At its most interesting, big wave surfing has always been brutally simple: a person with a large surfboard tries to catch and ride an even larger wave. It is a nearly perfect distillation of (wo)man vs. nature, which happily lacks any of the pseudo-patriotic baggage and soppy #YOLO niceties that have beset much of the rest of the modern extreme sport rank and file.
But this simplicity is deceptive given that our current golden age of big wave, paddle-in surfing is firmly routed in the technology, and transportation advancements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Modern forecasting, communications and travel technologies have made it possible to identify almost any swell in the world and reach it within 24 to 36 hours. It is bizarre, when you really think about it, that men and women who willingly hurl themselves into a stormy sea with very little but a large sliver of foam and fiberglass and maybe a small life vest, are also completely reliant on sophisticated forecasting technology, communication systems that relay messages around the globe in milliseconds, and giant flying machines that transport hundreds of people at a time across whole continents. We are also more aware of their exploits than we have ever been due to the proliferation of multimedia systems that allow us to witness their feats, often in real-time.
On some level, the paddle movement is a reaction against all this innovation. While nearly all other outdoor sports have enthusiastically adopted any technological advance that would make their lives easier, the cadre led by Dorian, Healey, Couto, Burle, Layer, et al. have made what is essentially an aesthetic decision to mostly forgo the single largest innovation in their field in the last 30 years – the jet ski assisted take off. Whether this was motivated by pure artistic desire, whatever that is, or by the drive to stay relevant in the media/sponsor’s eyes (as Laird Hamilton grumpily alleged back in 2012) it has now been going on, semi-officially for some six years. Nearly unthinkable leaps in performance have been made, and paddling has once again become the de rigueur way to catch a wave, regardless of size. With things going so well it was only a matter of time before someone decided to try to squeeze some more money out of the whole operation. Enter the WSL and their Big Wave Tour.
Last Sunday saw the Todos Santos Challenge run in huge waves near the eponymous island in Baja. It was, as these sorts of things invariably are, a lot of fun to watch – a feat accomplished from my sofa because it was being beamed around the world in a live webcast by the WSL. Although some commentators pointed out that the waves paled in comparison to the harbingers of apocalypse that had been rolling through Peahi over the weekend, they were still, for the average mortal, indescribably large.
In waves of that size, and probably any wave over about 15 feet, the ride itself is is almost always secondary to the drop, whose immense drama focuses on the split second in which the surfer must decide whether or not to commit. It is a moment of extreme pathos, unrivaled in modern sporting spectacles, making it all the more frustrating and confusing that it was buried under arbitrary scores, silly jerseys, inane commentator prattle about how great and deserving of respect all the surfers were, and how “gnarly” all the waves were, gratuitous aerial shots that only served to show that someone had splashed out on a helicopter, and regular wrist watch plugs.
What exactly was the point of all that, outside of simply spinning a dollar off a session that would have happened anyway, albeit with a different cast of surfers and less fanfare? Underneath the chopper fly-overs and the color interviews From the Channel™ the only thing the WSL really accomplished with their 3-ring circus was to do a mighty disservice to impeccable source material.
There is nothing inherently offensive about competitive surfing, but that is a statement that bears qualifying: certain types of high performance surfing in small to medium-sized waves are well suited to watch in 30-minute heats. The WSL has done a great job of streamlining this format on the World Tour. You could argue that it looks too much like football or tennis or whatever but that takes for granted that football and tennis are exactly the sports that the WSL and the Tour surfers themselves want to emulate. I’m not sure how profitable the business side is, but the webcasts have largely succeeded. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything more slack-jawed stupid than applying the same system to big waves. It isn’t that it’s particularly bad (or everyone’s favorite “detriment to the culture”), it’s just impossible to see why anyone in his or her right mind would expend a single iota of energy caring about who scored 3 points higher in an exchange of 30 foot waves.
There is no point system yet invented that can stand to be held up to the unforgiving light of a truly life-threatening undertaking without being revealed for exactly what it is: a wholly arbitrary set of distinctions invented by little men functioning under the delusion that their opinions matter to begin with. In big wave surfing the only thing that matters is whether you choose to go or not go. All the rest is shades of who cares.
The argument against this is that the WSL needs to create a pretty package around big wave surfing so that they can attract sponsor dollars so that they can afford the helicopters and the cameras and the digital satellite feed so that they can livestream the session that enthusiasts like me who watch from our couches on Sunday night. This is an argument that, if you pay attention, you’ll see again and again from the every corner of the corporate sector. Here it is in simplified terms:
GIVEN: We must make as much money as possible
IF: The way to make the largest amount of money with x product is by marketing it like this
THEN: We must market it like this.
This little proof is flawed on various levels, starting with the idea that anyone “must” make money from big wave surfing. If the job of professional big wave surfers disappeared tomorrow, who would be the worse for it? Not a single one of today’s pros would actually stop surfing big waves. There would be fewer scenes of mob carnage like the ones we are now regularly getting at Peahi. We would have a one or two fewer live webcasts. This isn’t shuttering the garment factories in Bangladesh. The number of people who are currently paying their bills based on being professional big wave surfers is probably less than 20. You have a better chance of becoming a fashion model or a movie star.
It’s easy to fall back on the myth of progress – more money will mean more industry which will mean better surfing and therefore some vague, “progress” based notion of utopian happiness. But better surfing for who? Being a professional anything is not the pursuit of perfection in your field, it’s the pursuit of using your field to create an economy of scale large enough for you to turn a profit. I know this because I have, at various times, worked as a professional writer and know from experience that my best writing is often not the stuff i’m paid very handsomely for. Every surfer on the World Tour can tell you the same about their chosen profession.
The great paradox of professional big wave riding is that it has driven a certain type of performance innovations for the last 30 years, basically increasing the size of the rideable realm 10 feet for every decade. But at the same time it has actually corroded any intellectual and artistic basis that big wave surfing might have developed instead. Indeed the very concept of “performance innovation” seems to have developed at the cost of the artistic and symbolic elements of riding giant waves. For proof of this regression read Greg Noll’s famous account of his life-defining ride at Makaha, “The Last Wave.” His description of what turned out to be “only” a 12 to 15 foot wave is still better than any video produced on big wave surfing in the last 20 years by orders of magnitude.
How is it possible that, despite the advent of an entirely new world of media technologies, no one has been able to better a single story that Noll basically dictated to a person recording with short hand and a tape deck? Some of this is down to a very good ghost writer by the name of Andrea Gabbard. But the strength of the work is also based on the fact that Noll was not a professional in the modern sense. He had no sponsors to thank, no media image to consider, no PR angle to spin and every other page of the story doesn’t include a plug for Tag Heuer. Crucially both he and Gabbard intuitively understand that the size of the wave matters less than his personal experience in riding it. It’s as close to art as you can get in surf media. The WSL webcasts, on the other hand, are pure spectacle intent on pumping the life and death angle for cheap thrills and even cheaper CPMs.