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WHAT DOES it mean to give your life to your sport? Ask Dale Webster. Every day for the last 32 years, every single day, he has surfed. He heads out each morning in Bodega Bay, a blustery town on the northern California coast, and paddles into the 50� water, a worn-out 59-year-old in a worn-out wet suit. He's caught waves during howling storms, while wracked by kidney stones and, once, within snapping distance of a Volvo-sized great white ("never paddled so hard in my life," he says). He's gone through 35-plus wet suits and as many surfboards, and he's scraped off 45 pounds of surf wax, all of it preserved in a gooey, browning mound in his backyard. All that cold water has narrowed his ear canals, and his eyes are bloodshot and glassy, in need of surgery. He even delayed marrying his girlfriend, Kaye, for 10 years because Guinness World Records doesn't recognize feats witnessed solely by relatives. That's either uncommon foresight or the greatest excuse ever to avoid commitment. I'd love to, honey, but, you know, think of the record.
Why do all this? It began "as an incredible excuse to get stoked," as Webster puts it. A storm stirred up prodigious waves on Sept. 3, 1975, and Webster began surfing daily. In 1976, a leap year, it occurred to him: Why not keep going until Feb. 29 of another leap year, 2004? In a world in which diets are successful if they last six months, it was a preposterously ambitious goal. "People thought I was crazy," says Webster, and they were probably right.
But he just kept going, living his own waterlogged version of Groundhog Day. Eventually the world noticed. There was an item in Surfer magazine, a nickname (the Daily Wavester), newspaper stories and, sweetest of all, a four-minute cameo in the 2003 Dana Brown surf movie Step into Liquid. A woman even produced a line of stickers with a slogan as good as any of Nike's: DALE WOULD GO. The following year Webster finally reached his goal. On the big day there was practically a parade to the beach. Kaye was there, of course, as was their teenage daughter, Margo, who so idolized her dad that she'd started her own streak, becoming the first kid in her district to go from elementary school through high school with perfect attendance. Guinness had verified Webster's record (10,000 consecutive days), and the media were on hand to report that the Daily Wavester had finally hung it up. And, really, that was his intention.
Funny thing, though. That next morning Webster woke up, and all he could think about was the ocean. So he packed up his '93 Ford Escort and headed back to Doran Beach. Only this time he was alone. No reporters, no friends, no cameras, just a steady rain. He lugged his board into the water, and the tears started to fall. First in relief, then in loss. It was over, but then again, it was over. Twenty-eight years working toward something, and now he had to move on. Just me and the ocean, he thought, one more day.
That was four years ago. On Sunday, Webster clocked his 11,919th consecutive day. In June he'll hit 12,000, but for what? Cal Ripken Jr. played every game for a paycheck, but there are no rewards for what Webster does, at least not the kind that would get you out of a sagging two-room rented house. Because of the streak, he's never visited his in-laws' home in Utah or taken a vacation inland, and he's held a succession of part-time jobs, working for the last 11 years as a custodian at an elementary school. "I have no retirement plan, no house, no four-oh-ten-K or whatever those numbers mean," he says. "My attitude was always, If I can just get to the beach, the rest of the day will take care of itself."
A couple of years ago something happened that made him question whether even the Endless Summer eventually turns to fall. Kaye began feeling a dull pain in her ribs. When she finally got X-rays, they showed her bones were pitted, like old driftwood. She had multiple myeloma, a severe form of blood cancer. Chemo didn't help. Now, as Dale puts it, "she's reaching the end of her wave," and doctors think she might not make Christmas. So each morning he kisses her goodbye as she sleeps, slips in his three waves at the beach and returns to be with her before leaving for work at 2:30.
It's caused him to reevaluate his life, and his ritual. "It started out as a string, then a streak, then a quest," he says. "Now it's almost like it's become a toll—how much it's taken of my life." Yet he doesn't stop. It is his burden and his salvation.
Tomorrow, as always, dawn will come, the waves will break and Dale Webster will surf. "For me it comes down to this," he says. "We have this short time on earth—what are we going to do with it?"