The Deep Water Breaks

Surfing's fictions, metaphysics and culture.

Tag: Critical Theory

No Longer Constantly One Step Ahead

If surfing is a sport, it’s an existential one. It consists of two futile motions repeated in perpetuity with infinite variation: paddling out against the tide, and then setting yourself up on the wave, riding it nearly to shore before you dismount and do it all again. One of the reasons it is so constantly linked to something vast and spiritual is because the performance of these two acts is almost like a mantra, or Hail Mary’s. Beyond that, surfing has for most of its history been a solitary venture. Even when travelling in groups, or during competition, the primary concern is how the surfer is relating to the ocean.

In the sixties and seventies, this notion of individuality in surfing’s insider culture was visible in the independent films produced mainly by and for surfers. The posters advertising these films depicted young (primarily) white males exploring coastal terrain, or otherwise charging down the face of world-famous breaks, on their own against the elements.

Endless Summer (1966)

The Morning of the Earth, (1972)

Surf Fever, (1960)

Surf Fever, (1960)

These films all were all produced around the beginning of what Matt Warshaw calls surfing’s Boom Years. Surfing exploded in popularity in the late sixties as youth culture and the automobile took on a new hyper-emphasized place in American life. This boom would culminate in what has become the bane of every surfer’s existence: crowds. By 1968 there was not a surf able break on the West Coast of the United States (or anywhere in Hawaii) that wasn’t filled beyond capacity (a capacity often defined by wealth, class and race). And this trend has continued through to the present, because while the sixties might have been considered the boom years, there are more surfers on the planet now than ever before. And further, the technology available to surfers has made that search for the perfect wave an excursion available to anyone who can afford it.

An article in Australia’s Surfing Life explores the ramifications of these new technologies.  Matt Miller’s piece, Surf Forecasting: A Gift or A Curse?  weighing its pro’s and cons of websites like surf line, which report local conditions on breaks around the world, including wave height, tides, conditions, and in many cases there are cameras which allow viewers to scope out breaks from the comfort of their couches.

 “The rise and rise of internet surf forecasting websites…[has] brought simple and easy-to-read forecasting to the masses. Now everyone is scoring the best waves, we all know when the next swell’s coming and what day the wind’s swinging offshore. But is that necessarily a good thing?”

Miller compares surf forecasting to farmers utilization of advanced technologies to better plan for their crops. Surfers have used the technology to plan surf competitions with pinpoint accuracy based on conditions. But at the same time, the new trend has resulted in the overcrowding of once coveted surf spots. Take this example of a swell he and his friend had tracked in a specific location and flew out to catch:

“We got to Lakey’s two days before the swell was predicted and the whole place was deserted. The next day there were 40 surfers in the water by lunchtime. Every one of them using the same internet surf forecasting sites as us. Everyone is now a weather expert.”

There are practical reasons to want to limit the number of people out in the line-up. Overcrowding means less opportunity to surf. This increases competition, localism and aggressions. And it also decreases the number of people who have gone through the process of mentorship and trial and error that teaches us the etiquette of surfing, sometimes referred to as The Ten Commandments of Surfing. The physical environment suffers from compacted line-ups as well. Delicate ecosystems are damaged, suffering the wear of hundreds of people swarming en masse for short periods of time. Many of the world’s best waves are outside of city limits, with little resources for upkeep or cleanup efforts.

But then there’s the deeper soul-sucking threat—the idea that shakes the surfer’s psyche. The search for the perfect wave is over. The Endless Summer (a myth in and of itself, since the world’s best waves occur during the winter) is cooling down. There is no more sitting, waiting, wishing and praying that you are in the right spot at the right time. If the surfer claims a spot in the American Pantheon alongside the cowboy and the transcendental poet, he also suffers the same fate: the almost inevitable extinction of his ideals. Just as the cowboy is almost irrelevant in the era of big agriculture, the soul-surfer must also succumb to modernity.

And this…

…gives way to this.

Bob Burns only has to turn right or left to see the hordes waiting for the set to come in, kicking their legs in their Rip Curl suits, to know that his coveted locale has already gone viral. Miller began his essay with an anecdote about his father:

 “My old mans mate, Jonesy, a renowned sea dog and synoptic guru, always had a huge advantage by putting himself in the right place on the right day, constantly one step ahead of the crowds. The internet has changed that forever.”


