Surfing certainly didn’t come easy for me. But it stuck, and I sometimes get asked why I still surf after all these years. Recently a friend wrote a column on just that topic, and I tried to explain my saltwater jones to her–but had a hard time finding the words. It’s time to take another swing at it.
After kicking and screaming my way into the world in the nether-regions of Los Angeles, my parents moved to the Beltway suburbs of Fairfax, Virginia and I spent my early years far from my native West Coast. During those formative years, my perception of California was endless beaches, filled with darkly-tanned celebrities riding surfboards. The image of a surfboard became synonymous with the Golden State to me, a golden icon from a homeland I’d never really seen. Whenever a friend would visit California, I’d bother them for weeks afterwards for details of any famous people they’d run across, and my inevitable question… ‘did you get to surf’?
Their answer was always a disappointing ‘no’. Although my friends always shared stories of Californian beaches with clusters of neoprene-clad surfers floating outside the breaks, they rarely seemed as interested in these details as I, which only continued to inflate my curiosity. And when my father surprisingly announced we’d be moving back to California at the end of my 8th grade school year, I knew my days of guessing would be over. But we moved to Sacramento- far from the ocean. Most of my new friends were frustrated land-lubbers as well, and by the time I reached my final year of high school, I’d had enough. Two days after my graduation party hangover faded, I packed my bass, bike, and scant belongings into a beat-up Dodge Demon and moved into a crowded 4-bedroom house with a gaggle of cousins and friends in Los Angeles, paid for by a newfound part-time career in pizza delivery. Legendary breaks like The Wedge, Malibu, and Zeros were now within a quick morning drive.
My cousin Rick owned a few second-hand boards that he’d occasionally let me borrow if I begged enough. After a few months of learning the area and trying the waves with a bodyboard, I finally sneaked off with his biggest, clunkiest longboard one day while everyone was at work so I could take the plunge, free from judging eyes.
My first few attempts at surfing were a watery nightmare. Not having any lessons or guidance to build from, I flailed and cartwheeled in the whitewater, and swallowed gallons of sea trying to stand up. It wasn’t until the end of my second day that I listened to a helpful local and started looking at the horizon, not at the water… and stood up. It was another three before I could actually stand up on a real wave instead of cruising foam. Learning to surf seemed to take forever! But every so often I’d get a chance to sneak away with the board and although I really wasn’t great at it, I couldn’t stop, either.
My cousin was pretty protective of his sticks, and I was a dirt-broke student, so I admittedly spent a lot more time bodyboarding those years than surfing. But even then it seemed essential for me to be in the waves, sensing the rhythm of the tide and the phase of the swells, and learning to read breaks. A huge earthquake in Mexico kicked up tsunami-sized waves at Zuma one day, and I dropped into what had to have been a
30+ foot face so steep I skipped down it like a stone clutching a Morey Boogie – mostly airborne – until hitting the bottom transition and squirting forward, away from the monstrous crash. The resulting chaos held me under so long I thought my lungs would explode, but I popped up like a cork in the foam anyway, and the rush I walked away with that day was so overwhelming I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the week. I was hooked on waves. It wasn’t even just surfing, it was something about the whole experience that compelled me.
A few years later I was getting my jones on at Zeros with two Australian friends from Musicians Institute during a big swell. I recall a particularly crisp bottom turn shoot me back into a rolling 8-footer that day, and as I reached my hand out to drag a small stripe of wake into the glassy face of that glorious wave, I knew I’d surf for the rest of my life. It was something that just connected deep inside me during that perfect moment, when time seemed to expand and slow down to a crawl. I was at home, at peace. And unfortunately, I was also far too young to understand the depth of the experience.
As a 22-year old, you hear the old guys talk about soul surfing, and being one with the tides, but it rings hollow. Youthful pride and self-consciousness instead drove me to work on a tighter cutback, getting time in the ‘green room’, and trying to be the most hardcore, badass, cut-n-slash shortboarder on the break. Technique was all the rage-not style, which was more of an afterthought. I’d chuckle at the old farts on their longboards doing slow carves with placid smiles suggesting they knew something I didn’t. And indeed- at that age I equated the rush to the thrill of dropping in fast, flashy techniques I studied from the beach and in Surfer mag, and the endless loops of highly-stokable surf videos I’d pore over in the local shop. I couldn’t really see this watery forest for the trees. Or more aptly, the ocean for the waves.
As the years grew on, however, I found what really kept me coming back to the breaks wasn’t the adrenalin- but the peace and calm it brought me, and how long that peaceful afterglow stuck with me after racking up and driving home. I’d been into meditation for years in parallel, but what really struck me after 4 or 5 years of semi-regular surfing was how similar the feeling between the two started to become. Playing basketball or rugby was certainly fun, but physically draining. In comparison, surfing was also fun- but physically energizing. No matter how tired surfing makes my body, I always walk away charged up with a calm, steady frame of mind. It puzzled me- why was surfing so different?
My Tai Chi sifu once told me ‘if the four elements are the building blocks of life, the real energy lies between them, where the elements play together’. I asked him if that explained my long-suspected beliefs about surfing, where water meets earth in a graceful dance of natural energies. And in traditional Chinese manner, his response was ‘why don’t you go study that and tell me in ten years?’.
Twenty-five years later, I know I was on to something.
As a scuba diver and snorkeler, I’ve spent a fair share of time on the open water. I’ve been on expeditions in the wild so far from civilization the silence can be deafening, the isolation overwhelming. All are powerful states to experience, no doubt- yet nothing else brings me to the same state of isolated calm I reach when surfing, cresting that elemental nexus. There’s an all-encompassing, primordial feeling that comes from riding the undulating edges of a massive puddle of water that the moon’s gravity pushes to and fro. It’s not all about the adrenaline, either. I’ve also jumped out of far too many airplanes over the years, and while skydiving’s ten-thousand-ton adrenaline rush invokes a shutdown period afterwards that can seem relaxing, it’s really only that- a recovery period from adrenaline overload. Surfing connects me to something far, far deeper than a wickedly-brutal endorphin rush. Something that, quite frankly, I can’t exactly explain anymore without treading into my sifu’s Eastern metaphysics.
Fortunately, that helps explain my difficulty expressing why it is I love to surf: it’s hard to put a definition to that primal, elemental charge I get from being at the collision point of water and earth. I feel it when I surf, I feel it when I bodyboard, I feel it when I simply swim in the waves. The more I let the natural process of the tides consume me and the more active I am in that process, the more intense the feeling is and longer it lasts after I leave the water. It feels like plugging back in and silencing the noise of day-to-day life– being in tune with the Earth, moon, and universe around me. The few times I’ve gone night surfing I find myself lying on my back and staring at the sky for sets at a time, being overwhelmed with a feeling of being inescapably connected to it all as the tide lifts me and settles me back, again and again. I’m mostly a stand-up paddle-boarder at the coast these days, but whether I’m charging hard, cruising a longboard, or paddling into an offshore break, surfing in all its forms helps me reach a physical state of connection with my world that can be achieved in no other way.
And I guess that’s why I surf.