Surf Travel Adventure: Christian Beamish's Pacific Pilgrimage

Installment #6

So the drugs were definitely a factor, and the beer for breakfast too. I suppose we were trying for a state of mind: something spiritual and ecstatic, but we ended up angry, scared, and confused. When Leon came wading ashore down in that desolate cove, muttering about the "goddamned pussy ocean," I thought the savagery was about to begin. We squared off, looking into each other (remember, this was an LSD-fueled feud), but somehow (sorry ultimate-fighting fans) decided that we didn't need to tear each other's throats out, and simply walked off down the beach in opposite directions.

I ended up lying on my back under a baby palm and stilling my heart down to about one beat every 30 seconds, thinking that I might even turn the damn thing off and go astral. I then reviewed my schmucky interpersonal dealings and came to the conclusion that I was indeed a self-centered little sinner … not fun.

But now, with so many years in between and despite acknowledging my personal failures, I realize that the problem down on that cove beach in Guam was that Leon was a kook. We can't really blame him for wanting to get into surfing; after all, he was on a tropical island, living out the days as a reject Navy man (you recall that he was kicked out for ganja) and house-husband to a poor Navy girl from Appalachia whom he loathed like he loathed his own kinky hair that he used chemicals on to try and straighten out, but only ended up with a freaky frizz-do (this is a white dude we're talking about). Maybe hailing from Kentucky and having big hair ain't easy — but in that case, why grow it long? Why get married to a girl who seems to embarrass you? Then again, why take powerful, mind-altering drugs and wander off into the wilderness? I guess we're all kooks at one time or another.

Still, Leon really was a kook. No finesse. We finally got together to work out the fundamentals in the slow, crumbling waves of Talafofo Bay on the windward side of the island. I'd get going at the weekend parties, fired up on 20 Budweisers and ranting about late drops and deep pits (I think I talk better than I surf), and Leon finally said to me, "Beam, I gotta surf." So we went around to the surf shops one Saturday and found an 8′ 2″ that had been put back together and had plenty of thickness through the middle (kind of like Leon himself). A funny coincidence was that the gun had been made for Steve, the Polynesian warrior who almost demolished me back at the Boat Basin. But it was Leon's board now, and we went down to Talafofo to work on paddling and popping up.

Stripped down to elastic-band gym shorts, with that not-so-straightened hair (I forgot to mention that he'd dyed it jet-black, which made a perfect contrast off his pure white skin), Leon made a most unlikely waterman. I have to acknowledge that this cataloguing of Leon's unflattering body traits betrays my cliquish, Newport Beach upbringing — yes, Newport Beach, where we are better looking and have more money than you can imagine — but you get the picture — he thought the fins might be some kind of handle to grab hold of while hurtling down the face.

Not surprisingly, the lesson didn't go too well. Leon couldn't get the hang of paddling and was all stiff back and flailing arms, the board pearling at every hint of a take-off. We claimed success when he managed to get to a knee with his arms outspread like the doughboy, and then plunge sideways into the murky bay water. We went back to the car, cracked a couple of Buds, and Leon lit up a Marlboro. The next weekend, deciding that he needed surf that would push him a little faster so he could get up, we loaded into his car with his Appalachian bride, and drove out to the end of the deepwater jetty where a Trestles-like wave bent and ran along the reef.

The surf wasn't big, but it was there — a solid 3- to 4-foot. The paddle-out entailed climbing down the jetty to a jump rock, then leaping into the current and threading a quick line through the end section that washed back up the sharp lava boulders. From there, it was an easy paddle in a deep channel out to the top of the reef. I pointed out all the factors to Leon, and suggested that he wait until his paddling got a bit stronger, but he was convinced that if he got out there and had another try at surfing, he'd get it. I should have said no, but truth be told, I couldn't wait to get out there myself and lay down tracks on those glassy blue walls, so I said, "Why don't you just watch where I jump in, and how I paddle out?" Leon's wife said something to the effect that she didn't think it was a good idea for him to go out, to which he replied, "Shut the hell up!" He stubbed out his cig, grabbed the 8′ 2″, and followed me down to the jump rock.

I made the leap, ducked a line of whitewater, and sat in the channel waiting for him to follow. His approach of course was all wrong: from the belly-flopping leap, to catching the rail in his crotch, to the paddling with the nose of the board waving in the air like a protester's sign at an anti-war rally, every single aspect of his aquatic movement screamed of a life in the hills. Add to this a good five-wave set stacking up out the back (which irked me to no end, since if I'd been on a solo mission I'd have swung into one of them) and we had a perfect storm of ineptitude met with the indifference of the sea.

Not wanting to panic him, I called out for him to scoot up on his board and paddle hard. He was achingly close to safety—a mere 15 feet from the channel. Leon snuck over the first one by the grace of God, and as I paddled a bit farther out to avoid the next one, I looked back and saw his eyes turn to saucers of fear. I yelled, "Nooo!!!" when I saw him turn around and paddle straight for the rocks as the wave bore down. What happened next was an exhibition of sheer human will to survive as he was washed into a cave, dragged back out, then flung against the jagged wall where he clung like a barnacle as lines of whitewater broke his board into smaller and smaller pieces. Arm over arm, he dragged himself to the top of the jetty. He was cut up badly along the insides of his arms and legs, and on his chest and belly too, after humping the rocks to safety.

I caught a few waves effortlessly—it was an easy, rolling point reef set-up—then came in. We stood around the car not saying much as Leon's wife dabbed at his cuts with a towel. He was shaking. He'd been scared. He didn't have a board anymore and it didn't seem like the time for a "better luck next time" comment, so I slouched in the back seat and cracked a Bud.