Ghost Story

The swell had gradually built in strength for five days. This was unusual for surf generated by Southern Hemisphere storms, which typically peak after two or three days. Before the advent of Internet wave tracking, Southern California surfers were dependant on the sparse information in the Los Angeles Times weather report in order to predict the size or direction of surf. Monday and Tuesday had been picture-perfect at the Wedge, a renowned body-surfing break in Newport Beach, famous for large, bone-crunching, and often unruly waves. On both days, numerous still and surf-movie photographers lined the sand, capturing the heroics and spectacular wipeouts of the daring wave riders. 

“Casper,” arrived early Wednesday morning, having surfed the Wedge the previous five days. On Tuesday, Casper, sometimes called “Mayonnaise man,” - monikers given to him by Kevin “Mel” Thoman for his aversion to tanning, had caught the largest wave he had until then ridden. The crystal-clear skies of the prior days were replaced by wet, pea-soup fog. The foghorn at the end to the long jetty at the Wedge blared regularly, creating a haunting aura. Upon setting his kneeboard, wetsuit, fins and towel on the sand, Casper peered out at the surf, barely able to detect white water, the result of the crashing waves. Some surfers were huddled up, sleeping, while others, including Wedge legend Ron “Romo” Romanosky, were flipping a Frisbee, waiting for the fog to clear.  The poor visibility would keep the crowds and media away on this day. 

After awhile, Casper and Dan, an affable Native American bodysurfer, decided that from what little they could see, the waves appeared to have good shape, and the thought of having the Wedge all to themselves was too tempting to pass up. Joining them was a second bodysurfer-friend of Dan’s who Casper did not know. They waited for a lull in the waves and made it out to the lineup. It was spooky being the only three surfers in the water; in between honks from the foghorn, it was eerily quiet, and they still didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the swell. Adding to their uneasiness, the people on the beach were not visible.  After about 5 minutes, they detected a set of waves approaching. Typically, waves arrive in groups, called sets, of three to sometimes as many as a dozen waves. 

The three surfers immediately knew that they needed to swim out further as the approaching waves were exceedingly large. After paddling over the first two waves, Casper was momentarily stunned as the third wave was so large that it literally blocked out the horizon. This ominous black wall of water looked like the side of a three-story building. But the wave was perfect, as Casper could see to his right the gradual tapering edge of the wave that Wedge surfers looked for. 

Apprehensive as he was about riding a wave this large, Casper knew that he had to take the challenge. He was in the perfect take-off spot, and the thick fog had made the surface of the wave as smooth as plate glass. Turning around, Casper paddled towards shore in order to gain momentum. As the wave reached him, he was lifted higher and higher.   He stroked deeply into the water to push his five-foot kneeboard as fast as he could. Finally, at the peak of the wave, he felt his board begin to race downwards and he jumped to his knees. The wave was completely vertical now, the kneeboard’s left edge and single fin in the back were all that kept him from skittering out of control and being swallowed up by a wave that could easily kill him. 

Racing down the wave face, Casper’s board sliced through the water with the zipping sound of a razor cutting paper. The “drop,” which is the initial descent on a wave, is the most critical part of the ride. The Wedge was created in 1939 when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 300 yard rock jetty at the mouth of Newport Harbor in order to protect boats from the summertime southern swells. The incoming swells bounce off the jetty at the opposite angle, joining up with the next wave.  This essentially doubles the height and thickness, with each wave packing twice the power of most other surf spots in Southern California. Not getting enough speed meant that the wave would begin curling into a giant cylinder before the wave rider was able to get to the lower part of the wave, resulting in the surfer being sucked upwards and unceremoniously thrown forward as the wave crashes down - an especially nasty wipeout.   

As he reached the bottom of the enormous wave, Casper pulled a hard left turn, changing directions from downwards to lateral in order to stay ahead of the curl as the wave peeled from the center outwards. The speed that Casper had developed during the huge drop prevented him from any fancy turns.  This was surfing in the purest sense - feeling the power, drawing a line, and racing the wave until the end. The wave was so large that Casper rode it well past the adjacent surf spot, a gnarly wave commonly called “Cylinders.”

