After spending an afternoon riding some of the most remarkable waves we've ever seen at our local Northern California break, my son, who is 13 years old and facing high school, asked, "Why do I have to go to school when I can surf?" Variations on this question--Why work? Why raise a family? Why do anything?--have been skirted by greater minds than mine.
The bug--OK, obsession--begins innocently. It can take as little as a single wave. Daniel Duane, in "Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast," captures a typical first fix. One afternoon, bobbing on his board in the ocean outside the break on a Santa Cruz beach, he watched as a young boy climbed onto a surfboard for what was obviously the first time. A modest wave broke and the boy's father gave the board a gentle shove. Soon on his feet, the 8-year-old glided along the face of the wave, shooting forward toward the shore.
His reaction: "No way! Wow! Oh, man!" Duane writes, "[He screamed with] such unbridled joy so out of the code of taciturn surfer cool that every man in the water, tough guys included, smiled magnanimously."
"Well, that's that," said a portly guy on a huge board to the proud father. "You can forget about him ever being president."
Duane, who previously took to the Sierra and wrote about it in the beguiling "Lighting Out: A Vision of California and the Mountains" (1994), packed his clothes in duffel bags at his Berkeley home, near where the freeway made "a roaring hiss much like surf," and headed to Santa Cruz for the genuine stuff. Planning to work part-time at UC Santa Cruz as a teaching assistant, he rented a room, furnished it with a futon on the floor and went surfing, thus beginning a personal yearlong endless summer on the Northern California coast.
Duane, who is 27, offers an incomplete look into the motivation for this escape. (Was it simply to write this book or is there more to the discontent in the life he left behind than he reveals?) For him and the surfers he befriends, surfing, not what got them there, is the point. The absence of a deeper purpose--in fact, the assumption that surfing is purpose enough--is forgiven, however, since Duane's odyssey is so much fun.
The wave talk in this book, as in practically any writing about surfing, occasionally gets tedious ("He spun and took off on a hollow, spinning right, ducking into its tube with fearless poise. . . ."), but the overall impact is nonetheless enthralling. Duane has an honest take on surf culture, seeing both the romance and irony. His curiosity about every aspect of the sport--its history, the science (and pseudoscience) of waves--leads to unlikely, informative digressions. But best of all are his evocative, compelling observations about nature: fresh and thrilling descriptions of scenery and life on the coast from the ominous (sharks creepier than any surfer wants to think about) to the truly sublime (hawks, cloud formations, otters, pelicans, fields of Brussels sprouts, the horizon).
The characters Duane meets along the way (surfers all) are an appealing, if occasionally grungy, lot. It would have been nice to get to know them better, particularly the surfing professor who forgets to give a final exam because the waves are so good. Unfortunately, Duane doesn't expand much on the stereotypes with descriptions of surf bums such as Skinny, who "beached his trailer for a hundred a month at a local trailer park and mostly just watched hoop games, ate Cap 'n' Crunch, and smoked weed. He also listened to his weather radio full time." Vince, however, is a sort of poet-philosopher who "surfed every day without fail, and often surfed twice a day, even in the smallest, coldest, rainiest, most all-around miserable conditions, when even guys with the day off were inside watching videos." Duane adds, "I loved being with [Vince], loved our endless conversations and the unshakable sense that this unlikely use of time mattered."
If the book has a purpose beyond joy and wonder, it is this: to convey the profundity of an activity that non-surfers can never truly comprehend. Duane succeeds in contradicting the mainstream culture's hypocritical view of surfing. On one hand, surfing images abound in advertisements and the high-tech world has attempted to gain cachet by appropriating the sport's logos and lingo (hence all the surfing on the net). On the other hand, devotees of almost any other activity that requires the commitment, let alone prowess, of surfing are viewed with admiration, whereas surfers are usually dismissed with a roll of the eyes, an attitude that has changed little even as surfing is being approved as an Olympic sport. Duane cites "Gidget," circa 1959, as good a barometer as any. To wit:
"Right from the start, Kahuna tells Gidget he's a noble savage who's 'gotta follow the sun.'
" 'You can't mean,' she says, horrified.
" 'Yeah,' he growls, as if admitting a felony, 'I'm a surf bum. You know, ride the waves, eat, sleep, not a care in the world.'