Jimmy and the Paddleboard

August 25, 2019 will mark the 41st year of the Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race. This historic 32-mile marathon, which starts at Catalina’s Isthmus cove and ends at the Manhattan Beach Pier, attracts paddlers from all over the world and is known as the ‘Grand-Daddy” of all paddleboard races.”

This teak paddleboard is what every finisher of the Catalina 32 mile paddle used to receive for finishing. The top five in each category got something a bit bigger.  Jimmy was in the top 5 a few times, but this is the one I could find.  He was 22, graduated from Cal, working as a lifeguard and teaching junior guards.  He was living in our house on Third Street for the summer, until the lifeguarding season was finished. Then, he would take off and travel the world.  It was so great to have both Jim and Jeff living with us. We loved the craziness and fun of having their friends from all over the world drop in and stay for days or weeks. It was a golden time for our family.

Jimmy trained hard for the paddle, but nothing like they do today. I remember he trained with Dickie O, Jay Russell, Doug Weems and a whole crew of others.  It seemed like a rite of passage for a waterman like Jimmy.  Our grizzled and great friend, Jim Walker, who had a 36-foot cabin cruiser called the SeaView, took Jimmy, Jim, Chris W and a few other crew members across to the Isthmus in Catalina.  The boat was supplied with scuba, food, Jack Daniels and other necessary supplies.  The SeaView was to be Jimmy’s escort boat and the crew would help keep him hydrated, fed and able to hear his music. Later, Jimmy was to live on Seaview Street in a tiny hole in the wall, owned by Walker. It was called “the cave,” but that’s for another story.

Every paddler had perseverance and grit: two of Jimmy’s strong points.  He always made things seem easy and fun, and this ordeal was no different.  With his earphones pounding his favorite music, and carefully measured liquids and snacks handed to him by Jim and his friends, he made the crossing in less than 6 hours.  I wish I had the exact time.

While waiting on the beach, with a growing crowd of friends and supporters, I couldn’t help but to be a little anxious.  These were the days before most of us had cell phones and every now and then we would get an update on the ship to shore.  Those hours were long, as we watched the horizon for the lead boat to come in.  And then we counted the finishers, looking for Jim.

I think it was a relatively calm crossing, with dolphins and an occasional huge tanker in the sea-lanes.  Jimmy’s slim size and paddle strength, honed from so many years of surfing and paddling with the lifeguards, always gave him an advantage in these competitions.  Although Jimmy loved to compete, he also really loved the fellowship of this elite group of athletes, who tested their bodies and souls during the crossing. It was not for financial gain but the satisfaction of working towards the goal of reaching the Manhattan Beach Pier, seeing their loved ones and finally sipping a cold beer. They challenged their physical endurance and paddling skills to be acknowledged as “true watermen and women”

have a picture in my minds eye and I think it was memorialized in a Daily Breeze or Beach Reporter, of Jimmy coming out of the water, holding his giant board and hugging me at the same time, with the biggest smile on this face. Then, he was swamped with tons of other well-wishers, as a pink lai was placed around his neck and “atta boys” were exchanged by all.

He kept this teak surfboard in his room that year, and took it with him as he moved on to all his other homes around the South Bay.  He planned to be the family keeper of the memories, through his photos, mementos of sports and travel, paintings and writing. The day I gave him his first green journal, he said he would write about everything. And over the years, he did. And then, the journals were no more.

Today, this paddleboard is a “totem,” (an object symbolic or having spiritual significance or a symbolic representative of a cherished person or ideal) that is used at every Ocean Therapy session. It is passed to each person when they are sharing the topic of the day during the sharing circle. It’s a way of keeping Jimmy’s spirit alive and passing on his stoke and love of surfing and the ocean. Every person who touches the paddleboard is connected to a long line of watermen and women who persevered in attaining their goals.

Holding this totem brings everything back to me. We cherish every object that was dear to him.  Smooth, sleek, shiny, designed for speed but slightly delicate, yet strong! That’s what I feel when I hold this totem. Jimmy and the paddleboard.

It will be 15 years on August 7, that Jimmy took his life. For all of us who loved him, have learned about him and have honored his name through the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, thank you. Please think of how he lived his life and not how he died. Jump in the waves, take a walk by the ocean with your loved ones, toss a fragrant plumeria or two, and look out for the dolphins that always dance at sunset.

“The surf will continue to roll in, kids will continue to learn to surf and old guys will continue to rule, but surfing will never again experience as pure a heart as Jimmy Miller.”

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