‘Look for the bubbles; it’s all in the bubbles!” That’s Milton Willis preaching at the beach, extolling his approach to avoiding rip currents and surviving those you can’t evade. He calls it the Willis Way.
Cardiff Reef regular Willis complains that governmental muckety-mucks continue to foist upon unsuspecting swimmers a faulty, even deadly method for battling rip currents in San Diego County waters and beyond, and he wants the tide to change. “It’s the bureaucracy; it all comes down from the top, from people who’ve never even been in the water.”
“Do you remember the story of creation,” he asks me. “About how the earth was formed? Well, I took a class at Palomar College and they gave us three different theories to choose from. That’s all I want the state of California to do: give people the option. But the lifeguards keep telling people the same thing. ‘Keep calm,’ sure we all agree on that, but....”
Milton, along with identical twin Michael, knows a thing or two about water and the force it can exert. San Dieguito High School grads, the two sat atop a crest of fame several decades ago when they rode some of the biggest waves ever to pummel Oahu’s North Shore. “We hold the records for surfing the two biggest waves in history.” Dubbed the ‘Biggest Wednesday,’ January 28, 1998 was categorized by Hawaii surfmeisters as an unprecedented ‘condition black’ day, deemed unsurfable by even the biggest names in big-wave surfing, whose exodus forced the contest scheduled for that day to be shit-canned. As legend has it, the un-cowed Willis brothers rushed down to the beach to greet waves estimated to be as high as 100 feet. The most monstrous loomed off Sunset Beach, where, says Milton, he set a mark that stands to this day.
I quiz Willis about rip currents: where, when, and how? What makes them so deceptively dangerous? With patience, he explains that rip currents, like the omnipresent threat of atomic attack celebrated in the Civil Defense glory of Duck and Cover, can happen “any time of the year, anywhere” (at the beach, that is) in San Diego County. What he recommends for shelter against the almighty rip is the Willis Way.
“I’m passionate about it, and I’ve talked to ocean safety experts throughout the world, and 99.99 percent of them agree with us. I was raised in the water and know that it’s a visual thing. Every stroke you take away from the waves or the whitewater takes you away from the shore; every stroke you take toward the waves takes you toward the shore.”
When it comes to ranking rips, Milton says that strength is generated by the size of the waves and the nature of the tides. When you break it all down — it’s the breakers which can be right on the sand, as is the case at La Jolla Shores or Mission Beach, or a few hundred yards out at a spot like Swami’s. “On a big day, it can take you pretty far out. Generally, a rip current will take you out just past the breakers, so why not cut out the scary ride and just take the waves” toward shore?
Willis states that rip currents range from a couple of feet to a couple of hundred yards wide, but sounding a sort of metaphysical note, he cautions, “Even the smallest wave has the power of the whole ocean behind it. I remember a few years back at Torrey Pines on a very flat day when a man thought that he and his little daughter could go swimming, and the guy drowned. I’m in the beach community. You see these things and read about them; remember those three kids that drowned a couple of years back at unguarded Moonlight Beach?”
I ask Willis, “What happens if you follow the official advice?” by swimming parallel to the shore.
“It’s safer to do nothing. You actually might luck out and get to the shore, but you might get into a longshore current and get sucked into another rip current. It’s risky business; that’s why people drown. The old advice is like the rotary phone — it’s gone. If you don’t want your kids to get into a rip current at all, the lifeguards will laugh and say, ‘Then stay on the shore!’ To a mommy, the little area that looks like a swimming pool looks the safest, but it’s the most dangerous, because that’s where it all goes out, ankle-deep or knee-deep with no whitewater.”
