Old Man’s

Huntington Beach, up at 4 am, excited to drive down past San Clemente to San Onofre State Beach, and the break lovingly called Old Man’s.  Carl Hampe and I decide to meet and have a day.  He’s a smart, adventurous producer who loves a good story, worked on Slumdog Millionaire and likes to kayak difficult whitewater, and surf.  Sunday, gonna be crowded, they only let 250 cars in at a time, better be in line by 6am.  We are.  I can see Carl’s old bio-diesel twenty cars ahead on the switchback above.  The guy behind me in a big old truck drinks his coffee, smokes a vanilla cheroot, and invites me to paddle down to “Dogpatch” to surf with his buddies.  He’s an old hippy/cowboy, a rare mix, and we chat quietly while the sun rises.  When all the cars start up to enter the park, he gives me a hug.  Surfers always frigging surprise me, the random glimmers of aloha spirit.

Surfer’s have been winding down off the bluff to ride this generous wave for fifty years.  Carl and I surf the big slow waves until my biceps cramp.  Hours.  Catch some long rides.  Take off together on waves and split the peak, he one way and I the other.  I love my new, used Takayama 9-0.  Between sets, we sit the boards, rising and falling, and share kayaking and surfing stories, stories about making stories.  He is funny, unguarded, a blast.

Finally we crawl out of the water, shower in the bamboo grove spigot, drive to breakfast at the firehouse-red café in Dana Point, then go out to Doheny’s in Dana Point for another session.  The place looks, smells, sounds like a dream of So Cal summer, yells of kids, beach volleyball, grills smoking, bicycle bells jingling, gulls.  Must be 60 surfers out there.  Somehow we paddle out and find an opening.  Catch one shapely little wave after another.  Carry our boards back to the cars on the hot paved path.  Body humming with fatigue and a pervasive, muscular good will.

I love surfing.

3 Responses to Old Man’s

  • Tom Clarke says:

    That was me the surfer/hippie/cowboy in the truck behind you. It was really a pleasure to meet you Peter, next time you are out this way drop me an e-mail and I will catch up to you at San-O and we will surf together. Gonna pick up your book I can tell Im gonna enjoy it already. Aloha Buddy

    • peter says:

      Great meeting you Tom. A great way to a start a day that was in all ways like a dream. Thanks for the invite. Can’t wait to take you up on it. Mahalo, Peter

  • Doug says:

    Peter, I just finished reading your book. Great read and if I ever get as good at surfing as you I will challenge you to the championship of Kookamonga! I started a little later in life than you, but am loving it. My next surf plan is to surf the Spanish Virgin Islands from a sailboat, but the best place for me to improve my surfing skill is probably in Cabo. As you know, Cabo is on the southern tip of Baja California. I found it to be a great break and relatively inexpensive place to surf. I was surfing at a beach known locally as “Old Man’s” below the Cabo Surf Hotel. The break was consistent, the rides were long, and the waves were glassy and slow to close out – a near perfect spot for beginners on up to experts. Wave heights can range from 3’ to 9’ depending on the swell. There are a couple of excellent instructors on the beach and a broad range of high quality boards to choose from at the rental shops.

    I decided to rent a Robert August nose rider (longboard) for the 10 days I was there. I kept it on the board rack upstairs from the beach so it was there for me when I wanted it. The second morning, I’m at the board rack to get my board out when up walks a guy that looks a lot like surfing legend Mike Doyle, and his board is actually next to mine. I haven’t seen Mike Doyle since I tossed out my last Surfer magazine in 1975 (magazines weren’t recyclable back then, but I digress). I consider Mike Doyle one of the founding fathers of the sport; a perpetual surfing champion in the 60’s & 70’s, a Californian who started surfing at age 14 and went to Hawaii to surf the Pipeline long before there were leashes, an extreme surfer. Still a solid man at age 69, he has a presence as he walks up, greets me warmly with a handshake (has a grip like a vise – a “vise grip” if you will) and grabs his long board (and I mean long) off the rack. Along side him is a blond surfer girl who looks about 20 years younger (his wife Annie I’m later told) with a yellow custom (by Doyle of course) short board under her arm. They’re both wearing full wetsuits that are sun bleached from black to a pale gray. The gray suit matches his hair, his eyes are penetrating; electric blue and his solid stocky build is still powerful. This is a legend standing in front of me, you can just feel it. What am I doing at the same board rack with this guy, much less in the same ocean? You also get the feeling that you are looking into your own future, as long as your surfing addiction doesn’t wane. After 50 years on top of the surfing world he hasn’t retired, he’s just doing what he’s always done: surf and it’s left him a healthy and happy man. Doyle has surfed all over the world, won surf contests from California to Australia, from Peru to Puerto Rico, but this is his point break, his home surf.

