One Kook's Safari: Are you ready to fight for a ride? I'm not

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The guy in the center won this race and got a nice ride at Waverly Boulevard in Ocean City this week. When the waves are firing, there can be steep competition for rides in the summer. By the way, take a look at the foot of the guy trying to get out of the way of the surfer on the right. The guy in the center won this race and got a nice ride at Waverly Boulevard in Ocean City this week. When the waves are firing, there can be steep competition for rides in the summer. By the way, take a look at the foot of the guy trying to get out of the way of the surfer on the right. I was about ready to drop the “Kook” in the title of this column.

It’s been a couple of years now. I can actually catch waves, even some pretty big waves. OK, relatively big waves for South Jersey, although I gave a pass to those amazing blizzard-powered monsters that rolled in last winter, and waited for the Hurricane Arthur swell to ease up a bit before heading in.

I can’t walk the nose, I find shortboards squirrely and pretty much unridable, but I’m out there paddling for the peak fairly regularly. I was about ready to declare an end to my kookdom.

Then I hit Waverly.

More to the point, I hit Waverly Boulevard early in the morning, on a day when waves were breaking nicely there, and not breaking at all anywhere else in the north end of Ocean City.

Waverly Boulevard is one of the city’s dedicated surfing beaches. For a lot of people, it’s the Ocean City wave. There is a shallow break midblock, but most riders plant themselves in a lineup at the end of a stone jetty trying for a long right. If you catch one, you can often take a ride right past the midblock and get a clean wave all the way down the line.

There are surfers there all year, and in the summer, somebody is out there trying to catch a ride from first light until after sunset almost every day if there are any kind of waves at all.

On this particular morning, about 6:30 a.m., it seemed like everybody in town who wanted a ride was floating off that jetty, and most of them were good riders. A couple of them were pretty incredible, longboarders who seemed to be able to catch anything, apparently with the power of thought, because they never seemed to paddle.

Pretty much every time I tried for a wave, either one of those brilliant riders was already cruising the line, obliging me to drop back, or three or four other surfers were also trying for the same peak.

I don’t do competition all that well.

I prowled the lineup, waiting for my chance, as time passed and my body temperature dropped. Of course, if I did get a shot at a wave all to myself, I’d probably flub it in one of the many, many ways to flub a wave, which meant next time a set came, nobody was going to give me another wave to myself.

I might as well have written “Kook” in big letters on my forehead. Maybe I didn’t have to tattoo it on, but in permanent marker, anyway.

The next day, along with Karen – my surf coach, nutrition expert and personal motivational speaker – I tried a beach break in the south end and had a great time. We had the block to ourselves, hours before the lifeguards turned up, and caught waves right, left and center. Later in the week I returned to Waverly, determined to stand up and fight for my wave, but I couldn’t help notice that on the next block, a very similar wave was rolling in empty, about waist high and as clean as you could ask for. I paddled out, turned around and caught a fine ride. Then I paddled out and caught another.

So why does everybody keep fighting for their peak at the Waverly jetty?

I was thinking of taking a quick poll, but the surfers were busy surfing, and the guys checking out the waves from the steps seemed surly and uncommunicative, so I turned to the best place to talk waves: one of the local surf shops.

“It’s a combination of the limited surfing beaches during the guarded hours, and the surfing community that Waverly already has,” said Eric Plyler, who was working at Heritage Surf at 744 West Ave. He has worked there about two years, and first stood on a board on the East Coast, but he grew up in Orange County, Calif., where he really learned to surf.

The Ocean City Beach Patrol allows surfing between the stands in the south end, but for guarded surfing beaches, there are Waverly, Seventh Street and 16th Street. For those learning to surf, having a guarded beach is a great idea. But the ocean is wide open before the guards start at 10 a.m., so why the congregation at one spot? It can be a really nice wave, but it’s not the only nice wave.

For one thing, Plyler said, you’re probably going to see all of your friends there. There’s a social aspect going on. Besides, what’s the point of getting airborne on a top turn if nobody sees you do it?

“If you’re out at Waverly, you can be pretty sure everybody’s watching you,” he said.

Great, so that means everybody really was watching when I tumbled over the top of my board at Waverly, and nobody saw my nice long right a block away.

So what about the fight for the wave? It’s tough to keep track of that many people in a fairly dynamic situation. Some surfers see that as part of the skill set: You aren’t really a surfer if you aren’t jockeying for position and getting your wave.

Plyler said it’s all about the complicated rules of priority, which almost boils down to the surfer closest to the peak gets the ride. But there is a certain deference for seniority, so the guy who’s been at the break since 1976 has earned himself a little space. Theoretically, someone who’s been waiting all morning for a ride will also be given a chance, Plyler said, but nobody wants to give up a wave.

There’s some localism at work, he added, but everybody is pretty friendly for the most part. Still, the locals want their chance at a wave, no doubt.

“We were out here surfing all winter; we want to get some waves in the summer, too,” he said.

So even though it looks chaotic, everybody knows the rules, and you can be confident in the ability of your fellow surfers to avoid collisions, right? Not exactly.

“The last time I surfed there I got run over,” Plyler said. “And I dodged a few others.”

It’s getting to the point when peak hours are getting dangerous, he said, the surfer code of courtesy notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, by the time I got my second ride on the next block, there were a couple of other boards paddling my way. Three more rides, and I counted 10 surfers on a block that had been empty 15 minutes earlier.

So maybe somebody saw that nice first ride after all. 

The Waverly lineup near sunset. The Waverly lineup near sunset.

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