Every athlete who has reached that point in his life when he is almost ready to admit he is over the hill has those moments of regret. Usually they come on a Sunday afternoon while he is watching a particularly inspiring beer commercial. And as he realizes he will never be a sports legend, the sadness and remorse drag him down like ankle weights on a jogger, leaving the people around him wondering what brought on his abrupt silence.
This seems to be a problem known only to males. Like hernias, it is something men inflict upon themselves for unknown reasons. Perhaps it’s a hormonal imbalance. “If only I knew then what I know now,” the aging athlete says, deluding himself, “I could have been the best. If only I had the opportunity to test myself against the heroes of my youth. Then I could prove what I’m really made of.”
For the aging surfer, the problem is compounded by the fact that as he has been getting older, the sport itself has been evolving rapidly into something he can barely recognize: boards so short they call them “pocket rockets,” space-age multifin designs, and a new style so aggressive it almost seems like a martial art. How can the aging longboard rider work out the failed expectations of his youth when the sport he knew doesn’t even exist anymore?
Well, it does, briefly, every June at the Del Mar Longboard Contest. The Del Mar lifeguards who organize the meet, and who have put on a few years themselves, do everything they can to create the illusion that the year is 1965, not 1984, and all the aging surfers are in the flower of their youth. All the old surf clubs — Del Mar, Swami’s, San Onofre — are there with their vans and banners. There are several classic woodies parked on the cliffs. Sixties rock and roll is provided by the Mar Dels. All surfboards under eight feet, six inches are banned.
And best of all, the competition is divided into age brackets which give the older surfers the chance to test themselves against their peers — and surfing’s legends — one last time. It’s an old-timer’s day, and all the kids are invited to get out of the water and try to learn a little respect for their elders.
But as in most opportunities that seem too good to be true, there is one serious drawback, one threatening pitfall, that causes any aging athlete to think twice before entering the competition: the surfer who makes the biggest fool out of himself stands a very good chance of being named the world’s worst surfer. Grant Larson, captain of the Del Mar lifeguards, says, “We don’t actually pick the worst surfer in the world. Surfer magazine does that. But since we will let anybody in, they take a very close look at our competition in determining the world's worst.”
Larson assesses this year’s competition in this way: “Allan Seymour [from Del Mar] was worst in the world for three years in a row. But. . . he finally found his successor in Bill Canepa [also from Del Mar] when Bill lost to him in last year’s competition. So Bill’s going to be doing everything he can to give the title back to Allan. I’ve been watching them both surf for many years, and they’re both bad. They’re very bad. I know they’ve been practicing and training hard for this competition, but they just don’t seem to be getting any better. You gotta give them credit, though, they both love the sport. I guess what it will come down to is who has the worst day, Seymour or Canepa.”
Many of the old surfing greats have shown up for the competition, and when they take to the water, the crowd moves to the edge of the cliffs to watch.
There’s David Nuuhiwa, surfing’s first superstar, looking plump and aristocratic. He has more gray hair than black now, but he has lost little of his old style on a longboard. He slides gracefully to the nose of his board, looking poised, dignified.
His elegant, understated moves show that the talent of his youth still serves him well. He has the calm confidence and serenity of a man who has fulfilled the ambition of his youth. He has nothing to prove.
There’s Corky Carroll in his black wetsuit, looking round and sleek as a sea otter. Still quick and nimble-footed, he slashes sharp cutbacks in the small surf, once, twice, then crouches down on an inside section, does a head dip, and gets tubed in a two-foot wave. He is still full of the competitive prowess that made him one of the world’s best, and he seems buoyed by the current successes in his life — the job of advertising director at Surfer, and the recent national attention as the star of a Lite beer commercial.
And then there’s Bill Canepa, age thirty-seven, looking stiff, awkward, spindly-legged, fat and skinny at the same time, pale, and balding. As he paddles out, he thrashes at the water with his arms but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. He swings his board around clumsily, cutting off another surfer, and takes off late in a wave, not knowing whether he should go left or right. He rises to his feet timidly, tentatively, and bounces goofily for a moment or two before he loses his balance and falls backward in slow motion.
