Angry Surfer

Why is this so common, especially online? Illustration: I Just Surf

The Inertia

If one is to believe that the “comments” sections on various surfing websites provide an accurate profile of the modern surfer’s mindset, the only possible conclusion would be that today’s wave riders have devolved from a once-proud, free-spirited and all-together enviable cultural archetype into a bunch of petty, whiny, constantly complaining cry-babies. 

Take a quick scroll though the typical comment section on popular surfing sites (with the exception of the one you’re currently visiting, occasionally shamed for its generally positive tone) and let’s review what the Poster Posse is currently bitching about. Professional competitive surfing really takes a beating, the WSL World Championship Tour, especially, held accountable for crimes ranging from holding contests at shitty surf spots like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Supertubes, Bells Beach, Margaret River, Teahupo’o, Punta Roca, Saquarema, Cloudbreak and Lower Trestles (all premier breaks that the average poster would have no chance of ever riding even a medium set wave), to blatant criteria inconsistencies, Filipe Toledo’s distain for big, dangerous waves, the patently unfair mid-season cut, Joe Turpel (on a purely existential level) and calling off the Pipe Masters because the waves were deemed too big and dangerous for Toledo’s fellow competitors, most of whom indicated that given the choice they’d rather not paddle out.  

Then there’s the Great Wave Pool whinge. Kelly’s ‘tub’ in Lemoore – too small, too long, too perfect [read: too expensive], Kelly’s new ‘tub’ in Abu Dhabi (even bigger, even longer, even more perfect, but still, what about all that slave labor?). Don’t forget surf forecasting, Satan’s spawn, the whole thing just a big money-making scheme, obviously rigged for reasons that are…well, unclear, but wrong all the time anyway (not as big as predicted, way bigger than predicted) and let’s not even talk about surf cams, which show exactly what the waves are like but because the highlights show only good set waves they trick surfers into thinking the surf’s better than it is. Again, apparently for some kind of nefarious reason. 

Pick a topic – the whine builds up like a flood tide. Adult beginners, (as opposed to the average commenter’s kids, who are simply carrying on a rich, multi-generational tradition) and by association soft-tops, (except for J.O.B. and Ben Gravy), mid-length surfboards (which considering the average poster’s skill level, most should be riding), celebrities who surf with surf celebrities (How dare they?), hard core surf brands dropping contest sponsorships, hard core surf brands that hold events at their spot, sponsors who drop loyal team riders (“Return on investment? Uncool, man.”), sponsored surfers in general (“Sell outs!”), not to mention, things like Kai Lenny’s strapped-in “chop-hops” in 60-foot Nazarè (“Learn how to do a legit air reverse in two-foot whitewater, why don’t you?”). 

That the majority of these comments are negative should surprise nobody. In reference to what is now being called “comment culture,” research has shown that over the past 10 years social sentiment has shifted from overwhelmingly positive to consistently negative; social media, in the past five years, particularly more negative.  One recent study titled Trolling on Social Media: History, Affect and Effects of Online Vitriol, stated the obvious in its abstract, noting how, …users harm their subject not only through the caustic nature of their words, but also the way in which they can make their targets visible to public scrutiny.”

It’s so easy to blame the dissatisfied tone of today’s comment sections on the all-pervasive Internet and social media platforms and often-vulgar “Online Disinhibition Effect” (a real thing – look it up) they foster. In truth, however, surfers have been commenting in the surf media for as long as surfing media has existed. In the earliest days of the surf magazine’s “letters to the editor” columns, the input was generally upbeat, as the broadest percentage of their readers had only recently taken up the sport. 

“I just learned how to surf a few weeks ago,” wrote Judy McKinney of Whittier, California, in the 1961 winter issue of The SURFER Quarterly. “I wonder why more girls don’t surf. I think it is one of the greatest sports.”

Obviously stoked, as are most people who find themselves lucky enough to surf, and feel sufficiently motivated to share that stoke in a comment. Yet there have always been those who put pen to paper solely to express vexation, even in those prehistoric days of print.

 “If you had the least bit of respect for the local people, you would cool the Hawaiian bullshit articles in each of your editions,” ‘A Concerned Surfer’ wrote to SURFER magazine in 1972. “Likewise, if you cared at all about the local surfer’s plight you’d stop advertising the names of the breaks along with the usual preamble.”

Notice the prescient use of the anonymous appellation, an essential element of “commenter’s courage,” then and today. A major difference between then and now, however, is reflected in the fact that for the 40 or so years that I worked at the surf magazines – both SURFING and SURFER – I found those contributing their “letters to the editor” leaned more toward the positive than the negative, in most cases simply wanting their opinion to be heard. By contrast, today’s “virtual discussion forums” have replaced expressions of opinion (a good thing) with unbridled vitriol (a bad thing), descending into nothing more than crass complaint columns. 

My question is: What do these commenters have to complain so much about? Viewed objectively, by almost every standard today is the best time ever to be a surfer. Better choice of surfboards, better wetsuits, better surf trunks, better women’s surf suits, better wax, better leashes, better sunscreen, better flip flops; a veritable cornucopia of international surf resorts and boat charters, better board bags, cheaper excess baggage fees, Google Translate; incredibly accurate surf forecasting for virtually every surf spot on the planet, with real-time surf cams at your fingertips; engaging online surfing content – from exotic new wave discoveries to the latest epic slab session to international professional competitions – streaming on phones and computers 24/7; glassy barrels in unlikely places like Waco, Sao Paulo, and the Melbourne Airport.

All this great stuff sits in the right-hand column. In the left-hand column, sitting pretty much by itself, is the issue of increasingly more crowded surf spots. Fine, bitch away about that, but it’s my opinion that nobody who didn’t start on balsa boards has any right to complain about crowds (Okay, here we go.)

Still, ravening hordes of our brothers and sisters aside, it seems that despite our current cultural halcyon, some surfers will always find something to whine and complain about. For example, a while back I wrote a feature strongly making the point that virtually every middle-aged surfer without a sponsor’s sticker on their board were riding their three-fin thrusters wrong.  By the third response, however, the conversation had already degenerated beyond a discussion of surfboard design and took a sharp turn to the personal, with the angry, anonymous poster declaring that I was an eff-ing kook, pointing to my failed marriage to actress Nia Peeples, who played “Kiani” in the cult favorite North Shore.

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