Surfing Ambassador/World Champion

A few weeks ago, the County of Santa Barbara, which has a billion-dollar budget, employs 3,800 people and currently faces a ninety-million-dollar shortfall, asked me to deliver an inspiring speech for the County Government inauguration. As you can see from the video and text below, I told the story of how surfing and tube-riding essentially saved my life. I strongly believe that surfing can teach us powerful lessons if we look beyond the next wave.

We all live in a challenging sea and our attitude towards those challenges defines who we are, and how we live our lives.

Our attitude about the present defines our future. Our attitude about the future defines the present. Our attitude defines how we see the world and how the world sees us. Our attitude is the light that can show us the way on a journey from where we are, to where we want to be. It is a fundamental choice for all of us.

Positive or negative. Optimism or pessimism. Hope or despair. Light or Darkness.

It is a simple choice.

It is a choice to be made by everyone in this room and this choice can change us and change our lives and change the world all around us.

This is a story of a journey, my journey – a story of despair and hope, a journey from heartbreak to happiness, a journey from the dark into the light.

For sixteen years through the 1970s and 1980s I was a professional surfer. I actually made my living by going surfing and I was pretty good at it too. It actually became a career. Coming from a Jewish family, I was always going to go down the road of being a professional – doctor, lawyer – professional surfer wasn’t quite part of the plan.

Like many of my friends from university I also became a specialist; my specialty was tube riding. It represents the absolute essence of surfing – a feeling of pure exhilaration and freedom. Time is expanded; reality unfolds in slow motion. The past is just behind you, the present is right between your feet, racing beneath your board, and the future is just ahead, just out of reach and you are riding for the light, always riding for the light.

During my long pro career I managed to win nineteen pro events and become World Champion. I retired from pro surfing at the end of 1989. I spent a number of years in my homeland of South Africa before moving with my wife Carla and son Mathew to Santa Barbara.

My favorite spot along the California coast is Hammonds Reef, a secluded beach about a mile away from where I live. It was home to the Chumash people hundreds of years ago. My son Mathew and I used to love going surfing there and together we had some great days. In the water sometimes he’d come up to me, sit close and sling his arm around my shoulder while we waited for a wave. It is a lovely beach, a small little bay, a peaceful refuge from the business of life. The whole atmosphere at Hammonds is calming.

One winter morning Matthew and I went down to check the surf – there was a bench where we’d sit together and check out the action and we’d stash our surfboard wax at a little spot in the bushes that grew down to the cobblestones surrounding the beach. On this particular day there was no surf so Mathew said, “Let’s go and visit the memorial.”

In front of Hammonds, bordered by expensive homes is a beautiful meadow, and at the eastern edge of the meadow is a memorial erected by the Chumash and decorated with dolphin figurines. So we walked along the path to the meadow and went to the Memorial. At the base of the memorial people had left shells, bits of driftwood, pictures and other offerings.

On the memorial is a profound and powerful inscription:

The sacredness of the land lies in the mind of its people.This land is dedicated to the spirit and memory of the ancestors and their children.

We stood there for a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere. The Chumash had a settlement right here hundreds of years ago living off the land and the sea. Surrounded by high-end homes and our ultra modern society there was a feeling of history, a connection to the past and to the land.

We walked back down to the beach together. I could see that a plan was percolating in Mathew’s head. Come on Dada, help me.

On the stretch of beach, just the two of us, no one else around, he started to build this huge circle of stones. We made one large circle and inside that circle we made a second circle, dragging the stones around the beach. Inside that second circle we then made a third circle. So finally we had three concentric circles of cobblestones on the beach. Then Matthew made a pathway through the three circles and inside the innermost circle he dropped two large flat stones – one was to be a seat for me, and another a seat for him. He then scampered off down the beach and came back with a large stick. On top the top of the stick he had tied some kelp and attached a feather.

He had me sit down in the center of the three circles on my rock, and he sat directly across from me on his.

“What this is, is a sacred story circle, Dada,” he explained while holding a stick. “And this is the sacred story stick. If you are holding the stick you can tell a story and when you are finished you give me the stick and I’ll tell you a story.”

We sat down inside this circle of stones on the two seats on an empty beach at Hammonds and told each other stories. It was just the two of us in our own world, inside the sacred story circle. It was a magical, magical moment.

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