Why pursue something with such fervour if it doesn’t consistently bring you joy?
All my life I’ve clung onto things: dreams and ideals; too small leather jackets imbued with memories of flashing lights and freedom; Clipper lighters; knackered (definitely not clean) Vans; obscure cables; a misplaced sense of self-importance; dog eared adolescent poetry…
But it’s worthless, really. All of it.
Nothing matters except what you’re doing right now.
And so you must cut things loose, the relics and the wraiths.
Some things should be allowed to drift away. You must slip the noose from the cleat and turn your back. Keep moving, don’t turn around. You’ll feel better for it.
This past weekend I put a bullet in another surf dream, and in some ways I couldn’t be happier about it.
It’s like shedding a skin, piece by piece.
This time last week I could never have predicted the end. I wasn’t even thinking about surfing. Then a friend alerted me to a rare swell. After I’d seen it I couldn’t think about anything else.
There were a million places I could go. A host of safe bets. But for my money, there’s only one approach to a rare swell: gamble.
I’m in the west of Scotland, towards the north. If it wasn’t for swell shadows created by islands (and the predominant SW winds) it would be pumping here all the time. But it isn’t, and so I drive north and east or get ferries to islands when I can.
My dreams are likely much the same as yours. They’re dreams of waves in unlikely places. Waves that might, might break once every few years, maybe a decade, perhaps a lifetime. Or never. But I keep a list of spots in my head. A blueprint of potential burned into my mind, just waiting for the right swell.
Then it arrives: 20ft, 18-20s, the ideal angle, and light SE winds through daylight.
It seemed like impossible perfection. I might have waited 10 years or more for it. There have been others, but few so ideal, and none I remember without accompanying onshore winds of 40mph+.
If any swell was going to work, it was this one.
When I moved here it was with the understanding that it would be a stopover. I’d sworn that when I finally Settled Down it would be somewhere that made surfing a fulcrum for all else. As I write that now I realise how pedestrian it seems, nevermind dull and embarrassingly naive.
At any rate, it didn’t happen. I arrived, got job, met girl, bought house, had kids, never left.
More pedestrianism, it seems. Except it’s not, because I feel more actualised now than at any point in my life, just not in ways I could have predicted, and nothing to do with surfing.
I surf here, of course. It involves a lot of travel, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of disappointment, some difficult decisions, and unquestionably a lot of good days missed. I don’t feel connected to it in a meaningful or consistent way.
When I first moved I was surfing a lot. Raging against the dying of the light, maybe. But it was untenable, and ultimately unrewarding. Often I’d come back angry, frustrated, and that would seep into other aspects of my life. I started to question if it was worth it.
Why pursue something with such fervour if it doesn’t consistently bring you joy? Life’s too short, and there are a shit load of other good things in it.
It can be hard to shake off a bad surf. Not so much when you can get back in tomorrow, or a few hours later. But imagine you’ve spent a whole week planning and agonising over it, and you still need to drive for hours after failing in what you set out to do. Try shaking off the feeling of inadequacy and failure then.
It became a value judgement for me. It’s not that I don’t think surfing is glorious, of course I do, I just need more control in my life, more certainty. Obsessions keep me going. But if they cause more stress than pleasure they should be cut loose. I’ve never been short of other things to do.
It’s not about hating surfing, it’s about self-preservation. It’s about evolution. It’s about growing up. Surfing’s not my identity anymore, it’s just another thing I do.
But of course I still get excited about surf potential, maybe even more than ever, and I can’t remember the last time I was as hyped as last weekend. The van was loaded the night before, maps and forecasts were checked then re-checked. Every conversation at work and home happened somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness. I was already gone.
I had to go alone, but that was fine. Some friends were off chasing sure things closer to their own homes, others were committed elsewhere. It would be remote, there would be no-one else in the water, and perhaps just a few scattered croft houses in the vicinity. But again, all fine. I left instructions to call the coastguard if I hadn’t contacted home by 1800. It would be dark a couple of hours by then. If I was in trouble, I understood that would probably be too late anyway.
It’s a flaw in my nature to always take a swing, and I understood again this weekend the elements of surfing that hooked me so deep in the first place. I still wanted to chase the unknown. The potential for moments of chance could still have me rapt.
Years ago, in south-west France, living a sandy life of warm baguettes and warmer wine, I lamented the cold of home to a ding repair guy as he worked on a damaged fin box. He listened politely as he worked, nodding sagely. A more enlightened self would have cleared out and just given the man space, understanding that surfers don’t really want to talk about surfing, but I was young and smitten.
At some point, as I was expressing my joie de vivre for France vs Scotland, he paused, then looked up at me, spreading arms and eyes wide.
“But”, he said, incredulously, “you are lucky! This is only beachbreak. You have reefs, points, everything…”
He was right, and I’ve never forgotten that.
It was a lesson not just about surfing, but about place and context. Make the best of what you have, see what’s in front of your face.
And so this weekend I drove west with a head full of dreams, feeling, knowing it would be better than ever.
I won’t bore you with the details.
It didn’t work out, like almost always.
I saw ripples in places I’d expected more. I watched huge waves break on offshore reefs and thought of boats. The swell wasn’t getting through. I caught a few mediocre ones at a reef I’d surfed long ago but didn’t remember being so shallow. I was dumped onto dry rock twice before calling it a day. I argued at length with a farmer about parking on his land. Aggression surfaced that was nothing to do with him and everything to do with my own frustrations. It reminded me of why I’d quit this shit. It was nothing like I’d hoped.
But there was good in it, too. There was an unequivocal outcome that I can’t ignore: I now know that several of the spots I’d been clinging to are worthless. There was nothing wrong with the swell this time. And so now I can finally forget them, move on.
I can slip the noose and let those dreams drift.
Piece by piece it falls away, and perhaps I am no poorer for it.