In the Grand Scheme, What Does Surfing Mean?

Deep thoughts? Or just a well-needed pause in your daily routine. Photo: Patrick Langwallner

The Inertia

The quick answer is that surfing “means” nothing. Nada. Zilch. You point your board in the path of an incoming wave and the water pushes it. Ideally, you stand up. You may move your body in mysterious ways, allowing the wave to reveal its power and beauty. You might cartwheel down the face. Or you might enjoy the best ride of your fleeting life, a ride that will echo amid the colors in the back of your mind until you paddle out again.

But what does surfing mean? Dictionary.com defines “meaning” as “the general word denoting that which is intended to be or actually is expressed or indicated.” Oxford Languages tells us that when used as an adjective, the term “meaning” is meant to “communicate something that is not directly expressed,” as in ‘Machado gave Slater a meaning look” after that infamous high-five. What is indicated or expressed by riding a wave parallel to the shore, top to bottom, in rhythm with the sea?

It’s easy to resort to comparison: what’s the point of tossing a ball through a hoop, slapping a ball with a bat, or chipping a tiny ball through the air and hopefully into a cup? I’m certain there are numerous ballplayers who would wax poetic about the meaning of their sports. I can do it about soccer, a game I lived and breathed for decades, a game that still brings me together with my family and friends, a game I think about every time I look at the tattoo on my forearm.

However, surfing, a relatively simple act, is poked and prodded like no other. Surfing is viewed as an athletic pursuit, a lifestyle, a belief system, a spiritual act and more. Riding waves is commodified and commercialized, but it is also romanticized in a variety of hyperbolic ways that often sound kitschy. In the article “The Science of Stoke” for SURFER magazine, Brad Melekian highlights both the mystical niche that surfing occupies and our banal attempts to capture it, writing: “Think about the clichés…the things we tell ourselves in order to justify our surfing experience. That ‘time slows down’ when we’re on a wave. That ‘the world falls away.'”

When discussing the act of surfing, the concept of time pops up like a buoy. In fact, psychologist, author and acid-head Timothy Leary told SURFER in 1978, “I want to have a film of a surfer moving along constantly right at the edge of the tube. That position is the metaphor of life to me, the highly conscious life. You think of the tube as being the past…and what I try to do is to be at that point where you’re going into the future, but you have to keep touch with the past.” You can rule this out as psychobabble, but when surfers fly across a peak of rushing water, deviously attempting to soak in every bit of energy; it feels as though we are cheating time.

There also exists a sense of obligation to the waves, the shoreline environment and others. On a day that is challenging due to size or dicey conditions, we often scowl at each other and admit that we “have to get out there.” Moreover, there is a clear set of rules and etiquette in surfing, plus a sense of devotion to riding waves, often above all else. In “How to be a Good Surfer,” Melekian notes that “surfing is not golf. It is not tennis. It is not to be pursued on the weekends, or in the summer. It is a lifetime commitment.” So, perhaps surfing also implies a specific duty to the crashing waves, regardless of whether the surf is large or small, weak or strong, glassy or laced with chop.

Of course, surfing means different things to different people, and though surfers often resemble identical dots floating out at sea, we’re unique individuals. Part of my connection to surfing goes back to the fact that my parents love the ocean, and we spent as much time there as we could when I was a kid. My well-worn memories of bodysurfing with my dad, and his dad, go back generations. Since our connections to surfing are subjective, this entire question may be unfair.

Here are two slightly improved questions: why do we struggle to define what surfing is, and why do we attach so much meaning to the act? When a dolphin rides a wave, researchers acknowledge that while the burst of speed may help them hunt, they also “surf” purely for enjoyment. Surfers also ride waves purely because it is unbelievably pleasurable. When Captain James Cooke witnessed surfing for the first time in Tahiti in 1777, he wrote that he “could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” 

Part of surfing’s appeal has scientific roots. David Walden, creator of the Walden World, notes that sea spray created by crashing waves, combined with the sun’s rays, alters the “physical structure of the air and water, breaking apart…water and air molecules which release charged ions into the atmosphere.” When surfers immerse themselves in this “atmospheric state,” oxygen circulates faster, blood flow pumps up, and serotonin and endorphins boil up and improve our moods. Additionally, merely listening to the waves crash, and staring out at the broad blue expanse of the ocean helps us to slip into a mildly meditative state – even if we’re not ripping turns.

To take off on a wave is to negotiate the balance between ego and fear, pleasure and pain. I can attest to this. This morning, amid a solid swell, I first scored a right that came with a a drop like a trap door, cranking up my adrenaline and confidence. I felt my body tensing up, though, as the swell built, and sets appeared like distant mountains on the gray horizon. I scratched hard for the outside but a set wave still broke on my head, hammering me down. When I surfaced, all I could see were white, foaming blankets of sea foam. All I could hear was a constant hissing, as if a giant set of speakers had been left on. A deep sense of calm and happiness ensued. I’d been tossed around, but I was fine.

Melekian supports the pursuit of pleasure theory, admitting that surfing just “feels good…anybody who has ridden a wave gets that. Surfing…pulls you to it, and those of us who do it are either obsessed or addicted, or both.” But surfing is also about delayed gratification: the unknown wave, the newly discovered spot, the brand-new board. The storm running up the coast, gunning for you as you wax your board, set the alarm, and then lie there in the darkness, imagining glassy perfection and an uncrowded lineup. 

Perhaps the late Leary was right in his dreamy depiction of the surfer in the barrel, hovering between the past and the future. When we are perched on a wave, we can only live in the moment. The past is momentarily erased as the wave disappears behind us. The future merges with the present as we race against the crest until the barrel spits us out or snaps shut. For those few seconds, we forget everything, and time is suspended.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty meaningful to me.


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