The Sportmanship Of Surfing And Life, Part III of IX

Waves have obvious allure, but who knows why?  When good surf spots happen to be conveniently close to densely populated areas, they naturally tend to get very crowded.  Sets approach, and five or ten surfers take off on every single wave.  It’s pandemonium.  It’s a zoo.  But at least you’re still surfing, sort of.

Actually, for the most part, you’re competing for waves, a tradition that goes all the way back to the early Hawai’ian kings, who got their own surf spots — Reserved! Keep out! Kapu — and their own boards, too — huge, long, majestic, phallic.  And so they caught waves easily and had aristocratically long rides.  But at the common beaches, things were contrastingly democratic.  Surfers of all ages and sexes congregated when the surf was up.  They rode shorter, wider boards that were much more maneuverable than the aristocratic boards.

Modern surfing is even more intensely hierarchical because now everyone surfs together.  Surfing Rincon, for instance, is like being able to play tennis on Wimbledon’s Court Number One, perhaps with Sampras and Agassi on the court.   For most of us a session at G-Land would be like taking your sandlot football experience and joining the Packers for a game on the holy grass of Lambeau Field.  And as for the Pipeline, surfing there is tantamount to jumping into the ring with Norton, Ali, Holyfield, Tyson, and Lennox Lewis.

A classic surf spot like Malibu operates on an ingrained hierarchical template.  The place is a living cultural shrine, a temple for members of the tribe, even though its esoteric rites have become muted by time and diluted by growth.  After a conservative 20 million stand-up surfs (a surf being an individual ride of at least 100 feet), Malibu remains a magic spot.

The best surfers in the world still pull over at Malibu if they happen to see it breaking.  Same for every surfing tourist who flies into LAX to spend a few weeks in California.  They paddle out into an ongoing historical epic that began over 50 years ago.  They join a living archaeological dig, encountering surfers who starred there in the ’50s and ’60s, the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and the locals who are starring there now, in the Third Millennium.

But ultimately, Malibu is just another public beach, and everyone has a right to use it.  On a good day there’s a virtual cross-section of the surfing world out there riding (or trying to ride) the waves.  The mix of styles and levels of ability and wave-riding vehicles adds an entertaining complexity to the stew.  There are professional surfers, hardcore grommets, savvy old guys, mean tough kids with bad attitudes, kooks, kids out trying to catch their very first wave, the occasional tandem couple on a huge board, and any number of variations on these themes.  Malibu is a spectacle on a good summer’s day, a million light years from how it was less than a hundred years ago.

Success within this urbanized beach environment is gained through a solid level of ability combined with a strong and tenacious attitude.  The hierarchy is built wave by wave.  Experience (how many years you’ve been surfing), local standing (time spent at Malibu), physical prowess, and the degree of personal ruthlessness are factors that determine a surfer’s place in the hierarchy.  There is no formal structure to acknowledge such qualities, so it’s validation wave by wave.

Into this dynamic social context, advocates for an alternative paradigm (soul surfers, true environmentalists, aging hippies, members of the Surfrider Foundation, and other people with positive attitudes) seek to inject a respect for the ocean environment and a functional concern for the well-being of the planet. It seems to me that such respect and concern can only flourish insofar as they are generally extant within the hierarchy — when each surfer is accepted at his or her level of ability, without prejudice, and humility and gratitude are cooler than hubris and bad attitude.

The prevailing assumption for lo these many years has that hostile vibes will stem the tide, repelling new invaders.  Time has proven otherwise.

To be continued: “The Sportsmanship Of Surfing And Life, Part I – IX”

Photograph by Sean Davey. 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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