The surf community can seem divided by location, generation or board preference. But some moments transcend perceived differences and remind us just how close-knit the tribe of surfing can truly be. The above image, shot by Peter Taras and seen on the cover of SURFER 58.5, was taken on a foggy Sunday morning in July when hundreds of people from around the world paddled out at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz to celebrate the life of legendary waterman and wetsuit pioneer Jack O'Neill. Thousands more lined the cliff while a dozen boats — including O'Neill's Odyssey — joined the circle of surfers in what was one of the biggest paddle-outs in history. We asked Taras for the backstory on the photo, a visual tribute to Jack’s legacy and a fitting emblem of our aquatic family’s tradition.
[Click here to order the Volume 58, Number 5 Issue of SURFER, on newsstands and available for download now.]
I remember that morning in Santa Cruz when we were driving across the bridge from the West Side to the East Side. We could see people making their way to the paddle-out on their bikes with roses in their mouths. As we curved by the harbor, parents pushed strollers as their kids held flowers. I called local photographer Dave Nelson to get the gist on the crowd factor. We were an hour early; I figured there’d be maybe a couple hundred people at Pleasure Point, as these types of paddle-outs tend to lag, and people always show up late.
"There's already, like, a thousand people here,” Nelly said. “You’re not here yet?”
As we started getting toward the East Side and the numbered streets, it became clear that the whole town had converged near 40th street. Roads were blocked, the police in full force. We got dropped off near 36th and walked to the point. As we got closer, it was a thing of madness. Nelly was right. Thousands of people were here. Every surfer in Santa Cruz was here, and then some.
The circle started to form a good quarter-mile out into the ocean. The paddle-out was brutal, as I one-arm stroked through the kelp on a shortboard, holding a waterhousing in one hand and paddling with the other. I got all the way out — barely, winded, lightheaded — but shot some photos and made my way back.
As I got to the beach, what probably no one expected was, how were so many people going to filter into a tiny high-tide cover coming in? I didn't expect this view when I originally paddled out. But here was what looked like a scene from storming the beaches of Normandy. I pulled off my wetsuit halfway, undid the waterhousing, adjusted my setting to showcase a narrow depth of field, and looked for a spot on the bluff to shoot the wave of people as they hit the beach.
As people started to wash ashore, people were still crying, many with tears of joy for the experience in wishing Jack well. Legends and future legends talked about past experiences with Jack. I believe PT [Townend] said, "Well, Jack made sure we got our exercise today, didn't he?" Shaun Thomson gave a beautiful speech. Kids rolled onto the beach laughing, yet were mindful of the day, respectful of the man credited with the wetsuit they wore. Surfers continued to pass me as they brushed passed the shoreline, each wave of humans hitting me with a fresh wave of emotions. It was a really beautiful thing.