Most people treat life as an effort to stay alive. Second to that, they gather wealth to support their interests: faith, possessions, adornments, titillations, and love. But for surfers, the act of riding waves can serve as the primary purpose, with everything else done merely to create the time and resources necessary to pursue more rides.
That compulsion sometimes turns normal societal values upside down, converting what to most seems merely a form of play into a quasi-religious devotion. The reason is rather primal.
Track waves back to their finite source and you’ll find it’s the sun, an orb of vast cosmic energy. The sun emanates heat that radiates across space and warms our atmosphere, which become currents that flow around our globe. The currents repeat in various patterns, shifting and changing as directed by the forces of physics.
Over the ocean, those atmospheric movements cause friction. If focused for long-enough periods, the wind’s power begins to cause ripples. While at first a seemingly random discord, after gestation they slowly join together into larger ones. They define themselves into undulations that radiate out from their point of origin in pulses, called ocean swells or—for surfers—“sets” when seen on the horizon.
As seafloors rise to meet the bottom of each rotating swell, friction from their contact slows the swell’s speed and deflects its energy upward, rising higher as it progresses into shallower water. Finally, as its forward momentum begins to outpace the swell’s speed of travel, the heightened mass becomes a moving “lip” that can project itself over the wave’s frontal face. The swell’s size and speed, and the abruptness of the bottom, produce degrees of steepness that determine the amount of outward projection.
When waves either pitch or crumble in a consistent manner for any length of time, they present a “rideable” frontal slope, with a shape or form that is “catchable.” Catching is accomplished by propelling your body, solo or upon a planing craft, down the frontal slope until the forward impetus of gravity takes you along without further effort. Then, you may direct your slide as you wish.
Becoming intimate with the wave phenomenon—by repeatedly playing within its sphere of habits and aberrations—creates a relationship with its natural energy. None of this is on a surfer’s mind when in the act but, as the years pass, it can increasingly underlie his or her persona.
Accordingly, many surfers don’t seek answers. They just go surfing. But soul surfers see wave riding as a non-productive, nondepletive art form done purely for the reward derived from the aesthetic value. While becoming deeply engrossed over a period of time, the immersion in natural forces becomes instructional, even inspirational, as metaphors for existence. It provides hints of what you can do and can’t do, or what you might be able to do but maybe shouldn’t.
Mainstream society is often absorbed in commerce, wealth, and worship, and is therefore naive to the foundational values that surfers learn. Thus, the question becomes: Which, if either, is a more valid course?
Feature image: photograph by Ben Thouard.