Terror: A new threat in beautiful Big Sur!

Sharks, elephant seals and mean locals used to scare but now there is something worse!

I am in Big Sur and it is fantastically beautiful but danger bristles around every majestic corner. Wildlife, from the great White Shark to the bulbous elephant seal guard the ocean. A terrible wildfire burns in the north, befouling the air, and crusty locals patrol the most secret of surf spots.

Oh it is such an adventure!

Big Sur, and the rest of California’s northern coast, used to be a regular stop in my life but I haven’t been back in ages. The unbreakable vistas. The cliffs that careen into oblivion. And I have discovered a new, most terrifying new menace.

Chinese drivers.

Oh son of a bitch, have you ever driven here? The roads are perched at the very edge of those cliffs that careen into oblivion, straight into the mighty Pacific hundreds of yards below, the great White Shark and the bulbous elephant seal ready to tear meaty bones from mangled auto wreckage. Giant boulders teeter above the roads begging, pleading, to be loosened so they can mash and smash and bash unsuspecting motorists.

The bends and winds, switchbacks and S-turns are severe. Maybe more so than any other stretch of road on earth. And now each is filled with Chinese white-knuckle gripping the steering wheels of rented Fords and Dodges.

Terror would be in their eyes if their eyes were visible. Their eyes are not visible, though, because they are hidden behind Police, Armani Exchange, Costa and other off-brand sunglasses.

Oh son of a bitch, have you ever driven here? The roads are perched at the very edge of those cliffs that careen into oblivion, straight into the mighty Pacific hundreds of yards below, the great White Shark and the bulbous elephant seal ready to tear meaty bones from mangled auto wreckage.

These are not American born Chinese but Chinese from China. 參觀大蘇爾 (Visit Big Sur!) must be a best-seller at this very moment in the People’s Republic because they are literally everywhere driving like folk who have never even seen a car much less know how to operate one. They creep along at a snail’s pace, weave erratically, sit in the middle of traffic and try to cross an opposing lane. They brake wickedly and without warning. They have no idea what a passing lane is and what a turn out is and what a speed limit is and that it is not, in fact, a “limit” but a meek suggestion for the lowest probable rate of motion.

You can keep your ISISes, your terrorists and your bombs. Big Sur is the scariest place on earth. I dare you to visit.


I called up the Hawaiian Airlines customer service line at (877) 426-4537 to see if they could shed some light on the matter re: surfboard charges. What followed was one of the most bat shit crazy attempts to find information I've ever experienced. Thirty five minutes on the phone, half of which was spent on hold. No big deal, the lady was trying to help. Kinda. If you consider politely giving me totally wrong information regarding size restrictions, prices, and damage coverage, refusing to transfer me to someone who knew more, then finally admitting, "We actually don't know the process of the airport agent because we actually are located in the Philippines," helpful.

A Batshit crazy call to Hawaiian Airlines!

Regarding Kelly Slater and Bob Hurley's recent complaints… 

I like Hawaiian Airlines. Do my best to use them to and from the mainland. Usually a little more expensive than other carriers, but I think it’s worth it. Staff is typically very friendly. Planes are newer. Always very clean. I’ve honestly had nothing but good experiences.

But I don’t travel with surfboards.

No real reason to bother. I live where the water is warm and the waves are fairly good. I’m perfectly happy to avoid the hassle of lugging around a huge bag. Don’t mind riding beaten rental equipment. I toss a pair of swim fins in my roller bag, go for a bodysurf if that’s my only option.

So when Bob Hurley (and Kelly Slater) started complaining about Hawaiian Airline’s policy regarding surfboards my first reaction was, “Aw, boo-hoo. Poor rich boy wasn’t being catered to?”

Probably an unfair response.

Yesterday Hawaiian Airlines posted a rebuttal on Instagram. One sentence in particular stuck in my craw.

Plus, we’re liable for damages if something goes wrong. The fees we charge are intended to cover those costs, and we try to keep them reasonable and competitive.

Translation: We charge you for the damage we do to other people’s boards.

They followed up with:

We try our best to inform our guests about these policies before they travel, because nothing is more upsetting and frustrating than learning about them at the airport. 