Last year, after Canepa’s surprising loss to Seymour in this competition, he was approached while surfing one day by Grant Larson. “Hey, Bill,’’ Larson asked. “Is it true you lost to Allan Seymour?”
“Jeez, I don’t know,” Canepa replied. “I thought I lost to everybody. Who’s Allan Seymour?”
About a month later, Canepa got a call from Corky Carroll at Surfer. “Listen, Bill,” Corky said. “I know you’re a big partyer and like to have a good time. Would you like to come to our awards banquet this year?” Surprised and a bit flattered, Canepa said he would love to come. He showed up at the banquet with his wife, who was once a surfing champion on the Gulf coast, and together they marveled at the presence of so many surfing greats.
When everyone thought the awards presentation was over, Corky Carroll announced there would be one more award. “I know this is the moment you have been waiting for. Please bar the doors. As you all know, Allan Seymour has been our worst surfer for three years in a row. That’s all changed now. He has finally been unseated by . . . Bill Canepa!”
Canepa was stunned and embarrassed when he realized how he had been had. But as he walked up to receive the award, he looked over his shoulder at Allan Seymour’s face. Oddly, Allan almost looked jealous.
After his heat, Canepa emerges from the water looking confident. One of the judges winks, gives him the thumbs-up sign, and says, “Don’t worry. Bill. I fixed it up for you.” He’s a proud man, Canepa, and even though he went along good-naturedly with the title of world’s worst for a whole year, the thought that he might have to carry that burden for a second year gnaws at him. When asked if he came here just to prove once and for all he can beat Allan Seymour, he snaps back, “Hell no! I came here to beat Corky Carroll!” “But isn’t that an unrealistic goal, considering your present status as world’s worst?”
“Last year was a fluke,” Canepa insists. “I figure it was just bad luck. I hadn’t surfed all year. I was only a substitute in the contest. I was riding a borrowed board. And I only caught one wave. I can see how they would mistake me for the world’s worst surfer. But not this year. I caught six waves out there. I ran to the nose and wiggled my hips on one. I feel very confident that I didn’t make a complete buffoon out of myself.”
But when this observation is met with a smile that seems to indicate otherwise, Canepa is annoyed and says, “This really isn’t my competition. I’m kind of a big boy — I weigh 190 pounds. I know I could do better in big surf. ”
But the surf is not big. It is only two to three feet, and wind blown.
As Canepa waits for the results of his heat, he begins to worry that he hasn’t done his best.
An added worry for Canepa is that Allan Seymour will be competing in the forty-and-over bracket this year, so there is no way he can directly prove his superiority to his rival. “When I first got here and saw the shape Allan had rounded himself into over the winter, my heart leaped for joy,” Canepa says. “I went up to him and congratulated him on his training program. That’s when he broke the bad news to me, that he was over forty now and wasn’t going to be in my heat.”
“What if you lose to Seymour again?” he is asked. “What will that mean for your surfing career? Can you just shrug it off as bad luck again?”
“I’m willing to admit that if I take the title again this year, then it has to be based on more than luck,” Canepa says grimly. “Then it’ll be based on ability.”
When the judges announce the results of Canepa’s heat over the loudspeaker, he has placed sixth — dead last. He is visibly deflated. “I guess you can’t do too much worse than that,” he mumbles.
That’s true. It would be very difficult to do worse. But if anybody can do it, Allan Seymour can. “I feel confident!” the portly and balding Seymour says before his heat. “I feel like I can go out there and win it all today!”
“Seriously, now,” the oldster is asked, “weren’t you the world’s worst surfer for three years in a row?”
“Well, that’s correct,” Seymour says, barely able to control his excitement. “I did hold the title. But I wasn’t really the worst. You see, how that came about. . . Corky Carroll and I were friends as kids, and everywhere we went people would say, ‘My god! That’s Corky Carroll! He’s the world’s best! But who’s that with him?’ So Corky started telling everybody, ‘Oh, that’s Allan Seymour. He’s the world’s worst.’ And I kinda got stuck with it.”
“It wasn’t accurate, then? You weren’t the world’s worst?”
“Hell no! I’m a finely tuned athlete!” he says angrily. Then, cooling down, he adds, “Actually, I’m a little bit afraid I overtrained for this competition. I was riding the San Onofre shorebreak the other day and raked my shoulder.” And he turns to show an ugly six-inch abrasion across his back.
