When Patti Sheaff hasn’t surfed for a few days, she feels irritable and out of sorts. “When I’m not in the water, my gills get dried out.”
When the waves are breaking, the 62-year-old rolls out of bed pre-dawn, has her Bulletproof coffee, does her stretches, grabs her board and heads down the six blocks from her Santa Monica house to the beach. She’s a water woman, in the truest sense, and tries to get out into the water every day in some form. If the surf is not ideal, then she’s paddle boarding or body surfing.
Growing up in Canoga Park in Southern California, Patti can barely remember a time when she wasn’t surfing. “I don’t know whether it was listening to The Beach Boys, or because my older brother surfed, but it was all I ever wanted to do.”
Even before she ventured into the ocean for the first time, she was jumping off the roof into the family swimming pool and sidewalk surfing on a two-by-four attached to the wheels of her roller skates.
Patti was determined to be a surfer. By the age of 14 she was old enough to haul a surfboard onto the bus for the 2-hour-each-way trip down Wilshire Blvd to the beach. She spent that summer nearly every day at the Santa Monica beach break teaching herself how to surf. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was total chaos. But I loved every minute of it.”
By the age of 18, Patti was hooked. She left high school to move to Waikiki, where she surfed full time and competed in competitions.
She’s never worried about being “a chick in the water” in the often-aggressive testosterone-fueled male-dominated surf world. “As soon as they see you can surf, you’re one of us.” And Patti can rip with the best of them.
Her favorite surf break is a magical right point break, the legendary Rincon, jewel of the west coast, located just south of Santa Barbara. Over the years, surfing has taken her around the world — from the coast of Sumatra to Costa Rica. Her surf break lust list includes Morocco and Australia. With a smile she says, “I’m saving Europe and the walking tours for later.”
She is an all-in kind of person, always knew what was important to her and what her calling was in life. Never married, with no kids, Patti says she made a conscious decision that surfing and traveling were her priorities. Although not currently in a relationship, “you never know about the future.”
Patti has learned some hard lessons along her path that have shaped her priorities.
In a world where drugs were prevalent, Patti says she got addicted. At one point, she was so strung out that she stopped surfing altogether. She got clean at the age of 28, and with her sobriety came a renewed passion for surfing.
That experience led to a job as a senior researcher and field interviewer studying drug abuse at UCLA — a career that spanned 20 years and gave her the flexibility and money to surf. “All that experimentation came in handy,” she says of her past drug addiction and sobriety.
She retired at the age of 59 when the funding for her position ran out. Although she wasn’t necessarily ready to stop working, early retirement was a blessing because she was able to care for her ailing father during his last six months. “I couldn’t have done it if I was working. I was super fortunate.”
Although she once surfed 12- to 15-foot waves, the type that come with serious consequences for error, she’s happy now with waves in the 2- to 8-foot range. Not ready to move to long board cruising, she’s still on a short board, either her Fire Wire 6’4” or 6’10″. When she first started surfing, the focus was on fun. As she’s gotten older, she’s more conscious and appreciative of the mental and physical health benefits that come with it. “You paddle out in the ocean and all your troubles sort of drip away. There is something very healing about salt water. You don’t even have to surf. Just be out in it. There’s some connection with salt water that’s good for the soul.”
Patti says there’s an expression in surfing: No Land Talk. “Whatever is going on, you leave it on the land. When you’re out there, the perspective is of the sand, sea and sky. There aren’t any buildings or billboards. The visual is very soothing on the brain.”
Surfing is essentially a wilderness experience, only 50 feet from shore. The surfer is in an entirely different environment from someone on the beach. When she’s sitting on a board, waiting for a set of waves to ride, her mind is blank. “I get into a zone, feeling the motion of water underneath me, feeling grateful.” If the water is calm, she’ll paddle around.
On this particular day, she surfed alongside a dolphin. “Dolphins are very special. You can really feel a cellular change that happens when dolphins come around.” She also has shared the water harmoniously alongside whales, sharks and stingrays. “I think I’ve had a few times with great whites, but I didn’t really stop to make sure.” Yikes.
In all her years of surfing, her scariest experience was at El Porto in Manhattan Beach, which in winter can be a wickedly powerful beach break. The power of the wave flung her down through the water with such force that her body folded in half. She herniated her C6 vertebrae and briefly thought she might be paralyzed. Only five weeks ago, she broke a rib. “It’s all worth it,” she says.
Although she doesn’t describe herself as an adrenaline junkie or a daredevil, her hobbies say otherwise. At the age of 28, she took up sky diving. “It sucks you in. You give up everything for it,” says Patti, who has done over 1,500 skydives and has participated in 100-way jumps where 100 skydivers link up midair.
At 40, she learned how to snowboard, as many surfers do, throwing herself into the thrill of steep mountains and fresh powder. In 2010, she gave up skydiving, and snowboarding after an accumulation of falls took its toll on her body and fractured her sacrum.
With accumulated athletic experience comes cautious wisdom. “I would love to be a mountain biker,” she says. “But the older I get, the harder the ground becomes.”
Instead, she has taken up another not-for-the-meek past time: free diving. She is practices the Wim Hof Method, which includes immers