march 2011

Pismo Beach Pier at sunset

Shooting the Pier in Pismo

A True-Life Surfing Adventure

By Ted Bennett
(Arroyo Grande, CA)

‘I can't explain why I didn't notice myself zooming on a collision course with the steel pilings of the Pismo Beach pier until it was too late. I was living in the moment, I guess.’

I don't remember the exact date or even the day of the week when it happened, but I remember the terror and mind-blowing sensation very well.

Being unemployed has its definite difficulties that come essentially from lack of money, but it also has blessings. These blessings for me, a surfer living very close to the beaches of California's central coast, are very simple: Plenty of time in the water. My wife would be at work, the kids in school, and me headed to whichever break I felt like surfing.

‘A prodigious Northwest swell’ of the type that preceded Ted Bennett’s treacherous surfing excursion at the Pismo Beach Pier

That day was not quite typical, though. There was a prodigious Northwest swell that had hit during the night--I knew it because it was all over the local news and Internet. They were calling for up to 18 feet waves! I took their number with a grain of salt--a half-truth used to sensationalize and amaze the masses. I decided to check this out first hand at the Pier in PB. This is a highly un-localized spot, home to many longboarders and intermediate surfers. It can usually only hold a swell up to seven or eight feet max. As I slowly drove down Wadsworth avenue which runs perpendicular to the beach, my eyes straining to see and lines on the way in I felt more than a little disappointed. I pulled up and easily found a prime parking spot. The street was almost empty. On a good day you had to leave your vehicle at least two blocks from the concrete steps leading down to the sand. Not today. As I peered out to the water I could see why. Although the waves were definitely not close to the six meters the local newsies warned of, they were easily double-overhead and macking. The place was closed out. Almost. As a big set came through I noticed that that the largest of the set was breaking about fifty yards beyond the end of the pier in an almost perfect A-frame. I sat and watched for almost 30 minutes to make sure there was a definite pattern to the madness that I was by now determined to throw myself into. Yes, 98 percent of what came in was not worth the effort of paddling out through head-high whitewater, but that other two percent would build into a threatening peak (I will call it five-foot Hawaiian), which would throw out and peel into a football field length section of green walled perfection.

I was suited up in less time than it takes to read the small-craft warnings that ran across the bottom of the TV screen and headed down the steps to the volleyball courts and beyond. I had already timed the sets and had my plan to get past the close outs and into open water. I waded out till I was chest-deep and waited until the last of a burly set passed. I then slid onto my 7'-2" fish, which was chosen because it is extremely fast down the line and paddles like a longboard, and began stroking out to a point well beyond the end of the pier and about one hundred feet north. I knew that I had only 15-20 seconds before the next set hit and almost made it.

Surfing at Pismo Beach, to the tune of the Surfaris’ 1963 surf classic, ‘Wipeout’

The first wave towered above me and seemed every bit of ten feet. Fortunately I punched through mid face and came out the back just in time to see an even larger wave welling up. I should mention something about the wind here. It was blowing offshore at about five knots, which is what saved me from getting pounded by that second wave. The top was feathering away and about to topple, but the fish was faster. Again I pushed through, but almost got sucked back. I could feel myself going slightly backwards as I broke through and kept paddling like mad. I could see that there were three more heavyweights in the set and I could also see that there was no way I would make it past before they would come crashing down on top of me. I paddled like I was going to make it anyway as I knew that ultimately these would cause me to lose ground. The next wave was impossibly bigger than the previous two. It came down in full force about ten feet to my front. I instinctively went for the duck-dive, but the lumbering cascade of water ripped the board from my grasp and pulled me up and backward. I held my breath for an eternity as the next two waves conspired to drown me. I have never been held down that long before. At one point I hit the sandy bottom face first, was drug along towards the beach and finally let go. I came up gasping for air and seeing colored spots. Again instinct and experience took over and again was on my board paddling to the outside albeit winded and weaker than before. I dug deep to find the strength to keep scratching towards relative safety. Luck was with me. As the next set came through I was out far enough to glide over them before they could pull me in and finish me off. Even though I knew I was out of the impact zone, I kept paddling till the end of the pier was well behind me. Then I rested. By this time I noticed a small crowd leaning on the railing of the pier watching me. Of course they were. I was the only guy out.

