“I have frequent seizures and can’t drive a car, so I hitchhike to surf Maverick’s.” —Andy Lillestol
By Lewis Samuels
In 1979, doctors told Andy Lillestol he’d never surf again. He had his first grand mal seizure that winter at 26, and woke up in the hospital 10 days later. Surfing meant everything to Andy. Raised in Northern California, he’d lived on Maui, Kauai, and Oahu, developing a taste for big waves. One winter, he’d surfed eight hours a day for 28 days straight, without sunscreen. Surfing wasn’t something he envisioned giving up. But with major seizures occurring every three days, Andy could no longer drive a car, let alone surf.
“It was like having a bad acid trip every few days,” Lillestol remembers. “You fall down in the gutter, you’re not even capable of taking care of yourself. I didn’t remember what year it was, who my father was…Your neurons are misfiring—there’s an electrical storm in your brain. Doctors told me to get used to the fact that I wasn’t going to be a surfer anymore.”
“Were they concerned about you having a seizure in the water and drowning?” I ask Lillestol.
“Oh yeah. I did have one in the water…and I drowned.”
“Yeah. I drowned. My lungs filled with water, my friend pulled me off the bottom, they resuscitated me, and flew me out in a helicopter.” Obviously, Lillestol had ignored doctors’ orders, disillusioned with a treatment plan that at times seemed worse than the disease. Throughout the ’80s, Andy was taking 12 pills a day and still seizing. “Massive amounts of barbiturates, basically. I got strung out on those things, I hated them,” Andy remembers. “They have an appalling effect on your intellect as well as your emotional well-being.” Andy prescribed surfing to himself, regardless of the risk. “The doctors tagged me as some hopeless case, a masochist bent on destroying himself,” he remembers.
Throughout the last two decades, some local surfers have thought of Andy in similar terms. Despite his medical condition, despite admittedly not being a particularly talented surfer, Andy became obsessed with Maverick’s, and has been a regular there since 1994. Throughout the ’90s, without a driver’s license, Andy could frequently be found standing on the side of Highway 1, 10-foot Brewer in hand, thumb out, hitch-hiking to Maverick’s. If that doesn’t sound gnarly enough, Lillestol exclusively surfs Mav’s switchfoot, like fellow goofy Jeff Clark. “I’ve had some horrific wipeouts at Maverick’s,” Andy admits. “I’ve broken five boards, had two-wave hold-downs, gone over the falls backwards…But I’ve gotten some fantastic waves and that keeps drawing me back.”
Almost 60, Andy wonders how much longer he’ll surf Mav’s. His epilepsy is now under control thanks to better medication. But his flexibility isn’t what it once was, and Lillestol finds it ever more difficult to compete with the growing crowds. “My daughter wants me to surf big waves until I’m 70, but I don’t know if that’s possible in cold water. I’ve been surfing since 1966, and as time goes by you get more and more grateful just to have made it this far.”