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There’s a thorny paradox inherent to surfing, rarely mentioned in the words and images that mediate the sport-slash-art—at least not directly. I’m talking about the unspoken fact that surfing is both the most electrifying, bliss-inducing thing in the world, while at the same time often being painfully tedious and inert and sometimes just straight-up boring.
Take as a highly specific example the 2022 WRV Outer Banks Pro, a WSL Qualifying Series contest held among the grassy dunes of Nags Head on a scorching-hot Labor Day Weekend, an event billed as “not your average day!” by outerbanksthisweek.com. “Head to Jennette’s Pier,” the site proclaimed, “to be enthralled by the region’s top dogs.”
Sadly, amid a field of 160 men and women, the organizers forgot to invite the swell. Day 2 saw conditions better suited for a skimboard contest, peaking at an anemic 2 feet at 7 seconds. Beside the pier’s huge cement pilings, contestants groveled in onshore chop, often falling off the back of the six-inch shorebreak and running off their boards onto the sand. “Surely, Unequivocally,” one headline concluded, “The Worst Waves in the History of Professional Surfing.”
The contest looked like absurdist theater, a surf-themed rendition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the famously plotless play in which two men idly stand by a tree, waiting for a visitor who never appears. But what made this particular spectacle of nothing most remarkable was that it offered a glimpse behind the usual curtain of highlight-reel glitz at the unsexy truth backstage: So much of “surfing” is not surfing at all, but rather, merely, waiting.
Two years ago, I threw a mattress in my van and drove to California in flight from the kind of doldrums the 2022 OBX Pro had laid bare. I had just turned 30, and it felt like my life hadn’t even begun. I’d indulgently diagnosed myself with what the Japanese call “mono no aware,” an acute awareness of time’s passing and the impermanence of the world—a feeling I connected, finally, to surfing.
My surfing life to that point had been inflected by the longing of separation, arranged by the place and circumstance of my youth. I was a suburban Rhode Island kid who grew up just down the street from a bay. The bay was flat, but it flowed for 20 miles to the open Atlantic, which sometimes hosts surfable waves. I knew this because of our handful of family trips to the beach each summer, when sometimes, cresting the baking dunes with my discount-store boogie board, the water would rise into view and be white. But this was summer in New England, so it was almost always that flat, tepid blue.
Yet I knew there was another world. I’d seen it at the bookstore, where my mom would drag me in search of her next read while I wandered off looking for comic books. The ’90s must have been a golden age for surf mag distribution, because my small-town bookseller somehow carried copies of Transworld and Surfer, which I found one day and opened, bug-eyed, like gleaming windows to an atavistic realm. I wanted so badly to become like the surfers in those pages, tearing foaming wounds into glowing walls of liquid force.
It would be another decade before I actually embarked on learning to surf, when, finally freed by our driver’s licenses, my swim team buddy CJ and I traded in our speedos for boards. We called it surfing, but mostly we drove around and checked spots, talked shit in the parking lot, flailed around in onshore slop. There were flashes—a sudden peak, a stuck drop, a glimpse into a closeout—enough sparks to kindle smoke.
But I wanted a nuclear bomb. You have to understand: My homepage defaulted to marinelayer.com. I knew every ride from Modern Collective by heart. Because surf media came before actual surfing in the backwards chronology of my surfing life, I had warped expectations of what it meant to begin riding waves — let alone in the summer on the east coast. I was expecting the highlight reel, but I got the long slow wait. California, I was sure, was where the whiplash would finally resolve.
A recent analysis of smart watch tracking data from more than 750,000 surf sessions worldwide revealed the average percentage of those sessions spent physically riding waves: three. Of course, the data comes from the limited sample of surfers who track their sessions with smart watches—probably a sprinkle of performance-obsessed pros amid a sea of adult-learning techies. This would seem to skew the data low, but separate time-motion studies of competitive surfers have found percentages of 3.8 percent in-heat and just 2.5 percent in free surfs. The “3 percent rule” seems to have an odd, elemental stability.
