The thunderous, rhythmic roar of breakers crashing onto North Coast beaches offers unending fascination for visitors and locals alike. But for those who paddle out on boards and unite with nature’s forces that propel them shoreward, some suggest surfing is a metaphysical symphony of freedom and clarity.
To validate this quixotic contention, a reporter met on a recent foggy Sunday morning with two of Cambria’s most enthusiastic surfers — 62-year old John McElgunn and his 17-year-old son, Johnny. The two were asked: is “mystical” an appropriate reference for the sensation wetsuit-clad pilgrims experience out on those waves?
It was the verbally enthusiastic father—who started riding waves on long boards in 1961 — answering first. The energized look in his eyes offered the impression he had been waiting years for someone to ask.
“As to the mystical, yes. First, there are negative ions. There’s no doubt about it, when you’re out in the ocean you’re getting a particular dose of negative ions, which are definitely good for the human soul. Then you’re also riding on a wave with your own energy at speeds up to 25, 30 miles an hour.
“Now we go to the final mystical factor, the barrel,” John continues, his voice rising as he alludes to the top of a sizable wave that curls over the surfer as he hurtles through. “What sport can you do where you can go through a barrel?”
It’s a “green room” when you’re inside the barrel, John explained. “Sometimes you are so deep inside the barrel you can’t even be seen from land, which makes it even more magical. You’re gone. Time slows down. One second in the barrel seems like five seconds.
John, who first surfed offshore from Dana Point in Southern California at age 11—and who first put Johnny on a board near their home in Ragged Point when the little guy was age 3—remembered that when Johnny had his first barrel experience, “My work was done.”
Johnny, waiting patiently while his father launched into eloquent surfing soliloquies, said, “There is nothing else like the barrel. You can’t compare it to anything.” He said he truly enjoys skating and tennis, but surfing is his true passion.
A reporter found it curious that Johnny, a senior at Coast Union who was the top seed in tennis in 2012, crafting a stellar 28-3 record, finds his greatest enjoyment riding the salty waves.
About halfway into the hour-long interview, the truth came out as to Johnny’s career projections. Since he is the best male netter at CUHS, he hopes to repeat (or better) his notable match record from 2012 and use his considerable talent as a springboard to a tennis scholarship at a university near the Pacific Ocean.
There, he could compete in Division 1-level tennis and, after practice, don the wetsuit and upgrade his surfing skills. And perhaps one year when Johnny qualifies for the Volcom World
Championship of Surfing— as he has done four straight years — he can make his sponsor, Moondoggies Beach Club and Surf Shop in San Luis Obispo, and his dad explode with pride.
And he can come home with some serious prize money, to boot.
His first choice of schools is Cal Poly, followed by universities at Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. His dad explained, “We are trying to push Johnny into making a living in the surfing world and becoming one of the better surfers. It’s really hard to do; we’re finding that out.”
Has Johnny bought into the dream? “Yes I have. It’s part of my life. Yes, my dad pushed me, but never in a bad way.”
Rarely straying from the philosophical as it relates to surfing, John explained, “We’re really into it. We’re riding on the water. And I think humans may be trying to forget it, but we are trying to reach higher ground, and I think surfing fills that menu, that order .…”
As a practical matter, life brings problems, things that weigh on the mind. But while surfing, “you don’t get a choice of thinking of other stuff because the ocean demands your attention for a number of reasons. One of them is respect, because it can beat the hell out of you,” John concluded, while his son smiled in agreement.