Duck, they could be surfers
Sunday, June 16, 2002
It was a seasonal tradition. The homeowners and co-owners of the 56 home
community of Ship's Watch in Duck, North Carolina held an open house in mid May
to kick off the summer season on the Outer Banks. We were guests of my good
friends who'd retired from the National Geographic Society two years ago. In
September 1987 I had been the very first guest at their new beach home and as I
recall from the guest book that I wrote in that year, "The surf was headhigh and
glassy, bigger up by the Army Corp. Eng. Research Pier, but peeling about 100+
yards in both directions. Water temps still 80!!"
I had of course been back many times and had experienced both excellent and
terrible conditions at the hands of the fickle Atlantic. Still, I tended to
remember the good sessions and the mellow vibe among the surfers that populated
the break for hundreds of yards North and South of the pier. There was a
diverse crew of young turks, middle-aged retreads, weekend warriors, groms,
barneys and floaters. During good swells the quality peaks were riddled with
some of the best surfers on the North Outer Banks. These tended to be younger
men that could perform as well as anyone on both coasts.
This open house reception was something of a special event. It was the 15th
anniversary of the sale of many of the homes and the board of directors of the
community had decided to put on the feedbag by having the occasion catered by
one of the Yuppier restaurants in the area. By time our group four arrived just
before dusk the party was in full bloom.
Near the front door a cute, blond teenaged assistant offered everyone a paper
nametag. When she asked me my name I said jokingly, "I usually go by 'God' but
tonight I'll just be Foondoggy." Without missing a beat the young girl glanced
at MrsFoon and... noting her rolling eyes quickly commented as she wrote with a
straight face, "I'm sure that God thing must be getting old around your house.
Welcome to the Ship's Watch Reception Mr.Foondoggy." MrsFoon smiled in approval
at the young girl and brushed by me muttering, "Strike one Foonboy. Let's see if
we can get through the evening without embarrassing our friends." I took my
name tag and smiled brightly at her retreating back chirping merrily, "The night
is young my sweet."
The party was held in the huge "great room" area of one of the beachfront homes
with a spectacular ocean view of the deep blue Atlantic and the 1000-foot long
Army Corp. Pier to the North. To the East darkening skies were making the low
fluffy clouds look like the underside of a blanket made of millions of dirty
gray cotton balls. To the West spectacular light refraction after the all day
rains allowed the setting sun to splash the horizon with a multicolored pallet
of sensational oranges, pinks, reds, roses, mauves, vermilions, violets, purples
and blues. Many of the guests just stood on the wide decks and stared in
The food was first class with many exotic entrees and if you wanted to sit while
eating there were ample tables in the house or out on the wide decks or screened
in porches. The open bar, a center of activity all night, was stocked with some
very good wines and spirits and tended by a small Latin looking lady who spoke
no English but had a heavy hand when pouring your request. If you dropped a
buck in her tip glass she'd double up your dose on the next round. Gracias
A short self guided tour of this magnificent home revealed quite a lot of money
had been spent furnishing and decorating. I especially liked the Master bedroom
with the 6 person Jacuzzi separate from the Master Bath and a ceiling to floor
sliding glass door adjacent to the super King size bed that opened directly onto
a private wooden walkway to the beach. The place had every possible amenity, a
quiver of longboards stood in a rack near the outdoor showers. I never
questioned the multimillion-dollar price tag. I couldn't afford the utility bill
on this joint.
I don't know how these things happen but when there are waves to be watched,
surfers tend to congregate. I was out on one of the upper decks looking North to
the pier trying to judge in the twilight, which of the sandbar setups was
working best during this late hour tide. The same ones should be working the
next morning about the same time. A young man came up and introduced himself as
Sean. He quickly guessed by the way I kept glancing at the waves and nodding my
head that my interest in the surf was not exactly for fishing.
"You surf Mr. Foondoggy? (He'd glanced at my nametag and loud Hawaiian print
shirt) I noticed you keep looking up at the pier?"
"Yeah Sean. Mostly bodyboard now, but I'm a long time wave rider, about 35 years
or so. How 'bout you?"
"Yes. I came to the Outer Banks 12 years ago on a surf trip and never really
left. To me it is the most perfect place on the East Coast. I decided to try and
make a living here and I'm still here surfing and working."
"Really? What do you do?"
Sean went on to explain that at first he worked seasonal construction jobs which
was great from Spring to Fall but did not pay the bills year round. Later he
became more involved with one of the developers of the area getting involved
with planning of communities, construction projects, spec. houses for the really
rich, architecture, interior/exterior design and decoration. He'd been involved
in many of the homes in this community and those to the North near Corolla. At
age 28 he felt he'd finally imbedded himself deeply enough in the Outer Banks
culture to call himself a local. And he still surfed with his buddies from his
Like most surfers on the East Coast do when they have been surfing a common
area, our talk turned to specific surf events, some times referred to by swells
and their dates or storm names. Sean and I went back to the late 80's and
recalled several great surf generating events that took place. Curiously, when I
mentioned the 1999 little remembered Hurricane Gert and the incredible surf I
had witnessed and tasted down South at the first Guidopalooza, Sean's eyes went
kind of starry and he smiled.
