Last week, I picked up a heavy bag of long handled sticks and spent a few frustrating hours zigzagging my way around a large swathe of perfectly manicured green grass. I was attempting to play golf, although I’m not entirely sure my swing and general technique allows me to cite what I was doing as “golf.” Despite my frustrations, my wildly and sometimes dangerously inaccurate drives down the fairway were given nothing but positive encouragement. “Oohs,” “ahhs,” and “nice shots” were liberally handed out. Even a desperately scrambled hack from a bunker was awarded a gentle round of applause. In fact, one of my shots that sent a ball into a bunker was deemed to be unlucky. It wasn’t bad luck, though. It was the simple; I’m rubbish at golf. Still, the sentiment was nice. I should’ve thrown my clubs into the lake and laughed off the course just before being told never to show my face around these parts again. Instead, I’m going back next Thursday.
My experience on the golf course led me to believe something like this would never happen in the water. These days, positive words of encouragement are rarely offered in the lineup. Surfers are often miserable bastards.
When was the last time someone paddled into the lineup, cheerily greeting every fellow surfer as they make their way to the takeoff zone? The truth is, anyone casually welcoming newcomers with a friendly smile and gentle wave will certainly invite some interesting comments. If you see someone you recognize, a nod might suffice—perhaps a grunt and a quick exchange about last night’s antics, or what the waves are doing. But after that, they’re on their own. And if you don’t recognize the person paddling towards you, well, even eye contact might be pushing it.
Why is this, you ask? If you told a non-surfer that the lineup is such an unfriendly place, they’d probably question your motivation for being there in the first place. However, I bet the majority of us wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s cliché and unoriginal to say, but sitting in the ocean, waiting for the waves to roll in is a peaceful and absorbing pastime. Being one with nature is a terrible phrase, overused, and misunderstood. Except that, in the surf, it kind of makes sense.
Just because you’re not yelping at the person next to you doesn’t mean that there isn’t an inherent connection with them. In fact, if it came down to it, I bet the bond you have with anyone in the water is greater than what exists on any generic golf course around the world. If the shit hit the fan, there’s comfort in knowing that, without thinking, any one of your fellow surfers would help you out. You’d likely do the same without thinking twice. Just look at what Andre Botha did for Evan Geiselman at Pipe a few weeks ago.
This sentiment is perhaps why the majority of surfers believe claiming is still considered a bit gauche. I get that in the pressure cooker of competition there is genuine relief in having landed an air, or coming out on the right side of a barrel. It’s an expression of elation. But to the majority, raising two euphoric hands to the sky is unnecessary—a one-way ticket to looking like an idiot.
In my experience, there are a few exceptions to the norm of instantly adopting the “surf poker face.” When you’re lucky enough to score an empty lineup with just a handful of your best friends, the mood is impossible to contain. Anchoring just outside an unnamed, unridden playground in deepest Indonesia, the no yelping rule goes out the window. Powerful carves are applauded and even unsuccessful maneuvers are afforded a little praise—you can’t keep a lid on perfection.
The other instance seems to be when the surf gets big. Properly big. Big enough to be dangerous. The adrenaline levels hit new heights, excitement starts to fizz, and smiles begin to crack onto even the most hardened and weathered of faces. There’s an even more defined togetherness, a real sense of we’re in this together. To suppress all emotions in these situations is impossible. Perhaps “miserable” is the wrong word. Maybe “quietly self-assured,” “unassuming,” and “humble” are more adequate words to describe this phenomenon. On second thought, let’s stick with miserable bastards.
This article was originally featured on SurfingSections.com.