Surf Riders

On a day off, do you go surfing or motorcycle riding? John L. Stein and a group of friends decided to do both.

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Seth DeDoes
Where there’s a swell, there’s a way. Fitted with panniers, camping gear and short boards, a 1974 Honda CB550 Four, 1975 Honda CB550 Super Sport and 1982 Kawasaki KZ550 negotiate a central California mountaintop on their way to surf destiny.

Sometimes while drifting toward sleep, my mind turns to motorcycles, and what next to do with them. I’m probably not alone in this.

There’s a cafe racer that needs building, so I envision a shop with the right tools, parts and materials — and unhurried time. There’s also a tour I’d like to take — across the northern plains, borne by the wind. But then, there’s surfing. Ah, that soul sport, where wave energy moves across oceans unseen, only to arise as a ridable wall of water before breaking onshore. I used to surf. A lot. And the dream of finding perfect conditions — tall, glassy waves on a point break with no one else out — is a worthy one. But what about combining both loves — riding and surfing? Hey, maybe it could happen. But how?
Friends. Friends is how everything good happens.

Boards on bikes

I liken motorcycle trips to dinner parties, in which the preparation often takes way longer than the actual event. This was true for the seemingly simple ride-surf-camping trip seen here because the 1974 Honda CB550 K0 I’d intended to ride — a mild So-Cal custom surviving from the disco era — had years ago been put away “wet,” and as a result California’s ethanol-laced gasoline residue had clogged both the fuel petcock and carburetors. As well, the front disc brake piston was frozen in its bore, preventing the front wheel from even turning. These service matters, plus a sulfated battery and a misfire, were rectified with shop time and parts, but more vexing was the puzzle of how to carry surfboards on the motorcycles. I’d seen a few bicycles and scooters with boards, and photos of big ADVs carrying them, but no classic bikes.

A close up of motorcycle

Welding or clamping metal brackets or carriers onto the bikes was unappealing for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to damage the original-paint frame tubes; and 2) Adding metal protrusions that might somehow snag or contact a rider’s leg seemed like a fundamentally bad idea.

Searching for motorcycle surfboard racks online didn’t turn up anything that looked right, so I started thinking differently. This led to the Minnesota company Aerostich, which offers products for hard-core, globe-trotting riders. They didn’t have surf racks, but Aerostich does sell universal semi-rigid Cordura panniers that drape over the bike like equestrian saddlebags. The company agreed to loan us a few sets for our trip. The rear fitment was easy, with wide, padded and adjustable straps locating the panniers snugly against the seat and shocks, and adjustable bungees attaching them securely to frame tubes.

Panniers on a motorcycle

More challenging was mounting panniers up front — not their primary role. With nothing below the tank to press against, when secured by bungees, their bottoms bowed inward toward the exhaust headers and cylinder head. This caused an obvious safety dilemma that had me losing sleep for a week, and I considered scratching the trip altogether. Because the more I thought about it, the more nervous I grew about the risk of fire starting on machines with friends aboard. I was also wary of us riding bikes with surfboards strapped to them (what would happen at speed on the highway, or in crosswinds?). Then I was worried about how the riders would fare if, for instance, they had to put their right foot down to balance while stopping, turning, or during a bobble. And finally, I was anxious about what would happen if a motorcycle fell to the right — how would we hop off? Basically, I was a mental mess — not so much for my own safety (sometimes I’m convinced “Sketchy” is my middle name), but for that of my friends, who I presumed were trusting me to organize a safe ride.

The heat is on

In an actual bit of serendipity, while visiting my local shop for CB550 spark plugs, I noticed a package of Moose Racing Heat Shield on display. Designed to thermally protect fiberglass and plastic and including a peel-off-and-stick adhesive backing, this foil-coated fiberglass was easy to cut into six rectangles and apply to the lower inside backs of all three sets of front panniers. Further, my friend Scott Young had a roll of thermal exhaust-pipe wrap left over from one of his hot-rod projects. He kindly offered it up for use here, and I double-wrapped each outside exhaust (six headers in all on the three 550s). I was starting to relax.

A group of people in front of a motorcycle

Finally, fully assembling the 1974 CB550, and adding sturdy polyethylene one-gallon automotive windshield cleaning solution jugs (differentially filled to balance the weight of each 8-pound surfboard), created what I hoped would be a solid and heatproof mounting system. (Credit Aerostich for creating panniers with useful dimensions here. Founder Andy Goldfine said they sized the panniers to accept the rectangular steel cans found worldwide, so traveling riders could always have a convenient way to carry extra fuel.) Anyway, against whatever odds the universe held in regards to classic bikes carrying surfboards, it worked. Aerostich cargo straps, more bungees and bits of extra neoprene padding in key places (e.g., to protect the surfboard decks from the rear turn signals) provided workable mounts. Pulling and shaking the CB550’s board every which way suggested it would withstand a ride, and so I geared up and headed out, taking a route approximating what we’d travel as a group — mountain roads and higher-speed two-lanes. I returned feeling good — or at least reasonably confident — about the setup. The trip would prove whether it worked for real.

