When he finally emerged from the sea, Bill Laity's eyes were bloodshot and bee-stung, his skin was purple and prunish, and his wrists ached from duck-diving and pushing up on his board to catch waves.
What had begun as a gear test wound up testing Laity's mettle.
"I was so done," said Laity, who spent 26 hours surfing at the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Pier on Nov. 20 in a publicity stunt and record-breaking attempt. "At 25 hours and 45 minutes, to hear that horn blow, it was like an eternity."
Laity, 37, of San Clemente, Calif., works in marketing for Swell, an online surf retailer. He and his boss began to "toss around ideas for a cool way to test gear." They came up with a plan to set records for the longest continuous surf session; longest distance surfed in a continuous session; and most waves caught in a single session. They wrote to Guinness World Records, and a representative replied that they were only interested in the longest session, a so-called surfing marathon category.
Although the category has no official record yet, Kimberly Patrick, a Guinness World Records spokesperson, wrote in an email: "Minimum accepted for a new record: 24 hours."
In August, Thomas Cannon set out to surf 24 hours straight in Kure Beach, N.C., but quit after 15 hours, two minutes. Still, Cannon, a student at Gardner-Webb University, near Charlotte, N.C., planned to submit evidence to Guinness to claim the record.
Laity knew he would have to at least beat Cannon's time. Although he had never surfed for more than five hours (those sessions occurred in Hawaii, Fiji and during the summer at Trestles) Laity and his team chose Nov. 20 in an attempt to generate buzz in an advance of the holiday shopping season for gear sold on Swell's site. It was no day at the beach. Laity and his four-man support team woke up at 5 a.m. to hard-driving rain. The water was cold and a strong north current pushed toward the pier (Laity was swept through the pier three times).
He considered quitting short of the record, the first time four hours into the session. The last time came at 2 a.m. when a steady onshore wind left him shivering. "I can't let everybody down," he thought.
There were transcendent moments, too, when the full moon emerged from behind the clouds. "It was so peaceful and serene," he said of the overnight session. "But at the same time it was scary." In the coming swells he thought he glimpsed the phantom fins of great white sharks.
Through it all, Laity relied on his crew to paddle out and provide water, bananas, trail mix, and Clif bars. They helped him change from 3 millimeter to 7 mm gloves. Friends, relatives, and co-workers showed up on the pier to cheer him.
The session that started at 7:24 a.m. on a Saturday concluded at 9:26 a.m. Sunday. During that time Laity caught 147 waves, some of which had turned head-high and cleaned up during the last several hours.
Two witnesses and one steward were on hand throughout for Guinness, rotating every four hours. Laity has submitted all the evidence and expects to hear back with confirmation on his record within the coming weeks.
When his marathon finally concluded, Laity staggered to an RV parked nearby and passed out. At home he was so sore that he would barely summon the strength to go to the bathroom. Still, on Monday, he resumed work. And five days later he was surfing again.
"This doesn't compare to anybody who surfs big waves on the North Shore," Laity said, summing up his achievement. "But the amount of time I was out there made it difficult. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."