I awaken to a loud clanging and a rude woman yelling at me. I can’t remember where I am or why. I just want the loud woman to shut up and let me sleep. But no. She just keeps bugging me. The hotel is on fire, she says.
Well, I guess I better get the fuck out.
This is not my first time for this kind of thing. I grab my phone, wallet, and room key. My backpack and clothing for Trestles are by the door, so I grab that, too. Never leave the laptop behind.
It’s four floors down to the sidewalk, where half-asleep guests, most of them in hotel robes have congregated. We walk around the block to the hotel entrance. Oh, we cleared the alarm, you can go back to your rooms. Sweet. Good talk. I head back up the stairs.
An hour later, my alarm goes off. This time, I remember what I’m supposed to do. Trestles. The hotel coffee machine pumps out hot water. Desperate, I burn through three coffee pods. No coffee. I wonder if I’m capable of operating a motor vehicle without coffee. Only one way to find out. Live dangerously.
Just after 5am, I’m on the freeway heading north from Oceanside. I exit Christianitos and drive uphill, past an already long line of parked cars. I slip into a slot. Around me, ebikes pile out of trucks and surfers ready their boards. A crew of Toledo fans walk by, carrying beach chairs and wearing t-shirts with their favorite’s name screened in bright yellow.
In the early dawn light, I flail around my car with clothing and snacks. Then I begin the long walk down to the beach. I have a house full of bikes. Did I bring one? Well, no. I curse my stupidity.
Up on the bluffs above Lowers, I can see the flowing swell lines. How often have we all been seduced by that view? From a long way up, every swell looks so beautifully perfect. I stand there for a few moments and allow it to work its wiles on me. It looks so good from up here. What if it’s actually awesome?
But even from above, I can see the warble in the swell, caused by the hurricane’s swirling winds and the comparatively close proximity of the storm. Down on the beach, the bump becomes more pronounced. The swell’s steep angle forces the waves to run up the point.
I see lots of closeouts. Towering peaks drop to nothing. There’s only a few good rights out there. It’s the kind of day when you paddle out hopeful, but are almost certainly going to leave frustrated. Wrong swell, wrong place. Maybe next time.
But here we are. Walking up the beach, I run into friends. We set up umbrellas in front of the competitor’s area and settle in. As the warm-up session is ending, Jack Robinson is still out there. Every wave I see, he falls. The beach announcer begins trying to clear the lineup. A number of die-hards milk it as long as they can. Eventually he tells them to bellyboard, and counts it down.
On the beach next to me, a box of Caity Simmers t-shirts springs open, and a pool of blue spills over the nearby crowd. Caity Simmers, Pride of Oceanside, they read. Caity’s up in the first heat of the day, and they’re ready.
An enigmatic presence, Caity saunters down the beach to start her heat. Molly Picklum runs. Caity looks detached, as though she’s watching this whole thing happen to someone else. She has a kind of unapproachable cool. She looks like she’s heading out for a surf on a typical Saturday, like there’s nothing at all on the line.
But Caity surfs fully committed. She finds one of the good rights, and displays her dynamic style. She’s creative and electric. Nearby, an enthusiastic fan finger surfs one of her turns. The blue t-shirts cheer loudly after every wave as Caity zips past on the ski, and they erupt when she beats Molly.
But Caity’s free-flowing approach leads her to make mistakes, too. Against Caroline, she falls on a scoring wave, and takes a left that doesn’t have much to offer. She’s not yet a match for the polish that Caroline has acquired in her five years on Tour.
When Caroline ends the dream, Caity’s fans stand silent, and I can feel the weight of their disappointment. I want to tell them to hang in there, it’s coming. Caity has so much more to show than these two heats at Trestles, no matter what stakes have been assigned to them. A prodigious talent, Caity’s still 17. Time is on her side.
I’m standing with the Channel Islands crew when João Chianca sends Jack Robinson home. Over the heads of the crowd, they celebrate with Britt Merrick, who stands in the competitor’s area. Against expectations, their guy beat his seed. The day’s already a success for them.
By now, the sun’s hot overhead. I pull on a bikini and jump in the ocean. I almost lose my bottoms in the shorebreak. Amateur. I float in the shallows and let the waves wash over my head. Just like heaven. Surf contest. What surf contest. At Uppers, someone straightens out on a right. Wrong swell, wrong place.
On the upper level of the competitor’s area, Griff dances, headphones on. His fans pack the beach, carrying signs. The San Clemente mayor Chris Duncan introduces Griff before his heat. Square-shouldered and wearing a cap, Duncan looks exactly how I’d expect. It’s all set for a story-book ending.
