Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Peculiar Politics of a Popular Surf Spot

Any time I surf at Queens and don't get yelled at is a good surf session.

Queens is the spot right in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikiki. Look at an old black and white post card of people surfing in Hawaii in the '30's and '40's, with Diamond Head in the background, and you're looking at Queens. Anyone who visits Honolulu and wants to try his hand at surfing, tries it at Queens. It is the most crowded single wave in the surfing universe with the possible exception of Malibu on a good day.
It still looks and feels just like this.

 Malibu doesn't have very many good days, in spite of what you've heard, but the waves at Queens are fun and rideable almost every day, and some days, with the right southwest swell and a medium tide, Queens is fantastic. It breaks both left and right—better to the right, but you can go either way—and there's an outside peak and an inside peak called Baby Queens and even with 40 surfers in the water, everyone can catch some waves.

Because Queens is directly in front of our layover hotels in Waikiki, it was the first spot I surfed when I started coming out here regularly two years ago. My first time there, I paddled out on a rented fun-board on a 4-foot day and within 20 minutes I had caught arguably two of the best waves in my life, right there in front of the hotels and the traffic and a city of 350,000 people. Pretty soon I was surfing Queens once or twice a week on an Infinity longboard I bought for sixty bucks from a Swiss med student leaving the island. And I began my education in the peculiar politics of surfing in the islands.

The crowd at Queens.
The customs and courtesies of surfing I learned growing up in Southern California don't apply here, even at a spot as overrun with tourists and beginners as Queens. Generally, the surfer closest to the peak has priority; you don't take off on a wave in front of another surfer already established on that wave; if a wave breaks both ways, you call your intended direction of travel, "Coming right!" or "Left, left!" to ward off interlopers. The young hotdog and the oldtimer on his monster longboard all observe the same rules, and it works pretty good.

Here in the islands it work s a little differently. Even on a big, wide-shouldered wave like Queens, the rules favor not the surfer who manages to hustle himself into the best takeoff spot (more on that in a minute) but rather an intricate hierarchy of locals, locals' girlfriends, children of locals, brown people generally, and accepted haoles who've been around a really, really long time. A fair-skinned visitor on a borrowed board fits into none of these categories, and must content himself with whatever smaller waves happen to pop up in front of him while no one is looking, and there aren't very many of those. To do otherwise, as I soon learned, is to invite everything from a mild scolding to a wrathful lambasting in a language whose words you do not understand but whose meaning is clear.

It is futile to protest or attempt to explain yourself. You might think you could just ask how the system works; the resulting lecture on "respect" will not clear things up. You're going to have to learn for yourself, as I did, that haoles are expected to yield to stand-up paddlers, all girls, keiki (children), Hawaiian locals, non-Hawaiian locals, and anyone with an acre of tattoos on his back. This means fewer waves on a crowded afternoon, but at least you'll get out of the water with your dignity intact.

Reflecting back on my upbringing in Southern California, I now realize my surfing elders did me no favors by teaching me the habit of always jostling and hustling and maneuvering for the best spot on the next wave. A scarcity mentality prevails in California because really, really good waves are, once again, rarer than a smog-free day in LA, and the conditions that created this morning's overhead west swell with offshore winds and hollow peaks might not repeat itself for weeks or months! You gotta get every wave you can because, son, it might be awhile! Thus the need to snake and parry and weasel your way into position on every single wave and the ensuing bad feelings when someone drops in on your perfect setup for that glassy inside section.

Here I must admit the Hawaiians have developed a healthier attitude towards the whole enterprise, but they can afford to because, out here, there's always good surf somewhere, and if not today, then tomorrow; by Friday at the latest. The appearance of wanting too many waves, of striving a little too hard, the scheming subtle shifts in position that let you score a few extra waves—that is all highly frowned upon at Queens and every other spot I've surfed so far, and people will definitely talk to you about it. And they'll talk about you, within earshot, to all of their friends: "Dis guy, what he think, he gotta get every wave? What you think, you gotta catch every wave? Relax!" And you look at them blankly, trying to figure out what you did wrong this time. You think, there was no one else on that wave. I wasn't in anyone's way—this doesn't make sense! What'd I do?

You paddled back out and right into another wave. You hustled—you caught your share and then a few more than your share. You strove. You didn't know it, but you were making a spectacle of yourself, a fair-skinned haole spectacle. If everyone came here and did that, it would be just like California, and that, that is what you are to understand when they talk to you about respect. This is someplace else, a special place, and these unbelievably good, consistent fun waves are God's special gift to these islands and these surfers, who have no choice but to share them, but on certain terms and conditions: Wait your turn. Let others go first. Take your time. Enjoy the sunset, feel that wind, look at what's beneath your feet in this clear, perfect water. Our great-grandparents, they would say if you really gave them your full attention, surfed here on alaia and poipo and this is our heritage and our home and you're a guest here—an uninvited one at that. So chill!

