I Cut Off a Friend

Surfing’s rules are nebulous—where they exist at all.

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It was a perfect wave on a perfect day. Santa Ana winds groomed a legitimate six-foot November groundswell. Faultless. “Not a drop…” A confluence of elements converging for an instant. Blah, blah, blah. 

I had just ridden a superb wave and paddled myself outside—but not quite as deep as my friend. A good wave came, likely the wave of the year. It was long, tapering, and setting up on the outside reef. I put my head down and dug deep into the 15-knot offshores. I wanted the wave out of sheer carnal lust. Revenge had nothing to do with it. Initially. But upon realizing my friend was in the perfect spot, I suddenly and conveniently recognized that retaliation was my way out. Instant madness played out in my head.

Yes, I cut off a friend. I dropped in on a friend after that friend had previously dropped in on me. Deep down in my heart, when reflecting on my action, I knew it wasn’t right. And therein lies the dilemma. I’ve done this too many times. I want to change. I want to stop cutting people off.

Photo by Steve Wilkings.

My life on land is different. I look upon my fellow man with empathy, love, kindness. I try to live with a sense of humility. When a driver hacks in front of me on the road, I don’t retaliate. I simply imagine that they have some defendable reason for hurrying. “Probably delivering a baby,” I’ll say to myself. On land my attitude is tolerant. Sure, I fall short sometimes. Hell, regularly. But I’m earnestly trying. Sanding the rough edges off a self-centered pathos. It isn’t always easy.

But once I reach the beach parking lot? Once the decision to paddle out has been made? A Super Ego switch is thrown. Who I think I am collides with who I really am. All of that personal progress is flushed down the toilet. Factor in the completely incongruent, wishy-washy, misunderstood set of surfing social norms, and forget about it—total chaos.

Rules…sure, attempts have been made. We’ve seen the carved wooden signs telling us how, when, and where to surf with “etiquette.” Etiquette is a golf term. Surfing has no etiquette. Which is it, really? Closest to the peak, or the surfer who’s been waiting? No one really knows. Regardless, rules, norms, ideals—they might look good laser-etched on some surf spot placard, but not in the water. Isn’t that part of surfing’s allure? The Wild West. No rules—just paid parking and Starbucks. Our culture holds onto this 1950s-era beatnik-biker-outlaw-fringes-of-society image, but expects everyone to know and follow rules that are carved into a wooden sign. I prefer chaos. I’d be okay with rules if we all followed them. Our problem is that every surfer has his/her own set of individualistic rules, fine-tuned to unique circumstances and local considerations.

An example: my friend cut me off. I cut my friend off. The wave I took from my friend was much bigger, cleaner, and better than the one in which he had cut me off.

According to his set of rules he had a right to be pissed. His wave was better. Big wave. Small wave. Am I not allowed to retaliate? Retaliation is behavior that was taught to me by my elders and peers—despite all of the wooden signs. Some of you reading this might suggest retaliation on my part was warranted. Some would disagree. Who is right? Nothing is clear and concrete in surfing. Even my retaliation excuse is skewed and filled with gray variants. Honestly, any justification for my wave lust would have done. Oh, by the way, my friend had been waiting ten minutes for that wave. Me? I had been waiting 39 years.

So we barked, screamed, and made hand gesticulations, like silly mimes in an aquatic Charlie Chaplin film. Did I mention my friend and I are middle-aged men?

Inner city basketball courts have a broadly-understood system of social norms. Who picks the teams, whose voice is recognized as the leader—there is a hierarchy based on merit. If you are a legitimate baller, you have clout on the court. If, during a game, Player A strips the ball from Player B, drives the length of the court and slams it home, Player A is rewarded with two points and probably some oohing and ahhing from the stunned crowd. Player B looks to retaliate, when and if the time is right. Player B wants justice. He may or may not get his chance to adjudicate. Nevertheless, it is a part of the game and all players understand it and have agreed in spirit. The boundaries of fair play are clear. Lifelong ballers don’t need a sign.

But there are no such boundaries in surfing. No perimeter lines where a general set of internationally agreed upon rules are clear, understood, and second nature. No one really knows what the other person is thinking.

Here is what I do know: my actions in that moment did not represent my value system—who I am, nor who I am striving to become. What good are values if they aren’t put into action? They are worthless. Just words. The spirit of the universe honors action. And so does the lineup.