a. Ohana: The Fords
b. The Ride After the Ride
c. The Joy of Bodysurfing Big Waves
d. Mythology of the Orange Cap
e. Visions of the Month
a. Ohana: The Fords
b. The Ride After the Ride
c. The Joy of Bodysurfing Big Waves
d. Mythology of the Orange Cap
e. Visions of the Month
Bill Lucking was a health fanatic. When all the other lawyers from his firm would go to lunch and drink martinis he would grab his green Churchills and bodysurf the waves of South Jetty. Bill may have found his way to the Ocean to stay healthy, but over time, his enthusiasm would draw all sorts of souls into the Pacific. In those early years, Bill and friends built the foundations of what would one day become South Jetty Swells. In the process he also instilled a love of the Ocean in his very own children whom had their very own children and this is where we find the Fords.
I drove through the night to rendezvous with Bill’s grandsons. Chris, Dave and Spencer stood in the mid-December darkness sipping coffee and squinting for a glimpse of a wave. They jawed at each other and rolled familiar conversation all the while waiting for some sign that the Ocean would provide. Dave was the first to break. He could wait no more, the others followed suit. It had always been this way. When solid waves are on the horizon, Dave wakes at 2:30a.m. restless and excited. Dave wants to be out the back; he swims to the outside and waits for the bombs.
His twin, Chris, is no stranger to adrenaline. He’s a dedicated firefighter and when he gets the opportunity to swim in serious swell he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in the belly of whatever comes his way. Spencer, affectionately referred to as the “Wookie,” follows the twins. The man is 6’5 with a wingspan to match. Like so many bodysurfing standouts, all the boys stretched their love of the water into playing water polo. A subtle toughness lies under their welcoming vibes and strong handshakes. I imagine that when the big set swings into view they’ll be chasing, not being chased.
Our session was a confirmation of my suspicions. They took me to their second home, South Jetty. The swell was growing as we swam. We all started together, but the peaks were flashing up and down the beach. Chris rode a wave from the outside almost to the sand. Dave hucked himself into bumps that turned inside out. Spencer was ever seeking, taking long, smooth strokes from jetty to jetty. We stayed out for hours. They talked about proper South Jetty waves and eventually I got to see the magic, if only for a little while. Soaked and stoked we finally made our way to their traditional post-surf grub.
We sat at a booth at Taqueria Tepatitlan and the Fords talked about work and family. They chatted with the owners like old friends. I felt a familiar feeling that would last the whole trip. Ojai was my small hometown dropped just minutes away from unbelievable waves. That evening we all ate at the family ranch.
The ranch rests in the stunning hills of Ojai. Chris, Dave and Chris’ son “Little Ernie” drove me up the hills on the back of a Gator while the sun painted the sky. Little Ernie was shivering, so his dad gave him the shirt off his back. We admired the fading light while the guys took turns throwing rocks at rocks. Brothers always find ways to make games out of nothing.
As the whole family arrived I was shown the library that could have been called a trophy room. If they had them hung, their bodysurfing accolades could have filled the room. The Ford matriarch, Carly, bodysurfed in the second World Bodysurfing Championships. She is Bill Lucking’s proud charger. She refused to let the contest be a boys club. Carly would bodysurf with her mom and dad at South Jetty and proudly dragged her young salts in after her. An absolute stoker, Carly has squared off with the waves of Puerto Escondido. She talks about it fondly as other parents would describe a long weekend in wine country. Ernie and Carly don’t have to say it, but their pride in their children is evident. Between the five of them, the Fords have secured seven Grand Master Championships and countless age-group victories.
When we all met in the morning at an unnamed Ventura break the waves were well overhead. The whole family looked over the sea with confidence. The Fords swam out to the horror of the swarming beach-side gawkers. We played in the Ocean like children for hours. When my shoulders were slumped with fatigue I took my final goodbyes. For the Fords, it’s South Jetty or bust, but count yourself lucky if you find yourself sharing waves with the first family of bodysurfing.
