"It's not for the faint of heart," Tom Brashears said as he stood near the Huntington Beach Pier on Friday night, watching the few surfers who had made it over the crashing waves to pay a hard-earned tribute to his son.
The friends and family of Austin Brashears, a 21-year-old Marina High School graduate who died May 12 in a New Zealand minivan accident, had set up a paddleout in his memory. About two dozen people formed a circle as the sun fell behind clouds, their black wetsuits turning them into specks that occasionally blended with the water.
With a cold wind blowing and the tide surging in, though, some people weren't able to paddle out to the still part of the water. The crowd on the shore — about 100 in all — turned into an eclectic mix of surfers in wetsuits, parents piggybacking their children and longtime friends who stood silently side by side, shivering in hooded jackets with their arms around each other.
Regardless of how tough the conditions were, no one was leaving yet.
"Always happy," Mike Wilson, a longtime friend of the Brashears family, said as he gazed out at the group behind the waves. "Every time I saw him, he had a smile on his face."
The family was set to hold a memorial service for Austin the next day at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Huntington Beach. Before that, his loved ones opted to hold a kind of ceremony that Austin knew well; according to his father, he had participated in more than one paddleout for friends who passed away.
In the week before the paddleout, four restaurants around Huntington had hosted fundraisers for the Bring Austin Home campaign, which sought to raise enough money to have his body repatriated. The love that the community had extended back to his son humbled him, Tom Brashears said.
"In every way they could, they went out of their way to put their arms around us and provide us as much support as they can," he said.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the paddleout ended and the surfers filed back across the beach. Some of them hugged and fought back tears. A few on the shore clutched flowers.
As surfboards lay discarded momentarily on the sand, the crowd — the entire one now — gathered in a circle and shared a few last memories. A family member displayed a plank of wood with Austin's name spelled out in pasted seashells. Then the group dispersed slowly, the sun now hovering below the clouds and shimmering boldly across the water.