I’ve been contemplating destroying my surf gear again. Surfing has made me waste countless hours splashing about in the frigid ocean. It has lured me to approach waves as big as a two story house and as long as a city block while paddling on my stomach. It has caused me to neglect vital aspects of land-based life.
My life ashore is full of wonderful things. I have a fine family, a safe, character-filled home, a stable job that pays for all my basic needs, and I live in a place rich in cultural and natural amenities; yet each morning I wake up and go about my day as if something is missing. Sometimes I’ve thought it might be the need for more sleep, a chemical imbalance in my brain, or perhaps a desire for a new job. As near as I can tell, what’s missing from life is surfing.
Although it has been nearly twenty years since I lived close enough to the ocean for surfing to be part of my routine, I find it hard to shake the feeling that the sport of kings is no longer a physical aspect of my life. Worse, I feel that surfing is a kind of illness and I’ve been afflicted with it. My friend Thomas once joked that, “surfing is the disease… and the cure.” Thinking it through, he’s right.
The first symptom of surf disease is the need to go surfing daily regardless of the conditions. My wife remembers one of our early dates where we drove to the Maryland coast so I could go surfing in a hurricane. Sure it was a little windy, but I still couldn’t figure out why the lifeguards insisted (from the comfort of their jeep) that we get out of the water. I recall another day where I tried to paddle out into foam from the breaking waves that was easily six feet tall. The waves themselves were so big and breaking so far away I couldn’t see them from the shore. After a half hour of furious paddling I discovered that I hadn’t made it more than fifty feet out from where I started. Perhaps the worst manifestation of surf psychosis was a dark rainy day with perfect head-high waves. I was among a dozen surfers who watched an electrical storm approach from the seaward horizon. Although the bolts of lightening moved progressively closer to us, not a single surfer was willing to give up his place in the line up, despite what appeared to be a command from a higher power.
Another indication of surf illness is that you find yourself making surf checks anytime you are near the water – even if you happen to be driving, riding a bike, or doing any other activity that requires your attention. Although a surf check can help you decide if it’s worth going surfing, I’ve always felt its real purpose was more intangible. (It is much like calling a lover on the telephone even though you have nothing new or urgent to say. The act is enough.) During a typical surf check one goes to a promontory overlooking the sea. Once there you find something to sit or perch on. The hood of a car, a rock, or an old log will do the trick. Then you stare in silence assessing the wind, the swell direction, the tide, and the number of other surfers out, or you just plain stare at the waves, the clouds, and the horizon. The whole rest of your world is behind you. You feel a calling from the deep: the only cure is to go surfing. The people who say they love the coast, but never get in the water are immune to this disease.
It’s not as though I haven’t tried to substitute some other activity for surfing. For a while I felt that walking through the woods, tracking animals would provide a measure of solace and connection with the natural world that I was lacking. At times I would even meet up with a group of other trackers in search of the call of the wild. Being among animals and five-hundred-year-old trees is indeed peaceful and has rewards of its own, but it just didn’t get my adrenaline pumping. The surprise, the struggle of man versus the sea, and the fresh promise of surfing just wasn’t there.
Since I foolishly moved away from the coast, I’ve been small-boat sailing on local rivers as an antidote. Like surfing, it leverages man-made technology to harness a force of nature. Trying to ride the wind is challenging and fun. There is magic when a breeze fills your sails and your boat glides away. Much like a big wave, a powerful gust shows you just how small you really are. When a good blast of wind barrels down the river it can make your boat rise up and plane on the water. The wind can knock your fickle craft over and toss you into the water in a most satisfactory manner. Still, sailing lacks the intimacy with the water and simple nature of surfing, and while I love sailing for its own sake, surfing it isn’t.
Strangely, one of the activities that feels the most like surfing is entirely terrestrial: racing through downtown traffic on my bicycle. Downtown Portland is built on a east-sloping hillside that ends at the Willamette River. When I’m coasting down a steep hill, I begin to get the same feeling that I do when I ride down the face of a big wave. The wind rushes past my ears and through my hair. I forget that I am attached to some man-made device and instead am only conscious that I am zipping along, trying to go as fast as I can while remaining upright. I scan for cars and potholes, but my eyes are less focused on any one thing than the overall scene ahead of me. I carve between obstacles, skim over cracks or bumps, and feel the steepness of the hill. When I reach the flat spot just before the river, I turn and slow down, just as I do after a long surf ride. I have a sense of exhilaration and although my heart is pumping, I calmly pedal away. After catching a big wave, I instinctively paddle back out towards the horizon, but on a bike, once I descend the hill, I never look back.
While surfing I am not just near the water, I am immersed in it and feel a exhilarating balance of being embraced and threatened. The rush of riding waves comes in part from the speed and in part from the knowledge that danger lurks nearby: I could drown, get chomped by shark, or get pummeled on a large rock. While biking, there is always the chance of a wipeout and a painful case of road rash, but the threat of steel vehicles is more final. In surfing, however tiny I am in comparison to the ocean, I stand some small chance of saving myself. Against a car I have no recourse.
I’ve wondered why it is that despite the time in my life to hike in the woods, to sail, or to simply sit quietly in my yard, I can’t hang up the surfing business of my youth. Every other pursuit has some imperfection (real or imagined). In fact, no true surfer I know has ever entirely quit, even when removed from the sea. Maybe you can’t. A brochure from Alcoholics Anonymous speaks strikingly to my feeling that surfing is an incurable disease, just as alcoholism is. “As A.A. sees it, alcoholism is an illness… A.A. members say that they are alcoholics today — even when they have not had a drink for many years. They do not say that they are ‘cured’ …they can never become ‘former alcoholics’”
If I can never become a former surfer, perhaps I should simply embrace it.
Friends, are you feeling déjà vu? A modified version of this article appeared in print form in Bruce’s Zine in 2007.