written by Kevin Max
There are no pin-up Gidget girls, no palm trees and no toy ukuleles here. Hell, you’re lucky to see the sun for more than a few fleeting moments as it weakly fuses light and rain before going flat again over the old graying ocean. The water is too cold for even the least-evolved mammals for most of the year. Stay in too long and you’ll fight the awful pin-prick thaw for the next hour. At least the ambient temperature is well into the 40s, right? Most would agree that surfing in temperatures below, say, freezing would suck. Yet, this is the postcard (and the passion) of surfing in Oregon.
For our part we’re on a mission to connect with Oregon surfers in an RV bigger’n Billy Ray Cyrus’s (playing better music) and loathing the minute we (meaning me) have to step out into the elements. The other Oregon surf missionaries are designer and videographer Guy Olson, photographer Nate Sheldon, and stand-up paddler Jayson Bowerman—the latter two having grown up surfing.
As night settles over the Pacific Surf Motorcoach Estate, where we’ve parked in an area north of Newport that locals call South Beach, we can faintly hear the dark hushed breathing problems of the Darth Vader ocean. “Hyauuuuugh. Luke? This is your faaaaatherrrr. You must come to the dark side.”
We’re locking up the rig and just setting out on foot for the closest dive bar, when another voice comes out of the night. “Hey! 1859?” Huh? Two guys with four growlers of beer stride up. “Are you guys with 1859?”
I forget that we have been recording our surfari whereabouts on Twitter and so regard the appearance of these two with the same confusion as running into your landscaper in Siberia. Dan Hasselschwert and Ollie Richardson are well-known surfers who helped pioneer tow surfing, in which one partner on a ski jet tows the other surfer out to staggeringly tall waves breaking over offshore reefs. Though they are sponsored athletes, Dan’s day-job is running Ossie’s Surf Shop while Ollie is a phys-ed teacher, both in Newport.
There was nothing to do in Defiance, Ohio in 2001, so Dan, then 22, loaded a truck with his important belongings and his girlfriend, with the thought of learning how to surf in the Pacific Northwest. He pulled up to Nye Beach, Oregon and began teaching himself.
Ollie, 34, came up from Coos Bay, where his dad, Spike, was an early adopter in the Oregon surf scene. Ollie picked up where his dad left off and was soon surfing waves taller than most buildings.
“It only takes one good wave to get hooked,” Ollie tells me, encouraging me to come out surfing with them at Moolack Beach in the morning. I had planned on being an objective (meaning dry and warm) commentator for this article, but Ollie has a longboard and a wet suit as thick as seal’s skin for me. Why wouldn’t I? The surf is going to be good, he explains, five-foot crests at intervals of 12 seconds. You gotta die of something, right?
That night in Newport I lay awake in the lavish bedroom of the RV, contemplating the surfing in the awfully cold, shark-infested hydraulic beat-down that is sure to be the Pacific Ocean. Through the open window, I can hear waves calling me in their whispered James Earl Jones impression, “Hyauuuuugh, Kevin? This is your faaaaatherrrr.”
I’m comforted by the existence of the still-living, four-limbed people who have long been surfing the Oregon Coast. It turns out that there is a whole community of these hooded monks with surfboards stretching from Brookings to Seaside and back as far as Frankie Valli.
“I think the beginning was the early ’60s,” longtime Oregon surfer Scott Blackman, 74, recalls. “There was Gidget and the Beach Boys. I guess it was just culturally time for it to be absorbed into the culture here.”
Given that the Oregon Coast has 363 linear miles of waves, and that Twitter wouldn’t be invented for at least forty more years, it’s difficult to divine who was the first surfer locally. As if they were a clutch of turtles making their maiden voyage into the ocean, surfers simultaneously emerged down in Coos Bay and farther north in Seaside. Blackman, though, was alone in the water at Agate Beach in 1964, when the then 26-year-old jumped on his new Sears & Roebuck surfboard and paddled into what would either become a moronic failure or a brilliant launch. Images from a Hawaii-bound Gidget and the sound of the Beach Boys were his only teachers.
“I had been looking at our waves and had no idea if you could surf them,” says Blackman. “I decided that they looked like the same kind of waves they surf on in Hawaii, so I had a go. I went down and paddled out alone. The immediate reaction was that all the kids on the beach got really interested. And over the next months, some of them got boards.”
These were young kids looking for a new adventure—a different culture— in their small timber towns. Soon Rick Baley, Bill Waterman and 12-year-old Marty Skriver and his brothers were bobbing in the waves next to him. Blackman sensed something momentous had begun in Newport and walked around the beach asking kids if they wanted to join the Agate Beach Surf Club. It was housed in one of their parents’ cabins across the highway. The members ranged in age from 12 to 26. More importantly, they sported spiffy new club jackets to prove their membership. That same year, the club hosted its first competition, the Agate Beach Surf Capades.
