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Reluctant big wave rider Dan Connell

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Dan Connell was just looking for a place to paddle out on the day he won the South Bay Board Riders Big Wave Challenge

On the first Friday of January  2012, just about every top surfer in the South Bay was planning to surf the Redondo Breakwater or the Hammerland jetty in El Segundo. The surf models were predicting 20-foot waves at west facing beaches. When the waves are that big, Breakwater and Hammerland are the only beach city breaks that are rideable. Everyplace else closes out.

The $6,000 South Bay Big Wave Challenge added motivation. The South Bay Boardriders Club established the contest in 2011 to bring recognition to the South Bay’s many talented, but largely unheralded surfers.

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The prize would be awarded in April to the surfer who caught the biggest South Bay wave of the winter season, and could provide visual documentation of the wave.

E.T. Surf co-manager Dan Connell is widely recognized as one the South Bay’s top surfers. Although he knew a big swell was expected that morning, the Big Wave Challenge didn’t enter his mind. He prefers small waves and small boards.

Last month, A.M.I. productions’ Jani Lange and Spyder Surf co-owner Dickie O’Reilly organized a surf contest at the Hermosa pier between alumni from Redondo and Mira Costa high schools, both surfing power houses. Connell attended Redondo High and though he is 40, was named to the Redondo team.

Just about every morning, after dropping off his son Travis at Beryl Elementary and his daughter Ellie at Parras Middle School,  Connell surfs in front of Noble Park, at 14th Street in Hermosa Beach. After surfing, he rinses off at the beach shower and races up Pier Avenue to open ET Surf at 10 a.m.

Connell has surfed as many as 90 consecutive days at 14th Street.

“I get in a rhythm, like people who run every day. I like the way I feel after surfing. And when I get to the shop, instead of asking customers, ‘Can I help you,” to which they always say ‘No,’ I ask, ‘Did you surf today.’ Whether they say yes or no, we have something to talk about.”

Dan Connell surfing

Dan Connell and his daughter Ellie with (at right) surfboard shaper Tyler Hatzikian, photographer Brent Broza, and surfboard shaper Dennis Jarvis, who shaped the red-railed big wave board prize.

Connell’s biggest concern on January 6, the morning of the 2012’s first big winter swell, was finding a place he could paddle out.

When he reached the top of 190th Street, after dropping off his kids, he saw the lines of waves marching in and knew14th Street wasn’t the call. At the bottom of 190th Street, instead of his usual right turn on Hermosa Avenue, he doglegged it into the Breakwater parking lot.

A small crowd, including his E.T. Surf co-manager Daniel Del Castillo, was watching the waves from the wall that fills with spectators whenever Breakwater is good. Breakwater is the Kodak reef of the South Bay. Like Pipeline, even when it’s big the waves break close enough to shore for photographers to focus their long, low aperture lenses on the surfers’ pupils.

No one was in the water. The tide had been nearly six feet at 7 a.m. and the Breakwater wants a low tide. Low tide, a minus .5, wasn’t until 2 p.m.

At low tide, during a big north swell, the waves rebound off the north facing breakwall, and regroup in steep, shifting peaks that can be half again as tall as the original waves. The key to surfing the Breakwater is knowing where that shifting peak will break.

At high tide, the waves run straight up the beach, into the pilings supporting the Charthouse restaurant. In 1983, a big swell that coincided with a seven-foot tide knocked out the Charthouse picture windows and swept through the dining room.

“It was closing out when I got there. So I watched it with Daniel and Greg “High Tide” for about 45 minutes and then I noticed the parking lot was filling up. I was thinking I better get out before it gets too crowded,” Connell recalled,

On big days, most surfers walk out along the Breakwater, wait for a lull, then race down the slippery rocks and jump in the water. Everyone who surfs the Breakwall has witnessed or experienced a mistimed jump into a wave that slams the surfer into the rocks.

Connell prefers to take his chances paddling out along the edge of the Breakwater, where there is sometimes a channel, and sometimes not.

He carries five boards in the bed of his truck, and that day chose his biggest one, a 6-foot-6 round tail shaped by ET’s Pat “Gumby” Ryan. That’s a small board for big waves.

