O’Neill paddle out | My tribute to a legend of the sport
An evening wind is just strong enough to make me almost crash my bike. I hold onto my 20 year old surf board for dear life. It’s the first longboard I ever bought. A 9 foot triple stringer with glassed on fins and old school O’Neill logos. My 3/2 mm is off the same brand. I selected both carefully for this evening’s O’Neill paddle out. I glance at the church clock. Damn 19:50 already, I’m running late.
O’Neill was the first surf brand I got to know when I started surfing. It was by chance because back then I new very little about surfing. I didn’t grow up near the sea and surfing wasn’t very big in the Netherlands anyway. These days however, the surf industry is booming. Surf is everywhere. It almost seems as if everybody surfs. This evening though, it’s not about everybody. It’s about one man and the tight knit surf community that pays its final respect to this fallen legend of surfing. I am nervous because it’s my first paddle out. The beach is in sight and people are already near the water. I drop my bike and run the final bit across the beach.
I am surprised how many people are here. Many of which have flowers. Another thing I notice is the amount of camera’s. A drone above us, a water camera, a few on boats, but even more on the beach. I also see a lot of O’Neill exposure. Quite understandable, but it also feels a little bit like a chance for them to get some publicity out of the O’Neill paddle out. With honest intentions though Michael Schmitz runs the show. He is a pillar of the Dutch surfing community and been a team rider for O’Neill since he was a grom. He’s still with the team but these days he’s the team manager for the Benelux. He stands tall above the crowd explains how it works and hands out the last flowers. I also get some nice ones. Two more minutes he shouts. We have to wait because it’s a global event and everybody goes in at the same time.
O’Neill paddle out
We’re unleashed. I aim for an O’Neill buoy placed far out at sea. A couple of surfers with red rash guards mark the outline of the circle. It’s weird to paddle out this far without waves. I hold the flowers between my teeth and I can taste them. The sun starts to crawl towards the horizon. I look back and see even more people than I initially thought. The shoreline is also quite busy with bystanders. The floating circle forms smoothly and Michael takes place in the middle. Everybody holds hands. A few words of gratitude are spoken. Quite quickly after that we all cheer and splash water. Finally, we throw our flowers into the circle. Before I know it, it’s over and most of us paddle back. I stay a while longer to take everything in.
I see a man on his board. He’s got his eyes closed and his hands on his chest. I can tell he’s praying. At the end he looks up and makes a gesture with his head as if he gives Jack a final salute. I wonder if he knew him personally or if he was thinking of someone else. Nevertheless, it’s an emotional moment. I see someone I know and say hi. He and his family have a long history with O’Neill. I ask him what he thought of it. He says it was nice to pay this final tribute to Jack and that it brings back many memories. He own’s a local surf shop and O’Neill played an important part at the start of their family business. “At times like these everything comes together”, he says. I can relate to that. Happiness and sadness go hand in hand.
I’m a soul man
The next day I talk to a local legend about the paddle out. Just like me, he finds it difficult to put it into words. He brought his young son to let him experience this special ritual in surfing but somehow he missed something. “It had no soul”, he says. And for me it was just that. Jack is such an important part of the history of our sport, that it’s hard to really capture all of this in a ceremony on the other side of the world. Perhaps it was too well organised with too much O’Neill exposure weirdly enough. It almost felt like Jack’s final marketing performance, but maybe that’s typically him and therefore perfect.
At the end of the day though, I think I really missed a togetherness of the core surfing community. A fire on the beach afterwards, more organised chaos, some life music, and epic stories. For me personally, it was special nevertheless. And although I never knew Jack personally, I floated around at the place I love to be more than everywhere else in the world. In my own way I said farewell to a man who’s inventions and pioneering allows me every time to do what I love and for that I am grateful.
As fellow ocean lover I will always remember your three most important things in life; Surf, Surf and Surf! And judging from the thousands and thousands of people who paddled out this day you’ve meant a lot to all of us. Thank you Jack.
A Paddle out is how we honour our heroes and our brothers and sisters who share a love for the ocean. This ritual, the memorial paddle out, has an ancient feel that seems to suggest it has roots in pre-historical Polynesia or Hawaii. But some experts disagree and believe it’s birthed in much more recent times in Hawaii. In this tradition, surfers paddle into the ocean with flowers or leaves around their necks or between their teeth, and join hands to form a floating circle. One or more people offer words about the departed. And then the whole party erupts in hoots and cheers, splashes the water, throws the flowers into the air and, if ashes are present, spreads them. But historians would disagree with that origin theory.
All photos of the O’Neill paddle out copyright O’Neill.
O’Neill Paddle Out.