Riding waves is relatively simple. It's everything else that isn't. Photo: Burkard

One of surfing’s foundational premises, one of its principal allures, is its simplicity. Consider the fact that among the most famous words ever written about the sport is a sentence that comes from the first issue of this magazine. It’s a caption to a photo of a faceless surfer, back to the camera, knee-paddling in utter solitude toward a perfect, right-breaking wave at Hammond’s Reef in Santa Barbara. “In this crowded world,” SURFER founder John Severson wrote in that 1960 issue, “the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”

If the sentence sounds familiar, that’s because it gets conjured in this magazine something like half a dozen times a year in one way or another, a fact that has remained constant for decades, as regular and predictable as the tides. (There was no way, for instance, that this essay on simplicity was ever going to not lead with the Severson quote.)

Of course, it gets reprinted at such an alarming rate for a reason, which is that, 52 years after it was first published, it encapsulates not only what the surf experience was in 1960, but what the surf experience is now. It’s a sentence that connotes solitude, a degree of brooding, and a constant, obsessive, and ultimately fruitless quest for that always-out-of-reach perfection in a decidedly imperfect world. It’s a sentence that, to my mind at least, remains the best, most reasonable explanation as to why anybody has ever put a board in the water.

I doubt he thought about it in the self-serious way I’ll interpret it here, but what Severson really seemed to be saying with that sentence was that surfing, simple as it was, offered at least the possibility of reconnecting us with what we’ve  lost. Surfing was the basic and rudimentary antidote to society’s ceaseless encroachment on our humanity.

And why did Severson portray surfing as such a change agent? Because surfing was simple. Think of the implied simplicity in both the image and the caption on that spread. In the image, the surfer is paddling out to a perfect, and perfectly ridable, wave, entirely alone. He’s unidentified. We can’t see his face. He is simply “the surfer.” He’s not wearing a wetsuit, of course, nor is there a leash in the picture (the wetsuit was in its nascent stages at that point, and hadn’t been accepted into the main; as for the surf leash, it hadn’t been invented yet, not properly at least). There are, of course, no crowds. There are only four elements: A surfer, a board, “the surf and his thoughts.”

No bullshit, in other words. Man, board, wave. Simple.

Look around “this crowded world” today and things are certainly less simple. There are the obvious facts of all the things that weren’t in the picture in 1960 but are very much in our proverbial picture now. There are wetsuits and leashes and surf cams and localism and overcrowding. Few of us will experience the aesthetic pleasure of a right-hand pointbreak as isolated and symmetrical as late-’50s era Hammond’s Reef. “This crowded world” has extended into the lineup, which is now just as overpopulated, overheated, and overhyped as the outside world Severson’s view of surfing was meant to protect us from, a world couched in by image and choice and indecision, by fear and gear.

I don’t mean to overstate the case. Some things remain constant, and when we’re surfing, we still get to spend time in an environment that itself seems to be elemental and essential in a way that few things are in the world today. Given that we live in a society that is relentlessly demanding of our time and attention, a society that presents a vague but threatening need to get things done, to remain constantly tuned-in, there’s certainly a case to be made for the sport’s lasting function as a simplifying agent. For those one or two hours that we are surfing, we get to sit in a large, undulating body of water and wait for a band of formless energy to come. And then we get to ride that energy for a handful of seconds before paddling back out and doing it all again. There’s nothing especially complicated about that.

But it’s also not simple. It’s not simple for all of the clichéd reasons—the multi-billion-dollar surf industry, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But to start blaming industry is to point out the obvious, and it’s also to miss the point.

No, what’s most complicated about surfing, I think, has very little to do with the business of surfing, with surf websites and surf cameras and surf clothing companies, with surf magazines and the basic ridiculousness of the idea of professional surfing in general—all of the avenues down which we tend to point our fingers. What’s most complicated about surfing, I think, is the fact that surfing tends to take away as much as it gives.

The things that I’ve missed, or nearly missed, because I was riding waves, or attempting to do the same are bountiful: My best friend’s wedding, my own wedding; the birth of my godson, the birth of my own son; job interviews; family dinners. And those are just the big ones. Add to that list the dozens and dozens of more mundane appointments, meetings, and dates that I’ve skipped out on to surf, or the fact that I can’t drive past a surf break without craning my neck to assess the conditions, that my eyes gravitate naturally to flagpoles and the tops of trees, the fact that I’m an otherwise responsible person who will more or less abandon all civility and dive deep into a pool of selfishness if the right amalgam of wind and waves and tide comes my way—add all that into the mix and what you get is the fact that for as much as surfing adds to your life, it takes plenty away in trade.