Some perils can’t be avoided via the ‘Willis Way. During the hiatus between ‘condition black’ at Sunset and his campaign for better ways to give rip the slip, Willis found a swell he couldn’t ride. In 2008, Willis, driving dead-drunk and high on weed, went careening down Coast Boulevard in Del Mar at an estimated 67 mph or more. His passenger, Brad Dillahunty, 24 (a drinking buddy and acolyte of the Willis brothers’ acclaimed surfing school) was killed. Willis ended up with a fractured spine and a lengthy coma. Next up for the giant wave icon was a conviction for DUI manslaughter and a sentence to a decidedly land-locked slammer. But if he’s proven an edgy companion on land, he’s imbued with a sterling reputation as a surf safety guru. He’d prefer that we focus on his status as a savior-at-sea, which, it appears, is his way to paddle out to atonement. And so we come to his teachings on rip currents.
“Always swim toward the waves!” That’s the core of the Willis Way, far better, he asserts, than the standard “swim parallel to the shore” mantra. He says that it not only saves lives, but should be the public safety default message for everyone who enters the waters off San Diego County beaches. And the reason it isn’t, he maintains, is the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and its nameless, faceless, clueless landlubbers.
“I’m a waterman,” gushes Willis, and no doubt, except for two years or so in the confines of the California State pen, Milton’s abiding, almost erotic relationship with the sea has been his raison d’etre. Speaking with an assurance that borders on the cocksure, Milton’s on a crusade, and the ultimate foe is the rip current, that sinuous and sinister force that can whisk a man out to sea like an angry, watery express train jacked on saltwater and tidal entitlement.
Although the Willis Brothers surfing school is closed after operating for years in Cardiff, its website, and other internet places, are replete with not only auto-adulation, but with testimonials from former students, rave reviews, and recognitions. Ocean safety, sings the consensus, has always been the twins’ forte, and Milton exudes both pride and a touch of hubris when it comes to chronicling his role in saving lives at San Diego’s seashores.
When I ask him if he’s ever been scared while surfing, he’s emphatic: “No.” But he does believe, rather strongly, that the standard advice doled out to the plebeians of the beach, the ordinary swimmer or non-anointed surfer, is frightening in its absence of logic. “There are three theories. The first one, the one that’s given 99.99 percent of the time, is that you should swim parallel, but they don’t tell you which way or how far. The second is ‘do nothing.’ Tread water, ride it out.” Milton says that the passive approach, has been championed by Jamie McMahan, a professor in the department of oceanography at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. But the prof’s proffered antidote to rip currents’ pernicious powers has been lambasted by many as deadly counsel.
When I ask Milton if he’s ever been scared in the grips of a rip, he quips, “As a humble athlete and a waterman, I love to swim; I’ll swim to Catalina. But the average Joe freaks out; the first thing is the panic. It’s not a question of swimming against the current; the strongest guy can’t do it. But you don’t have to be a strong swimmer; the waves bring you in. But people don’t know; they swim away from the waves, creating their own problem. That’s the holy grail of fear: ‘The wave’s gonna hold me under, I’ll never get to air and I’ll die.’”
Far from the halls of oceanographic academia, Milton and brother Michael can be seen, 62-year-old surf bums with dreadlocks, holding guitars and mugging for the camera like Cecilio & Kapono with a bit of Cheech & Chong tossed in. It’s a melanin-fest, a dermatologist’s dream, the two are burnished like a brace of lacquered Chinese ducks on the sand. Photo-ops from way back show the UV ray-infused duo smiling in surfing mag pictorials and press bites, life as a beach and then some. But when he speaks of his views on defeating the devil that presents as the rip current, the dybbuk we see on TV news whisking and washing away the lives of the unwary, Milton sounds an earnest, vaguely spiritual note.
And yes, it’s the Willis Way, that holds the key to swimming salvation, insists Milton. He says we disregard his acumen at our own peril.
Willis boasts, “Other surfers and swimmers who have heard of our method have thanked us profusely.” And fighting the official line, he persists, going so far as to command potential drowning victims to heed his advice as they share the swells off Cardiff Reef or other board-heavy locales. “Do they listen to you?” I query.
“Yeah, because I’m a pretty salty guy.”