It kind of makes sense. As skill and location improve, the goalposts simply shift. In general, the better the surf and the better the spot, the denser the crowd. Rides are only so long, and you can only paddle back out so fast. The legions of pros whose back porches open onto Ehukai Beach wait all year for winter, all winter for perfect Pipe, and four hours for a single tube.
It seems that no matter where we fall in the surf hierarchy, such a disproportionate amount of our surfing lives are spent waiting. When it’s flat, we wait for waves. When there are waves, we wait for good ones. When the waves are good, we wait out the crowd or the tide. We wait while watching charts and cams, in transit via car and plane and boat and foot. Paddling out, duck-diving, sitting on our boards, eyes always fixed to the horizon.
College exiled me to the foliaged hills of interior New England. I wasn’t supposed to be a surfer. I’d been bred to fulfill my aspirational middle-class destiny by going to a “good” school before trading in the rest of my life to stare at a screen at a desk in a box. The point was to afford enough security that it wouldn’t matter that my body had melted and my mind didn’t know who I was. When things lined up, I’d have occasional weekends and two weeks’ vacation a year to surf badly and get a taste of the life I’d never have.
I tried to fight it. Every academic break, I chased waves. I befriended the only other surfer at my tiny college, whose dad had a house on Long Island. We’d escape each fall to surf Montauk. I studied abroad in Sydney, skipping class most days to take the ferry out to the Northern Beaches. I returned for a post-college working visa and lived in a cupboard in a shack by the beach, getting repeatedly fired from restaurant jobs for ditching shifts to surf. I did four years in an office in NYC without a car, where surfing was a dawn-to-dusk expedition across three different subway trains with a board in a hooded 5-mil.
But these excursions always amounted to mere detours, ending in tuck-tailed retreat to the drudgery of workaday life. I felt like I was on a track toward living death, constantly jumping off and then getting back on for lack of a permanent fix.
Waiting is so inextricable from surfing that it’s almost invisible. Yet there it is, enacted on wave-bearing coasts the world over in the image of the spot-checking surfer, looming from the cliffs or dunes, hood up, fists in pockets, big black sunglasses for eyes: a coastal wraith chasing the ghosts of long-past storms.
Surfers have maintained a quasi-superstitious relationship to swell since the ancient Hawaiian kahunas led prayers for high surf. During the sport’s Western co-optation in the ’60s and ’70s, swell-invoking rituals turned ironic with the “surf sacrifice,” the mock-religious burning of a gas-soaked surfboard in offering to whatever malignant god would permit flat seas. The gesture fell out of style in the ’80s, according to Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, with the realization that “black smoke rising off a burning pyre of fiberglass and polyester resin is in fact highly toxic,” but showed us the wave-wanting surfer as an agent of a fiending mania.
The waiting surfer often exhibits a kind of zoochosis, the psychotic condition specific to animals held in captivity—gorillas who bash their heads against cages, big cats who chew off their tails. In Flat Day Fun, an interlude in the 2008 film Bra Boys, Maroubra’s notorious hellmen turned the pyrotechnics on themselves, stuffing firecrackers in each other’s asscracks, setting their own bodies ablaze and diving from 50-foot cliffs. Surfchosis, on the other hand, is often accompanied by external vices—committed in the thrall of intoxication.
The uncomfortable link between surfing and addiction has long been common knowledge, but was only recently codified by surfer and author Thad Ziolkowski in his book The Drop, which identifies surfing as “the world’s most addictive sport.” The term serves a double meaning: Surfing itself is addicting, and surfers disproportionately tend to be addicts—both to waves and other drugs. Within the framework of addiction, waiting becomes a mode of withdrawal for the strung-out surfer, who often uses substances to fill the excruciating lulls.
That’s how Peter Mel explains his past descent into methamphetamine abuse in 2022’s Everything & All: The Peter Mel Story, an impressively raw portrait of the Maverick’s icon filtered through the lens of addiction. “[Meth] allowed me to chase that natural feeling I got from kicking out into the channel, that ‘on’ feeling, that euphoric, everything, all feeling,” Mel says. “I wanted that feeling to be on all the time.”