Two years earlier Connell paddled out on a big day at the Breakwater on a 7-foot board, which is still relatively small for big waves. But he found the board too stiff. So the next day, he paddled out on his only other board he had at the time, which was 5-foot-8, and despite freefalling down a triple overhead wave, he realized he prefers short boards, even in big waves.

Small boards have at least one advantage. They can be duck dived, something you can’t do with big boards, which  partially explains the popular preference for jumping off the rocks.

“When I was a kid learning to surf, I went over the falls on top of a guy at the Hermosa pier. He yelled at me to get out of the water until I learned to duck dive. I spent more time that year practicing duck diving than surfing,” Connell said.

“It wasn’t too hard paddling out, but I still struggled more than I should have. I think it was because I was nervous knowing everyone on the beach was watching,” he said.

One of the most humbling experiences in surfing is attempting to paddle out and having to retreat back to the beach.

Almost as humbling with people watching, is letting a good wave go by.

“After I got outside, I paddled over to Daniel and Greg “High Tide,” who were sitting in front of the Charthouse. There was a 10 minute lull and then a set wave came through. I was just off the peak when it started breaking and I let it go by. It peeled off perfectly all the way to the beach in front of the storm drain. I was pissed at myself. I was thinking that could have been the best wave of my life.

“Another five minutes passed, and another set wave came through. I was still so mad at myself for letting the earlier wave go by, that I didn’t hesitate.

“It was steep, but actually an easy take-off. At the bottom, I didn’t see a barrel to pull into, but I’m thinking, everyone’s watching so I better do something. I went for a turn off the top. But the wave jacked up, so instead of an off the top turn, I did an off the middle turn. Then it closed out. I thought about pulling in, but a friend broke his leg pulling into a Breakwater close out, so I straightened out.

“I was waiting for the lip to crash down behind me and for the white water to catch up to me. When it did, I felt like I’d been hit by a car. I’d never felt white water like that before.

“When I came up my board was in two pieces.”

“Walking up the beach someone said something to me about the Big Wave Challenge. But I was too bummed about breaking my board to think about it.  I’d only ridden the board four times. Then, when I saw who was in the parking lot, getting ready to go out, I thought, “Right, that’ll be the day.’”

With the falling tide, the line-up would soon include Breakwater regulars Scott Johnsen, Greg McEuen, Derek Levy, Chris Wells, the Meistrell family – Randy, Matt and Tracy, the Luhrsen family – Michael, Angelo and Jude, Redondo High’s two-time SB Surf League MVP Connor Beaty, Santa Cruz pro Nat Young, and Hawaiian pro Sonny Garcia, who had been invited by the Luhrsens.

The big, 2000 World Surfing Champion and six-time winner of the Triple Crown was the only person that day on a board smaller than Connell’s. Garcia rode a 6-foot-3. Afterwards, he conceded he wished he brought a bigger board.

Connell pulled another board out of his truck with the intention of paddling back out. But after watching the surf for 45 minute and not seeing another set come through, he left.

Dan Connell surfing

Dan Connell waits for the white water to catch up to him after the lip of his 25 foot wave came crashing down behind him at the Redondo Breakwater on January 6. Photo by Randy Ruby

Saved by the sea

Connell started surfing when he was 12, after moving from Michigan, where his mother lived, to his dad’s Redondo Beach home in December, 1984.

“The first thing I did when I got here was bicycle down 190th to the ocean to see how cold the water was. It didn’t feel that cold, not compared to Michigan,” he said. The new Adams Middle School eighth grader bought a spring suit at the Dive N’ Surf  Tent sale  and spent January and February Boogie boarding. In March, his dad gave him a 5-foot-8 Craig Richmond  with red rails for his birthday.

“My friends used to tease me about it because they said the rails were pink,” Connell said.

Redondo High didn’t yet have a surf team, but athletic director Les Congelliere taught a surf class before school, where Connell and his friends planned weekend surf trips. One of the friends was Sean Larned. The two still surf together at 14th Street.

“I read Bank Wright’s Surfing California guide book every day. I must have read it a million times,” Connell said. Wright was a Hermosa Beach surfer surfing guide, with its cover of a surfer silhouetted by a red setting sun, was essential reading for California surfers from the  time of its publication in 1972 to the advent of the Internet.

