Recently, an article by Sarah Gold came out on the bubble-gum leftist web page, Slate, entitled Hipsters are Ruining Surfing. Gold is relatively new to surfing, and like your average adolescent, is nursing a certain faux-ennui with the state of a sport she has spent about six years involved with. The piece has no clear, central argument–such a thing would plainly reveal that the writer has no idea what she’s talking about–but the heart of it is that most surf spots are too crowded and this is hurting the “spirit of surfing.” Naturally, she defines the spirit of surfing with a quote from Barbarian Days–a book that East Coast pseudo-intellectuals have gobbled up quicker than the latest food allergy: “Committed surfing is a deep immersion, literal and philosophical, in the ocean. The goal, if there is a goal, is a certain drenching experience of beauty. It’s quite possible to surf for decades without laying eyes on a surf contest.”
This is, like much of Finnegan’s writing, is a sort of nice, soft-focus sentiment. But it’s completely untrue as a general rule. It’s certainly how Finnegan seems to interpret surfing, but there is a vast swathe of the “committed” surfing population that has no dedication, literal, philosophical or otherwise to the aesthetics or wider experiences of the ocean, at least not a conscious one. In fact, you can surf your entire life without ever actually leaving the surf zone, meaning your “commitment” to the ocean effectively limits you to experiencing about 1% of it. This is more true today than it was in the barbarian days of the ’60s and ’70s, but even a close inspection of those years will show much less overlap than is generally implied by the people who truly lived sea-bound lifestyles–sailors, fishermen, commercial divers, to name a few–and the young, middle-to-upper class young men who took their twenties off to play at hippiedom before returning to the affluent, nine-to-five fold in their later years.
Even if you hold the same sort of commitment as Finnegan (and many surfers of his age and experience do) what is it about having more people surfing that destroys this ideal? Communing with nature is not a an activity that requires utter solitude. Granted, it isn’t helped by the sort of crowds you find on the Gold Coast or Trestles, but it wouldn’t necessarily be degraded by them if not for a second logic at play. Like nearly all modern culture, surfing is based around the glorification of the individual and his or her “performance” on a wave. Aside from underpinning all sorts of arbitrary performance criteria, this also means one rider per wave, and no sharing. If you surf like this–and we all surf like this–almost any crowd is too much crowd. There is plenty to appreciate about enjoying the environment with other people, but nearly all of it disappears when you enter into pitched competition with those people for limited resources.
This is why I always take issue when surfing is portrayed as an ancient Polynesian ritual. What we do today is not, in either practice or spirit, the sport of kings. Those kings were eradicated and their culture clear cut to make way for modernity. What we do is the sport of kings reimagined by beach developers and marketing hacks, men–and they are predominantly men–whose world view is so caught up in the late 20th century dream of infinitely expanding economies of scale that they can’t conceive of any activity that isn’t dictated by the same goals, and rules as the New York Stock exchange. By proxy, neither can we.
Such a world view has its advantages. For one, it has allowed us to develop and maintain a society that is so affluent and comfortable we have enough free time (in which we aren’t working in fields, or sewing jeans, or digging minerals out of pits, etc) to actually go surfing regularly. Think about that: despite the fact that not one modern surfer lives in a pre-Columbian society that allows him to drop everything and go surfing whenever the waves are good, he still has enough time to indulge his hobby at least once a week. And this when he often lives between a 10 minute and one hour drive from the ocean.
This is a small miracle that is too easily taken for granted, but it’s also one facet of the larger issue: surfing is not an escape from modern life, it’s part and parcel of it. When you look at it like this, growing crowds aren’t an aberration. They are its only end game–the golden economy of scale that the very culture has been pushing towards ever since Hume Ford recognized it as a great way to market beach condos and mai tais. Simply because it is a form of leisure that is more connected to nature than say, playing video games or going to church, does not make it exempt from the wider currents that govern our lives.
The glib answer to the original question of who is “ruining” surfing is always “Sarah Gold”– i.e. “someone else.” But only a fool or a hypocrite faults someone for buying the dream that he sold them. One of the driving fetishes of the outdoor industries is to make a living doing what you love. The problem with this is that in nearly every case making money from the environment actively degrades it. Nearly fifty years of running the surf industry like a giant Ponzi scheme that sells sexy images of sea-bound escape to frustrated 9-to-5ers in order for a select crew of bros to travel the world and surf has done exactly what it was always going to do: filled up the spots that everyone wants to surf with frustrated 9-to-5ers on cheap pop-out boards and expensive board shorts made by North Korean slaves.
So if you really want to know who has trashed this funny little activity that we all love doing, the answer is you. You who sold surfing viciously, as if it would have no consequences, you who bought it thinking you could adopt an identity like a new set of clothes, and especially you who would rather gripe about how everyone else is ruining your good time.