In September of 1975 Dale Webster surfed through a magnificent run of south swell. 14,642 days later, on October 4, 2015, he didn’t catch a wave to the beach for the first time since that south swell 40 years earlier. It’s easily the craziest, coolest (but not in a way I’d want to accomplish it myself), streak surfing will ever see. Through 40 years, through rain or shine, hail, flat spells, and everything else Mother Nature challenged Dale Webster with, he suited up and caught at least three waves to the beach every day. His wife passed away from cancer and he continued the streak. His daughter entered the world, and he made it out. And on plenty of occasions the ocean delivered next to nothing, and he, of course, took his three to the beach.
And the rest of us call ourselves devout surfers.
The first time I’d heard about Dale’s “3 to the beach” daily ritual he was in pursuit of the very reasonable number of 10,407 consecutive days of surfing. Naturally, when he hit that milestone in February 2004 he came up with a reason to extend it all for another day, and then another, and then another, which eventually brought him to the point where his body (and a doctor), not his will, told the 66-year old it was time to take a day off. Webster had surfed through a kidney stone before but this time the minor surgery he’d need to treat it has called for eight weeks out of the water. That’s a minimum of 168 waves Dale will be missing out on. Naturally, even that news was received with compromise because Webster had told SURFER magazine he’d keep the streak going until at least September 3, 2015 – the 40 year anniversary of the day it all started. The surgery was set and Dale went out and added another 30 days of surfing on top of that September 3rd goal…because he’s Dale Webster and that’s what he does. His friends all threw him a “retirement party” and on October 5th Dale recovered from his procedure without setting foot in the ocean.
I’ve toiled with finding some deeper meaning in a streak like this and a lesson to take from it all, but I’ve never been able to relate to the idea of catching three waves a day, all the way to the beach, every day, no matter what. Webster says the furthest he traveled away from his home in Sanoma County during those 40 years was Lake Tahoe. That’s just a three to four-hour drive from the coast. So now he’s been given the freedom to travel wherever he wants with no plans of starting up another streak. He’s been there, done that, and says he doesn’t have to go through it again. So he won’t. I’d be terrified of the pressure to keep a streak like that alive. When the ocean goes flat for weeks at a time and a purple blob pops up suddenly I start to build out my life around the waves. There is a constant guilt I feel when I know a head high barrel is just out my window and I’m too busy doing life without saltwater. So when people wonder how I could be so “dedicated” during those times I simply reply with “you surf when there are waves, not when you want to.” I like to think that’s both my romantic little appreciation for the elusive nature of great surf and the ability to live in the moment. I don’t have to feel bad about the rest of life going on hold for a week at a time or even longer because I’ll promise to take care of the boring stuff when the ocean quiets down. And it’s also a built-in excuse for not surfing while enduring those month-long flat spells. I don’t have to feel guilt over working or enjoying other things that don’t tie me to the ocean because I know I’ll make the most of the moments when we’re gifted with great surf. Since most of us can’t drag ourselves into the ocean when it looks its worst (aka, waveless) we just can’t imagine a life of doing it every day unless there just so happens to be surf every day.
And then I read another one of Dale’s magical insights learned in the past 14,642 days.
“Sometimes you end up looking for perfect waves that only exist in magazines,” he says. “But when you go to the beach, you have to surf the waves you have on hand. It may not be barreling, but the act of putting on a suit, going out there, and just being in the water feels wonderful.” It turns out the insane dedication to those three waves wasn’t really so much about the waves themselves. Sure, he gets pumped when it’s pumping and probably frustrated as hell when it’s not. He’s taught us about the honor system. He’s reminded us about integrity and doing what you say you’re going to do. And he’s put us all in check when declaring our own dedication to a life built around dancing in the ocean. Ultimately, the only person that matters in that relationship between you and surfing is you. Are you happier when you get out? Do you do it because you love it? And will the saltwater ever get out of your hair no matter how long it goes flat? But unlike most of us, Dale Webster wasn’t out chasing the perfect wave this whole time. He was just out there having the most fun while he could. And you know what they say about the surfer who has the most fun.
Tomorrow, I’ll wake up and surf. Even if it’s flat. And I’ll make sure I have a lot of fun doing it. Even if it’s flat.