Danny Fuller, pour homme.


The Inertia

My foray into surfing and the surfing lifestyle happened slowly, almost accidentally. My father was an all around waterman: a sailor, diver, and fisherman who loved the ocean and all marine related activities. He constantly pushed me to stay in the water and thus, through repetition and familiarity, come to share in his love of the sea. He never surfed himself, but one day figured that he would get me a surfboard and that it could further spur my interest in the ocean. At first, his experiment proved unsuccessful. He purchased me an old, 1980s style Ocean Pacific thruster, which I did not touch for the better part of two years. I never gave the thing much notice until one day I decided to take it out into the sea and see what I could make of it. Needless to say, I was instantly hooked and have been an avid surfer for the better part of the last 15 years.

When I started surfing, I was usually alone. It was rare to see another surfer in the water, especially on weekdays. Eventually a couple of friends of mine joined me in my hobby and we would go down to the beach almost every week. Those early days of my teenage years were some of the happiest of my life. Very few surfers in the water, great friends, and plenty of waves to go around. Fast forward to the present day and my friends and I still go surfing on a regular basis. The difference now is that by eight in the morning the beach is packed with hundreds of surfers, their girlfriends, dogs, and everyone else in between. Surfing is now a far cry from what I remember it to be.

The reason I convey this short story of my surfing life to the reader is to contextualize it in the broader context of the popularization of surfing as a sport and what I see as the surf industry’s role in all of this. The story of the popularization of surfing and the rise of the surf industry is a pernicious tale of how the monetization of a hobby and lifestyle inevitably leads to that hobby’s demise. It is also a tale of two cities, with few people reaping enormous benefits, while many enjoy a diminished, bastardized version of a once regal sport.

I’m sure that when guys like Jack O’Neill, Doug Warbrick , and Brian Singer began what today are huge surf companies, it seemed like the best idea they had ever had. It probably went something along the lines of this: “Hey, I love to surf, and I also have this set of skills. Why not apply these skills to make surf related stuff, which in turn will allow me to pay the bills and have more time for surfing and surf related travel.” At the time, it must have really felt like a marvelous and wonderful idea. I mean who wouldn’t want to make a living out of what you love and have more cash on hand to enjoy that activity even more? And so, the founders of today’s multinational surf companies began building their businesses. What they didn’t foresee was the spiral of expansion and perversion that tends to follow in the wake of any human activity that is monetized. Inevitably, any human activity in a capitalist system that revolves around money tends to grow and expand. That’s just human nature and the nature of money: it’s ambitious, in the sense that it constantly moves and expands.

Fast forward again to nowadays: the surf industry has popularized the sport to an unimaginable degree. Legions of consumers (notice I don’t use the words surfers anymore) crowd the lineup, eager to consume the surfing lifestyle and all that it has to offer. The surfing lifestyle is sold in “hardcore” boutiques like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. Surfers are featured in advertisements for Chanel perfumes! Surf contests have become an ultra competitive blood sport, a clash of titanic egos, bank accounts, and sponsors. Surf pros can generally be labeled as egocentric, spoiled, drug-prone over performers, surrounded by hordes of beautiful women, trainers, nutritionists, etc (with notable, worthy exceptions of course). Of course, the popularization of the sport has led to side benefits. These include but are not limited to: the expansion of surfboard design, allowing us to experience waves and boards in ways previously unimaginable, and the unprecedented pushing of physical human limits in the big wave scene. While these activities have indeed benefited surfers and the surfing lifestyle, the negative consequences have dramatically overwhelmed the beneficial ones.

While the founders of the surf companies and their high executives enjoy a lavish surfing lifestyle of travel and leisure, and while the surf pros also enjoy the dream life, the majority of surfers have been left to fend for themselves in crowded lineups. Surfers have become competitive, aggressive, angry people in general, especially in the water. The spirit of companionship, of nature, of spirituality with the ocean…in sum, the spirit of aloha, has been lost. Surfing is now so far removed from what it once was, something so different altogether, that it probably shouldn’t even be called surfing anymore. Surfing only exists as it once did in the last surfing frontiers of the earth, or in the wee hours of morning before the hordes arrive. It only exists in brief moments, brief glimpses into a lifestyle and attitude that is no more.

Of course, the surf industry in not solely to blame for the bastardization and popularization of surfing. But it is largely to blame for the demise of a lifestyle, the disappearance of a way of life for a few, and the emergence of a legion of something else entirely. What the founders of the surf companies failed to recognize is that when you monetize an activity and seek to make a living out of it, you inevitably contribute to its demise. That activity is forever changed as more and more people flock to that way of life and seek to make a living out of it as well. Greed, technology, and ambition all combine to change that activity, to rob it of its initial soul and purpose. This happens, inevitably and always, sometimes to a greater degree, sometimes to a lesser degree, but it happens. So it has been with surfing and the surfing lifestyle. All this is left to do now is to seek those few moments that resemble what once was, and to try to emulate some of the noble and good values that still carry some sway with some surfers. These values defined a generation and are still present with surfers, but they are dwarfed by a sea of “bad” values and attitudes, something that inevitably happens when money, ambition, and popularization get involved.

  • rozenswag

    Seriously, how many times do I allow myself to read an “in the olden days” article about ANYTHING, but especially surfing? Can we just agree that the past was better for everything and never write these articles again? Great, thanks.

    • ScottTX

      I agree entirely! Thinking of the olden days makes many of us feel warm and fuzzy. I’m guilty – I subscribe to The Surfer’s Journal because I want to learn about the olden days. But I’m 30 and started surfing 9 years ago in Texas and still live here. Personally, my olden days are probably similar to those of guys in the middle 20th century – go camp on a beach, eat sandwiches, surf, and shit in the sand. Sometimes friends came along. The end. I like my past more than TSJ’s past simply because it’s mine. Why live someone else’s experience? Why continue to revisit the past?

