Surfing the web of life

UC Santa Cruz faculty members who ride the waves say the sport is beautiful and spiritual—and allows their minds the space to wander

UC Santa Cruz Environmental Studies Professor Erika Zavaleta Erika Zavaleta with her son,
UC Santa Cruz Environmental Studies Professor Erika Zavaleta with her son, Russell, holding pieces of the board she broke surfing in Truncones, Mexico.
Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane, just down the hill from campus, is a legendary surf spot that has long attracted UC Santa Cruz students, faculty, and staff alike. (Photo by Gwen Jourdonnais)

Editor's note: UC Santa Cruz alumnus, New Yorker staff writer, and surfer William Finnegan (Cowell '74, English literature) talked about and read from his new book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life on July 28 at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. His appearance was part of a new series called "Books and Brews," sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz.

In the dark hour that is 3:30 a.m., Bill Saxton will often rise from his bed, pull on a wetsuit, and head for the surf spot called Steamer Lane.

There, the UC Santa Cruz professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology will slip into the water and, against the barest illumination from street lamps and a spotlight atop a small lighthouse, watch dark shapes of waves rise up behind him.

Sometimes he'll catch the rolling humps of water, which send him speeding over the ocean's surface like a fighter-jet pilot skimming across land. Sometimes he will misjudge the waves and be tumbled and thrashed.

But in those first black minutes before the sky eventually lightens, he says, he is always alone, and being alone in the ocean feels like being in the wilderness. Which, for a boy who grew up in the woods, is a peaceful and good place to be.

"It feels like home," he says.

Saxton, 62, who studies cell transport mechanisms, is one of about a dozen UC Santa Cruz faculty members who can be found riding waves when they're not teaching, researching, or writing. They are men and women, scientists and sociologists, and they say surfing not only provides a closeness with nature but also a sense of play and a challenge that leaves little room for being anywhere but in the present moment.

Surfing: Aesthetic, beautiful, spiritual

"Surfing is aesthetic. It's beautiful," says retired UC Santa Cruz Research Biologist Gary Silberstein, 73, who came to UC Santa Cruz in 1978 specifically because of its proximity to waves. "It's good for your body. It's spiritual in a way."

UC Santa Cruz Environmental Studies Professor Erika Zavaleta, 43, began surfing as a grad student at Stanford University after her sister persuaded her to take a trip to San Onofre, where they hired a tall, grasshopper-thin surfer to teach them how to ride waves.

Zavaleta was hooked. Her sister: not so much.

There is a certain playfulness to being propelled forward by moving walls of water, says Zavaleta — a sense of being able to harness an elemental force created by wind and tides and gravity. It's one of the few sanctioned places where an adult can just play.

But there is also a contemplative side to the sport, what some even call spiritual.

"So much of surfing is waiting," Zavaleta says. "There you are in this place, surrounded by motion and light, and you're waiting. And, at least for certain periods, your mind can just wander."

She describes sitting in "this sea of light and movement" with the sound of birds and water filling her ears and the sharp smell of kelp touching her nose. Beneath her is a host of sea life and above her is the sky.

"It's an incredible sensory experience," she says.

"You're outside yourself. You're connected to this energy flow," Silberstein says, then gives a self-deprecating laugh. "Time is different out there (in the waves). Time is different anytime you lose yourself."

And being lost, he says, "is when the brain sorts stuff out."

The great equalizer

Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Don Croll, 57, started surfing in sixth grade in Southern California. He remembers sitting in Sunday school and staring out the window at a nearby surf break named Haggerty's, made famous in the Beach Boys song "Surfin' USA."

"I spent my time watching the surfers instead of learning about Jesus," Croll says. "I found a different religion."

Croll rides a 9-foot, high-performance longboard shaped by local Bob Pearson, catching waves whenever and wherever he can. Out in the water, he rubs shoulders with fellow wave hunters who run the gamut, from scruffy guys who sleep in their cars, to high-priced lawyers, to carpenters.

"When you're out in the waves, it's just a bunch of guys out surfing," says Croll. "It's an equalizer." He likes that.

It's also an adrenaline rush, a heady combination of speed, danger, beauty, and risk. Surfers tell of being "tubed," embraced in a tunnel of green water as if it were a womb; of catching perfect waves; of sensing the eerie presence of sharks in the evening dusk; of being held under the water by a series of waves until they think they might drown.

Heart rate research

In fact, UC Santa Cruz Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Terrie Williams was inspired by Croll to wire up husband-and-wife professional surfers Mike and Sarah Gerhardt (Sarah received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from UC Santa Cruz) with the same heart monitors she uses on dolphins and seals as part of a research project she was conducting.

Sending the pair out into an infamous big-wave spot called Mavericks near Half Moon Bay, the monitors documented "one of the longest, near max heart rate records for any sport measured to date," Williams says.

"Basically, professional surfers are not exactly the laid-back dudes of the movies," Williams says. "Rather, there is an adrenaline extreme sports rush they go for compared to the novice."

Standing at the cliff's edge at a local surf spot called "Privates," Silberstein tells of his own adrenaline moment when he and a buddy went out to surf Ocean Beach in San Francisco as teenagers.

The spot is notorious for rough waves and swift currents, and, after losing his board, Silberstein and his friend were swept out to sea.

Wearing only flimsy wetsuit jackets, they were shoved north for three hours in bone-chilling water until the Coast Guard finally rescued them. Silberstein's friend was near death from hypothermia.

And yet, Silberstein never stopped surfing. In fact, a journal he's kept since the 1980s shows 2,750 wave-riding sessions.

"Surfing has guided my entire life," he says.