Yemeni style boat trip. Near Aden.
Yemeni style boat trip. Near Aden.

Yemen: Forget that you’re young!

Chapter 6: Boys find surf and race Al-Qaeda.

(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links right here… Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5)

The city of Aden is almost 9 hours directly south from Sana’a though it is an entire world away. We drove past qat plantations, old rock towers, goats being tended by boys and the first of many government checkpoints as we dropped from the genteel temperate highland into the sweltering humid cacophony. Horns blared, traffic backed up, sweat dripped from my forehead down underneath my Spy wrap-arounds like a waterfall.

Hillside homes on the drive from Sana'a to Aden.
Hillside homes on the drive from Sana’a to Aden.

There is something comforting about humidity, though, even at its most oppressive. Dream surf doesn’t break in temperate zones. It breaks in Indonesia and southern Mexico and Fiji and Tahiti. And even though we didn’t figure Aden would have any waves due Somalia’s jutting presence it officially felt like we were on a surf trip.

Our bodyguards, too, seemed thrilled to be out of the house. They were brothers from Marib, that wild city up near Sana’a, and sang its praises but being in Aden meant vacation. They were mostly business during the drive, shuffling through our various government permissions, arguing with the military men who questioned the validity of our trip, flashing just the right amount of anger. But Major Ghamdan al-Shoefy, the elder, got a sly smile when we stopped for an overpriced lunch just outside the city. He went behind the restaurant dressed in his dinner jacket/curved knife and came back in a thin button-up/futa. The futa is what Yemenis call the sarong which is what Balinese ex-pat hippies call the full length skirt. It is worn by He then busily started making arrangements on a beat up Nokia phone with prayer beads attached.

Hunein, the younger, had eyes as big as ours.

Where Sana’a is delicate, Aden is bawdy. It has the perfect decrepit British outpost feeling like Bombay and parts of Hong Kong. Governmental buildings, train stations and schools echo the glory of empire past mixed in with the taste that something could go very wrong at any second. Humanity piled on top of humanity in a tinderbox. We drove though the city in entirety out to an older hotel on Elephant Bay and there, in front of us, were waves. Real waves. Waist high peelers running off a sandbar.

We couldn’t believe it. We were in a bay in a sea so shadowed by Africa that it seemed… impossible. Now I know that waves are never quite where you expect them to be but back then I thought it was a miracle. We pulled the board coffins off the Landrover as quickly as we could, stripped down into below the knee Op and ran straight into the warm bath.

I was higher than I had ever been in my entire life. It was like a bad day at Huntington but, as far as I was concerned, the trip was a massive success. We were surfing.

In Yemen.

And we stayed surfing in Yemen until the sun slid into the bay before driving into town for a celebratory fish dinner all salt crusted and sore, toasting cold Canada Drys and laughing. Our bodyguards seemed pleased too. Ghamdan kept up some banter about ladeez and booze. We told him we didn’t come to Yemen for that but it didn’t dim his passion as he kept working on his Nokia.

When we were finished we got back in the Landcruiser to head to the hotel for sleep and then another surf in the morning before pressing on and finding… who knew? Barrels? The next G-Land?

The streets were crowded with city dwellers who had spent the heat of the day crouching in whatever shade they could find and were now alive once again. Futas, small pistols, stares, the call to prayer.

We pulled onto a small side road then onto a bigger one then a pick-up up filled with men pulled up alongside us and they all started barking through heavy beards while waving Kalashnikovs. Ghamdan barked back for a minute before punching it through a crowded intersection with the truck close on our tail.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“Al-Qaeda” he responded.

His face was neither fearful nor taut but rather pulled into the universal smirk of oh-dang-those-rascal-water-balloon-kids-from-down-the-street-are-after-us. It was a game and he was going to win.

He drove like a bat out of hell, burning around corners, missing fruit carts, racing past angry shouts, looking over his shoulder almost gleeful. Eventually we lost them but then a new game began. He was going to find them and sped around the streets in wild circles looking this way and that but they had disappeared into the heat.

