People who know me know that I am a huge fan of competitive surfing, also known as the World Surf League Championship Tour. I guess that’s a bit strange for a cruise-y, middle-aged longboarder who didn’t start surfing until she was 38, since competitive surfing is full of young, hot-shit short-boarders who are generally are considered the old guard of the sport by the time they’re 35.
However, I’m not ashamed of the near-obsessiveness with which I watch the WSL webcasts of every event on the tour, which travels the globe to the most exotic locations to put the surfers in the best discovered waves on the planet. I’m sure there are plenty of non-surfers who are also WSL-viewing addicts like me.
I learn a lot from the competitions as well. Even though I ride a longboard–a completely different practice than shortboarding–it still takes place in the ocean, on waves and in consistently changing conditions. I glean much about how to read waves and where to place turns on them by watching the unbelievably limber and fearless young guns on the tour go crazy.
Last year on a whim, I drove up on my own in my VW van to the WSL surf contest that’s held in Peniche, Portugal–about four hours north of where I live–for the first time. My friend Sally–an Aussie-Dutch dual citizen with a well-stamped passport–already was there, and though I didn’t really have a plan other than to watch some surfing live and see what the weekend might hold.
It turned out to be one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life not just for me, but for my friend as well. She met her current boyfriend, Chris–with whom she has been traveling the world in a long-distance relationship as he works at the contest sites (he is on the WSL video production crew)–and I got to see some of the best waves I’ve ever seen in Portugal as well as witness backstage and from mere meters away my favorite surfer, John Florence, clinch his first and much-deserved world title.
Fast forward one year and I’m back in Peniche, watching the action from behind the scenes and hanging out with Sally and Chris and the WSL crew, occasionally taking advantage of the free dinners and drinks that are on offer when the WSL is picking up the tab.
I feel super-grateful and lucky, as a surfer and a surf fan, that I have such a great opportunity to not only live in such a beautiful place where I can engage in my favorite activity nearly every day, but also to come to another equally beautiful place in my adopted country and see the pros do it from such an up-close-and-personal perspective.
Being behind the scenes also affords a glimpse at how hard these people work–and I’m not just talking about the athletes.
Yes, the pros certainly train hard and eat well so they can withstand beatings like the one pounded on them by the quadruple-overhead conditions on Saturday’s first day of this year’s contest. And they have to make their sponsors happy and show up for the interviews and press conferences and schmooze events so someone will pay the astronomical price of sending them around the world and back every year with shit tons of surfboard luggage.
But the real heroes of those WSL pro-tour contest webcasts that are presented free online are the behind-the-scenes crew, who work tirelessly on the days of the contest from dawn until dusk (and sometimes before and after) to make sure the athletes show up on time, the cameras are ready for the shot, the commentators have their microphones on, the video is rolling, and that generally the show goes on smoothly so viewers at home (or on the go, as the WSL has a mobile app) miss not a single second of the action.
There is one aspect to the whole pro (and otherwise) surfing scene, however, that I find slightly less savory; that is, how fashionable it’s become. From California to Portugal to Indonesia you will find hordes of surfers with shiny new surfboards and GoPros but very little ocean knowledge or experience trying to catch waves in ever-more crowded and dangerous line-ups.
Of course the ocean is everyone’s to use and enjoy, and I came to surfing late in life myself so I can relate to finding my passion for it through its increased popularity.
However, the boom and through-the-roof interest in just the last several years in both surf as a practice and surf culture itself has made it a hell of a lot less fun for those of us who still see it not so much as a sport to be mastered, but a spiritual practice and lifestyle to be treasured and taken as seriously as some people take religion.
I’ve been surfing for about nine years now (which isn’t very long), but when I first discovered it in Portugal, the line-ups were far less crowded than they are today, and most of the people in them (including me) had either made big sacrifices to live their lives on the coast and make surfing a part of their every-day life, or had grown up doing it and with the sea in their blood.
Now with surf schools so prevalent and surf gear so accessible, even people who live nowhere near the coast nor plan to make it an every-day thing can go on holidays and learn how to “surf,” which is really just how to stand up on a foam board in the shore break. This is particularly true in Portugal, where surf entrepreneurship takes over the beaches in the holiday high season, making it almost impossible for anyone else to catch a decent wave.
This has resulted in so many more people who don’t have (nor have the desire for) the kind of time and ocean knowledge it takes to really have the proper respect, affinity and skill for the art of surfing to jam line-ups across the globe.
While it’s true people in poorer countries with good waves now have a business opportunity to earn money they never imagined possible through surfing–bolstering local economies and supporting families–it also has an uglier, dangerous side: more petty crime, more accidents in the water, and more pollution and litter, to name a few.