The Problem with Malamalama Board Shorts

Delta Airlines wants you to take a trip to ease your mind. And to make it easier, they want you to buy a Delta Rewards card, offering 35,000 bonus miles and your first bag free. Now, I don’t work for Delta, and I have no intention of selling anyone a premier rewards card. I just happened to see on their screen that this advertisement includes two satisfied surfers stepping out of the water and walking towards a piece of plastic hovering in the air next to them.

I’m supposed be compelled to purchase a rewards card because these surfers convey a sense of ease, leisure and satisfaction. They clearly don’t have any worries about credit card debt. So why not book a trip to some beachfront hotel, catch a few waves?

The emphasis of this screenshot, and the point of the image, is to sell the AmEx credit card with the frequent flyer package. How do two surfers slogging ashore in the sunset achieve this goal? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to view the surfer in the ocean, paddling to catch a wave? Or at least to see these two guys walk into the ocean as the swell builds.

Forget it. Placid sea. Content surfers. Setting sun. The fact is, using someone who is actually surfing might more readily convey a sense of effort, difficulty and work. It’s much easier to think of the action as already being completed, moving into a moment when there is nothing to do. A moment where play consists of sitting on a beach drinking mojitos. The advertiser might want to the card to signify the same notion of completion that we ascribe to the surfers stepping out from the ocean. The surfer’s boards point to the credit card. They walk towards it. By spending with AmEx, we now are saving little by little to afford the trip we desire. But like surfer’s walking away from the ocean, perhaps we are moving in the wrong direction.

As a staple of Americana, surfing readily lends itself to advertisement. If the mark of late-capitalism is the consumer using his or her spending power to demonstrate leisure, then indeed surfing is the paragon. Using just a few images and videos, we can examine the way this leisure activity has been employed to sell you a wide variety of shit.

Cars and Surf Culture

The Woody is as big a surf icon as the board itself in Southern California. After all, how could a person get a ten-foot board to the beach without a car? Moving from air to land, there is plenty of visual culture linking the two. The Beach Boys had at least as many songs about cars as they did about surfing. And the truth is that surfing’s broad acceptance in Southern California is in no small way indebted to the automobile and the massive infrastructure created in Southern California.

This advertisement for the Triumph Spitfire Mk2 ascribes all the sexiness, power and fluidity of surfing and surf culture to the car.

In this ad by Jeep, the car and the board become synonymous. In the Spitfire ad the car embodies surf culture. It is inactive, leisurely, and not serving any particular purpose. If the advertisers wanted to demonstrate superior handling or any of the aspects mentioned in the writing below the image, it would make much more sense to place the vehicle on the road. In the Jeep ad, the vehicle enables the possibility of “Fun.” The car facilitates the journey, but it is also a part of it. In fact, the car isn’t even present in the image. It embodies surfing as much as surfing embodies the car.

This ad is a partnership between MiniCooper and Malamalama Board Shorts. The catch: Malamalama board shorts don’t exist. Mini-cooper invented a board-shorts company and purchased additional ad-space to produce this eye-catching ad. Like the Delta photo, the Malamalama ad features the surfers looking away from the beach, while their friend peers over the edge of the advertisement to the adjacent wall. Just as the surfers in the AmEx frequent flyer card draw our attention to the card, we are similarly drawn to the MiniCooper. And if we could look straight on at the Mini-Cooper ad, it would look a lot like the Jeep ad. Meta-Culture, Ad-Hoc.

 Look back at the Malamalama ad and it’s slogan:


Just because Malamalama is a fake company does not mean that this is a poorly constructed board shorts ad. The same sex appeal, power and edginess of the Spitfire advertisement is embodied in the line of surfers on the beach. The slogan is designed to simultaneously make the wearer feel unique and part of cultural movement.Even the word “Malamalama” is both validated and invalidated by it’s presence. In Hawaiian its roughly translated meaning is “Light of knowledge; clarity of thinking or explanation; shining, clear.”

The Other Side of Surf

the above advertisements, as we’ve seen, appeal to the idea of leisure and play. But in other cases advertisements have sought to eek out the more harsh and intimidating, life-threatening or otherwise unfathomable scope of surfing. The following advertisement was crated by Pepsi for their “Dare for More” campaign.


