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Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 08:17 AM

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Riding the waves at Westport, Washington's own Surf City

Special to the Seattle Times

Bobbing in the swells below the rock jetty of Westport's Westhaven State Park, a dozen or so black shiny beings stare out to sea.

Watching. Waiting. Anticipating.

The perfect wave. Or at least a decent one. One that each of these neoprene-covered men and women in black hopes has his or her name on it and will catch for the ride of their lives. Or at least the afternoon.

Several wait side-by-side, scanning the waves while sitting astride their surfboards. They look like riders on horseback, cowboys watching over a cattle drive.

Suddenly, a couple of surfers see a swell they like, one they hope is building into another of the near-perfect head-high waves with six-foot face, as has been fairly common this early June Saturday.

"I've never seen waves like this here," says 17-year-old Eric Johnson, who's been making twice-monthly surfing trips from Issaquah to Westport since he was 12. "There's no wind, and the angle of the swell is from the south so the waves aren't breaking up."

(Uh, OK, nods the nonsurfing reporter.)

The surfers paddle with urgency, but only one receives that gentle but powerful push forward when the building swell lifts and places him in that perfect pocket. He's got it. And after some slightly tentative maneuvering across the top of his board, he surprises all by getting down onto all fours and then pushes himself up into a headstand.

If you go


Surfing Westport

Where

From Interstate 5 near Olympia, go west on Highway 101 for about 6 miles to Highway 8, following signs for Aberdeen. After 21 miles, Highway 8 becomes Highway 12, which, in another 20 miles reaches Aberdeen. From here follow State Route105 toward the coast and Westport, about 20 miles away. The surfing beaches and Westhaven State Park are at the far northwest end of the peninsula.

Coming up

From June 30 to July 2, the third annual Surfing and Traditions competition will take place in La Push. Along with a youth surfing and kayaking clinic, the event features a surf competition and beach clean-up. For information call 360-374-4090 or see www.surfingandtraditions.com.

Gear

The following shops sell and rent surfboards, wetsuits and all kinds of surfing-related gear:

Urban Surf, 206-545-9463, 2100 N. Northlake Way, Seattle, www.urbansurf.com

Cheka-Looka Surf Shop, 206-726-7878, 2498 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle.

The Surf Shop, 360-268-0992, 207 N. Montesano St., Westport

Steepwater Surf Shop, 360-268-5527, 1200 N. Montesano St., Westport, www.steepwatersurfshop.com

Lessons

In Seattle, Cheka-Looka offers lessons for $200 for one or two people. This includes one hour of class time learning about waves and the ocean and three hours in-water instruction in Westport. Transportation not included.

In Westport, Steepwater Surf Shop offers 90-minute lessons for $80, which also includes half-day rental of a board and wet suit.

There are whoops and hollers, and some hues and cries for fun — both from he and other surfers, and he rides it out, his world upside-down, until he and the wave peter out in a bubbling roil of whitewater.

Surf cities

That's surfing Westport, Wash. With pelotons of brown pelicans streaking overheard above the hundred-plus surfers strung out across this half-mile stretch of beach — not to mention the blaring Dick Dale surf music — you'd think for all the world you were in some SoCal surfing Mecca. (Except, that is, for the gray skies, 50-degree water, and lack of bikinis on the beach.)

"People think no one surfs in Washington, but on any summer weekend, there's always this many people here," Johnson says during a break from the waves.

The Dick Dale comes courtesy of the fifth annual Clean Water Classic, a surfing competition (June 3 and 4 this summer). About 120 surfers from up and down the West Coast — as well as Hawaii and Brazil — are competing in the event that's a fundraiser for the Surfrider Foundation. (Surfrider is a nonprofit group that works to preserve the world's oceans and beaches.)

But most of the 100 or so surfers I see aren't in the competition. (The heats were small with only six competing surfers in the water at any one time.) The overwhelming majority are here for fun.

