Grace Under Pressure: The Style Of Surfing

Grace Under Pressure:  The Style of Surfing
Drew Kampion

Dorothy Parker:  “Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?”
Ernest Hemingway:  “I mean, grace under pressure.”
— Hemingway interviewed by Parker, The New Yorker, 30 November 1929

For the American author, Ernest Hemingway, “grace under pressure” epitomized the style of a great matador in the Spanish bull ring.  In his book, Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway dissected the world of the bullfight, examining the emotions and aesthetics beneath this sport and ritual artform, in which death was an ever-present fact of life (the bull almost always died, and sometimes the matador, too).

In bullfighting, the dance of death is played out in blood and sand.  In surfing, death lurks beneath the surface — the reef, the shark, the cold currents — but the situation is remarkably similar to bullfighting, and the defining description of excellence is surely the same: grace under pressure.

The true artist makes what he does look easy, and this is true for all mastery.  One of the greatest surfers of all time is Gerry Lopez, who made his reputation at the Pipeline in Hawaii, riding the meanest, gnarliest barrels with a graceful poise and calm that has been called Zen-like.  Gerry Lopez made it look easy.  While other surfers crashed and burned around him, proving how hard that powerful wave was to ride, Lopez consistently demonstrated grace under pressure.

Just so, Mickey Dora made Malibu look easy as he styled across the peeling waves in the 1960s, as David Nuuhiwa made standing on the nose of his surfboard for 10 seconds look easy.  Today, Laird Hamilton makes riding 50-foot waves look easy, as Kelly Slater casually stretches the limits of possibility – year after year after year.

Because we know it isn’t easy, such mastery amazes and inspires us.

Even as surfing is pushed continually into new dimensions, the true artist — representing the entire past history of the sport in his (or her) moving consciousness — translates the entirety of the experience into his (or her) own style and expresses it with an ease that can be described as “grace under pressure.”  It is this ability to hold one’s center in the face of a great challenge that earns our admiration.  This is the surfing style at its best, this is what the world admires and imitates when it wears surf fashion, strikes surfer poses and attitudes, and tunes into the surfing media.  The style in the water creates the style on the beach, which creates styles in fashion, music, and culture that reference the art of surfing.

The reason surfing is so “cool” is because of the coolness of surfers engaged in the act of surfing.  And what is the art of surfing but supreme balance in the midst of raging natural forces?  Grace under pressure.

‘Fire In The Hole’, a painting by Ken Auster, Courtesy of the McKibben Gallery. Click Here to see more.


DREW KAMPION is the author of ”The Book of Waves” ”The Art of Christian Riese Lassen”, and ”Stoked: A History of Surf Culture”, the number-one selling book on the history of surf. He is a regular contributor to The Surfer’s Journal, Adrenalin, Longboard, and many other magazines. His website features some of his abundant and thoughtful work.

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