Tap your friends

On a Thursday morning last Spring, friends Napper Tandy and Amanda Clapp, whom I’d gotten to know while writing the Big Bang Theory article (Motorcycle Classics, July-August 2020), and longtime surfing friend Greg Sinclair, arrived. Greg was aboard his brother Steve’s mint 1982 Kawasaki KZ550; I loaned Amanda my now ready-to-go CB550 K0 and borrowed Scott’s pristine 1975 CB550 Super Sport for myself. We were a quorum, especially since Napper rumbled up not on a bike, but in his vintage 1978 International Harvester Scout II towing Scott’s vintage 1959 Shasta Airflyte trailer. We didn’t need the trailer for our tour, but since Napper offered to stash an ice chest, lawn chairs and some boxes of firewood inside — well, how could we refuse?

Three motorcycles on a beach

Once our little band of vintage moto/surf misfits assembled at my house, we replicated the pannier/surfboard setup on the CB550 Super Sport and KZ550, then added tents and wet suits, beach towels and sleeping bags. As the KZ setup came together, Greg surprised me by commenting, “This is really the way a lot of people in places like Bali and other locations in Indonesia get around — on scooters with some type of board holders.” We were onto something! Finally, we donned jackets, helmets and gloves. At that moment I felt like the lead lunatic in a group of bungee jumpers, all poised at the edge of some bridge and ready to leap. At least I’d calculated the formula, tested the concept, and checked every setup over personally.

Mountain high

Rather than take the shortest, fastest route, we took the scenic one. But this wasn’t just for pleasure — it was also to avoid traffic and keep our speed down. So instead of Highway 101 — “Ventura Highway” as popularized in the 1972 America song — we rode into the coastal mountains. These narrow serpents of asphalt are like a deviant DMV riding test, with many sudden twists, blind hairpins and camber and grade changes that seem to have been crafted by a kindergartner driving a Caterpillar while drinking a Red Bull. In hindsight, this presumably safe, out-of-the-way route was actually more trying that a straight shot up the 101 would have been. But at least we were alone, and could ride at our own pace while getting a feel for our strangely loaded steeds. It was the right choice.

Partway up the mountain, which crests at an impressive 4,000-feet above the Pacific, things got weird. At one point, the road hairpins near a bluff, where paragliders ran and leapt off the edge to start their long glide toward the ocean. One circled around on an updraft and then swept past us at ground level, hooting to his friends. Bikes, surfboards and paragliders, plus a cliff, all in one frame. Where else but California? Further up, what had been a light overcast near sea level became a ghostly gray blanket of fog, visibly blowing sideways across the ridgetops and filling in the canyons like an eerie Sherlock Holmes scene.

Three motorcycles going around a curve in the road

The 1970s-80s crop of 500-550cc 2-stroke triples and 4-stroke fours are wonderfully universal bikes. Generally smooth, easy-handling, plentiful and affordable, they’re also powerful enough for pack-mule duty (i.e., touring) and practical enough to use as either daily or Sunday riders. Just by chance, we’d picked right. The bikes had absolutely no trouble hauling us up the mountain, through the multiple switchbacks, or in safely braking for many curling downhill turns on the way north.
And the rewards for taking the long way were inspiring. For starters, the genial old road was entirely bereft of traffic. And variations in flora, from scrubby manzanita and sage to Coulter pines, patches of vibrant golden yarrow and magenta bush lupine crowding the edges of the road, and brooding live oaks, were inspiring. With no mechanical problems, no issues with the Aerostich pannier setup, engine heat or surfboard mounts, as we wound down the backside of the mountain and toward the coast, I felt an odd sense of both ease and unease — thankful for what had gone right, but concerned about the highway ahead.

By early afternoon the 550s reached the coastal plain, and we paused to regroup. “As long as I’ve been riding, I have fantasized about doing a trip with friends and bringing everything we need,” Amanda said. “I think what appeals to me is the simplicity of being self-sufficient, and this is the first opportunity I’ve really had to do it. I was really excited about the opportunity to ride the CB550 because of its stability and power compared to my own 250. But coming down the mountain, there were definitely some tight turns that made me nervous.”

“The KZ’s seating was a little bit tight for me because the backpack that I had with me took up a lot of the seat space,” Greg added. “But there was no problem at all with the balance of the motorcycle with a surfboard on one side.”

