When Experiencing Localism Evolves Into Becoming Local, Surfing’s Sanctity Is Saved

Working your way into a local lineup is an earned experience. Photo: Troy Williams

The Inertia

“Surfing is one of those useless sports – it has no value to society.” – Yvon Chouinard

As surfers, many of us have doled out cold stares or vibes to people who suddenly appear at “our” break. Localism, in its many forms, is a part of surfing, and as the Earth’s population increases, beaches erode, and surfing’s popularity grows, our breaks get more crowded. There was a time many years ago, when I scowled – and others went beyond that – when seemingly out of nowhere, hordes of people with out-of-state plates began showing up at our local New England break. Now, sadly, it’s par for the course, and the once-empty lot gets so jammed on a halfway-decent day that I have my fiancé drop me off.

In this case, localism is less about regulation and more about preservation, and I’ve seen both sides of it. When my job took me from Rhode Island  to the Boston area, I was forced to abandon my home breaks for much of the year; instead, I joined a group of friends from Massachusetts who hit up different, closer, colder spots up north. During this time, I’d return to the spot where I learned to surf and recognize a few of the old guard, but mostly I was the odd man out, an old new face on the scene. 

Years later, when we took off for California for my fiancé’s PhD program, I was once again navigating foreign swells. Which brings me to the rad epiphany I had last week. It began innocently enough: I scored a nice little right and got a “yew” from a local woman who rips. We started chatting, acknowledging that we’d seen each other surfing that particular spot for the last couple of years and never introduced ourselves.

Over the next few days, I realized that while I was focused on my surfing, something had shifted. I recognized most, if not all the regulars at the neighborhood break, and somehow, they didn’t want to run me off the beach. Instead, I could tell by their newfound smiles, shakas, and greetings that they recognized me, too.

I spent many of my surfs over the first year or two out west feeling like an imposter as I figured out the nuances of different spots, tried not to get in peoples’ way, and did my best to always deffer to the locals. It wasn’t always pretty, and I screwed up sometimes and took a lot of waves on the head. Through the injuries and frustration, I ultimately I latched on to a specific nearby break that’s relatively uncrowded during the week if you don’t mind an 11-minute beach walk (or jog). Like it or not, the local surfers, all of different ages and ability, were forced to see my mug every day. 

As the woman – a local since birth – and I traded waves, she casually told me the unofficial name of the break we both surfed nearly every day (I’d made up a name in my head based on the landmarks, but I was way off). Little bits of local knowledge like this, passed down by generations and then gifted to newcomers means a lot, as did the feeling that I was being accepted into the community. Still, I wondered: why does it mean so much to me?

A buddy joked that now I had to stay in this neighborhood forever, whether my fiancé likes it or not. I wouldn’t be against the idea if it were possible. Whereas I used to feel like a stranger when regulars chatted and cheered each other on, I now dig hearing the hoots, hollers and gripes each morning, and exchanging quick doses of info about the tides, the waves, the wind. Three years is not a very long time, I know, for me to feel as though I’ve paid any dues, but the consensus seems to be “this guy just keeps coming back, I guess we have to accept it.”

Realizations are a funny thing, because like waves, they seem to come in sets at specific times. Over the last few years, surfing has become more central in my life, and the rhythm of riding waves has served me well during a move that wasn’t always easy. Leaving our friends and family in Boston and Rhode Island was tough, as was quitting my job; but it also brought an excitement to our lives that we both needed. Surfing has been a welcome constant, a means of exploring the area, a way to tap into what the community values, prides itself on, and gets stoked on. 

With so many other things going on in the world, it may seem trivial to focus on being accepted into a surf lineup. But continuing to challenge ourselves to take on rewarding and transformative experiences is important. Personal happiness is also important. Many of our busy lives shuttle us endlessly from screen to screen, during which we rarely have a chance to appreciate the sunrise over the cliffs, the way no wave ever breaks the same, or the transience of our lives. 

Surfing, however, has the power to put us in touch with our emotions. Riding waves has been scientifically proven to improve our moods, increase dopamine, and even help people deal with addiction. The focus surfing requires often drowns everything out, as our minds tap into a more meditative state. Plus, after we have a good surf, we’re invigorated, psyched, proud for the rest of the day. On the flip side, if we fixate on the waves we miss, we might as well get out of the water. We learn to let our failures go, keep paddling, and go even harder for the next one.

Maybe the reason that we try to protect the sanctity of surfing is that we’re fully aware of the inherent power of flying across a moving wall of water. We’re protective of our local spots because we know that one good wave can change our perspective instantly. Even more importantly, we recall the indescribable buzz of seeing one of our friends get a great ride and shouting for them.

I’m sure when the longtime local shouted for me as I dragged my hand across the face, she didn’t think it would inspire deep thought or writing. Ironically, Ali and I are now heading back to the East Coast for a few months. When I come back to “my” local surf spot, will I still have a spot in the lineup, or will I have to work my way back in? Either way, I’ll be out there as much as humanly possible, dealing good vibes and cheers to the group of locals who have brought me into the fold – even if it’s temporary.


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