On the horrible, embarrassing, incredible experience of trying to surf
I love surfing. Well, that’s not quite right. I love the idea of surfing. The exotic locations, the commitment to something so elemental, ephemeral, and violent: the wave.
I recently finished reading Barbarian Days, a story about two young men who drag themselves malnourished and broke to the other side of the world to chase it. They would camp out by the sea and gnaw on rotting fruit rinds just to get in the water at sunrise.
The truth is, I love surfing the way a sixth-grader loves the popular girl going into high school: with a combination of impossible longing and fear. And that uncomfortable crush has never been stronger than it was last summer, when I went to Hawaii for the first time with my family.
I don’t think I’m alone here. I’ll occasionally see photos of friends on vacation, crouched uncertainly atop a rental board or holding it underarm while they stand on the beach, looking wistfully out there.
I get it.
Thing is, I don’t think it’s possible to really convey what they’re feeling. In conversations (or an essay like this one) it’s very easy to come across like the guy who he caught a glimpse of the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast. You might have and I’m sure it really was incredible, but I’m also having a tough time getting as excited about it as you are.
This difference—between actually experiencing this thing and trying to tell your friends about it—sort of mirrors the dissonance between watching someone surf and acknowledging who is, at least occasionally, doing the surfing. The dude. The burnout. The artist. The wanderer. The vocal fry sizzling, van-living, beachside-camping kid who’s going to get a real job soon he swears.
For example, arguably the best surfer in the world right now is a 23-year-old named John John Florence who is impossible to confuse with anyone other than a surfer. Bleach blonde hair, wiry frame. He’s sort of distractible in his interviews. Uses words like “gnarly.” He just came out with the world’s biggest budget surf film to date called View from a Blue Moon (for which I have watched the trailer well over a dozen times) and in that movie/trailer, he is another person entirely. Seeing him stuck in a chair for an interview is about as comfortable as watching a sea turtle drag its big, stupid body across a beach, but watching him in the trailer is like the first time you realized that thing is actually made to swim.
The difference isn’t just huge—it’s transformative.
For me, on the other hand, getting in the water had precisely the inverse effect. Surfers have their own term for beginners: they’re called kooks. As surfers know, and as kooks quickly learn, we do not belong in the path of the great forces at work in the ocean. The wave inflicts levels of physical and psychological humiliation, and other surfers compound this humiliation to scare us off and keep us out. If you ascribe to the belief that this is more sacred art than sport, then we kooks are obnoxious tourists in a holy place.
Which is to say, I’ve been a beginner at a lot of things, but never has it been quite as embarrassing as it was being a kook in Hawaii.
I had taken a surfing lesson once when I was in Mexico. We took a shuttle to a beachside hostel where we spent the first 10 minutes on the sand learning to pop up and down. That was the whole lesson. Just get from your belly to your feet as fast as you can.
So when we got to Hawaii, there would be no lessons. All I wanted was a board and directions to a spot where I wouldn’t die.
As soon as we got to our hotel on Waikiki beach I looked out through the open-air lobby and saw surfers in the water, bobbing like action figures way out at a distant break. Most had parked in this public lot up the side of the harbour where they launched off a rocky pier. Waves didn’t seem too intense. Maybe shoulder-high, I thought to myself. It’s just water for Christ’s sake.
I went out over there alone for a closer look. In the parking lot, there were vans with surfboards lashed to the roof and pickups with surfboards sticking out of their cabs. A few people were tailgating, sitting on cement parking blocks and huddled around charcoal barbecues, their white flakes rising on currents of hot air.
I walked out on the pier to where the surfers were going in and coming out of the water, stepping gingerly across the gaps in these immovable boulders while crabs scuttled over and around the slick contours. I saw a guy standing there with his surfboard under his arm, watching people who I imagined were his friends in the water. I asked him if he was going in. He said he was. I asked him if this was somewhere someone who hadn’t really surfed before could try and he said absolutely not. He was nice about it, but I got the feeling I had violated some social norm, like asking a stranger to puff on their cigarette. He said I should walk farther down the beach. Here the reef was too shallow and when I fell I would get knocked around pretty good.
