A VAL apocalypse? Not likely.  Photo: Team Wavestorm/Ponto Troll Crew

The Inertia

I was recently sitting in a Jimbaran Bay beach club in Bali, enjoying a spectacular Indian Ocean sunset while discussing the current state of surf culture with an equally colorful Australian ex-pat I’ll call Razza, who was already about two bottles of Bintang in.

“I’m telling you, mate, it’s facked these days,” he passionately decried. “Other day I’m talking to this guy, had to be fackin’ 40 years old, and he tells me he’s recently taken up surfing.  And I’m like, no, you fackin’ take up golf, or yoga, you don’t take up surfing. You fackin’ grow up surfing.”

Interesting concept, especially as I’d just returned from a trip to the Mentawai Islands where, due to the concerted efforts of island resorts and boat charters to effectively market off-season travel (with its less crowded lineups and more modest swell pattern) the various breaks were attended by predominantly middle-aged surfers exhibiting what I’d generously call intermediate skill levels. In the moderate-yet-still-challenging Indonesian waves, it quickly became obvious that many of these men and women hadn’t been surfing long, which placed them firmly in that newly adopted category of VAL: Vulnerable Adult Learner. Coined by a longtime Australian surf journalist no doubt thrilled by its growing usage, this snobbishly derisive term harkens back to the slur used by early 1960s Malibu surfers to describe those who lived in the San Fernando Valley, some 10 miles inland. That none of those Malibu surfers actually lived in Malibu didn’t matter, the sixties Vals were to be condemned by their area codes, just as today’s VALs are being condemned by their age and, through reference, the actual year they “took up” surfing. 

So where does the resentment come from? If it was just an aversion to more crowded waves, an inherently selfish rationalization could be floated, I guess — a simple problem of supply and demand.  But thinking about my ex-pat friend’s sense of not just frustration but vehement outrage that someone would have the audacity to want to learn how to surf as an adult pointed to a deeper, more primal psychological force at work. One related closely to a socio-political position espoused by another spectrum of society (yes, there are other ways to live than as a surfer) called “nativism,” defined as “the policy of protecting the interests of native born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” So just ride along with my VAL/immigrant analogy, and see if it resonates.

Studies of nativism have shown that the resistance to immigration and aversion to immigrants themselves stems from a preexisting population’s fear of losing its perceived unity and identity. A free-floating anger develops at the idea of a lifestyle once thought of as one’s own slowly becoming the exclusive province of newcomers, none of whom share the same cultural background and experiences, yet who assume all the benefits and associated joys of the lifestyle that the “established inhabitant” identifies with. 

“There are many similarities between the nativism of the 1870-1930 period and today,” reads a passage from Making America 1920 Again, published by the Center for Migration Studies. “Particularly the focus on the purported inability of specific immigrant groups to assimilate, and the misconception that they may be dangerous to the native-born population.” 

“If the wave breaks here, don’t be there.” Photo: Robert Young

Sound familiar?

So substituting VAL for “immigrant” consider “Making Surfing 1975 Again.” It was in this year that most of the world’s surfers, all probably having learned to surf sometime in the mid-1960s, were approximately the same age – let’s say 20 years old. Meaning that with the exception of a few still-active old-timers, most of those who’d begun surfing before them were probably in the 25-year-old range, well within a relatable demographic. There were always new beginners, yes, but beginners who looked like you did when you were just getting your feet wet; who had started at the same age you did.  This indicates a collective voyage of discovery and experience that couldn’t help but forge an equally collective sense of self-identity. Surfers of that age could immediately recognize others of their community simply because there were no others. Not yet. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the change began. Many so-called “established inhabitants” today blame the COVID 19 pandemic for the increase in adult beginners, as if a wide swath of grown men and women whose gyms and SoulCycle studios had closed down suddenly grabbed their WaveStorms and headed for the beach. I’m sure there are plenty of these sorts of new surfing enthusiasts out there, but by my reckoning, the paradigm shift took place much earlier on the timeline. The overall cultural effect of the increased participation of female surfers since the beginning of the new millennium has been widely under-recognized, as has been the concurrent effect of many surfboard manufacturers offering specific models, taking some of the mystery out of buying that first board. Baby steps, perhaps, but I’m of the opinion that as surfing began to look less and less like an intimidating, closed-off fraternity of bros, and purchasing equipment was made less anxiety-inducing, the number of grownups who didn’t grow up surfing, but decided to give it a try, subsequently increased.

And wouldn’t you know it, they got hooked by the very same sweet ride that initially attracted lifelong surfers to the sport. Maybe the hook was even set deeper coming into it as adults, having accrued so many other experiences to compare it to. We “established inhabitants” could do well to consider that idea before summarily invalidating another surfer’s trip simply because of the age at which they began it. 

Not that I’d present this mind-blowing concept to my Aussie mate Razza, there on the beach at Jimbaran — he was already on a roll. 

“Take up surfing, fack.” he ranted. “You either grow up a surfer, or you’re not one.”

“What about me?” I asked. “Before I surfed I wanted to be a High Sierra hunting guide, or at least a cowboy. I didn’t take up surfing until I was 11 years-old.”

“You facking kook,” said Razza, smiling as he downed his next Bintang.


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