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Alana Nichols, Mary Bressi, Sandy Ordille learned to trust the ocean

Paralympic star, pro surfer, and a glasser who studies the waves

“After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” says Alana Nichols.
“After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” says Alana Nichols.
  • “If Ponce de León wanted to find the fountain of youth, he should have jumped off the boat.”
  •  —Lifelong surfer Skip Frye

A paralympic superstar turns to the waves

In 2016, 60 Minutes featured local wave skier Alana Nichols. (A wave ski is a watercraft similar to a kayak, made for riding waves.) In the televised segment, after parking her van in a Cardiff lot, Nichols reaches back, lifts her wheelchair from the space behind her, places it on the pavement, eases herself into it, rolls to the rear of the vehicle, unloads her wave ski into her lap, and then begins the complicated process of getting to the water. After pushing her wheelchair as far as the sand will allow, she exits the chair and pulls herself with one arm, dragging her ski with the other, to the water’s edge. Once in the damp sand, she climbs onto the ski and awaits a wave that will lift her enough to begin paddling. She gets dumped while paddling out, but remounts her ski, makes it into the lineup, and catches a series of long rights, turning and cutting back with power and speed.

On the afternoon when I stood on the Oceanside Pier and watched the Adaptive Surfing final of the 2021 Super Girl Pro, I hadn’t seen that segment, or heard of Alana Nichols. But I couldn’t help noticing the aggressive, powerful female wave skier who ripped into whatever wave she decided to catch. The tide was low and the waves were mostly closed out, making it difficult for surfers of any sort to get decent rides. But that wave skier seemed to have adapted her style to the conditions, and pushed her way to victory in the prone division of the event. That skier, it turned out, was Nichols, a four-time Paralympian with six combined medals — first as a wheelchair basketball star, then as an adaptive skier.

At 17, Nichols was a star athlete. But while attempting a backflip on her snowboard, she over-rotated, landed on a boulder, and broke her back in three places. When she learned she would never walk again, she believed her competitive days were behind her. Then she happened upon a wheelchair basketball game. “They were going for it,” recalls Nichols, “running into each other with metal wheelchairs. It was noisy and kind of violent.” Attracted to the joyful adrenaline it produced, Nichols quickly learned the sport, and eventually became a shooting guard for the University of Arizona. A few years later, in 2008, she took the podium in Beijing, where she received her first gold medal, along with the American Olympic team of which she was an integral part.

Wanting to “get back on the horse that bucked me off,” Nichols returned to the mountains to learn the extremely difficult sport of adaptive ski racing. A mere two years later, in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, she took gold again, this time in both Downhill and Giant Slalom, making her the first woman Paralympian to medal in both the summer and winter Paralympics. She also received silver in the Super G and bronze in the Combined. (What made those victories all the more challenging and meaningful was that they occurred only months after her brother, who was her best friend and biggest fan, was murdered.)

Alana Nichols won gold at the 2021 Super Girl Pro.

But injuries continued to plague her pursuit of glory. Four years later, during a practice run for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, she broke both ankles and dislocated her shoulder posteriorly. After surgery and nine months of rehab, she took silver at Sochi in the Downhill. Then, after a strong start in the Super G competition, she fell, was concussed, and fell unconscious for several minutes. Realizing the impact her risk-taking was having on her family, she retired from completive ski racing shortly thereafter.

As she rehabilitated post-Sochi, Nichols took her grandmother to Hawaii — the woman had raised Alana, along with her brother and sister, after a drunk driver killed her father when she was nine months old. There, she fell in love with wave skiing. “After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” she says. In pursuit of a seventh Olympic medal, she threw herself into sprint kayaking, and was selected to compete for the U.S. in the 2016 Olympic games. She finished seventh. Returning to surf competition, she won the Western Surfing Association adaptive surfing wave ski competition in 2018, beating competitors of both genders.

