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Poor air quality didn’t stop surfers

It’s been a bittersweet time for surfers all over San Diego. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of the 2003 Cedar Fires, Mother Nature provided a series of impressive, pumping swells from the south and northwest, coinciding with one of the region’s worst natural and man-made disasters to date.

Conflicted with a range of emotions alternating from total stoke at the quality and consistency of the swells to immense guilt over the joy of missing work and/or school due to this disaster, surfers took to the beaches in larger-than-average numbers. The siren song of the ocean proved too strong for the majority of us, who ignored thoroughly any warnings to stay indoors and remain cautious of the poor air quality. Not unlike the warnings to avoid the ocean after a substantial rain, surfers too should exercise caution when the air quality dips into the unhealthful category.

“I tried as much as possible to breathe through my nose,” remarked one surfer at South Bird last Tuesday. “At least there are a few more filters through the nasal passages than through the mouth.”

Another surfer claimed to pace herself more than usual. “After catching a wave, instead of racing back to the line-up for another, I’d take my time and keep my breathing at a more normal flow, focusing more on the quality of waves caught than the quantity.”

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Still others, seemingly oblivious to any inherent long-term danger to their health, commented on the sheer exhaustion from surfing multiple sessions each day throughout the week.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. This was indeed a time of high risk to our respiratory system. While perhaps not as foolhardy as the few folks I saw actually running last week, surfing in the types of swells we experienced does tax the lungs. This was no ordinary “bad air day” either. While the majority of substances burned were brush and chaparral, with the total destruction of homes, businesses and vehicles, we absorbed into our lungs rubber, plastic, paint, treated woods and a whole host of other caustic and carcinogenic substances.

So what are we die-hard surfers to do (and by the look of the crowds at WindanSea, there were more than a few of us)?

Well, there is some good news. Due to the high-moisture content of the ocean, the air quality was substantially better at the surface of the water where we surfers congregate than say, for a jogger running atop Mt. Soledad. Water acts like a filter that will precipitate out much of the particulates found in the air. These particles, in this case ash, actually stick to water. So when we have a breaking wave, the water droplets act like an adhesive that the ash sticks to, falling harmlessly back onto the surface of the ocean.

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But still, it is important to listen to your body. At the first sign of any pulmonary distress, aching lungs, headache or a scratchy throat, we need to hang it up for the day and go home. Wash your body and hair thoroughly in the shower after each session and drink a bit more water than you might normally consume.

Completely rinse your wetsuit, this time hanging it inside the house or garage to dry. Ash sticking to the wetsuit can easily rub into the skin, causing irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin.

The surf was actually a welcome, albeit temporary relief from the all-consuming anxiety that pervaded our community. After each session, we’d race back home to turn on the TV, concerned over our many family and friends living in evacuation corridors. And local surfers indeed responded, like the Becerra family who provided shelter for their displaced friends and Patrick Cairncross who, along with a host of fellow surfers, took the time between sessions to organize a donation drive for folks sheltered at Qualcomm Stadium.

Finally, hats off to our local firefighting surfers like Tom Porter, who, no doubt, would have much preferred sparring with Mother Nature in the ocean than the inferno on land. Better yet, next time you happen to be on the peak with one of these heroes, give them priority. From one surfer to another, I can’t think of a better way to say “thanks.”