Heaps of History at Surfing's Skate Park
By Jake Howard
Whoooooosh! Like a ghost in the night a pair of mountain bikes fly down the rough asphalt frontage road. It’s 2:00 am. The moon’s almost full and has just passed its zenith. The moist Pacific air glows with white light. A dewy smell of dill hangs in the mist. At the end of the trail, where the surf meets the cobblestones, the tide is gently nudging its way up the beach. A moderate 180-degree south swell continues to fill in. Aquatic phosphorescence flash with each crashing wave.
It’s last call at the bars in town, but on this Saturday night in San Clemente there’s more action in the late-night Lower Trestles lineup. It’s a spot that holds a special attachment to those who can be counted amongst the most ardent regulars.
San Clemente is a town not short on surf spots. T-Street, San Onofre, the pier, the beach breaks – all suitable options on their day. But the split-peak perfection that is Lower Trestles is the crown jewel. Perched on a cobblestone point in California’s San Onofre State Park, it straddles the Orange and San Diego County Line, and draws surfers from around the globe.
Considered to be one of the world’s most high-performance waves, ever since the Shortboard Revolution of the late ’60s it’s been a focal point for progressive surfing. Careers have been made there, surf stars born, and amongst all of the global attention it receives, a bunch of blue-collar, workaday guys scratch for their piece of the pie.
“I’ve had some success here over the years,” understates 11-time WSL world champion Kelly Slater, who signed one of pro surfing’s biggest contracts on the beach at Lowers in 1991 (then announced his arrival – and proved his worth – by winning the contest).
But Kelly’s nowhere to be found during this midnight session, it’s locals only. And a salty group of locals it is. The cliché line after every heat win of every contest at Lowers is, “I’m just stoked to be out there with one other person.” For all its international notoriety, day in and day out it attracts more people than just about any wave the world over. Thirty people in the water isn’t even a crowd. It’s not until about 80 people paddle out that things start feeling a little tight, and a bait ball of over 100-plus people is just another ripe summer day.
Lowers allows for it all: power hacks, the occasional barrel, airs and mega tail wafts like this one from Jordy Smith. — Photo by: Ryan Miller
Take notes, young man. Gabriel Medina, nurturing the youth.
The cobblestones help to sculpt the perfection that is Lowers.
A long open face, optimal for fine-tuning countless maneuvers.
The wave is the canvas, the surfer the artist. Julian Wilson, going all Pollock on the place. — Photo by: Ryan Miller
Jordy Smith, making a mess of Lowers perfection.
“It’s a wave that really allows you to push your level of surfing, and that’s an attractive thing to any surfer,” says Jordy Smith, who recently relocated to San Clemente from his hometown of Durban, South Africa, shortly after winning the WSL World Tour stop there in 2014. “It has a reputation for being sort of like a skate park, and I think that’s true because you can experiment with so many different lines and types of turns.”
During a recent break in his world tour schedule, homegrown talent Kolohe Andino took advantage of an off-season south swell. He’s out riding waves to stay loose – which means ripping quite a bit harder than anybody else in the water. His dad Dino joins him. Mike “Snips” Parsons is waiting out the back.
“It was better a little while ago,” Parsons says flatly. The man is as calculating as an accountant, and there’s no questioning he did his math in the timing of his session. The ideal swell direction, period and tide are simple arithmetic to him, and when they all come together it’s an amazing thing to witness.
The tide’s dropping quick and the wind is picking up. Kolohe continues to pick off twice as many waves as everybody else. He’s hardly aggressive; he’s just been surfing out there all his life, has been well coached by Parsons and his pops, and knows exactly where to sit to get the good ones.
A lightly attended day by Lowers standards, another local hero, Chris Ward, soon joins the fray. “I couldn’t find a full-suit, I don’t think I own one,” was Wardo, clad in a spring suit, unfazed by the chilly winter water.
He proceeds to gouge into a left. Riding a new Matt “Mayhem” Biolos-shaped Sub Driver model, board, surfer and wave are completely in sync. Wardo doesn’t even have to think about it, connecting the dots at Lowers is as second nature to him as it is for Kolohe. Everybody has Mayhem’s shapes under their respective feet. He’s not only the most prolific local surfboard shaper, he designs boards for about half of the world tour. Riding one of his boards at Lowers is like hot sauce on a Pedro’s burrito, it just goes together.
Kolohe’s currently ranked 21st in the world. His old man’s a former national champion. Parson’s is a big-wave icon. And Wardo spent years on the world tour. As the tide continues to exit the small pack is left sitting out the back along with a few other the regulars. Dino holds court. He drives the conversation. From the health of Wardo’s dad (“he’s good”), to what the immortal McGonagle brothers are doing (two of the three reside in Cabo), and how San Clemente’s coming up on another real estate bubble, it’s like a town hall meeting and gossip column all wrapped into one running dialog.
“Two hours out there and my dad catches like three waves and talks the rest of the time,” jokes Kolohe back on the beach. Making headlines and winning titles since 2005, in two days the boy will become a man. He will be 21. He down plays the birthday thing. He also downplays his talent. His father taught him well.
Kolohe’s hardly the only world-class surfer that frequents Lowers. Local crew like Nate Yeomans, Ian Craine, Griffin Colapinto, the Gudauskas, Long and Fletcher brothers are all freakish enough. In their own way they’ve all had a hand in shaping surfing as the sport we know and live for today.
But there’s also been a foreign invasion of talent in the last 12 months. Smith has planted roots in town with his new wife. Brazilian sensation Filipe Toledo, who’s coming off of a career-best win at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast earlier this year, has moved his whole family to town. Three-times women’s world champion Lisa Andersen can be found in the water when she’s not on the road working (and surfing) for Roxy. Former world champ (2000) Sunny Garcia hates the cold water, but endures (though he admittedly finds excuses to get back to Hawaii every chance he can). Kalani Robb – another former world tour surfer – another Hawaiian transplant. None of them would be here if it weren’t for Lowers.
That brings us back to the bikes whizzing down the trail under the cloak of relative darkness. Those that don’t want to rub shoulders with the world’s best seek out the off hours. They forsake sleep for a session with a couple dozen compadres. They keep an eye on every off-season bump from the south and call in sick when they show up. Their devotion to the wave leads them down the trail at any and all hours.
Out in the water the conversation is light. Every surfer is trying to find his or her place in the lineup. Even with a near full moon, it’s dark. The crowd of a couple dozen is spread out. As they wait for the inconsistent head-high peak to roll through they break off in small groups, losing time in the night with meaningless surf banter – the health of a parent, a friend who’s gone AWOL, the price of real estate in town. Besides there being significantly less people, there’s also more order, more respect. It still exists amongst this core pack. Nobody drops in, there’s more mutual respect, more laughing and more fun. No fights like during the day. For those diligent enough to paddle out at Lowers while the rest of the world sleeps they know perfectly well what it means to make sacrifices for their obsessions. They know that a set wave at Lowers with only a few friends out is worth a few extra winks.