Surfing is a big sport as well as a huge industry but as an act, it remains the same as it has always been: a whole lot of fun, completely compelling, difficult, different, irreverent, frustrating. A whole lot of waiting around, extremely time-consuming, physically, mentally and spiritually satisfying and educational in a way that is hard to describe. It seemed the first twenty years I surfed was just a test to see if I was really interested. All of a sudden the intrinsic wisdom that is so much a part of the surfing experience began to reveal itself. Let me attempt to paint a picture: in order to catch a wave one needs to be in the right position and that position is a function of a great many things because in a wide-open ocean there aren’t exactly signposts and the waves always come on their own schedule and as never on yours. So the surfer waits trying to be exactly where he thinks that next wave will be.
Does everyone know where waves come from? I surfed for 12 years pretty seriously thinking I knew all I needed to know about waves before I ever found out and it was only because of the gracious generosity of probably the most amazing surfer I have ever met: George Downing, who patiently explained it to me but what makes waves work is another world in itself. Let’s take a look at it: tidal waves or tsunamis are a result of deep-sea seismic activity and shifting tectonic plates but the waves that we surf come from the wind. They can travel thousands of miles before they get to where our surfers are waiting. Depending on the time of year maybe a little weather slips off the Siberian coast or maybe bruised up at that Roaring Forties latitude in the southern hemisphere. Generally, we’re talking about an area of low barometric pressure, although surf can and often does come from high-pressure cells as well. For now, since we’re in California and it is summer let’s talk about a little weather, a little depression that maybe slides under Australia, and as it gets near the South Island of New Zealand all of a sudden something affects it. Then it kicks in and starts to get a little stronger and as this cold air and this depression encounter the warmer waters it begins to spin and gains energy as it spins and starts to spin faster. In the southern hemisphere, you flush the toilet down in Australia and it always spins in a clockwise motion. Up here in the northern hemisphere, it is counterclockwise but as it spins it generates this wind, and the energy increases and it starts to spin faster. The wind blows across the water like in a bathtub: when you blow on the water it generates these little ripples and in this way, there is a transfer of energy from the air into the water. These ripples start moving in the direction towards where we are waiting for it and, as the front ripples, start to run out of energy. The one behind it catches up and they combine their energy and this continues. The ones in front start to slow down the ones behind reinforce consolidating the energy. The most interesting thing about waves is that the water is not moving; the water is just a conduit for the energy that moves through the water. I have always thought about how this can relate to people: my wife likes to say “sometimes I wake up grumpy but most times I let him sleep”. We wake up in the morning: sometimes we are grumpy and sometimes we are happy. Why really doesn’t matter; that’s just the way it is. Like that low-pressure area that attracts any other low in the area and gets deflected away from the high-pressure zones, or sometimes sucks some winter energy out of them, our low spirits can get lower and those in high spirits avoid us because we bring them down. A harsh word because we don’t feel like seeing any kind ones can have repercussions way down the line; those married know that. Just like that wave that started down near New Zealand and ends up in Ocean Beach or you know maybe in Santa Cruz.
Back to that building swell, as reinforcement continues, the swells spread apart and travel. The interval or wave period, the space between the waves, is really a more important indicator of the strength of the swell than the actual wave height. The stronger the swell the further apart the waves travel and the deeper into the water the energy goes. Finally, as the waves approach that waiting surfer, who maybe was thinking about the argument he had with his wife in the morning when he said he was going surfing and she thought he was going to do the yard work, or did he lock his car when he and his friend Z got out in the waves, anyway he was just distracted and he misses that momentary glimpse when that swell humps up on an outer reef or a sandbar or a shallow spot offshore just for a moment before it sinks back down as it comes in towards shore. So when the surfer finally sees that set approaching he realizes it is bigger than any waves that have come in all day and he also realizes with a terrible sinking feeling that he is too far inside for where those waves will break and there is not enough time to do anything about it. This is a circumstance called “getting caught inside” and while it is a common occurrence in surfing, it is always unwelcome. The opposition means not only that surfer is not going to be able to ride anyways in this set but in fact, those waves are gonna ride him. In big surf this is a terrifying experience: right from that moment of realization all through those moments where you are waiting for the inevitable and then that tremendous and sometimes dangerous pummeling, the extent of which is a function of how strong the swell is and how many waves are in the set. If anyone has been in a situation where they have been unable to breathe for whatever reason they have an idea of what it is like to be trapped underwater by pounding surf and not be able to come to the surface. The surfer has several options when this happens: he can do nothing which does not do any good, he can panic which is worse, or he understands what is about to happen; he relaxes as much as he can to conserve his energy and he tries to just hold his position. One of the reasons surfing is so appealing is because generally speaking it is pretty safe. By doing nothing you usually just get washed back to shore where you have to start all over again; by panicking he may swallow some water, have some moments of terror, but by keeping his composure, holding his position, and continuing to paddle, he will probably lose some ground but he will be in a good position when the set ends. Just like in life, waves come in sets and after the set, there is a period of calm called the lull. During this lull, the surfer who kept his cool is able to regain his position in the lineup and with some first-hand experience of where the biggest waves break so he’ll be much better prepared for the next set. Adversity of any kind is often difficult to deal with but getting caught inside especially in big waves can give us a playbook and understanding that no matter what happens, in the end, we learn something that we did not know before. Good judgment comes from experience and a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.
Over the last 20 years I have done a lot of snowboarding and I discovered that snowboarding and skiing can be a whole lot more dangerous than most forms of surfing. Besides the risk factor, I have tremendous respect for the mountains as well as for the oceans. There is majesty, a quality about both. It instills a sense of spiritual mess; there have been many mornings I spent looking at a freshly snow-covered mountainside or nice waves peeling through an empty lineup, feeling I was in the presence of something holy.
A difference I have observed in riding mountains as opposed to riding waves is that the mountains hold still for the ride. Surfing happens on a landscape, or I should say a seascape, that’s completely in motion. Out in the surf, everything is moving and this is why surfing becomes such a good metaphor for life. Life doesn’t hold still for us; if we don’t move with it life just passes us right by. It doesn’t care: surfing teaches us to go with the flow smoothly and to be in the moment spontaneously. This way we get the most out of the wave as well as out of life.