The people you meet surfing!
Let me tell you this up front: I only went to Sprinter Man because I was desperate.
You might’ve done the same thing.
Don’t judge me.
Exostosis. That’s the fancy name for surfer’s ear, I looked it up.
If you have ear problems, which you probably do, you know a thing or two about surfer’s ear. “Bone growth from persistent cold air and water,” that’s it in a nutshell.
You dunk your head in slush every other day, expose it to ripping winds, and soon enough your ear canal becomes a battle ground, the elements versus you, and your body’s like “Hell no, I’m shutting this shit down!”
I don’t blame my body at all.
Survival, I get it.
And for a while, nothing’s different. You can still hear fine, maybe a bit of water on the ears, but you’ve felt that before. Your first infection catches you off guard though. The ear stays blocked, you can’t hear, it’s annoying as hell. You cock your head and slap it to clear the water.
When the doc at the walk-in clinic tells you your ear canal is so narrow she can barely shine light through it and that a bunch of bacteria is festering in there because the water can’t escape and then she prescribes you antibiotic drops and tells you not to surf until it clears, it dawns on you: your ears are fucked.
Mine definitely were. When I turned 45 my ears celebrated by hosting a bacteria bender.
Out here in “Eastern Canada” as the surf world likes to call our coastline, I’m not alone. Every dude in my neighbourhood is either ear-fighting or blissfully unaware of the upcoming war. You should see it, it’s like an old folks home in the line-up, all ‘Whaaa?’ and ‘Say again?’
The hoods barely help, and anyone smart is wearing ear plugs. I bought a pair of the designer ones but I always forget to wear them. Any time I do it feels like I’m surfing inside a cotton ball or something. And I can’t escape the irony of taking preventative measures too late. It’s like buckling my seatbelt after I’ve run my car into the ditch.
So ya, it’s a minor epidemic of half-deaf middle-aged punters out here. My one buddy somehow scored an appointment with an Ear Nose Throat specialist who was shocked at how gnarly his ear canals were.
I’m talking like pinhole-wide, deluxe surfer’s ear, 95% blocked. The ENT’s like “You have to get surgery for that” and my buddy’s like “Ok’”and the ENT’s like “Sounds good, only problem is the three year wait list.”
That’s a thousand days of dealing with sloshy, pus-prone, painful and periodically deaf ears that ring at random times.
Not to mention what the surgery looks like, which is just gruesome. Do not Google image search that shit. You get your ear torn off from the back, they drill out your canal with a tiny jackhammer, sew your ear back on and graft some skin from your ass over the scar.
Then it’s at least a month out of the water, barring even more infection.
You’ll be the guy shivering on the rocks with a Van Gogh gauze wrapped around your skull, watching the young bucks take waves and scolding them for not plugging up.
Still worth it if it worked though, right?
That’s where Sprinter Man comes in.
For some unfortunate reason, our sleepy town is all of a sudden on the surf radar and there’s never been more kooks in the water.
Up to a couple years ago, we had a lid on it. If the surf sites ran a pic, it was “somewhere in Eastern Canada.” Fine with us.
Nowadays, though, everyone’s become the worst kind of surf photographer: post up, snap away, drop on Instagram with the date and the spot name. The spot name! In short, our breaks have blown up.
License plates from all over: Ontario, Quebec, Maine, Mass, all the damn places. We used to think the cold water would keep numbers down but of course we were wrong. Today, in blizzardsville February, a noob can walk into the local surf shop, buy a 6/5/4 winter suit and 8 mm boots and mitts, paddle through the freezing water and infect the line-up.
Cue the icicle beard Insta shot. Some bullshit.
And it’s so funny, there’s almost no localism. Polite Canadians to a fault, and I’m one of the worst. I even apologized to some dude who back-paddled me and then got tangled up with me after we dropped the same wave.
“Sorry man,” I said.
Pathetic. No wonder it’s getting packed.
One particular dude, an older guy, started showing up at our local point last spring. Everything about him was nondescript: black wetsuit, white log, gray hair, clean shaven, average this and that.
Dude was quiet, too. A couple times I saw him respond to a “How ya doing” with a grunt and a head nod but never any small talk.
