Either You Surf or You Fight

In the face of high art, one surfer finds his humble place.

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We were migrants from wave-starved states. Raised on competitive sports and capitalism, we went at surfing with the same get-out-there-and-fight ethos. We couldn’t even see the massive chips on our shoulders. We just thought that’s the way you did it. 

I considered myself the best of our Ventura County surf platoon. On one day-trip mission, I nabbed a set wave at Malibu. Way out on the edge of Second Point, I greedily attacked every section, hollered everyone off, and nearly made it to the pier. I could make money off this, I thought as I sauntered back up the beach. I may have started late, but just a few more years and I’ll be pro level. This was long before a film studio could fit in your pocket. I’d never seen a photo of myself surfing, let alone video, but that didn’t matter. I felt it.

The Base is a spot mentioned with such reverence that it stands out even among the typical exaggeration of locals talking shit. “Breaks just like Pipe,” they say. “No, really, it does. You have to take off way behind the peak. It’s a perfect barrel, but it’s impossible to get to unless you’re military.” There are grown men with high-paying jobs who take part-time gigs on base making pizzas, washing dishes, cleaning toilets—anything just to have access to surf it.

My visa came from an ex-Navy sailor in our crew. During his enlistment, he learned how to program the super-secret computer workings of aircraft carriers. The job is so specialized that even after his official enlistment stretch, he was hired to do the same work at six figures a year as an independent contractor. Additional perks included hundreds of thousands of frequent-flyer miles and full access to Point Mugu’s coastline riches for him and as many friends as he could fit into his Jeep Wrangler.

On our maiden trip to The Base, two of our band took one look at the pulsing sea and resigned themselves to manning the beach. Aircraft-carrier Captain and I paddled out to an empty lineup of thundering, double-overhead bombs that hollowed out with purpose. The lonely perfection seemed to mock us. Set after set went unridden. I dropped in on a few smaller ones from way down the line. Still, it was the fastest hundred yards I’d ever gone backside.

I don’t know much about boats, but the one that soon motored in that morning looked exactly like the vessel Martin Sheen took upriver to search and destroy Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. It was Army green and may or may not have had a machine-gun turret on its deck. A bearded stranger dropped anchor. More hippie than special forces, he quietly paddled into the lineup beside my friend, who still hadn’t caught a wave.

With a few too many happy-hour wings in a wetsuit, Captain looked like an overstuffed artisanal sausage as he side-eyed the stranger. What my host lacked in fitness, he made up for with raw confidence that came from his Midwestern upbringing. An all-conference tight end in his tiny town, Captain applied that inflated sense of pedigree to all he did, including surfing. And fresh meat in the lineup was the competitive kick he needed to finally commit. So on the most consequential wave of the next set, from properly behind the peak, he flapped his arms wildly.

The bearded stranger watched him with a curious mix of empathy and focus. Even though the stranger was in a slightly more favorable position to catch the wave, he showed none of that selfish, ready-to-drop-in, wishing-for-the-other-guy-to-get-demolished look I’d developed. But all the good  feelings in the universe could do nothing for Captain. His frantic paddles failed to even connect with the face. The wave wedged up to twice his height. My military-industrial-complex-funded link to The Base went from stroking to free-fall. His hopeless image reminded me of those misguided daredevils who plunge over waterfalls in wine barrels.

The turbulence from the face-plant into a cartwheel made the wave go extra square. The stranger pounced. The wall of water, then just a missed opportunity for my friend, became the other man’s glory. With one paddle, the stranger dropped underneath the heaving lip, directly into the most perfect tube I’d ever seen. He negotiated each section with subtle adjustments that were both instinctive and lucid. The barrel continued throwing as he rode it through to the inside, from where I watched.

Is this about him, or is this about me?

I should have said “Great wave,” or even “Wow,” but I couldn’t find the words. The vision of perfection staggered me. Silent awe is too weak a description. I was flabbergasted, gobsmacked, and humbled by the beauty, the skill, the synergy of man and nature. The vision wiped my brain of rational thought. My head nodded—bouncing caveman enthusiasm before the frontal lobe could transform thought into language. The stranger glanced at me with a Zen-loaded smile that came more from the eyes than it did the chops.