Can’t argue with that. Unfortunately, the policies on their site aren’t one hundred percent crystal clear.

So I called up the Hawaiian Airlines customer service line at (877) 426-4537 to see if they could shed some light on the matter.

What followed was one of the most bat-shit crazy attempts to find information I’ve ever experienced. Thirty five minutes on the phone, half of which was spent on hold. No big deal, the lady was trying to help. Kinda. If you consider politely giving me totally wrong information regarding size restrictions, prices, and damage coverage, refusing to transfer me to someone who knew more, then finally admitting, “We actually don’t know the process of the airport agent because we actually are located in the Philippines,” helpful.

And, of course, no one would ever consider that helpful.  It’s the complete opposite.

If I actually needed the information I would have lost my fucking mind. Thankfully I was just playing surf journalist and was able to remain nice and calm.

You can listen to the call here. It’s pure lunacy. It has been edited to remove time I spent on hold, nothing more.

What’s the takeaway? Hawaiian’s release was nothing more than a disingenuous PR move. They don’t have a clear policy in place, their support staff is totally untrained. Ship boards with them at your own peril. Despite what they say there’s no way of knowing what’s gonna happen until you’re standing at the gate.

What really sucks is there’s not much we can do about it. Hawaiian could serve me a steaming pile of shit for my in-flight meal, charge fifteen bucks for it, and I’d still choose them over Delta or United.

Hawaiian hasn’t lost my business. Still gonna use them to and from. But it’s worrying. Demonstrates a real lack of care. Shows that they’re far more concerned about perception than actual service. Whoever is in charge of the company’s public face is totally detached from the actual operation.

Get your shit together, Hawaiian Airlines.  There’s no excuse for this kind of service.


"What was surprising, and not in a fun oh-you-shouldn't-have type way, " writes Rory, "was the life threatening infection it had caused in my mastoid (the honeycomb skull bone behind your ear.) The doctor told me that it had most likely been there for a decade or more, and had been slowly dissolving my skull the entire time. What I'd thought were ear infections had been pus leaking from the bone infection through a hole that it had eaten into my ear canal. It had destroyed the bone between the infection and my brain until there was only a wafer thin bit left between me and meningitis. The doctor said, 'You've been diving with this?' 'Well, yeah. I've been trying to get to two hundred feet.' 'The pressure should have pushed the infection into your brain and killed you a long time ago.' Fuck me. | Photo: @freedivephoto.com

Real Life: “You got brain cancer! Wait!”

In short, I was told I had cancer, then I didn't, then I might, wait, no… 

“The radiologist took a look at your CT scan, we need you to come in tomorrow to talk about the results.  I know you’re very active in the ocean, we’re going to need to talk about your future…”

My wife woke me up in the middle of the night and told me she was taking me to the emergency room. I’d been fine went we went to bed, sometime around three am I started running a fever, and my left ear had sprouted a growth the size of a racquetball. I wrote it off as a bad case of swimmer’s ear and tried to go back to sleep. But there’s not much more persuasive than a concerned spouse. I was in the car and on my way to Wahiawa General 10 minutes later.

The ER doctor agreed with my opinion. It was a very bad case of swimmer’s ear. Just use the drops, it’ll be better in a few weeks.

I’ve had ear problems my entire life. It’s just something I’d learned to deal with. Wipe the filthy crust from your ear, put in the drops, wait for improvement, go back in the water. Repeat as needed. You get used to things, and by now, in my mid-thirties, ear pain and pus leakage is just part of doing business. I mean, what are you going to do?  Stay dry?  Play golf?  Kill yourself?

This time things didn’t improve. The growth got bigger, and the resulting pressure became excruciating. It was pretty obvious something was seriously wrong.

Hawaii doesn’t have the best medical care in the world. We do have great health insurance (if you work more than 20 hours a week your employer is required to provide it), but being isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means that you deal with a lack of options, some being terribly lazy doctors, others being overbooked and unable to see you in a timely manner. This causes problems when you’re dealing with something terrifying, painful, and unusual.

I’ll spare you the details. They’re more or less boring to an outsider, though to me they were white knuckle inducing. In short, I was told I had cancer, then I didn’t, then I might, wait, no, definitely not cancer. And that fucking sucks.