  • rozenswag

    Seriously, how many times do I allow myself to read an “in the olden days” article about ANYTHING, but especially surfing? Can we just agree that the past was better for everything and never write these articles again? Great, thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LuffJohn John Luff

    Do you truly believe this? – “Surfers have become competitive, aggressive, angry people in general, especially in the water.” I surfed last weekend at a crowded spot in San Diego and saw a ton of smiles and stoked surfers. For myself and many of my friends that are surfers I must say that this statement is a bit off the mark. Our lives are infinitely better because we are surfers. Share the stoke!

    • http://www.facebook.com/pedro.ferraz.547 Pedro Ferraz

      Ok John, maybe the expression “in general” was a little broad, but the level of aggression in the water has definitely increased exponentially with the popularization of surfing. I’ve personally seen some fights, and know friends in San Diego who have seen them as well. But I agree, our lives are infinitely better because we are surfers. Maybe I just need to surf more :)

      • ScottTX

        Okay, this is likely going to harsh you. Even if you took out the phrase, “in general,” that statement is still a generalization. Now, when you use the word, “exponentially,” you’re implying that there are multiple points in history against which you’re comparing today’s aggression in the water, and the rate of increase is qualitatively shocking. The rate is not shocking because aggression is not increasing exponentially.

        • http://www.facebook.com/pedro.ferraz.547 Pedro Ferraz

          Fine Scott, point taken. The fact though is that aggression in the water has increased, at least in the places I surf. I believe a lot of people share this feeling as well.

  • http://twitter.com/outsideisbetter Nick

    Stoke is contagious. The best surfer is the one having the most fun.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.allison.18 Chuck Allison

    After 50 years of this activity( note:I did not say Sport), yes, the degree of change is huge. There are so many folks who are grumpy in the water, grumpy on land. And there are those who project a “more soulfull than thou, attitude ” Is surfing different than when I started? Yep! Am I sorry? Nope………I’m still having fun in the sea with outrigger, shortboard, longboard , surf mat and fins…….it’s all good

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.allison.18 Chuck Allison

    After 50 years of this activity( note:I did not say Sport), yes, the degree of change is huge. There are so many folks who are grumpy in the water, grumpy on land. And there are those who project a “more soulfull than thou, attitude ” Is surfing different than when I started? Yep! Am I sorry? Nope………I’m still having fun in the sea with outrigger, shortboard, longboard , surf mat and fins…….it’s all good

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.allison.18 Chuck Allison

    After 50 years of this activity( note:I did not say Sport), yes, the degree of change is huge. There are so many folks who are grumpy in the water, grumpy on land. And there are those who project a “more soulfull than thou, attitude ” Is surfing different than when I started? Yep! Am I sorry? Nope………I’m still having fun in the sea with outrigger, shortboard, longboard , surf mat and fins…….it’s all good

  • http://twitter.com/RuskinMcLennan Ruskin McLennan

    Your first surf was on an “Ocean Pacific” thruster and you rail against the surfing business, the sport has grown and will continue to evolve, you can always find a little corner of the Ocean to yourself if you are prepared to look.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pedro.ferraz.547 Pedro Ferraz

      As was explained in the article, the OP was a gift, it was not purchased by me. I was also eleven years old at the time, and thus had not yet developed my critical attitude towards the industry. Also, I don’t believe purchasing something from an entity you criticize invalidates your criticism. You could make an argument for hypocrisy, but the argument itself is still valid.

  • http://twitter.com/RuskinMcLennan Ruskin McLennan

    Your first surf was on an “Ocean Pacific” thruster and you rail against the surfing business, the sport has grown and will continue to evolve, you can always find a little corner of the Ocean to yourself if you are prepared to look.

  • Ciaran

    Well written article, but there is no way in hell you could surf this time of year where I live without a wetsuit. The wetsuits have been getting a lot better, and this keeps us in the water longer. I suppose if you come from a hot climate – like Brazil – then maybe this isn’t so important and maybe you don’t really need anything these companies are trying to sell you aside from the occasional lease etc. I don’t think you can hold the big companies responsible for mainstream media (like channel or hollywood) getting in on the act. Glad to see Nike is quitting surfing, and now that Billabong is in trouble we will see what effect these companies actually have on the numbers in the water. We all complain about crowds, but we are all responsible, how many of us have not tried to share our love of surfing with friends or family and encouraged them into the water. I stand accused. Cheers for the article Pedro, I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pedro.ferraz.547 Pedro Ferraz

      I see your point Ciaran. I myself have tried to encourage my girlfriend into the water on multiple occassions. Glad you liked the article. Check out my profile on The Inertia for some more cheerful texts :) I’ll post some more in the future.

  • erik wilhelm

    I am so tired of these articles. Aggression in surfing has decreased. Localism and blatant violence have decreased. How self important are you if you think that the surfing experience you had 5, 10, 20 years ago was more “soulful”, “righteous” or “real” than what is happening now? The reality is surfing is a pastime of privileged people who have the time, money, and geographical blessing to live by the coast. There are much more important issues and challenges in this world than commercialism and commodification of surfing.

    Sorry, do your thing, express you feelings, but seriously, don’t take yourself, or surfing for that matter, so seriously.

  • Matt

    Really, another the good ol’ days piece? You weren’t even alive in the good ol’ days of surfing Pedro. Comments made by the author should be put in context, he’s 30 and lives in Brazil – he’s grown up in a Latin culture where surfing has grown phenomenally during his surfing time in one of the most crowded cities in the world, of course he sees aggression around him, it’s a feature of his life experience, in an out of the water. Sorry, but so much of your piece is flawed and takes the narrow view based upon your narrow experience.