“Kids were coming up from Coos Bay and down from Seaside,” Blackman recalls with astonishment. A surfing culture along a coast known more for its pelting rainstorms and high winds was born. Nothing could be more strange.
Back to Moolack
Nothing could also be more unusual than for me to be on the verge of getting into a thrashing body of water that scarcely warms to 45 degrees on a March morning at Moolack Beach. I’m the kid who quit swimming because he didn’t like the first-second surprise of getting in the 70-degree pool, the guy who doesn’t get in the shower until it’s thoroughly steamed.
Ollie squats on the beach and draws a surfboard in the sand for illustration. Maybe I’ll just do some elaborate dry-land training today and stay out of the drink. That stands to reason. You don’t put up astronauts until they’ve scored a C or higher on a few tests, right? I drop chest-first onto my sandboard, faux paddle as an imaginary wave rises behind me, and quickly pop up to a crouched position. Soon enough, we have a problem—Ollie thinks I’ve progressed enough to put my ten minutes of instruction to test.
“Hyauuuuugh, Kevin? You must come to the dark side of the …”
If there are any common traits of surfers on the Oregon Coast, it’s hardiness.
Jeff Ouderkirk, 62, another Agate Beach local, began surfing when he was 15. When he was 12, his parents took him to Hawaii, where the air and sea were warm and surfing in trunks was as obvious as Monday. Back home, though, conditions were different. Anyone who wanted to stay in the water for more than a few minutes needed a wetsuit. Surfing being so new, there were only front-zip divers’ wetsuits that never fit well and socalled short-johns that had no sleeves or legs. “It was cold, so you wanted to stay on your board pretty badly,” Ouderkirk laughs. “And there were no board leashes either, so if you lost your board, you were swimming. If you could stay out an hour, you were doing well.”
Yet Ouderkirk continued to surf for many years and still loves to surf at the coast. The Newport-based lawyer invokes the perpetually jailed acid lord and ’60s icon, Timothy Leary, for his wisdom on surfing. “Leary called surfing ‘the epitome of a lifestyle,'” says Ouderkirk. “It has the perfect blending of man and nature in this harmonious non-destructive way. It’s a way of doing something where you’re not hurting anything and leaving no footprint.”
Now I’m paddling out against the beach break at Moolack Beach thinking of not hurting anything—and by anything, I mean myself. On this drizzly 50-degree weekday in March, there is no one else in the water except for Dan, Ollie, Guy and Jayson. Jayson is on a standup paddleboard and already skimming down the back of bigger breaks farther out. Dan is finding good surf with Jayson. Guy is getting waterboarded like me, waiting to get up on a wave. Nate is taking photos from terra firma.
Though the conditions are not Gidget-esque, I’m amazed at how warm the hooded monk wetsuits are and how the dark ocean, despite my struggle, all seems so serene, even beautiful. Maybe drowning is a peaceful way to die. Anyone shivering on shore and looking out at us would certainly entertain the same thought I had only an hour ago—idiots.
Eventually, I’m able to find a good wave and a little balance—bliss. I recall Ollie’s drug pusher-phrase from the night before, “It only takes one good wave to get hooked.” After a couple of hours in the water, a storm soon blows in and the Moolack trial comes to an a satisfying end. We pack and roll up to Pacific City, feeling larger than alt-country rock stars who had just discovered a new word that rhymes with ‘truck.’
Pacific City, or PC, is one of the state’s most prized surf spots. A huge headwall on the north side of Cape Kiwanda blocks much of the wind. The break is easily accessed from the beach. The beach is home to the Pelican Pub & Brewery and some of the tastiest beers in the state. Unlike many breweries where the beer reigns supreme, Pelican’s locally sourced food and seafood make a compelling run at the top ranking.
The night before, we had hunkered down in the RV trailer park across the road from the beach. Winds of 55 knots came ripping through the park, taking everything that wasn’t (and some things that were) tied down. On it went through the night. By morning, the storm had created a mess, the waves thrashing in various directions and spaced only a few seconds apart. Even through the filter of the new-crazy expectations earned by surviving Moolack Beach, it was a better day to talk about the last wave over a beer than catch another.
We’d skip up to Seaside that day, the northern terminus of our surfari and home to some of the best, and most guarded, surf turf.
In the mid-’60s, Oregon’s first surf shops—The Surf Shop in Portland and Serb’s Surf Center in Coos Bay—opened to serve the growing fad. Beach Boys were blaring from radios and from brand new 8-track tape players. Today the surf culture is spread up and down the coast in shops such as Waxer’s in Coos Bay, Ossie’s in Newport, Moment Surf Co. in Pacific City and Cleanline Surf Shop in Seaside, where the surf is as good as it gets in Oregon and where Lexie Hallahan, 53, worked for more than sixteen years.
