Editor’s Note: As a world renowned surfing town, La Jolla has its legends of the sea. We’re stoked to bring you their stories in this new summer series.
For pro surfer and WindanSea lifeguard John Maher, the wave that stands out most was one he caught at age 7 near Scripps Pier. “I grew up surfing in Little Point, WindanSea and the area around here. I hadn’t been down (to La Jolla Shores) too much, and I went down and caught a ride at Scripps Pier that was the first wave ever that I stood up, did the bottom turn and went down the line on an open face and rode it all the way. The feeling was the best ever,” he told La Jolla Light.
Thirty-five-year-old La Jolla native Maher grew up a few blocks from WindanSea beach, raised in a family of artists and ocean-lovers. His parents, he said, met at a Marine Street beach party in the 1970s. “I was down at WindanSea since I was a baby pretty much every day,” he confessed, “in the water, boogie boarding, swimming … and one day my friends and I started surfing.”
At age 5, he stood up on a surfboard for the first time. By the time he turned 18, the City of San Diego hired him as a lifeguard. In his 20s, he started surfing more seriously and bought into the sport as a career. “I didn’t make a ton of money, but I had some solid sponsorships that were helping me get around the world and contributing to my passion.”
Maher explained there are two possible ways to go about professional surfing. “A lot of people go into the competitive side where they compete on what’s called the (Surf League International) World Qualifying Series, which is a championship tour, and it’s hundreds of surfers going around the world, competing against each other, trying to make it into the World Tour, and then (competing) to eventually win the championship.
“And then there’s a ‘freesurfing’ editorial side where you earn by being published in magazines, and they run your advertisement, point-of-sale displays, billboards and things like that.” Maher decided to take the second route because he’s “not very competitive and I didn’t enjoy grinding on the competitive side of it.”
Eventually, he transitioned out of surfing and dedicated himself to lifeguarding full time. “Professional surfing is not something you can do forever unless you are one of the top tier guys of the world, and there’s only a handful. Lifeguarding is sustainable and I love it,” he opined. Now, he divides his time between lifeguarding in La Jolla in the summer and a winter job in Tavarua Island Resort, in Fiji, where tourists go to scuba dive, snorkel, kayak or surf.
A coral reef surf break a mile from Tavarua, Cloudbreak, is one of his favorite places to catch waves. “The wave is really unique; it’s in the middle of nowhere, very hollow, fast moving, really long left. What I do is take a boat ride with the guests, and we go out there, throw anchor, and they surf. I make sure everyone’s OK. If anything happens, I’m responsible for taking care of the emergency and getting them back to the island safely.”
Maher met his fiancée under the WindanSea Shack. “I’m engaged, I’m super stoked, I found an amazing girl. Her name’s Megan (Skeen) and she surfs. She grew up in the ocean, too; we have a lot in common. We travel and surf together, she loves the beach, as I do.”
As a local, the reef break at the end of Nautilus Street is his go-to place for surfing in town. He said the surf environment depends on the day, but “in surfing, there’s etiquette, and respect. If an old-timer who’s been surfing here since 30 years before I was born paddles out, I’m going to let him catch any wave he wants. It’s almost like a hierarchy of the lineup out there. It’s really great, because if it wasn’t there, it would be a lot of chaos and a lot of people getting hurt.”
He continued, “WindanSea is unique in that it has an Aloha spirit, like in Hawaii. There’s a very strong community here that takes care of the beach, and with that comes a social aspect in the water. The reef is not a great place to learn how to surf, as opposed to a beach like Pacific Beach or La Jolla Shores, where it’s a big, sandy break. Most of the surfers at WindanSea are more advanced. They already understand who’s up next, who caught the last wave, who has to wait, and that order kind of ensures that everyone has a safe experience and catches waves.”
However, his specialty wave is a “big tube” — a wave so hollow it forms a tube when it breaks. To catch a big tube, a surfer needs, according to Maher, “experience. Put in your time and learn where you can catch it, because you need to sit in a spot in the lineup where you can catch the wave early enough to get into it and maybe bottom turn, pull under the barrel, but you can’t be too far inside or else the next bigger wave will catch you, and can blow you over, and that’s not a good experience.”
He admits to have been hurt many times while surfing, but he brushes it off with “You ‘gotta’ pay to play.” He had “surfer’s ear surgery,” a procedure to chisel out a bone growth in the ear caused by an instinct in the body to protect the ear drum from the cold water and the wind. “But what ends up happening,” he explained, “is that water gets stuck inside and it gets infected, and the infection can get pretty serious.”
A dual sport
For Maher, surfing has a dual nature because it’s both social and lonely at the same time.
“(What I love about surfing is) a feeling of freedom and getting in touch with nature. It’s pretty unique in that you are on your own ... but there’s also a social element to it, and you can choose to get either way when you paddle out. At WindanSea, there’s a lot of social. When the waves get big, you’re kind of on your own. It’s cool.
“(When they’re big) typically it’s dangerous and there’s a crew of friends that will all be going after the same ride, and whether you paddle out together or see each other out there, you have to watch each other’s backs, but you have to be confident in your own abilities to make it, in case something bad happens.”
- Seeking ‘Wave Seekers’: If you know someone who should be included in this La Jolla Light series, please provide their contact information to reporter María José Durán at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 875-5951.