The aging Seymour, who says he first stood up on a surfboard in 1956 (his friends say it was two years before he stood up on a board again), evaluates the competition in this way: “It’s like the Indy 500 out there. There are only five of us who can really win it, and all the rest are only filling the field. In the forty-and-over bracket, there’s Donald Takayama, L. J. Richards, and Mike Doyle. When I was a kid, all those guys were too good for me. But now that I’ve matured to forty-one, I figure I’ve got a real chance to go out there and beat those punks.”
Part of Seymour’s confidence is based on the time and effort he has put into perfecting his equipment. “This year I’m riding a 1964 mint-green Hobie noserider with a 1968 Newport Beach license plate,” he says, before his attention is suddenly distracted. “God, look at that! A purple leopard-skin one-piece. . . . Hey, I gotta go wax up for my heat. I’ll talk to you later.”
When the forty-and-over bracket is finally called, the tough old competitors take to the water cautiously, easing into the cold surf. Donald Takayama, the master surfboard designer and shaper, is much fatter than the others. Yet somehow he seems to use the extra weight to his advantage. With a lower center of gravity, his balance is actually improved, and on a fast inside section he squats on the nose, low and stout, unshakable, blocklike, but still smooth and stately, serene, unflappable, like a stone Buddha.
L. J. Richards (“Little John,” they used to call him), the big-wave expert, looks loose and patient. He’s in the best shape of the bunch, and looks lean and hungry. He sits outside, waiting for the right set, rising to his knees to peer over the smaller swells. When he spots a large set on the horizon, he races out to meet it and manages to make off with the best wave of the day. He drops in, does a clean bottom turn, runs to the nose and stands there forever; then he quickly backpedals, kicks out, and heads outside for another one.
Mike Doyle, riding a fire-engine-red board, takes off on a slow, unpromising wave, doing old-fashioned slap stalls while he waits for the wave to build under him. He drops his rear knee, does a stylish turn, then runs to the nose and arches his back with his arms outstretched, posing ballet-like. Anybody old enough to consider that a familiar sight has to be filled with nostalgia.
And then there’s Seymour. He loses his board on the first wave and has to swim all the way in for it. After paddling back out, he sits straddling his noserider, gasping for air, hunched over, clearly exhausted. On the next wave he loses his board again, and has to swim in a second time. After fifteen minutes or so, he finally catches a wave and stands up; but he’s in poor position, with the wave already breaking on both sides of him. He panics, the board pearls, and he bellyflops forward with his arms flailing desperately for anything solid. By the time he rises to the surface, the heat is over.
“Twenty years later,” lifeguard Grant Larson says, “and not much has changed. The greats are still great, and the rest of us, well. . . . ” So it was no illusion. We didn’t imagine it. The old masters really did have something. They still have something. Call it talent. Call it body genius. Call it equal measures of desire and ability. Whatever it is, they have it; and apparently they always will.
The best surfing of the day comes in the finals of the thirty-to-thirty-nine bracket. The surfing is smooth, patient, well thought out, resourceful, and stylish. There is none of the hyper-erratic surfing of the younger generation, who ride every wave as though they are convinced it will be the world’s last. Dale Dobson takes his division by pulling off a series of moves that seemed impossible in the small surf. On one inside section he edges up to the nose of his board, lifts the fin out of the water, spins the board around in a 360, and re-enters the wave. It happens so fast that the people watching from the cliffs are unsure if they really saw it or only dreamed they saw it.
L. J. Richards, with his superior wave knowledge, wins the forty-and-over division.
When the results of Seymour’s heat are finally announced, they send a shock wave through the crowd. Out of six competitors, he has placed fifth! The title of the world’s worst surfer seems to have fallen on Bill Canepa once again.
But wait! Whom did Seymour beat? A quick look at the brackets shows that it was somebody named Stuart Resor. Who is he? Nobody seems to know his name, or remember seeing him in the water. He is a complete unknown. Just how bad is this Resor? Could he possibly be worse than Bill Canepa? It will all have to be sorted out later by Surfer.
Already there is talk of a special competition among the three worst. Canepa is making plans for a beer commercial. But the title is still up for grabs.