According to Nichols, “When I first became paralyzed, I didn’t want to be seen in a wheelchair and I thought about ending my life. I didn’t think people in wheelchairs could be athletic. When my brother was shot and killed, I again felt like giving up on life. Now it’s my job to show disabled people what they can do. I always tell them, ‘You do what you can with what you have.’ The ocean came into my life at a time when I was broken down. The ocean is my canvas, and all the anxieties disappear there. I trust the ocean; it offers freedom I can’t get anywhere else. You have to seize the moment when you’re out there, because it’s never the same.”

The world must drink a lot of 7-Up

It’s the hottest day of the year when Mary Bressi, a cheerful middle-aged woman who grew up in Oceanside, ushers me toward a pile of smooth beach rocks. As we walk, she observes that the tide is right and the rocks are beginning to pile up, meaning that this could be a good day for “sea glassing,” or simply “glassing.” Many of the glass shards that she is seeking — their edges softened by the work of water, stone, and sand — will become centerpieces for beautiful earrings, necklaces, and bracelets sold by Bressi and a few others in the San Diego area.

Former pro surfer Sandy Ordille just had a new board made by shaper Craig Hollingsworth.

“I can feel my adrenaline starting to kick in,” she says as we approach her happy hunting grounds. Like surfers, glassers need to know about oceanic conditions to be successful. “I study the tides and the storms,” says Bressi. “On some nights, I’ll hear the ocean from my bedroom window and know it’s going to be a good sea glass day.” Also like surfers, glassers are aware of shifting locations, and guard their spots and techniques carefully, sometimes vibing each other if there is a perception that someone is “dropping in” — a surf term for interfering with someone else’s wave — on someone else’s territory. “Sometimes, people will walk ahead of me to try and get in a position to find something before I do,” she says. “But there’s enough glass for everyone, and those same people are in such a hurry they often walk right over the best glass.” Other times, “it can break my meditation when I see people raking and digging and disrupting the beauty of nature instead of finding whatever is on top of the rocks. When that happens, I usually turn around and go the other way.”

Perhaps because Southern California’s waves are biggest from fall through winter, when much of the sand is stripped from the beach, “glassing season” usually begins in late September and runs until around mid-May. The exposed and migrating beach rocks work to break discarded bottles and so start the production of the year’s sea glass. “Toward the end of the season, my baggie starts getting lighter,” says Bressi. “When the season finally ends, I get a little melancholy, because the sand comes in and covers the rocks. Then when I walk the beach, I wonder if the glass is under me, or if it comes in from out at sea.” But no matter what part of the season, no matter how carefully you guard your hunting grounds, glassing offers no guarantees of finding anything. On this day, says Bressi, the glassing is “decent,” and we find around a dozen small shards between us in just over two and a half hours. From what I observe, the green of Heineken and 7 Up bottles is by far the most common, with brown and clear shards tied for second. We found none of the rare and prized colors: orange, yellow, turquoise, teal, and red.

Bressi began glassing about seven years ago. According to her, “After my mother was moved out of the family home, I was feeling down. In despair, I wandered down to the beach and met a man digging in the rocks, bringing up pieces of sea glass. I bought some pieces from him before I began collecting on my own.” The physical benefits are perhaps the most obvious. “My core and my back have become stronger from picking up all those pieces,” attests Bressi. “Also, my knees, my hip joints, and my balance are all better. I’m getting vitamin D and negative ions. The bones and muscles in my feet get worked, and at the start of the season, my feet hurt, something that reminds me that the season is here.” But there are other goods, perhaps more significant. “Anything that travels on the bottom of the ocean, gets tossed and turned, and ends up on our coast has a story — it’s magical. Other than glass, I’ve found marbles, beautiful pieces of tile and old pieces of china. Who knows where they traveled from?” But it’s the glass that keeps her coming back: “It’s just glass, but it’s beautiful, especially after it’s been tumbled in the ocean. Once I get the glass home, I don’t do anything to it except wash it off and dry it on a paper towel. The ocean clarified the beauty of life for me; the glass is just a bonus. The only thing I spend money on is a pair of Quiksilver flip-flops. They have something like a track top bottom that helps with grip. I go through one, maybe two pairs a season. What else can you get for 17 dollars that makes you feel like a million bucks?”