I have come to believe that the only thing a Hawaiian surfer enjoys more than a great ride on a perfect wave, is watching his best friend have a great ride on a perfect wave. Since I've learned to adopt that outlook, I paddle out almost anywhere I want and I don't get yelled at. I've even made some friends! And I still get a lot of really, really good waves.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dawn Patrol at Publics

It's tough to find an uncrowded place to surf near an island city of 375,000 residents, all of whom seem to have a longboard in the sideyard. But if you're willing to get up early and paddle out through a shallow reef in the dark, you can capture 30 minutes of alone time even in Honolulu's dense urban-surf environment. The other day I caught four or five uncontested waves at Public's as dawn crept over Diamond Head, with nothing but reef fishes and a solitary sea turtle to keep me company. Or so I thought.

As daylight came and made the pass through the inside reef a little more discernible, Jessie paddled out and joined me. Jessie's a big Hawaiian on a big longboard who sits outside the normal lineup and waits for the clean-up sets. He paddles out in an upright seated position with his legs in front of him. We've never  been introduced, but I know his name because on crowded days the other surfers yell "Go Jessie!" when he lines up that big noserider for a long ride to the jetty. Jessie nodded to me as he paddled by.

Within an hour there were five or six of us out there: Todd on the 6'8" epoxy fish identical to mine, a kid on a boogie board, and the kid's friend on a thruster. There was also an old guy I see all the time who rides a homemade paipo, which is an authentic wooden bodyboard like the Hawaiians rode in "pre-contact" days. The rest of the crew is not there: Allen, Lance, Ken, Robin, others.

On an average day, Publics is cleaner and more consistent than the best days at my home break back in LA. On good days, at a medium tide with a solid 5-foot south swell and light trade winds, Public's is worthy of a surf magazine centerfold.

Jessie caught a wave in to the reef and as he paddled back out, he casually mentioned that he'd seen a 6-foot tiger shark in shallow water near the reef. Later on I passed this information to Todd, who said sharks were common at all the south shore reefs. One time, Todd said, he'd taken a ride on the tourist submarine off Waikiki and was amazed at the population of big ulua, ono, and sharks just a few hundred yards offshore. Sure enough, from his perch outside the lineup, Jessie called out that he'd seen the same small shark again, jetting across the sandy bottom below him.

No one seemed disturbed by this second sighting. I wondered if it should bother me. I've always reasoned that sharks and other menaces probably loiter unseen around the shorelines where I surf all the time. Attacks on surfers (outside of Australia, anyway) are so rare that the chances of becoming a victim are extremely remote. I figured, "If these Hawaiians I'm surfing with become nervous, I'll take that as an indication that it's time to leave." Aside from an occasional glance below their feet, Todd and Jessie did not seem concerned. We kept surfing.

Michael, a surfer and one of the valets at the hotel, told me that afternoon that there is a well-known local tiger shark, at least 12 feet long, that regularly cruises between Diamond Head and Waikiki. That's a big shark. A shark that big bites you, it might leave a scar. Michael shared his philosophy: "When we go in the ocean, we enter the food chain." Yes, I said, and we're not necessarily at the top of that food chain. Michael laughed, but suggested that tastier fare was much easier for the average shark to come by. A reassuring thought: they'll leave us alone, because we taste bad and we're probably not worth the trouble.

I'll keep all this in mind when next I paddle out through the reef at Public's in the dark for some alone time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Empty Nest

Yesterday around noon I delivered my two daughters to Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico, where they will spend the summer on the staff. Holly will work in the Tooth of Time trading post selling outdoor gear and dispensing advice on its use to thousands of Boy Scouts, Venturers and leaders who come to Philmont every year for extended back-country treks.

Holly and Emma arrive for staff training at
Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
Emma, on the other hand, has been selected to work as part of a training crew in Sealy Canyon, a camp so remote from headquarters that it's technically not even inside the boundaries of the 137,000-acre Scout Ranch. There she will reside for nine days at a time, in a tent, without power or access to the outside world, teaching wilderness First Aid and search & rescue techniques to visiting crews. She's the only girl on her team (besides the team leader).

Tori and I are back home in Texas—on our own again for the first time in over twenty-five years! I am proud of all my daughters, and sad to lose their company. I look forward to a quieter home, but I already miss the commotion and music and laughter. I can't wait to share in their lives as they finish school and start families of their own (my oldest is already well down the road in that department, married to a law student and with two kids of her own), but I find myself wishing I has one more day with them all.

