I used to be cynical with my surfing. I’ve been doing it a long time now and it’s not what it used to be.
When I started, surfing was unique and special. Not a lot of people did it, certainly not a lot of people around here in Maine and New England. I remember driving down the road and upon seeing another car with a board on the roof, instead of flashing them a “Hey Brah,” shaka with our thumbs and pinkies wiggling, meant to signify: “Yeah, I’m a surfer too, and ain’t we groovy people to be surfers and all that?” we used to just give a thumbs up or down, meant to signify: “The surf is good, or bad,” from wherever we were coming from. There was no attending pearly toothed smile either; we were both on a mission: find surf…and it was not so much about living the groovy lifestyle, but riding waves.
We wore ratty wetsuits, not slick rubber from environmentally conscious companies like Patagonia. Our boards were bruised and dinged and crudely patched with highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, rather than hewn from agave, glassed with hemp, and resined with pine sap. We ate cholesterol boosting cheeseburgers and gloppy milkshakes from McDonald’s, not veggie wraps and acai and blueberry smoothies, and the Styrofoam containers and paper wrappers they came in were strewn and littered about the interiors of our cars, not toted in reusable bags to recycling centers. We surfed mostly alone, and sought out secluded breaks where we could be alone with our thoughts. We didn’t travel in packs and assemble at “events” with colorful banners and tents announcing: “Here, right here! This is where all the groovy people are hanging today! Come join us so you can be groovy too!” With the attending pearly toothed smiles of all involved.
Our eyes were perpetually slitted, the corners crusted with salt, our hair, nappy and tangled with the odd bit of ocean detritus and seaweed, our lips, burned and chapped and rarely cracking to smile in acknowledgement of that hot wave we’d just shredded. It was all about being cool and nonchalant…we were bitchin’ and we knew it. It just wasn’t cool to let on that we knew it.
Over the decades, I’ve watched surfing go through cycles of popularity. When I started in the 70’s, only a fringe smattering were into it around Maine & NH where I live. Then in the neon ‘80’s a few people thought it was hip and cool and all went out and bought checker board pattern boards and day-glo wetsuits. They faded within a few years when they found out just hard surfing is, and how cold and miserable the conditions are around here; definitely not hip, definitely not cool. There was another brief surge during the Kelly/Baywatch days in the ‘90’s, but again, the SoCal, sun and tan images being marketed by the west coast did not match the reality of a 35 degree water, sleeting drizzle day in March around here. So about 10 years ago when this latest trend of influxing wannabes started infiltrating the lineup, I figured it was only a matter of time before they too wakened to the harsh realities of being a New England surfer. But two things conspired against this wave being extinguished.
#1: The wetsuits of today are so much, waaaaybetter than the old days. Supple rubber allows a lot more flexibility, even in the thicker winter suits, so it’s not so much like trying to surf in a Michelin Man cocoon. And they are WARMER! Sealed and taped seams used to only be features of 5mil winter suits, due to the restrictive features of a sealed and taped suit. Sealed and taped means no leaks, no icy trickles shuddering you into paroxysms of hypothermia. But the new methods and compounds of sealing and taping now allows even 3 mil summer suits to enjoy the no leak properties. Hence, all those wimpy Sammies and Sallies who used to cringe at the very thought of cold water immersion in the Gulf of Maine, are now frolicking and smiling and splashing about without regard.
#2: The sad reality is that surfing has gone mainstream. You see it everywhere, on billboards and magazine ads, tv, Hollywood, everywhere espousing the cool hipness of surfing, of being a surfer. Jeepers, yesterday I was out riding really fun waist high peelers on my hull when the drone of a small plane overhead caused me to look up. And there was a huge banner trailing the little plane, threatening to put it into stall speed in the steady offshore winds, and on this banner was a bikini babe, pimping some new energy drink. And what was that bikini babe holding under her arm but a pointy nosed shortboard! Oy vey! Surfboard as prop for some marketing yahoo. Let me tell ya, there is no way in hell I will ever buy that drink.
So I got grumpy. Effin kooks! Effin Montrealers! Effin Massholes! Effin wannabes! Cluttering up MY lineup, getting in MY way, cluelessly taking off on closeouts, cutting off my rides, riding logs and funboards and SUPS! I got cynical. Surly. Surfing ceased being the fun and bitchin’ thing it used to be in my life when I was a young grom.
I paddled out because I HAD to sometimes. I paddled out with all the mindset of one of the last few of Custer’s soldiers on the Little Bighorn, stalwart against the hordes, making my stand, fighting to the death…
But something has happened in the last couple of years. Surfing, for me, has started to be fun again. I smile and talk to other surfers out in the water. I urge some of them into waves. I don’t get angry when they drop in on me. Like when I was just starting out, it doesn’t matter so much the quality of the waves; I just go out and surf, and usually, even on the crummiest, crumbly day, I’ll catch at least one ride that puts a smile on my face.
I don’t know what precipitated this change. But I recognize it is a change of attitude mostly, of perception. And as such, I realize that the fun and fulfillment I get out of surfing has always been under my own control. I suspect that it is because my life has changed, so dramatically over the last few years. I used to surf, mostly as an escape. In the water used to be the only place I could get away from all the BS that was bringing me down, holding me back, smothering the life spark from me… But I’m not looking for escape anymore. I fixed most of my land problems and that has made all the difference. I enjoy life now. I’ve changed my attitude and perceptions and now the hordes of new surfers who used to frustrate me, who did not allow me to escape in the water…all these newbies, I realize, are not now, nor never were, the problem.
Gerry Lopez said: “You can’t put fences around life. Things change. Nothing ever stays the same. All you gotta do is keep paddling. Simple!” And my Dad used to say much the same thing, that it’s the people who cannot adapt to the changes in their life that suffer. And that used to be me. I suffered. But it was always under my own control. I had to adapt.
So I did. And now I smile. And when I see the smiles of the newer surfers, I remember…they’re no different from me when I was starting out. Surfing is the bitchinest thing on this planet. And any surfer, new or crusty, young or old, KNOWS that. So when they/we/I smile, and giggle and ramble about that last ride or the awesome session we just had…we’re just expressing the stoke that is bubbling out of us. I can’t begrudge any new grom that; surfing is not mine alone. And the thing of it is, simply by changing my attitude, surfing has become new for me all over again. And I’m having the time of my life. Cuz like my old friend Dick used to say: “I’m a surfer; I’m a hip girl with a groovy lifestyle!” Well, actually Dick wasn’t a girl…but you know what I mean…