I noticed he had an accent and asked where he was from. He said Israel. I asked whether or not he was enjoying his vacation and he told me (rather excitedly) that he actually lived on Oahu. After I walked back to the beach I saw him and the other surfers walking back across the pier, their silhouettes set against the sunset like something you’d see on a postcard. At that moment, nothing in the universe could dispel my impressions of how cool these people were.
Over the next few days I saw him hanging around our hotel’s courtyard, working a booth where he sold wind mobiles. I never approached him again.
In the four days I was in Waikiki, the guy at the surf booth urged me not to go surfing because the conditions sucked. But this was Hawaii, and I wasn’t about to let some surf booth operator tell me I shouldn’t go surfing in Hawaii.
Now I couldn’t say for sure whether that first outing was more a result of the shitty conditions or my overwhelming incompetence but I spent a solid hour paddling to spots where the waves just finished breaking (I would soon learn that this is very much a waiting game), trying to stand up on teeny waves that didn’t so much break as collapse into a mushy pile of whitewater, and confusing the shimmering reef under the clear water with what might have been a shark. I also learned what a rash guard is and why people wear them.
So that sucked. But only a few days later, we flew to the island of Maui and we heard about a surf spot close to our apartment complex called Whaler’s Village. It’s an outdoor mall on the beach with a sandy break just a short walk away from some of the hotels.
I rented a board from a hut on the beach, approaching the owner to ask about the conditions. He made a bunch of hand gestures and told me a bunch of things I pretended to understand. Then he handed over a big blue soft-top and I took off towards the water.
In Barbarian Days William Finnegan writes that once a wave exceeds 20 feet, the number of surfers who are willing to ride that wave drops off precipitously. He quotes one surfing scholar who puts the number ready to ride 25-foot waves at less than 1 in 20,000.
“I had surfed alongside a few big-wave specialists on the North Shore, but I thought of them as mutants, mystics, pilgrims traveling another road from the rest of us, possibly made from a different raw material,” Finnegan writes. He quotes an old-time big-wave rider who once said “big waves are not measured in feet, but in increments of fear.”
I saw in this passage a crucial revelation about surfing: fear is constant and there is a point when things get so heavy that talent doesn’t really matter.
This—and this is not an exaggeration—kept me up at night. Comparing the waves here to anything over 20 feet was preposterous, of course, and yet knowing this was no more comforting than your father’s perfunctory reminder that you would be safe riding a gigantic-seeming roller coaster as a kid. I wasn’t scared of drowning, exactly. When I imagine drowning I imagine a struggle, but there would be no struggle here. In the lizardy part of my brain, it seemed half possible that my body would be swallowed and washed into non-existence.
Worse, this feeling didn’t even really go away after the first day surfing in Maui. Even in bed, I could still feel in my limbs and my gut a faint sensation of being tossed around, like I was being shaken in the cradle of a giant’s massive palms. Oddly enough the only time this feeling went away was in the water. In the moments I turned my head to paddle, I didn’t have time to think about how big the wave was going to get before it came down on top of me.
Getting out there was probably the toughest part. The first few sets were were easy to paddle through, but as I got farther out, the roiling whitewater rushing towards shore became taller and too difficult to push over. So, I went under.
Given that my board was probably buoyant enough to float a refrigerator (beginners all get these huge clumsy boards because they’re easier to ride) this was also a challenge. The first few times, I thought I would try to hold onto it, barrel-rolling under the water and hooking my hands and my heels over the rails. This was dumb. The force of the wave would rip the board away from me and send me tumbling back towards the shore. Trick was let go and dive deep, letting the rubber ankle leash hold on as it bounced through the waves.
