I didn’t know true happiness until I learned to surf. This sounds like such a surfer bro thing to say, but in fact I’ve heard similar words come from the mouths of retired teachers, CEOs, and children alike. Unlike most corporate slogans, the Billabong tagline, ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ speaks complete truth. There’s something inexplicably magical about catching your first wave. It has been compared to feelings we experience early in process of falling in love – a kind of helpless trance that appears to have no ending.
How do you write about something essentially inexplicable?
Sometimes things are best left unexplained. To try to concretise something is akin to explaining a joke: stripping the feeling from its seed of beauty. Even the greatest writers and thinkers falter when they attempt to articulate the ineffable. I think this is because such concepts (like love, melancholy, or beauty) are such vastly different experiences for every human.
So rather than attempt to describe what surfing means for me, far more useful and, honestly, more interesting, might be answers to the questions: Why is surfing so satisfying? And what can it do for you?
Someone once told me they enjoy surfing because it feels like you’re flying and walking on water at the same time. You’ll get a different answer each time, but what is true of every session is once you’re on the wave you feel almost weightless. The word I associate with this feeling is always ‘gliding.’ Like a bird catching the wind to glide in tandem with a wave, using the ocean to glide on a surfboard can feel both natural and effortless.
For many people, the pleasure of sitting on the board as the sun goes down is satisfying enough. For centuries humans have derived a sense of infinity from the ocean, stemming from both its depth and breadth among other things. The ocean also displays a sense of through its strength; any surfer worth her salt has experienced humiliation at the hands of a good swell.
But beyond the frustration of a seemingly endless set of powerful waves setting you back again and again, the struggle makes the end result all the more rewarding. It has taken me an hour to reach what surfers call the ‘outside’ – the area you see surfers sitting before the wave has broken. The ‘inside’ is for beginners, and all of those unfortunate souls who enter the swell at the wrong moment only to get caught in a tirade of waves until their shoulders give up and they are taken back to shore.
This might sound terrifying to many people. Why would you go to the beach to get pummelled by an unrelenting ocean until you can barely stand up, when you could lie peacefully under a coconut tree reading to the sound of the ocean? But the feeling of lying on the water waiting for the wave brings its own immutable sense of freedom and solitude, unmatched, I contend, by any feeling of peace on land.
Once you reach the outside, you might see a handsome set of waves meandering towards you. Position yourself accordingly, paddle your heart out, take a look around you to make sure the wave is yours, and only then might you feel the wave’s little tap hit the back of your board. This natural signal is a kind gesture from the ocean that it is time for you to take the wave. Pop up, cement the feet comfortably on the board, and see how the wave acts. See what the wave gives you, and you’ll find yourself react accordingly.
It’s playtime. Depending on the size of the wave’s wall, perhaps take a few turns or just enjoy the feeling of gliding on the water. On calmer days, you and your board will feel like a feather in the wind.
I’m of the opinion that if more people surfed the world would be a better place. I say this because in a society that has become obsessed with reaching goals – meeting a deadline, hitting a sales target, being the best this or that – surfing acts as the archetypal purposeless pursuit. We have never lived in a more hyper-connected time. Surfing provides, among many things, an opportunity to de-stress and disconnect. This is the role it played for me when I first started, and it’s the role it still plays today.
The Ancient philosophers knew the value of idle pleasure. They had a word – telos (meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) – for actions that were undertaken purely for their goal rather than for their intrinsic pleasure. Making time in our day to do things that don’t have a rigid ‘end,’ doing things for the sake of their inherent charm, is an activity we have collectively disregarded.
Surfing embodies precisely this purposeless pastime. Paddle, glide, exit, repeat. I don’t know a more rewarding cyclical routine than the act, and art, of catching a wave.
For those of us, myself included, who have suffered from anxiety and stress in the past, surfing can act as a uniquely powerful remedy. I say this for three reasons.
When you are overwhelmed by work, meetings or exams, the world becomes small. The only the thing that matters is the next deadline. The one feeling I get again and again from every surf session is the sense of how insignificant I am in the universe. This might sound harrowing, but in fact it has the effect of reorienting my worries, allowing me to see them for what they are – minuscule in the face of an infinite, indifferent ocean. This shift of perspective has allowed me to get over everything from exam stress to heartbreak.
Second, surfing is humbling. Our modern incapacity to focus on the present is lost when the sunset going on in front of you blankets the water in a myriad of gold and purple hues, turning the ocean into a gorgeous mercury texture. The moment your problems become small, the present becomes big – so big you could swim around in it as the sun sets. And a wave might come along to knock you down but you get up and catch the next one. You might repeat this without catching a wave nine times. But the tenth time – the perfect wave – makes it all worth it. So, surfing doesn’t just help you deal with stress, it can make you more resilient. This is true of nearly everyone I’ve spoken with about surfing.
Finally, surfing is balance: balance between the mind, the body, and the world. This is often dismissed as hippie-speak. I’ve found that those who are swift to reject the balance mantra as meaningless tend to be those who need it most. The balance between the mind and the body in surfing is obvious. To catch a good wave you have to concentrate on several things that require attention from both your mind and your body. But we become balanced with nature when we recognise that what we are doing is essentially capitalising on natural forces for our own pleasure. Surfing, like good art, is about adding nothing and taking nothing away.
There is something so charmingly simple about the act of catching a wave, which often makes me think that surfing is what our ancestors were doing for fun on a slow day of hunting all those thousands of years ago. There is little, if anything, that is artificial about surfing that couldn’t have been replicated centuries ago.
To distil, then. When we surf, we are consciously removing ourselves from the mindset of deadlines, a constant fear of the future that is the catalyst of our current age of anxiety. As a result, we learn to value the present more highly, as well as appreciating the overwhelming yet comforting power that is mother nature. You’ll walk out of the ocean feeling overall more in tune with yourself and your surroundings.
Give it a try. If surfing makes you half as happy as it has made me, it will change your life for the better.