Sully stands tall with eyes weathered by years of sand and salt water. Like a captain permitting passage, he ushers me across Highway 1 down a sandy path to the ocean. It’s 11 a.m. and the breeze has grown into a true onshore wind. He waited loyally for almost an hour while my cell phone dipped in and out of service leaving me directionally beaconless searching for a specific lot. Sully pointed to a sloppy break over rocks across a picturesque bay. He spoke of hoards of bodysurfers descending on the peak when it’s going off. His eyes never left the break while he described how truly special this place could be. He would be the one to know it.
Michael R. Sullivan is called “Sully” by friends and chances are if you’ve shook his hand, he’d be OK with you calling him that. He speaks warmly of growing his sea legs in the protected waters just south of Pacifica. He and his high school buddies would drive a log down to the ocean and build a fire on the beach. In this time before wetsuits, one board was more than enough for the group. While one of them would ride a couple of waves, the others could recapture their warmth by the fire. This kindled Sully’s love of the sea and he began bodysurfing to get more water time when the board wasn’t free.
The good times rolled until the boys were sick of getting chased off the beach by a local Hells Angels chapter. One of the mormon brothers decided to kick over their line of bikes, domino style. They wisely made themselves scarce, but Sully stayed local independently. He grew deeper roots in the sea and as time wore on he witnessed the darker side of human infatuation with the ocean.
One day in August, just before Sully was heading to college, he went for a run down the beach at Pescadero. He was stopped by a concerned woman looking for her daughter and two friends. Sully knew the area, so he took off to find them. After searching nearby, he returned and told the mother to go alert the firemen before he would return to searching. She did and they eventually found the two boys trapped on a rocky outcropping below a cliff. Sully ran down the trail to get to the boys. He tried to get them to wade toward him in between sets so he could help them out, but they refused. They were pointing to an adjacent sandstone cave that Sully knew to be a deep 100ft cave where the Pomponio gang of the 1870’s would hideout. The boys would not leave the young girl behind.
Seemed like a simple solution to Sully, send in a strong swimmer to bring one out at a time. Although he was an athlete, he admits he would have become a casualty to the situation and instead was recruited to help the firefighters in their effort. Risking their own lives, the firefighters were hoisted down the cliff. They talked one of the boys out and lifted him to the top. The second boy retreated to the cave to help his friend. The tide continued to rise and the firefighters managed to haul the other boy out of the cave. The rescuer at the bottom of the rope was being bounced around the cave by waves and almost drowned before being pulled away from the rescue effort. The young woman was not found and Sully walked away in hypothermic exhaustion. This helpless feeling was not something he would forget and it continues to drive his life action.
He views the sea with great reverence and deliberate intention. He joined the rowing team and took classes in LifeSaving, Scuba, WSI and swimming. Sully tried out for the Newport Lifeguards, but wasn’t able to beat out the Olympic swimmers and water polo stars in the water. Sully takes pride in being able to swim in strong currents and rough seas. “I’m not a ripper,” he stated with a chuckle. It isn’t a game of riding the biggest wave on the biggest day, Sully is a waterman through and through. Many days, his only intention is to go out, conditions irrelevant. Staying in touch with the true nature of the ocean, he skins it regularly, reminding himself what it takes.
Sully has made 8 rescues that he could readily recall with detail. At unguarded beaches he’ll warn visiting families of strong currents or risky conditions. His lifeguard daughter calls him a “poser.” He can remember first trying out fins in Newport and when he first donned a wetsuit in ‘99, but his face truly lights up when he talks about his family as their stories are his own. His perfect day imagined is a sunny third day of head-high swell with the kids and friends smokin, jokin and talkin shit. So if you see a man on a bike with his fins strapped to the back and a disarming smile, give a wave to Sully.