Ghamdan was disappointed and, frankly, so were we. I don’t know what would have happened had we met up again but it all felt like a movie and this is the thing. Terms “Al-Qaeda” and “radical Islamist” and “jihadis” etc. all mean something so specific here. They are cemented. Locked down. Very naughty and purely causative.

A + B = C.

Islam + Radicalization = Terrorist.

There everything seemed as fluid as Canada Dry. I have no idea if the men in the pick-up were actually Al-Qaeda. Maybe they were just religious. I have no idea what they were barking about. Maybe we stole their parking spot. Later we would meet all sorts of men who identified with Al-Qaeda, who believed 9/11 was a good thing, who were excited about the coming destruction of the Great Satan. We would drink coffee and discuss and then discuss other things, like cars or fishing or music videos, before parting with firm handshakes.

Belief in something, in anything, bonds.

But I didn’t know any of this yet. All I knew was the ten minutes spent racing through Aden felt as joyous as finding surf.

Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.
Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.

A beautiful texture, lingering notes of Pacific, with hints of bramble, blackberry, boysenberry, Don Cherry and Frankenberry.

Wanted: Surfers’ Fecal Samples!

Relief and scientific advancement!

Growing up, some of us thought that the best way to Live the Life was to shirk the demands of school.

Others see more than a swell or two ahead.

Take, for example, BeachGrit’s  Chas Smith, a degree in advanced linguistics and a former UCLA teacher, or Aaron James, author of Surfing with Sartre. James holds a PhD from Harvard.

And now, Cliff Kapono, a surfing doctoral candidate at University of California, San Diego.

Cliff, like Chas and Dr. James, uses his job as a foil to sustain a life of surfing. Cliff’s little scam includes traveling around the world — serendipitously to serious breaks — to do his research for the “good of mankind.”

Recently, Cliff was interviewed by the New York Times. 

Let’s examine.

LA JOLLA, Calif. — On a recent trip, Cliff Kapono hit some of the more popular surf breaks in Ireland, England and Morocco. He’s proudly Native Hawaiian and no stranger to the hunt for the perfect wave. But this time he was chasing something even more unusual: microbial swabs from fellow surfers.

Mr. Kapono, a 29-year-old biochemist earning his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, heads up the Surfer Biome Project, a unique effort to determine whether routine exposure to the ocean alters the microbial communities of the body, and whether those alterations might have consequences for surfers — and for the rest of us.

Mr. Kapono has collected more than 500 samples by rubbing cotton-tipped swabs over the heads, mouths, navels and other parts of surfers’ bodies, as well as their boards. Volunteers also donate a fecal sample.

Did you guess? (Hint: It’s the last paragraph. The whole last paragraph.)

While we all applaud Kapono for making waves part of his work, we probably wouldn’t want to shake his hand.

“Volunteers also donate a fecal sample?”

How far is too far to Live the Life?

My friends and I use to frequent a research hospital on weekends to finance trips to Tamarindo. Charming blue-checked medical gown, some TV, ping-pong gambling, a couple of injections of whatever and a $750 check to cash on Monday.

Easy money. 

But can you imagine waiting on the beach to ask, “Hey, can I have some of your poop?”

And, therefore, the question of the day is, what would you do for cash?

How far have you gone? 


Too bad Gerry ain't regular.
Too bad Gerry ain't regular. | Photo: WSL

Breaking: Kelly Slater makes a left!

His eponymous wave pool also swings the other way!

The World Surf League just released footage of Mr. Pipeline, Gerry Lopez, having a languid little cruise in Lemoore, California. Barrels n turns n such. 100 miles from the nearest beach. 500 miles from the nearest barrel. 1000 miles from Bend, Oregon. 5000 miles from the North Shore.

Let’s turn to the League for a description.

When Kelly Slater and his crew completed construction on their latest version of the wave, they revealed a perfect left. When it came time to deciding who would ride the first wave, Slater knew exactly who he wanted to give the honor to. “I really wanted Gerry to ride the first left, just to say thanks for your commitments and what you’ve given to surfing over the years.”

Gerry, who’s been operating on a higher plane for decades now, is a longtime believer in tapping into surf energy wherever it can be found, whether that’s a speed reef in Indonesia, a river wave near his house in Bend, Oregon, or the Surf Ranch. So what did he think after riding a few gems?

