The Stain on the Soul of Surfing (page 3)

   Allow me to state my credentials on the subject. I'm writing this in our family room with a view of Oxnard Shores, a place I surfed for the first time in 1968. It is not a wave for the timid when it's good. Top-to-bottom barrels unload over erratic sandbars, and you have to be in good shape to get any waves because the sets can push you up and down the beach a hundred meters at a time. Now that I have lived here going on ten years, I often find myself the first guy out at dawn and one of the few regulars when it starts maxing. So I guess that makes me a local at a place that once intimidated outsiders. Say the word "Oxnard", and the connotation amongst California surfers is pretty negative. But those days are over at the Shores, and that's the way I like it. I want the beach where my children play to be free of the contamination of localism, because I've seen enough of it, and I don't want to see any more.

I've dealt with several versions of "surf rage" during my surfing career in California, including Topanga in the 60s, Silverstrand and the Ranch in the 70s, and Hazard Canyon in the 80s. I've had to face it down in the water and on the beach, and based on personal experience, I've found that surfers "infected" with localism can be surprisingly vicious S.O.B.'s. They can ruin a surf spot in a way that reminds me of floating garbage poisoning the sea.

Modern surfing points to Duke Kahanamoku as its father, yet his aloha version of surfing is about as far as you'll get from the heavy scenes caused by the pools of hate that have floated in lineups around the world: the toxic spills of localism. Of course, if we as surfers look to Polynesia for our heritage, what do we do when we see a history of raids, massacres, and internecine conflict throughout the South Pacific? Are we doomed by cultural genetics to duke it out over our tiny slices of paradise and the short-lived waves we ride?

Polynesian traditions aside, the fundamental problem with surfing will always be how powerfully it drives the ego. There is nothing inherently social in surfing's purest moments, because riding a wave is 100% personal. It is all about your preparation, experience, timing, strength and agility. There is nothing 'team' about it. So cooperation and humility takes a back seat to aggression and arrogance. Left unchecked, it gets to the point that we dare think of ourselves as masters of the waves after a good ride, and we usually paddle back out as fast as we can for another one. As long as you don't have to deal with other surfers and their egos and craving for waves, getting one good ride after another puts a surfer on top of the world.

But as with every powerful experience that involve self-inflation amongst individuals in a crowd, surfing can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in an instant, from euphoria and elation to fear and survival, from a generous free natural environment to a monstrous example of human greed and enmity. Surfers are the blessed sons and daughters of Kahuna gliding through Neptune's kingdom, until they start acting like troops of baboons defending territory against outsiders while engaged in internecine conflicts typical of lower order primate communities.

Another apt comparison would be to the behavior of the sea's most instinctually violent species, predatory sharks. My first experience with a real local, not some land owner or unemployed carpenter or out-of-shape big mouth, was at Lennox Head in Australia, part of the territory of a 15' tiger shark. An apex predator, it feared nothing, and we got out of the water pretty quick the times he was spotted feeding on the larger fish in the area. Sharks are a highly territorial species, in contrast to another apex predator, the broadbill swordfish, well known for its transoceanic migratory routes. Both species developed two hundred million years ago, and have remained essentially unchanged for the past fifty million years. But while the swordfish is an inspiration for speed and agility, the shark conjures visions of merciless pain and death.

So when you consider that some of the worst "surf rage" occurs in some of the world's best waves, it seems that surfing often oscillates between the wondrous hydrodynamics of the swordfish and the brutal turf tactics of the shark. One minute you're flying over the water in a perfect natural setting, only to have the waves turn into the vicious streets of South-Central L.A. As Ice-T said, "Wear a wrong colored rag, go home in a body bag."

Now, surfing is as far from the inner city as you can get. Yet having a colored wetsuit or board that ID's you as an outsider can make for real problems at some surf spots. This is truly absurd. At least in the 'hood there's a reason for the violence: unemployment, fatherless families, poverty, hopelessness. What reason do surfers have to throw down? Surfers are as blessed as any people on earth, and so it is particularly tragic when their egos are controlled by the corrosive evils of selfishness, greed, and jealousy.

I don't know if there is another sport/art/lifestyle on the planet that offers as phenomenal an experience as riding a wave and yet is cursed with human behavior in a classification with sharks and gangbangers. Surfing is an amazing thing to do, but seen through the prism of localism, it comes off looking pretty lame.