Every year the top professional surfers compete in the ASP World Championship Tour. Last month, the pros came to San Clemente, California to compete in the Hurley Pro at San Onofre State Beach – Lower Trestles.

Lower Trestles is one of the most popular surf breaks in the world. The wave is a gorgeous, sloping, predictable A-frame. And, just a 20-minute drive north from Carlsbad, it’s virtually in my backyard. (We visited Trestles on Kirk’s 27th birthday.)

My friend Dominic, who I work with at the wine bar, and I both had Monday off, the second day of the competition. After a quick stop for coffee and donuts, we hopped on the 5 for the short trip to San Onofre.

During a competition, the break is off-limits to everyone but competitors. But, on a normal day Lowers is packed with surfers. Forty, fifty, sixty people (mostly–if not all–guys) sit in the lineup salivating for the next set. A dozen of them will paddle for the same wave. It’s intense. You need to have confidence in your surfing ability and a thick skin to brush off the inevitable anger and posturing from other guys who’ll believe that in a close call you broke the surfing code. And you’ll think they will have too. (There are just so many people in the water!) Whether you did or didn’t, on accident or on purpose (yes, plenty of surfers are jerks), you need serious balls to catch waves at Lowers.

I’ve surfed it once, this September. Most of the time I just sat there and watched everyone else catch amazing rides. Without a doubt, I was the most inexperienced and worst surfer out there. But, the water was beautiful, a clear green-blue. The sun was out. And, after two hours in the water, I managed to catch two glorious waves. The first was the longest ride of my life.

Dominic and I made our way to the north side of the break and plopped down in the sand. We happened to sit right where the competitors waded into the water to paddle out.

Below, Miguel Pupo from Brazil watches Adam Melling from Australia catch the last wave of the heat.

To be honest, I’d never heard of either of those guys. It was Kelly Slater who I was excited to see.

I’ve seen Kelly surf once before at the Boost Mobile SurfSho in Australia. Watching him surf then, I was aware of his career accomplishments–to date, he’s won the ASP Pro Tour 11 times and is both the youngest (at age 20, in 1992) and the oldest (at age 40, in 2011) to do so–but, I had barely grasped the magnitude of his talent, because I hadn’t started surfing yet myself.

Surfing is extremely difficult. Kirk, a seasoned athlete of alternative sports (wakeboarder, snow skier, snowboarder, waterskier, longboarder, surfer), has said that surfing is the most difficult sport he’s ever done. Why? The arena is always changing. The wind, the waves, the break… the elements are never the same. Every day in the water is different. Ever go to the basketball court and find it shaped like a square? Waterski on a slalom course with 9 buoys? Of course not. Surfing has no measured rectangular court, no standard 6-ball course. The ocean doesn’t give a damn what swell direction, wind direction, tide height or sand bar position might be optimal for the break you’re surfing. It gives you whatever it wants. As a surfer, you need to react and adjust to these constant changes.

This July, I made a decision. I’d lived in California well over a year. My apartment is 8 blocks from the beach. I could count on my hands how many times I had surfed. It was time I stopped wasting the opportunity.

Since Kirk and I work opposite schedules, the times we could surf together were limited to weekend days and a few odd weekday evenings. During those short windows, oftentimes the surf wasn’t good. The waves can be too small and unrideable, or too big and scary (for me). The tide can be too high, too low, or the wind too heavy. It might’ve just rained (rare, but it happens) flushing all the build-up in the sewers out into the ocean. All and all, Kirk and I managed to surf together maybe once or twice a month.

Newbie surfers usually go out with a buddy for several reasons: instructional purposes, safety in numbers and emotional support. You don’t have to be a newbie either to prefer surfing with friends. The water is a great place to be social. The time in between wave sets, while everyone is bobbing and scanning the horizon, is like gathering around the watercooler for surfers. We chat until the horizon peaks, then the person listening tells you to “hold that thought” and starts paddling.

I prefer surfing with others, definitely. The one time I surfed alone my board hit me in the face, giving me a bloody nose. (Disclaimer: Not all solo surfers get bloody noses while alone in the water.) Normally I don’t worry or even think about sharks. That time? I hightailed it outta there as if Jaws had already tucked a napkin under his chin.

I’m not saying I won’t ever surf alone again. I’m sure I will, some day. But since then, I haven’t had to. When I started working at the wine bar, I met Dominic and Chris, both surfing fanatics. They’re in the water almost every single day. In the last few months, I’ve been too.

Dominic and I watch in awe of Kelly’s surfing. There he was, the best surfer in the world, shredding it right in front of us. Dom loves reminding me that he and Kelly are from the same hometown: Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Kelly scored a 15.94 in his heat in Round 5, beating Jeremy Flores by only a half point. (The max score for a competitor in a heat is 20, from a combination of two scores from the two best waves–each a possible 10 points.) Jeremy surfed well too:

But it was Kelly to whom the kids flocked for autographs as soon as he got out of the water.

After Kelly’s heat was over, we headed south towards the next break, Middles, so Dom could paddle out for a surf. (I had the 7D, so I played guard dog over our stuff on the beach.) On our way, we walked past the competitors’ deck/lounge.

“Hey look,” said Dom, “there’s Kelly.” I stole a glance; he was so close that if I stared too long it might’ve been rude. I looked back at Dom and giggled.

“Look at you, all star-struck,” he said.

Maybe so, but I think it’s what Kelly stands for that made me so giddy.

Surfing. It’s incredible. It’s extraordinarily difficult, yet so rewarding, and one of the biggest joys in life.

As I write this, the first downpour in months just opened up over North County. Until the water is back to normal, it will be a few days until we can surf again.

I can hardly wait. ☼