In Praise of Wiping Out on Your Surfboard

You ain’t fallin’, you ain’t tryin’. Photo: Samuel Jeronimo

The Inertia

Like REM’s Michael Stipe singing “Everybody Hurts,” most surfers would agree that whether you nosedive, go over the falls, or bury a rail; everybody falls. Maybe Donovan Frankenreiter and Jack Johnson can write a sweet little ditty together called “Every Surfer Stumbles, Sometimes.”

There is significance in stumbling, and it’s not just about the waves, either. When I spent a few seasons in the pow, no day was complete without plummeting into the Sierra cement or going head over heels onto the hardpack. It had nothing to do with my skill level – I was young, teaching everyone from beginners to park riders, and throwing myself off hits and cliffs with gleeful abandon. My buddies and I used to say: “if you’re not falling, you’re not riding.” We wanted to push the envelope, learn new tricks daily, and do kooky things like high-speed, late-night towing of one another from a truck with a rope a la wakeboarding, dodging cars and trees and hooting into the cold darkness.

Ah, youth.

I’m older now, and my back makes bewildering noises at times, but I still think falling is one of the most important things we do as snowboarders, surfers, skaters and more. Surf coach and French big-air guru Antoine Allaine suggests that, “You’ve got to fall to get back up and learn something and get better, you know? If you try a big ol’ air and you don’t land it, chances are you’re gonna feel what went wrong, and when you get that same section again, you can go for that same air again and get a few steps closer to landing it.” Falling is indispensable in terms of our evolution as wave riders, in terms of grounding our egos, and in terms of seeing surfing for the unpredictable, explosive fun that it is.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the big, dangerous falls at Maverick’s or Nazaré. I’m talking run-of-the-mill smaller falls in the kind of surf that many of us ride day in and day out. Of course, even the slightest drop combined with bad luck can lead to injury and even death; that is what gives the concept its dark swirl of power. Yet, as surfers, we’re fully aware that sliding off of our surfboards is inevitable. 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t enjoy every fall. Recently, after a stack of fun waves at my local, I flopped down on my belly and rode the whitewater in, my mind already speeding on to my commitments for the rest of the day. As I got closer to the beach, I crossed my arms and rested my chin, so I was totally relaxed when some side-shore chop catapulted me into the air like a load from a wheelbarrow. As I clambered out of the water, my eternally clicking shoulder wasn’t laughing but the people hanging on the beach sure were.

A few days later, a new swell kicked up, and since I knew I was leaving the area for a few months, I had an obligation to go, despite the messy peaks sloshing against the sand. On my last wave, rattling across the face, my only goal was to make it up to the high line, where the wave looked smoother. Before I knew it I was covering my head, somersaulting through the salty darkness. This particular plunge felt vengeful, as if I were being punished by my nonchalance on a messy day. 

Our ocean playground is an anomaly, as cyclical as it is unpredictable. So, from kook to Kelly, we all eat seaweed sometimes. We collapse carelessly, we trip up unpredictably. If you’ve never seen a surfer excitedly put on their leash and then immediately trip over it, you haven’t lived. Some of us spike the board in the water attempting huge airs and others roll under the whitewash before we even get to our feet. Regardless of how fast or high we go, we always sink beneath the surface at some point, and often the act of falling brings our egos back to earth. Falling unites the top surfers with the newbies as a shared experience. Regardless of whether it makes us laugh or pisses us off, the knowledge that we all fall helps us not to descend into the depraved depths of superiority.

If nothing else, falling allows us to begin again. Whatever we tried didn’t work. Our balance was off, or we misread the wave. We weren’t focused enough, or, through no fault of our own, the ocean decided to rear up and pitch us off. Falling is an act of rebirth, and what is surfing if not an endless search — an Endless Summer — for more waves, better swells, and the sublime feeling of not falling, of making the wave and riding it with flow and style. Writer and surfer Aubry Wand notes that for surfers, “The perfect wave comes around once in a lifetime, but the pursuit of it will bring years of pleasure. And as long as you keep this in mind, it doesn’t even matter if you catch it.” I’d add to this thoughtful bit of surfy knowledge that it also doesn’t matter if you fall.

In fact, Laird Hamilton says that “wiping out is an under-appreciated skill…there’s an art to crashing.” All adept surfers know how to fall: leap away from the board, cover the head, know what’s under you (sand, rock, reef?), and resurface slowly if possible, and you’re not gasping for breath. As opposed to panicking, surfers who are constantly progressing are comfortable falling as they try new maneuvers and ideas out.

 Falling, as a term and as a concept, means everything and nothing, confusion and clarity, joy and pain, forgetting and remembering and love and loss. In the beginning, we fall into surfing in a variety of ways: through exploration, through a friend and a borrowed board, through emulating our parents or siblings. We free fall, fall from grace, navigate the fall line, fall in love and fall off the wagon. But falling off our surfboards is different because it offers us a chance to paddle back out. To fall is to fail, sure. But it is also to grow, to learn, and to get another chance to make the wave and succeed.

To teeter on the edge and escape the jaws of a fall is a great feeling, truly. But do not overlook the dropping, the toppling, the endless cartwheeling through the air, water, and sky. Falling is inevitable, and it propels us forward even when we flip backwards, head over heels. To fall is to surf, to surf is to fall, so embrace the drop and everything else will fall into place.


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