19. Surfing Without a Leash

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
-Bronnie Ware (1)

While the world’s first microprocessor (2) was catalyzing the personal computer revolution in Silicon Valley, the sport of surfing was forever changed by the invention of the surf leash. I was a sophomore in high school when I first saw a surf leash in action (at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas). I was stupefied! The idea of tying your foot to your surfboard with a rubber cord virtually eliminated any repercussions of wiping out on a wave and losing your board. It quickly became a de facto standard for surfers, which helped drive a significant transformation of the sport over the next decade. Most in the water today have never surfed without a leash.

Before the leash, surfing not only mandated good swimming and paddling skills, but also required a more cautious approach to the wave you were riding. If you fell and lost your board, the backlash could include a long swim in (after some cussing and swearing), paddling back out against incoming waves, and potentially an afternoon in your garage doing ding repair (if rocks or other surfboards got involved). Growing up surfing in the 60s included a lot of swimming, paddling, and ding repair. It was how we learned!

Pat O’Neill, son of acclaimed wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill, is generally acknowledged for inventing the modern surf leash in 1971.(3) In those days, a lost board at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz meant almost certain death on the rocks, so it is easy to understand his motivation. The surf leash is also how Jack O’Neill lost his left eye. The early versions were made from a coiled surgical cord that would shoot the board back like a bullet after a wipeout. Ouch! I imagine Jack shouldered his share of, “You’ll shoot your eye out” jokes with that one. (4)

An early version of the surf leash poked out Jack O’Neill’s eye!

The surf leash helped spawn an avant-garde generation of shortboard surfers fashioning a new style of surfing that required minimal foot movement on the board and maximum body language above the waist. Suddenly, the hot surfers were wiggling like a hula-hooper to slash and tear up and down the face of the wave on boards that were barely any taller than they were. There was no penalty for trying something beyond your ability, as you could immediately try it again. The result was a dramatic shift in what became possible on a wave.

Like Intel’s 4044 microprocessor, the surf leash had its skeptics. For those of us who had grown up surfing longboards without a leash in the 60s, this innovation to the sport was not all good news. For many who liked to freely walk up and down the board while riding a wave, strapping on the leash was analogous to attaching a chain and ball to your leg. Mobility on the board was limited, as there was a tendency to tangle with the cord if you did move.

The leash also negated the thrill of trying not to fall while riding a more challenging section of a wave. There were no serious consequences to falling, so why not try something crazy? Kicking out of a wave was a technically advanced skill before the leash (with longboards). With the leash, a swan dive was now just as effective in exiting a wave. I likened it to the safety net for the flying trapeze artists at the circus. The success of any given move did not look so formidable once you realized they weren’t going to die if they fell.

We quickly labeled it the “kook cord,” and agreed among our inner circle not to use it. Most troublesome was the increase in crowds that developed, as nobody had to swim in for their board if they fell. It brought out people at breaks who had no right to be surfing there. Getting outmatched by a wave and paying the price with a swim to shore and paddle back out was not only good tutoring, but also great for those in the lineup waiting for the next set. At a place like San Onofre, it could take thirty minutes for someone who had lost their board to reappear into the lineup.

My daughter Marisa navigating the rock dance with her leash at San Onofre.

However, it soon became apparent that I would lose quickly in the game of improving my surfing if I went without it. That caught my attention. Of course, I wanted to be the best surfer in the water, and there was no denying that the leash gave you more time to ride waves. As soon as I noticed someone pass me by with a new maneuver, I caved in and strapped the shackle onto my ankle.

When wave and crowd conditions allow, I still do sometimes paddle out without a leash. A sense of freedom and excitement immediately washes over me. It’s like removing the seat belt and rolling down the windows in my car on a bluebird day. Caution is in the air, but I feel free as a bird. Nostalgia sets in. This is how surfing was meant to be. There is an excitement of risk in trying to “hang five,” knowing I could lose contact with my board by falling. I can move up and down the board without hindrance or fear of getting tangled. My surfboard becomes a part of me that I hold onto at all costs. The stoke of a long ride without a leash takes on greater joy, lifting me to kick out with a howl. My soul is awakened in the triumph. It takes me back to my roots and reminds me how the ocean has been a part of my growing and learning as a human being. One day I will look back and realize that each fall and subsequent swim to shore was a part of God’s plan for my life.

Taking off the Leash in Life

After 25 years in several high-tech sales and marketing jobs in Silicon Valley (Chapter 12, New Beginnings), I took a year off to complete a rigorous training program with twenty other classmates to become a New Ventures West Integral Coach® (a life coach). At our graduation, we each had a moment to express what those twelve months meant to us. My summation of the twelve months was that it taught me how to surf without a leash. Unleashing from the security of my high-tech job (and paycheck) had provided me the freedom to live a life truer to myself as opposed to the life the world expected of me. I had discovered that riding the Silicon Valley Express train had me so wound up on a daily basis that I had lost track of who I was. I didn’t have time for that!

A big part of learning to be a life coach was learning how to be present. For me, that meant slowing down. A lot.

Amid my busyness, I saw my life passing me by. I was checking off all the boxes to earn a living, support my family, and care for my health. Yet, in that struggle, I had lost touch with who I was. The New Ventures West coaching program provided me the opportunity to paddle out without my leash. A new awareness began to wash over me. It was refreshing and new!

What I had experienced was clarified in a book I read, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware. It is a memoir about Bronnie’s journey to self-discovery, which led her to care for the needs of the dying. Her life was transformed by that experience of tending to those who were in their final days on this earth. I admired Bronnie’s honesty about too many years doing unfulfilling work and how she was able to break that mold to live the life she felt she was called to. It is a simple retelling of how one can learn to listen carefully to our internal compass.

That twelve-month break from the Silicon Valley juggernaut allowed me to experience the liberation of who I was. It was not easy; I fell a lot and still do. Yet learning to enjoy the swim and gaining strength from the paddle back out sharpened my understanding of who I was inside. I learned to listen deeply to what God’s plan for my life is. It is a marvelous and life-changing experience that continues to evolve as I move forward today.

I enjoy trail running in the early morning and often run the same trail (Chamise) each week in Rancho San Antonio, an open space preserve near our house. It is a challenging climb and descent of over a thousand feet with beautiful vistas of Silicon Valley and the Santa Cruz mountains on top. On random days that I can never predict, this same sense of inner consciousness envelops me like a thick fog. Even though I am running, my body slows down to tap into my soul. It is magic. Some call it the runner’s high, but for me, it is different. I am completely removed from the run and not viewing my surroundings. It is a special connection between my body and nature. I come out from it secure in who I am and confident in God’s plan. I learn through it who I am. It brings me great peace. I look at my watch at the run’s completion and acknowledge the stats, but recognize that something much more important took place.

After graduating from New Ventures West, I left my high technology job behind and found a second career at Trader Joe’s.

More on that next!

————-Footnotes——–

  1. “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” by Bronnie Ware
    Here is a quick recap of the “Top Five Regrets”:
  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

2. The world’s first microprocessor (a complete central processing unit on a single chip) was introduced by Intel in March of 1971 (Intel 4044). This eventually led to the development of the personal computer (PC).

3. According to former world champion surfer Corky Carroll’s article Humble beginnings of surf leash (Orange County Register, January 7, 2012).
https://www.ocregister.com/2012/01/07/humble-beginnings-of-surf-leash/

4. In the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s request to get an official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot air rifle for Christmas is countered by his mother (and Santa Claus) with, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”.