Costa Mesa resident John Kissel died on August 29th in a diving accident at Lake Havasu, far inland from the beloved coast where he loved to surf with his friends. He died playing in the water, which to some people might seem arbitrary or insignificant. But to water people, we treat the death of a watersportsman with its own degree of respect and admiration, and we remember and honor the dead with our own set of flexible rituals. One of the most consistent of these holy rites is the "paddle out," a solemn public display in which a bunch of surfers paddle out at a chosen spot and conduct our own memorial service for a member of our unique culture and community.
Sometimes this amounts to huddling closely together on a peak, surfing the departed's favorite waves together and talking casually. Other times, it can be a more serious affair, something akin to a public protest, where the sheer magnitude of paddlers and solemn assembly of human bodies are the focus, almost like a public art performance.
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Also common are religious incarnations of the paddle-out concept. Some are led by pastors, priests or church leaders who keep their scripture pages dry on their way out past the lineup. People hold hands in a circle. They read things they've written and poetry about nature. They tell surfing stories and jokes about their lost comrades. They surf together.
Commonly, someone will reference the old prayer of pirates and mariners in reverence for the vast oceans they called home: "We commit thee unto the depths, until the day when the sea shall give up its dead." When the tragic 2002 Bali Bombings took the lives of several California surfers, paddle-outs took place in several spots on our coast. At one of them, fifty or so surfers clasped hands in a circle and chanted "terrorists suck" at full volume.
In a sense, whether it's a social, religious, or even political gathering, the "paddle-out" and other rituals are surfers' way of honoring someone on our own terms and in our own language. John Kissel's tragic death at Havasu triggered the largest local one in awhile on September 9th in Huntington Beach. Photographer Shelly Castellano captured the large scale of the event and the touching emotions involved, as well as the beauty of the weather and the water that day, in her photo set of the John Kissel Memorial Party and Paddle-Out.
For a touching remembrance of John's extraordinary, surf-filled life, written by his close freiend Sean Collins, check out Surfline's article.