We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Danger and Dedication of Surfing

By Sofia Farooquee

"I could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the sea." James Cook (European Discoverer of the Hawaiian Islands)

The weather is a perfect 70 degrees. Seagulls swarm the sky with not a cloud in sight. Palm trees adorn the long and winding stretch of sand and water. The sun shines in your eyes so that you need to put on your wayfarer sunglasses and the wind blows your hair in every direction. The warm sand caresses your toes as you prepare to enter the water. You hear a nearby surfer say "We are just in perfect water. The waves are perfect today, great barrels”. It is only six in the morning on a quiet October day but the Wedge off of Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, California is already packed with at least two dozen surfers and body boarders. Body boarders are similar to surfers in that they ride waves, but they ride waves on the surface of the water and ride on a small, rectangular piece of hydrodynamic foam. Most body boarders also use swim fins for better force and to control the waves. The boards are shaped to the rider's specific needs such as height, weight and riding style. These styles include prone (laying flat on your belly), dropknee (one foot forward and flat on the deck of the board and the back leg has its knee to ankle on the deck), and stand up (both feet on the deck). The 15 foot waves are huge as they encompass adventurists that are less than half of their height. The Wedge is “beyond challenging when you are on a surf board but when you are on a body board it’s like going to a circus and being able to complete every trick without even thinking about it”.

When you enter the water it’s a completely different feeling and all your worries go away and you don’t think about anything. You just enjoy your time to yourself away from the world. Time stops for you and for as long as you wish; it is just you and the water. There is no doubting the excitement and adrenaline that any surfer or body boarder has upon entering the water. It is an experience like no other. This experience is one that Alex Gero seeks daily in his search for thrills and adventure.

Body Boarder Alex Gero courtesy of Instinct Images

Alex Gero grew up in Newport Beach and began surfing at the age of nine and turned pro at 18. After competing for a while, he picked up body boarding which is something that he has met a lot of interesting people through and has come to really enjoy. He later got signed by Cartel which he describes as “golden” and “one of my biggest moments (in the surf world)”. Alex spends many hours a day in the ocean and loves being sponsored because it’s like “getting paid to do what you love”. Since getting sponsored, Alex has traveled all over the world to surf from Bali, to Costa Rica, to Australia. He admits, after surfing in Australia, that he wouldn’t mind having a vacation home there just to surf. Alex also confesses that he can easily spend more than 15 hours a week body boarding. To him, the natural high he gets from being in the water far outweighs the potential dangers. Right now, there is nothing else he would rather be doing with his time.

Body Boarder Alex Gero Courtesy of Alex Gero

Andrew Macrae, who surfs recreationally in Newport, describes surfing as “an escape from reality”. It is just you and the water and no one has to know what happened earlier that week or what is on your mind. Andrew says “You can’t describe the feeling of being in a big barrel, time stops, then it’s over and all you can think is “I want more!”. It really is a type of therapy for those who frequent the beach. “You just take one step on that sandy surface and alas you are free!” says Macrae. Surfing legend Andy Irons describes surfing as “the closest thing you can feel to being kissed by God”.

This experience that is so treasured by Southern Californians as well as water enthusiasts from all over the country is not always such a pleasant one. Alex admits “Surfing definitely takes a toll on you. I dislocated my shoulders and knees multiple times”. Alex recently tore the smaller tendons in his foot and the main tendon that connects to his big toe as well as having small fractures near the same area. This was while participating at Wave House in San Diego, one of his favorite places to practice for a competition. Alex describes the incident as “crazy, ridiculous and kind of mind blowing…especially coming out of the wave…limping around like a gimp and not really being able to walk”.

Wave House San Diego Courtesy of http://www.wavehouse.com/

Wave House is home to a giant pool with wave machines that can produce up to ten foot waves. It promotes something called flow boarding. Flow boarders ride on artificial waves or “sheet waves.” Sheet waves are stationary waves, in that the wave does not move forward, and the movement is derived from water flowing over a stationary surface. Powerful pumps project a three-inch layer of water at speeds ranging from 20 MPH to 30 MPH. The water flows up and over surfaces and is designed to replicate the shape of ocean waves. Flow boarders get their speed from the energy of the water flowing at them, and can perform basic to sophisticated turns and tricks within a relatively small area.The three strongest influences of flow boarding are surfing, snowboarding and skating but elements of wake skating, wakeboarding and skim boarding can be seen in everything from board construction to the riding styles and trick names. Board riding legends like Terje Haakonsen, Mike Stewart, Tony Hawk and Kelly Slater have played a key role in the evolution of the sport. There is even a Flow boarding magazine dedicated to the sport.