Mel goes on to recount his ensuing spiral into meth psychosis: He was certain there were people living under his house, surveilling him 24/7, coming to steal his baby boy. A 2 a.m. nervous breakdown in front of his wife was the “gutter moment” that put him on the path to sobriety. Other famed surfers haven’t been as lucky, most prominently evinced by the tragic death of Andy Irons.
These stories seem to warn us of surfing’s shadow, and the thin lines between passion and destruction, waiting and madness. The obvious question: Why? Why do we keep surfing despite its absurd disproportion between effort and reward? Despite how it haunts us, subjects us, renders us all-but unemployable, steals our time and sometimes even our lives?
A counterintuitive answer: precisely because it makes us wait. Ziolkowski cites the principle of “intermittent reinforcement” as a primary driver of surfing’s appeal, which describes our tendency to become more fixated on a potential reward the less predictable it is.
The theory goes that our brains have evolved to connect rewards to the signals that precede them (fish to a splash, honey to a beehive). The more intense the reward and confusing the pattern, the more hypervigilant we become.
Before fleeing to California, I was in grad school in Iowa, thousands of miles from the nearest coast, trying to become a writer. If I couldn’t surf professionally, I’d reasoned, I’d have to settle for the next best thing. The Midwest winters were so cold that every year, some tragic college kid walking home from a party would pass out in a snowdrift and never wake up. I discovered the grim solace of life as a dive bar regular. I grew soft and pale.
And yet surfing would return in the unlikeliest of snatches: the flock of seagulls that circled like lost souls over the library parking lot. The fossilized coral in the nearby riverbanks, dating to the “Age of Fishes,” when the whole of the American Midwest slept beneath an ancient sea. The cornfields that surrounded that dismal pavement patch like a leafen ocean, their stalks hypnotically channeling the wind into flawless billowing waves.
Unleashed from my Iowan exile, I drove out to start a new life organized, at last and for good, around the act of riding waves. It’s now been two years of surfing almost every day in a wave-rich California zone. I did the first in total surf-monastic style, unemployed and living out of a van. When the savings dwindled, I rented a place and scheduled remote freelance work around the daily optimal windows of swell. I don’t have health insurance, but I get by. And I surf.
Conditions here are variable, but never not rideable. Yet I still don’t feel like I surf enough. Basic limitations still abound: the need for money, food, and rest; the reality of injury and fatigue. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I guess what I really want is to catch a wave that breaks and never stops.
Three percent. How could that meager figure be sufficient to hijack my life? Vexed, I wrote to Ziolkowski, hoping for further insight.
“It’s maybe a matter of two different sorts of temporality,” he replied. “One about anticipation and vigilance, even logistics, the other verging on a non-temporality—the elastic/stretched out/blotted out flow state of riding a wave. And maybe surfing only seems absurd when we make the mistake of addressing these radically distinct temporalities as fungible.”
I looked up “fungible” in the dictionary: identically interchangeable, or worth the same amount. It clicked.
Surf-time is different than standard time. And what ultimately balances the ledgers of a surfing life is surf-time’s infinite expansiveness. Hence the surf truism that time seems to slow down in the tube despite it moving so fast that its particulars are often irretrievable to memory. “Green-blue blurs,” is how surfer-philosopher Aaron James describes the fuzzy mass of his Nias tubes throughout the years. Which brings us to yet another paradox: Even when you’re on the wave, it’s always already running away.
Trailblazing mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the first solo ascender of Everest, said this when asked why he climbs: “I have the feeling that I can write on those rock faces. I live the lines I write. And afterward, I have the feeling that the lines are still there. And they’ll be there for all of time.”
I get what he means. Though I can’t recall the exact specifics beyond a handful of flashes of the lines I’ve drawn across the faces of waves, I share this intuition that they, like all past actions, are complete and eternal, and thus never far from me—each one a green jewel I keep somewhere safe as I remain, but forever in quest of more.
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