"You know after Dennis and Floyd tore this island apart that Fall, it was hard
to believe another hurricane could send us such good surf. There are locals all
up and down the Outer Banks who will say the surf after Gert produced some of
the best standing dry barrels in 10 years." I couldn't have agreed more. After
what I saw and heard from others Gert was one of the really good wave events of
Within a few minutes some other men Sean had waved to while we talked began to
gather on the upper deck. These half dozen or so were all owners or guests in
the community and every one rode waves in some manner or another. There were
retired folk, men in the prime of their careers and a few younger like Sean who
had made the Outer Banks their home and livelihood. Soon the talk turned from
who knew whom on the OB to what the prospects of good surf were the next day.
Everyone had a certain gleam in their eyes as the consensus was for clean
shoulder high waves on the incoming tide about mid morning.
All night people had been coming out on the deck to share the view. Some stayed
and chatted with new owners and others sat quietly watching the mesmerizing
ocean or the still spectacular sunset. Soon, a couple about age 35 came out.
The tall handsome man wore a nametag which identified him as a new owner named
David. His stunning wife was named Susan.
I didn't really take notice of them at first but as I glanced over their way I
could see that Susan was staring at us and had turned very pale. Her eyes were
wide and mouth slightly agape, as if she'd seen a ghost. She quickly grabbed
her husband's arm and pulled him away back into the house. Through the huge
plate glass windows I could see her pointing excitedly in our direction. I
started to think, "Shit, is this someone I've offended with one of my
misunderstood, seemingly callous, but really joking comments that I don't
remember because maybe Consuella has given me one too many Tangerays and Tonic?
Is that David guy gonna come over here and kick my ass?" Nah. I could not
imagine what Susan's problem was with me.
In a minute David was at our side looking somewhat uncomfortable yet eager to
introduce himself and ask a question. He turned to Sean and very directly,
considering the circumstances, simply said, "Are you a surfer Sean?" He seemed a
bit ill at ease even asking the question.
Looking somewhat confused Sean readily acknowledged he was.
David then said, looking very intently at Sean's face, "In August 1992 were you
surfing down in Kill Devil Hills and by any chance did you save a woman from
Again Sean stared quizzically at David and said, "Well yes, I sort of remember
that day. I pulled a young woman out who had gone under several times and got
her on shore. There were no lifeguards on that part of the beach but someone
called Rescue and they got her to a hospital I guess. I don't know what
happened, as soon as I saw the EMTs show up I went back to work." David looked
greatly relieved. "Stay here, don't move." He said as he moved away. "I have
someone who wants to meet you."
Through the big picture window I could see David talking to Susan again. In an
instant she broke down in huge heaving sobs, just crying her eyes out. People
standing near her moved away thinking she had just heard some hideous news. On
the contrary, Susan had just gotten the answer to something that had been a
terrible burden to her for 10 years.
As we found out in greater detail later, Susan and David had been married only a
few years and were vacationing on the Outer Banks for the first time in 1992.
They were staying in a rental house in Kill Devil Hills and were having the most
wonderful time. They had talked of the future and their desire to start a family
and were making plans to eventually build and own a vacation home on the Outer
One morning David had left early to try his hand at fishing on one of the head
boats. Susan had spent a lazy morning walking the beach and picking up shells
that the heavy surf had washed up. It was getting very hot and Susan, not a
strong swimmer by any means, was sorely tempted to go in the water to cool off.
Though the waves seem big she did not see the harm in wading out into the water
a short way just to get wet. She went out about waist deep but shortly she saw
some big waves forming farther out. She turned and started to struggle to get in
never looking back to see a large wave gathering and bearing down on her.
The wave broke violently across her shoulders driving her down into the shallow
water and sand, stunning her with its force. Susan was unable to get up right
after being hit and the receding wave quickly swept her into an outgoing rip
current. She knew immediately she was in very big trouble. She screamed at the
top of her lungs but was cut short as another big wave slammed into her filling
her mouth and lungs with water.
Hysterical she rose to the surface, gasping for air and spitting up water. She
knew there were no guards on duty at this beach but she hoped desperately
someone would come and save her. Two more times Susan gathered her adrenaline
driven strength to get her head above water and scream but her efforts were
making her tired and very drowsy. She kept thinking, "This can't be happening
to me. Who will tell David where I am."
As she drifted just below the surface Susan was beginning to blackout with each
successive wave as it passed over her. Without warning a strong hand gripped her
by the forearm and yanked her up to the surface. She was face to face with the
most handsome, tanned and blond looking young man she thought she would ever
see. A face that would immediately be imprinted on her memory for many years.
The young man's eyes were turquoise blue and he had the whitest teeth she'd ever
seen. He said quite calmly, "It's alright lady, I have you now. Don't worry I'll
get you back in. Just do as I tell you." He partially submerged the surfboard
he'd been paddling and moved her onto it instructing her to lie on it flat and
hang on tight as he swam along side or pushed it from the back. Twice waves
washed over them but he would put a strong muscular arm over her to keep her
from falling off. Once he got her safely to shore the trauma of her dangerous
episode was more than Susan could bear. She passed out.
