Thirty-two years ago, in the warm green water of North Carolina's Outer Banks, I learned to surf on a 6-foot-8-inch Con Butterfly surfboard. That surfboard, if I owned it today, would be worth
the price of a trip to the North Shore. The last time I saw it, it was skittering in pieces down the highway, having been blown off the racks of my friend's van. All we are is just polystyrene in the wind.
Surfing in the 1970s on the East Coast was about as esoteric as surfing ever got. There were more people gunning down waves in Morocco than there were battling the head-high chop off Hatteras. Then and there, you had to really want to surf. And, of course, we did, because surfing was so unbelievably cool and because surfers had the best narcotics.
The last time I was on a surfboard, 15 years ago, I spent a leisurely afternoon nearly drowning in a winter storm surge off Montauk Point, Long Island. That was ill-advised. On that day I learned to respect the ocean the way one respects loaded guns with shaved-down triggers or barking mad dogs. Surfing is not like riding a bike, such that once you learn you can never forget.
In three months of devoted training, just about anyone can be a 15-handicap golfer. By God, I bet with three months' practice I could be a pretty good pole vaulter, if so inexplicably motivated. But surfing? It takes years before anyone appears less than ridiculous. If you don't believe me, seek out the pictures of hyper-jock Matthew McConaughey floundering in the shore break at Malibu.
When I moved to California four years ago I thought about picking up a stick again. After all, this was the land of milelong breaks and glassy head-high rollers, was it not? I drove up Highway 1, stopping to look at various breaks, only to discover that no, it was not. Not only was the California surf wildly overrated, but in my absence from the sport, surfing had gotten a lot older, a lot easier and a lot more crowded--all thanks to the longboard. Everywhere I looked I saw derelict fleets of geezers on 10-foot high-flotation boards. That's not surfing; that's yachting.
I would rather leave my modest surfing achievements on the shelf than traduce them with easier equipment. Surfing is just one more sport imperiled by improvements. Skiing, for instance, used to require some minimum ante of skill, but with the advent of virtually uncrossable parabolic skis, nowhere on the mountain is safe. The explosion of golf's popularity has been predicated on the game getting easier for weekend duffers, who can pound the ball out of sight with their 460cc Callaway drivers.
Of all sports, surfing--with its intimations of spiritual sublimity and watery animism, the stoked Zen of the perfect wave --is the most fragile, the most vulnerable to ruination by mass consumerism. And yet, here we are, with pain remedy commercials featuring graying surfers out for a morning sesh before going into their law office. This sport, which once was thinned out by its very difficulty, has become a colossal tide of human flotsam, an armada of neoprene-skinned Freds.
Surfing's internal frictions--the conflict between the elite wave-gunning athletes and panting dilettantes who get in their way, the gulf between purists and poseurs--have breached into the pop-culture mainstream. HBO's magical realist surf drama "John From Cincinnati," created by auteur David Milch, is a dreamy take on the topic. In "JFC," it seems, the defense of surfing's purity and authenticity, represented by the Mitch Yost character, might bring about some kind of celestial redemption of the Imperial Beach community. Or something.
At the other end of the stylistic universe is Sony Pictures' animated mockumentary "Surf's Up" that follows the hero --a surfing penguin named Cody Maverick--as he competes in his first surfing competition and learns that surfing is not about hype, endorsements or trophies. It's about communing with the wave, about bonding with your fellow, um, penguin.
And maybe it's mere coincidence, but the Silver Surfer character in the new "Fantastic Four" movie goes through a similar rehabilitation. In the beginning of the movie he's in thrall to evil; by the end he's defending the Earth against the planet-consuming Galactus. From Bodhi to bodhisattva.
Meanwhile this summer, McConaughey is tuning up his wave-riding for his turn in next year's film "Surfer Dude," which is, we're told, a "twisting tale of a soul-searching surfer experiencing an existential crisis." Please, not another wave guru. This is precisely the sort of occasion that makes one long for an avenging Poseidon.
And so we have the re-emerging stock character of the soul surfer, the transcendentalist in board shorts, scornful of commercialism and selling out, babbling on about waves and quantum mechanics. The soul surfer is to wave-riding what Peter Fonda's Captain America was to motorcycles, a Templar of the true faith, or a Don Quixote.
All of this is great for surfing's receipts. It's helpful if you can cloak your gigantic commercial enterprise in the raiment of rebellion and individuality.
I don't actually know if the secrets of the universe are hidden inside the emerald barrel of the perfect wave. I suspect that much of the palavering about surfing and spirituality is merely lazy metaphysics. I do know that soul surfers, if they ever did exist, are near extinction, driven there by the very forces that have driven surfing into the arms of the upper classes. It's hard to be a surf monk in a beach shack when your beach shack is worth millions.