It’s hard not to appreciate the brilliance and beauty that advertisements are capable of. In this case, Pepsi has impregnated its entirely abstract logo with all the meanings of epic surf and stormy red skies. The brand loses nothing and gains everything. The viewer is first hit with abstraction, and then it’s a toss-up as to what first becomes apparent. Our eyes look to the corner and see the traditional Pepsi logo embedded in the new slogan, and looking back to the whole image we might begin to discern the shape of that same logo, and then realize it’s a wave if we haven’t already. But certainly the last thing to come to light will be the minuscule surfer  careening down the wave, who may as well be one of the shipwrecked passengers on Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat.”

It’s worth noting that while Pepsi is urging us to “Dare for More,” it is also clear that that wave, and by association the Pepsi-Cola company, are far more vast and powerful than the individual, who can ride the wave, but he cannot conquer or alter it. Though, in fact, the wave will eventually lose its form, become amorphous and crash, and ultimately dwindle down to ripples sucked back out into the sea.

That same power is evoked in an ad campaign by Guinness. The following video was ranked the most popular advertisement in British history. It is by all accounts a technical marvel. there is no computer animation. All of the effects are created through super-imposing different footage, creating a narrative that delivers an impressive punch. The narrative running through the ad is composed of quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The whole point is to convey Guinness’s new slogan: “Good things come to those who…”

It’s not possible to see the conflict by looking at one advertisement, but when the whole array of surf ads is analyzed, the duality of surfing’s representation become apparent. Intense power and Taoist passivity come together in the sport, but cannot be represented simultaneously in the media. It doesn’t sell.

Adam Knox: Surfing at its Core

Knox in Spain

Adam Knox has seen the world from every surfable coast. This week The Deep Water Breaks had the opportunity to get his take on surf culture. Knox gave us his thoughts on everything from the fundamentals of surf to his relationship with the late, great Andy Irons. 

DWB: Do you feel like surfers are pro athletes?

KNOX: Yes and no. I consider myself a professional athlete but not in the same degree as my buddy Victor Ortiz. I hang out with him for one day and I feel like saying that I’m a professional athlete is kind of just a sham, you know? We are and we aren’t. Surfing is the hardest sport out there. Guaranteed. You can be the most talented athlete in the world and it’s still gonna take you four or five years to get good at it. Victor would say the same thing. In the sense of talent and being athletic and having the will to survive, but really we kind of have more of a kicked-back lifestyle. We surf when we want. We don’t have many coaches, even though that all seems to be changing now. A lot of new guys have coaches. It’s getting there, but it’s not quite there.

DWB. When you look at skateboarding and surfing, they seem similar enough, but why is Tony Hawk a household name while Taylor Knox and Kelly Slater aren’t?

KNOX. You can skate anywhere. By the beach. In Arizona. In the middle of the U.S. Everyone can do it. And you can practice on the same rail over and over again. You get to understand the progression a lot quicker. You fall in love with the sport a lot faster. When you go surfing, you paddle out, the water’s cold, the waves are big, it’s raining, you have to put a wet suit on. People don’t want to deal with that. People don’t understand the feeling once you get that first turn down on a wave. I don’t remember what that feels like any more but I know that’s what caught me. You can’t just walk up to the beach and surf and understand it.

DWB. It’s different than skating the same bowl every day…

KNOX. Yeah, you’re not going to be skating and have the sidewalk collapse on you and hold you down. And if you hit the ground and scrape your head or break your back, it’s not like you’ll suffocate to death on top of everything. When I get hurt underwater it’s not like I can just sit there and wait for the pain to go away. First I have to get thrown around on the reef and get cut up, holding my breath, then come up. Hopefully.

DWB. So when you consider that aspect of surfing, the psychology and the risk, how does that make you feel about man-made waves? Does surfing in a wave pool even count?

KNOX. Indoor surf parks have a long way to go. It’ll be surfing when it actually helps your progression. When you can practice your airs and you don’t need a jet-ski assist, maybe then. When the wave produces power and a little bit of a threat, then you can call it surfing.

DWB. How much of surfing is just that fear of the unknown?

KNOX. The X factor. It’s hard for me to say. I’ve been travelling around and surfing all the waves, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the breaks. But it all comes down to knowing the risk. It’s worth risking your life if you come out with the best wave of your life. But I’m not one of those guys who go out and surf mavericks just to get my rocks off. There are scary days, but when you finally get off the beach after a close call, it’s kind of like going through war and making it out again.

