Nate Upton was a young man raised on the beaches of La Jolla. His father, Terry, taught him about surfing, spearfishing and what it means to have love and respect for the tight-knit community in which they lived. Nate learned fast and became an amazing representative of the area with his exceptional water skill and big personality.
He was often seen working hard with a big smile at El Pescador Fish Market, chatting with friends and customers, often discussing the latest surf or fishing conditions. To say he was a loved member of the community is an understatement.
In a tragic series of events in early June, Nate was on a diving trip to Mexico when he suffered what is called “shallow water blackout,” a loss of consciousness caused by lack of oxygen toward the end of a breath-hold dive.
It happens in water typically shallower than 16 feet and the swimmer does not necessarily experience an urgent need to breathe, causing the swimmer to black out and drown.
Another great waterman from our area, David Anderson, met the same sad end in 1994. While spearfishing locally, Anderson suffered shallow water blackout and was found in 20 feet of water, speargun still in hand with a huge white sea bass at the end of his line. Anderson was laid to rest off Windansea and the community still mourns him.
The loss of Nate Upton while diving rattled everyone who knew him and sent a wave of depression through the San Diego surf community. On June 28, as hundreds of people paddled their surfboards and kayaks out past the Windansea waves and gathered in a huge circle, Nate’s father, Terry, stood on the back of a boat, holding his son for the last time. Looking toward the heavens, arms outstretched, Terry screamed his son’s name. The image was moving and emotional to say the least. He then released his son’s ashes to their final, fitting resting place at his beloved home break. The group splashed water in the air, tears flowed and hugs were given.
The strength and grace in which Terry handled this life-challenge brought the community together in mourning and celebration. The ocean is a huge part of what makes San Diego unique and the people forged from that relationship with the sea are the same people who make this town special. That was on display, not only with the life Nate Upton lived, but also in the way in which he brought us together with his passing.
As a lifelong San Diegan, Ken Lewis has surfing and ocean life in his DNA. A 30-year surfer himself, Lewis has worked in the surf and skate industry for most of his career. Send him your thoughts about the surfing world to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Instagram @hanger18.