Tori and I had fish tacos for dinner...and finished the dishes in under 3 minutes! Our nest is empty. We miss our girls...but this is going to be fun!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Guy

Long-haul flights across continents and oceans require at least three pilots due to the extended duration of each flight. The captain sits in the left seat and is the pilot-in-command. He makes all the decisions and most of the money. The first officer is the copilot and he sits in the right seat. The “international officer,” a made-up term for a made-up position, is the third guy and he sits in the jump seat behind the captain and first officer. His job is to spell the primary pilots, in turn, so they can each take a two-hour nap back in First Class.
I’m that third guy.
The airlines are one of the last bastions of a unionized workforce in America, and every pilot’s position is determined by strict seniority. The captain didn’t become the captain through dint of hard work, specialized flying skills, or an accident-free flight record. He became captain because he’d been on the property long enough to bid, and hold, a captain’s position when it became available at his pilot base. Someday, when his younger copilot has been around long enough, he’ll become a captain, too. Merit has nothing to do with it; you don’t “earn” a set of captain’s wings, you accrue longevity and the job comes to you in due course. You become the first guy.
So the captain has been around longer than the copilot, and the copilot has probably been around longer than the “international officer.” And while this is not a merit-based system, it does tend to guarantee that the guy in charge has more experience, and is therefore theoretically the fittest for command. The captain makes all the decisions, and bears the final responsibility for the safe outcome of any flight, no matter what. When things don’t go according to plan, it is the captain’s job to maintain control of the aircraft, analyze the situation, and take appropriate action to safely land the plane. He delegates tasks to his copilots and relies on the flight attendants to maintain order and calm in the back, but in his experienced hands, and upon his well-paid judgement, rest the lives of all his crew and his passengers.
The second guy, the first officer or copilot, sits in the right seat behind a set of flight controls and instruments that is identical in every way to the captain’s. If the captain flies the outbound leg, the first officer handles the radios and reads the checklists. On the reverse leg, they’ll switch roles: the captain will make the radio calls while the copilot flies the airplane. So what does the third guy do?
The third guy dons a bright yellow safety vest and takes his flashlight and keys outside to perform an inspection known as the “walk-around” prior to every flight. This puts him in the weather, fair or foul, and it might get him dirty, since an airplane on the outside is a greasy, grimy, noisy, hot, hazardous thing. The third guy deals with the “ramp rats,” including crew chiefs, fuelers, loaders, maintainers, and the man with the worst job in aviation—the guy who dumps the lavatories. They hand him slips of paper confirming that this much potable water was pumped and that many thousand pounds of fuel were loaded and some of the cargo is radioactive (watch bezels?) and some of the cargo is living (show roosters, honeybees, terriers, tropical fish) and didn't get loaded with the radioactive stuff. Any detail that might cause the captain or the copilot to break a sweat or discomfit themselves in any way, belongs to the third guy, the “international officer.” Me.