DWB. So in all these places you’ve been, what’s the strangest place you’ve surfed?

KNOX. I went to El Salvador a few years back with this magazine called Surf Shod. They had had a civil war not too long ago, and it’s also where MS 13 is from. Two guards picked up the six of us and our photographers. They had shotguns on them. They jumped in the van with us and took us to our camp and the guy there had a shotgun. Even when I went to the store I dropped a candy bar on the ground and I went to pick it up. When I looked up, the clerk had his hand on a shotgun pointed at me. It was probably the best trip I’ve ever been on waves-wise. But we had a party down at the beach and somebody shot at us for being too loud.

Virginia Beach was weirder than getting shot at. I was there for ASP (world Qualifying Series). The waves were tiny. The ocean was covered in Jelly Fish. Our heats kept getting interrupted by freight boats. If a boat came by in your heat you wouldn’t get a wave. There were also “No Cussing” signs on the street, confederate flags everywhere, and probably 1,000 sixteen year old girls on the beach looking up at our hotel room. I was twenty at the time, trying to figure out where all the older people were. Just kids and jellyfish.

DWB. Like other sports, a lot of surfers tended to grow up on the less-affluent side of things. At least that seemed to be the case where I came from. Is it like that on the national stage?

KNOX. A lot of the pro surfers come from, well not really poverty, but they’re not rich by any means. I think the reason for that is that beach communities are tight. When you don’t have that much money growing up you gotta find something to do, right? A lot of families use the beach as a way to pass the time. There’s a lot of other things going on around you, so if you stick to surfing or something then hopefully you can make it out.

Knox at Solimar in Ventura, California

 DWB.What’s a specific image that represents surfing to you?

KNOX. There are two surfers whose image represents surfing for me. Dane Reynold went through his “I don’t care” routine, and I think he was being himself, but he didn’t know how to word it. But then he got to travel, to get a little more worldly, met some cool people and found himself. From an article I read recently, and just from conversations I’ve had with him, he seems to have got it figured out. He’s all about cruising and having fun. He was able to set himself aside to finally become the best and strangest surfer, and to make that work.

Mick Fanning is a good friend of mine and I always admired the way he carries himself. He’s a contest surfer and he’s got the best rail ever. He’s the type of guy who likes to have fun and party, but he can definitely focus. When need be.

DWB. Those guys make me think of the flip side of that image. Someone like Andy Irons.

KNOX. Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. What happened was a bummer. It happens, but you can’t take anything away from Andy.

DWB. Are stories like his common in the pro surfing world?

KNOX. No. Andy was a beautiful surfer and just a beautiful person. I got the chance to hang out with him in some different places. I dated his wife’s little sister, so I knew them really well. You could be the best surfer in the world and still have all these problems, or call them demons or whatever, whatever makes people do things that are self-destructive. Andy’s a human. He’s not gonna sugarcoat anything for you. Or for himself. He’s just a real person and uh, shit happens I guess.

DWB. Considering your own family legacy, and the changes in surfing from Taylor Knox to you, what is a piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of surfers.

KNOX. When it comes to surfing in general, just don’t forget where surfing came from. It all comes from the rail. Get your basics down. Make sure you can do a cutback and a bottom turn before you try aerials.

Knox receiving advice from his big brother Taylor.

DWB.In three words, what is surfing to you?

KNOX. Speed. Power. Slow. That’s surfing in a nutshell. It’s not really the emotional or personal feel of surfing. But it’s the core.

Adam Knox is a professional surfer and is currently working on a reality show called “Hard Knox Life” featuring himself and his brothers. He is sponsored and supported by JetPilot Clothing, Roberts Surfboards, Olaf Mexican Grill, Aerial 7 Headphones and A-Frame Surf Shop.Knox is also a surfing coach.

Dead Sea

The surf drought that has plagued the California central coast for most of the summer hasn’t kept me out of the water. It has a cold bite, even in July. Here in the silence of an un-undulating coast, I float. My board hardly stirs a ripple at Surfer’s Point. It’s times like these when a surfer can actually reflect on the cultural white-wash about how we experience peace and harmony with the ocean. We feel a part of it. Not so much like a molecule of water, but like stalks of sea weed.