    The wetsuits can only mean that they plan to stay in the water awhile, because the water isn’t that cold. The waves are mostly overhead because a southern swell is in. I wait on the beach and watch them paddle out to the farthest break. Though younger I’m not in surfing shape and if I attempted to paddle that far, I’d have nothing left. They time the paddle out and miss the white water completely. When Annie reaches to the lineup, she doesn’t take a rest; she turns immediately, keeps paddling, catches the first wave and tears it up. All the other expert surfers start paddling further out, but she goes for the first wave of the set and nails it; an 8 footer that partially buries her in the barrel. She’s got beautiful form and makes it look effortless.

    Doyle takes it slow paddling out and I’m starting to wonder if it’s really him or just my imagination. He gets to the lineup a minute later and I’m watching him like a hawk. Is it him? Am I watching a surf god, a legend in the surfing lexicon or did this guy just look like Mike Doyle? After all, it has been 35 odd years since I’ve seen his picture. The answer comes quickly. He goes for the next wave effortlessly. With two powerful strokes at the just right moment, he’s on it. He slides down the face of a 7’ wave, carves a bottom turn and rides back up to the crest, teasing the white water and accelerates again. The ride is a long one and he works every drop of that wave gracefully, like a sculptor with a sharp chisel and fresh block of marble – does everything you can do on a wave, even moves to the nose; not frenzied though, no slashing, he moves in his own time. Yeah, it’s Doyle alright.

    The next morning I’m out there sitting on my board in the lineup and look over to see Doyle next to me! Could I end up on the same wave? NOT! Instead, I learn that he is a master paddler. Along comes a 5’ wave that’s not breaking and doesn’t seem catch-able. I turn my board to be ready for the next wave, looking away from his direction for just a second – I look back – wait, where is Doyle? Then I see his head above the crest, as the wave moves toward the shore; he’s taking a long right. How did he catch that? As I watch him more, I see that he reads waves like a book and times them with precision. He takes 1-3 strokes at the precise moment and away he goes, effortless.
    Later I find out from local surfers that Doyle moved to Cabo about 25 years ago, back before anybody came here, before the resorts lined the beach, the roads were paved or the airport was built; back when only the locals, a few drifters, and a handful of surfing extremists came around here. Back in those days he pioneered unknown surf breaks along the coast of Baja Sur with friends from California. Now they are surf destinations vacationing surfers from the north. I also find out he’s an artist and does colorful oil paintings of seascapes. Every morning, he surfs; 7 days a week he carves the morning glass – then goes to his studio to paint in the afternoon. If the wind comes up, he blows off the painting and goes kite surfing. You can always count on someone who can’t get enough of what they love and when I’m introduced to him later, he is welcoming, gracious and unpretentious.

    A few days later, I’m walking on the beach at Old Mans when a tall, barrel-chested man steps in front of me. He has a full head of thick brown hair that shows only a few hints of gray. He’s just stepped off the rock stairway that leads up the hillside. I figure him to be in his late 60’s. He starts talking to me about surfing – says he saw me out there and appreciated that I didn’t cut him off like some vacationers do. He introduces himself as Walt Phillips – (I google him later and find out he was a big wave surfer in Hawaii in the late 50’s and a surf film maker in the early 60’s). His 60’s surf posters are collectible and sell on Ebay for large sums. Still solidly built and tough, he is coming off 3 broken ribs from a surfing accident but is back in the line up again. Walt is totally fun, easy to talk to and tells old surfing stories if he likes you. Finally, I’m starting to understand why they call this place “old man’s.”

    The waves alone would make this place great, but to be able to surf alongside some of the founding fathers of the sport enhances the stoke. Not everyone is older. There are lots of hot shortboarders slicing up waves, especially at nearby Zippers and the Rock. Mexican surfers, Americans, legends, beginners, instructors all making it work here. With few exceptions, the vibe is friendly, respectful, and fun loving. Mike Doyle set that tone. That’s the full report, with a little surfing royalty thrown in. For me Cabo is a place where you can improve your skills quickly, but after a couple of days in the surf, I know what you mean by aching shoulders and tired arms. As long as you can raise a cold Mexican beer at the end of a session, its all good.