The surf lesson would start in the parking lot, picking up trash before hitting the ocean.
When James Ehrlich took his nephew out to try to ride the waves last summer, the seasoned surfer from Huntington Beach made it a point to show then 8-year-old Gus, visiting from New York, the importance of caring for the beach before enjoying nature’s playground.
“The ocean gives us so much, we have to give back to it and protect it,” Ehrlich’s sister, Rachel, remembers her younger brother, who most people knew as Jim, saying to her son. “The ocean is such a powerful force.”
Ehrlich, a lifelong surfer and environmentalist known for his passion for the sport and nature, died last week after a surfing accident along that same stretch of beach north of the pier, a death that has sent shock waves through the tight-knit surf community.
It’s unclear exactly what happened that day – an autopsy is still pending – but a strong swell and pulling currents made for challenging conditions on May 11.
As news spread of Ehrlich’s death, friends, family and local surfers remembered the 42-year-old, the youngest of eight children, as a world traveler who loved life; an innovator filled with kindness, compassion and humor; a fierce advocate for the underdog; and a fighter for equal rights.
Rachel Ehrlich said her brother surfed as long as she can remember, taught by his older brother, Matthew, who died 20 years ago.
The Tustin High School student’s life revolved around riding waves, finding ways to work remotely out of one of the many VW buses he was always restoring, so he could surf before and after work, and during breaks in between.
“I was always just a deep admirer of him. He had a work-life balance,” said friend David Turbow, who met Ehrlich while they studied at UC Irvine. “He was able to always make time to be a parent and a good son to his mother and make time for fitness. He was an avid soccer player and he surfed. He had a highly-successful career.”
Turbow remembers the first time he saw Ehrlich, who was drawing a wave on the whiteboard during class. As a fellow surfer, Turbow knew they had a shared passion, which ultimately turned into a 20-year friendship filled with countless memories of family gatherings, friendly debates and guitar jam sessions.
At the time, Ehrlich was earning a master’s degree in demographic and social analysis, later using his market research skills in the automotive industry to analyze human behavior so companies could make decisions about product development.
His resume was lengthy, working for companies such as GfK, Hyundai, Cox Automotive and Kelley Blue Book, as well as the Rand Company and the US Census Bureau. He was proud of working in his younger years at the Huntington Beach Art Center.
But Ehrlich always found time to live life to the fullest, traveling to exotic waters in his endless pursuit for waves and taking time to teach others to surf – including his mom, Claudette, on her 75th birthday a decade ago.
Rachel Ehrlich described him as bold and opinionated, smart and thoughtful – but not in a quiet way.
“You knew you were in a room with him,” she said.
He was known for his long, wavy, sun-kissed hair, which he would chop when it was just long enough to donate to Locks of Love.
Fellow Huntington Beach surfer Louis Rice described Ehrlich as “cerebral, eccentric, energetic, inquisitive, generous, adventurous and, most of all, compassionate.”
“He was always willing to do whatever it took to help his fellow man. Never one to back down from a challenge, he was someone you could always count on to do a last-minute road trip to chase waves up and down the coast,” Rice said. “He was loved and respected by many, and he will be sorely missed.”
Rice surfed that same day, about the same time and not far from where the accident happened. While the waves weren’t particularly huge that day, a strong drift with a low tide caused unruly waves to break in just inches of water.
“It was one of the more challenging days in recent memory,” Rice said. “Jim had surfed much bigger and much more dangerous conditions, but in a split-second freak accident, the ocean reminded us of a sobering reality: If it happened to a seasoned waterman like Jim, this can happen to anyone.”
Rachel Ehrlich said the outpouring from the surf community has helped the family, including Ehrlich’s 22-year-old daughter, Jasmine, during this difficult time.
“Our whole family has been so moved and touched by people,” she said.
The family wants to wait until coronavirus concerns clear to hold a proper paddle-out beach memorial.
It is important to his daughter that no one will wear black, with everyone will dress in their most festive attire.
“That’s what he would have wanted. When it’s safe to do that, we will celebrate him abundantly,” Rachel Ehrlich said. “When it’s safe for people to be together, we will gather and have a paddleout. But we understand that might be a long time from now.”