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Accomplished surfer dies off Mendocino County coast

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Donald Harris surfed all over the world, from Huntington Beach in Southern California to Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz to Queensland, Australia, to Bali and the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia.

The final session for Harris, a 58-year-old resident of Philo, came Sunday morning. After making the hourlong drive from his home to Point Arena cove, Harris paddled out 100 yards or so, then told another surfer he wanted to go out further, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said.

Five minutes passed and no one had seen Harris.

“Another surfer paddled out to check on him and found him floating in the water with his surfboard next to him. He brought him in to shore and began CPR,” Barney said.

Arriving paramedics took over CPR, but couldn’t revive Harris. He was pronounced dead at 9:21 a.m. An autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday to determine the cause of his death, Barney said.

Waves at Point Arena, a popular break, were well overhead Sunday morning at about 9 feet, according to Surf-Forecast.com.

With the rocks, lack of lifeguards and long paddles to reach the point breaks, the area presents a surfing challenge and definitely is not recommended for beginners.

Nor was Harris a beginner. He grew up surfing Huntington Beach, in Orange County. After moving to Sausalito “to chase my heartthrob,” he wrote on a surfing website in 2003 — he was referring to his wife, Bonnie — he became a regular in the lineup at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, one of the most challenging waves on the West Coast.

“He was really well respected,” said his friend and fellow surfer, Jack Beresford, of San Diego. “Not only for his surfing ability, but for his generosity and willingness to give back.”

After moving to Philo, just north of Boonville, Harris had spent the last seven years as the technology manager for the Anderson Valley Unified school district. His daughter, Lana, is a freshman at Anderson Valley High School.

After describing Harris as “a godsend” to the district, for the expertise he brought to all matters technological, interim superintendent Michael Warych said that “unquestionably the greater loss is that he was a wonderfully good guy who was loved and respected not just in the school district, but throughout the Anderson Valley area.”

Also feeling his loss is the community of “kneelos,” or kneeboarders, a subset of surfers who enjoy a different, more retro riding experience. By kneeling on the board, some claim, they can ride higher and tuck back further in the tube of a wave.

A kneelo dating back to his boyhood days at Huntington Beach, Harris almost singlehandedly sparked a kneeboarding comeback in this country in 2003, when he launched the website KSUSA.org.

“At first, I registered 15 of my friends,” he told the Marin Independent Journal in 2007. “They were the only members. But through word of mouth it kept growing and now we have a little over 1,100 members.”

“He had a vision for how our community could come together,” said Beresford, a six-time winner of the U.S. Kneeboard championships. “He was someone who brought a lot of folks together. He had friends around the world.”

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.

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