The view from my seat. That's the captain on the left.
The copilot is on the right. I'm the third guy.
International Officer is a lot of syllables considering what the third guy actually does, and aviators at some airlines have shortened it to “IO.” At my airline, this position is also called the “First Officer B,” or FB, which is how it appears on the monthly bid sheets. FB has in turn given way to colorful monikers like First Break (because the FB always gets the first and least desirable rest break) or, more commonly, Food Boy (because the FB eats a lot of First Class meals).
I am the Food Boy.
The humble third seat.
When Boeing built the
767, they planned for
a flight engineer to
occupy this seat.
Shortly after takeoff the on-board printer issues an updated flight plan with every point along our route of flight, and next to each point is an estimated arrival time and fuel prediction. We check this at each way point to verify that the flight is on schedule and burning the expected amount of fuel en route. To this flight plan I add notations that tell each pilot when his rest break begins and ends. West-bound flights to Hawaii normally generate breaks lasting about two hours and thirty minutes apiece, plus 30 minutes or so at the end of the flight to allow everyone to get back in the cockpit and ready for the descent, approach and landing.
For a variety of reasons the middle break provides the most rejuvenating sleep, so whoever is flying the airplane (captain or copilot) usually takes this rest period. The third break is almost as restful, so the pilot-not-flying takes this one. The first break, twenty minutes after takeoff, during which passengers are chatting noisily and the flight attendants are rattling dishes in the galley and banging through the aisles with serving carts and the captain is making his dignified announcement over the speakers and the sun is beaming into the cabin—an environment, in other words, in which restful sleep is virtually impossible—this is the break given to the FB. First break. My break.
Like a child getting ready for bed, I have a routine for my rest break that makes me drowsy no matter how difficult I find it to actually fall or stay asleep. I unfold the big grey First Class blanket in my lap and raise a small divider between me and the neighbor. I pull an extra pair of socks on and put plugs in my ears. I slip an eye shade around my head and recline the electric seat to the “Zzzzz” position, rest my head on the pillow, pull the shade over my eyes, and tuck my arms under the blanket. At night, I’m usually sound asleep within 5 minutes. During the daytime, I may lay there for an entire 150-minute break and never fall asleep. Either way, the sounds and sensations in a crowded passenger cabin often conspire to chase sleep away.
Three background sounds will always cut through the earplugs and keep me awake: 1) infants wailing in any section of the airplane, 2) chatting women with a certain timbre to their conversational voice, and 3) the repeated shuffling, cutting, and stacking of a deck of Hoyle playing cards on a passenger’s tray table. This third distraction happens more often than you’d think. Otherwise, the background babble of a busy cabin during the meal service actually lulls me to sleep. I wake up when the passenger behind me slams his tray table into the stowed position; it jars the entire seat. Likewise, when the flight attendants slam any of the multitude of doors, cabinets, sliding tables, latches, chillers, ovens, or coffee pots in the First Class galley, which my seat adjoins, it startles me out of the deepest sleep. Bright ambient light is filtered by my eye shades, and I can handle it; flashing, jarring images from a movie (or from the moving map, which the FA’s leave on all night if you don’t remind them) on the bulkhead-mounted video screen above my seat penetrate the mask and prevent me from sleeping.
More than once, the passenger next to me has knocked a full glass of wine or beer onto me while I slept. The odor of baked salmon over buttery risotto, fresh from the oven and delivered to a hungry seatmate, makes it hard to sleep. Sometimes the thing that keeps me awake is my own fault: I’ve had too much water or soda to drink and I have to get up in the middle of my break and go to the bathroom.
And then there’s the seat itself. The company installed these new First Class “lay-flat” seats to a lot of fanfare several years ago. Whoever approved them evidently sat in a prototype for about 90 seconds before giving the go-ahead. There is no position in which these seats can be said to be comfortable for more than a few minutes, much less for the duration of an 8- to 11-hour flight. The “Zzzzz” mode, which is the advertised “lay-flat” position, is about as flat as your dentist’s chair. In this position the jointed mattress tilts down towards your feet, creating the feeling that you are sliding off the seat onto the floor. Your legs are forced into an narrow opening in the wall or under the seat in front of you, and the armrests squeeze you from both sides. An MRI tunnel feels spacious by comparison. If your neighbor moves, you move. If your neighbor snores—forget about it.
My break ends halfway across the Pacific Ocean. Dinner is over, the movie has ended, and the scene around me is one of battle fatigue, not peaceful slumber. As I survey the darkened cabin full of snoring, contorted bodies twisted up in blankets in their “lay-flat” seats, for which they paid thousands of dollars apiece, I suspect these people will wake up kinked and irritable. I feel a little out of sorts, too, as I make my way back to the cockpit. “How’d you sleep?” the captain asks cheerfully. “Not bad, not bad...,” which in pilot-speak means not at all. It’s his turn for a rest, and I take my place in his seat. The copilot in his own seat is lost in thought, nursing a cup of black coffee. We converse a little, listen to voices on the radio, pilots in other airplanes, somewhere over the dark Pacific.
I rub my eyes and stare past the instruments in the dim glow of the dome light, into the inky black sky with its millions of stars. Twenty-two hundred miles to go. A long, sleepless night lies ahead. I lost the battle to fall asleep; now begins the battle to stay awake. I am the third guy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tagged: Four x Four

This is in answer to a tag from Caroline May:

Four Places I Go:
Kincaid's Grocery (Fort Worth's best cheeseburgers...for now!)
Waikiki Beach
QuikTrip (cheap gas, courteous clerks, caffeine-free Diet Coke)

Four Favorite Smells:
The insides of surf shops and bike stores
Tori's cinnamon rolls
Old barns - cow stalls, etc.
Smoke from distant autumn fires

Four Favorite TV Shows or Movies:
Hawaii Five-O (the original with Jack Lord)
The Office
Almost anything with Steve McQueen
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee version)

Four Recommendations:
Drink more water
By one-owner cars with under 100,000 miles
Dave Ramsey, so you can live like no one else

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Failure, Compounded, Then Rectified

This one goes in the "couldn't leave well enough alone" file.

I work for a "legacy airline" (that moniker alone deserves its own post) and once a week I am paid to fly to Honolulu and surf. For the average land-locked beach bum, this would more than suffice. Afflicted as I am with a reach that always exceeds my grasp, I hatched a plan to improve on this routine: buy a car on the island, equip it to hold a "quiver" of different surfboards, and drive myself, during my 24-hour layover, to wherever the surf was best.

From April to October the surf on Oahu's South Shore is consistent and world-class. With a bicycle or a good pair of slaps, you can ride or walk to most of the better spots in less than an hour; one of the best is literally across the street from my hotel! From November to March, however, the action is all on the North Shore, from Haleiwa Town to Pupukea and Laie, home to famous spots like Pipeline, Sunset, and Rocky Point. The North Shore is about an hour's drive from "Town," which means Honolulu, and although you can load a bike on the rack on the front of Da Bus, you can't bring your surfboard! So you need a car.

And I found a car—a 1995 Dodge Caravan, described in its Craigslist ad as a "North Shore surf rat van," and that's exactly what it was. I rode the bus to the Foodland parking lot in Pupukea and met the owner, Aki, a haole, who was moving back to Alaska with his island wife and blond kids. The van was as promised: banged up, rusty, sandy, surf racks on the roof, a 140,000-mile piece of crap. But it started, drove, stopped, and had a great stereo, and seemed to be worth the $800 asking price, so I bought it and drove back to Town with my bike in back. ("Hey, honey, the cruise control even works!")

