One of my most-loved coffee-table books, “The Perfect Day” by Sam George and Matt Warshaw, features page after oversized page of paradise-blue waves. The images, plucked from 40 years of SURFER magazine, echo the last phrase of SURFER’s founder John Severson’s first edition: “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, to be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”
The book casts surfers as seekers, forever on the lookout for an ocean of excellence. Ideal conditions, popular wisdom suggests, are what surfers most desire, during which warm waves open like giant canvases, their flowing curls stalled by offshore winds, thus allowing the rider time to paint their chosen line.
For most surfers, these glossy images are escapist, inspiring, and a few head shakes away from reality. Textbook days are not only rare, they’re also often not as fulfilling as we envision.
Perfection may rest in the eye of the beholder when it comes to favoring, say, a point break or a beachbreak, but to create a day of ideal waves a multitude of factors must fall into place. Swell energy from thousands of miles away contends with winds and tides and the right swell direction for the break. Then, there’s weather. In New England, for example, some of our top days come during frigid winter storms, where ice pelts your face and steam rises off the ocean.
I don’t see too many of those days in the book.
When natural forces coalesce and a flawless day presents itself on the horizon, its approach is no secret. It doesn’t matter if perfection is about to descend in New Jersey or Oahu; everyone has a camera in their pocket. The crowds will not just be on it, they’ll be camped overnight, crawling from the woodwork to fight for scraps.
On the other hand, imperfect days are the unsung heroes of your surf career. Unassuming, un-flashy, these yeoman days are worth their weight in fiberglass. Sure, they might be cold and clogged with kelp, and they could possibly give you some sort of infection, but suck it up, Buttercup. Those tropical-trunk-it swells aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Give me gutless chop, give me wind and rain, give me rogue riptides, onshore winds, and closeouts!
How can I stake this ridiculous claim?
Adverse Conditions Are a Training Ground
Michael Jordan shot free throws on hot coals. Wayne Gretzky slept on a bed of hockey pucks. Pele juggled hot knives with bare feet. Sure, the typical average-Joe surfer isn’t necessarily trying to be a champion, but all surfers want to continually improve.
When the waves aren’t perfect, they force us to grow. There’s no escaping the ocean, no telling it to wait – we must deal with adverse conditions in real time. Need more convincing? Laird Hamilton set up a torture chamber in his outdoor pool, and that dude has his pick of perfect days.
Surfers of any level can learn a lot about their board choices, style, reflexes and fitness when they paddle out into the flawed fray. The harder it is to duck the churning tide and make the drops; the stronger you get, the more you improve, and the more you learn. Smack the foam on the closeout and pretend it’s a perfect lip. Somehow stay standing when the onshore and cross shore mix makes the wave’s face quake like an avalanche. Toughen up, Champ!
Yes, shitty days can beat you up and make you wonder if you’re wasting your time. Then, a few weeks later, on a sunny, clean day of rideable, predictable sets, you’ll think: wait, why does this feel easy? That feeling is one of the finest one can have when out in the lineup.
The Hype Machine and the Crowds Are a Buzzkill
It doesn’t take much to get surfers frothing, and when a storm appears in the distance that could turn your home break into the North Shore, a flurry of activity begins. Across the socials, celebratory TikTok dances give way to hashtag wars about which spot will break the best. Boards are chosen and waxed, cars and carbs are loaded, and every single person who’s ever said “hang loose” on the continent prepares to zero in on the place where you learned to swim.
Most “perfect” days die by a double-edged dagger: they often don’t live up to the hype and they’re so crowded that your best ride is a party wave – but it’s the worst party you’ve ever been to. Like, no pizza, no pinata, no beer, no tunes, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a fin to the face.
Imperfect days mean that instead of constant strategizing and waiting in line, you can let your guard down. And if you go ass over teakettle on the best offering so far, you don’t have to wait another 20 minutes for another hack at it, either.
Weather Changes Dynamics
Are you aware of how your home surf spot changes when the winds are cranking from the west? What about how dramatic tidal shifts and weather patterns change the way the wave breaks or where the takeoff point is?
Below-average days are an invaluable asset to improving your knowledge base, which will pave the way for you to understand where and how to surf your spot in a variety of conditions. During sessions where the swell direction and wind lines up, you might learn a lot about your surfing from the reps you get, but you’re not learning about the spot’s extremes, or what else it may have to offer. Combining these two sets of knowledge together can help make you a better, more in-tune and flexible surfer.
Disclaimer: if the weather has the potential to create dangerous conditions, throw all of these ideas out the window and watch every Taylor Steele film back to back.
In my neck of the woods, we’ve had some monster tides lately, and the extreme swings dramatically altered the way local spots broke. A lot of reports and peers told me the waves would be dumpy at low tide, and not to bother. But after paddling around like a maniac, I found a little spot that was working, and it served up a bunch of fun lefts.
Don’t Go, Never Know
Most of us, myself included, spend way too much time debating the optimum time to suit up. Hold off for the tide push, wait for the forerunners of the next swell, hit the sunset sesh…why not just grab a cheeseburger and hit it tomorrow?
Instead of hanging on the stairs and hoping the other bystander passes their “pre-surf ritual” to the left-hand side, just go. The ocean is ever changing, and by committing, you open yourself up to unforeseen developments. I recently went out on a windy, onshore day just to try out a new board and get off my computer for a bit. There were only a few people out, and the waves were lully and barely serviceable. I was about to head in after an hour when the wind dropped, the swell increased, and I found a hollow wave breaking about 300 yards away.
Disclaimer number two: just as the ocean can transform for the better, it can quickly turn for the worse, so pay attention to the forecast and know your limits.
You’re Lucky Just to be Surfing
Surfing is a blast in all conditions, and I’ve never met someone who regretted paddling out afterwards. You’re in the water, you’re getting a workout in, and you have an excuse to fire down some extra tacos later. Win-win. Now get out there and give ‘em hell, Tiger, and don’t say I never did anything for ya.