It’s impossible to move on the beach now, and Griff’s crew extends over the low tide cobbles, and into the shallows. American flags wave. Red shirts blanket the beach. It all feels very wholesome. They’re here for their guy, and they give a shit about this thing. In this moment, pro surfing matters. If they could win it for him, they would.
Ethan ends the fairytale almost before it begins. Ethan’s turns fucking bang. He places them so precisely on the wave and he wraps the arcs so tightly. There’s no wasted movement, no flapping arms, just pure power. Standing on the beach where there’s no broadcast to distract me, and without the flattening distortion from the video cameras, I can finally see his surfing clearly. Holy shit. How is he even doing that?
Griff looks rough around the edges, as though the nerves and the atmosphere have gotten to him. He claims for the crowd on the beach, and they love it. What looks awkward on the video feed, feels right in the moment. They all want it so badly.
Not this time, not this year. When Griff loses, the beach thins out, but much later, a crew of groms stand behind the competitor’s area chanting for Griff, still waving their signs, still committed.
I find a spot on the beach for the women’s final, and pull a towel over my head against the sun. It’s too late for another dip in the ocean. After security moves the crowd, a spot opens up in front of me. A group of girls hesitates. Should they stand there? Is it okay? I encourage them to crowd in. This is their time. This show is for them.
When Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks paddle out, there’s a wind on it and the swell has turned inconsistent. The complexity works to Caroline’s advantage. She’s spent so many hours at Lowers and it shows in her wave selection. She knows exactly which waves will hold up for her and she makes the most of them.
That Carissa would have the same advantage at Sunset or Haleiwa points to mismatch between the nature of surfing and this one-day showdown. The fickle ocean creates an uneven playing field and always will. We all dream of that one perfect day, because it’s so elusive. Awarding the world title on series points may not feel as dramatic, but it fits the wild, ungovernable nature of this strange dance we love.
Peering through the sea of umbrellas, I catch one exchange between Filipe Toledo and Ethan. Both hit it hard. I can’t imagine how to score the difference in their approaches. Filipe’s unpredictable airs versus Ethan’s controlled power: the judges rightly rule in Filipe’s favor, but it’s closer than I’d imagined it would be.
Meanwhile, Filipe’s fans have filled in where Griff’s left off. They chant his name, drawing out the syllables to make it sing. Brazilian flags wave high and the energy is straight fire.
I want to be happy for Caroline, but honestly, I find the two women’s heats excruciating to watch. I want to cover my eyes, watch through my fingers, like the scene in a scary movie. Seeing the title slip through Carissa’s fingers yet again feels painful. She doesn’t have a good read on the wave and can’t put it together. Two women in front of me wear matching, pink Carissa t-shirts. They look crestfallen as the clock ticks down.
After her final heat, Carissa comes up the beach, head down. She looks crushed. Reaching the competitor’s area, Carissa disappears quickly into the darkness. I can’t help but wonder where she goes from here.
Behind her, Caroline’s fans flood into the water, floating on alligator blow-up toys. Florida flags wave, and when Caroline reaches the beach, Lisa Andersen waits in the shallows with a bottle of Champagne. They flood into the podium area, celebrating wildly. A first world title is something special, and Caroline says later that she’s traveled a hard road to get there. She deserves to enjoy this one.
When the WSL executives file onto the stage for the podium ceremony, it feels like the parents have shown up to break up the party. All day, the energy on the beach felt authentic. The people who showed up to Trestles, they care about contest surfing and they reacted to just about every turn. A combination of the Brazilian fans, the 2% crew around Griff, and the teen groms created that atmosphere.
With the departure of Eric Logan, the WSL and pro surfing stands at a crossroads. Logan’s era of the League burned through talent and relationships, and there’s rebuilding to do. What comes next will almost certainly stand or fall on its ability to engage the people who show up and care. Hold the interest of the groms with their fan t-shirts and signs, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got something.
As Filipe receives his trophy, the chants deafen. His fans are alive in the moment. And they’re just as willing to cheer for Caroline. They create a chant for her, too, drawing out the syllables of her name. Carol-EEEEN-AH! I’m close to the stage, and I turn to see it from the surfer’s perspective. It’s a wall of people, pressing in, hands and phones and flags in the air.
Then just like that, it’s done. The lineup immediately fills, as surfers emerge seemingly out of nowhere to paddle out and get a few. Picking up my bag, I begin the long walk home through the dry Southern California dust.
At the top of the bluffs, I stop and take one more look back.
The waves still roll in.
Sun shimmers over the wind texture that mars the surface. It’s never as perfect as we hope. Up on the overpass, a red banner for Griff flaps in the onshore breeze.
The next day, when I drive back north, it’ll already be gone like none of it happened at all.