I set to work making the rat van my own: I ran it through a car wash to see if the up-country red dirt would come off (it didn't), tore out the middle and rear seats to make room for surfboards, and scrubbed the interior down with Simple Green. I had the windows tinted black to keep the contents concealed. I signed up for monthly employee parking privileges at Honolulu Airport. I filled it with gas and oil, and covered two gaping holes in the roof with Bondo and aluminum flashing tape to keep the rain out.

Every time I returned to the island, new generations of ants emerged from the dash. The van had a funky smell (maybe it really was a rat van) and when I stepped out of it, I smelled funky too. Various dashboard warning lights blinked on and off, but the thing ran and ran and got me to the North Shore and back half a dozen times. I tried to install a surf rack in the back, and failed. On my last trip to the North Shore, the transmission shifted into "limp mode" (meaning it stayed in 3rd gear all the time) and wouldn't come out. I nursed it back to Town and Kevin at Aamco Transmissions eventually determined I needed a whole new tranny—to the tune of $2400 or $3100, depending.

Even I know you don't put a $2400 transmission in an $800 van. The car would have to go. My conscience wouldn't permit me to sell the van to anyone outside of the dismantling industry. After a call to, some beefy guy showed up with a tow truck and a hundred and forty bucks and I watched him hook up the rat van and haul it down Koa Avenue, and as it went I felt weight literally lifting off my shoulders. Because, while the van offered the freedom to roam the island looking for waves, it also meant sitting in traffic trying to get to the airport. The van provided a rent-free place to store lots of surfboards and a bicycle, but I never stopped worrying about someone breaking in and stealing my stuff. Above all, the van required expensive gas (the average in Town is $3.75 a gallon), a place to park, additional insurance, and ultimately a costly mechanical repair that I could not afford. It turned my layovers into work time—and the greatest irony of all, I actually surfed less when I had the van.
My version of making a Van Gogh.

This morning I got up before dawn and walked down Kalakauwa Avenue to the little beach in front of the Aquarium. I carried my new 9'2" longboard and a towel. I paddled out to a spot called Publics, and my buddy Allen was the only other surfer out. We shared waves for 30 minutes before a couple other friends joined us. Just offshore a pod of humpback whales lumbered east towards Molokai. Nearer to us, but just out of reach, green turtles popped up and down. Butterfly fish twirled beneath my feet in the clear water above the reef. A little bump of a wave sprang up, an unpromising 2-footer that I almost let go. It threw more lip across the reef than I expected, hollow and clean on the inside, and it turned into the wave of the day! I stayed out a couple hours, then walked back down the busy sidewalk to my hotel. No car, no problem. Rectified.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Old Saw

Many ideas for home projects originate with my wife. These tend to be projects that answer an immediate or longstanding need, such as benches to match the kitchen table or "floating shelves" for the living room—practical, useful items that, if completed, would improve her home situation in some way. Because these projects can't be driven on the road, and have no relationship to surfing, yard ornamentation, attracting wild birds, or any of the other qualities that will move a project up the list, it's tempting to leave them on the back burner.

I have a wise wife, however, and she knows that if she suggests a project, the contemplation of which requires the acquisition of some new power tool, and if she doesn't object too strongly at the purchase of this tool, she stands a much better chance of someday seeing a finished shelf or bench or re-modeled bedroom in her house. I'm not sure what led to the perceived need of a table saw, but I'm sure I greased the wheels a little bit by explaining all the things I'd be able to build for her if I had one.

It's been a long time since I walked into Sears or Home Depot and walked out with a brand new tool, other than small hand tools. Sometimes I scour the pawn shops, but their prices are high and their quality is hit-or-miss. I get my big tools second-hand, on Craigslist. I bought this table saw last year from a middle-aged gentleman in McKinney, Texas, for $125. Before loading it in the back of the car, he turned it on and cut several pieces of lumber for me. He sent along a heavy stack of blades and the original Craftsman manuals. Seemed like a good deal.

Early 1980's Craftsman table saw. $125 on Craigslist.
It took three of us to get the thing out of the Jeep and into the barn. When I turned it on, it sounded just like a table saw should—a smooth accelerating whir with steely top notes of high-speed spinning metal teeth. But when I laid my first piece of wood across that blade, the workpiece jammed between the fence and the saw blade, stopping the blade and smoking up the whole shop. I tried smaller stuff, changed the blade out, squared up the fence—no good. Whatever the looming project that prompted me to buy this saw, it was put on hold while I tried to figure out what was wrong.

