The first time I ever saw a dead seal was at the mouth of San Pedro Creek right where it empties into the Pacific Ocean at Linda Mar State Beach in Pacifica, California. The seal had gotten its head ripped off, undoubtedly by a great white shark, and was decomposing in about four inches of water. My brother, some buddies, and I had just come in from a surf when we spotted it. Of course we were rattled by what we saw. A large, deadly predator had displayed its position in the food chain for us to see. So, we did what teenage boys always do in that situation: we poked and prodded it with the noses of our surfboards and made jokes about it. Oddly enough, that was the second most notable thing I saw that day. The first, of course, being boobies.
In the early 1990s, we lived in the East Bay (San Francisco Bay Area). It was too far from the coast to surf during the week, so on weekends me, my brother, and our circle of friends would proposition one of our parents (usually Chuck) to take us. Almost every weekend was the same thing: get up at the crack of dawn, drive to Pacifica, stop at Nor Cal Surf Shop for something that someone invariably left at home, surf, feast, and then drive home.
The aforementioned weekend was a little off. The fog was thick and the air felt colder than it actually was. My brother, our buddies, and I were all bundled up in hoodies and beanies, but somehow we were still shivering. It wasn’t exactly the same type of shivering like you would be doing if you were cold. It was almost a fearful shivering. No one forgot anything this time, but we decided to go into Nor Cal Surf Shop, anyway. We were stalling. For what? I don’t know.
In the midst of our worried procrastination, one of the shop regulars was using the dressing rooms to change from her street clothes into her wetsuit. For a female, parking lot changing can be a bit of a challenge, particularly when stretching on 4 mm of rubber. It was common for women to use the shop’s dressing rooms to gear up. We heard the stretching and slapping of neoprene through the dressing room walls as she wrestled with the suit. Then, like a gift from heaven, the mostly nude girl fell out of the dressing room onto her back in the middle of the store. It was her worst nightmare, but for us, it was fate. Our worries were over. It was time to go surf. It turns out, that might have been the exact time that Mr. Seal was meeting his maker. Is Nor Cal the reason I am still on this earth and able to share this story with you 20 years later?
Nobody believed that Mavericks existed until 1990 when Surfer Magazine published a photo of the wave’s soon-to-be-famous black water. Until then, Mavericks was surfed alone by Jeff Clark and a handful of his dedicated friends. From that point on, Mavericks served as a proving ground for the world’s preeminent big wave surfers.
Living in Northern California, there was a sense of pride about Mavericks. Even though I would never consider paddling out there on a massive swell, I still felt proud that I had a break in my back yard that could (and oftentimes would) scare the excrement out of the world’s most renowned watermen. The hellmen would ride Mavericks, but it belonged to us. My favorite Mavericks regular at the time was Peter Mel.
Peter Mel and his parents run a family business called Freeline Design Surf Shop in Santa Cruz, California. Peter’s parents, John and Kim Mel, opened the shop while Kim was pregnant with Peter. So, Peter has never known life without his family surf shop. Peter worked at Freeline while trying to balance a career as a professional surfer. During one of his shifts, Peter flirted with a customer named Tara, who later became his bride. Furthering the family heritage, Peter and Tara’s son John (presumably named after his grandfather and Freeline founder) has also worked in the shop. Freeline celebrated its 45th anniversary this year.
My brother and I could feel the family vibe every time we went into Freeline. We would go in to the shop occasionally to rent different types of surfboards. The surfboards we owned were second-hand, patched up sticks that worked, but that’s about it. The rental fleet at Freeline was, to us at least, like a shrine to the surfboard gods. They had dozens of bright white, name brand surfboards of all shapes and styles. And, we could pick any one of them and surf it for the whole day. I would always pick the 6’6″ (or it could have even been a 6’8″) John Carper HIC. It was way too big for me at the time (and was probably designed for 10 ft Steamer Lane), but I had this connection to it. I thought it might have been Peter’s board. We were like kids at Christmas and the Mel family (and their sales team) where the loving parents that got enjoyment from our happiness. All they wanted (and continue to want) was for the kids that came into their shop to feel like they were part of the family. And we did.
My connection with Freeline runs deeper than most because of the similarities their story has with my own personal life. We opened Ambush the week after Eric and I graduated high school. So, in a sense, our lives have always centered around Ambush. Coincidentally, I met my wife in Ambush. And, one day I hope to see my son, Jamie, gripping skateboards and tuning snowboards in Ambush, too.
Shops can serve different purposes. Some are places to meet up before a skate or surf session. Some are hangouts when the waves are flat or none of your friends are in the mood to skate. Some serve as a rallying point to work through your fears. And, sometimes, shops can save you from whatever might have been. But, if you are just lucky enough, your shop just might be the place to meet your soulmate.