Dancing About Architecture

The fraught practice and checkered history of writing about the physical act of riding waves.

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I have written about surfing, for a living, for more than 35 years—a statement that appears absurd even to me. In that time, I have penned millions of words about whizzing across walls of water on slivers of foam and fiberglass, and about the people who are particularly good at it. I have read many millions more words written by others on the topic—fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, literary to borderline illiterate. 

I was struck recently by how few of those words actually pertain to the physical act of wave riding. Most surf writing is actually character profiles of elite surfers, travelogs to exotic places, competition recaps, and essays and reportings on social and environmental issues. Writing about surfing, the act of it, is quite rare, chiefly because it is hard. “Only a surfer knows the feeling,” after all. In surf media, visuals are typically the true hero, better able to capture the vividness of surfing’s splendor and magic.

Can writing even capture the surfing experience? As in an active form of meditation, the conscious mind is not engaged while surfing. The surfer acts on pure instinct and intuition, reading the ever-changing contours of the breaking wave, and so the intellectual mind struggles to summon up the experience in the retelling, as if trying to conjure a dream.

Perhaps only erotic literature walks quite as fine a line between the sublime and the ridiculous. And in the long, complex history of trying to capture the properties of surfing as a physical act, the erotic is, in fact, where it all begins, in written records of oral Polynesian myths and chants. The 2003 book Surfing, He’e Nalu: Hawaiian Proverbs and Inspirational Quotes Celebrating Hawaii’s Royal Sport cites one such example, which translates to, “This is the surfboard that will glide in the rolling surf of Makaiwa.” An unnamed author provides the following interpretation: “A woman’s boast: Her beautiful body is like the surfboard on which her mate glides over the rolling surf.” 

While surfing was so familiar to ancient Hawaiians that it didn’t require physical description, for early Europeans, the spectacle was almost beyond comprehension. Instead, these works attempt to convey surfing’s mechanics, include little in the way of poetic description, and might be considered anthropological exercises, as in this account from Lieutenant James King’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1784:

“Twenty or thirty natives…lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. As the surf consists of a number of waves…their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore.”

The first noted Western writers to describe surfing, as opposed to those obliged to keep journal entries, were the heavyweight literary triumvirate of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Jack London, from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, and are marked by a common air of drama and familiar allegories. Melville spares no superlatives or metaphors in one account from Mardi and a Voyage Thither, published in 1849:

“Here, throwing themselves upon their boards, tranquilly they wait for a billow that suits. Snatching them up, it hurries them landward, volume and speed increasing till it races along a watery wall like the smooth, awful verge of Niagara. Hanging over this scroll, looking down from it as from a precipice, the bathers halloo, every limb in motion to preserve their place on the very crest of the wave. Should they fall behind, the squadrons that follow would whelm them; dismounted and thrown forward, as certainly would they be run over by the steed they ride. ’Tis like charging at the head of cavalry; you must on. At last, all is lost in scud and vapor as the overgrown billow bursts like a bomb. Adroitly emerging, the swimmers thread their way out and, like seals at the Orkneys, stand dripping upon the shore.”

Through the middle of the twentieth century, much of the writing about surfing came from journalists who described the act in similarly daring language. The Gidget phenomenon, which stretched from the late 1950s through the better part of the 60s, on the other hand, spawned a variety of Hollywood teen beach movies and pulp fiction novels. One author, Ray Slattery, pumped out dozens of such titles. While the plots and characters might be a little thin, the surfing sequences at least ring true with an innocent, unpretentious authenticity and an understanding of the obsessive dedication of the committed surfer. From 1966’s Wild Water

It’s an open-ended challenge in which we are almost destined to fail.

“The wave gathered speed. Jonnie found himself too far down the face of it. He stepped back on his board and brought her nose up. The nose poked into space with a sheer fall below, and behind him the board cut a creaming vee in its wake. These were familiar moments that were always new and never quite the same, this was the thrill for which a surfer was prepared to chop six months out of his working life and travel a thousand miles. There were times when the idea disturbed him, even scared him. But the pull of the surf was there—stronger than his fears for the future.” 