I did make it to the break where probably six or seven other surfers were waiting. I sat up on my board maneuvering by twirling my legs in the water like eggbeaters. The fact that many of these surfers were, by my estimation, ‘legit’ was actually comforting. I tried not to crowd them while acknowledging that where they were was probably the best place to wait. I stood up on a couple waves briefly but when I fell and came up I was battered repeatedly by the next sets (a phenomenon known as getting caught inside). Every time I tried to climb on my board, the next wave was right there to sweep the board right the fuck out from under me. The whole experience conjures the image of a drill sergeant, throwing buckets of water in your face while you gasp for air. The ocean might as well have been asking why I’m such a pussy.
After about 30 minutes of this, I crawled ashore for a break.
After reading Finnegan’s book, I wondered for a long time whether or not I should write anything about surfing, mostly because I’ve been told it’s difficult-to-impossible to write about surfing well if you actually surf, let alone if you’re a goddamn tourist.
In an essay-style review of Finnegan’s book for New York Magazine, Jay Kang writes about some of the cringeworthy first-person accounts of surfing in Hawaii: the long rides in to shore, the “ecstatic bliss,” the wipeouts (there are invariably more examples in this piece you’re reading, I’m just too green to know what they are). “(They) were writing about the sport in the way they might have written about eating ahi poke for the first time in a Hawaiian hotel,” Kang writes. The kicker was that this “kook bait,” as he calls it, was penned by Mark Twain and Jack London.
Which brings us to the obvious question: what am I—a writer unfit to sharpen Mark Twain or Jack London’s pencil—trying to do here?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. All the reasons I’ve run over in my head—to distance myself from this romanticized notion of surfing (“the sunbaked spiritual pornography,” as Kang calls it), to describe the not insignificant physical and psychological toll of actually doing something that seems so graceful--now sound stupid.
I’m sure that as a landlocked Canadian, I’ll never learn to really surf, and despite my absolute best efforts, I don’t think I’ll ever be much better at writing about it.
But you’ve made it this far so if you’ll indulge me for just a little while longer, I’ll try to tell you what it is like to stand up on a wave.
You begin paddling, hard, and long before you can judge whether you should be trying to catch this wave. Soon, your board will begin to tip forward as the water rises up behind you, but unlike the other times, the nose will not dig into the water. The wave will not pass under you. It will not curl overtop of you. It will begin to carry you.
You’ll pop up, not really expecting to be able to stand but you’ll stand anyways. You will feel like you’re hovering above the water, like you are defying physics. You are not defying physics, though. That big dumb board could probably carry a second person, but this thought will never occur to you—not if you rode a thousand more waves like this.
You’ll become lucid, piercingly aware that you are now doing exactly what you were trying to do since you got in the water—that the other times when you made it half this distance aren’t like this; not even close.
You’ll remember something you saw when you were watching the other surfers and you begin pumping your legs to gain momentum. You are now slightly more surprised you haven’t fallen off but, like a bicycle gaining speed, your balance is more assured.
Now the wave is beginning to die under your feet. You don’t just want to jump off. You want to stay in control. So you fall forward onto your board, bracing yourself with your arms. This is when you finally slide into the water. You climb back on, calmly.
You paddle back towards the beach. But in your goofy reverie, you forget about the ocean behind you. The undertow pulls you into a breaking wave and smashes you hard into the steep sandbank. Your body is full of sand and shame. You’re suddenly very aware that the beach is pretty crowded and you scramble to pick yourself up.
You see kids running with boogie boards straight into breaking waves, doing backflips as they shoot off the water like a ramp. You wonder if the people at the hut are going to check if your board is damaged. You think it is definitely damaged.
It was incredible and ugly in equal parts. But you also know that when you leave this place, you will not regret having failed.
 I actually got these from a list of surfing stereotypes that were published in a surf magazine. They are, of course, not exhaustive and I already feel bad about lumping massive numbers of talented surfers into these not-so-flattering categories.
 Even just his name…
 I know a lot of this has to do with things like production value, but I can’t imagine the effect is greatly diminished when you watch him surf in person.