A CT-scan later they figured out that I had a skin abscess. A quick outpatient procedure drained, literally, a pint of pus from my head. Bandaged me up and sent me home.

My wife had recently been offered an awesome job on Kauai, but it started in three weeks. We couldn’t wait to leave the packed hustle and bustle of Oahu for the Garden Isle, so I put any concerns about the hole in my head that was slowly weeping a foul smelling pus.

After two weeks on Kauai things still hadn’t improved. The moment our health insurance went into effect I made an appointment with a local ENT to see what was up.

It wasn’t good. I was finally fortunate to be seen by a diligent, intelligent, MD, and the first thing he did was start cutting into me to relief the abscess.

“This isn’t good, Rory. I’m seeing a lot of granulated tissue, and I should have hit your skull, but I haven’t.”

Okay, well, I don’t really know what that means. I gave him a copy of my CT and went home to wait for his call.

Which is how I found myself sitting in front of a computer screen flanked by doctors as a radiologist walked me through some panic inducing news. I had a cholesteatoma on my left ear drum. It’s a type of tumour/cyst caused by repeated ear infections and ruptured ear drums. I’ve had hundreds of ear infections in my life, and have perforated both ear drums multiple times, so that wasn’t especially surprising news.

What was surprising, and not in a fun oh-you-shouldn’t-have type way, was the life-threatening infection it had caused in my mastoid (the honeycomb skull bone behind your ear). The doctor told me that it had most likely been there for a decade or more, and had been slowly dissolving my skull the entire time. What I’d though were ear infections had been pus leaking from the bone infection through a hole that it had eaten into my ear canal. Furthermore, it had destroyed the bone between the infection and my brain until there was only a wafer thin bit left between me and meningitis.

“You’ve been diving with this?”

“Well, yeah. I’ve been trying to get to two hundred feet.”

“You’re very lucky, Rory. The pressure should have pushed the infection into your brain and killed you a long time ago.”

Fuck me.

So, okay, I should be dead, but I’m not. Let’s move forward, what next?

I needed surgery, urgently. It was a miracle I was still standing, the infection could spread to my brain at any moment, and, boom, lights out. Best case scenario, I survive and spend the next year learning to walk and talk again while my wife wipes my ass and I pray for death.

Funnily enough, I could handle that. I mean, sure, shit’s scary, but the problem had been identified, it was fixable. Surgery is never fun, but what are you going to do?

But that wasn’t all. They walked me through what would need to be done: shaving infected bone, removing the cholesteatoma- and the consequences of the surgery, hearing loss (no big deal) and…

I’d most likely never be able to surf or free dive or even put my head underwater ever again.

What the fuck is that madness? I can’t go in the water?  Why not?

The surgery would leave me with almost no bone left in my skull in the area and the hole from my ear canal into the void would leave me at risk of life threatening infections for the rest of my life.

How the fuck am I supposed to deal with that news?

To be clear, I like to think that I’m a very good surfer. But, by no stretch of the imagination am I naturally talented. I’m a big guy and I don’t have great balance. Any ability I have is the result of decades of trying my hardest, of constantly struggling while watching other people surf better while putting in half the effort. I’ve put everything I have into this fucking sport, I don’t know how to do anything else. Every pursuit I enjoy involves being in the water. Without that stuff I don’t know what to do with myself.

In a split-second I’d just lost my entire identity. Everything I enjoy, everything I’d ever worked towards, gone. I managed to keep it together in the doctor’s office, then broke down sobbing in the parking lot.

I scared the shit out of some poor lady. She turned a corner to find a 6’2″, 220 lb guy curled in a ball between some bushes bawling his eyes out.  A pretty embarrassing moment, especially since this is a small island, and I know I’ll run into her again one day.

It’s hard dealing with this type of news. I was hesitant to share it with too many people, and the few I did lapsed into your standard, “Everything is going to be okay” platitudes. Which is hard to deal with. Because, I mean, I know they mean well, but shit isn’t going to be okay.

Who am I now? How the fuck do I live without the things that make life worth living? I focused so much on this stuff without them I’m a worthless waste of space.