Bressi grants that “you can look crazy sometimes, walking back and forth. Sometimes, I just stand in one place on a chunk of rock and look around. I’ve had glass fly up after a wave broke, and I realize that if you acknowledge the sea, you’re blessed. Whenever I finish, I look up and out to the horizon and thank God.” It makes the hours worth it — the hours, and the occasional spot of bother. “Focusing on glass can also get you into a little trouble. One time, I was down on New Year’s Day and thought I could make it around this jetty. I had gone part way when a wave broke. I didn’t see this big boulder, and I tripped and fell. I usually don’t bring a cell phone with me, but I did that day. But I didn’t care about my phone; I cared about my glass. My phone was ruined, I cut my knee up, but I kept my glass.”

“I can feel my adrenaline starting to kick in,” says Mary Bressi as we approach her happy hunting grounds.

Good glassing is not just a matter of looking down while you walk. “You have to have the right eye, and you can trick your mind into trying to find some blue one day, instead of the more common green and brown. The rarest color is orange; only one in 10,000 people will find a piece of it. But there are many different colors of blue, and you can see them from a distance when the sun is shining. I usually only search within a couple miles of my home, but if I do go anywhere else, I label the glass I find with the name of the area where it was found. Whenever I travel I like to go to places that are ‘beachy” because I want to know if there will be any sea glass there.”

After a while, Bressi showed some of her findings to the man who introduced her to glassing. “He said, ‘You’re good at this. You should start your own jewelry line. I’ll wrap it for you.’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that; this is my place of meditation and serenity.’ Eventually, I did start selling my pieces, but it remains my hobby. I maybe make a dollar an hour sea glassing, but how do you put a price on time when you’re doing what you enjoy? I never want it to be where I have to make a living, because it will destroy what it does for me. And it does more than I realize. Even today, whenever my daughter calls, she’ll say, ‘I can tell by your voice that you sea glassed today.’ In my first three years of glassing, I wouldn’t let go of my rare pieces, but I gradually started to say goodbye to them. It feels good if they go to someone I know. The glass saved me, and I hope it will save someone else.”

Wave Therapy

  • “Only a Surfer Knows the Feeling”
  • —Billabong clothing ad slogan from the mid-’80s

Former pro surfer Sandy Ordille knows what it is to have the ocean deliver her. As a child growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s on a barrier island in an unpredictable Ocean City, New Jersey home, waves became her retreat, her sanctuary, her temple. And they were more than that; as a surfer, she knew the secret feeling hidden from the land-bound masses.

In winter, the ocean temperatures around New Jersey can drop to a numbing 32 degrees. But an icy saltwater bath was more welcoming than what should have been the warm comforts of home, and the waves, no matter how frigid, provided a means of escape. “From the age of five,” she says, “I found solace on the water. At first, it was on canvas rafts that my older brother Pete and I learned to stand on. Next, it was those five-and-dime Styrofoam boards. I rode those until I got too tall for them and started breaking them in half. In 1967, when I was 12 years old, my mom bought me my first fiberglass surfboard.”

Bressi makes jewelry out of the glass she finds on the beach.

During those chilly winters, “the ocean becomes so cold that the salt water turns to a half frozen slush in the corners where the jetties join the sea.” But even so, says Ordille, “one thing that attracted me to it, then and now, is that the ocean is very fair. There’s no monarchy; you get what you give in the water. The falling snow would dampen any noise from the outside world and create this beautiful, peaceful silence where I could get away from the sometimes chaotic episodes at my house. The ocean became my home. As a child, I knew I wouldn’t be harmed by an angry father there. Eventually, however, you have to go home and deal with whatever’s there. Hope for the best and pray for the rest.”