After graduating from high school in 1990, Ryan hired Connell to patch dings.

“The repairs were due Friday, so we’d start Thursday afternoon and work through the night. We had boards and cups of resin all over the parking lot. Pat was like a mad scientist, always cussing and yelling at me to hurry up.

“That went on for about six months, and then Pat told Eddie he wasn’t doing ding repair anymore.”

Co-manager Teresa Gamboa figured anyone who could put up with Gumby could put up with customers and put Connell on the floor to sell.

Over the ensuing two decades E.T.’s crew would become Connell’s extended family and owner Eddie Talbot his surrogate dad.

“My dad was a consultant and traveled a lot, so any time I screwed up Eddie would help me out. He still does. He’s helped me find a house, advise me on family stuff and protected me from my financial stupidity.”

Talbot also gets partial credit with introducing Connell to his future wife.

“Michelle came in to rent snowboard boots. She was funny and cocky, but didn’t find anything I said funny. When I told her I snowboarded, she said, ‘If I see you on the mountain, I’ll give you a lesson.’

“I was working four days a week and spending three days a week at a rental cabin in Big Bear. So I rented her a pair of pink and turquoise Air Walk boots. That weekend, I waited in the Big Bear Express line because if she was as good as she claimed that’s where she’d be. When I spotted the pink and turquoise boots, I walked up to her and said, I’m ready for my lesson.”

Dan Connell surfing

Dan Connell with the remains of his 6-foot Pat Ryan/ET surfboard, following his 25-foot wave. Photo by Randy Ruby

Winner by unanimous decision

During the final week of March, the judges for the Big Wave Challenge met at the Hermosa home of South Bay Boardriders Club co-founder Tom Horton to review the approximately 50 photo submissions.

Judging wave sizes from photos is not black and white. A wide angle water shot can make a big wave look flatter than it is. A long lens, land shot can make a wave look steeper than it is. A subtle change in shading may be all that identifies the bottom of a wave in a photo. Using the surfer’s height as a unit of measurement is complicated by surfers’ different sizes and stances.

Club president Mike Balzer had printed enlargements of the five finalists. All were photographed on January 6. Connell, along with chiropractor Derek Levy and college student Angelo Luhrsen were shot at the Redondo Breakwater. The two other finalists, surfboard builder Tyler Hatzikian and mushroom farmer Matt Parker were photographed at Hammerland.

Balzer, a highly regarded surf photographer, proposed determining the wave heights by counting the number of times the surfers’ heights fit on the face of the waves, using a pair of calipers. Mark Levy, a computer industry worker, proposed a grid system he contended would compensate for the differences in camera angles.

During the lengthy discussion that followed, Scott Johnsen convinced the nine other judges to sort the photos by wave size, by simply eyeballing them.

On four of the five photos, there was no consensus. All of the waves looked to be in the 20- to 22-foot range.

But there was unanimous agreement that Connell’s wave was bigger than any of the others.

Balzer and Levy concurred. Independently, they calculated the face of Connell’s wave to be 25 feet.

The nervousness Connell suffered surfing in front of the Breakwater crowd on January 6 was minor compared to the case of nerves he experienced when he was called to the stage in front of 500 fellow South Bay surfers at the Hermosa Beach Community Center during the April 6 South Bay Boardriders Big Wave Challenge Awards presentation. As he struggled to steady his hands to read the notes he was holding, he thanked his wife and kids, the Boardriders Club, the Luhrsens and other Breakwater regulars, and most of all Eddie Talbot and the E.T. crew.

“After working for a guy like Eddie and his crew, always joking and laughing, I’d never want to work anywhere else. Everyone is like family,” he said.

The prize money from Karmaky.com and Body Glove, he said, would be spent on a family vacation in Hawaii.

But what he was going to do with the 8-foot-10 swallowtail, big wave gun he was also presented with he didn’t say. The board was shaped by Dennis Jarvis, who started as a shaper for Eddie Talbot and went on to found Spyder Surf. It had a clear deck and reddish-pink rails.

When the evening ended, he asked Balzer to take the board home with him. He said it wouldn’t fit in his truck.

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