"This is just my third time out in cold water," says Seattle's Chris George, 24, while tugging, pulling, and yanking himself into his wet suit. George, a University of Washington student, learned to surf in South Africa and Costa Rica.

"I know down in Oregon surfers are pretty territorial, but in Westport it's more of a relaxed scene. It's definitely nice, and I appreciate that."

Where to catch a wave

Surfers have been hanging 10 on the Washington coast since the 1960s, first off Point Grenville, in the Quinault Indian Reservation. Eventually, they migrated down the coast to Westport, this post-heyday town known more for its chartered fishing boats. La Push and Neah Bay have also become hives of surfing activity — as have other places that territorial surfers are loathe to divulge — but most of those spots have difficult access, either on tribal land or that require arduous hikes to get to. Sometimes both.

"Westport is definitely Washington's premier place to surf," says Ian Miller, who works for the Surfrider Foundation and is the main organizer for this day's competition. "It's the only place to surf with a town right there, which means places to stay and places to eat. Over time, Westport has come to see that surfing is an economic resource, and it's always openly supported this event."

The town has three surf spots — Westhaven State Park (also known as the Jetty); Half Moon Bay (the Cove), just behind the jetty beach, and the Finger Jetties (known as the Groins, which, again to a nonsurfer, conjures up all sorts of images of surfer-slamming-against-rocks-with-painful-consequences.)

As the first point of land contact for the storms in the northern Pacific Ocean, wave conditions on the Washington coast can vary widely. Which is why Westport is triply blessed in having three different beaches to surf. Whatever the weather throws at it, Westport can turn it into something rideable.

"We may only have 30 world-class days a year, but we consistently have something — waves that are head-high or bigger — almost every day of the year," says Matt Loughran, who opened Westport's Steepwater Surf Shop in 2001.

"There's always something breaking here."

Taking "the Elevator"

The Clean Water competition is fun to watch but truth be told, the surfers are so far out and the beach is so long, you can't really tell what's going on. It's like trying to watch a baseball game on TV at a bar — and you're seated across the room. So after admiring some amazing kid-built driftwood structures and dodging what must be dozens of unleashed dogs — surfers and Westporters love their dogs — I climb up and out to the jetty where, I've been told, the waves are the most challenging and the surfers are the best.

Watching the waves crash against the jetty's rocks, I wonder why anyone would surf there. Haven't we seen enough TV movies and shows where the overconfident hot dogger surfs too close to the rocks, and, with his girlfriend screaming "No, Moondoggie no!" he's dashed to bits?

Well, that doesn't happen here. Miraculously, the waves seem to push the surfers away, and in my two hours of watching dozens of surfers mere yards from the rocks, no one comes close to dashing it. In fact, the jetty sets in motion a most convenient riptide.

"They call that the Elevator," 15-year-old Katie Anderson of Sammamish tells me. From atop the jetty, we watch as surfers, including her dad, Paul, enter the water hard by the jetty rocks and with not much paddling are gently and quickly pulled hundreds of yards out to where the waves are breaking. There the riptide just kind of drops them off. It puts me in mind of moving walkways.

Paul Anderson, who's 49, has been surfing since he was 11, having learned how, like many people here, in California. The Andersons head for the waves almost every weekend, Katie says, to La Push or Ocean Shores or here. She's just learning how to surf and is trying to get her friends interested, too.

"I can stand up, but I'm really bad at paddling," Anderson says.

I head farther out the jetty, past successful anglers carrying tonight's rockfish dinner, where just below me expert surfers are showing their stuff. Cutting back, switching direction, and seeming to hop up and down the face of waves.

They ride the Elevator back out. And wait for the next big thing. Sometimes for a while.

But nobody seems to mind. It's just good to be out here.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer who, during the summer when he was 13, made the mistake of seeing "Jaws" at least eight times. An outdoorsy sort who bikes and climbs and runs and partakes in all manner of outdoor activities, he remains to this day a bit of a shark-shy scaredy cat when it comes to the ocean. Contact him at mikemcquaide@comcast

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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