I have a friend who thinks blowing a takeoff is immoral. His reasoning goes like this:
“A surfer who falls while taking off on a wave wasn’t fit to claim the limited resource that he/she took from a crowd of capable users. That was a gift-wrapped present from the universe squandered by an individual unequipped to participate.”
Such a viciously Darwinistic view of surf etiquette could, of course, only come from a southern Californian who spends nearly every session of the year battling it out in surfing’s Hunger Games, except for that precious week in which he siphons off a bit more of his kid’s college fund to ride a semi-private reef pass in whichever ‘nesia currently has the best conversion rate to the dollar.
Surfing ain’t what is used to be – that much we both agree on. The great inland exodus of last century has only intensified in this one, filling the world’s coasts with yuppie settlers and clueless holiday-makers, all eager for a taste of that 21st century beach-blanket-bingo they’ve seen in the commercials. Meanwhile, the profile of surfing has grown alongside a boom in the outdoor lifestyle industry which markets active wear, energy drinks, package holidays, cars, food, real estate, herpes medicine, and basically anything else that can be marketed to anyone with enough money and leisure time to entertain pretensions of joining the club. We haven’t quite managed to put a price tag on the ocean (outside of a few resorts in the ‘nesia’s) but as crowds and scarcity have grown, we have made a natural, if somewhat nefarious jump in logic: we’ve started to view waves in market-based terms, through the logic of resource extraction.
The idea isn’t new, but the degree to which we’ve taken it lately is very 21st century. The right, and indeed responsibility, to “harness” (read: exploit) nature for the benefit of mankind has been one of the driving obsessions of Western European culture since the Enlightenment. All the hoary old white dudes who trudged around the globe putting their names on every mountain, river, and bay they set eyes on were infatuated with the idea that reason and order would triumph over the oppressive forces of chaos and savagery. You can’t say they weren’t effective – in three centuries Europeans not only managed to make huge advances in bettering the general plight of mankind vis a vis the ravages of nature, they were also able to (not incidentally) conquer and enslave large swaths of the world to their own advantage. In one of those funny little coincidences of history, claiming dominion over nature was one of the ideas that drove Cook et. al to the South Pacific, and eventually Hawaii where they first encountered surfing.
Over the last 200 odd years, surfing has been a great example of what happens when a superior economy grabs hold of a culture and squeezes it for all its worth. First they destroy it, then they resurrect it in the zombified form of post cards and theme restaurants. If it plays well in the test markets they start a few companies, add a bunch of arbitrary rules, and then sell it to whoever wants a cool image to market perfume or sugar water. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with selling culture, the problem is that market logic is simply to keep growing. Beaches, reefs, headlands, and swells – these things are all finite – but the drive to create more surfers (read: customers) is never ending. So we are back to our original problem: there are too many would-be wave riders and too few waves – any mistake is a grievous waste of scarce resources.
I don’t think there is a serious surfer in the world who has not watched someone blow a takeoff and groaned with Calvinist indignation at the thought of a “wasted” wave, but to truly embrace that idea is to believe that waves have a certain onus to be ridden; that it takes humans to give them meaning or value and without us to stand up and glide across them they are worthless. In fact, it’s the other way around. As long as waves go unridden there is something left to strive for, something still to believe in beyond the vicious struggle of the resource game. But if you ever live to see the session in which every set wave has someone on it, every sneaker is shredded to the shore, and even the scraps are fought over and decimated by the pack, mark it in your mind, because you have seen the end.