Look around. There are shapers who don't surf. Surf Photographers! Hardly any of them surf. What's up with that?
We learned late last week that big money was pouring into a TV Series about surfers and drug money which elicited mild scepticism and to which Novocastrian surf writer Surfads responded (magnificently):
“Surfing is an impenetrable mess only understood by those cursed enough to be betrothed to it”.
Surfing historian Matt Warshaw bowed down (almost literally) before that statement and when I queried it by saying “surfing’s no big deal, even for the vast majority who do it”, the normally temperate Warshaw was so exercised he called “Bullshit, total bullshit”.
Is it an impenetrable mess?
Something that can’t be understood or represented by outside forces like books and movies and TV series?
It felt so simple this morning. Surf was pumping so I paddled out and rode a few waves. Then I came in and got on with the day, stoked off my gourd because the waves were so good.
This will be a friendless viewpoint.
Get to the end before you start swinging.
We think surfing is amazing, addictive, an obsession like no other; but that is only true for the very few, the exceptions. We consistently confound the exception with the rule.
The rule is quitters. Dabblers.
Matt himself sheathed the broadsword at the age of 49. No judgement. I see it all the time.
I know it will piss people off if I call in the Russians but in this instance it’s warranted. In the famous Stalin scenes which anchor Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize winning The First Circle the Russian dictator, feeling a little off colour, observes ruefully, “In the Caucasus at seventy a man was in his prime – he could climb mountains, ride horses and chase women.”
Fifty, for a decent obsession, is just getting started.
And yet Matt found giving up “incredibly easy”.
This is not news to me.
We overstate its importance, even to the individual. Our vanity causes us to massively under-estimate outsiders’ ability to “get it”, to represent it in print and motion picture.
Hollywood’s fictional treatment of surfing has been outstanding. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a stone cold classic; Big Wednesday has aged very finely as a cult movie and period piece, Point Break and North Shore are epic cheese. Surf’s Up with the penguins and BigZ might be the best depiction of surfing ever.
My favourite, Blue Crush, with the flinty foxes cleaning Hawaiian motels and ripping up the North Shore has one of the finest closing sequences in movie-making history. Try and imagine a better collection of pixels than a cross-dressing Noah Johnson dominating Pipe as our conquering female hero. You’ll try in vain*.
By contrast, all the earnest as oatmeal insider documentaries aimed at square audiences – Riding Giants, Bustin’ Down the Door, Endless Summer 2, there are (many) others I’ve forgotten – come off like a wet fart.
Tim Winton’s Breath descends into a turgid, overblown mess (true), like all his novels. But the first two thirds are note perfect. Impossibly good. Barbarian Days is the first non-pro depiction of the surfing life written in loving detail. It deserves its Pulitzer. Sure, the slightly condescending New Yorker cool/objective tone alienates. But that’s life. That’s show-biz.
I used to cleave to the romantic ideal of the hard-core committed surfer. The obsessed, the addicted for life.
On a final night on the North Shore, waiting for a ride to the airport, I was passed out on a couch in Owl Chapman’s slummy bedsit behind Sunset beach. I don’t know what we’d been up to except it was no good. Smoking joints, doing lines probably.
Our ride arrived.
Owl woke up, with a blankie wrapped around his knees. He looked like every other old man passed out in front of the television, not a big-wave rider still surfing Sunset Beach and Waimea every time it broke.
He told me out by the post box in the cool night air, “There ain’t nothin’ like ridin’ a cool, blue wave. No skiing, no mountain climbing, nuthin’. It’s so sensuous, so close to nature. It’s a better me.”
I thought that was gospel truth for every man, woman and child fortunate enough to ride a wave.
A noted BG commentor suggested it was almost unfair to introduce people to surfing because it would take over their lives and rule their day-to-day existences. Yet, over the next decade, I introduced thousands of people to it, as the (despised) surf instructor/guide.
And at the end of the week, or the day, I’d watch incredulous as these people ticked the box and moved on with life. I was slapped in the face by Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s “hidden evidence”. The cohort that don’t find surfing that addictive or obsession forming, the very vast majority.
We don’t hear from them because they don’t write books, become surf writers or become surf commenters. A handful moved to cities near the coast and continued to dabble.
Still, they were kooks, the legions of the unjazzed. Squares.
No-one salty and hard-core with a skill set would ever quit, surely? Yet they did, they do. Get sick of it. Circling the drain is a common reason: get older and fatter with less time to do it. Shortboards don’t feel so good, satisfaction declines. Declining satisfaction reduces motivation.
Weeks turn into months. Before long it’s fuck it, where’s my golf clubs?
At the other end of the myth, the myth of the hard-core, we over-reach massively about the level of sacrifice required to maintain a surfing habit. Derek Hynd, when asked by Andrew Kidman in Beyond Litmus, if there were sacrifices to be made in choosing surfing as the main thing in your life said, “I don’t think so… Freedom’s no sacrifice. The end of a good day (surfing) is hard to beat anywhere doing anything.”
It’s ridiculously easy to live as a surfer and hold down a job in a city. A good, proper white collar job. Pound nails, tile bathrooms, build pools, hang drywall, render brick, unblock dunnies and the world is your oyster: raise a family and get go-outs. Modern forecasting outsources all the semi-mystical knowledge that had to be so laboriously grafted for.
Soon, it’ll be even easier.
We maintain the myths because they are beautiful and sustaining. They make money for people. Because when whitey found surfing, lions like Jack London and later Tom Blake weaved so much magic into it we’d rather get drunk on a spoonful of their glorious syrup than grimace through a slug of cold hard reality.
Look around. There are shapers who don’t surf.
Surf Photographers! Hardly any of them surf. What’s up with that?
No anti-romantic here. I’m fucked! Proper rogered. Eleven on the dial.
I like surfing barrelling lefts. Grajagan, Gnaraloo, Jakes etc etc. My one surfing goal was to get to Teahupoo and get inside the green room. I did get there, with the help of other people. New born baby boy and beloved at home. Day one I got stuck at the boat harbour with two ladyboys fishing and ended up on the end of a tallie of warm Hinano.
By the time I got down to the end of the road I was in another dimension. Completely unmoored. Paddling out through the lagoon I felt the urge to stop and sit up. I turned around; razorback peaks punctured the sky. Ahead Teahupoo, below sea level and spitting white clouds of spray into the distant horizon. My throat constricted and a little boozy sob escaped.
A grown man reduced to tears before he’d even caught a wave.
But my feels ain’t the way of the world.
OK, you can swing now.
*Maybe the final shot of Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight at the bus station.