He took the beta role for sure, rarely muscling the peak, picking off fun runners on the inside, usually when some douche bailed after trying a shortboard mush hack. Blending in, that seemed his MO.
The one thing he couldn’t hide was the California plates on his black Sprinter van. Even though he parked way up the street, his plates jumped out. All of us hard-of-hearing locals have a quiet disdain for out-of-town plates, but repping California is the closest thing you can do to get a free pass.
So we started speculating. Was he a SoCal guy? NorCal? Or some other Cal we didn’t have a Warshaw-approved name for?
Or was he fronting?
Like, did he just buy the van in California and drive it east? I forget who nicknamed him Sprinter Man—a nod to Cro Magnon Man for sure—but it stuck right away.
We joked about how Sprinters have gone full cliché, with Alex Honnold in your social feed raffling off souped-up versions, Nomadland, the clogged #vanlife zeitgeist and all that.
And did he live in it? That would complete the tableau.
We were pretty sure he didn’t though, it looked too spare, and he never sat there with the sliding door open toking weed and strumming a ukulele like the other trust fund expats.
He knew how to surf, too.
One day in late fall I was standing by the church watching clean ground swell ribbon down the point and cursing because, as I told you, my ears were fucked and I had just started new antibiotic drops to battle yet another bullshit infection, when a buddy climbed up the rocks from his session.
After listening to me rant about my ears, he goes “I heard Sprinter Man is an ear doc or something. Ed told me his friend talked to Sprinter Man about his tinnitus and he hooked him up.”
“Sorry man…gotta go…you should talk to Sprinter Man though.”
I turned back to watch another set rake the kook-ridden line-up and rubbed my ear. It was the left one this time. The pain was sharper, a jabbed needle, and the only clear sound I picked up came through my right, which I directed like a satellite dish at the waves.
Talk to Sprinter Man. Great advice.
But, like I said, at that point, after three straight bouts of infection, stumbling around in my perma-muffled world, I was desperate enough to try anything.
I let a few weeks slide by as my ear healed up. Sprinter Man was around, elusive as ever. He lugged his board past me a couple times, head down, exuding brood, but I couldn’t muster the nerve to grab his attention.
I creeped his post-surf routine and it consisted of opening the back of his van, chucking his board in, hopping up, and pulling the door shut behind him.
Two minutes later he’d pull away. That’s quirky, I thought, dude must be mega introverted.
But, I was curious.
I saw him in the water on my first day back. It was the last gasp of a September storm and the clouds were completely gone, leaving a massive wall of blue and a near-flat ocean, maybe a dozen guys out.
Sprinter Man caught one that snuck through the line-up and I watched him roll away, his cross step obscured by the back of the wave. When I came in he was way down the rocks, just sitting there and staring out.
I stashed my board in the bush, squashed my nerves and rocked up.
“Hey man,” I go.
He looked at me but didn’t say anything.
I was on the verge of speaking again when he finally threw out a “Hey.”
I offered my name but he kept his quiet.
“Uh, ya, so I heard something about you being an ear doc, or, I dunno, guys say you know about ears…and my ears are righteously fucked.”
He seemed to be listening so I rambled a bit more.
“I’ve had a bunch of infections this year alone and my hearing is wrecked and, ya, ringing, the whole deal. The clinic keeps giving me drops but there’s like a multi-year wait list for surgery and, y’know, I can’t go down to the States and just pay someone to do it, it’s a madhouse down there, no offense of course…dude, I just need some help, and, y’know…could you help me?”
After I spewed that out he held eye contact for a weirdly long time and then turned back to the horizon and said nothing. My pulse was racing. The thought crossed my mind that I was insane, so I turned and started to walk away.
Then he goes “I can help you” or at least that’s what I thought he said. His voice was low register, almost faint.
I swung back and raised my eyebrows. “I was a board-certified otolaryngologist” he goes, “an ENT. If you’ve got surfer’s ear, which you probably do, I can help you. Come by my van on Thursday morning, I’ll be parked by the boardwalk. And don’t eat anything beforehand.”
He looked away and I walked back to grab my board. I kept my eyes on the road as I passed his van. It seemed bigger and darker and more windowless than before.
Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing. Sketch bag. Some rando with a dubious nickname offers you a chance to fix your ears in his van and what do you do?