Though Oregon surfing can be uniformly categorized as a sport for the hardy to the mildly insane, coastal surfing culture is anything but homogenous. Hallahan, who now operates a women’s surf camp, talks about the territorial aspects of surfing in Seaside.
The so-called “Tribe” is a group of local surfers from the Seaside area who don’t take too kindly to other would-be surfers on their waves. Nearest to Portland, Seaside surfing spots have grown over the years, both in population and confrontation. The Tribe’s numbers are not completely known, but some of their actions have been widely scrutinized in the local surf community.
Hallahan, who considers herself a member of the Tribe, recounts a story of a surf team from Billabong that came to Seaside after training at Columbia River Bar. “Word got out that they were going to do a surf film here in Seaside,” says Hallahan. “Word got out to the Tribe, and let’s just say it didn’t happen.”
Then there’s the The Encyclopedia of Surfing‘s account, “In 2001, a group of pro surfers visiting Seaside woke to find a severed deer’s head next to their car” with what must have been the deer’s dying words to the surfers before committing suicide, ‘Leave the state.’ Stewards of the ocean are not always Bambi’s mom’s best friends.
Today, Hallahan takes a kinder, gentler approach to surfing. Through her Northwest Women’s Surf Camps, she teaches women, girls and couples to surf. “The only way I wanted to teach is how I learned it—respect for the ocean, how to survey the ocean and know when it’s safe, and how important the ocean is to us.” Naturally, she always tells them about the Tribe, too.
The storm that blew in yesterday skunked us again today at Avenue U in Seaside. The waves are too chaotic, too choppy even for the best surfers. But that’s surfing in Oregon—hit or miss, here and there, big tides and short sands.
Mercifully, a former Rogue Brewer Vince Berg has just opened Seaside Brewing Company, a redoubt of weather-resistant craft beers perfectly made for such days.
“Most of the people who want to surf here are Northwesterners,” says Hallahan, who has met us at the brewery. “They already have a love of the climate. It’s so beautiful here and you can be in that rugged beauty.”
Wayne Schrunk, 63 and one of Coos Bay’s earliest surfers, recalls, “You’ve got to love surfing. There are some days when you’re changing into your gear and its hailing. One day in December last year, we were out there and it was a white-out.”
Surfing in Oregon isn’t a given, it takes a bit of fortitude to tune out your own hangups about cold water, sharks lurking in tidepools, the omen of severed deer heads and to hear Obiwan’s voice, not Lord Vader’s beckon to the dark side.
“People ask me, ‘Where are the surf spots?'” says Schrunk. “I tell them, ‘Well, go find them.’ That’s the adventure of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.”
Top Oregon Surf Breaks
|Otter Rock is a good beginner spot, situated next to Devil’s Punch bowl (between Lincoln City and Newport).||Seaside Jetty is a good, high performance left— this is a pretty “locals” break.||Nelscott Reef in Lincoln City, has a big-wave contest every year.|
|Agate Beach is at the north end of Newport, and has a surf club lean-to.||Short Sands is south of Cannon Beach, with mostly beginner waves and breathtaking views.||Battle Rock is a top spot for short boarders near Port Orford, but is not a break for beginners.|
|Pistol River is between Gold Beach and Brookings—a windsurfing championship is held here every year, but it can also have killer surf.|
Coastal Surf Shops & Shapers
Newport | oceanpulsesurf.com
|Anderson Shapes |
Seaside | andersonshapes.com
Russo Surf Boards
Lincoln City | russosurfboards.com
Moment Surf Company
Pacific City| momentsurfco.com
Seven Surf Boards
Gion Bates Surfboards
Pacific City | sevensurfboards.com
|Envision Surfboards |
Newport | (541) 265-8703
Oregon Surf Shop
Lincoln City | oregonsurfshop.com
|Safari Town Surf & Skate Shop |
Lincoln City | safaritownsurf.com
Lincoln City Surf Shop
Lincoln City | lcsurfshop.com
Port Orford | tilleysurfing.com
Inland Surf Shops & Shapers
|Gerry Lopez Surfboards |
Bend | gerrylopezsurfboards.com
Hood River | welcometo42.blogspot.com
|Old Chap Surfboards |
Portland | oldchapsurf.com
Hood River | hammersurf-surfboards.com
|North Pacific Surfboards |
Hood River | northpacificsurf.com
Portland | murdey.com
Surfboards Portland | blackfernsurf.com
Eugene | firstname.lastname@example.org
Stokes Wood Surfboards
Bend | stokeswoodsurfboards.com
Walkin’ On Water
Bend | boardsbywow.com
Stand On Liquid
Bend | standonliquid.com
Behind the scenes photos of the Surfari.