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.
He’s no longer the surfing punk he once was growing up in Southern California’s inland empire. His father used to take him body surfing at Corona del Mar in Newport Beach. By 12, Scanlon was riding a board.
As an adult, he worked construction jobs, which freed up his time for surfing. But he also drank so much that when he tried quitting his hands shook and he began to have seizures. Scanlon said he took his last sip of alcohol on July 8, 1990.
He said sobriety “gave me back the life I loved.”
Scanlon moved to Santa Rosa in 1992 and got married three years later. He works as a camera operator at Golden Gate Fields, a job that doesn’t require him to be in until noon on race days. The schedule suits his lifestyle.
On this chilly morning, Scanlon opted to forgo wearing a neoprene hood as an added layer of warmth. Scanlon said he’s conditioned himself over time to better withstand frigid conditions by performing outdoor chores in the winter, such as washing his car, in a bare minimum of clothing. He also skateboards in the same attire.
The sight of him drives his neighbors crazy, he admitted.
On the sandy beach, he performed a series of stretches to loosen up. Being relaxed is part of his strategy to stay warm.
“What you focus on grows,” he said. “If all you are aware of is how cold you are, that’s all you notice.”
Scanlon knew what he was in for this morning before he left his Petaluma home, which he shares with his wife, Jewell. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website told the story in stark data registered from a buoy outside Bodega Bay. The waves were 11 feet and breaking at 16 seconds apart. The wind was coming on-shore almost directly out of the west.
In other words, pure chop.
Heading into the churning froth, Scanlon predicted he would be out for only a few sets. Nobody else was in the water. Instead, he stayed out more than an hour, paddling out again and again to catch waves. He bailed out on many of them because of their poor quality. But every now and then he carved out a good one.
Back at the parking lot, Scanlon brought out a floor mat from his car and stood on it while peeling off his gear, first using a shoehorn to remove his booties. He placed plastic produce bags on his bare feet that made it easier to pull off the suit. “An old diver’s trick,” he said.
Scanlon said when he first started surfing the Sonoma Coast in winter, his fingers were so cold after he got out of the water that he couldn’t grasp the key to start his car. So he rigged up a device that allowed him to hold the key with two hands.
Back in his shorts and flip-flops, his face a bright red from exposure to the frigid surf, Scanlon appeared ebullient. He was planning to stop at the Costco in Rohnert Park to fuel up the Toyota before heading home.
“I never regret going out,” he said. “I’m always a better version of myself.”
Asked to rate his surfing experience that day, Scanlon demurred, arguing that the question missed the point. “Take it out of the box,” he said, meaning let the moment stand on its own.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.