Recently I was considering the possibility of a job offer away from the coast. I was grousing to a friend of mine about the prospect, when he stopped me cold in my tracks. “The real problem here is that you wouldn’t want to take it because you’d have to move away from the water.”

It was a punch to the gut, mostly because my friend was absolutely right.

It was a realization I’d had a few years prior: That surfing, something I held dear to me presumably because it in some way enhances my life, something that in some way simplifies my life, often serves the exact opposite function.

Someone had offered me the prospect of a well-paying job I love doing, a job that would provide security for my wife and son and daughter, and the most obvious mitigating factor was that I might have to give up something as inherently meaningless as riding a wave?

Ironically, it’s that need to always be near the surf that makes some people hang it up altogether. About a month ago, a nice shot of swell ran up the coast, and as I hotfooted down the trail at my local break, I ran into a friend I know from the water. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I hadn’t seen him in far too long. He’s one of the best surfers at this break—the type of guy who can get any wave he wants any time he wants, and the type of guy who can ride the wave better than most. His wetsuit was pulled to his waist, but he wasn’t carrying a board. Instead, he had in his hands a pair of swim fins.

“Not surfing?” I asked.

“No, bodysurfing,” he replied.

“Where you headed?” I asked. The sun was out, the surf was a few feet overhead, and at the bottom of that trail was a nice A-frame and a light crowd. But while I looked out at the main peak, this friend of mine swung his arm hard right and pointed to a bit of closeout shorebreak a hundred yards down the beach.

“Looks like fun,” he said.

I stared at him quizzically. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I quit surfing,” he said, all business. “Gave it up. I can’t handle it any more. It’s too much.”
He didn’t provide any further explanation, but I understood exactly what he was talking about. It’s a gripe I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency in each passing year.

You see it every time the ocean kicks up even a modest bit of energy, energy about which you’ll be alerted by your favorite surf forecasting website, from which you receive email notifications and swell updates. That website informs you that “significant swell activity” will be coming to your area. You cross-reference that swell forecast with tide charts and wind models, and with the excitement that it all adds up comes a healthy dose of modern-day surf anxiety. What are you going to do? Drive three hours north? Ten hours south? Will you take your 5’2″ Mini-Simmons? Your 5’7″ Dumpster Diver? Your 6’3″ step-up? You’ll take them all, of course, each individually wrapped in their respective solar-reflective board bags. But what kind of fin setup? Quad or thruster? Standard fiberglass or carbon fiber? FCS or Futures? When you get there, when will you paddle out? Hit the tide push or wait till it sucks out? Fight the morning crowd or hope the wind stays off it and get it in the afternoon? Left or right?

Being simple has never been so exhausting.

The obvious reaction to all of this growth, for a certain type of person at least, is to brace himself hard against the onslaught. To cloister himself, and to ignore the surfing mainstream. To take hard stances against things like SURFER and Surfline and the ASP Tour. To ride outdated boards on outlying waves. To greet surfing’s increasingly complicated tableau with a makeshift simplicity: Black wetsuit, white board, no leash. Keel-fin fish instead of a quad-fin shortboard. No-fin alaia instead of tri-fin thruster. Duck Feet bodysurfing fins instead of any board at all.
When we discuss this particular brand of surfer we tend to frame our discussion in either spiritual or sartorial terms. These throwback characters are either being “retro” because they want to affect a certain look, or because they think taking a more elemental surfing stance will bring them closer to enlightenment, we tell ourselves. We poke fun, even as we envy, but we rarely stop to consider that the choice might have far less to do with fashion or faith, with wanting to be perceived a certain way at all, and far more to do with wanting to experience surfing in a more simplified manner. This type of surfer wants to know that in this crowded lineup, they can still seek and find something authentic, if not something perfect.

Because part of being a surfer is to feel like you have an inside track on something that other people don’t know about. We’ve given ourselves over to an environment that grounds us down in some way. It’s not golf: The range is not always open, the tee time can never be set. Instead, if you’re going to have any chance at succeeding, any chance at finding that special combination of reeling waves and light crowds and surfed-out bliss, you’ve got to keep your eye tuned to things that are exceedingly basic and elemental—wind, weather, the rhythm of ocean tides and currents, swell patterns, the fundamental sways, really, of nature itself.

All of which feels simple. But of course it’s not. Because there’s nothing simple about being that tuned in to anything. Like love or drugs or food or whatever the hell it is that people get hooked on, being compulsively needy over any one thing might feel cathartic and single-pointed and self-assuring, but it does incredibly complex things to a person. Living as a surfer is no different. Living as a surfer turns out to be a complicated undertaking, one that leads to conflicting and competing desires. Which is the point. Surfing might be simple. But at what cost to us?