I don't see tribe; I see competitors for a finite resource. I only care about the environment if it's going to affect my ability to go surfing.
(Editor’s note: One week ago, Dan Dob wrote a lovely condemnation of surf culture called, An Open Letter from a Bodyboarder: “You Whored Out Your Culture and Identity For Money and Now it’s Being Taken From You!”. Today, the writer reveals his foray into the upright world.)
Okay, I lied. I’m not a bodyboarder.
Well, I am, but I’m not just a bodyboarder.
I’m also a surfer. Not much of a surfer mind you. The word “serviceable” might be used to describe my ability. I’m out on the solid days, I’m laying down some turns, but I’m realistic about my place in the pecking order.
A move home a decade or so ago, to its mostly soft beachies spawned the out branching in my outlook and equipment.
A bodyboard is a boon in certain waves, a bust in others.
So, I got some foam wrapped in fibreglass, rather than foam wrapped in foam. I practiced, I learned, and I kept waiting for the magic to happen. Once I started surfing on a “proper” board, I’d never be the same etc. Some transformative epoch surely awaited. The higher state of a “real” surfer.
But it never fucking happened.
I hate to break it to ya, but the experience of wave riding ain’t that different, no matter how you’re doing it.
Now it’s incredibly engaging, it the entire centre point of my life, but it’s not the state of nirvana and enlightenment and cure-all that you’d think it to be if you’ve hung around the surfing world long enough.
Nat Young’s currently sprucing his book the The Church of the Open Sky with talk of nature = god, and elders, and tribe and Zen meditation from watching the horizon.
I love Dave Rastovich’s surfing as much as the next everyone else, but I have not been able to get through more than five minutes of his Waterpeople podcast, laced with pseudo-psycho-spirit-babel about the profoundness of water and waves and seas and oceans.
Derek Hynd talks about the experiences he’s had in the water with almost religious fervour.
Maybe this is all a reflection of my atheist bend and evidence-based approach to life, but surfing’s just has never been that deep to me.
I’ve had big waves, heavy waves, waves overseas, waves with my kids and wife. Not a profound life-changer among them.
But, there are a lot of people out there searching for meaning in our late-capitalist societies. Nature, exercise, experience. These are the current buzz tonics for the detachment, depression and deficit of purpose that many seem to suffer in our first world havens.
It’s also the vein of marketing that much of the surfing industry seems to have adopted of late.
Just like when moisturising companies realised that if they marketed to men in the early 2000’s they could expand their market, the surfing industries marketing eyes now extend well beyond the traditional “core” coastal, middle class, white male.
See the WSL’s Transformed series. Anything put out by Vans. The whole sub-genre of “cold water” or “desert” clips and films, Byron Bay’s “Murfer” mobs, The Yoga/Surf retreat coming to the tiny village near me, previously more famous for its breakwall, propensity for its fishing fleet to come home with dry nets after late-night rendezvous, low socio-economic community and perhaps the seediest pub on the NSW coast.
The ongoing “greenwashing” hypocrisy of large sections of the surf industry has been covered by others more insightful than me (usually in the comments section). Surfing alone isn’t going to save the reefs, stop big oil or defeat climate change.
Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think surfers sit on some elevated plane of environmental engagement just because they’re in the ocean regularly. Despite being a lifelong Green Party voter, I often feel patronised by the carry-on.
But, it’s a clever premise. You don’t need to rip the absolute shit out of a shortboard and be an aspiring pro to be part of the “transformative surfing lifestyle” narrative that’s pedalled. A board, a desire for betterment, perhaps a bohemian aesthetic and a vibe of caring for Mother Gaia will get you along.
The doors are open, there’s room for everyone in the church of the open sky! Depression, the environment, corporate greed, Indigenous rights, equality of the sexes. Given a chance, surfing can fix it all!
I’m not buying it.
Yes, surfing is good for your health.
Yes, you feel better after any ol’ dip in the ocean. It’s continually challenging and fun. It can give your life purpose and direction.
In my experience, however, the act of paddling out and riding waves holds no spiritual magic, no Shangri-La. For me, it’s never felt like the answer to the ails of the world.
I’m selfish, I’m riding waves for me.
I don’t see tribe; I see competitors for a finite resource.
I only care about environment factors if it’s going to affect my ability to go surfing. I don’t want to lose myself in the desert or the arctic on a transformative quest.
Maybe I’m dead inside, immune to the mystic that others seem to draw from water dancing on the waves.
Maybe Bodyboarders, like gingers, don’t have souls.
Or maybe, just maybe, those who are spokespeople for product are full of shit.