I heard a saying when I first got bit by the surfing bug, mumbled by the old timers in the Ocean Beach parking lot or in between the vans and joints at Tourmaline.
“If you ever say you used to surf, it means you never really did.”
I loved it, secretly. As a late adopter of surfing, I hadn’t yet put in enough years to have earned the right to deliver such snarky wisdom. Deep down, though, I just knew that I ‘got it’, that my love for surfing would sustain me long enough to one day look down my nose at neophytes on foam boards and deliver such a succinct, profound separation of the wheat from the chaff.
There are, as it turns out, bumps along the road.
It is easy to fall in lust with surfing, especially in southern California. We live on vacation amongst the beautiful people, and if you’re immersed in the surf world out here then that is only multiplied. Surfing is an art that relies on style, grace, the application of power. In summertime, our amphitheater is a sun-kissed and half-naked audience, warm water and crystal clear waves. That first rush of speed, those first turns, those first moments when surfing goes from a struggle to glimpses of magic send pupils to pinpoints. It is nearly impossible not to fall in love with surfing in those moments.
When everything is new, fresh, and exciting, love is easy.
When love is easy, it makes even the tiresome and mundane and annoying worthwhile in pursuit of love. Early, pre-dawn rising to catch the best tides and winds and beat the crowds are trivial. Pulling on booties to beat the foot-cramping cold is a necessary part of the mid-winter pursuit. Driving and checking and repeating to find where the swell is showing up the best is part of the method in the madness.
But like anything long term, our relationship with surfing changes as the years go by. We are still in love with it, but the everyday tenor changes. The timbre of those frustrations gets a little more shrill with the passing of time. Early morning dawn patrol sessions don’t seem as worthwhile when the horde of NSSA-wannabe groms descends on the same peak, chandeliering every shoulder. The permanent stench of wet booties in your car. Surf checks are futile when every spot is waist high and more closed out than the last, till eventually you turn towards home in disgust, without even getting wet. Sun burns, nose drain, ear infections, localism, sand in every possible corner of everything in your life.
The shine comes off, the glow fades, the shimmer isn’t so bright. Surfing, it turns out, becomes a chore.
So one day, you decide not to get in the water. It’s too small, too windy, the tide is wrong, you’re hungover, hungry, late, tired. That day becomes two. Those two become seven. And suddenly you can count the number of times you’ve surfed in the last month on one hand. You look elsewhere for those same feelings of excitement that you had once, something to replace the glide and trim that once felt so fresh and new.
But, for most of us, nothing replaces it for long. Even during a break, we still check the charts, an eye on the tide. Early morning as you’re heading to the car for work you realize that the wind is offshore. Whispers of swell, changes of season, hurricanes, something always makes you wonder if it’s good. And then one day, you climb back into a dried-out wetsuit, wipe down the dried saltwater crust and dust off a board you haven’t touched in a while, and paddle out. Your shoulders creak and your timing is probably a little off. You’re out of position and you wear a couple on the head.
There’s always a magic wave when you come back, where everything feels like it used to. That sparkle is there in a rail buried off the top, a high line, a top-to-bottom turn and snap and the sound of spray landing around you.
Because surfing is fucking special, and it is always fresh if you are. There are always new waves to explore, new boards to ride, new friends to surf with. They say it takes ten thousand hours to master something, but the depth of surfing means that even in a lifetime, mastery is fleeting for all but the best of us, and that depth will always pull you back in if you let it. There is always something to learn in the ocean about yourself, and those of us that live with this love-habit-addiction are the most honest with ourselves when we’re floating and staring at the horizon, neck craned to see what is coming next.
So put the time in. Buy a new board, surf a new spot. Travel somewhere, anywhere, no matter if it’s near or far, to find surf. Remember that it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission – ditch school, ditch work, ditch your friends, ditch your family, go chase swell and take what it gives you with no expectations. They won’t understand, but they’ll get an idea when they see the smile on your face as you talk about it, and they’ll get over it. Because you love surfing, even if you needed to step back just a little bit to remember why: because it’s magic.
I used to surf. I still fucking do.