Not Forgotten

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

I started surfing regularly in 1979—right about the time the eastern Pacific Ocean decided to wake up. This wouldn’t be remarkable if I had lived in Santa Barbara or LA, but at the time I lived in the college dorms directly above Black’s Beach, and let’s just say that trying to find your sea legs amongst a North Peak minefield can be a little intimidating.

It’s a little hard to work on your cutback when double-overhead, thousand-pound peaks are flying out of a submarine canyon like a flock of angry, aqueous pterodactyls.

As any good, stupid young man worth his salt might do, I faked my way through bigger days during my freshman years, and paddled out with friends and roommates with a convincing, yet secretly forced smile on my face—and testicles firmly tucked into my lower intestine.

Out in the lineup I would try to convince myself that the surf was no big deal—after all, “it’s only California”—and that I should relax and enjoy myself. Just in case, though, I was hair trigger-wired to paddle for the horizon at a sprinting velocity so vigorous that it would make Usain Bolt jealous.

Another thing that gave me peace of mind—and probably many surfers at this time—was the feeling of immortality. Almost without exception, a surfer dying was unheard of. Especially by drowning. For the most part, nobody we knew died—I mean nobody. I tried to tell myself that no matter what happened out in the water, at least I wouldn’t leave the beach in a body bag.

About a decade passed and this feeling only strengthened. Even in the biggest surf imaginable, surfers seemed invincible.

And then it all changed.

Starting with Ronnie Burns, young surfers that we all knew and cared for started leaving us: Barry Wilson, Mark Foo, Donnie Solomon, Mark Sainsbury, Todd Chesser, Jay Moriarity…just one blow after another.

Suddenly, the air was filled with sadness and introspection. Maybe surfers weren’t so invincible after all. Maybe surfing is riskier, and life more fragile than we thought it was.

Mostly though, it taught us how fleeting life can be, and how much to appreciate your friends while they’re here.

In this spirit, you will find a mini-gallery below. A visual tribute to members of the surfing tribe, immortalized in our memory, gone but not forgotten…

Todd Chesser, 1968-1997. Photo: Gilley
Donnie Solomon, 1970-1995. Photo: Gilley
Colin Wagschal, 1976-2008. Photo: Gilley
Marvin Foster, 1961-2010. Photo: Gilley
Jimmy Blears, 1949-2011. Photo: Gilley
Andy Irons, 1978-2010. Photo: Gilley