Special thanks to Mike Rubalcava and Eric Eiser for sharing their beach photographs.
All photos are original Swell Lines content unless otherwise indicated.
In bodysurfing, even the best rides sometimes end in violent underwater poundings. After locking into the pocket of a hollow wave, you watch the next few sections stand up and majestically start to bend. You enjoy the vision and take a deep breath of barrel air…sucked up the face and thrown over the falls. The Ride After the Ride. Spinning, tumbling… limbs ripped in all directions. Underwater waterfalls, like getting sucked into a hole. Smashed to the bottom and held there. Sucked up and slammed back down. But for most of us, that is at least part of our attraction to waves and the Ocean.
The first good beating, after a long flat spell, is always interesting. Hints of panic come sooner than they should. But after a few solid waves, lungs expand and confidence increases. By the end of a solid swell, you’ll throw yourself upside down backwards into the heaviest part of the wave, just to learn about the vortices underneath. As bodysurfers, it is nice to take our Ocean cracks without worrying about that very sharp foam/fiberglass/plastic thing tethered to our leg.
The inside of a breaking wave is very dynamic. When we consistently put ourselves within the energy, we begin to understand the internal structure. Like the eye of a hurricane, sometimes the center of the pit is the most peaceful. But all around, kinetic water energy is furiously oscillating. You recognize that if you stumble on a particular part of a wave, you’ll catch the full brunt of a wave’s energy. But other times, you’re quickly spun out the back.
Some of the worst beatings come unexpected. A hollow small wave can pack much more punch than a spilling, mushy overhead wave. But that same mushburger can deliver vicious poundings when the rolling lip hits you on the face of the wave. Without any penetration, you’re tumbled along the surface and clobbered for great distances.
We learn how to maximize the extra ride. Sometimes we go total relax mode, let the wave do whatever it wants. Other times, we put out the parachutes and attempt to catch as much drag on our fins and arms as possible to slow the spin cycle. When we are riding over shallow reef, we become flat on the water, hoping to stay above the reef. When womping shorebreak, we stay flat and tuck in our extremities, wanting to take the impact on our back as opposed to wrists or neck.
Have you ever taken a bad wipeout without any air in your lungs because you lost it when you laughed or gasped as you entered the barrel? That always makes for an interesting time underwater. Along the same lines, have you ever caught 4 out of 5 waves in a set and hyperventilated yourself into the last and biggest, only to be demolished, sans oxygen? Exciting stuff. Have you ever forgotten to dive beneath an incoming bomb, too mesmerized watching the beauty of the wave to dive deep for safety?
It’s all part of the fun (unless it’s double overhead+ and you’re fighting for oxygen). It’s enjoyable to simply feel the Ocean’s energy. That’s why bodysurfers are excellent at having a ball in ugly surf. Alot of us just want to see and hear and taste and smell and feel. It is a very simple and very pure pursuit. The Ride After the RIde provides that extra exhilaration that keeps us coming back for more….and more and more…
It starts with a buoy, bouncing and sending waves of information to shore. When it lands on my computer screen my body feels it. It’s just an echo. The memory of hundreds of rides shaking my nerves awake. I experience the same excitement that I feel when the horizon goes dark. This feeling infects each moment after. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic I’m just a little more patient because I know what’s coming. As the swell steams closer to the coast the community starts to buzz.
The day before a swell is filled with anticipation. Pouring over graphs and charts, we try to project the character of the coming waves. Will it have long lulls? Is it going to be combo’d and peaky? How’s the wind looking? Kyle’s deep in the rabbit hole. He’s sending me more information than I can process. I’m chugging water. No cramps, no problem. Got swell? No problem. I know within an Earth’s turn I’m going to be gasping for air and to those of us afflicted with this counter-evolutionary curse there is no more comforting thought.
