Why We Surf
The Beachside Resident - April 2009

Florida swells are notoriously fleeting; they can come and go as quickly as the tides. When they do happen to stick around, the wind will usually blow in from the east, chop them into stacks of whitewater, and pile close-outs all up and down the beach. There are no channels here, no easy paddleouts through mid-break, no points to wrap these waves into workable lines, no reefs to hollow them out. Most of our beach breaks can’t hold a swell much larger than ten feet, and when it’s smaller than four, it doesn’t even break during high tide.

Surfers here are constantly waiting for the wind to shift, which it does (more often than not) in the dead of night, creating perfect conditions for a few lonely, dark hours, only to blow everything flat by daybreak. For those of us foolish enough to surf at night, alone, or at certain offshore holes, there are always the spinner sharks — hungry, invisible monsters lurking beneath our feet in the murky water.

Florida is not the ideal place to be a surfer. But we do it anyhow, whole mobs of us — shredders, kooks, longboarders, stand-up paddleboarders (sweepers), skimmers, spongers, progressive and retro-style, groms, old-timers, men, women, boys, girls… When the conditions line up properly, you can bet the water will be stuffed with people as far as the eye can reach. If it happens to be a weekend or a holiday and the water is warm enough to skin it, the bobbing heads can form an unbroken line — thousands upon thousands of surfers, like a horde of river-fleas — extending from Playalinda all the way down to Reef Road.

What is it about riding a wave that attracts so many people? We all have our own private motivation for getting wet. Some grew up surfing; others, like me, didn’t start until their twenties, but have surfed nearly every day since that first joyous wave. Whether we surf professionally or for fun, with friends or solo, on longboards, shortboards, or anything in-between, all of us share a few common fascinations with the Polynesian sport of kings.

We surf because we love the feeling of motion. The push and pull of the sea, the breathless drop into the round lean of a bottom turn; the speed of the high line, the glide along the shoulder; the transcendental, weightless discharge of the barrel — these things fill us with an animal joy. To fly, pelican-like, over the shimmering surface of the sea, to soar through section after section as the sky unfolds and the universe courses through our bodies is to feel as one with the whirling cosmos. The power of the ocean compels us onward. It is a bodily lightness and a connection to the water at the same time. When we surf, we are literally pouring forward, a sensation that cannot be replicated on dry land.

We surf to maintain balance, both in bodies and souls. Surfing is akin to yoga or the martial arts in that the act of riding a wave, of paddling, duck-diving, even the simple feat of sitting on your board without tipping over requires a certain symmetry and stability that can only be trained, and which grows more natural with time. In both surfing and martial arts, the masters display a sense of equilibrium, a consciousness of form, and a physical artistry seldom displayed in other sports.

On a spiritual level, we use surfing to balance our energies. If it is flat for weeks on end, or if we find ourselves locked inland, we seem to grow weaker, feel out-of-sorts, and begin searching for unnatural diversions. But when the waves are pumping, you will see surfers walking around town with what seems like a thin cushion of air beneath their feet, as if they are detached from all the worries of the world. No one is quite so blissed out as a surfer after a three-hour session in clean, peeling waves.

We surf because we love to be outside. The sun on our backs, the wind in our hair, the pastel-colored sky shifting like an organic painting before us — the ocean only magnifies the beauty of the day, and the sounds of the waves and the gentle hush of the sea are so much finer than the buzz of fluorescent lights or the honking, hurrying, maddening drone of the land.

We surf to gain a sense of perspective. Separating yourself from your comfort zone, losing your connection to gravity or paddling out and just sitting there is like visiting another planet. For a few, escapist hours, you are no longer a human being walking on the earth. You are something else — a bird, a fish, a creature of the sea, a ghostly spirit. When you return to the ground, you bring this experience back with you, and it affects the way you see everything.

We surf because surfing is freedom. Because riding on the face of a wave is like dancing in-between the sea and the sky. Because when it all goes right, you are like the wind, unharnessed, loose, empty — completely untied from the world.

We surf because, like the Florida swells, we are only here for a short time... which reminds me of a story from Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays with Morrie. It goes something like this: a little wave is cruising along without a care, enjoying the wind and the fresh air, until he sees that the waves in front of him are crashing against the shore. Suddenly fearful of his death, the little wave cries out to another wave, “All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?” The other wave responds, “No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave. You’re part of the ocean.”

Hold on a second… I think the wind might be turning offshore… yes, it is…

Sorry, I've got to go. See you in the water.

photo credit: Darran Franks - www.darranfranks.com