Too often, the hoped-for best was trumped by the actual worst, but even then, she held on. “As a young child I didn’t think I would outlive my father’s angry outbursts. Surfing not only provided an escape for me, but also imparted a treasure chest of hope. It helped me make peace with my home situation by providing a vision of escape when I became old enough. Wave riding taught me to deal with and negotiate the fear of human anger. I was absolutely afraid of big waves when I first learned to surf them in Hawaii. But that wasn’t the same kind of fear I had experienced dealing with my father. I could harness the fear of big surf into adrenaline and utilize that to create energy, which transformed into a tool to go for it and take off on the biggest wave of the set. If you take a beating in the ocean when a large wave holds you down, you will eventually pop up to the surface.”

Hawaii was not her first stop after leaving Jersey, however. “I ran away from home when I was 16 years old, something I don’t recommend, and headed south, to Florida. There, I met one of the top women surfers of the time, Mary Ann Hayes, while competing in Eastern Surfing Association contests. Mary Ann became my legal guardian. She is not only an amazing surfer, but also super smart, and a natural-born entrepreneur before anyone even knew what the word meant. When she found an abandoned house right on the beach, strategically placed directly in front of a secret and very rare Florida reef break, she and I moved in there; rent-free. There was no hot water, but when you’re 16, who cares? It was close enough for me to walk down the beach to school, but not when the surf was up. I somehow finished high school, even though I held the record for the most absences that year."

After graduation, “Mary Ann, my brother Pete, our friend Barbie Belyea, and I headed west for bigger waves. Mary Ann found us a free car to drive to California through one of those companies that paid for your first tank of gas. We split the cost of the rest of the gas and ended up in Pacific Beach. Once there, Mary Ann and I got jobs fixing dings for Pacific Beach Surf Shop manager Bill Andrews. She had taught me how to patch dings and we patched them the way women do things; meticulous about every step.         

Once ensconced in San Diego, “Windansea soon became my home break. It can be pretty tough for a newcomer, but after dealing with my dad, the tight-knit group of mostly friendly men was a cakewalk. Windansea was part of my healing process. It’s where I learned to stick up for myself; to be bold, yet kind. I made friends quickly, but no one was giving you anything — I had to paddle out on big days, take off late, and earn the respect of the locals. I’ve been a Windansea Surf Club member ever since.”

When Ordille got an opportunity to join the first-ever Women’s Professional Surfing World Tour in 1977, she put aside plans for college and headed off to South Africa for the first contest. “My friends Debbie Melville (who eventually became a world surfing champion) and Mary Ann Hayes decided not go, and I reluctantly sold my Stratocaster guitar and my used Toyota to pay for my trip, as there were no sponsors available for women yet. Back then, surfing had a bad reputation, and I’ll never forget my aunt saying, ‘You do this and you’re out of the family.’ The prize money for the event was $300 for first place for the women; I made $100 for taking third. Once the contest was over in Durban, Bobby Owens, Lynne Boyer, Randy Rarick, Dane Kealoha, Michael Ho, Randy Lane (some of Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland’s top competitors) and I caravanned to Jeffrey’s Bay. It was just a tiny fishing village then, and the surf was so good, I felt I had died and gone to heaven. It was the best time of my life, and the people I met and traveled with on that tour are still good friends today.” Sandy finished fifth in the world that year.

Even after she quit competing, she kept surfing, “until 2015 when I was hit by a camper van. Because of that, I’ve had two knee replacements, a hip replacement, and neck fusion. They told me I would never walk again. Through great effort, I can walk now, but I still can’t surf on a regular board. Instead, I ride waves on my paddleboard. Even when I’m not catching waves, just being in the ocean is better than meditating; or rather, it is mediating, and I connect with it. I think the ocean is feminine in its movements.”

And she looks forward to the day when she can return to riding the waves as she once did. “Shaper Craig Hollingsworth just made me a board, and that’s inspired me to surf again. The process will be difficult for sure, but I know I can do it. No matter what, the ocean is still the place where I find the most peace.”