"When in doubt, read the instructions." Good advice—but it usually takes an hour of fruitless tinkering before I heed that advice. I eventually learned from the manual that the saw blade itself can be manipulated in three axes: up and down, left and right through the vertical axis, or left and right through the horizontal axis. The first two adjustments are routine, allowing the woodworker to make deep or shallow cuts or to rip an angled edge onto the workpiece. You make those changes using adjustment wheels. The third adjustment is supposed to be permanent. It was this last angle that was off. The rear of the blade was closer to the fence than the front of the blade, which I discovered using a t-square. Correcting this angle required that I loosen the six bolts holding the entire blade trunchion, nudge the blade into alignment using a mallet, and re-tighten all the bolts. The next piece of wood slid through the blade like a hot knife through butter. Fixed!

...or left and right this way.  This angle was the problem.

You can move the blade up and down...

...or left and right this way...

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’m a starter and sometimes a finisher of projects, and I’m accustomed to my projects working out. I identify a problem and spend hours designing a solution in my head and on paper. Like this:

Problem: the girls’ bathroom is hopelessly dated and dark. Solution: cut a window in the brick wall and update the floors, walls, and fixtures. Done.
The original plans.
Problem: there’s no flagpole in our yard. Solution: get the neighbor to weld up a 33-foot pole out of oilfield pipe, dig a hole, make a form, pour some concrete, string a halyard, raise the flag. Done.
Problem: I have three surfboards stacked inside a beat-up old van on Oahu and I’m afraid they’ll get dinged while I’m driving, or stolen while I’m surfing. Solution: build a sturdy PVC-pipe rack inside that van. Not really that big a challenge. I did the designing in my head and the drawings on my computer and built the whole thing in the living room (without glue), took it apart, hauled the pieces to Hawaii along with all the tools I’d need, and got to work. Only this time, it didn’t work.
Pre-assembled rack.
It started off well. I couldn’t bring the PVC pipe cement with me because it’s a caustic flammable substance that you can’t carry on an airplane, so I bought a little tin of the blue stuff at Home Depot on Alakawa Avenue. (If you get island fever, go to Home Depot. It’s exactly like being at home on the mainland.) I was up the next morning at the crack of dawn to begin work, parts and fittings laid out and tools at the ready. I parked the van near an electric power outlet (for my drill) at the entrance to the band shell in Kapiolani Park. As the sun came up the howler monkeys, across the street in the Honolulu Zoo, started doing their thing. I started doing mine.

The first thing I had to do was take the front passenger seat out of the van. I’m going to state right here that describing this part of the scheme raised my wife’s eyebrows, a bad omen. Right after I bought the van I took out the middle and rear bench seats and left them at a junk yard on Sand Island. This was to accommodate my bike. My wife thought it foolish to diminish the resale value of the van in this way, said so with her eyebrows, and backed it up with words. I pointed out that this was a surf van not a family station wagon, and the next owner would probably be a surf rat, too. He’d understand. He might even pay more for the convenience of not having to rip out those seats himself, I explained. The eyebrows did not buy this.
Front seat has to go.
But went it did, that seat, with the removal of four big lug nuts from the bottom side of the van. They were stubborn, but a squirt of WD-40 and the big breaker bar I brought along for this contingency spun them right off. With the seat out of the way, I started assembling, or rather, re-assembling, the rack. Anyone who has worked with PVC pipe and cement knows the drill: clean off the pipes and fittings where they are to be joined, then use the little puff-ball applicator attached to the lid of the cement can to dab blue (or orange or black) goo on both pieces, then quickly push the pipe into the fitting with a twist until it bottoms out and you are done. And I mean done—the glue acts in seconds to create a bond that would survive a nuclear blast.
The howler monkeys howled and I dabbed and twisted and joined the pieces until by ten o’clock or so I had the basic frame standing outside the van. Half a dozen people stopped by at different stages to ask what I was doing. To my eye it was obvious what I was doing, but not everyone owns a surfboard or needs a surf rack, even in Hawaii, so I had to explain. And I got lots of compliments and no small amount of advice as to how I might do it better next time. I attached some cross-pieces out of sequence and discovered I could not easily attach the remaining cross-pieces. One passerby studied this problem with me for twenty minutes, proposing boiling water and wood-dowel inserts and whatnot. He really wanted to help! After he left I forced the pieces into place with a hammer. Later, while I was winding bubble-wrap and beach towel remnants around the cross-bars as padding for the surfboards, a jogger suggested I use foam pipe insulation instead. Genius! A tourist couple asked in broken English for directions to the zoo. I answered in broken Japanese, which always sets them off.
Some assembly required.

