Remembering the Stoke: How Kids Teach Us Not to Sweat Surfing

Children are born with stoke. We can learn a lot from our kids. Photo: Caroline Hernandez//Unsplash

The Inertia

As my dad and I walked to the town beach, the sounds of summer played like a familiar song: the crash of the ocean, the lifeguard’s sharp whistle and the shouts of kids leaping into the crisp June water. I spotted my nephews, ages 10 and 13, growing like weeds, and on their last day of summer surf camp, they waved back before happily paddling out. 

We found a spot on the beach wall, as the stiff onshore breeze intensified. “It’s too bad,” I said, gazing out sourly at the gentle green swells. “The early morning was much better, and you see that super high tide? It’s killing what little waves there are.”

“Oh yeah?” my dad said, in that courteous way people speak when they’re not totally listening to your rambling but want to pretend they are because, well, you’re their offspring.

“Yeah, I was gonna surf this morning, but…” I motioned out to the golden beach, the ice-blue Atlantic with disgust. “I was hoping it’d be better. For them, too, I mean.”

I crossed my arms tightly, the hot sun burning my neck. My fiancé and I are back in New England for a few months, and clearly, I’m not effectively coping with the wave withdrawal. A first-world problem if you’ve ever heard of one, I know, but indulge me. Out West, I’m up at the call of our hippie neighbor’s rooster (true story) to get my Pacific fix nearly every morning, and I relish the uplifted feeling that lasts for the rest of the day. Exercising for the sake of exercising has been fine, but I miss scoring fun waves, challenging myself, meeting friends, checking out dolphins, and the unique, healthy buzz that pretty much every surfing session gifts us with.

“Nice one!” My dad shouted as my younger nephew rode a little roller towards shore, dancing along and then leaping off, overjoyed. My older nephew followed, light on his feet, calmly taking his ride all the way to the beach. “Great work, guys!” my dad yelled, and as the kids gleefully grabbed their soft-tops and ran back out to practice for the upcoming end-of-camp contest, I found myself forgetting about my own lame problems and cheering, too.

“So, would you ride these waves?” my dad said, intently watching the crowd of kids bobbing in the water. “Or, too small?”

An innocent question from a non-surfer, but a built-in surf snob response bubbled up. Dude, would I ride ankle-high closeout shore break?! “Well…” I tried to answer, but my words were lost in the wind and the sound of the horn. The contest had begun, and my cranky response wasn’t important, anyway.

As I watched the scattered group of groms charge the ocean, the smaller ones tugging their boards behind them, I couldn’t help but think of many of the unsmiling interactions I’ve had on those early weekday surf mornings. While some people crack a smile or even give a little info on the way out — It’s sick out there, get it — many of us find our faces turning to stone as we avoid other surfers’ eyes altogether. There are varied reasons for this. Sometimes the more people we see jogging down the beach, the more crowded we know it’s going to be, and that brings us down. Other times we’re focused on real-life worries or we’re simply getting focused and amped to rip on a bigger day.

None of these explanations are necessarily ill-intentioned, but they twist the screws on another heavy question: why do so many of us take riding waves so seriously? There are answers to be found here as well. On days when the waves are of consequence, we need to take surfing seriously to keep ourselves and others safe. Plus, surfing is a difficult sport that requires not only athleticism but such a strong mix of dedication, attention to details, knowledge and skill, that we guard it with our lives. 

Yet, are we having as much fun as we should be? We’ve all been in lineups laced with adrenaline, where we battle for position and the critical, calculated moves we must make require confidence. But we’ve all also taken part in those sunrise or sunset sessions on mellow days where everyone is laughing, having fun, and getting waves with little to no pressure. Both days can offer memorable rides and help us improve as surfers, but sometimes we forget to balance these days out, and approach every day with a scowl, as if rampant displays of exuberance or enjoyment will ruin the vibe of the solemn surfing we’re about to do.

In any case, at the beach the other day I was struck by the pure joy of the mishmash of kids who trampled up the beach, singing after their closing-day contest. I high fived my nephews, told them they killed it, because they had, and their smiles gleamed with a light so rarely seen in the adult faces I see day in and day out when surfing myself. Their instructor told them they could go freesurf, but they seemed more excited to talk to the girls in their group, joke around, and just be kids — carefree, happy, open to learning new things, and psyched to be there regardless of who won (side note and proud uncle moment – both nephews did well in the contest). The thing is, they knew, as I did, that the conditions weren’t ideal. They just didn’t let it ruin their day. Later, my older nephew told me matter-of-factly that “the waves kinda stunk that day. But the other days were better.”

You can chalk some of this up to the lightness of being that comes with just being a kid, of course. As we get older, our view of the world changes and life finds ways to weigh heavier on our shoulders; that’s just growing up. However, it’s not a bad idea to look back at our younger selves when contemplating how we behave when participating in what is such a simple and inherently childlike activity. When the conditions worsened, I didn’t see one kid complain, stomp around angrily, or hang out on the beach with their arms tightly crossed, gazing darkly at the horizon, muttering to themselves. When they got cut off, they didn’t throw their hands in the air or promise vengeance. Instead, they looked around and grinned at the sunny day, the cool breeze and the green waves coming one after another, each with just enough force to reward them a short, speedy ride. 

The sheer novelty of this idea that they can actually stand up and ride on the water for a few seconds, and even more so, share that groove with others, shone on their faces. As I stood there watching with my dad, who taught me to bodysurf nearly before I could walk, I forgot my own frustrations and realized what we, adult surfers, sometimes miss. We forget about the reason we will never stop surfing: the pure stoke of standing on water and riding a wave. 

“That was so fun,” one nephew texted me later. “Thanks for coming!”

“Fun for me, too!” I wrote back and realized how much I look forward to taking them out later in the summer and, hopefully teaching them a couple things. After all, they’ve already taught me plenty.


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