Wave House at Night Courtesy of Alex Gero

Alex’s injury at Wave House has kept him out of the water and on sick leave at his job for 2 months. He admits “I was so bored. I just sat there watching TV…wishing to be back in the ocean. Taking a surfer away from the ocean is like taking cocaine away from a crack addict”. It is definitely bittersweet to know that while you are doing something you love you can be harmed. Alex admits “The waves can get rough and you never know if you turn right too much or don’t time everything correctly…it’s not for the light hearted”. He knows of the dangers, but it is not something he can give up very easily, he says “I have been in the water in some form or another for almost ten years now…why would I stop now? I’ve gotten injured so many times, I’m pretty much unstoppable”. This feeling of being invincible is one that fills the minds of most thrill seekers who surf or body board.

In addition to being injured by the water, many surfers also have become prey to sharks that swim nearby. In recent news, a local body boarder from the University of Santa Barbara was killed by an 18 foot great white shark after bleeding to death from a severe wound to his left leg.

Lucas Ransom, 19, was surfing only 2 feet away from his friend Matthew Garcia when the shark attacked him. According to Garcia, “When the shark hit him, he just said, 'Help me, dude!' It was really fast. You just saw a red wave and this water is blue – as blue as it could ever be – and it was just red, the whole wave." When Garcia finally spotted Ransom’s red surfboard, “he already looked dead…kind of lifeless, just dead weight”. Sharks are a threat to every person that enters the water. Everyone has a chance of coming in contact with a shark, whether you are just relaxing and enjoying the waves or out for an adventure at sea. It is a fact however, that you are more prone to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than be bitten by a shark (Lightning Fatalities, Injuries and Damage Reports in the United States from 1959-1994, NOAA). You are also more likely to die from a fatal dog attack than a shark attack (National Canine Research Foundation/www.dogbitelaw.com and www.dogsbite.org). The number one cause of death is currently heart disease with 1 in 5 people dying of heart disease in their lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

This may come as a surprise to many but the majority of surf-related injuries are actually from the surf board itself: “66% of surfing injuries result from contact with a surfboard's sharp fins and nose”. Surfboard fins are so dangerous because, with use, they can become sharp with rough edges. These edges actually help improve the speed of the board, but can be very dangerous, especially when beaches are crowded and there is less space to maneuver your board. If the sharp part of a board’s fins or nose hits a surfer or body boarder in the wrong area of their body like their eye or groin, it can be very painful.

While riding atop a perfect wave, there are also things below the surface that can harm you. In areas that attract massive waves, rocks and corral have proven to be fatal. Wiping out into a reef can knock a surfer unconscious, allowing him to be battered by the waves against the reef. Some surfers have even drowned as a result of being caught against corral by their leash. Many surfers in search of larger waves won't leash themselves to their surfboards for this reason. Less than five years ago in 2009, a body surfer died after being thrown against the rocks at the Wedge in Newport Beach in 20-foot waves.

The height of waves can also be quite frightening for beginners and pro surfers alike. Once you enter a large wave, there is no telling what will happen afterwards. If a surfer looses their equilibrium and falls off their board, they maybe under for a while and only have 20 seconds before the next wave hits them. Additionally, the water pressure at depths of 20 to 50 feet can be enough to rupture one’s eardrums. One of the greatest dangers is being held underwater for more than three waves, which is extremely difficult to survive.

It is 5 a.m. and Alex’s brother Nik parks his blue pickup truck in the Newport Beach parking lot. Swells are predicted to be huge today. The surf report predicts 8 to 15 feet. He realizes it is early, but surfing takes dedication. The best waves are in the early hours of the morning and even if it means not staying out late the night before, to him it is worth it. He knows of the risks but to him doing something you love at every free moment you have means more than always being afraid of what may happen. He hops out of the truck- surfboard in hand, ready to take on the waves. “Let’s do this!” he exclaims, excited to enter the ocean. Signs posted along the beach warn inexperienced swimmers of the danger and Nik continues on in search of a sweet spot for Alex to watch and take pictures as he surfs. Nik seems to be aware of the immediate danger but ventures willingly into the ocean for that perfect wave.

Reporting Notes
3 hour long Interviews with Alex Gero
1 hour interview with Nik Gero
30 minute interview with Andrew Macrae
Weekly observations at Newport and Huntington Beach
Short interviews with local surfers

1 comment:

  1. It was really hard but really great, the hardest part is literally getting into the standing position and balancing, but once you balance moving through the water is terrific. I hope you have an awesome experience.

    South Orange County Surfing