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A Graying Surfer's Love Affair

In the '60s, he was a golden boy riding the waves. Since those days, Rick Grigg has discovered new worlds--and himself--without ever giving up the sea.

August 17, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days few people from the ocean realm, explorers and surfers alike, are much known except by their own. Bob Ballard has something of a following. He is the treasure hunter and leader of the expedition that found the Titanic at 12,460 feet in the Atlantic. Underwater adventurer Sylvia Earle, "her deepness," is included on lists of notable conservationists. Sometimes surfing champions gain a foothold on celebrity too, but usually only in coastal communities.

Missing, though, are those who can express a unified view of the sea--the Carl Sagans of the water part of our planet. If you tell someone you are studying the ocean, or writing about the ocean, they invariably reply, "What part of the ocean?" It seems we overlook the example of the ocean itself, where a tendril of spray whipped aloft by a typhoon off Okinawa becomes a droplet in a jet-stream cloud that falls on a vineyard in Bordeaux to lodge in a grape. Later, when it is squeezed and put in a bottle and passes through you, it's homing instinct will carry it back to the sea.

To illustrate, Grigg grabs a pad of paper. That's how he talks, with a pencil. He begins: Suppose you are rejected by someone you love. He draws a dot for the person you love. Then he puts a circle around it to symbolize the barrier that keeps you away. Then another dot outside the circle. That is you. Love is a handy analogy because Grigg views his relationship with the ocean as one long affair. Then he explains his drawing by borrowing from an Edwin Markham poem, because Grigg also talks in poems:

She drew a circle that shut me out/Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had wit to win/We drew a circle that took her in.

Grigg draws a larger circle, big enough to encompass both dots. There. He grins. You're no longer outside. Keep drawing circles and take more in. Ride the surf. Then draw the circle out 5,000 miles to learn how waves are born in the winds of storms and travel across the fetch of the sea. Lose your footing and feel a big wave smash you against the jagged coral on the bottom. Draw the circle big enough to ponder the life of the reef. Draw it bigger and take in 70 million years of reef building and reef dying. Draw it large enough to carry you beyond the reefs, down into the eternal darkness of the greater part of the planet.

Do this for a half-century. This is the enlightenment professor Grigg teaches. The universe of the ocean.

"I remember once in the 1970s. In the morning, I was aboard ship and we were doing submersible dives to 1,200 feet. In the afternoon, I raced home and grabbed my board. It was Sunset Beach. I was looking behind me as the waves were coming in. I was looking down, thinking about a quarter-mile below. It was a connected world, one to the other. I could feel the depth of the ocean. I could feel its power.

"The physical and the cerebral joined. Without having to contend with anything but the natural world, I was contained within it."

One must draw very large circles to comprehend the ocean. To do less is to misunderstand our place in the scheme.

"How inappropriate to call this planet Earth," said the writer Arthur C. Clarke, "when clearly it is Ocean."

*

Ricky Grigg grew up in Mary Pickford's old house on the Santa Monica boardwalk. His parents had divorced; his grandfather grubstaked Ricky and his mother $7,000 for the run-down mansion. Muscle Beach was his frontyard, the Pacific Ocean the neighborhood. The postwar American dream of carefree pleasures swirled contagiously around him. He was skinny and freckled and waterlogged. The lifeguards called him a seal, and he became their mascot.

He would run down the beach with an open pillow case, filling it with air and jumping into the shore break, riding the air pillow like a surf mat. In 1948, he was one of the first to have a surfboard shorter than nine feet. The man who shaped it from solid balsa called the 11-year-old "a wild and happy kid." Grigg explored the breakwater and, with a pair of goggles, dove for lobsters, which he sold on the boardwalk. He could hold his breath three minutes. He won the first Catalina-to-Manhattan Beach paddleboard race. He spent the summer at Waikiki when he was 16, returning to surf Malibu with hot-dog moves never seen in California. He carved the waves with the likes of Buzzy Trent, Dewey Weber, Mickey Dora and Lance Carson--Founding Fathers of the surf culture.

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