Friday, June 7, 2013

"Marty's Swell", by Mike Cunningham

The current south swell has been claimed and christened, as it were, "Marty's Swell". Once you've read LACo Capt. Mike Cunningham's (Ret.) story below we think you will all agree it has been given a very well deserved attribution.


"Marty's Swell".  Photo by & Copyright Joel Gitelson June 7, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Marty’s Swell

It was the summer of 1968 at the Manhattan Beach pier.  I was about 12 years old and had spent the summer hanging around the pier with this older group of bodysurfers from Westchester called the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association.

They were a collection of high school graduates, degenerates and younger college kids with the summer off and all they wanted to do was bodysurf and have a good time…which meant usually chasing girls.  There was Bruce, Bob, John, Louie and Rocket, but the biggest guy I had ever seen was Marty Thomsen.  He stood six foot eight, and was just huge.

As imposing as he was, he was the also most intelligent, honorable, and absolutely funny guy in our group.  He usually hung out with and mentored a couple of younger kneeboarders named Dee Winchell and Eric Lingman, who were about 16 or 17 years old at the time.  He’d take them on surf trips, because he had the big VW bus for it.  Everybody loved big Marty.  He was truly larger than life.

So in August of 1969, we had this huge South Swell.  It coincided with the Manhattan Open volleyball tournament, so there was a huge crowd at the pier.  In those days, there were no grandstands or TV coverage…just pure volleyball….and a lot of cold beer.  But the surf built and eventually got so huge that sets were marking just under the bottom of the pier, and the surge was tremendous.

Gillis guys put on a show on the North side, backsliding, and iron-crossing, tube-riding,  and taking off on absolute bone-crushers to the delight of squealing teenage girls and not-so brave young men egging them on from on top of the pier.  There were about 200 people on the pier watching.  I was one of them.

As the afternoon wore on, the current from the South began to really become a strong river…pushing Northward at about 3-5 knots. Anybody on the South side of the pier was quickly swept to the pier and had to swim through, or get plastered on a piling. Unfortunately, in between games, and from all of the cold beer consumed at the volleyball tournament, hordes of spectators entered the water to pee.  The lifeguards began making rescues.

Over and over the guards went in and pulled three, sometimes four drunks from the water, before they got slammed into the pier.  Soon, the crowd just swamped the guards, and too many went in and got into trouble.  There were simply not enough lifeguards to save the swimmers in trouble and large groups drifted toward the pier and began panicking as they got closer to the pilings in the huge surf.

The Gillis guys stationed themselves back by the wall on the North side, and somebody yelled that they had to help out the guards. Soon everybody got their fins, grabbed rescue cans eagerly given to them by the County lifeguards, and began to make rescues of the struggling drunks.

It was Marty, Bob, Bruce, Louie, John and a few others who went in like deputized lifesavers and worked side by side with the real guards, and saved what looked, to this 12 year-old kid, to be hundreds of swimmers.  They would go out, get a small group of drunks and strugglers, and just pull them through the pier, deposit them on the beach on the North side, and come back over and start again. It was awesome to see.  It lasted all afternoon.  These guys were heroes!

Yesterday, on June 6th, Marty Thomsen lost his life.  He had a horrible car accident and never recovered.  He was on life support, and really had no chance of gaining consciousness.  At the same time, one of the largest South swells in recent memory approached the Southern California coast.  It hit with increasing sets from around 3 pm onward.  It was Marty’s Swell.

This morning I went down to look at the surf.  It was big.  A couple of Gillis guys were out bodysurfing, so I thought I need to get out there to celebrate Marty’s Swell.  I hurried home to get my stuff and came back down.  I was determined to ride some waves from this swell!

Now, I have not been in the ocean for some time.  I have been recovering from two hip replacements, and a knee surgery, and am slated for the other knee to be repaired.  Still I just had to get in…as out of shape as I am.  I had to get a wave for Marty!  It had to be this swell, at the pier, and it had to be a big one.  I was determined!

So I got down to the water’s edge on the south side and carefully lined myself up and counted the time between sets so I could get into the rip next to the pier and easily slide out between sets.  A macker set came through and I started out.  I swam about 15 feet and totally misjudged the current…it was like that day in 1969…about 4 knots.  It swept me to the pilings quickly and I easily went through.  No panic here…unlike all those drunks Marty and guys saved so long ago.

On the North side, I finally huffed and puffed and got out and waited for a wave.  A good group of surfers were out, and they got some long rides…some as far as Fourteenth Street.  I waited some more.

Finally, a nice wave came.  It bulged through the pier and sucked out slightly.  It had a near left hand shoulder and was a good wave to bodysurf.  I took off.  As I began to plunge down the face, it jacked a bit more and I free-fell.  Down I went to the bottom of the wave and as I pulled out, my left leg cramped awfully.  The calf cramp stuck my left heel about next to my left butt-cheek.  I couldn’t pull it back.  So I made my way to the surface, inside of the next set wave, with only one leg kicking…the other pretty much useless.  I took a couple more set waves on the head before stretching out the left leg and finally getting it back to working order.

I caught a couple more and then the other leg cramped.  I was quite literally being told to return to shore by my own body.  So I followed my own advice and called it a day.  But I rode Marty's Swell!

Now we never know what circumstances make our character, people who come into our lives and change it forever, and why. But I was glad Marty was my friend.  And I will never forget him, and neither will my children.  And I became a lifeguard for my career…I worked as that from 1974 until 2011…37 years.

p.s.  Last but not least there was an all star cast of LACo Ocean Lifeguards/Watermen also out there in Marty's Swell... the surfers who were "good this morning" were our own CS Captain Tom Seth and South Bay OLS Greg Edmonston; and the Gillis bodysurfers out this morning were none other than retired OLS Joel Gitelson and OL Jerry Lopopolo.

("Marty's Swell" Story by & Copyright 2013 Mike Cunningham.  All Rights Reserved.  Used here with permission.)

("Marty's Swell".  Photo by & Copyright Joel Gitelson 2013.  All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission.)


Rest in peace, Marty.  And to Capt. Mike:  Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful story and for honoring your pal Marty and the Gillis bodysurfers who were deputized and performed with such finesse and valor on that day back in 1968.

*** And Many Thanks to Joel for his great photo of the current South Swell (aka, Marty's Swell) which he took this morning from Manhattan Beach Pier and showing a large wave breaking toward the Pier. ***



Until next time.....

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