Coast Guard surf enthusists make best of Columbia breaksCAPE D - "No one surfed here when I got here," said BM1 Chris D'Amelio of when he arrived at the Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in January of 1998. So to quench his thirst for surfing for the first two years stationed here he would go to Waikiki Beach at Cape D State Park or Seaside.
"When I got here and surfed Waikiki there'd be people on the rocks in the wintertime, looking at me like I was crazy," he said. "They were yelling and cheering and stuff, it was weird."
D'Amelio is known as the "grandfather" of surfing at the Cape, despite the fact that he's only in his early 30s. He also has been known to go by "Sally Strong-arm" by some of the guys. Referred to as a "soul surfer from way back" by MK2 John Alexander, D'Amelio hales from Santa Cruz, Calif., one of the best known surf towns in the Golden State.
He began surfing when he was 9-years-old, a natural move in that climate. He said he joined the Coast Guard because he was tired of working dead end jobs and it seemed the best opportunity to do something with the ocean, whether it be surfing or something else. Prior to coming to the Cape seven years ago, D'Amelio was stationed in another northern California hot spot, Monterey, where he said he surfed everyday.
D'Amelio found himself regularly parked out on the banks of a small cove of sorts, with the "A" Jetty to one side, and the cliff face of Cape D on the other, watching as wave after wave rolled in off the Columbia River.
"I watched it for a long time. I watched millions of perfect waves go through there and no one was on it," he said.
That is until one day he got up the nerve to try it out. And what he found was paradise. The waves were good, and the spot was secluded. Then about five years ago other people who surfed were transferred to the Cape, giving D'Amelio some buddies to ride with.
"I mean, you can go out when it's four-foot (waves) and you're by yourself and get hurt and no one's going to know," he said.
Two of the guys at the base that D'Amelio surfs with regularly are Alexander and BM1 Tyler Bartel. Like D'Amelio, Alexander is from California, raised surfing the waters off of Half Moon Bay and Monterey.
"My whole family surfs. I've grown up around it," he said. "My uncle teaches surf lessons and I actually worked for him before I joined the Coast Guard."
Bartel has a bit more experience as a Northwest cold water surfer. Having grown up in Portland, Bartel would regularly make the trek to Seaside in order to surf on his days off.
"Like Friday through Sunday, and just surf as much as I could," he said. "Even through the winter I'd do that, just to get out of Portland."
Bartel said he loves surfing at the A Jetty because of its seclusion.
"It could be head-high perfect waves, and it'll be just you and a handful of guys you work with. Maybe tops 10 people out in the water," he said. "To be anywhere else, on a Saturday, five of us could surf the A Jetty, and surf better waves then people at like Short Sands or the cove in Seaside or Indian Beach."
Alexander said that in comparison to the beaches in California where he grew up, the surfers at the Cape have free reign over their terrain.
"I'm used to crowds of like 30, 40 people in the water. You've gotta fight for waves," he said. "It's more combat surfing there - it's more relaxed here."
"We all work together, we all hang out. It's like our own little pack of people," said Bartel. "When a guy goes for a wave, you're hooting and hollering for him, rather then giving him the stink eye."
"A" Jetty is located on the base, just south of the Motor Lifeboat School, so the water they surf is a mix of incoming tide from the ocean and the Columbia River, but Bartel said it is the same quality of wave you'd find at the beach.
The fact that the beach turns to a long bed of razor-sharp rocks in the wintertime does little to dissuade these enthusiasts from getting out on the water during the colder months. Surfing anywhere has a bit of inherent danger to it, but surfing on the Peninsula comes with its own set of precarious conditions.
"In the wintertime, it's all rocks. You've got to enter and get out on rocks," said Bartel. "You've got to time it between the series of the waves, 'cause it will surge up onto the rocks and you'll get plastered there like a little tuna can up there. You get beat going in and out of the water. There's some times where my shins, my hands are bloodied."
But in the summertime it's a different story, with all the rocks being covered by sand, creating a nice little beach.
"It's like a kiddy pool," said Alexander.
But they said that the difference in the climate at the jetty doesn't affect their decision whether or not to go out.
"No, we just go. If it's good, we're going to get out there no matter what," said Bartel. "You just use a lot of caution when you're walking on the rocks."
"We have full medical benefits," said Alexander half-jokingly.
One of the other dangers of surfing at A Jetty is the shipwreck of the Betty M, located in the middle of their surfing cove, which is only visible at low tide.
"There's definitely days here that I paddle out and think I shouldn't," said Bartel.
"It's kind of spooky out there. It's real dark, and you have cliffs and rocks," said D'Amelio. "Sea lions around here are insane. The sea lions up here are like on crack, they're super aggressive."
Alexander said he thinks the only time that he's been "scared scared," was a day where they went out and the waves got too big, even to get back out again, so they decided to paddle around Peacock Spit to Waikiki Beach.
"It's like a half-mile paddle. I'm scared of the sea life so paddling out into the open river was a bit sketchy for me.
"But I'd rather get beat by a wave any day then get bitten by a sea lion, that's for sure."
And perhaps the good news is that if something does happen, they are at the Coast Guard base already. Bartel said there's only been one time where that kind of assistance was necessary.
One time while riding at Benson Beach around sundown, the tide was "running out really hard," making it difficult for the guys to paddle back into shore. One of the guys couldn't make it and got washed north and was hanging onto a carpet buoy near the cliff at Northhead Lighthouse. By the time the other guys got back into shore they were too exhausted to go after him and had to call in for assistance.
"Forty-seven picked him up, one of our Coast Guard boats. And it was dark," said Bartel.
"There's definitely risks," he said. "I think people get a false impression of surfing. There's really a lot more dangers to it than people perceive. You have to be a good athlete. Either that or have surfed for a long time."
Bartel did note that the A Jetty or Benson Beach are not a spots for beginners, especially in the wintertime. Alexander said that the best beginner's beach on the Peninsula is Waikiki Beach, but he urged caution and suggested that people be very familiar with a certain surf spot and be very good swimmers.
As for the Coasties core group of surfers - around a dozen in all, including people on base, at the motor lifeboat school and Group Astoria - they usually are able to get out there together, despite the fact that they work on shifts at the base. Bartel said that sometimes they'll get lucky and have that time off. Either that or they'll trade with someone else when surf is up.
"A little magic does happen now and then. Tinkerbell does sprinkle us a little bit," said Alexander with a laugh.
"It's a like an addiction. If it's really good and one of us is on duty, if you know somebody who works on base you're like, 'I'll owe you two hours if you standby for me.'
"You could surf the next two days you're off, but if the weather's just not calling for it, you're not going to be surfing. When they're there, you got to take advantage of it. Mother Nature isn't always cooperative, especially here."