again in 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1968.
Benson’s success as a surfer coincided with the spread of the sport’s popularity. In 1957, Frederick Kohner’s novel Gidget was published, and in 1959, Gidget the movie came out. For the first film, a small guy was Gidget’s stunt double. The following year, Benson “just happened to be back in Hawaii for the Makaha contest” during the filming of Gidget Goes Hawaiian. The Windansea Surf Club president suggested her for Gidget’s stunt double, and she happily accepted the job. Later, Benson was a stunt double in a series of Beach Party films.
She laughs over her tea as she lists the “silly titles” of movies in which she played Annette Funicello’s double: Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, and Bikini Beach.
Professional surfing didn’t exist in Benson’s younger days the way it does now, with sponsorships and huge cash prizes (the men’s first-place prize at the US Open in Orange County last month was $100,000), but Benson’s surf-luck continued when she became a flight attendant for United Airlines. After a couple of years on the job, she landed a Los Angeles–Honolulu route. Two nights a week, she stayed at a Waikiki hotel a block from the beach, where she kept a surfboard for years. Later, when United took over PanAm’s Pacific routes, Benson flew often to Sydney and Hong Kong, and although the turnaround time was quick, and she was too exhausted to do much surfing abroad, she worked only four days, three times per month. That left her with a good two-and-a-half weeks of surf-time.
In 2003, Benson retired after 38 years with United. That same year, she began the SurfHer surf school. It was an obvious next step for someone for whom surfing had always been a central part of life. Benson kept the school going for five years, but she shut it down in the end because it required more time and energy than she wanted to give.
“I never got to surf. I was missing being able to surf.”
At 64, after more than a half-century of surfing, Benson still faced the dilemma that plagues any nonprofessional surfer obsessed with pursuing those waves: How can I make ends meet and still surf whenever I want?
She had no idea she’d already found the answer.
“Around 2003, I’d started having sciatic problems. The doctor told me to stop carrying the surfboard on my hip. I didn’t want to ruin my back, so I went to Dixieline Lumber, right over there.”
She gestures behind her, toward a Solana Beach lumber-and-hardware store less than a half-mile away on Lomas Santa Fe Drive. There, Benson purchased an aluminum pipe holder with a flange and some PVC tubing, which she cut and pounded until she’d created a gizmo to help carry her board. On a small square napkin, she draws a picture of the original, “rustic” tool.
“I wanted something inconspicuous, an extension of the hand.”
Eventually, a friend introduced her to a designer for Callaway Golf. Benson and the designer worked together for about a year. They found a plastics manufacturer. The final product they called the Rail Grabber.
“I wasn’t going to be a shaper,” Benson says of the what-to-do-dilemma. Something surf-oriented was a given, but she figured “everything’s been thought of.” Then she realized that she had “this funny little thing that gives people an easier way to enjoy the journey to the beach.”
So far, Benson is pleased with the Rail Grabber’s growth and sales. This week, she’s surfed every day, as she usually does, at Swami’s in Encinitas. From mid-December through January, she avoids the cold water by getting out on a stand-up paddleboard.
“You can do that all year and pretty much not get wet.”
Occasionally, she’ll leave the cold behind and take a week or ten-day surf trip to Mexico for a “battery recharger.”
Benson makes it a point to reiterate how lucky she’s been, and how good surfing has been to her and for her. She’s not eager to take credit for any of this luck.
“It came easy. I was little.” After a moment, she says, “Years ago, I had a tarot-card reading — or maybe it was a tea-leaf reading — in Santa Monica. I was told that in another life I was the captain of a ship. I wondered if maybe I was. [The surfboard] is another vessel.”
She smiles, shrugs a shoulder, and sips the last of her tea.
Hopes high, expectations low
In the final hour of my visit to the Crozier home, while Caleb Crozier waits for his mom to throw some surfboards into the back of her Toyota Tacoma and take him up to San Onofre, he videorecords his father shaping a surfboard. Crozier describes (for me and his camera audience) each step as his dad sets a blank polyurethane foam board on a set of racks, then uses a power planer and hand tools (files, screens, sanding blocks) to shape the foam.
Later, Little Crozier tells me all about tricks: the floater, the cutback, the snap, the blow tail, the alley oop, and the air reverse — things I’ll never learn how to do. He explains individual surf-styles — “My brother does steezie stuff on the longboard. I’m more of a radical, like, ripper-shredder.” He lists the free gear he gets from his six sponsors.
“Free wetsuits, shoes, shirts, rash guards, pretty much everything.”
As stoked as he is about all things surf, his head hangs low when I ask about the competition in Malibu last weekend. He’s disappointed that he came in sixth place out of six, but he makes it a point to remind me he was the youngest in the 10- to 12-year-old shortboard division.
His father tells me that, although his company provides the boards for his kids, and he himself provides them with surfing opportunities, the sponsorships came on their own. The two boys just recently started competing (the same weekend, Micah placed first in the 10- to 12-year-old longboard division), and Big Crozier is trying to keep his expectations at a minimum.
“Right now, we’re knocking on doors, exploring to see what can or potentially won’t happen. But to say I haven’t imagined my board under their feet in an ad, I’d be lying.”
Maybe one day, if the boys prove successful competitors, the family will consider homeschooling an option, in order to keep up with competition schedules. But for now, Caleb will stay at Capri Elementary School.