Surf Journaling: Socrates, Seals and the Key to Not Sucking

Surf journaling isn’t as wimpy as you might think. Maybe give it a shot?

The Inertia

After years of surfing, our memories grow a little waterlogged. Fickle surf spots, lineup chatter, perfect days and frustrating sessions all melt into a salty haze. Even the buzz of a memorable wave or new maneuver can fade as soon as we leave the water, replaced by the minutia of everyday life. 

Surfers experience time differently than non-surfers, also. We spend our water time locked in the present, and then much of the rest of the day contemplating the future. Is there a storm coming up the coast tomorrow? When can I get out? What’s the tide doing?

However, there is great value in considering the past.

Trust me, I know. Keeping a “surf journal” sounds time-consuming and unnecessary, not to mention sentimental. What’s the first topic, Professor? A comparison of the week’s best backside cutbacks?

I’m not here to tell you that you’re missing out if you don’t bring a quill and ink to the break so you can wax philosophical in your wetsuit post-session. 

I am here to tell you that keeping a surf journal in some form proves valuable. Journaling in any form inspires us to create a track record of experience to fall back on, and remember details that we ordinarily would not. When reflecting on a surf session, any form of writing – be it notes on your phone or a formal routine – helps us to further understand all the divergent pieces of our surfing, and therefore understand all the unique pieces of ourselves more fully, too.

As a writer, I have dusty boxes of antique notebooks stuffed with back-dated, overwrought angst about heartbreak, doomed bands I was in, and other and assorted existential, embarrassing musings. But surf journaling came to me in a different way. 

A few autumns ago, my fiancé and I moved from New England to Southern California so she could work on her PhD. It was a move that, as a surfer, I selflessly endorsed, but the spontaneous coastal leap was as exciting as it was overwhelming. Quitting my job and abruptly waking up across the country from family and friends was sharply juxtaposed with the realization there are waves here almost every day.  

After a few sporadic sessions, I locked into a groove. Every day, it seemed as though I discovered something, whether through exploration or dumb luck. I started making logistical notes on my phone – where to surf at what tide, where to paddle out at certain spots, what places were less crowded when. These notes quickly took on a life of their own. I’d throw in “saw a pod of dolphins!” or “ate shit on the bike, do not take X street!” Pretty soon, I picked up a cheap notebook.

No one told me to stick with the writing. There were no deadlines, no editors or readers. Journaling wasn’t taxing, though, since just a few sentences can capture what stood out about a particular surf. Plus, if I missed a day, there were no repercussions.

When I look back on those first entries, my chicken-scratch conjures vivid recollections. I had forgotten that for the first few months, I threw a surf rack on our female landlord’s yellow, banana bike – heavy as rocks, busted breaks – and went wobbling down to the sea. I had forgotten, too, the converted garage we lived in and the bright, unfamiliar feeling that we were doing something different than all our friends back home.

Journals also serve up a heavy dose of perspective. At first, I was “frustrated, pissed-off, and sore;” the translation being that I wasn’t near surfing shape and was getting burned a lot. A good friend and great surfer back home who’d lived out West for years, offered sage advice: “Dude, just keep paddling out.”

About a month later, I “rallied” to go for a late-day surf and had “one of the longest, most effortless rights of my life.” Reading the pages now, I remember this overcast day. I was feeling down about work-life stuff, and I scowled through a lame hour of feeling sorry for myself, when suddenly the waves picked up and I found myself with space to move. A seemingly worthless session turned borderline epic. “Glad I went,” I added, along with “and a totally accidental air off the lip!” I now remember the feeling of weightlessness, too, and how surfing that day lifted me, both literally and figuratively.

As I page through, I revisit the good, the bad, and the ugly: a bad ear infection keeping me out of the water during the “best run of swell I’ve seen,” a hidden spot that I creatively label “secrets,” my first time riding a single-fin effectively, and two of the first guys that I met at what became my go to dawn patrol spot.

If you can get over the name, surf journals provide a great way to both zero in on evolutions in your surfing and identify changes in your life. For example, by the new year, the old me is dealing better with the crowds, and apparently, surfing better: “Nearly got pitted” one entry reads, though I’m not 100 percent I can trust the stoked guy drinking a cold Pacifico, quill in hand. Life-wise, there are allusions to my career change, manuscript rejections, and worries about paying the rent; but there is also a groundswell of exuberance and self-encouragement, applicable beyond the surf. “You get in your head,” I write, “but you’re better than you think.”

Often, dealing with and understanding these feelings goes beyond our surfing, and shine a light into who we are as people. Socrates’ declaration that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” comes to mind here, as does his emphasis on “knowing thyself.” In a journal, we record our feelings and experiences as they occur. Then, looking back at the pages helps us to take a break from the constant swell of life, see where our minds were at back then, and note how much we’ve progressed.

Seals, pelicans, snippets of dialogue, a new shortboard, the conditions, cold toes, weather patterns, even a mention of snowboarding Mammoth for the first time all fill the lined pages. That’s the beauty of journaling like this: it is a selfish act, and therefore it can be anything. Best of all, no one is going to read it.

Our journals reflect our lives, and our lives are in constant flux. In one entry, I’m stoked I threaded through the pack to track down waves at a new spot, and “never would have done that shit in the fall,” but a few weeks later, a big swell literally brings me down, when I “fought intimidation,” then “tumbled down a big face, got destroyed.” With some distance, reading about these trials make the accompanying victories even sweeter, as my past self noted: “need a redemption session, badly.”

So, why not give it a shot? Start with a phone note, a sentence, a laugh you had or something you learned out in the water. 

If you do, you might someday pen Socratic insights like these, taken straight from my holy pages: “a curious seal scared me shitless,” “lost car key in the Jeep’s dashboard at the beach,” “today was a suck-fest” or my favorite: “I was a decent surfer today.”

Way to pat yourself on the back, ol’ buddy. Socrates would be proud.


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