In a sick way I started hoping I’d die. I’m not suicidal, but having the lights turned out seemed so much better than facing an existence where I was totally rudderless. My dreams, my goals, my future were all dead, not much point in keeping my diseased hunk of flesh I call a body ambulatory.

Thank heavens for good health insurance. Three days later I was on a plane to LA, to a specialist at the House Ear Clinic, to the one person who could save my life and let me return to a normal existence, if anyone could. The nature of the infection meant I got bumped to the front of the operating list and after few pre-op appointments and a physical I was doped up, strapped to an operating table, and cut on, bone reconstructed by modern medical magic.

And so here I am. Stone deaf in my left ear, missing part of my sense of taste (a strange side effect, but one I’ve been reassured will improve with time) and looking forward to a time in two months or so when I’ve been told I’ll be able to return to the ocean and all the things  love.

But I just can’t escape how close I came to losing everything. The idea that it could still be taken away, that something could go wrong, either now or in the future, lurks there in the background all the time. I need to expand my horizons, to stop being a one-dimensional person who focuses everything they have on one tiny aspect of life. But I just don’t know what to do.

How the fuck do other people live?


Does it matter if the closing banger is ancient history? Does a barrel-to-deranged-oop ever get old?

Review: Jordy Smith in “PLAY!”

A semi-dazzling advertorial from Jordy Smith and Neff… 

Neff Headwear, a more-than-just-hats company, released a new clip of Jordy Smith. Or, new-ish. It’s pretty good. It’s called PLAY. All caps.

Thirty four seconds from the moment you actually hit play until you see Mr Smith ride a wave. That’s just under seventeen percent of the total running length. Which is too long.

We watch Jordy pull on a wetsuit while wearing a Neff beanie. Closeup on a Neff sticker while he fingers some Futures. Best fin system ever.

I get it. Gotta show the brand. Only real reason the clip exists. But if you’re not gonna jump straight into ripping you need to set the mood. Unless they were going for boring they did not succeed. I skipped forward until I saw him riding a wave, which is not good when you’re looking to snag some exposure for your brand. Went back and watched the whole thing because I’m supposed to.

The surfing is very good. Not exactly mind blowing. It has the feel of a commercial piece assembled from old clips, rather than a project Jordy truly threw his weight into.

The music was not to my liking. Sounds like a bad Talking Heads cover band playing inside a tin can. Purely a matter of taste. I am not the target audience. Nor am I the target audience for Neff clothing. Totally over paying to wear a logo. You won’t catch me dead with a watch on my wrist or sweatpants on my ass.

The surfing is very good. Not exactly mind blowing. It has the feel of a commercial piece assembled from old clips, rather than a project Jordy truly threw his weight into.

Which I think is proven out by the ender wave. Hideous barrel to fifty-foot frontside ‘oop. But I’ve seen it before. Over a year old at this point. I watched it a hundred times when it first dropped. Old hat these days. That loss of surprise sucked a lot of life from the clip. Recognized the wave the moment he pulled in. Knew what was coming next.

All in all, it’s not bad. I’ve seen worse. Worth a watch. But it failed to excite. Didn’t make me buy anything. So I can’t call it a success.

Watch here!


John John Florence has all the spring of one of those fancy collapsible tents which explorers carry about with them.

Watch: JJF in Twelve! (Episode Two!)

John John Florence is a rose that refuses to be plucked!

Who knew John John Florence’s rosy flesh would one day supplant the tan visage of Dane Reynolds? For so many years, Dane held the crown of best-surfer-alive aloft, thrilling everyone who ever found consolation in genius through idleness.

But, now? Is there any doubt?

In this, the second of Bill Ballard’s seven-part series Twelve, we examine John John Florence at home on the North Shore. It’s a reminder of the foundation upon which his rare skills have been refined. This is a rose that refuses to be plucked!

“It’s the place that’s made me who I am today. We’re still learning from it every day.”

Watch here! 

(And, if you missed the first-ep, which revealed the behind the scenes machinations of John John’s first three events of 2016 – Snapper, Margarets, Bells – and his win at the Eddie, you can watch that here.)