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By Charles Lam
Meet the Wave Master
Elliott Almond brings a storytelling flair and an Orange County perspective to his new instructional book about surfing
After writing and editing stints at Placentia’s El Dorado High School El Gavilan, the Fullerton Tribune and Orange Coast Daily Pilot, Elliott Almond spent several years covering surfing and other sports for the Los Angeles Times. Later relocating to the Bay Area, he has followed everything from the Olympics to the BALCO-Barry Bonds controversy for the San Jose Mercury News. But Almond has also maintained his wave-riding passion, which is clearly evident in his new book Surfing: Mastering Waves From Basic to Intermediate (The Mountaineers Books). While that title screams “surf instruction book,” its 200 pages are packed with more than tips, as the author explains the sport’s history, personalities and lingo—with a very heavy emphasis on the major role Orange County played in creating it. Almond talked with the Weekly about the “small project” he hopes “people somehow find in their bookstores or online.”
OC Weekly: What gave you the idea to include all the “non-instruction” information, and how on earth did you pack everything into 200 pages?
Elliott Almond: When Mountaineers came to me with the idea, they sent samples of other books in the Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series collection that had a few sidebars. That’s where I saw the potential to be much more expansive. As I started my research, it became clear that basic surf instruction can be found in cyberspace. As a result, I wanted to make this book something more than what a reader could find on the Internet.
I treated the project as a journalist more than an instructor who writes for niche publications. In other words, I tried to write sidebars that would enhance the chapters, such as the profiles on a surfboard shaper and wetsuit pioneer in the section on gear. Also, surfing is just so fascinating; the more I learned from my interviews and research, the more I wanted to share it with my readers. It’s one thing to offer instruction on how to wax a board, but it seemed to be much more interesting to also explain the history of surfboard wax.
Surfing is different from skiing, snowboarding, biking and other recreational endeavors. The culture and history are integrated into the activity. If you decide to become a surfer, you need to navigate the culture as much as paddling into the lineup.
As for writing tightly, well, that comes from working in the ever-shrinking world of news print. As my industry is dying, we’re forced to write economically.
What is your biggest hope for the book?
That it inspires newbies to enjoy the ocean and all its amazing treasures. I’m surprised at how many Californians don’t know much about a sport that is part of their culture. They certainly have a stereotypical image, but I hope they would see surfing in a new light by reading this book. By extension, I want people to get as excited about surfing, the ocean and a beach lifestyle as I am. Doing a book such as this is not a money-making proposition, but it has been extremely satisfying.
Do you still surf?
This is one of the most frustrating parts of my life. I had to stop surfing because of an early onset of severe arthritis. I started feeling the effects at age 25 but didn’t stop surfing for two more decades, when I moved to Seattle in the mid-1990s. The cold water of the Pacific Northwest aggravated the condition. While doing research for the book, I had to paddle out at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz to interview a surf instructor. I paid for it the rest of the week, but being back in the water was worth it. So now I try to paddle out from time to time just to feel the water rush over my head.
Other than a board and wax, there wasn’t much to pay for in surfing’s early days. Now you can invest some serious change to really play the part. What do you think of the “industry” in these recessionary times?
Like gas and everything else decades ago, surfing was inexpensive and simple. But let’s be thankful for many of the advances that push up the cost of the sport: The surfboards being built today are better-made for beginners. You have many more choices, and it’s worth getting the right one. And praise today’s wetsuits. Anyone who peeled off those old rubbery jobs on a freezing winter morning can appreciate the ease and fit of the modern brands.
A number of former buddies have made livings out of developing the industry, so it’s difficult for me to criticize them for turning a passion into a vocation. Also, you still can—and should—keep it simple, especially in the beginning. Depending on where you live, you just need a good board, good wax, a leash and perhaps a wetsuit. If these economic times teach us anything, it is to conserve, and we surfers should be living by that credo even in the best of times.
Tell me about your time in Orange County, surfing and otherwise.
We moved to Orange County from Torrance when I was entering seventh grade. I grew up in a beach community and was well into surfing culture when I left LA County to land in the boonies with orange groves and open fields all the way to the Yorba Linda foothills. I was teased for wearing surfer clothing during my first few days at school. I had never heard of wingtip shoes before that move.
El Dorado High School had a “summer spot” at the beach—15th Street on the Newport Peninsula. All the guys were into body surfing. But my parents loved Laguna (smart parents), and we used to spend many Sundays down there. They bought me a foamie that I tried riding in the shore break at Main Beach.
We loved going to the beach, but also riding bikes along the county’s back roads. A close friend, John Shumate, and I ran cross-country one season at El Dorado and discovered all those amazing trails up Carbon Canyon. I think a lot of our places are developed now.
I got back into surfing my senior year in high school. By then, the swimmers and water-polo players were my best friends. But it was a cheerleader—Don Carroll—who led the way. He helped form a surf club at school, and a bunch of us started going to the beach. I remember one morning, at 5 o’clock, the crew pulled up with surfboards on top of their cars while a much more expensive car parked across the street; my neighbor was going golfing while we were hitting the waves.
I probably spent more time at the beach than at Cal State Fullerton, where I earned a degree in communications and political science. Even when I worked at the now-defunct Fullerton News Tribune, the Orange Coast Daily Pilot and the LA Times, surfing came first. What was so great is surfing was more open back then. It seemed overly crowded, but we had tons of days with just our friends catching nice waves. That just doesn’t happen in Orange County now.
You’ve got me all nostalgic. I miss those times and the friends I no longer see.
There’s more! Elliott Almond talks about Orange County surf pioneers, Trestles vs. the toll road, Huntington Beach vs. Santa Cruz, the demise of print journalism, and his future in the biz on the Navel Gazing blog.