“That’s the future, bro,” he told Slater afterward. “That’s it man.”

I have nothing to add at this time, though am chasing leads and… interviews (just kidding. I’m mixing a cocktail). Tomorrow we’ll discuss in gret depth (just kidding. I’ll be hungover).

In truth though, is this really the future?

Like really really?

Like really really really really really?

More as it develops (just kidding. Unless “as it develops” refers to my alcoholism).

A smile money can't buy!
A smile money can't buy!

Endorsement: The full nude surf change!

Want to feel free? It's easy!

This morning I went for a surf on my new asymmetrical surfboard from Album. The waves were small, walled and dumpy. I had a fantastic time and will discuss the revelation of asymmetry soon but in the meantime we have something very important to consider.

The pre-surf change.

I had forgotten my towel, you see, and stood there behind my car in black APC jeans looking at my trunks. What to do? Get my car, close the doors and try to be discreet? Use my shirt as a makeshift towel? Not surf?

Then I thought back to the very first time I visited Derek Rielly in Australia. I had come to write something for Stab and Derek and Sam picked me up at the airport, said there were waves and we were going surfing. Nothing but nothing beats washing off a transpacific flight like salt water so I was happy. We went to some beach south, or maybe north, of Sydney, got out of the car and the waves looked fun.

Derek proceeded to get all the way naked in order to get into his wetsuit. I can’t remember what Sam did but I do remember thinking “Wow! Australia is so much more progressive! So much less uptight than America!”

I assumed that everyone naked changed in Australia and only realized this was not the case days later when, in Bondi’s carpark watched Derek get full nude again and watched the upset stares from passersby.

In any case, Derek was progressive and as I stood behind my car I thought, “Fuck towels (except Leus who make an exceptional product)” and got nude myself.

I stood for a minute, out in the open and felt… free.

Then I went out and had a fantastic time in slop.

When I came in I saw all manner of men changing from wetsuit or trunk to pant or short and vice versa. Some had normal towels. Others had long dumb panchos. Some were standing on mats with their towels. Others were standing on the street with their panchos.

If they only knew what true liberty really felt like. If they only knew that shame needn’t control their lives. If only we could all be free.

You won’t find me in a towel again (unless its by Leus). I encourage you to be bold too.

Question: Why does surfing hate tennis?

Nothing raises a surfer's hackles like the racket and the ball!

One long ten days ago I asked, right here, who is surfing’s natural enemy? We all need an enemy. Someone to kick against. Someone to really oooooooooooh just hate. And as I thought about surfing it felt like we didn’t have one.

You, of course, were so helpful suggesting mental health, work, chaffing, self, $2 parking, etc. and I would gladly accept any of these and form committees to combat and write hate messages about on my surfboard. But just this morning as I sat down with my delivered daily copy of that surfing chose an enemy six short years ago and has been chaffing against ever since.


Oh you recall the original harangue. It is in our hall of fame!

And since then I have read various passive-aggressive bashes against tennis culminating in surfing’s Olympic ambassador, the reason our boys will fight for gold in three medium years. Reef’s ex-owner, Argentina’s own Fernando Aguerre just today!

He told

“We had paddled out but there were no waves,” Aguerre said. “We kind of figured out that waves were going to come at some point but we didn’t really know when they were going to come because they were out of our control.”

“Then he got elected and started talking about Agenda 2020 and it was approved and then I realised this looked like real waves.”

Suddenly things began to tumble into place. First, in 2015 surfing was unanimously voted on to the programme for the 2019 Pan American Games, in Lima, Peru. And then came the big one, in Rio de Janeiro, on the eve of the 2016 Olympic Games.

The “real work” has started now and the high is, for Aguerre, clearly still intoxicating.

“Now they (young people) don’t need to become tennis players or track and field athletes, they can be surfers and Olympians,” the Argentine said with obvious pride.

But I don’t get it. What makes tennis so bad? It’s played outside, the scoring is not subjective, the men are handsome, the women are beautiful, the money is good. It’s both easy to understand and enjoyable to watch.

Is surfing just jealous? Is that why?

Help me understand!