Upon kicking out of the wave, Casper began the long paddle back out to where the two bodysurfers were, avoiding the last few waves in the set. When he reached Dan and the other fellow, they were visibly shaken, and could barely talk. Immediately after the wave that Casper rode, two giant manta rays, about 300 pounds each, came up out of the water. Spooked by the thunderous shock of the giant wave, they rose up from the depths and flew over the water, side by side, flapping their wings, slapping the water with each stroke. Normally bottom dwellers, the panicked manta rays flew directly towards Dan and his friend, with one of the rays’ wings hitting Dan’s friend on the shoulder. Sadly, the disoriented rays washed up on the beach later that day, pummeled to death by the mammoth swells. 

The wave that Casper rode greatly eclipsed the one he had ridden the previous day. For the rest of the morning, he and his friends had one memorable ride after another. Casper’s last wave was also huge. A friend, ex-accordion player Bill Sinner, attempted to catch the wave as well, riding a fiberglass belly board (precursor to the ubiquitous Boogie board) often called a “paipo” board.  Bill was in front of Casper, and upon seeing that Casper had already gotten into the wave, he tried to pull out. This led to Bill getting thrown from the top of the wave, completely freefalling more than twenty feet, landing squarely on top of Casper. That neither surfer was seriously hurt was miraculous, as Bill was pushing upwards of 270 pounds.

Surfing waves of this size creates a special rush for a surfer. The intensity of the moment eclipses all thoughts beyond the present. Some surfers, like Gerry Lopez in the 1970’s and Phil Edwards in the ‘60‘s, epitomized the “pure surfing" style.  Neither of these famous athletes was known for slashing maneuvers.  Instead, they were admired for their ability to find the perfect energy track for each wave. Elegant, simple, and with dancer-like grace, they were considered the surfer’s surfer for their respective eras, complete opposites of most competition surfers who strive to maximize the number of maneuvers possible on any given wave. The mind set of “destroying” a wave by having five off-the-lip turns, a cutback, aerials and numerous other slashing turns on a 3-second wave was antithetical to both Lopez and Edwards.  

In almost any endeavor, there are a variety of approaches that are appropriate to a given situation.  Performing music in front of an audience has unique difficulties.  On the one hand, we typically have time to prepare our presentation and the experience to help us know what to expect.  Then, like the great golfer who gets the “yips” on the putting green, we can easily self-destruct in any number of ways.  Even if we don't have a meltdown in our performance, we can do things that work against what we have prepared. 

Recently I was in the audience at an international guitar competition.  There were many high-caliber performers, with several standouts.  One young woman in particular, demonstrated superior skills and preparation.  Her technique and tone were flawless, and, interpretively, her performances had tasteful phrasing, flair, and a sense of proportion from large to small.  In all, I thought that this young performer was clearly a notch above her competition.  She did not win, and I whole-heartedly agreed with the judges.   

Her downfall, in my mind, and I suspect the judges felt this way as well, was her self-consciousness.  Not only was every note played with a practiced perfection, virtually every facial movement was choreographed – each turn of her head, smile, and blink of her eyes seemed to be planned.  Granted, musicians are stage performers, and I would be the first to admit that the visual effect of a musician can be a powerful addition to the sounds we create, but there must be a balance.   

One of the last lessons that my first classical teacher, Peter Snyder, taught me was that the scale of the music-making should match the significance of the event.  If you are performing solo guitar before an audience of 40 people and are sitting only a few feet from the first row, you might consider that the audience is going to notice every little nuance in your playing, and every minute physical gesture.  On the other hand, performing a concerto with an orchestra before a large audience, not only do your musical efforts need to be exaggerated, but you can afford to ham it up a bit more. 

If you need convincing of this idea, watch a theatrical troupe staging a performance that is televised.  The cameras will often show close-up shots of the actors and actresses that will make their gestures seem silly, but the effect on the theater audience would be very natural.  An actor’s expressions are as important as any aspect of their art. Musicians need to be cognizant of the impact that their physical gestures impart on their performance.   

I recently had a lesson with a fine young guitarist who is extremely musical.  The piece that he played for me was quite polished and emotive, but was lacking a certain zest.  My first comments were complimentary, but then I asked him to come up with several adjectives to describe the spirit of the various thematic ideas in the movement that he had just played.  Upon re-performance, the sparkle that I was hoping for emerged, not only in how he played the music, but in his eyes and entire body – with genuine honesty. 

Be pure in your heart.