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So, what does it really mean to be a surfer? Photo: Robert Siliato

So, what does it really mean to be a surfer? Photo: Robert Siliato


The Inertia

“You have a good head on your shoulders…for a surfer” is what someone told me recently on the back lanai of an 1930s-era house in rural New Zealand. The whole building was painted a soft pink, so the owner called it the Pink Palace. Some people would think it sounded like the name of a strip club, but no, it was just an old man’s bed and breakfast.

“What do you mean?”

“You just seem to have yourself together.”

“Well, thanks” I conceded. I leaned back in my chair to think, licking my cracked, sunburned lips and pushing away the man’s cat, Whiskey, who was drooling on my left foot with consistent, oily beads of saliva.

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That’s sort of a weird thing for her to say though, I thought. I figured the Jeff Spicoli stereotype was somewhat antiquated these days. A younger cousin of mine had even told me that surfing was a dad-sport now because for every long-haired professional slacker in the water, there seem to be an equal, if not greater, number of bald-headed, militantly stoic dudes who spent their nights poring over various charts, micromanaging their macronutrients, and getting up well before dawn. I’d say that demands a certain amount discipline and commitment a lot of people don’t exhibit in other leisurely pursuits. Plus, lots of people in the global surfing community fall well between those extremes, and these days I really don’t think there is such a thing as a stereotypical surfer.

Still, her comment made me wonder where I fit within that spectrum.

First of all, it was still silly to consider myself a surfer. I started surfing when I was far too old to ever be any good at it. Instead of on the beaches, I spent my childhood inside with books and video games. Tanning was an abstract concept to me. Anyone who knew me in high school would laugh at the thought of me out in the water now. Picking up surfing was me rebelling against my former self. I remember the day I decided to pull the old board out of the garage; I was reading “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” on the bus. Suddenly I sat up in my seat, put the book down, and thought to myself, why couldn’t James Joyce have been a surfer?

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I may have missed the point of that novel.

Anyway, back in the Pink Palace, I ran my hands over my hazel, freckled arms on which a few small spots had been permanently bleached by the sun. Still not really tan, but there the evidence of my protest was apparent. The tropics wouldn’t ever be in my blood, but I paddled out anyway. I guess that’s all it takes to be a surfer sometimes.

But the question remained, what does the typical surfer represent these days? What do people think of the surfer?

Was there ever any consistency in how and why so many different kinds of people all came to the same conclusion that following an inexplicable compulsion to stand on water was, hands down, the best use of their time and youth in their short time on planet Earth? How did that happen? How did this become the priority? Obsessions and self-serving addictions like these don’t often go along with having a good head on your shoulders. Then again, every great thing in this world must have been accomplished by people who couldn’t be bothered diversifying their priorities.

These are the kinds of things I don’t really talk about with other surfers. Actually, I have never even felt that I have had much else in common with other surfers because everyone you meet out there is different. I tend to be rather silent in the lineup, finding it hard to deviate from anything else but discussions of the weather or wave consistency, just to be safe.

But what I love about surfing is that you learn a lot by just being silent and watching things move around you. You see all those sorts of different people in the water, of all different walks of life, with completely different sets of circumstances and reasons for being out there in the water too. It doesn’t matter if nothing else comes up in conversation, what else would there be to talk about other than somehow you both ended up in the same place doing the same thing? In fact, I think a lot of surfers actively try not to have anything in common with each other, if only to assert that their motivations are the strongest.

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Earlier that day, I had been talking with some man missing several teeth in the left half of his mouth. Just a few words before he paddled past me. He seemed friendly enough.

Later in the session, he had just bailed on what seemed like a kilometer-wide random bastard of a wave. I was unfortunately caught between him and a crowd of other people desperately trying to make it over the lip. We were all just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The guy had a good run up until then anyway, maybe missing out on the last rideable section.

“Nice one” I said with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t get caught up in my way next time or I’ll run you over and split your fucking head open” he replied after a short delay.

My head? This head?

So much for camaraderie.

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I imagined myself floating face-down and bleeding out while the guy bared his half-smile and laughed with his friends. I wondered if he would point and keep laughing at my body as it ascended the face of the next wave, all my thoughts and worries spilling out in the chum along the way.

Of course that never happened. I just stayed out of his way, and he just kept catching waves until I never saw him again. Did I have anything in common with that guy? Did he represent anything more about surfing than I did by being so angry, focused, and unhinged?

I know my skin would always be too thin for this sport, but honestly, it really doesn’t matter. While some people surf to dominate, I surf because when I surf, I don’t have to think about anything else for a while. As cliché as the analogy is, anyone can simply believe in God without getting all worked up about the details. Some people like standing on water. That’s really all there is to it.

My point is: I don’t think you can paint all surfers with the same brush. I wouldn’t say I’m better or worse, smarter or dumber, nicer or shittier than anyone else out there. It’s easy to forget that everyone has a life on land, and everyone just has a different way of killing time between sessions which shapes who they are in the lineup.

So, no, I don’t think I have a good head on my shoulders for a surfer. That’s a good thing.

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