Of course, things were about to get cosmic, courtesy of the first generation of counterculture surfers, for whom the use of hallucinogens in the late 1960s and 1970s coincided with the development of modern and more maneuverable shortboards, which spawned a whole new surfing vocabulary. Bob McTavish, for example, wrote some of the most garbled, drug-infused ravings of the times, attempting to evoke the ethereal wonders of what he dubbed the “involvement school” of progressive surfing with a kind of jazz-tinged, free-form poetry that would make even the Beats blush:

“Mind, Body, Soul: Surfer, Board, Wave; Total and Complete Involvement. Let the mind unshackle, set it free. Let it stroll, run, leap, laugh in gardens of crystal motion and sun and reality,” he wrote in a 1967 edition of Surf International, in an article titled “Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of the Sun.” “Talk with the caretaker on the Plastic Telephone. Weave and paint with the hand of your imagination, with the fingers of your body, the brush of fiberglass.”

By the time I entered surf media, in the mid 1980s, from a background in the bump and grind of daily newspapers, professional surfing had arrived. Surfers had turned against the grandiose, countercultural posturing. The pervading ethos was to “rip, tear, and lacerate” the wave, the surfer’s individual egoism overriding a previous generation’s awe and wonder at the natural world. When I look back over my own body of work, there are precious few examples describing actual wave-riding. But, occasionally and when writing for a mainstream audience unfamiliar with surfing’s dynamics, I felt like I stumbled onto some sort of truth.

“It’s dawn at Snapper Rocks, at the southern end of the Gold Coast, where an exquisite build-up of sand has coincided with the first cyclone swell of the year,” I wrote in a profile of Mark Occhilupo for Inside Sport magazine in 1997. “The sun is barely above the horizon when I pull up into the car park, just as a familiar figure races along the base of a towering wave. Occy compresses through a low-centered bottom turn, drives vertically up the face of the wave, and tears a devastating gouge through the cresting peak. He flies out of the top of the wave—for one impossible instant, I swear, completely upside down, clawing the wave face and raking his board through the lip—then drives back down the face and into the next bottom turn.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 35 years of surf writing and editing, it is that great surf writing does not need to be about great or elite surfing moments. Fiona Capp’s 2003 memoir, That Oceanic Feeling, focuses on her attempt to relearn to surf after a 20-year absence. Her gentle description of one successful ride in knee-high waves is as powerfully rendered as any big-wave or surf-star histrionics:

“I could almost hear a click as everything slipped into place.…Everything felt strangely effortless as the wave picked me up and I rose to my feet. From then on, it was as if a spell had been cast over the water, the waves unspooling like liquid celluloid as I floated across their flickering walls, grinning with disbelief. I’d never experienced anything like this before…marveling at the way the wave itself seemed to guide me in these basic steps, like a parent taking a child’s hand. How simple and clear it all suddenly seemed. This was how it was supposed to be.”

In the last 30 years or so, contemporary surf writing with a literary bent has grown an unexpectedly broad canon, with an impressive cast of writers—Daniel Duane, Tim Winton, Kem Nunn, Susan Casey, William Finnegan, Malcolm Knox—applying their powers to evoke surfing convincingly and compellingly. Maybe that’s always been a part of the problem.

A lifelong surfer and ocean lover, it took Winton more than 20 years to write a surfing novel. He said he wanted to earn his literary chops before he dared indulge his personal obsession in prose. (He also feared being labeled a “surf writer.”) In 2008’s Breath, however, he touches upon one of the key appeals of surfing and surf writing that is rarely articulated, in a way only a master of prose can, when his protagonist first encounters riding waves: “I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.”

When Finnegan’s surfing memoir Barbarian Days won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the autobiography category, it seemed surf writing was finally having its moment. And one of the most compelling passages in Finnegan’s book, in which he describes the magnetic appeal of surfing as an adolescent, goes some way in explaining the urge to write about surfing:

“My utter absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it. Beyond that, I could not explain why I did it. I knew vaguely that it filled a psychic cavity of some kind connected, perhaps, with leaving the church, or with, more likely, the slow drift away from my family—and that it had replaced many things that came before it. I was a sunburnt pagan now. I felt privy to mysteries.”

It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, a flawed and pointless exercise, the wrong medium for the art form. One might regard surf writing similarly. Perhaps the point of surf writing is that the experience is so fleeting and elusive that attempting to convey it in literary form stretches any writer to their limits. It’s an open-ended challenge in which we are almost destined to fail, but compelled to try anyway, like paddling out in a tumultuous sea.

[Illustration by Gabriel Carr]