In the early 1990s, after a century-long journey, modern surfing’s historical arc began to split in two. By the mid-2000s, wave-riding appeared almost schizophrenic. At one extreme, everything was fast, loud, and shape-shifting, with millionaire professionals, surf-themed PlayStation video games, and live-feed event coverage. Surfboards were computer designed, machine crafted, and mass produced. Engines were brought into the lineup – working in teams, and using personal watercraft, big-wave surfers catapulted themselves into waves that made all previous big-wave efforts look fumbling and rudimentary.
At the same time, wave-riding in general was more settled and inclusive – even quieter – than it had ever been. And why not? At the dawn of the twenty-first century, surfing was no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, a young sport. Yes, it maintained a special flair for immaturity. But in its modern form it was now one hundred years old – solidly middle-aged. Parents surfed with their children. Females were at last welcome in the lineup. Going surfing wasn’t always an easy, nice experience, but it was moving inch by inch in that direction.
The sport kept trimming ever deeper into the mainstream. Costco had its own line of boards. Merrill Lynch, Chevron, and Allstate produced surf-themed ads. Us and People ran photos of akimbo-armed Hollywood stars gamely riding shoreward on their huge beginner boards, while AARP Magazine profiled leathery but spry senior surfers. A group called the Association of Surfing Lawyers was formed. Every major surf town had at least one surfing museum, with its requisite overpriced gift store.
All this was enough to trigger a small identity crisis. A Surfer cover, decades earlier, had featured a silhouetted rider on a back-lit wave, along with a koan-like blurb: “The Secret Thrill.” Wave-riders still wanted to believe their domain was tribal and elite, but doubt was creeping in. A 1998 Surfer feature by Sam George – “Is Surfing Hip?” – begins with a hyperventilated pledge that all is well: “Oh yeah. Very hip. The original hip. Hipper than hip. And you know it, too. You just don’t know you know.” Yet the article actually makes a convincing argument for how hip surfing used to be. “Surfing’s hipness timeline screeches to a halt in the early ‘60s,” George admits, when the sport began “strip-mining that which made [it] special and dumping the ore into the open market.” His argument for contemporary hipness doesn’t extend much beyond the idea that surfing is beautiful and enjoyable – that, and the fact that surfing is a constitutionally better sport than BMX riding, or in-line skating, or wakeboarding. “Surfing isn’t included in the X Games,” George proudly concludes. “Now that’s hip.”
Fate let that one dangle for five years. Surfing made its X Games debut in 2003.
We’re Hip, Right? Surfing’s Millennial Identity Crisis is an excerpt from Matt Warshaw’s The History of Surfing. Read two more excerpts from Warshaw’s Encyclopedia here and here OR click here to order a copy of The History of Surfing.