A Surfing Reflection

Some sports are inherently competitive, in the sense that players cannot exhibit the full range of their skills without being pushed by a strong opponent. Surfing is different: the challenges are intrinsic to the activity and do not involve beating anyone.

MELBOURNE – For me, as for most Australians, summer holidays have always meant going to the beach. I grew up swimming and playing in the waves, eventually moving on to a body board, but somehow missing out on learning to stand on a surfboard.

I finally made up for that omission when I was in my fifties – too old ever to become good at it, but young enough for surfing to give me a decade of fun and a sense of accomplishment. This southern summer, I’m back in Australia and in the waves again.

At the beach where I surfed today, I heard about a ceremony that had taken place there earlier in the season – a farewell to a local surfer who had died at a ripe old age. His fellow-surfers paddled out into the ocean and formed a circle, sitting on their boards, while his ashes were scattered over the surface. Other friends and family stood and watched from the beach and cliff top. I was told that he was one of the best surfers around, but at a time when there was no money in it.

Was it his bad luck, I wondered, to be born too early to take part in today’s lucrative professional surfing circuit? Or was it his good luck to be part of a surfing scene that was less about stardom and more about enjoying the waves?

This is not a general rant against the corrupting influence of money. Having money opens up opportunities that, if used well, can be very positive. Surfers have created environmental organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, which has a special concern for the oceans; and SurfAid, which tries to spread some of the benefits of surfing tourism in developing countries to the poorest of the local people. Still, the spirit of surfing’s early days (think of the harmony of wave and human action portrayed in the 1971 movie Morning of the Earth) contrasts sharply with the razzamatazz of today’s professional circuit.

Some sports are inherently competitive. Tennis fans may admire a well-executed backhand; but watching players warm up on court would soon become dull if no match followed. The same is true of football (soccer): Who would go to watch a group of people kicking a ball around a field if it wasn’t all about winning or losing? Players of these sports cannot exhibit the full range of their skills without being pushed by a competitive opponent.

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Surfing is different. It offers opportunities to meet challenges that call on a variety of skills, both physical and mental; but the challenges are intrinsic to the activity and do not involve beating an opponent. In that respect, surfing is closer to hiking, mountaineering, or skiing than to tennis or football: The aesthetic experience of being in a beautiful natural environment is an important part of the activity’s attractiveness; there is satisfaction to be found in the sense of accomplishment; and there is vigorous physical exercise without the monotony of running on a treadmill or swimming laps.

To make surfing competitive requires contriving ways to measure performance. The solution is to judge certain skills displayed in riding a wave. There is nothing wrong with surfers competing to see who can do the most difficult maneuvers on a wave – just as there is nothing wrong with seeing who can pull off the most difficult dive from the ten-meter platform.

But when we make surfing competitive, a recreational activity in which millions of people can happily participate is transformed into a spectator sport to be watched, for most, on a screen. It would be highly regrettable if the competitive sport’s narrow focus on point-scoring were to limit our appreciation of the beauty and harmony we can experience riding a wave without fitting as many turns as possible into our time on it.

Many of the highlights of my surfing have more to do with experiencing the splendor and power of the waves than with my ability to ride them. In fact, at the time of my single most magical surfing moment, I wasn’t on a wave at all. At Byron Bay, Australia’s easternmost point, I was paddling out to where the waves were breaking. The sun was shining, the sea was blue, and I was aware of the Pacific Ocean stretching ahead thousands of miles, uninterrupted by land until it reached the coast of Chile.

A pulse of energy generated in that vast expanse of water neared a submerged line of rocks and reared up in front of me in a green wall. As the wave began to break, a dolphin leapt out ahead of the foam, its entire body clear of the water.

It was a sublime moment, but not such an unusual one. As many of my fellow wave riders know, we are the only animal that plays tennis or football, but not the only animal that enjoys surfing.