An electronically enhanced voice from the sky interrupted our silent connection: “You have two minutes to remove your vessel before we sink it.” The raw mechanical cut of helicopter rotors severed the last of our communal contemplation. The stranger paddled away, relaxed, like he did this every day. One wave. The chopper closed in, weapons at the ready. The stranger started his boat’s engine and was off as quickly as he’d arrived. 

Is this about him, or is this about me? 

“Holy shit! That was Keith Malloy,” said a starstruck jar-headed grunt who’d finally broken through the shore-pound. Back then, I didn’t know a Malloy from a marshmallow. I might have been able to pick out the very top tour surfers in a lineup, but I’d intentionally avoided being a fanboy. Why would I need to watch anyone else surf when I was going to be a pro myself, right? The grunt struggled to sit on his longboard out at the peak. His access to The Base felt like a hostile occupation as we watched maestro Malloy retreat into the horizon.

Sure, a chip on one’s shoulder can serve as a motivator for people who need to dominate the competitive systems we populate. But in surfing, that chip can drown you. 

My friend waved his arms wildly from the beach. Time to go. Peeling the Wrangler out of the dirt lot, he tried to maintain a poker face. But the hold-down had spooked him. He was eager to move on to two-dollar pints, half-price potato skins, and the hound-dog competitive pursuit of bored Ventura girls. The ego needed immediate repair from the throttling. He didn’t even want to hear about the crazy ride I had just seen go down. 

“Whatever,” he said. “I’m over it.”

How much can one wave change a surfer? How much can one wave that’s ridden by someone else change a surfer? Three ways, exactly three ways. And, for now, let’s abandon all sense of nuance. 

First is empathy.

The vibe Malloy resonated on Captain’s hopeless takeoff cut to my core. He genuinely wanted my buddy to make that wave. Malloy was enjoying the experience through another person. In an instant, his compassion had a domino effect that can-opened my brain’s competitive wiring. I was now free to appreciate the true mastery of his surfing. I had always thought that if I fought hard enough for position, I could dominate Pipe or any other top wave. Why not? Looked easy for that guy in the grainy video. What one man can do, another can do. I had just rented a video at Blockbuster with that theme. It starred a grizzly bear and Anthony Hopkins in a fight to the death. But the vision of Malloy, in all of the vividness of real life, showed what the pixelated videos could not. Navigating waves of consequence took a whole different level of skill and command.

Second is risk and preparation.

Think about all the logistics it took for Malloy to get that barrel. Just to get to The Base, he had to know the conditions would be mind-blowing at that exact moment. This was way before online forecasts gave every detail on every pulse of every swell. He gambled, knowing the American military could destroy his boat as they wished. We’d had no clue. My friend had a half-day off from world domination, and there was a south swell. We luck-stumbled into it. Seeing what Malloy was willing to go through for that one single wave made me realize that I would never have that level of dedication. Perhaps for other pursuits, but not for perfect surf. 

Third is ego.

Malloy’s wave destroyed all sense of self-importance faster than a hero’s dose of DMT. My surf-brain had been pumping me with overconfident blasts of dopamine. In one thrust, that tube set everything straight. Make money at surfing? Ha! Feeling it and doing it are two very different things. Would an eternity of empty lineups even be enough to approach Malloy’s level? Is this about him, or is this about me? Was I even asking the right question? Mindful surfing should be about everyone in the lineup. Finally freed from selfish delusions of grandeur, I could relax, knowing that the feeling of bliss didn’t have to come only from the waves that I rode.

Sure, a chip on one’s shoulder can serve as a motivator for people who need to dominate the competitive systems we populate. But in surfing, that chip can drown you. It forces out all the parts that make surfing so transcendent in the first place. That day at The Base, it took just one wave to remove mine.

Illustration by Elzo Durt for The Surfer’s Journal.