pismoWhen I finally caught my breath and felt strong again I paddled to the imaginary lineup directly beyond the end of the pier and waited. A few sets came through and I half paddled for a couple. The offshore wing had picked up a little more and that meant to catch one I would have to totally commit to one and paddle for all I was worth to catch it. The crowd on the pier grew in size. I was now feeling a bit self-conscious. I really did not want to blow it with an audience watching. My plan was to catch one big wave and go in, as I knew paddling out again was not going to happen. So I waited. I knew that roughly one set in ten was big enough to break at the point where I was and I had to constantly paddle around to stay in position. I wanted the big one and was willing to stay in the water as long as it takes to get it.

I did not have to wait too long for "the one"--I could see the dark blue lines of a massive set coming in from a mile out. Not much time. I had let myself drift south of the pier as I noticed that the left of the peak was working a little better than the right side. This would ultimately bring me right into the pilings if I was out of position and stayed on too long. Which is exactly what happened. As the set approached I dodged the first two bombs, content to let them go, as I could clearly see that there were three much larger ones right behind. As the third wave was building up to what seemed to be double overhead-plus I decided to go for it, but the strong wind kept me from matching its speed, and my eyes stung from the salty water sprayed back into my face. I backed down. Just as I turned to paddle back out a little the fourth wave was upon me. In a fraction of a second I made the decision to go. I was in a very good position to make the left side and as I felt the wave suck me up the face I paddled no more than four strokes and stood up. The drop was not eventful--more a shoulder hop. I picked my line and floored it; backside, I slowed myself a little with a hand drag to try to make the barrel. I didn't. I can't explain why I didn't notice myself zooming on a collision course with the steel pilings of the Pismo Beach pier until it was too late. I was living in the moment, I guess. Aside from a few tow-ins, never before had I attained that amount of speed on a surf craft. I looked down the line and noticed that I was now headed directly for the third to last set of pilings. If I ditched now I would still be carried into them, but out of control and underwater. I made the decision to stay the course.

‘…there was a strange sound coming from up the pier. I turned and looked up. The crowd was there. The sound was their clapping, along with a few hoots and some ‘hell yeahs.’’

They say that when faced with mortal danger, your whole life flashes before your eyes. That may be true for some. For me, time slowed down, my mind blocked out all noise, and my entire world shrunk to the task at hand. I rode up the face about a third to race by the first piling. Then I turned and did a long sweeping bottom turn to go backside around the middle two. That unfortunately put me in the position of meeting the last piling almost head-on. I could not get around frontside. By the time I would have made the turn I would have already splattered myself on the unforgiving, barnacle-encrusted steel. I had exhausted so much speed that continuing backside would allow the wave to catch up to me and pummel me into the pilings headed to the beach end of the pier. I split the difference. Kicking my board out to my left, I dove to my right making it to the bottom of the piling as the wave crashed down above me. I held on to the piling with all my strength as the power of the wave tried to pry me off and the leash and board were pulling my right leg. Again I held my breath. This time it was only a one-wave hold-down. As the violence subsided, I let go of the piling, kicked to the surface and reeled in my board. No time to check for damage now. Although I knew that my face was bleeding from being pushed against the mussels and barnacles, I was more worried about the condition of my board. I slid on and paddled out the other side of the pier. The next set had not arrived yet so there was some silence, and I stroked north to get well away from the pier before the next set. Though it was mostly silent, there was a strange sound coming from up the pier. I turned and looked up. The crowd was there. The sound was their clapping, along with a few hoots and some "hell yeahs."

I was as happy as a pig in slop.

(Originally published at

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