"I have frequent seizures and can't drive a car, so I hitchhike to surf Maverick's." —Andy Lillestol
By Lewis Samuels
In 1979, doctors told Andy Lillestol he'd never surf again. He had his first grand mal seizure that winter at 26, and woke up in the hospital 10 days later. Surfing meant everything to Andy. Raised in Northern California, he'd lived on Maui, Kauai, and Oahu, developing a taste for big waves. One winter, he'd surfed eight hours a day for 28 days straight, without sunscreen. Surfing wasn't something he envisioned giving up. But with major seizures occurring every three days, Andy could no longer drive a car, let alone surf.
"It was like having a bad acid trip every few days," Lillestol remembers. "You fall down in the gutter, you're not even capable of taking care of yourself. I didn't remember what year it was, who my father was…Your neurons are misfiring—there's an electrical storm in your brain. Doctors told me to get used to the fact that I wasn't going to be a surfer anymore."
"Were they concerned about you having a seizure in the water and drowning?" I ask Lillestol.
"Oh yeah. I did have one in the water…and I drowned."
"Yeah. I drowned. My lungs filled with water, my friend pulled me off the bottom, they resuscitated me, and flew me out in a helicopter." Obviously, Lillestol had ignored doctors' orders, disillusioned with a treatment plan that at times seemed worse than the disease. Throughout the '80s, Andy was taking 12 pills a day and still seizing. "Massive amounts of barbiturates, basically. I got strung out on those things, I hated them," Andy remembers. "They have an appalling effect on your intellect as well as your emotional well-being." Andy prescribed surfing to himself, regardless of the risk. "The doctors tagged me as some hopeless case, a masochist bent on destroying himself," he remembers.
Throughout the last two decades, some local surfers have thought of Andy in similar terms. Despite his medical condition, despite admittedly not being a particularly talented surfer, Andy became obsessed with Maverick's, and has been a regular there since 1994. Throughout the '90s, without a driver's license, Andy could frequently be found standing on the side of Highway 1, 10-foot Brewer in hand, thumb out, hitch-hiking to Maverick's. If that doesn't sound gnarly enough, Lillestol exclusively surfs Mav's switchfoot, like fellow goofy Jeff Clark. "I've had some horrific wipeouts at Maverick's," Andy admits. "I've broken five boards, had two-wave hold-downs, gone over the falls backwards…But I've gotten some fantastic waves and that keeps drawing me back."
Almost 60, Andy wonders how much longer he'll surf Mav's. His epilepsy is now under control thanks to better medication. But his flexibility isn't what it once was, and Lillestol finds it ever more difficult to compete with the growing crowds. "My daughter wants me to surf big waves until I'm 70, but I don't know if that's possible in cold water. I've been surfing since 1966, and as time goes by you get more and more grateful just to have made it this far."
"I spend my life stitching surf wounds at the edge of the world." —Dr. Phillip Chapman
By Craig Jarvis
Phillip deals with people who hit their heads on the reef. He also deals with people who get bitten by snakes, who pick up rare fungal infections, who get split in half by giant waves at Speed Reef at G-Land and who cut themselves with their fins or puncture themselves with the noses of their boards. That's how he spends his surf trips. He heads the Surfing Doctors network, whose mission is to repair bodies that have been broken at the beach, and to educate surfers on things like first aid and the need for surfing competency when attempting to surf serious waves.
"We're a bunch of like-minded people who surf and have lifelong careers in medicine," says Dr. Chapman of his Surfing Doctors network, which consists of ER doctors, nurses, and paramedics as well as physiotherapists and biokinetics specialists. The story behind Surfing Doctors is a simple one. Phillip had been doing the doctor roster at G-Land since 2000, and then in 2008 an incompetent surfer, panicking in the face of a huge set wave, turned around and faced the beach. "That wave literally split him in half," said Chapman. "It broke his pelvis. We formalized Surfing Doctors after that accident. That guy came quite close to dying, and we figured out that more needed to be done."
They have future plans. "Our mission is to help crew in remote locations," says Chapman, "but this year we want to go a bit further, raise more awareness, get into some rehab systems, and hopefully open up our own clinics around the globe. We don't only fix up damaged surfers, but look after the locals, and their families, and educate them as much as possible on general health issues. We are trying to focus more on surfers' health and not just reef carnage." Well, that, and surfing the best waves on the planet.
By Chris Dixon
On an overcast day about 20 years ago, a 27-year-old surfer from Long Beach named Tim Sherer was practicing his ski jumps at Mount Baldy, when an overly ambitious attempt sent him full speed into a tree. He was knocked unconscious, swallowing his tongue and completely blocking his airway. His best friend, Tim Inskeep, tried CPR and even the Heimlich maneuver, but nothing worked. Despairing, and with Sherer's skin turning a ghastly purple, Inskeep looked up, said a prayer and brought all his weight down on his friend's chest. Sherer's airway cleared with a loud "pop" and he was suddenly thrust back into the land of the living.