The night creeps by. Usually I wake up an hour before the alarm, decide to get up instead of fighting to sleep. Why sleep when the stuff of dreams is dawning in the present? The excitement, wrapped in fear, re-packaged as anxiety and harnessed as fuel sits like a cinder block in my stomach. Downing bananas. Arriving at a spot when the waves are big drops a whole bag of unique subtleties.
First comes the sound waves. Sometimes before you can even see the spot you can hear the boom. The explosive impact, hundreds of pounds, water colliding with itself. As Mickey Smith says, waves with weight. You don’t even have to say anything to your buddies, they know. The moment has arrived. We’re never so lucky as we are in that brief present, fins in hand, ankle deep in salt water, staring into the face of an Ocean very nearly out of control. Sentient beings lingering at the edge of adventure and mayhem, even the ground trembles.
In a blink we’re in it, neck deep in the sloshing, spinning soup. From this angle, outside could be a mile away, you have no idea what lies beyond the foamy insider which on most days could pass for the wave of the day. The arms are feeling it. How long have I been swimming? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? Every once in a while a surfer will paddle up beside me and a set rolls through, the board is out of sight. Before even riding a single wave there are strobe-light moments to be had, getting lost in a shifty horizon. My eyes are scanning the shape of the lump, running the algorithms of physics I’ve never bothered to learn. Where will this damn thing break? Can I make it if I run for it? Do I need to stay put and let some of the energy fizzle? This decision is made on a near-subconscious level and when the call is wrong a price is paid. It makes that first moment out the back twice as sweet.
Time to hunt. Never a bad day out there, but the speed, hot nasty speed, there is no substitute. The set swings my way and I’m clinging to the back of the freight train. On waves of size, the bulk of our bodies hydroplane. We break free of Poseidon’s grip, if only for a little while. And when the ride comes to an end, we feel his mighty wrath. He tests our flexibility first. Can your heels touch your head? Then its the vestibular system. There’s no up or down it’s all wash. Lastly its the lungs to suffer and relief is only found through still thought, the zen of almost drowning. When we burst through the surface air is cotton candy. Each sweet inhale sends endorphins to my throbbing cells. The most pure of the joys is the one written into the fabric of our bodies, nectar of the gods and it doesn’t cost a cent.
I asked a guy who obviously knew his way around NorCal lineups…
“Ever see any other bodysurfers around?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen a couple. Always the orange swim cap. Or is it pink? Well, whatever color it is, she shows up when it’s biggest and heaviest and most perfect…she swims and plays when the local tough guys are salivating but scared on the beach.
She gracefully and joyfully swims around giant, swirling, relentless Ocean Beach and maxed out, draining Fort Point when the Coast Guard plucked a couple surfers headed for Potato Patch. I’ve heard she swims laps through the impact zone at solid Mavericks just to see it and feel it.”
The mythology states she was a swimmer before she was a waverider. She swam La Jolla Cove with the masses but when the NPAC threw heaps down the Canyon, she became the lone swimmer…getting kicks and fun licks in big surf. Locals gave her fins and taught her to glide. Now she quietly dominates heavy lineups all over Nor-Cen California.
“I pulled up to OB one February morning- predawn. Buoys read 20ft at 20sec. High pressure Santa Lucia winds whistled offshore A-frame, all-time perfection. She appeared…orange cap moonlit with the swell lines…way outside. The horizon accordioned with XXL energy. She swam to the set’s very apex and gracefully swam into myth.
Other guys in the lot that morning still talk about it reverently- Greg Noll Makaha like Story. The Sun rose shortly after, most local experts couldn’t get outside, too big too perfect too much. But there she was, perfectly pocketed in the most perfect wave. Maybe she has webbed digits and mutated gills…Anyway, she’s super radical. Maybe she doesn’t even exist.”
She is either a mythological creature or one of most radical waveriders in California. There are plenty of extreme heavywater, “orange cap” stories around to make the case.