Die-Hards watch the horizon awaiting the second coming of a swell they heard was here yesterday, was promised today, and has yet to materialize. They keep the faith. Gristled old men with brine in their beards and weathered crows’ feet under their eyes lean over the cold aluminum rails of the Ventura Promenade. They don’t move much. They’ll be there every morning in flannel and jeans. They’ll smoke cigarettes and drink strong coffee black from styrofoam cups. Their mustaches will yellow. The old men will die. The Die-Hards will age.

Salty: the flavor of the air you breathe; the texture of the particulate oxidizing aging automobiles; a sea-dog’s voice; your mouth’s bitter flavor when you bail off your board; the corrosion of the coast; this way of life.

We embrace it. We let the salt seep into the crevices of our skin. It settles into our lungs’ bronchial tubes. We oxidize. We rust. We become pillars of salt forever looking back at the sun setting and rising like the flickering flames of Gomorrah. This is a dead sea in the summer.

Somehow, this is peaceful.

Surf Music and Dick Dale’s Misirlou

What’s amazing about sound is how incredibly fast it travels, approximately 768 miles per hour in dry air. It moves in invisible waves that become apparent as soon as they make contact with an open field, a hanging tuft of hair, or your delicate and precise personal eardrum. There was a time when it seemed almost as impossible to break the speed of sound as we believe it is to move faster than light. Now jets fly at two-to-three multiples of the sound barrier, casting off single or double sonic booms that make us crane our necks to the sky, so surprising that birds burst into the open air and fly home early for the winter—a boom that continues to make us marvel at our species’ ingenuity.

I experienced the breadth and universality of sound two weeks ago at The Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. Sound waves are no different than any other type of wave. If I clink my Heineken against Matt’s Pabst, the sonic waves will disperse in concentric spheres from the source of impact and continue until friction or the force of too many objects dissipates it to an infinitesimal trace of itself. That night the sonic wave from our brown glasses clanked against the hard body of a Fender Stratocaster in the hands of the man who brought the original Strat prominence, Dick Dale. Like most people, the sounds he emitted, or rather the sounds he coaxed from his instruments, traveled faster and farther than he ever could. They collided with other sounds and formed new types of music, just as the sonic tides of so many others reverberated and influenced Dale.

When waves collide they don’t impact and shatter like cars or bones. They move through each other and culminate into some sort of absolute value. If two waves move in the same direction, one larger than the other, by the time the faster wave catches up to the front-runner, the two will collide and form a larger wave. But if their frequencies are significantly different, the result is more like static: white noise. Dick Dale represents one of those moments when waves come together to form something more significant than was possible before the culmination. He is considered the man who invented the surf rock sound by attempting to recreate the rhythms he experienced while surfing in Orange County.

This isn’t a review or retrospective on Dick Dale. Its not an ode to surf rock. It is a consideration of the elements, or waves, that culminated in the mind of Dick Dale and his contemporaries in the early 1960’s—elements that to this day are inseparable from popular surf iconography. This is a jumping off point, the initial chord in a string of notes meant to examine what the sound of surf is and how it came to be. To start, here is a chronology of one of Dick Dale’s most famous songs, “Misirlou,” originally composed by Tito Demetriades in 1927.

The song is Greek in origin, but the title Misirlou means “Egyptian Girl,” which explains the more Arabic music style.

It wouldn’t be until later in the 1940’s that Misirlou would make it State side, but by the time it does orchestras in New York are ready to increase the tempo, jazz it up and make it their own. Some people opted to add in their own lyrics, but most renditions dropped the vocals completely, which is as important to bear in mind as is the ethnography of the song.

But around 1961 the song was popularized by Dick Dale in a version most people of my generation are familiar with not by association with Dick Dale, but by Quentin Tarantino.

Along with the adaptation of the song to suit a rock combo, Dale also included elements of Latin American Mariachi music by use of trumpets.

Misirlou encapsulates what Dick Dale determined to be the sound of surf. Perhaps. Maybe he never really found the sound, but the popularity of this particular sound became a permanent fixture of surf pop culture. There are three main sounds that culminate in Misirlou: The Arabic transient desert sound, the Latin American mariachi sound, and the sound of the rock guitar which was being invented as it was played by Dick Dale. His original contributions (the use of an electric instead of an acoustic bass, single instead of double-coil pick-ups, quasi-heavy metal tempo, screaming animalistic lyricism)along with the adaptation of classic elements acted like frequencies culminating into more potent waves.

