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.