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The True Soul of Surfing

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The True Soul of Surfing

Casual Starfish

It’s Memorial Day weekend and my daughters and I were fortunate enough to surf together for two days in a row. More accurately, we were fortunate enough to find a parking spot at the beach so we could go surfing two days in a row. Even more accurately, thanks to the sacrifice of those who fought for our freedom, my biggest challenge on Memorial Day was just finding a parking space.

My board and rash guard are drying outside in the grass as I write this and my hair is still stiff with sunscreen and salt. This is tropical living. I can shower later.

We have an annual surf weekend coming up, and so surfing has been on my mind a lot lately, but I recently read an article about surfing that really got under my skin. It got me thinking about just what makes this “sport” so unique, and I’ve mostly been thinking about how the article got it all wrong.

The article was, at its core, about the soul of surfing. The word soul is tossed around often in regard to surfing, and that’s fine, you’ll probably even see me use the word too. But surfing’s soul has been over-contemplated and over-defined ever since someone first decided to philosophize about surfing. At its essence, surfing is one of the most self-centered and selfish pastimes on the planet. I’ll come back to this.

So, the writer of this article described surfing (and its soul) as a meritocracy. What?? He went on to define it further, summing up that the best waves should be reserved for the best surfers to ride—those who have earned or displayed the merit to do so. Really? And which little gaggle of goose-stepping surf-nazis get to pin on the merit badges?

The premise that surfers must yield territory to one another based on their skill level is about as valid as barring someone from the beach because they are wearing shoes and socks.

Now, in fairness, I will admit that those who try to surf waves beyond their skill level will not only put themselves at risk, but the surfers around them as well; You don’t paddle out at Pipeline unless you’re ready for it. But what irritates me about this argument is that it smacks of localism, something for which I have zero tolerance. Localism is an ulcer on the core of surfing’s true soul. Your manifesto, my fellow blogger, is outdated and primitive.

If anything, the surfing community can best be described as (here comes the nasty word) a form of socialism. And I don’t mean in the sense of the erosion of capitalism by the creation of a welfare state. Rather it has more to do with the irrepressible spirit of cooperation that is the real soul of surfing. Yes, cooperation, and sharing, just like we learned on Sesame Street. Easier said than done, though, because out there in the water, a natural sense of cooperation between surfers runs counter to what is essential to an epic surf session: solitude and freedom.

As I stated earlier, surfing is a selfish activity. Waves exist briefly in time and are never to come again, and so, one wave, one rider. You can paddle out with one hundred close friends and family, but you will surf alone. Unless you have a tandem partner that you can lift over your head while you glide along the face of a wave, it is a completely solitary endeavor. 

If you’re not willing to share the experience by sharing the waves around you (and your beach, even with total strangers) then the only one who appreciates that backside air you just grabbed, is you. Pat yourself on the back, bro, you really made a mark on society.

Of course, not all surfers are selfish while out in the water, it depends on where you go (and how good the local break is). Most who surf are pleasant and friendly to those who share their enthusiasm for the sport. The feeling you get while surfing is like being on vacation with an unlimited amount of free time and cash, and most people on vacation are happy. Ipso facto, most surfers are also in a good mood. If they’re not, just look for the swastika tattoo. It’s probably there.

So what is the true soul of surfing? It’s the willingness to openly introduce more surfers to the sport and share the waves, even when it runs contrary to what you want: a wave all to yourself.

Nowhere have I seen this embodied more fully than by the organization, Surfers For Autism. This incredible organization uses a day of surfing to help autistic kids and their families connect on a deeper level. Skilled surf instructors and volunteers set aside their own boards and wade into the water with kids who have all levels of autistic functionality—some cry, some remain silent, some are naturals, but all of them end up smiling. For a brief time those kids and their families are free from autism, all because of the sacrifices of people who likely, just like me, love to surf at a break all to themselves.

The smiles, and the tears of joy shared by spectators on the beach, are merit enough that the true soul of surfing is found in a broader sharing of its wealth.

And its freedom.


For more information about Surfers For Autism, click here.

Photo credit: The top two are from Sebastian Inlet, and are by Haven Dietrich. The rest are from Juno Beach, by Dean Robert Dietrich

Special thanks to Surfers For Autism for showing me a side of surfing I will never forget.

May 27th, 2013