Why Soul Surfers Are The Enemy of Innovation

You can do a lot more with a wave than this. That’s all thanks to innovation. Photo: Jeremy Bishop//Unsplash

The Inertia

Surfing holds a quasi-spiritual place in the hearts of many enthusiasts. Actually, one religious scholar argued that it might be more accurately classified as an “aquatic nature religion.” The adherents to this worldview, who define surfing in mystical terms, rather than as a sport or a hobby, are also known as soul surfers.

Much of surfing’s new age underpinnings can be traced back to the fact that its surge in popularity in the ’60s also coincided with the counter-culture movement and widespread popularity of New Age mysticism. From then on, spirituality has been forever linked to the sport for a lot of its practitioners. Essentially, Gidget was released during the Age of Aquarius, and sixty years later, it’s lead to a bunch of goofballs who think that living in a van in Malibu makes them at one with nature.

Clearly, I’m not a soul surfer. In fact, they kind of drive me nuts. One may wonder how someone could be against what is by all accounts an easy going and inoffensive life philosophy. We all like surfing, right?

Except, much like the Roman Inquisition’s famously laid-back response to Galileo, soul surfers seem to always have a problem with new ideas. Competitive surfing in particular has often been decried as the ultimate perversion of our pastime, but basically anything other than soul arching on a longboard is in danger of being criticized by these aquatic zealots.

After reading yet another online screed from an anonymous internet user about how pop out boards made by CNC machines are antithetical to surfing as a means of communion with the ocean, I just couldn’t help but think about how insane this argument would sound in any other sport. Imagine someone telling you that a carbon fiber hockey stick was an affront to your spiritual well-being.

This is because a cornerstone of sport is innovation. As abilities increase and competition stiffens, athletes find ways to get an edge. That drive to achieve more has driven every innovation in surfing – fins, tow-ins, airs, that time Austin Keen surfed on a table. None of it came from soul surfers, who instead remain content to ride the boards of our parents.

Really, the purist attitude often just seems like a means to gate keep and condescend from behind a protective barrier of magical thinking. Revealing secret spots becomes sullying a place of worship, but it really seems like they just want to beat the crowd. No-leashing it on a longboard is the only way to truly feel the ocean, but also conveniently lets them hop on a green wave before the shortboarders get a chance. If you’d rather work on your cutbacks than imagine yourself to be a mote of dust riding an energy field in a vast spiritual galaxy you just don’t get it, man.

There are even arguments to be made that surfing is inherently opposed to nature. Surfers are often strong proponents of environmentalism, but virtually all the equipment in our sport is highly dependent on non-biodegradable materials. Foam, fiberglass, polyurethane – it’s all bad for you. Then, to top things off, we take that stick of man-made material and drive it to a parking lot in a gas-burning car.

Not only that, but our destructive nature is matched by an equal hostility from the ocean. Think back to the last time you were thrashed underwater by a rogue wave until you thought you were actually dying, and you’ll realize that maybe the ocean doesn’t necessarily reciprocate the love you feel for it. In fact, it might be trying to kill you.

Humans didn’t evolve in water. We don’t really belong there. Gliding across the surface of a wave is an open defiance of nature and that’s what makes it incredible. A perfectly landed air reverse is the culmination of over a hundred years of technology and human innovation and that is something to be celebrated, not complained about.


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