Again, this is an introduction to this whole topic. It’s meant to do what seeing Dick dale perform did for me, which is mainly to explode a topic that you might not have given much consideration. These are thoughts on the association of sound and action; ruminations on how humans ascribe tones and meanings to actions. In the next few posts there will be a lot of ground to cover between Tito Demetriades and this:

but perhaps not as much as it seems…

Shark Repellant

I feel obligated to say something about this clip, and there is, truly, a lot to say. But I don’t know where to start. So for now, consider this clip a curious peek at what you might find when you google 1960’s surf scenes.



The terminal: an isolated biome of circulated air pumping through the rafters of expansive atriums; where baggage carriers glide across the precisely laid out tarmac; a placeless place devoid of what we typically call nature.

There’s no surf in this place.

Today the baggage handlers are wilting like safety-orange flowers under New Orleans’ hot hot sun. Outside it feels like one-hundred-and-ten degrees Fahrenheit. Inside it doesn’t even feel like a temperature. I am in a place that does its best to simulate a warm environment. But the goal of an airport architect is to design a stream-lined conveyor belt for people to get from zero to thirty-two thousand feet in a matter of minutes with no more than two bags and a couple of kids. So the airport itself fails to simulate a natural environment. Photos of flowers don’t offset the true form and function. No one is fooled.

Louis Armstrong International Airport

I just bought a Red Bull a few moments ago from the airport bar. I stared at the ceiling fans while I drank it. The fans hung down on long steel poles that shined down from the windows above. Every surface was either steel, white or flat grey. The fan blades were shaped like airplane wings. Maybe it had some sort of aerodynamic advantage, but I think that mostly they were meant for people like me to look up and say, “hey, check that out.”

While I checked it out my mind started to wander to other things—to places that weren’t airports. I intended to get my mind as far from this placeless place as possible. And despite all the seemingly busy assemblage of design puke that composes an airport terminal, it was surprisingly easy to let my mind go blank. After all, all I needed to do was wipe clean the whites and greys and the steel beams and then my mind was left with absolutely nothing. All the people surrounding me were strangers. Without any real personal connection to anyone, they all became hats and dresses framing people-like figures. I was alone and selfish, adrift in this airport’s ocean of function and form.

Function and form. I kept watching the fan-blades rotate. They spun round and round until my eyes lost focus and the blades became grey disks with a red ring around the outside edge. Then the fans disappeared entirely and I found myself paddling out against pounding surf in Ventura, a strong swell with waves that hung just overhead beating me back on my 6’ 2” board. I paddled arm over arm ascending over each crest and dipping into each trough. My board’s nose lapped the water like a sick thirsty pup.

I looked at my board, in my daydream, and it seemed more like a shape than an object. It was an abstraction; one that I soon realized was the same shape as an airplane’s fuselage. Flip the surfboard over and you have the near perfect profile of a plane. Air or water, after all, are both functions of fluid mechanics.

At this moment I’m waiting at Gate D-6 of Louis Armstrong International. My thoughts are so submerged in surfing and flying that my actual movement through the airport hardly registers in my consciousness.

Sitting, Waiting, Wishing…

I’m waiting for my plane. Bulbous clouds rise in the heat and bubble out like boiling water. Sitting here looking at the clouds is no different than waiting in the line-up, really. My chair isn’t rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean. But whether I’m here or out passed the breaks, I’d still just be sitting and waiting and watching the clouds bubble up in the sky. I’d catch snippets of strangers’ conversations. I’d rub the back of my neck or tap my fingers against my armrest or the giving surface of the sea.The airport’s meticulous system of tickets, lines and gates is the same as a surfers’ unspoken etiquette: If a surfer doesn’t wait his turn in the line-up, he may as well be walking through security without taking off his shoes.

I am in waiting. The most common state for today’s traveller/surfer. But in an hour or so I will board my flight and the aircraft will take off down the runway, just as I might paddle beneath the crest of a glassy wave.

The plane’s lilting bounce as it rolls onto the runway will imitate an ocean’s unsettling surface. My seat, adjusted to the upright and locked position will make me feel like I’m in between sets, the nose of my board aimed up at the sky, waiting for the next ripple to trickle over the horizon. And then it will form.The captain will ask the flight attendants to prepare for take off, and the engines will start to rumble like the wave crashing beside me as I hustle into position. Then as the airplane ascends, my stomach will get that same feeling it gets when I drop in, and the wave takes over, and it feels like flying. Hydroplaning across the water as if it were wind.

