What is it about Surfing?
As I sit here, unable to surf due to twisting my knee, I can't help but ruminate over my recent fall into a surfing obsession and ask myself what it is about surfing that is so special? I have been involved in a number of sports in my life and have spent most of my time with football, windsurfing (when I was a teenager) and cycling. However, there is something different about surfing. I am finding something altogether more deep-seated and meaningful to me that seems integral to the activity and transcends the 'sport' aspect of it.
When I go surfing the pleasures come thick and fast: beginning with scouring the internet webcams and surf reports, then the exciting decision 'to go'. After that come the routines: packing the bag, bottle of water, board in bag, check everything's present, double check, into the car and off... Hoping for a good parking spot, watching the waves and the other surfers, wetsuit on, check the wax and then the first real physical sensation: feeling your bare feet on the gravel or grass, some concrete steps and then the sand, followed by the wet sand, then wetter and then... the water. I love the moment that the sea comes to touch your toes for the first time. Then launching in (don't snag your bollocks on the rail as you jump on fellow kooks!) and paddling off. Looking at the sky. Sizing-up the whitewater.
Surfing is a watersport, but I think that the true beauty of surfing is how it gifts you a meaningful integration into nature – the whole landscape as well as the sea itself. The land you leave, the sand, the rocks, everything, all have a great deal to say about the whole experience. It is the land that shapes the waves after all.
As you push away from the land into the water you change your position on the planet: from being on it to being in it. It is fantastic when you get to the outside to sit for a while, half in the water and half in the sky, joining the two together (feet miles away in the unknown - head in the clouds). That wonderful meditative state after the work of paddling out and before the drama of surfing back in is, as far as I have experienced, unique. It has an appropriateness all of its own as surfing itself has a wave-like pattern: of calm followed by excitement. (Admittedly, this can all be changed by a busy day when you're never more than a few feet from another surfer or a very blustery day that won't allow any calm.) But when it happens - that pause, that Zen-like time in the water, between the unfolding events is something special.
Progression also seems to be enjoyed in waves. One day you can seem a lot better than the last time and the next time out suddenly brought back down to earth: you are indeed shit at surfing after all. But the slow, elusive, improvement in skill and understanding is tantalizing and addictive. This is enjoyable in itself - for me it is not a competitive urge to be better in comparison with other people. I would just like to become more smooth, expressive, fluid, on the wave. Actually, at this early stage, I'd simply like to be a little more on the wave rather than off it!
For me already the 'sport' part of surfing, the competitive part, is secondary. With football I enjoy Arsenal's victories, in cycling want to see who wins the jerseys in the Tour de France, however, with surfing I am already more drawn to Dave Rastovich than the ASP World Tour. The other day I bought a copy of "The Present" (by Thomas Campbell) on DVD (from the delicious Loose Fit in Braunton) and was amazed to watch perhaps the most beautiful 'sport' movie that I have ever seen. There is one part filmed in West Africa where a perfect right peels in the distance, you can just make out a surfer on it, the music of The Ndabva Kure Band (including Rastovich himself) wafts wonderfully over the scene and as the wave moves another perfect replica wave, with another surfer dancing / drawing on it, comes in. I can't think of a time that the vision of people playing, of sport as a natural expression of humanity, has never been more clearly or wonderfully filmed.
It is this combination - these waves - of calm and excitement that I love. The delight and meaning in surfing lies in the weaving together of the simple animal joy of play and mankind's need to contemplate and think about our place in this world.
Do I sound too much like a bleedin' hippie? Well, that's what injury does to you - leaves you with too much thinking time and not enough surfing. Right, time to stick "The Present" back in the DVD player and shut-up...