But I digress. There was a problem with the project.
Back in Texas I had taken a tape measure to the insides of a wrecked ’95 Dodge Caravan to make sure I got the dimensions right, and double-checked the assembled frame in the living room to verify my drawings were right, but the thing I re-assembled in Hawaii did not fit inside the van the way my tape measure and drawings said it would. I had fashioned a rectangular frame to fit inside a rectangular space, but the van’s interior landscape had all sorts of irregular angles and corners and bumps. It was like trying to get a box spring mattress up a flight of stairs; you can see that it should fit, but there’s always one edge that catches on the ceiling or the bannister no matter how you maneuver. The frame just sat wrong inside the van’s big box.
The basic frame.
I went back to the hotel and brought down my 9’2” Chronic longboard—the brand-spanking new one from the Hawaii Surf Factory in Wahiawa, the one I’d be riding at that very moment if this project weren’t taking up my whole day—and loaded it in the van, and drove back to the park. With a real surfboard on the rack and the rack in the van and the passenger seat on the curb and the monkeys howling across the street, the pieces of the puzzle were all in one place and it did not make a pretty picture.
The nose of the longboard bumped the lower accessory column. Moving the tail to the left fixed this, but then I couldn’t fit the bike. I tried sliding the whole rack fore and aft, left and right. No good. Longboard on top rack? The tail stuck out the back and the nose touched the glass. Flip the board upside down? Fins hit the ceiling. Could I re-shape the rack, add fittings here or take a little off there? Nothing would work. My project had failed, and no amount of chopping and re-gluing would save it. It didn’t fit and it didn’t work. Worst of all, it looked like crap.
I got out a saw and cut the thing back into pieces. I almost said “In disgust I got out a saw...” but that wasn’t how I felt. I’m accustomed to projects working out, as I said earlier, and I’ve solved problems more complicated than this. I was actually a little amused that I had measured so carefully, and designed so thoughtfully, and then constructed according to plan a device that proved to be absolutely useless. There was nothing for it. I chopped it up so I could fit it back in the van and haul it to a dumpster.
It all fits now.
It was now two in the afternoon. A small wind-swell was up, and Waikiki was getting the best waves so far this year. Before me and scattered around the parking lot stood a van, a bike, a surfboard, a front passenger seat, a bag of tools, a large pile of white plastic pipe, and odds and ends from the van’s previous owner. I cleaned everything out of the van (for the first time, as it happens) and replaced the items one by one with the goal of not making two trips to the hotel. I stuck the spare seat right behind the driver’s seat facing forward, and secured it against the left side of the van with a seatbelt. I put the  car’s maintenance items on this seat. I leaned my bike against the seat and strapped it in with bungee cords. I laid the surfboard on the floor atop two padded cross-bars from the demolished rack. I loaded all my tools in the duffle and set them next to the surfboard. All this, and I still had room for the piles of chopped-up pipe. Back at the hotel, I junked the pipe and laid my other two surfboards on top of the longboard, all three being now safely bundled in their various travel bags. I dressed for work and loaded my kit bag and roll-aboard in the back, shut the tailgate—and everything fit, with room to spare.
When I return to Honolulu next week, I will lay a piece of carpet remnant the length of the van, under my surfboards. Maybe I’ll put some foam cushion in between, rig a hanger so I can dry my wetsuit from the ceiling. When it comes time to sell the van, I’ll rip out the carpet and re-attach the passenger seat, which will give my wife’s eyebrows a break. I am done. This project—this over-measured, misbegotten, failed, defeated project—is officially over. I’m going surfing.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sold in Ninety Minutes

My friend Gary, a guy with lots of experience in the car business, shared his approach to auto ownership: buy reliable used cars for cash and sell them when they reach 200,000 miles. Any car should be able to go that distance, he says, but beyond that, the cost of repairs will eat you alive.

We bought this 2002 Jeep Liberty in 2004 at Sewell in Dallas. It was a 40,000-mile cream puff. We drove it day-in, day-out, including trips to California and Tennessee, and frequent excursions with a 16-foot flatbed trailer on the back. During that time frame it needed an alternator, water pump, and A/C work, but all in all it was a very good car for us. We treated it right—meaning oil changes and car washes—and it paid us back in spades.

When the odometer clicked over 212,000, we decided to heed Gary's advice and let the Liberty go. I composed a Craigslist ad (this is one of the photos) and settled on the Kelly Blue Book "fair" private party value of $2495 as an asking price, even though I think the car qualified as "good." (Click here for KBB's used car site.) I did this hoping for a quick sale. "Quick" turned out to be an understatement.

The ad went live at 5:32pm. By six o'clock, I had 20 voice messages and a dozen texts asking for details about the Jeep. I spoke with buyers in English and Spanish, gave directions to five callers, told everyone to come take a look but I couldn't promise the car would still be there when they arrived. A caller needed directions from Arlington, Texas; she had started the day in Canton (90 minutes east of Dallas). I sat down for dinner at 6:30 and stopped answering the phone, which was ringing constantly.  At 6:45 I jumped online and edited my Craigslist ad title to read, "SOLD 2002 Jeep Liberty SOLD!" This was before a single prospect had actually seen the car. Then I got this series of text messages: "Coming cash in hand lol." "Directions from loop 820?" "Passing a church." "Im here." I grabbed the keys, my folder of maintenance records, and a flashlight, and headed out to the curb where the Jeep was parked.

