The inside story on Dale Webster
(To watch Dale Webster in the movie, Step Into Liquid, go here. Webster's cameo starts at the 19:33 mark.)
To read Chris Ballard's Point After on Webster, go here.
I met up with Dale Webster last week at his home in Valley Ford, Calif., a one-curve town -- literally, as the entire 'town' is on one bend of Highway One -- about eight miles from Bodega Bay, where he drives every day to surf.
I didn't know what to expect -- perhaps some variation on the eternal optimist. It's been one long, wild ride. Cowabunga. Along those lines. But that wasn't the case. While talking over the course of three hours, Dale alternated between laughing and crying, and it was clear he'd been using all that time in the ocean for some serious introspection. (By the way, my favorite quote from Dale that didn't make the story was when he was talking about whether he should have been working full-time all these years to save money and buy a house, rather than live in his $250/month rental, and he said with the ultimate disdain, "But then I would have just been a weekend surfer.")
Curious about how others saw him, I went into Bodega Bay and spoke to the teachers at the elementary school, as well as teenagers at the surf shop and others around town. He seemed to be universally well-thought-of, a local legend of sorts. At the school, teachers give out the Dale Webster Award each year to students who go the whole year with perfect attendance. "There's a group of kids for whom he's a total icon," Paul Olson, one of the teachers, told me. "He's an institution here."
Naturally, I wondered what his daughter, Margo, thought of his quest. After all, she never went on family vacations either. I wasn't able to wedge her quotes into the story (which runs at a set length for the back page of the magazine), but I found her perspective interesting. It's worth sharing here.
She told me she thought her dad's surfing was "a healthy obsession" that kept him "sane" and "grounded" and that both she and her mother thought it was the best thing for him. "I'm glad he wasn't one of those dads who worked 80 hours a week," she told me. "He was home every night cooking dinner. There are tradeoffs in life and I think this one worked out really well. Even though he's not the richest man or the worldliest man, he lives a really full life."
Of course, it helps that both Margo and her mother, Kaye, were both surfers (and Margo still goes out occasionally). They led a simple life, certainly. Margo slept in a trailer adjacent to the house, and Dale's interior décor could be charitably described as "vintage surf paraphernalia" with wetsuits and boards hanging from the ceiling and stacks of old Beach Boys records on shelves. "There were periods where it was embarrassing to be this surf bum family," Margo told me. "But I always embraced it. I thought it was pretty cool."
Margo's now graduating from Sonoma State and Dale is insanely proud of her (as he should be). She's engaged to be married and is, from all indications, a young woman who has her life together. Perhaps this is due in part to Dale -- his example of perseverance but also of the drawbacks of living too much in the moment.
As for what comes next, Dale told me he's considering stopping next year, when the streak hits 33 1/3 years, but everyone I talked to was skeptical. "I think ending it would be the hardest day of his life," Margo said. "He can say those numbers [about when to stop] but I don't think it's something he can plan. It will have to happen by accident."
An often asked question about Dale's quest (besides why the hell would he do it?): How can one surf every day in Bodega? '
Answer: The 19th century horticulturist Luther Burbank referred to this slice of Northern California as "the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned" because of the climate and diversity of species but he could have just as well been referring to the water conditions. Even in Hawaii there are flat days; in Bodega there are always waves (enough to ride at least). Dale usually alternates between Doran Beach (smaller, easier access) and Salmon Creek, which can get up to eight feet, though is quite "sharky" as they say (I love that there's an adjective for this). Further out, there's a reef at Bodega Head that can occasionally create Maverick's-level waves. Dale doesn't mess with that, but local lifeguard Britt Horn has been known to.
To read more about the Bodega surf spots, check out Surfer Magazine's Guide to Northern and Central California Surf Spots from Chronicle Books.
To read a 2004 Surfer Magazine interview on Webster, go here.
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