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Tamar Berk doesn’t need your permission

“I see other women do this, too.”
“After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” says Alana Nichols.
“After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” says Alana Nichols.
  • “If Ponce de León wanted to find the fountain of youth, he should have jumped off the boat.”
  •  —Lifelong surfer Skip Frye

A paralympic superstar turns to the waves

In 2016, 60 Minutes featured local wave skier Alana Nichols. (A wave ski is a watercraft similar to a kayak, made for riding waves.) In the televised segment, after parking her van in a Cardiff lot, Nichols reaches back, lifts her wheelchair from the space behind her, places it on the pavement, eases herself into it, rolls to the rear of the vehicle, unloads her wave ski into her lap, and then begins the complicated process of getting to the water. After pushing her wheelchair as far as the sand will allow, she exits the chair and pulls herself with one arm, dragging her ski with the other, to the water’s edge. Once in the damp sand, she climbs onto the ski and awaits a wave that will lift her enough to begin paddling. She gets dumped while paddling out, but remounts her ski, makes it into the lineup, and catches a series of long rights, turning and cutting back with power and speed.

On the afternoon when I stood on the Oceanside Pier and watched the Adaptive Surfing final of the 2021 Super Girl Pro, I hadn’t seen that segment, or heard of Alana Nichols. But I couldn’t help noticing the aggressive, powerful female wave skier who ripped into whatever wave she decided to catch. The tide was low and the waves were mostly closed out, making it difficult for surfers of any sort to get decent rides. But that wave skier seemed to have adapted her style to the conditions, and pushed her way to victory in the prone division of the event. That skier, it turned out, was Nichols, a four-time Paralympian with six combined medals — first as a wheelchair basketball star, then as an adaptive skier.

At 17, Nichols was a star athlete. But while attempting a backflip on her snowboard, she over-rotated, landed on a boulder, and broke her back in three places. When she learned she would never walk again, she believed her competitive days were behind her. Then she happened upon a wheelchair basketball game. “They were going for it,” recalls Nichols, “running into each other with metal wheelchairs. It was noisy and kind of violent.” Attracted to the joyful adrenaline it produced, Nichols quickly learned the sport, and eventually became a shooting guard for the University of Arizona. A few years later, in 2008, she took the podium in Beijing, where she received her first gold medal, along with the American Olympic team of which she was an integral part.

Wanting to “get back on the horse that bucked me off,” Nichols returned to the mountains to learn the extremely difficult sport of adaptive ski racing. A mere two years later, in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, she took gold again, this time in both Downhill and Giant Slalom, making her the first woman Paralympian to medal in both the summer and winter Paralympics. She also received silver in the Super G and bronze in the Combined. (What made those victories all the more challenging and meaningful was that they occurred only months after her brother, who was her best friend and biggest fan, was murdered.)

Alana Nichols won gold at the 2021 Super Girl Pro.

But injuries continued to plague her pursuit of glory. Four years later, during a practice run for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, she broke both ankles and dislocated her shoulder posteriorly. After surgery and nine months of rehab, she took silver at Sochi in the Downhill. Then, after a strong start in the Super G competition, she fell, was concussed, and fell unconscious for several minutes. Realizing the impact her risk-taking was having on her family, she retired from completive ski racing shortly thereafter.

As she rehabilitated post-Sochi, Nichols took her grandmother to Hawaii — the woman had raised Alana, along with her brother and sister, after a drunk driver killed her father when she was nine months old. There, she fell in love with wave skiing. “After I caught that first wave, I knew I didn’t want to do any other sport,” she says. In pursuit of a seventh Olympic medal, she threw herself into sprint kayaking, and was selected to compete for the U.S. in the 2016 Olympic games. She finished seventh. Returning to surf competition, she won the Western Surfing Association adaptive surfing wave ski competition in 2018, beating competitors of both genders.

