As important as surfing is to me, it seems odd that I have never posted about it. Perhaps now is a good time, since it keeps me from posting about the insane political situation in this country, and I promised myself I would never post about politics on this blog.
The question is: why is surfing so important to me? It’s a difficult question to answer, although William Finnegan did a pretty good job in his memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” (Interesting point: I was surfing on Oahu at exactly the same time as Finnegan. He was over by Diamond head; I was in Ewa beach. But his experience of the surf, the island, and the culture was exactly the same as mine.) From a scientific standpoint, I can say that surfing in well-formed, big waves delivers a dose of hormones that don’t normally mix: adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. The first drives the fight-or-flight response, giving you heightened awareness and increased blood flow to the muscles. The second raises awareness and drives feelings of pleasure. The third promotes feelings of happiness and contentment. As a bonus, the intense physical effort involved in surfing big waves releases endorphins, giving you a bit of a “high.” So in effect, surfing a big wave gives you both fear and pleasure, combined with a heightened sense of awareness, a strange combination that surfers call the “stoke.” This article explains it all better than I could: “Your Brain on Surfing.”
There’s more to it than that, though. When you are out in the surf, you are essentially in the wilderness. Under your board is an ocean full of wildlife, most of which you can’t see. There is something thrilling about being immersed in untamed nature just a few meters from civilization. People walk along the beach and cars drive by, as schools of fish swarm beneath you, western grebes pop up next to you, and harbor seals jump onto your board. (Yes, this really happened — to a guy a few feet away from me.) Then you take off on a wave, shoot down the face, crank a turn, and fly along a wall of green water as it drives you toward the beach, knowing that at any moment the wave could pitch and throw you into the rinse cycle. There’s something almost spiritual in the experience. In a very real sense, you are dancing with the ocean.
It gets even better when wildlife joins in the fun. Pelicans scoot by, riding the pressure wave in front of the water wave, their wings almost brushing my hair. I’ve had bottlenosed dolphins swim beneath me, jump out of the water next to me, and surf waves right in front of me. That is real magic.
Not long ago, someone named Ioana Alcmena Curiteanu sent me an article entitled “Wildlife Encounters: The 5 Best Places on Earth to Surf with Dolphins.” Although it’s designed to promote a surf travel company, it appealed to my love of marine mammals, and especially to my joy at surfing with them. I have resolved to surf at least two of the places mentioned in the article: Sri Lanka and Costa Rica. And if dolphins join me in the lineup, so much the better.
I find as I get older that surfing is taking on an increased importance. When I was younger, it seemed like I had all the time in the world, and if I didn’t surf for a year (as was the case when I spent a year in Antarctica), it didn’t seem to matter all that much. Now I see things quite differently. My stamina isn’t what it used to be, and it takes a lot more effort to stay in shape. My days of surfing a short board in big waves are far from over (I was surfing double-overhead waves in San Diego a few months ago, when other people couldn’t even make it out, and I had some of the best rides of my life), but I can see the horizon. The yearning to be in big waves while I still can is becoming stronger every day. It is that yearning that has made me realize how important surfing is, and has always been, to me.
A friend of mine once said that every time you go in the ocean, you are baptized. I think he was right; there is an almost religious overtone to surfing, and it has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of a supreme being. For me, surfing is life.
(No, that’s not me in the photo; I surf with my right foot forward. But I have been on waves as big and beautiful as that.)