Back in the mid 1970s there was a surfer who ruled the reef breaks of La Jolla and was held in the highest regard by the area’s best surfers and equally loathed by people who caught his anger. Venice Beach wasn’t the only place where the “Dogtown” vibe was hitting hard.
The San Diego beach scene was in the middle of its own surfing and skateboarding awakening, and one of the standouts of that era was Chris O’Rourke. He was a great surfer but was also a hard-as-nails local who wasn’t afraid of confrontation and kicking out unfamiliar faces. His story could have been one of a disgruntled local who never went far, but his story is just the opposite. O’Rourke went on to become a legend in surfing.
Chris O’Rourke should have become a name you would have seen next to the likes of American world champion surfers Tom Curren and Kelly Slater. O’Rourke was head and shoulders above all other surfers in the late 1970s and was on the fast track to fame and glory when he was struck ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 17. O’Rourke surfed as long as he could through his illness, even wearing a helmet after part of his skull was removed in a grueling surgery. Any kind of hard wipeout could have killed him but he kept surfing the heaviest waves, and in between waves he could often be seen puking from his chemo treatments.
In the years that followed his diagnosis, O’Rourke battled his disease, his chemotherapy and his demons to become a positive influence on the area’s young surfers. In the biography “Child of the Storm” written by one of his best friends, Kirk Aeder, we learn the back story and hear many firsthand accounts of O’Rourke fighting, surfing and his struggle to stay alive. Not all stories are fairytales and this one ended tragically as he lost his battle and succumbed to the cancer at the age of 22.
Aeder put his all into the book, spending almost a full decade gathering stories and photos as homage to his friend. In the book we learn about O’Rourke and all his highs and lows. The book gets very personal, and when I asked Aeder about some of the chapters I could feel his emotion was still very close to the surface. The impression O’Rourke left on him, as well as on our San Diego surf community, was profound.
I had the chance to sit down with Aeder recently. He was in California to spend some time in Hollywood, talking to potential producers about turning his book into a major motion picture. Aeder said “the meetings have been fruitful and there are a couple people in the running to make the film.” As we sat in Bird’s Surf Shed on Morena Boulevard surrounded by boards from O’Rourke’s surfboard shaper, Bill Caster (who also died of cancer), we couldn’t help but talk and reflect on the stories that make up the collections in Aeder’s book. The word legend gets thrown around a bit too much these days, but in this case the actual person is bigger than the legend and stories could ever lead you to believe.
“Child of the Storm” is available on Amazon or from Aeder’s personal website: https://kirkaederphoto.com
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