According to Nichols, “When I first became paralyzed, I didn’t want to be seen in a wheelchair and I thought about ending my life. I didn’t think people in wheelchairs could be athletic. When my brother was shot and killed, I again felt like giving up on life. Now it’s my job to show disabled people what they can do. I always tell them, ‘You do what you can with what you have.’ The ocean came into my life at a time when I was broken down. The ocean is my canvas, and all the anxieties disappear there. I trust the ocean; it offers freedom I can’t get anywhere else. You have to seize the moment when you’re out there, because it’s never the same.”

The world must drink a lot of 7-Up

It’s the hottest day of the year when Mary Bressi, a cheerful middle-aged woman who grew up in Oceanside, ushers me toward a pile of smooth beach rocks. As we walk, she observes that the tide is right and the rocks are beginning to pile up, meaning that this could be a good day for “sea glassing,” or simply “glassing.” Many of the glass shards that she is seeking — their edges softened by the work of water, stone, and sand — will become centerpieces for beautiful earrings, necklaces, and bracelets sold by Bressi and a few others in the San Diego area.

Former pro surfer Sandy Ordille just had a new board made by shaper Craig Hollingsworth.

“I can feel my adrenaline starting to kick in,” she says as we approach her happy hunting grounds. Like surfers, glassers need to know about oceanic conditions to be successful. “I study the tides and the storms,” says Bressi. “On some nights, I’ll hear the ocean from my bedroom window and know it’s going to be a good sea glass day.” Also like surfers, glassers are aware of shifting locations, and guard their spots and techniques carefully, sometimes vibing each other if there is a perception that someone is “dropping in” — a surf term for interfering with someone else’s wave — on someone else’s territory. “Sometimes, people will walk ahead of me to try and get in a position to find something before I do,” she says. “But there’s enough glass for everyone, and those same people are in such a hurry they often walk right over the best glass.” Other times, “it can break my meditation when I see people raking and digging and disrupting the beauty of nature instead of finding whatever is on top of the rocks. When that happens, I usually turn around and go the other way.”

Perhaps because Southern California’s waves are biggest from fall through winter, when much of the sand is stripped from the beach, “glassing season” usually begins in late September and runs until around mid-May. The exposed and migrating beach rocks work to break discarded bottles and so start the production of the year’s sea glass. “Toward the end of the season, my baggie starts getting lighter,” says Bressi. “When the season finally ends, I get a little melancholy, because the sand comes in and covers the rocks. Then when I walk the beach, I wonder if the glass is under me, or if it comes in from out at sea.” But no matter what part of the season, no matter how carefully you guard your hunting grounds, glassing offers no guarantees of finding anything. On this day, says Bressi, the glassing is “decent,” and we find around a dozen small shards between us in just over two and a half hours. From what I observe, the green of Heineken and 7 Up bottles is by far the most common, with brown and clear shards tied for second. We found none of the rare and prized colors: orange, yellow, turquoise, teal, and red.

Bressi began glassing about seven years ago. According to her, “After my mother was moved out of the family home, I was feeling down. In despair, I wandered down to the beach and met a man digging in the rocks, bringing up pieces of sea glass. I bought some pieces from him before I began collecting on my own.” The physical benefits are perhaps the most obvious. “My core and my back have become stronger from picking up all those pieces,” attests Bressi. “Also, my knees, my hip joints, and my balance are all better. I’m getting vitamin D and negative ions. The bones and muscles in my feet get worked, and at the start of the season, my feet hurt, something that reminds me that the season is here.” But there are other goods, perhaps more significant. “Anything that travels on the bottom of the ocean, gets tossed and turned, and ends up on our coast has a story — it’s magical. Other than glass, I’ve found marbles, beautiful pieces of tile and old pieces of china. Who knows where they traveled from?” But it’s the glass that keeps her coming back: “It’s just glass, but it’s beautiful, especially after it’s been tumbled in the ocean. Once I get the glass home, I don’t do anything to it except wash it off and dry it on a paper towel. The ocean clarified the beauty of life for me; the glass is just a bonus. The only thing I spend money on is a pair of Quiksilver flip-flops. They have something like a track top bottom that helps with grip. I go through one, maybe two pairs a season. What else can you get for 17 dollars that makes you feel like a million bucks?”

