The allure of surfing is underestimated. I got into it at an early age; I didn’t consider the long-term effects. Neither did my parents. In 1995 surfing was pretty much socially acceptable. And as a kid I had a lot of free time, so it never conflicted with anything.
At Wainui Beach, in Raglan, where I write from, I recently saw a beginner riding the line, grinning from ear to ear. Why was she grinning? When you see how each wave breaks uniquely and bizarrely, each one like a gift to you, and as you harness that energy and the gravity of the earth to propel yourself across a liquid surface, you develop an appreciation for the natural world.
One wave can bring you immense joy. If you surf regularly you reap health benefits: you stay lean and fit, you keep a good appetite, and get plenty of sun. At a high level, surfing is a spiritual pursuit. Gerry Lopez called it “attitude dancing.” If you surf, there are a lot of reasons to smile.
The funny thing is, the seasoned watermen on the outside weren’t smiling. “It’s so small,” the one grumbled. They sat there like buoys marking the takeoff spot for the wave of the day. With their backs turned, they scoffed at the ignorant kooks scrounging around in the mushy inside sections. If you surf long enough, you seem to want bigger, faster, and more perfect waves.
We’re just humans, a pathetic and weird offshoot of primitive monkeys. We can’t control ourselves because something much larger is. Addiction is part of our condition. We all have to deal with it, whether directly or through others we know. Things bring us pleasure, and we want to do them again.
We want it to be as good as it was the first time. We get desensitized and must throw ourselves in death defying situations to get the same rush as before. People have died surfing.
I haven’t found any studies specifically on the neuroscience of wave-riders, but there’s a Yale neuroscientist named Judson Brewer who’s looked at addiction in comparison to other types of exercise. Can we extend his conclusions to surfing? Here’s what he had to say:
Some people surf without it affecting their lives negatively, and some get addicted to it. The same goes for other types of exercise. I would guess that there is a similar reward-based learning process to all of these, and that they are moderated by genetic (and likely environmental) factors, again similar to other addictions (e.g. Why do some people get addicted to cocaine, and others not?).
Relatedly, I would also guess that similar to other reward-based learning paradigms, people would develop a tolerance to mediocre waves, as they don’t get the rush of excitement when they ride them anymore (this rush may be similar to other types of dopaminergic rushes from exciting situations and/or drug use, but obviously not to the same degree as, say, cocaine, which directly affects synaptic dopamine). This would lead folks to “get bored” with the “usual” surf and seek out more challenging and/or novel environments (e.g. higher quality surfbreaks). People with addictions often “chase” their highs. Perhaps so too with surfing.
G-Land. Zicatela. Chicama. There’s a whole world of mind-boggling setups. The surf media has documented and celebrated them since the sixties. They’re out in remote jungles, like shrines for you to make the pilgrimage.
To say surfers travel for any other reason — that they’re even necessarily interested in the countries they visit — is a lie. The waves come first. Travel is a by-product. Everything is a by-product. Your life becomes a mission to score.
In 2004 my life changed on a trip to an out-of-the-way spot in mainland Mexico. It was my first trip out of the country. There I met all varieties of surfer enigmas: Aussie big wave experts, San Franciscans vagabonding around in a VW, skilled Texan barrel riders. I was just a young college kid taking it all in. My most striking observation was that aside from laying in hammocks, these guys didn’t do anything but surf. A reviewer of Tom Anderson’s Riding the Magic Carpet summed it up nicely:
There is a hidden world out there: a place of rip-curls and breaks, dreamy-eyed drifters, strange customs, odd locals and an endless quest for adrenaline. Attracted to this world is a cult-like, almost hobo following of men. They traipse the planet, many shifting from job to job, place to place, relationships left behind, all in search of just one thing: the perfect wave.
Coming from coastal North Carolina, I’d never been privy to the rebellious alter ego surfing harbors. I’d bypassed the Californian subculture and headed straight for exotic travel. But coming face to face with the unkempt freethinkers, and traveling on a no-budget trip like they were, made me re-think life a bit. They had me subconsciously flirting with their lifestyle — examining the possibility of a life without the constraints of a 9-5 job, just as thousands of surfers have done for the last half-century.
Surf vagabonding is so simple, so quietly subversive. You need a passport, a surfboard, a little bit of money, and the will to just go. Like paddling into a wave, you must do it alone — no one else can decide for you. You weigh one life against the other. Which is worth more, the security of a paycheck, or spiritual fulfillment? As William Finnegan suggested, although surfing is fundamentally apolitical, it carries with it, in most places and contexts, a whiff of dissent, a faintly anarchistic suggestion about what really matters.
There’s a reason why most surfers never become CEOs, heads of state, or intellectuals. Our time is limited. At the sacrifice of the future we live in the present. Like the premodern wave-riders a thousand years before us, we abandon everything for the next swell, and head to the sea, our true source of vitality.
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Ethan is originally from North Carolina and has traveled through New Zealand, Mexico, Nicaragua, Australia, and Indonesia.
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