ESPN Columnist/Author
Sunset Alaia Surfers

With or without knowing it, surfers transmit quite a bit of culture to their peers. What I’m suggesting is that we should actively think about and choose what aspects we hand down as a group, not as a market, but as a real culture. Photo: Kimball Taylor

The Inertia

I don’t know how your 2011 resolutions are going, but I’ve long ago broken mine. And the beer I drank that first night, well, it tasted way better than before I made the resolution to stop drinking.

Amidst all of the shattered resolutions, however, the first weeks of spring in the new year remain a time for reflection, especially now, with so much potential for dramatic change in the air. Most recently, I’ve been giving thought to an idea the director of WildCoast, a surf-oriented environmental group, dropped casually during a trip into Baja. Serge Dedina said that veteran surfers have inherited something pretty special, and that we need to think seriously about what we are handing down to new generations. From the conversation, I understood that he meant it both environmentally, as well as culturally.

This idea of accepting and passing down culture may seem like an abstraction as far as sports go, but during your next session, keep your ears open, look around you, and you’ll find some amazing flotsam bobbing among the ideas surfers propagate.

For example, I was surfing Dedina’s home town of Imperial Beach late this past fall. The conditions were awful—maybe two foot, wind-battered, and holding just enough shape to let you think you could get down the line. The only reason I paddled out actually, was because I’d made arrangements to meet a long-time friend there and we hadn’t surfed together in a months. This is a lengthy, peaky beach that extends all the way into Mexico. Just two other surfers found themselves desperate enough to endure the conditions. And for some reason, this pair battled over what passed for the next peak over, twenty yards north of where my buddy and I chose to sit. One of the surfers looked to be in his mid-fifties—dirty-blond and skin-spotted—an old sea dog. The other surfer passed for 15, maybe 16—an olive-skinned, dark-haired, young ripper. At one point, the kid dropped in on the old man, and all hell broke loose. The old guy charged back out, snapped on the kid. “F—k you,” the kid stammers back—which causes the two of them to circle each other like mismatched amateur wrestlers. Even though the kid was wirey and fast, my money was on the old guy. He was big and looked like a dirty fighter. Then the set of the day loomed out of the mid-horizon and silenced the spat. The old guy paddles outside, turns and strokes into the first wave, and the kid . . . he decides that a shoulder-hop would be the right thing to do in this instance. But he fails, and the old guy plows past him.

This is it. Even though he made the wave, the old guy is enraged, and he trundles after the kid like a bull elephant seal. But the kid paddles just that much faster away from the man, all the while taunting him. Now they’re totally out of position, and the old guy is out of breath. The kid says something I can’t pick up, and the old man screams, “You know NOTHING ABOUT LIFE . . . NOTHING!”

He wheezes a bit and puts his vocal cords into utter danger by screaming: “FAGGOT. You are a FAGGOT!”

The kid tells him to fuck off again, and the old guy renews his charge, and this when the kid says the most impressive statement of the whole beef: “That’s it, Dad,” he hollers, “If you hit me, I’m not riding home with you.”

Call me a moron, but in no way did I recognize that this display was a simple, mid-week, father-and-son go out. Talk about literally handing down the way surfers operate in the water, here was a direct father-to-son instruction. And you may think the example is extreme, but I don’t.

I only think that it is blatant.

A more complex example may be a session I had at Barra de la Cruz a few years back. You may remember the Rip Curl Search contest that put the former secret spot on the map, well, in its wake I traveled down to mainland Mexico to survey the pueblo I’d known before surf colonialism struck it. I found myself out in a casual, if slightly crowded lineup, the waves were only about three foot, but a fun point break surf none-the-less. Shortly into the session, I notice an eight-year-old local giving me significant stink-eye. This boy did not like me, clearly. And he couldn’t yet paddle well enough to properly burn me and leave me behind a collapsed section, so we ended up sharing a lot of waves.

I thought it was funny, cute even, until I began to give it thought.

Later, some friends I’d made in town told me that the boy was well known for his attitude, and that he’d contracted it from the Puerto Escondido locals who’d lectured him on what, and what not, to let the gringos get away with. The problem was, the boy had only been surfing a little over a year, and at eight-years-old, he couldn’t enforce his new viewpoint with either his surfing or intimidation level. None of the local kids had been surfing for longer than two years at that point, so he didn’t have a posse. Further, I have it from good sources that this specific brand of Puerto Escondido localism was brought to Puerto thirty years before by Newport and Huntington Beach locals. So, this was an off-shoot of localism directly birthed at the center of the “surf industry”—basically, just another half-assed export.

As a so-called surf journalist, I’ve reported on a lot of topics concerning the surf world—over-crowding, localism, development, culture—and I believe that on a certain level, most of these divergent categories are related. Foreign development marketed to surfers is a direct result of certain cock-eyed myths surfers hold about themselves. Those myths come from our collective culture, which directs the way surfers operate both their lives and their water time. Culture also offers tactics to mitigate over-crowding: travel, localism and etiquette. Of the three hallmarks, I’ve never once been assigned to cover “etiquette”—maybe because it’s not sexy, or doesn’t push product—but I believe successful point-break etiquette to be one of the most interesting, nuanced and complex developments of surfing. Like localism, it works, and done well, etiquette can transform entire lineups and the remainder of those surfers’ days.

With or without knowing it, surfers transmit quite a bit of culture to their peers. What I’m suggesting is that we should actively think about and choose what aspects we hand down as a group, not as a market, but as a real culture. Surf companies have worked aggressively to define the sport of surfing in a way that sells their products—“telling our brand’s story,” is how they phrase this poppycock. But truth is, the culture of surfing doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to, and is created by you and the choices you make. At a time when many of our co-collaborators in the water are financially adrift, out of work, or just out of the war zone, that reflection and those choices are as important as ever.

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