Brendon Thomas Chickens Out

The October 2011 issue of Surfer is titled FEAR. The word is superimposed over a speck of a human trying to glide across the surface of a wallowing tube. The guts of this ‘zine will inevitably be stories of monster waves and rocky breaks, but the first article tackles the often uneasy to mention possibility of facing your fear: chickening out.

In his editorial, The Fear Compass, Brendon Thomas doesn’t rehash a story of his own own heart-stopping drop off the face of a skyscraper-sized wave, but rather with an “admittedly modest day” at Mavericks. One where he admits to being “a lowly cubicle dweller…not an athlete.”

In a nutshell, Thomas gets a text one Christmas morning while on a drive to San Francisco. It’s from Grant Baker, and he wants to go surfing. Thomas realizes that surfing with Grant Baker isn’t surfing. It’s suicide. There’s a swell coming in at Maverick’s and Baker wants him to be in on it.

               Half-Moon Bay from Above

From there we get the rarely written perspective of a surfer who gets butterflies in his stomach, looks into the tempest sea, and decides that he’d rather drive home.

What I like about this article—and what I think makes it possibly one of my favorite pieces that I’ve read in this publication—is how Thomas juxtaposes the pristine conditions of a sunny, peaceful day in Half-Moon Bay with the imminent ferocity of the swell. If you’ve never been there, by the way, this is the location’s natural state.

                 During the Maverick’s Surf Competition

This Summer I spent four days visiting a writer friend of mine who lives in Moss Beach. I had brought another friend with me. She was from Mobile Alabama, a place where a beach is a place to float around on paddleboats. Her only experience of the Pacific Ocean had been a couple flat days in San Diego and some beach-breaks in my hometown, Ventura. So one evening I took her down to a seal sanctuary in Half-Moon Bay that stands out as a crooked point. It was a full moon, accentuating the jagged crisscrossing of waves coming together at inflection points from the northeast and the southeast. They weren’t big. Just a few feet high, and the sky and the view from the beach was incredible, but from that little point, as with most any in that alcove of the Pacific, we felt the immensity of the whole ocean. I had tried to explain to her all Summer what it feels like to drop into the surface of a wave, even one just a fraction taller than you, and how it’s not just that ripple of water you’re on, but the pulse of the whole sea beneath it. Sitting on that bench on that beach, she said, “I get it.”

So there stands Brendon Thomas, at the much more imposing Maverick’s, feeling its “icy chill.” Until he stood there he was ready to paddle out, to face his fear and maybe die in the process. When Grant arrives and coaxes everyone but Thomas to get in the water, Thomas speculates why they would do it:

“To me, it seemed more out of valor than volition, something I understood only because somewhere deep inside me I felt my pride trying to eek out a possibly ill-fated win over common sense.”

As a surfer who’s never paddled out for a double-overhead wave, I found comfort in someone like Thomas having just enough common sense to chicken out. I’m tired of tales of overcoming fear. I want to thank Brendon Thomas for embracing his sanity.    

Chasing Mavericks: The Techne of Jay Moriarty



Poster for Chasing Mavericks (2012), the ninth lowest grossing box-office mass released film in history

While I watched the latest big-budget story of Jay Moriarty I thought about David Foster Wallace’s essay How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The essay is his reaction to and review of tennis legend Tracy Austin’s sports memoir. Summing up his supreme disappointment with the book, he examines why we as readers continue to go back to the shelves and pick up these sports memoirs knowing that they will be full of nothing but flat, dead PR prose. He asks how the athlete can “shut off the Iago-like voice of the self” and simply perform their techne, that one thing a person does so well that, like the Homeric heroes, it “facilitate[s] a communion with the gods themselves.” Is such a person “an idiot or mystic or both and/or neither?” 

Chasing Mavericks is not a sports memoir, but it shares a number of aspects with Wallace’s thoughts on Tracy Austin. In neither story, memoir nor biopic, does the reader/audience come any closer to understanding the feeling of the athlete. On winning the US Open, Austin describes the experience, saying, “I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” Compare this to the various platitudes that pepper the dialogue in CM:

It’s about finding the one thing in life that sets you free.

It’s the reason you were put on this earth.

It’s about something bigger than you are.

