Seeing Red: How Surfing Keeps Our Egos in Check

Paddle out feelin’ like Superman, paddle in feelin’ like Mighty Mouse. Photo: Bob Oh//Unsplash

The Inertia

I don’t hit the links much anymore, but when I hear people equate surfing’s frustrations to those of golf, the idea lines up with my fractured memories of the game – especially the time when I hit a bad chip shot and then, in a fit of teenage rage, smashed the 7-iron over my knee. 

I’d borrowed my dad’s clubs. He was decidedly not stoked.

Speaking of stoke, the clocks have been cranked back and Spring is almost here, which means the ocean’s warming up and there’s more daylight for sunset sessions. High times, indeed, and as I hit the beach early this morning, I broke into an excited jog. A coastal front had left the waves a jumbled mess, but they’d also bumped up in size. As I ran, board in hand, I ignored the pounding tide that raked rocks against the bottoms of the cliffs, the pelicans swooping down to scoop breakfast from the tides. The only thing on my mind was the long carves I would draw across the glassy waves with my new single-fin setup.

I ran until the lineups got thinner and thinner, scouting out the assorted reef breaks until, shocked, I found an empty peak. The only obstacle standing in the way of my solo conquest was a surfer who’d gotten the jump on me. He plodded along in his red wetsuit about 50 yards ahead, awkwardly clutching his old board as though it were a golf bag. 

I sized him up as a beginner, and my swollen sense of self-importance carried me forward like a balloon, feet insistently slapping the sand. We both stopped at the same spot, now about 100 yards from each other. While I kept jogging, straight into the breakers, ol’ Red Wetsuit took his time, stretching and studying the swirling currents.

I took a few on the head, made it out and looked up at the overcast sky, willing the sun to emerge. As I paddled, I caught a glimpse of the Red Robin. He fumbled around on the inside, taking forever to make it out. Alright, I’ve got about an hour before I need to get to work for the day, so let’s make the most of it. Eagerly I paddled for my first wave, which arched up behind me, bound to be a heater…and missed it. I took the next and it mushed out on me as soon as I made a bottom turn. Frustrated, I thrust myself into the next bulky closeout without thinking, and it picked me up and drilled me into the octopus’ garden.

What in the holy – did the waves not know I’d been absolutely ripping lately? I looked back to the Red Pepper, hoping to commiserate about the surf, but he was still perched inside – struggling, I figured. When he did make it out, though, we’d probably gripe about the waves to each other in one of those deep, expansive conversations we often have as surfers.

“A little wonky, eh?”

“For sure.”


Maybe he’d ask me for a couple of tips after he saw my sick turns. Maybe he’d even offer to buy me an empanada afterwards, as a sort of tribute to my overall greatness.

As I paddled back and forth, I couldn’t buy a barrel.  Strangely, the Red Devil paid me no mind whatsoever. As I watched, he pivoted and stroked into a clean little peak and disappeared, only to emerge hundreds of yards away after a flowing ride. Got lucky, I thought. Then I watched him line up and do the same thing over again. And again. 

Wait a second – the guy could have made it out the back. He just didn’t want to.

I’m an idiot. No, I’m a total kook. 

Ultimately, I headed inside to catch some waves, but I couldn’t escape the big bowl of wrong I’d been chowing down. I’ve only been surfing this stretch of beach for what, a few years, if that? I had no idea of this surfer’s history or pedigree. Maybe he carried his board like that because he was recovering from an injury; the same reason I was packing so much foam lately. Maybe the red wetsuit – which was starting to look pretty, pretty, pretty good – was a gift from Kelly Slater after the dude nearly won the Pipe Masters in ’97. Or maybe the Red Fox just knew the beach, the swell, the tides, the spot, and had no time for the moron who didn’t stop to read the waves, paddled way too far out and missed 10 waves in a row, floating like a stout, listless ship on the rolling swells. 

I caught a few sheepish waves on the inside, but the ocean still wanted to make sure I course-corrected. When I finally got into a good wave, my foot slipped off my board and I tomahawked, head over heels. When I came up, a rogue wave detonated on my head, sending me back under, sinking under the heavy weight of my ego.

As the sea tossed me like a cork, I considered my sense of perception. We tend to place people in particular camps as we process the world around us: that guy’s worse than me, that woman’s way better than me, that guy is on the wrong board, that kid is in my way all the time. I’d blindly categorized someone when I could have been learning from them. Instead of keeping my perspective wide open, I’d made a snap judgement and narrowed the frame.

When we come to think we know more than the ocean, too, and don’t stop to study the waves, we’re going to get thrown around. Just like life, the sea is constantly breaking and changing, and it deserves our undivided attention and respect. When we’re cocky, as I was, the ocean will find a way to show us who’s in charge. 

Was that a hint of a smile on the Red Menace’s face as I rode in on my belly, demoralized? I’ll never even know if he even registered me. He was in a groove, surfing effortlessly. Confident in himself, but not cocky, and definitely not judging the guy who ran down the beach behind him, envisioning greatness with every step, only to be dealt another slice of surfing’s humble pie. 

As I stood on the beach, regret pooling at my feet, I watched another surfer jog down the beach in the glare of the rising sun. He took note of me, then eyeballed the Red Baron sitting inside. Then the newcomer rushed into the water and scratched out to where I sat for many fruitless minutes, chasing the uncatchable. As he paddled by, I saw the Red Wolf give him a knowing wave. 

The cycle continues, I thought. I watched the new guy paddle like an outboard motor for a wave, then another, and slap the water in frustration. I began to walk away, my board suddenly feeling lighter under my arm. The guy would figure it out at some point. It was time to leave the beach for the day and come back tomorrow at dawn with a new attitude, a new mindset.

And, possibly, a red wetsuit.


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