Bressi grants that “you can look crazy sometimes, walking back and forth. Sometimes, I just stand in one place on a chunk of rock and look around. I’ve had glass fly up after a wave broke, and I realize that if you acknowledge the sea, you’re blessed. Whenever I finish, I look up and out to the horizon and thank God.” It makes the hours worth it — the hours, and the occasional spot of bother. “Focusing on glass can also get you into a little trouble. One time, I was down on New Year’s Day and thought I could make it around this jetty. I had gone part way when a wave broke. I didn’t see this big boulder, and I tripped and fell. I usually don’t bring a cell phone with me, but I did that day. But I didn’t care about my phone; I cared about my glass. My phone was ruined, I cut my knee up, but I kept my glass.”

“I can feel my adrenaline starting to kick in,” says Mary Bressi as we approach her happy hunting grounds.

Good glassing is not just a matter of looking down while you walk. “You have to have the right eye, and you can trick your mind into trying to find some blue one day, instead of the more common green and brown. The rarest color is orange; only one in 10,000 people will find a piece of it. But there are many different colors of blue, and you can see them from a distance when the sun is shining. I usually only search within a couple miles of my home, but if I do go anywhere else, I label the glass I find with the name of the area where it was found. Whenever I travel I like to go to places that are ‘beachy” because I want to know if there will be any sea glass there.”

After a while, Bressi showed some of her findings to the man who introduced her to glassing. “He said, ‘You’re good at this. You should start your own jewelry line. I’ll wrap it for you.’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that; this is my place of meditation and serenity.’ Eventually, I did start selling my pieces, but it remains my hobby. I maybe make a dollar an hour sea glassing, but how do you put a price on time when you’re doing what you enjoy? I never want it to be where I have to make a living, because it will destroy what it does for me. And it does more than I realize. Even today, whenever my daughter calls, she’ll say, ‘I can tell by your voice that you sea glassed today.’ In my first three years of glassing, I wouldn’t let go of my rare pieces, but I gradually started to say goodbye to them. It feels good if they go to someone I know. The glass saved me, and I hope it will save someone else.”

Wave Therapy

  • “Only a Surfer Knows the Feeling”
  • —Billabong clothing ad slogan from the mid-’80s

Former pro surfer Sandy Ordille knows what it is to have the ocean deliver her. As a child growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s on a barrier island in an unpredictable Ocean City, New Jersey home, waves became her retreat, her sanctuary, her temple. And they were more than that; as a surfer, she knew the secret feeling hidden from the land-bound masses.

In winter, the ocean temperatures around New Jersey can drop to a numbing 32 degrees. But an icy saltwater bath was more welcoming than what should have been the warm comforts of home, and the waves, no matter how frigid, provided a means of escape. “From the age of five,” she says, “I found solace on the water. At first, it was on canvas rafts that my older brother Pete and I learned to stand on. Next, it was those five-and-dime Styrofoam boards. I rode those until I got too tall for them and started breaking them in half. In 1967, when I was 12 years old, my mom bought me my first fiberglass surfboard.”

Bressi makes jewelry out of the glass she finds on the beach.

During those chilly winters, “the ocean becomes so cold that the salt water turns to a half frozen slush in the corners where the jetties join the sea.” But even so, says Ordille, “one thing that attracted me to it, then and now, is that the ocean is very fair. There’s no monarchy; you get what you give in the water. The falling snow would dampen any noise from the outside world and create this beautiful, peaceful silence where I could get away from the sometimes chaotic episodes at my house. The ocean became my home. As a child, I knew I wouldn’t be harmed by an angry father there. Eventually, however, you have to go home and deal with whatever’s there. Hope for the best and pray for the rest.”