Actual lines from the movie, from various sections. The rest of the dialogue is just as canned, and there were times when I thought that the movie would be better off with no dialogue at all. And if the dialogue were all that was problematic, then it would be okay.


Jay Moriarty, legendary big wave surfer, who died free-diving at 23

The problem, in both cases, is that the people creating the book/film have chosen specific aspects to be loyal to, at the sacrifice of what makes compelling story. In both cases, the perspective lens is focused someplace other than where one would find what Wallace describes as the “almost classically greek” trajectory of both athletes’ lives. For CM, the concern of the creative parties involved seems to be making sure that their film accurately portrays surfing as a sport. To this end, the film exceeds expectations. From teenagers down at the subtle breaks of Santa Cruz carving the glassy waves, up to the immense feeling of inferiority and the seeming impossibility of the task that one feels when confronted with facing one of the largest walls of water in the world. Frosty, Jay’s neighbor, mentor, and father figure shines as an instructor, laying out point by point what it takes to accomplish this task. We understand the challenge of paddling across Morro Bay, the death-like stillness of holding your breath for four minutes. Even the complex nature of triangulation between guide-points to find your place on the wave seems understandable to the audience. But all of this care and precision is for nothing because we feel nothing for Jay.


Jay Moriarty at Mavericks

And we should fucking ache for Jay. His story is an extraordinary bildungsroman, his family life broken and desperate. His father abandoned him and his mother seems to be a barely held together alcoholic trying to scrape by in a job at Target. Jay seeks out a role-model on his own, works after school to pay for the radio receiver he needs to track storms, achieves the impossible, faces his fears, and marries the sexy blonde. All before he turns twenty-three. 

Jay Moriarty on the cover of Surfer Magazine

Moriarty on the cover of Surfer


And then there’s Frosty. The man is a Homeric Nestor without the digressions. He is Jack London’s wet dream. He chases storms early in the morning, risking his life against his wife’s pleas, and upon her death, swears off surfing Mavericks to keep a promise to his wife that he never could in his lifetime. He gives up the thing he loves to raise his daughters. 

The film does not prep the audience for any of this. Frosty comes off at times like a surf-bum version of Gerard Butler’s higher grossing Spartan character; Jay seems sensitive to, but ultimately disaffected by, his family struggles up until the last ten minutes of the film; and when Frosty’s wife dies of a sudden seizure, people in the theater actually laughed, completely disconnected from the reality we were supposed to be living. 

So too with Tracy Austin we boil down the tragedy of heroic rises to fortune and Shakespearean falls from grace. No more does Austin’s book consider her tragic trajectory than does our biopic of Jay Moriarty.


Tracy Austin


True, in the last moments of the film we hear Frosty in voice-over reading the essay Jay wrote to Frosty about fear. In that letter we hear everything we need to hear about Jay: his fear about opening the letter from his father, the inner demons he confronted, and most interestingly his acknowledgement that life is ultimately short and fast. But it’s too little too late. After we see Jay succeed at Maverick’s, we cut to Jay floating in some other sea, where he is about to drown in a deep sea diving accident. Cut back to Frosty and a myriad other surfers in the ocean scattering his ashes. I felt nothing, though I felt obliged to feel otherwise.

Perhaps if the whole story started with that sense of fatalism. If it opened with the voice-over of the first half of the letter laying out just what it is that truly effects Jay, then the tragedy of the events to come would be foreshadowed. But without this foreshadowing, the film is nothing more than sports memoir.


 Legends Start, and Flop, Somewhere


Wallace sums up his essay like this:

“Such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir… [Tracy Austin’s history] may also, in addressing the difference in communicability between thinking and doing and between doing and being, yield the key to why top athletes autobiographies are at once so seductive and so disappointing for us readers. As is so often SOP [standard operating procedure] with the truth, there’s a cruel paradox involved. It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able to see, articulate, and animate the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but they are its essence.”

The closer Chasing Macericks comes to portraying the sport, the farther it gets from describing the essence. Perhaps there is something of the athletes’ techne that will remain forever secret in that communion between the athlete and whatever god to whom they wish to pray.

Surfing, a California sport par excellence if there ever was one. No longer a sport of self-control and domination directed towards some goal, it is just a practice of inserting oneself into a wave and letting oneself be carried by it.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Ongoing Soft Revolution. Critical Inquiry (Winter, 2004).

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