The next thing Susan remembered was heaving her guts and lungs out laying on her
side as a vacationing nurse told her to hang in there and that she would be
alright. The EMTs showed up, administered oxygen and wisked her off to the
nearest hospital where a kind and caring emergency room staff took care of her
until David showed up hours later. When he walked into the room he fell into
her arms crying like a baby at the thought of losing her. A day later she was
discharged and they went home to Virginia immediately. Susan never again saw or
found out the name of the young surfer who had saved her life.
Three weeks later, still feeling sick in the morning, Susan went to her doctor
for a checkup. When his tests and exam were over he told her she was pregnant.
Months later when she did the math Susan realized she had become pregnant just
days before her near drowning. She and her nine-year-old son would not be here
now had it not been for the young man on a surfboard.
Clutching his obviously emotion stricken wife around the shoulders, David guided
Susan out on the deck to meet the man who saved her life. Staring at Sean Susan
once again dissolved into tears. You could hear a pin drop or an ice cube tinkle
in a glass it got so quiet. All of the men were standing around looking very
uncomfortable but were not willing to leave in the face of what would be a very
special meeting. Susan collected herself quickly.
"Do you remember me?" She said weakly looking up at Sean.
"No mame, I don't." He said quietly, politely, pausing to take in her tear
streaked face. "I do remember the incident though, and I guess that was you?"
He started to smile slowly realizing what this meant to her.
She smiled brightly barely containing her joy.
"I remember you like it was yesterday. I was panicking and blacking out and
almost on the verge of accepting my fate when you came along and dragged me up
into the sunlight. I have never felt so relieved in my life. I cannot tell you
how frustrating it has been for the last 10 years not being able to thank you
and not even knowing your name. I cannot even now find the words that express
how incredibly grateful I am. I am so happy to have found you Sean. My whole
family is deeply indebted to you."
With that and quite explosively Susan ran crying into Sean's arms embracing him
as if again her life depended on it. Among the circle of men standing around,
all of them with families, there didn't appear to be a dry eye in the bunch.
Sean seemed stunned then amazed then blissfully ecstatic as the power of the
moment swept over him like a 10 foot dredging standup barrel. Spontaneously
someone started to applaud quietly, which grew into a stadium level SRO outburst
of happiness and cheers. David, Susan and Sean all headed into the house to tell
the other guests what had happened. The rest of us big grinning goofballs tried
to casually dry our eyes and move the topic of conversation back to surfing. We
failed miserably. Susan's story was the talk of the party.
After breakfast the next morning I suited up and hit the beach. There were about
6 guys out trading clean, shoulderhigh waves off of a nice sandbar set up that
produced consistent A-Frame walls in both directions. As I got outside to the
lineup I recognized a few men from the previous nights party. Over on the right
side of the peak taking a nice left and working it in a gleeful and deliberate
motion I saw Sean. Two off the lips, a floater, and a huge round house cutback
brought him to the end of his wave smiling and paddling quickly out for more.
After a few of my own warm up waves I paddled over to see how the rest of the
night had gone. Sean said Susan and David had been absolutely fabulous to him,
inviting him up to Virginia to visit them and talking to him about his work and
life. He went on at great length about what an incredible feeling it was to have
done something important for such nice people and he just knew he had made some
instant friends for life. He mentioned meeting their son later on when he
joined them back at their house to further celebrate the occasion. Sean's face
got a funny look on it when he mentioned the boy.
"So what's up with the kid?" I ventured.
"He's a really nice kid, and wants to become a surfer some day. Right now he's
only a bodyboarder."
I shrugged that off knowing Sean didn't mean it in a negative way.
"That's cool maybe he'll join us today." I suggested.
"Oh, he'll be here alright, after he found out who I am. He's very excited at
the chance to surf with me. But that's not the weird part."
"What's the weird part?" I asked wondering if the kid at age 9 was 6'4" and
weighed 250 lbs.
"They named the kid Sean." He said quietly looking outside avoiding my
"Holy shit!!! You're kidding right? Spelled the same too?"
Sean looked at me eerily and nodded, his eyes drilling into me as if to ask,
"How the hell do you explain this!!"
"Get out of town! No Kidding?! That's incredible!" The coincidence seemed
otherworldly. I shook my head in wonder and tried to figure what were the
Sean chuckled a bit and laid down to paddle, sizing up an incoming set. As he
pulled away he said to no one in particular. "God, I love this place."
Later that afternoon MrsFoon and I walked down the long path to the beach and
stood on the dune looking at the spectacular scenery. The onshore winds had
turned the morning glass into a twinkly mess of waist high mushball surf
breaking closer to shore. In the distance I could see Sean pushing a kid into a
wave on a big blue BIC. The kid popped up rode a few feet and fell into the
water. He came up smiling and waving at a couple who stood on the shore nearby,
watching........embracing. And I'll bet, smiling too.