Sherer had spent the previous several years earning a late business degree and taking a few years off to crew on sailboats from the Caribbean clear to Greece and hitching across Europe. Up to that day at Mount Baldy, he had reckoned he was near that point in life when he should settle down and get a "real" job. "The existential moment didn't happen until the day after the accident," he says. "I was driving my VW bus out of my neighborhood and waiting for the light to turn green, and I just realized, I just had a major accident that should have killed me. I could go ahead and get a nine-to-five job, and eventually retire, and then what? Go surfing around the world? My number could come up at any moment. I'd heard that all my life but to really realize it experientially—that changed me. I just felt like, the world is my oyster, I should be diving for pearls."
Sherer dropped everything, and, relying on his sailing ability for work and with little more than a change of clothes and a surfboard, set off for New Zealand, India, Thailand, and Burma. He spent a winter on the North Shore of Oahu, hustled photos of tourists holding parrots on Waikiki, and then migrated to Maui. There, he bought an old Ford Econoline that would double as his home. He woke up most winter mornings on the bluff at Honolua Bay and eventually took an offer to teach surfing at the Lahaina breakwall. He not only found that he enjoyed the wide-eyed shock as his students stood for the first time, but he had a knack as a teacher. "In my mind, I had already arrived," he says. "If I could give people that much happiness, I could pretty much be happy with my contribution to the world."
Two years later, largely on the urging of past students, he moved out of the van and founded Goofy Foot Surf School. He's taught Emilio Estevez and Everclear to surf, and has traveled the world on the dime of Jimmy Buffett and more recently, a pack of dot-com billionaires on a big private jet—once flying to the southern hemisphere just to watch a solar eclipse. He says it's the time with Buffett though, that has been most revelatory and left him occasionally feeling "like a gypsy in the palace."
"The kind of people Jimmy surrounds himself with," he says. "They're not only great at what they do, they also have amazing attitudes, a great work ethic, and get along so well. I realized he probably pays them fairly well too—otherwise, why would they get up at 3 a.m.? Having those kinds of people allows him to maintain his role as the creative force; he doesn't have to get mired in all the details of his tours or business. The other thing is, I see his approach to life as he expresses it through surfing. He got back into surfing at 55, and over 10 years I've watched him get so much better. He's on it every day—no matter what the conditions. He's always said, 'If it stops being fun, I'll just quit,' and I think that's the key. I was already content and happy with my life, like him. All this other stuff, it's just been extra credit."
"I treat my Multiple Sclerosis by bodysurfing freezing Ocean Beach when it's triple-overhead." —Judith Sheridan
By Lewis Samuels
Over the last decade, it's become a rite of passage for NorCal big-wave riders: Go to Ocean Beach on the swell of the season. Wax up your biggest gun when, seemingly, no one else has the sack for it. After an hour of brutal beatings you emerge, victorious, on the outer bars, where house-sized A-frames detonate forlornly. And that's when you spot her: a middle-aged woman with an orange swim cap, bodysurfing down the face of a bomb. Depending upon the ego involved, Judith Sheridan is likely to incite chagrin, confusion, or awed admiration among hellmen. Perhaps mountaineers feel the same way when they rely on equipment to accomplish what their Sherpa does with relative ease. But Judith is no Sherpa—instead, she is a 49-year-old geophysicist from Detroit, whose first real experience riding waves came a little more than a decade ago. She's improbably transitioned from lake swimming, to ocean swimming, to bodysurfing, to bodysurfing Maverick's.
Technically speaking, this makes her a true maverick—she has never considered herself one of the "tribe," and it's only recently that surfers have begun to appreciate the depth of Judith's courage and abilities. The whole reason she began bodysurfing big waves was to get away from surfers. She suffered routine drop-ins in crowded conditions, as surfers serially underestimate Sheridan's ability to make waves. After a broken nose and broken clavicle, she retreated to the outer bars to find some peace.
"When I'm in the water, I feel most like myself," Judith explains. She feels steadier, more aware, more in control. It's only in recent years that Judith found a medical explanation for this feeling. In 2008, after years of problems with balance and a degradation of sight in her right eye, Sheridan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her physicians estimate she's been fighting the disease for 25 years. Judith notes that heat activates MS lesions in her brain, meaning cold Northern California water provides therapeutic benefits. Judith is hesitant to let MS define her, but she admits, "MS has directed my takeoff style and how I ride a wave." She has developed a unique underwater takeoff to compensate for the loss of strength in her arms. She's utilized this style at Maverick's over the course of a few dozen sessions. Despite her condition, she feels lucky. "MS has freed me—it's license to do what I want."
In a male-dominated sport, where women are displayed as blonde teenagers in bikinis (if at all) it's hard to process Sheridan. She literally finds herself alone, in the dark, murky water that most casual surfers strive to avoid: swimming, without a surfboard, in the bowl at Mavericks's, with vision and muscle-tone degraded by a debilitating neurological disease. While self-proclaimed legends win $50,000 for letting go of a tow rope, Judith inhabits our cold nightmares and makes them her solace and retreat. Sheridan notes, "I like to keep my head down and pretend I'm invisible." She's not.