I got pulled into surfing because it felt cool and alternative, shallow though that sounds. Menna grew up in Cornwall where the surf culture permeates, so she had an excuse. I still don’t know how an obsession with waves grew so voracious in a lad who grew up in landlocked Hereford and couldn’t even swim that well. Certainly it had something to do with Point Break, a film that detonated deep in my adolescent psyche and left some pretty deep marks. I had an image of surfers as a bunch of carefree, muscled, tanned, laid-back Gods of the Sea. And who doesn’t want to be in that gang? It’s anti-establishment but it’s not nihilist. There are associations of punk and skater culture on the one side, and a spiritual, at-one-with-nature, mysterious soul-surfer ethos on the other – but there’s a stick-it-to-the-man kind of vibe that bridges both camps. It’s aspirational, particularly to anyone who believes themselves to be liberal and non-conformist. We know of course that many elements of surf culture today are as manufactured and infiltrated by big business as any of the tribal demographics that are packaged up and marketed to us, but even so, it came from something pure and simple and the value-set feels good.
The reputation and culture is enough to get you out there into the ocean (probably on a foamtop). You want to give it a try. You’re ready to rip! Then you get to find out the first hidden truth at the heart of surfing: for something that is predicated around such a simple ideal – to stand up and glide for some seconds on the unbroken face of a wave – it is astonishingly difficult. There are levels of complexity that hide behind that simple premise, and once you start breaking down the constituent parts, then they quickly become complicated and technical. Position on the board, paddle techniques, getting out back (over waves, turtle-roll, duck-dive), reading sets, understanding wave shape, anticipating the break point, the paddle-in, the pop-up, stance and positioning, turning and moving on the wave face, power zones, when to bail, wave priority and etiquette.
When you start out it seems like a trick has been played on you. Something you assumed would be so straightforward is in fact fiendish and full of hidden artforms. But whenever you watch anyone who is half-decent, their movement on the wave is so graceful and elegant it strips away the complexity. A great surfer seems to embody a mental and physical sense of flow that seems otherworldly and very connected in form to the ebb and swell of the sea.
So you have a choice. Either you realise it is too hard and will take too long to master, and so you give it up and maybe turn to golf. Or you are fired up by the challenge, your desire to be a zen master of the waveform is strong enough for you to take the first steps on a long winding road where progress is measured against a far off horizon that never seems to get any closer. You must learn to take beatings, that are many and varied, yet specific enough to have names – the Hold-Down, the Spin Cycle, Caught Inside, On the Head and the worst one, that sinking feeling when you think you’ve just made it over a large breaking wave, only for it to suck you back over the crest to topple down the face with the full force of the wave (and maybe your board) landing on top of you. We call that Over the Falls.
You have proper realisations of ‘this is it. I’m actually about to DIE!’, not just once or twice, but tens of times: moments when you are thrashing blindly in deep water, having been spun viciously, now swimming towards the surface in desperation, lungs empty, only to realise your leash is tugging you the other way and in fact you’re swimming downwards. But as the beatings get worse (you’re progressing to bigger waves) so do the moments of victory get more intense. You catch a wave right in the sweet spot and suddenly you’re there, in a moment of sunlight and silence, the universe crystallised down to a single point of time and emotion, as you scream down a wall of water, knees compressing with the g-force as you bottom-turn into the wave and see it stretched out in front of you like an emerald highway, and you ride it for perhaps five seconds, maybe even eight. Two or three waves like that in a session will sustain you for weeks. You’ll talk at length about them to anyone who’ll listen.
Over time you get to understand another of the dichotomies of surfing. The emotional intensity is driven on one side by the feeling of flow, elevation and ‘oneness’’ with nature when you catch a wave. On the other side it is pushed by adrenaline and pure fear when the wave catches you. Above and below. Fear and joy. Effort and grace. You’re never quite sure which side of the game is responsible for that aching, shaking, drained feeling you get once you finally climb out of the surf.
Your mindset changes over time of course. A large part of any surf session involves sitting out on your board beyond the break, examining the topography of the ocean. You’re trying to anticipate wave size, speed and peak from a distant bump on the sea’s face. Is this set spaced out? Are they clustered? Doubled-up? Where will they spike? Can I catch this? Am I in danger? You need to calculate all of this before the wave reaches you in order to select the right waves and get in position to catch them, or identify the ‘clean-up’ sets and get safely over them. So you sit watching the ocean with single-minded focus. For long stretches. In silence. Floating. It’s a lot like meditation really and it’s an addictive part of the game. You see a lot of surfers off-session just sitting on beaches, cliffs, dunes, zoning out and watching the waves build and crash. I’m writing this now in a notebook, sitting high up on a dune, watching the waves peal in between sentences. They look sweet today, coming through in well ordered lines with a slight offshore breeze glassing up the faces.
A moment of honesty here. Even after a year of surfing in Central America, trips to Bali, Sri Lanka, Hawaii and various European sessions here and there over the following fifteen years, I am still not a good surfer. Not close. I don’t catch lots of the waves that I paddle for. I don’t link beautiful turns on the face and I can’t do a snappy cutback. I have been deep inside a few barrels, but flailing around, off my board and preparing for an almighty beating. But I love it and I want it always to be a part of my life. “The best surfer out there is the one who’s having most fun” as the zen master once said. So I try always to smile as I get sucked back once more over the falls.
Surfing is such an amazing concept. You’re taking on Nature with a little stick and saying, ‘I’m gonna ride you!’ And a lot of times Nature says, ‘No you’re not!’ and crashes you to the bottomJolene Blalock