Surfs up in Cayucos

December 20, 2020

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin.


There’s a gleeful palpitation in the air when the surf’s up, and the curl stretches yards and yards, and a big one crests up and up toward 15 feet and crashes down in a thunderous boom, and the spray splashes the top rails of the pier, where onlookers jump away.

All along the seawall, vans, pickups and SUVs with surfboards on top are pulling up this morning. Already around 10 surfers in wetsuits are out there clamped to their boards, riding the waves. Between these parked vehicles, surfers are donning their wetsuits. An older model SUV pulls up and I recognize the person stepping out, a 60-something surfer and ex-college tennis coach named Hugh, a sort of institution in the local culture who takes trips abroad as far as New Zealand to find great surf.

Immediately, standing on the sidewalk adjoining the seawall, we bump fists. Hugh has surfed at his usual spot a few miles south of here every day for a couple weeks and has a slight cold and is taking a day off. He is down here to watch the surf and surfing and maybe run into local surfers he’s known for years.

Hugh is tall and blond and a bit weather-beaten in the way older surfers are, absorbing a lot of salt air, sun and sea water over the years. But he is radiantly healthy after a few operations and mending here and there—back, knee, etc.

We talk about the passion involved in surfing. A few young kids, possibly in their late teens or early twenties, trot past hauling boards. Hugh greets them. They bump fists. He asks if they are going to jump off the pier instead of fighting through the powerful undercurrent to get out to their surf spots, and they laugh about it.

“Those kids could fight through the current easily,” he says. “They’re great young surfers. I remember my daughter babysitting them back in the days when I surfed with their fathers.”

I commented on how the surf had been up the last few weeks and if you hung out in your car or just watched from the seawall, there was some amazing stuff going on out there.

“Absolutely,” Hugh agreed.

The great thing about surfing is that it involves generations, so that fathers surf with sons and grandchildren. Some of the kids are preteen and they’re out there braving the rough waves. Mothers and daughters have no fear of the big surf.

We watch a string of young surfers sprinting out along the pier, carrying boards and headed for the area where they will drop their boards into the ocean and then dive in (supposedly against the law), usually butt first, and find their boards.

From this distance, they seem to ooze off the railings of the pier and linger for seconds before hitting the ocean, where friends secure their boards. They congregate in that area and then spread out, a line of surfers in ragged procession past where we stand and almost to the area facing the south lot, which is packed this early morning as locals who do not surf, like myself, stand or sit in their cars, watching them.

In the dead of winter, with tourists scarce, it’s local reunion time.

A man with a camera on a tripod is down on the shore making movies. Another man shows up after parking his van and shakes Hugh’s hand and is introduced to me, an organizer of a surf foundation sponsoring the man making a film down on the beach.

It is that kind of morning, sparkling, around 55 degrees, no wind, a zing in the air comparable to the gorgeous waves before us, where surfers ride the crest, slide down and skim along the curl and reverse just as the wave crashes and switch their boards back up into a temporary calm sea as they paddle out for the next wave.

The surf culture produces a mental and physical health unlike any in all sports. One can see it on the faces and bodies of the men and women, boys and girls returning with their boards after achieving several good rides, after having a splendid time out there with comrades. Nothing mellows out the mind and body like the sea and its movement and power. Little in sports, save basketball, empties the lungs like a good pull in the ocean and the burst to catch and ride a wave. Nothing soothes ones joints and spine like the inimitable movement of the ocean, a natural balm.

When I bump fists with Hugh and his friend in a goodbye and continue along the seawall, I glance at  a few surfers preparing to go out and they nod and say hi, and I have no idea who they are, only that the anticipation of going out to the surf has filled them with jubilation and good-fellowship, akin to young puppies wagging their tails frantically they are so anxious to romp and frolic.

All along the seawall now, the gaps of empty parking spots are gone. Gaggles of those surfers (hoods pulled over ballcaps) choosing not to surf this morning, hobnob and greet those heading out, boards tucked against hips. They sip coffee and watch as the steady roar of waves serenades us, and the occasional boom snaps us out of our reveries and a board flips up and a surfer takes gas, momentarily lost in the foam, but soon emerging to swim after his board.

This is a morning bordering on perfection. Perhaps three to five times a year we have near perfect surf, no wind, and a flood of golden light.

Tomorrow will be different. The surf will be down, and only one lonely surfer will be out there hoping for at least a couple rides. The sky will be gray and the air nippy with a buffeting wind. Few of the vans and SUVs will be around. The south lot will be near empty. The only people I’ll run into are the geezer crew with their coffee cups from Cayucos Coffee and a handful of regulars.

There’s nothing like the big surf on a perfect morning.

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It is always comedy for those of us who surf, to hear the non riding crowd discuss what they see. Us locals are being overrun by the Covid invasion. The Aptos to Santa Cruz to LA to San Diego to Tulare to Bakersfield invaders that have now made parking and crowds a problem for us locals, is not such a joy for us who have enjoyed empty surf for 40 years.

To stay fit and be at the right places at the right times can become a bit of an albatross later in life, but it’s so worth it. Nice work Dell

Dell is a true poet when he gets started on something he really loves.