The ocean road

So far, our experimental moto/surf trip was working. But a faster section of highway lay ahead. While regrouping, I conducted a thorough walk-around, checking pannier fitment and more importantly, the surfboard mounting points. The Aerostich panniers required nothing, and just a couple of straps needed tightening. We huddled to create a plan — take the slow lane in a staggered formation, and watch for crosswinds and truck blast — and then merged onto Highway 101.

Surfers, carrying their boards, walk through scrub towards the beach.

We were right to be careful but needn’t have worried, because all three 550s flew along beautifully. We adopted a 50-55mph strategy that embraced both an appropriate highway pace and caution, and at cruising speed, we found no detriments in either steering or handling. And as expected, the engines scarcely noticed the extra cargo. Too, with plenty of cool, dense ocean air rushing past the engines and exhausts, heat buildup in the panniers and boards was no issue whatsoever. Certainly, we could have toured faster — up to and even beyond the 70mph speed limit — but I really didn’t see the point, especially for my compatriots. It’s all about the journey, remember?

All that said, I honestly can’t remember making a slower highway trip (except one summer in a Volkswagen microbus). But I also can’t imagine a more relaxing one. Little by little, my stress ebbed until at last, coastal access and campground signage appeared, and we filtered off the highway, turned toward the ocean, and descended through a long canopy of trees toward the shore. As if on cue, the clouds lifted and soft sunlight sparkled off the Pacific before us. And there were waves.

Into the surf

After finding our site, we didn’t even bother making camp. We helped Napper back his Scout and the Shasta into its parking spot, unloaded the bikes, pulled on our wet suits, and Greg and Napper waxed the boards. Then, like that melodramatic scene from Big Wednesday, we walked through the campground, along a path and under a scrubby hedgerow, and across the sand before stopping to attach our board leashes. Then we marched into the ocean (a bracing 56 degrees!), paddled over the foamy shore-break, punched through the first set of waves, lined up, and surfed.

Four surfers in the ocean

The sense of joy I personally experienced far surpassed expectations. The motorcycle riding was fun although it also had its stressors. But there was no anxiety in surfing. Bobbing in the water, it’s as if we were all cradled in the womb of Mother Earth.

Then it occurred to me — we enjoy similar stimuli while riding and surfing. On a motorcycle, the motion and speed all come from a man-made machine. In contrast, surfboards are really not even machines. They have no moving parts, but rather are a monoblock of foam, fiberglass cloth and resin, and need little upkeep. Most importantly, unlike a motorcycle the surfboard doesn’t make power; instead, it harnesses the ocean’s. The physics that create waves are arguably more complicated than an engine — and yet it is 100% free, requires zero maintenance, and will endure long after we’re gone.

A surfer riding the waves

I think we all had fun riding the 550s, although how could I really tell with everyone wearing full-face helmets? But I know everyone had fun surfing — I could see it in their faces and hear it in their laughs and shouts. And right there in the waves, I witnessed a group of people who had never met before sharing a unique experience of riding, surfing and camping together. In between sets, this made me wonder how it had even happened. In the simplest terms, it started with a dream of combining favorite things, sharing this vision with others, and then chipping away at it until it became a reality.

Fire in the night

Nighttime brought starry skies, quiet winds, and the soothing hiss of surf punctuated by the occasional passing Amtrak train (the Pacific Surfliner tracks run along the coast). But a crackling fire delivered more than heat. Previous campers had left chunks of shale in the fire pit, and superheated in the fire, it started to crack and then spit out burning-hot fragments the size of Fritos. They went everywhere, including peppering the motorcycles, kicking up dust, and landing in our laps. We quickly moved ourselves and the bikes away. Then Napper uncased a guitar, dug inside his soul and pulled out a piece of Bob Dylan. He knows multiple Dylan songs, it turns out, and huddled in a hoodie, sank into his chair, bathed in flickering firelight, and performed some damned good acoustic covers.

Then he paused a moment, studied the Scout and Shasta, and then the bikes. “This certainly has been a fun experience, and the board setup definitely makes me think about other adventures — places that are a pain to get to or you just can’t reach on four wheels,” he remarked. “I love trucks and off-roading but there’s something about motorcycles — they’re just so much more nimble.”

A campsite surrounded by motorcycles and a camper.

Around 11 p.m., deep fatigue hit us all. It’d been a 15-hour day, and for me a welcome culmination of two weeks of hope and effort, worry and fun. By this time, we’d each set up a tent under the pines and so, ironically, no one actually needed the Shasta. Realizing this, I reconsidered my own tent after feeling the lumpy ground under it — in particular one tree root as tough as an iron sewer pipe. I looked at the Shasta sitting dark and alone with its comfortable bunk, and felt the cold night sky. My skin itched and tingled with a combination of sweat and salt from the day. And then, with absolutely no guilt, I dragged my sleeping bag into the Shasta, punched my leather jacket into a pillow, and fell fast asleep, dreaming of riding and surfing. MC

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