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)
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.
…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.”