Landlocked: The agony and opportunity of being a surfer in Colorado

Sean Barry on the Pacific Ocean
Photo courtesy of Sean Barry

Water covers 71 percent of the planet’s surface. You wouldn’t know this living in Boulder. In the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder has some water, but despite Boulder Creek and the reservoir, Boulder is landlocked. And for local surfers Dan Richardson and Sean Barry, that’s the biggest drawback of living here.

Of course, there are many reasons to live in Colorado. The mountains, job opportunities, a significant other — those are the reasons that surfers end up dry-docked in places like Boulder or Montana or Wyoming. But that doesn’t mean that they still don’t have the ocean running through their veins. If anything, the pull of the waves gets stronger the farther away from them a surfer travels.

For Barry, it was love that pulled him away from California’s beaches.

“I followed a high school girlfriend,” he says, and laughs as he describes the start of his self-imposed exile from the sea. “I was going to move to Hawaii, but at the last minute I lost my nerve.”

Barry, originally from the Santa Cruz Mountains in central California, started designing his own skim boards (a flat board that’s used to “skim” across the thin layer of water left by a wave on a beach after the wave breaks) in grade school. From skim boarding he graduated to body boarding and “experienced the thrill of being pushed by a wave.” A progression to surfing was a natural evolution, and in the sport Barry found a solace and connection with nature that was addictive.

“The meditation of being in the water, a deep appreciation of light on water and all the perfect moments, like watching the setting sun and being one of the last couple of guys in the water” had a profound impact on him, says Barry.

Richardson also started surfing at a young age.

“I was lucky enough to be taken to Hawaii when I was 7,” he recalls. “My mom walked down the beach and went and found the oldest surfer she could, and asked him to teach me how to surf. It turned out that the dude was Rabbit Kekai, a legendary Hawaiian surfer.”

Also from California, Richardson was drawn to Colorado to pursue a degree from the University of Colorado’s architecture program. Like many who move to the state, he quickly fell in love with the mountains.

“I stopped surfing for 10 years,” he says. “I fell in love with skiing.”

But then Richardson suffered a severe injury while riding his motocross bike, one that limited his on-snow time and also brought the importance of surfing in his life back into focus.

“I had always counted on being able to surf,” he says. “But after the wreck, I stopped doing everything else to ensure that I could surf.”

The problem was, Richardson still lived in Colorado.

“Location, location, location,” is the mantra often heard from the Boulder real estate brokers who peddle million-dollar homes in the shadows of the Flatirons.

But for surfers, the Flatirons are useless. And thus the wanderlust sets in.

“It is absolute torture,” says Richardson of his landlocked status. “I swim a lot to be in the water, to get some glide and have all the right muscles firing, but it is still not the same as being in the ocean.”

Photo courtesy of Sean Barry

“You’re dying,” adds Barry. “You’re here for a whole bunch of reasons, but you want to go back.”

Fortunately, there’s something called the Denver International Airport, which acts as an escape portal for local surfers.

As one of North America’s busiest airports, DIA has flights around the globe, and after spending two or three hours in the air, you can be on a beach.

“California is two hours away,” Richardson says. “I have all of my equipment stashed out there, a garage filled with surfboards and wetsuits. Northern California is my usual go-to, depending upon the season. It can be fantastic, uncrowded surf. I also have had surfboards here in Colorado to catch the non-stops down to the Mexican mainland and Baja.

“Surprisingly, my boards have been treated well; the baggage handlers have always been curious about it,” he laughs. “They don’t see a lot of surfboards!”

Barry also racks up the frequent-flier miles.

“I’ve been going to Nicaragua on a regular basis,” he says. “I stay 14 to 21 days. That soaks up a lot of my passion.”

And then there are the road trips.

In 2005 Barry loaded up a camper and headed for the coast. Starting just north of Vancouver, British Columbia, he spent more than 300 days traveling down the coast, surfing all the way, and finishing the epic journey in El Salvador.

“We spent a year preparing for the trip,” says Barry, who installed running water and an electrical solar system into a camper that he rehabbed for the journey. “A year of preparation and getting disentangled to go have that adventure.”

“We started in the cold water and worked our way down through all the beaches,” Barry says. “I had maps, and was planning to see all these places.

“After some time you could look at a map and could figure out where a bump might catch a wave, but we didn’t find anything new,” he laughs. “We ended up all the way down in Mexico and were in Baja for Christmas, met all sorts of crazy people, put the truck on the ferry and crossed over to the Mexican mainland and worked our way down the breaks there, through all the classic breaks.”

As Barry traveled farther south, the trip became a surreal journey.

Photo courtesy of Sean Barry

“As you work your way down, it gets more and more rustic,” says Barry. “We spent five weeks in one spot, honing our skills. My girlfriend went through two black eyes from getting hit by her board during that time. There was a whole troop of people who leave their summer jobs to come down for swell season. There are the local drug dealers, there are killings, there are amazing waves, there are crazy people you meet. These memories are less like a vacation over time, and feel almost like a fantasy.”

The trip wrapped up in El Salvador after more than 350 days on the road. The memories will last a lifetime.

“Watching my girlfriend surf — she came from Alamosa — and watching her stand up for the first time brought tears to my eyes. Just sharing that joy was amazing,” recounts Barry.

Another highlight? “Surfing into the beach and looking down and seeing that I was being followed by a spotted ray.”

It’s these interactions with nature and the fickle personality of the ocean that tend to make surfers so passionate.

“The natural aspect of the water and the beauty” is why he keeps surfing despite the logistical issues of being a surfer in Colorado, says Barry. “It’s hard to name what the magic of the ocean is.”

Richardson is also spellbound by the sea.

“Surfing is such a finicky sport because you need the right tide, swell, wind, weather, all those elements need to come together,” he says. “Sometimes that just doesn’t line up with the travel schedule. But even if the waves are not working I’ll go jump in the ocean and body surf.

“I think about the ocean all the time.”