Most visitors to Doran Beach in Bodega Bay are drawn there for its laid-back vibe. Not Eddie Scanlon.
The 63-year-old Petaluma man had driven to the beach on a recent stormy morning in pursuit of gnarly waves. But standing alone in a parking lot, his gaze affixed to the frothing ocean, the veteran surfer began to have doubts.
The 10-foot waves were alluring, but they were blown out by the gusting on-shore wind. The faces of the waves were like tight C’s, challenging for even skilled surfers to ride.
Scanlon, who had the day off from his job televising horse races, could have bagged it and gone home. But it had been six tortuous days since he’d been in the ocean, way too long for a man who gave up drinking 25 years ago in large part so that he could re-dedicate himself to the sport he learned from his father.
“I’m pretty much a water dog,” he said, flashing a grin.
Scanlon is among an untold number of surfers who look forward to winter as prime time for surfing on the Sonoma Coast. Powerful storms originating in the Gulf of Alaska and elsewhere barrel across the Pacific Ocean, bringing with them large waves. That’s especially the case this year, when El Niño storms are super-sizing the thrills — and the dangers.
Because of its rugged nature, the Sonoma Coast does not have a reputation as a premier place for surfing. Nobody will confuse Salmon Creek Beach, the most popular surfing spot locally, for Oahu’s North Shore pipeline. But the relative lack of crowds is part of the allure.
In this expansive setting of sheer cliffs and wide open beaches, surfing can be a quasi-religious experience, as its adherents claim it to be. But the stunning beauty also masks potential threats.
Great white sharks cruise the ocean, occasionally attacking surfers they potentially mistake for seals. Scanlon said he has seen three of the feared predators while on his board. Frigid water temperatures, rip currents and limb-cracking rock jetties add to the list of hazards.
Scanlon is keenly aware of the risks associated with his sport, which is why at Doran he observed the storm-tossed ocean for a long while, determining whether to brave the conditions. He was particularly focused on two young surfers who flailed in the water, struggling to penetrate the break in the surging waves.
“Why aren’t they paddling out?” Scanlon asked aloud.
The answer was they couldn’t. Propelled by the waves and a strong, invisible current, the pair were dragged parallel to the beach and soon drifted out of sight.
At that point, most people would have given up on the idea of wading into the water. The same storm fueling the waves at Doran also was funneling massive six-story giants to the famed Mavericks spot near Half Moon Bay, waves so nasty that a competition featuring the world’s most daring surfers had been postponed indefinitely.
Motivated by his time away from the ocean, and by the fact he didn’t want to waste his drive to the beach this morning, Scanlon walked to his 1991 Toyota Corolla station wagon and began unstrapping his short board from the roof rack. Soon he had changed out of his flip flops and camouflage shorts into a wet suit and booties. He unleashed a pony tail to let his tangled gray hair fall to his shoulders.