Too often, the hoped-for best was trumped by the actual worst, but even then, she held on. “As a young child I didn’t think I would outlive my father’s angry outbursts. Surfing not only provided an escape for me, but also imparted a treasure chest of hope. It helped me make peace with my home situation by providing a vision of escape when I became old enough. Wave riding taught me to deal with and negotiate the fear of human anger. I was absolutely afraid of big waves when I first learned to surf them in Hawaii. But that wasn’t the same kind of fear I had experienced dealing with my father. I could harness the fear of big surf into adrenaline and utilize that to create energy, which transformed into a tool to go for it and take off on the biggest wave of the set. If you take a beating in the ocean when a large wave holds you down, you will eventually pop up to the surface.”

Hawaii was not her first stop after leaving Jersey, however. “I ran away from home when I was 16 years old, something I don’t recommend, and headed south, to Florida. There, I met one of the top women surfers of the time, Mary Ann Hayes, while competing in Eastern Surfing Association contests. Mary Ann became my legal guardian. She is not only an amazing surfer, but also super smart, and a natural-born entrepreneur before anyone even knew what the word meant. When she found an abandoned house right on the beach, strategically placed directly in front of a secret and very rare Florida reef break, she and I moved in there; rent-free. There was no hot water, but when you’re 16, who cares? It was close enough for me to walk down the beach to school, but not when the surf was up. I somehow finished high school, even though I held the record for the most absences that year."

After graduation, “Mary Ann, my brother Pete, our friend Barbie Belyea, and I headed west for bigger waves. Mary Ann found us a free car to drive to California through one of those companies that paid for your first tank of gas. We split the cost of the rest of the gas and ended up in Pacific Beach. Once there, Mary Ann and I got jobs fixing dings for Pacific Beach Surf Shop manager Bill Andrews. She had taught me how to patch dings and we patched them the way women do things; meticulous about every step.         

Once ensconced in San Diego, “Windansea soon became my home break. It can be pretty tough for a newcomer, but after dealing with my dad, the tight-knit group of mostly friendly men was a cakewalk. Windansea was part of my healing process. It’s where I learned to stick up for myself; to be bold, yet kind. I made friends quickly, but no one was giving you anything — I had to paddle out on big days, take off late, and earn the respect of the locals. I’ve been a Windansea Surf Club member ever since.”

When Ordille got an opportunity to join the first-ever Women’s Professional Surfing World Tour in 1977, she put aside plans for college and headed off to South Africa for the first contest. “My friends Debbie Melville (who eventually became a world surfing champion) and Mary Ann Hayes decided not go, and I reluctantly sold my Stratocaster guitar and my used Toyota to pay for my trip, as there were no sponsors available for women yet. Back then, surfing had a bad reputation, and I’ll never forget my aunt saying, ‘You do this and you’re out of the family.’ The prize money for the event was $300 for first place for the women; I made $100 for taking third. Once the contest was over in Durban, Bobby Owens, Lynne Boyer, Randy Rarick, Dane Kealoha, Michael Ho, Randy Lane (some of Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland’s top competitors) and I caravanned to Jeffrey’s Bay. It was just a tiny fishing village then, and the surf was so good, I felt I had died and gone to heaven. It was the best time of my life, and the people I met and traveled with on that tour are still good friends today.” Sandy finished fifth in the world that year.

Even after she quit competing, she kept surfing, “until 2015 when I was hit by a camper van. Because of that, I’ve had two knee replacements, a hip replacement, and neck fusion. They told me I would never walk again. Through great effort, I can walk now, but I still can’t surf on a regular board. Instead, I ride waves on my paddleboard. Even when I’m not catching waves, just being in the ocean is better than meditating; or rather, it is mediating, and I connect with it. I think the ocean is feminine in its movements.”

And she looks forward to the day when she can return to riding the waves as she once did. “Shaper Craig Hollingsworth just made me a board, and that’s inspired me to surf again. The process will be difficult for sure, but I know I can do it. No matter what, the ocean is still the place where I find the most peace.”

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