Just say “Sure” and let him have at it? And what about the no eating thing? That’s the sketchiest part.
Is the guy honestly going to attempt ear surgery in a van? What’s his deal?
My head was spinning the whole night, and just before I laid down to rest my waterlogged ears, I made a quick vow to forget the conversation even happened.
I basically put it out of mind until the Wednesday night, and I remember standing in front of the mirror plugging my nose to pop my ears, which promptly felt stuffed again, when this strange voice called up out of nowhere, whispering — and I’m not even joking — trust him, trust Sprinter Man.
Dude, a voice!
I spun around and scanned the bathroom, I even pulled the shower curtain back, it was mental. But nobody was there, I was officially tripping balls.
The craziest part?
On Thursday morning I woke up and I knew 100% that I would go, that I’d at least go and see what Sprinter Man had to say.
He was leaning on the van when I pulled up. I was on auto pilot or something, I swear I wasn’t thinking straight. I noticed some kind of instrument in his hand, like a scope or thermometer, I don’t know what, and he goes “Let me have a look at your ears.”
I go “Right here?” and he nods. So I let him, I just let him.
All I remember is his breath, pure spearmint. I wasn’t breathing at all.
After he pulled the cold thing out of my ear, he goes “That’s surfer’s ear, both of them, at least 90% blocked. Did you eat this morning?”
“Uhh, no, no I didn’t.”
“Good, that’s good.”
And here’s where I snapped out of it, the madness of the situation came clear, and I say, “Hold up man, hold up. Let’s slow this down. Obviously my ears have taken over, because my mind is gone. Tell me your story. Like, everything. You’re new in town and I don’t know you and…fuck…just tell me straight up: who the hell are you?”
And guess what? He smiled. Not a creepy, sinister smile either. A genuine, nice smile.
Then he laid it on me.
“Like I told you last week, I was a practicing ENT for nearly 20 years. I’ve done hundreds of surfer’s ear surgeries. I lived near San Diego so that was my bread and butter. I invented a hybrid technique where I use three instruments in sequence and I go right through the ear canal, no back-of-ear incision. Most of the exostosis, the bone growth, is removed with a 2mm micro-chisel I designed myself. It leaves jagged bone spurs so I burnish them down with a low-speed diamond burr and a curette, which opens a smooth, widened ear canal. But that’s my expertise. Here’s my truth. I lost my practice last year. My wife divorced me and I started drinking harder — I’m a recovering alcoholic, eight months sober now —and one day I came in to surgery and I blacked out halfway through. My patient was fine but he sued me and that was it, I was done. It was rough for a bit, but I finally got sober and got this van and drove east as far as I could, so now I’m here.”
That’s when he looked me in the eye.
I tried to say something but my brain was just blank and then boom, that voice again, this time saying you should trust him, you should trust him. It was uncanny.
Before I could deal with my exploding thoughts, he swung open the back doors of his van and I shit you not, it was bathed in bright light, there were steel instruments laid out, a dentist-looking gas mask and, for real, some kind of operating table right down the middle! A mobile field hospital or something.
I know, I know, walk away, I can hear you say it, walk away and then start running. Any sane person would just turn and go. But, I beg you, consider what it must be like to have chronic surfer’s ear, chronic, like always ALWAYS dealing with your bum ears. Every single day. No remedy in sight, dude.
So I decided to trust Sprinter Man.
If you’re still listening, thanks. No doubt you think I’m now fully deaf, that Sprinter Man got me in there, locked the doors, hit me with the gas, sawed off my ears, pickled them for his macabre collection and dumped me in a ditch.
And I’d deserve it too, right? But here’s my truth: I let Sprinter Man do his thing… and I’m cured! For real. It was the sketchiest experience I’ve ever had — I’ll spare you the surgery details — but it worked. I can hear again, no water on the ears, no infection, no pain. It’s a miracle, is what it is. Nowadays, when I see Sprinter Man in the line-up, I say a silent prayer of thanks.
Moral of the story?
Plug up your damn ear holes, dudes. And if your local breaks are getting overrun with out-of-town kooks, who knows, maybe one of them will do surgery on you in his Sprinter van, and maybe, just maybe, your trust will be rewarded.