There were four cars parked on the grass next to the Jeep, a young woman was doing a walk-around of the car, and several people were standing around talking into cell phones. Where did all these people come from? I wondered. I handed the keys to the walk-around woman and she started the car. "Any mechanical issues?" she queried. I reiterated the "known issues" from the ad (paint chips, bubbling window tint, passenger seat recline lever missing). "Sure, but are there any mechanical issues?" I told her the oil-low light illuminates on cold mornings even when the oil level is verified full. "That's it? I'll take it." She didn't even want a test drive.

I asked her to move the Jeep down the driveway and meet me at the house so we could sign the papers. One of the onlookers held a hand over his cell phone and said, "It's sold, right? For the asking price? Ok, thanks..." He relayed this news into his phone and everyone drove away. Ten minutes later the Jeep, its 'clear blue Texas title,' and its new owner were gone, and I stood at the kitchen table leafing through a two-inch stack of twenty dollar bills fresh out of some one's ATM.

Listed and sold in ninety minutes.

This is not the first time I've unleashed the Craigslist circus—stock panels, a sailboat, trailer pens, shelving, a home gym—we've sold all sorts of things on the site. I think Craigslist represents one of the highest and best uses of the Internet: bringing willing buyers and sellers together without a lick of government interference. But when I place an ad and the phone immediately goes berserk and the item in question is inspected, paid for and gone in minutes or hours, I always have that nagging feeling that I could have gotten more. But in this case I have no seller's remorse. We loved that car, it served us well for seven years, and the buyer got a great deal.

And there's something I forgot to mention about Gary's approach to auto ownership. He gets rid of his cars at 200,000 miles—and assumes they will be worth zero. Even if the only cash he gets is from a wrecking yard ($225 a ton for scrap), it's all gravy. We got $2495 in gravy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Route, New Horizons

Eighteen months ago I started flying a new route, from DFW International Airport to Honolulu. The non-stop flight time is about 8 hours westbound, 7 hours eastbound. We arrive on the island in the late afternoon, spend one night in a swank hotel on Waikiki Beach, and depart the following afternoon. This puts us on the ground for about 24 hours.

The hotel is right across the street from one of the best summer surfing beaches in the world. Oahu's South Shore receives uninterrupted swell energy from faraway Southern Hemisphere storms from June to September. The constant trade winds help shape the 2- to 4-foot waves into perfect lefts and rights at dozens of nearby surf spots with names like Pops, Cliffs, Publics, Canoes, Queens, Bowls, and Kaisers.

A great view of Diamond Head from my hotel on Waikiki.
Honolulu has a population of 900,000 people, and two-thirds of them surf, so the waves at the most accessible spots are always crowded. I routinely paddle into a lineup with a hundred other surfers, including Japanese tourists sitting on a surfboard for the first time, pasty-white haole's from the mainland (like me), and hot-tempered locals who still seem to think they're surfing some secret spot from the pre-contact days.

On quiet mornings in the summer I surf a spot called Publics, just offshore from the War Memorial. It's a longer paddle across a tricky reef, so the first-timers pass it up. The crowd rarely exceeds a half dozen locals, and I'm actually on a first-name basis with one or two of them. Publics is a left-hand break, which favors "goofy foot" surfers like myself. On small mornings, it's a gentle 50-yard glide along the shallow reef. On big days, when the waves reach 6- to 8-feet, Publics is a harrowing takeoff followed by a high-speed race that can stretch 300 yards towards the beach. The first time I surfed Publics on a big day, I caught and rode three waves in succession that were better than the best waves I ever surfed in 15 years in Southern California. And that, in a nutshell, is surfing in Hawaii.

Anyone Can Join

You've stumbled onto the official proceedings of the Fort Worth Surf Riders Club. My name is Bob, and I'm glad you're here. I'm the club president, treasurer, and ombudsman. As we go to press, I'm also the club's only member. Having only one member simplifies taking attendance at our monthly meetings, which we haven't had yet, and it also expedites the collection of dues. All motions pass without objection. It's a great club.

We don't have a mission statement, but we're working on it. Once ratified by the member(s) at large, it will probably sound something like this: "The Fort Worth Surf Riders Club promotes the sport of surfing on Texas lakes, rivers, and stock tanks in an environmentally sustainable way without regard to race, creed, or national origin." Like the club itself, the mission statement needs a little work.

We're well aware that small inland bodies of water rarely produce conditions suitable for surfing, so while we wait for waves we'll pursue a host of other activities, ranging from road cycling to small-plot gardening, from home improvement projects to vintage auto restoration, and anything else that suits our fancy.

For those of you who came here just for the surfing, don't despair. There will be waves—just not here in North Texas. Your president has a part-time job that takes him to Hawaii on a regular basis, and as you may have heard, they have waves out there.

You may apply for membership in our club by posting encouraging comments here. Anyone can join. Welcome to the club.