Surfers of UC San Diego: Sheldon Engelhorn ’72

Sheldon Engelhorn ’72 was a biology major at Revelle College. He held a variety of positions in various life science companies before he and Richard Chan ’74 co-founded the research tools company NOVEX in 1987. In 2000, the company merged with InVitrogen, which became part of Thermo Fisher. Now retired, Engelhorn remains an avid surfer and proud Triton, as a member of the UC San Diego Alumni Board of Directors.  

▪ College: Revelle
▪ Major: Biology
▪ Hometown: Minnesota-born, then moved to San Diego, CA
▪ Currently Lives: Cardiff By the Sea, CA
▪ Career: Co-Founder – NOVEX; Trustee Emeritus – UC San Diego Foundation ; UC San Diego Alumni Board Member ; Alumni Regent – UC Board of Regents

What inspired you to learn how to surf?

Well, I’ve always been around water. I was born and lived in early life near a lake in Northern Minnesota. As far back as I can remember, I could swim. When my family moved to San Diego, we lived out in East County, so in the summertime, our parents drove a bunch of us to the beach. I was familiar with surfing already, and I had a buddy who rented a place with me near Ocean Beach our senior year. We did some construction projects—building fences and patio decks—but in the afternoons we’d surf. I got my own surfboard and started learning how to surf. From then on, surfing became a lifelong addiction. I was hooked.

Did you pick surfing up pretty quickly?

For me, it’s one of those things where you need to spend a summer surfing every day to get the basics down. And I did, but you know, there’s always a range of athletic abilities, and somebody’s got to be below average. I may be kind of below average in the natural athletic prowess category, but I’m committed. I’m turning into more of a kook as I age and get a little slower. But I’m still out there.

Back in the day, was Black’s Beach as crowded as it is now?

Well, there wasn’t any surf predicting software that you could dial up on the internet, like keeping track of the swells and predicting wind patterns. So you got up in the morning, you walked down to the beach, checked it out and if it was rideable, you rode it. And if it wasn’t, you turned around and went back. You could tell some things, like the shore winds. But any other case, such as if there was any swell in the water, you didn’t really have any advance notice. You just had to go check it out for yourself and see.

But down on Black’s, on a typical winter weekday, there might have been zero to 10 people out of the entire beach, and on a weekend, there might be a crowd of 25 people. It’s gotten progressively crowded year by year, especially in the last few years when we’ve had Surfline and predictions available for those who live inland. Back when I was first surfing, you didn’t see older men out there. It was a kid sport—very uncommon for anyone over 35 years old to surf. And now there are old geezers like me out there who haven’t given it up.

How do you think surfing complements UC San Diego?

Well, students are right next to one of the better surfing beaches on the coast. It’s truly a great place to go. You can just walk down to the beach and feel like disconnected from the hubbub of everyday life because it’s not there with you, it’s way back up on top of the cliffs. You feel separated from the hustle and bustle just being down there. A lot of kids climb down the hill just to walk on the beach. That beach is an asset few people have on their doorstep—it’s certainly something to take advantage of.

 It seems like you’ve been surfing for almost 50 years. What is it about surfing that has inspired you to do it for so long?

Surfing is often a meditative enterprise. It’s my way of focusing on what I’m doing in the moment and forgetting everyday concerns. So it fulfills that role. To me, it’s the only sport I can think of that engages all of your senses all at once. You’re submerged in the medium—you can taste it, hear it, smell it, you can feel it on your skin.

Some of the best moments I’ve had in surfing actually didn’t have all that much to do with the surf. I remember one time when I started a company with my partner down here in San Diego. My wife and I were living in Ventura, so I’d drive down early Monday morning and head back later in the week to work out of my home office. I remember one Friday after I had a busy week. It’s tough, starting a business, and it can be hard to leave it all behind, and I was just so tired. I’d knocked off about two o’clock in the afternoon and drove to the beach. I got a few good waves and took a few poundings, but I was satisfied when I got out of the water. I’d kind of washed away the stress that I had built up. I could smell the cool air that moved down the ravine; it smelled of dust and sage and I watched the sun go down. I was sitting on a log, looking out over the sunset, in that moment, everything was perfect. I keep doing it with the hope of getting a few more of those moments.

Read more Q&A’s with UC San Diego surfers here.

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