Thursday, May 21, 2009
The surf coach picks his way through the boulder field with surety. Carrying his custom-painted surf gun under his arm, his remarkably intact 59-year-old body visibly unclenches itself from the paralytic effects of the ice-water surf of the Big Sur break known as Willow Creek, where he has been teaching a surfing class to a group of Pacific Valley School students. Judging by their warm smiles, the kids seem to know just how lucky they are to learn from a master wavesmith firsthand.
“Yeow! Ice cream headache!” he exults, his deep welled eyes exhibiting their perpetual perma-stoke as he rushes to his salt-worn, red Toyota truck, which transports him and his heaps of gear from his modest home in Carmel Valley out to the remote “offices” along the most far-flung stretches of the Central Coast. It is, after all, a school day, and another group of students, his third-through-sixth-grade class, is waiting for its sensei back up the windy road at PVS.
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David Allan is equal parts artist, surf pioneer, commercial fisherman, waterman philosopher and beloved teacher at PVS, one of the smallest schools in America.
Allan’s accumulation of exploits and attributes are largely unknown to the world outside of the South Coast. Ask anyone who knows him, however, and praise for “Captain Lingcod” (Allan’s seafaring moniker) gushes forth.
Reanna Thomason is the principal of the 21-student K-12 PVS, an off-the-grid school near Gorda.
“Dave has been described as brutally optimistic,” she says.“He is extremely innovative as a teacher and artist. He is the type of guy who thinks up grandiose ideas, then goes out and does them.”
At 2pm, a large sound system blaring the Rolling Stones song“Beast of Burden”shatters the quiet Pacific Valley campus – the school’s bell. For Allan, that means it is now time to shift from teaching high school kids the underpinnings of advertising to teaching kindergarten, a class that consists of just one student, Jaden. For the next hour, Jaden and Allan will play music (the 6-year-old on drum kit, Allan on raspy-toned electric guitar), hunt for ring-neck snakes in the school’s garden, and hike up the adjacent mountain to the school’s water tank to study the innovative plumbing and recent roof redesign, which Allan rigged out of necessity when the water supply kept getting fouled by mountain lion excrement.
“My teaching philosophy involves cross-curricular studies,” he says as he strides down the mountain behind the spindly legged boy. “You teach multiple disciplines together, and the kids learn more of everything.”
Allan translated that theory into a successful program, Ambassador for the Arts and Environment, in which PVS students go to other schools and teach what they’ve learned at Pacific Valley: “I found that kids retain way more when they teach each other than when it comes straight from an adult.”
But teaching students young and old – he also instructs art to adults at the Carmel American Legion Post on Sundays – is just one of the ways that Allan injects himself into the community and the environment.
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The ultra-blue waters off Big Sur are bitterly frigid, rock strewn, difficult to access and unforgiving to those who do. They are also the place where Allan goes to work and play. For eight months a year, during fishing season, rain or shine, Captain Lingcod slogs his small steel skiff and all of his fishing tackle and bait overhead, Marine-style, down the leg-breaking rocks of various Big Sur beaches and out into the ocean, where he rides out waves as high as 15 feet in stiff winds, fishing for rock cod.
“Some say that we’re crazy,” Allan says. “I’ve been out in hurricane conditions. It’s wild, exciting. I do it because I love fishing in the olden ways, and it earns money to support my art.”
If he isn’t teaching class or fishing, he’s likely surfing and exploring. A surfer for 50 years, Allan has pioneered extreme breaks that require pucker-inducing approaches using climbing gear or, at times, the cliff-hugging confidence of the goat-trail hiker in a vertical world.Local surfer Mike Curtice has had a barrels-eye view of Allan’s surfing career.
“Dave surfs places that nobody surfs,” Curtice says. “He’ll find these obscure reefs out on his boat and just study the waves until he’s ready. He’s fearless in his approach to his whole life. He just charges everything.”
Allan explains his philosophy as that of a warrior: “The Samurai live like they are already dead. There is purity once you concede that life will end someday. In skiing, I always said to ‘point ’em downhill and let ’em go.’”
Captain Lingcod’s zest for living may come from his time spent serving in the Vietnam War, or as a two-time survivor of malignant melanoma cancer.
“When Dave got cancer, he had tumors the size of cantaloupes,” Curtice says. “Nobody gave him a chance to live.”
Yet he did, and then some. “I credit my wife Jana with seeing me through,” he says. “None of any of the things I’ve done would be possible without her.”
Leaning on his wife, channeling positivity, he made a full recovery. Sometimes, when one life is saved, the life it releases can ripple out ten-fold.
~ ~ ~
In 1995, during one of the most violent storms to hit the coast in decades, Allan saved a Pebble Beach woman after she was swept away and nearly swallowed by the growling sea.
“I was home sick with the flu, and got fed up with being inside and went to see the huge waves at Ghost Tree,” Allan recalls. “I saw something out in the surf, in a place that nobody would ever want to be, and I just went into absolute autopilot. There was total single purpose. Total commitment. I was going to save her.”
For his heroism, Allan received the rarely given Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medal and the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Both are stuffed in a can somewhere. Captain Lingcod, meanwhile, is out there doing what he does – teaching, exploring and wrestling with a restless Pacific.