West of Jesus by Steven Kotler

It was the first big winter swell. The water temperature had dropped ten degrees since Thanksgiving, but it didn’t matter. The breaks were crowded up and down the coast. The first big winter swell served as a clarion call that all the old-school salt dogs answered. I surfed three consecutive days, and always the lineups were thick with boards shaped in other decades and the men who rode them.

The first day was a Friday. I started out at the slam pit of Topanga, where the canyon of that same name poured out of the Santa Monica Mountains and down into the Pacific. Topanga was elbow-to-elbow and ego-to-ego, and the irony of it was that most of the people there considered surfing a religious experience and that their religious experience was being ruined by all the others surfing for the same reason. Being at Topanga on the first day of the first big winter swell was like watching pilgrims fistfight at Mecca. It was too much to handle. I got one wave an hour for two hours and went home.

The following morning, I went north to Staircase, a wonderful A-frame wave up near the Ventura County line. The last time I had surfed this far north, the Santa Anas were blowing and the California fires were burning. Smoke stained the sky a deep purple. Almost no one was out. I traded waves with three other guys, who talked about how happy they were that the fires were burning.

“The freeways are closed,” one said. “People can’t make it to the ocean,” clarified another. “It’s not that I mind other surfers,” continued the first. “I mind the attitudes. God makes waves aplenty; people just need to remember that.”

At Staircase, on the Saturday of the first big winter swell, memories were once again failing. The next day was Sunday; a friend and I spent our day of rest driving south toward San Diego. We wanted to go to Swamis, one of the best-named waves in California. This naming of waves is a tricky business. Some are known for their proximity to familiar landmarks. North of Los Angeles is a spot called Heavens, because the beach bathrooms found there are among the cleanest in California. Geographic names are also common. The wave Nusa Dua is located in the place Nusa Dua. Others are known for personalities or predominant characteristics. The big wave Jaws for its ferocity; the legendary Pipeline because it looks like a giant pipe. Cloudbreaks are rare waves found in the middle of the ocean, where the crashing foam looks like clouds from a distance; while a zero break is a rarely seen big wave that breaks far from the shore. But the question remains: what is actually being named here?

Waves are weather. Going surfing is the rough equivalent of going to visit a thunderstorm. Just as no two thunderstorms are the same, no two waves are the same. So what’s really being named is our recognition of a pattern. Temperature produces wind, which produces waves, which interact with a near infinite number of variables to produce something that we find consistently recognizable despite being absolutely temporary and completely variable. And because surfing takes place at such high speeds on such a wildly variable surface, the sport requires an incredible amount of muscle memory. Muscle memory is created when a movement is repeated so many times that it forms a pattern that then becomes a permanent feature of our brain’s subconscious database. This means that much of surfing is the experience of a subconscious pattern interacting with an ineffable pattern—whatever the hell that means.

I once called Jim White to talk about what the hell that means, and he pointed out that it’s not even the wave that’s being named, but the last expression of that wave’s life. “You’re riding on a dying wave. Every wave will eventually hit a sandbar or a reef and start to break. You catch a wave at the apex of its life, at the moment it begins to fulfill its final destiny, and the ride ends when that wave has fulfilled that destiny. What’s really going on when surfing is actually a kind of shared death dance. That’s also the really ineffable part about the names of waves, because the experience of that shared death dance is also what’s being named.”

Swamis itself is named for the Self-Realization Fellowship’s gold-domed temple that sits atop the bluff overlooking the break. The temple was built for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda in 1937, but the wave has become the bigger draw. On the day we went, there were two hundred guys in the water at Swamis. There was to be no enlightenment that day. We drove a mile farther south and paddled out at Cardiff Reef.

Normally, on a day when the waves were well overhead, I would think twice about paddling into a crowded lineup at Cardiff Reef. It was a question of ability. It’s one thing to scream into those waves; it’s another to scream into them at Cardiff, where six other guys join you for the ride. Errors have consequences, and Lyme was hell on balance. But I was on the trail of the Conductor. That was that. I paddled out.

Of all the things I was training, it was my stance that was the most troubling. I had what surfers politely reference as stink butt. In other words, when I surfed, I looked a lot like a guy trying to ride waves and shit bricks simultaneously. I had the wide-footed squat of a Sumo wrestler and no idea how to fix it. For three months I’d been thinking about it but had gotten no closer to an answer.

“You’ve got stink butt,” my friend said after we had come back to the beach.


“You need to turn your back foot in more, to point into the wave with your knee.”

“Really?” “Yeah, really.” “No, I mean, that’s all, it’s that simple.” “Yeah, it’s that simple.”

Apparently, I was wrong. There was a little enlightenment to be had after all. Little victories. We take them where we can.

The Saga of Stink Butt is an excerpt from Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief. Learn more about West of Jesus and Steven Kotler or purchase a copy of the book.


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