By MICHAEL WINERIP
Published: May 29, 2009
FOR 25 years, Dr. Warren M. Patch has kept regular office hours.
Mornings, the 55-year-old chiropractor sees patients from 9 to noon;
afternoons, from 3 to 6.
And noon to 3?
"Doc Patch is gone surfing," said Scott Harrison, 52, a computer
network engineer and surfer himself, who comes to Doc for the chronic
upper back pain that dogs middle-aged surfers.
While Doc Patch, as most call him, treats about every kind of ache in
every age patient, he has a strong following among patients like Mr.
Harrison. All those years of lying belly down on a board, paddling
out with head and neck arched upward, take a toll.
"You needed that adjustment," said Doc Patch, after finishing with
Mr. Harrison. "It's great to be able to get your head lined up with
the rest of you." And then Doc Patch was out the door. It was noon.
"Time to go," he said.
His board was latched atop his van. Though his favorite local surf
spot is Sunset Cliffs by his oceanfront condo, he knew from eyeing
the Pacific out his bedroom window that morning, from checking buoy
readings online, from the logbooks he's kept of every surf outing
these last 28 years that the only wave on this calm day in late May
would be at nearby Ocean Beach pier, and it would be small.
He has caught waves as big as 18 feet at Sunset Cliffs (Dec. 5, 2007)
and surfed 20-footers in Hawaii, and off Baja. But he takes the wave
he's dealt, and in minutes he was parked on Abbott Street, one of
Ocean Beach's main roads, and undressing behind his van. He peeled
down to nothing but a towel, then pulled on a wet suit. His sole
concession to middle age: he wore a rubber cap equipped with a visor
to keep the sun off his face and flaps to prevent water from getting
into his ears and causing infection. Surfboard under his arm, his
last words before running across the beach and paddling out were:
"Hopefully, I won't get my hair wet."
San Diego may be the capital of surfers who refuse to retire. Here
among the many surf spots are beaches like Tourmaline, dominated by
gray hairs in wet suits with long boards who appreciate a forgiving
reef that softens the waves. At Tourmaline, paddling out is easier on
arthritic shoulders, and wiping out is less painful on herniated
disks. As Robert McClendon, 81, a lifelong surfer, said, "At
Tourmaline, you don't get the grinding, boils-up-the-sand, bone
crushers even when there's a big hump up."
Here, too, is where Surfrider Foundation, the national environmental
surf group, has its biggest chapter, claiming 7,000 members. And
while activist surfers are all ages, boomers play a major leadership
role. "It's hard to get a 20-year-old surfer to not go surfing and go
to a city council meeting that's a high-friction ask," said Jim
Moriarty, 46, executive director of Surfrider, which counts 55,000
members in 70 chapters nationwide. "But if you've surfed 10,000 times
in your life and you see the environmental problems, you'll show up."
That's what happened to Mr. Harrison, the San Diego chapter
president. "In high school, surfing was fun, waves and women," he
said. But every November when the heavy rains come, waste and trash
wash down the mountain gullies and into the Pacific, and over the
years that takes a toll on a surfer. "You start getting angry," Mr.
Harrison said. "As surfers we feel the brunt of ocean pollution
first. We're the first getting sick, getting infections."
As a young surfer, Mr. Harrison's favorite bumper sticker was,
"Tourists Go Home But Leave Your Daughters." In middle age: "I
Surf, I Vote."
"If I walk in as Joe Citizen, the politicians say, 'Yeah, fine,
next,' " he said. "But if I represent 7,000 surfers, they listen,
especially when we have our attorneys slinging lawsuits."
One of those slinging, surfing attorneys is Mike Rhodes, 51, who as
head of litigation for the law firm Cooley Godward Kronish oversees
350 lawyers. He began donating time and money to Surfrider 15 years
ago, after developing a middle-ear infection from surfing that was so
severe, he was almost unable to finish a trial. "It put the light
bulb off in my head," Mr. Rhodes said.
That kind of legal support, plus thousands of members turning out at
public meetings, helped Surfrider defeat a development project last
year that members feared would ruin Trestles, a favorite San Diego surf spot.
Of course, if you're out protesting, you're not out in the water, and
becoming more responsible has drawbacks. Mr. Harrison gave up a
morning of surfing with a friend at Imperial Beach to talk to a
reporter and later that day got a text message: "UR Stupid." "I
must've missed some good waves," he said.
Doc Patch tries not to. His oceanfront condo is a half-mile from his
office. "I never have to get on the freeway," he said unless he's
driving the hour south to his second home, on the beach in Rosarito,
Mexico ("85 steps to the water").
He grew up 23 miles inland from San Diego's coast, one of five
children in a blue-collar family (his dad worked in an aircraft
plant), and put himself through school by bartending. When it came
time to build a practice and a life, he was quite focused about what
he wanted and what he did not need.
His condo has a breathtaking view, but it is not extravagant two
bedrooms, 1,000 square feet, worth a half-million, he says. His van
is a 2004 with packing tape holding the side mirror in place.
"If I was more ambitious about money I could work longer hours and
have a lot more stress," he said. "I don't need fancy cars and a big
bank account. The fact I can pull back the curtains, see the waves
and surf every day that's my wealth."
He surfs 150 to 225 times a year, and acknowledges that may explain
his two divorces. "I experienced the seven-year pitch pitched me
out twice." His older daughter by his first wife has a 2-year-old
son, his first grandchild; he has joint custody of his two sons by
his second wife, ages 12 and 14.
He's been single nine years now. "I enjoy it it's quite peaceful."
While he never misses a big day in the water, he never misses work
because of surfing.
Asked the differences between young and old surfers, he said, "Guys
in their 20s do aerial maneuvers."
"But for a 55-year-old surfer, grace is a measure of mastery," he
added. He likes catching a wave with one stroke, which means being in
the precise spot. "When you do," he said, "it looks like the wave
came right to you." After surfing, he usually goes back to his condo
for a nap. "I see how many minutes I have and just shut down."
On this day, at Ocean Beach pier, he rode a half-dozen waves, which
all came to him. On his last ride, he caught a wave that took him all
the way to the beach, as if he'd ordered it up special.
Back at the van, he pulled out a wooden piece of decking that he
stood on while washing off the salt with two jugs he keeps in the
rear hatch. "This way I don't track sand into the van." He hung his
wet suit on a hanger, put on a wrinkle-free Hawaiian shirt and a pair
of navy Bermudas, then climbed into the driver's seat.
"Does my hair look wet?" he asked. It didn't. He filled in his
logbook: 12:40 to 1:10 p.m., Ocean Beach, one- to three-foot waves,
It was early. There was still time for a nap before his next patient, at 3.