Of course, it also means people who have been referred to as “soul surfers”–people who do it not because it’s the latest cool thing to do, but because it heals their body and mind in a deep, profound way that no other activity has managed to achieve–also find it more difficult to find the peace and solace they are seeking in the water because of the chaos that line-ups have become.
I am not going to be so bold as to say I deserve to surf any more than the next person, but I do know in my heart I am doing it for the right reasons. When I first started surfing, I liked the sheer physical activity because it helped me–a chronic insomniac–sleep better.
I also loved the ocean–the smell, the break of the water over my head; the raw power and energy on a sizeable-swell day; the inconsistency and constant change in conditions; water texture, sound and light. Even before I discovered surfing, I loved ocean swimming, was a certified PADI diver, and took any opportunity I could to go on a boat just to be close to the sea.
I do believe–as many soul surfers do–that I am a better person coming out of the water than I was going in; in fact, I have a rule that if I go in the water in a bad mood, I can’t return to land until I feel better.
In fact, it’s on land that I feel I have the most problems (not that I have many, luckily enough); in the ocean they all seem to dissolve and instinct and a feeling of calm takes over, so long as I can enjoy my session in relative peace. Even that big set (for me that means overhead waves–I’m a middle-aged longboarder, remember!) on the head is less problematic than exhilarating. I’m sure any surfer-for-life will tell you something similar.
But when I am surrounded by a lot of other people–especially those who don’t know much about ocean behavior nor how to actually use their equipment–I can get grumpy fast. I don’t mind a busy line-up if everyone knows what they’re doing, but one in which there are a lot of newbies (the unfriendly word is “kooks”) who think they can surf just because they had a week of lessons on an expensive trip to Bali once is the quickest way for me to see red.
This is when accidents happen, when other people collide with you and your equipment, causing a dangerous situation not just for the parties involved, but for others around them in the line-up.
And yes, we’ve all been there. I joke that the only way to learn to surf–unless you are gifted with godly natural talent–is to look like an asshole for at least a year. (In my case, it was like three, maybe four!) God knows I was at one time the dangerous one in any given line-up, and certainly people told me so–I’ve left the water ashamed and in tears on more than one occasion, much angrier with myself for not obeying the rules than at the surfer who told me off in the water.
I still also slip up and drop in on people and unwittingly create dangerous situations in the water; I’m not proud of it nor happy about it, but it’s getting harder not to do this sometimes especially in shifty and crowded line-ups where everyone is fighting for waves.
So I’m conflicted. I’m happy for the pro surfers and the WSL and the surf companies that surfing has really taken off and gotten the recognition on a worldwide scale that it deserves. I’m happy that the athletes and the people who work so hard behind the scenes are living such rich and interesting lives traveling the world and enjoying the spoils of success.
I am genuinely so grateful I get to also bask in a little piece of this action when I come to Peniche to watch the pros do battle, and can live such an amazing life by the coast where I can surf nearly every day if I want to.
But I also detest the trendy, fashionable machine that surfing and surf culture has become, because I think as soon as something becomes too popular, people lose sight of the essence of what it’s about.
What can I say? I’m punk rock at heart. I want to enjoy the things I enjoy intensely, but get pissed off when everyone else starts to enjoy them, too, especially when there is so much ego involved.
And this, for me, is the problem with surfing having become so popular. Yes, on one hand it has led so many people to discover it who truly do it for sincere reasons and might have never had that experience if not for the popularity. (I count myself as one of those people.)
But there are still so many more who just jump on the bandwagon out of pure ego because they think it’s the cool thing to do and they want to be a part of the latest wave of fashion. That is what I truly despise about the popularity of surfing.
No matter what I think (and really, who cares about that?), the secret of surfing is out, WAY out–for better or worse. I’m happy that the circumstances in my life were such that I easily could make fundamental changes to live by a stunning coastline with consistent swell so I can surf nearly every day of my life if I want to.
I’m also grateful to the country of Portugal for letting me live here and my local community for embracing me–a foreigner who is one of the many that have crowded their pristine coastline merely for the sake of waves in the last 10-15 years–and making me feel at home. (Learning to speak passing Portuguese and now having a Portuguese boyfriend has also probably helped assimilate me.)
And even if it means more crowded line-ups and less waves for me, I wish the same joy in life for those who discover surfing and really feel like they need to integrate it into the fabric of their lives, not only because it’s necessary to become the people they truly are, but also because it makes them even better for themselves, for their community and for the greater world around them.