The Surfing Culture


The Surfing Culture Essay, Research Paper

Surfing: A Sport, Language, Lifestyle, and Religion

Since the dawn of time, powerful natural phenomena such as hurricanes and distant storms have created majestic waves that grace our every shoreline. With ceaseless turmoil their seething energy has shaped our coastlines and recently, our cultures. Those lucky enough to experience the joy of riding the fluid motion of waves, are apprehended by the driving desire to forever be consumed by the pure, natural energy they extend. In this ethnography, I shall examine how surfing has enhanced the lives of millions of people around the world and simultaneously produced a culture unlike no other.

I. Polynesians/Hawaiians

Surfing was first developed between 1500 BCE and 400 CE by Native Western Polynesians in a culture that truly called the ocean its home (Howard, 1999). At first, the natural art of surfing was reserved particularly for the enjoyment of royalty. Consequently chiefs used surfing and other Hawaiian sports under the Kapu system of laws for hundreds of years as competition to maintain their strength, agility, and command over their people (Olney, 1965). It also played a vital role in Hawaiian courtship rituals, where women were asked to accompany the men on their giant surfboards. The royal families had their own prayers, chants, board shapers, wood, and private beaches where they alone could surf with others of similar rank (Maxwell, 1949). King Kamehameha is said to have been an expert surfer and a master of the art of lele-wa a or leaping from a wave-riding canoe with a surfboard, (Holmes, 1999). During this time, hieroglyphics were carved into the lava-rock landscape and there were chants telling the stories of great surfing feats carrying a symbolic knowledge throughout the generations. Meanwhile on the other side of the Earth, Stonehenge was a center of religious worship in England and the first tomb was built in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, suggesting the possibility that the sport of kings just may be the world s oldest sport.

Then came the Europeans to the pristine shores of Hawaii in 1778. Formerly the simple act of swimming was generally discontinued in Europe through the Middle Ages, as it was thought that outdoor bathing help to spread the terrible epidemics of various diseases which swept the Continent (Bloomfield, 1965). As there was no observed written language at this time in Hawaii, Captain Cooke s journal entries serve as man’s earliest written account of the Hawaiian sport (Olney, 1965). Surfing rituals and the sport itself continued until missionaries from New England began arriving 1820 (

The wave of colonialism was unlike any wave the Hawaiians had tried to surf before, and many of their customs and traditions were washed away. The missionaries believed surfing and other Hawaiian sports to be hedonistic acts and a waste of time. They adamantly preached against the nudity, the sexuality, and the sports’ total existence in Hawaii. It was simply too raw for their superficial sensibilities. Island visitor Mark Twain described them as ignorant of all human nature and natural ways of men, (Barros, 1999). By 1890, surfing in Hawaii was nearly extinct, with the sport practiced in only a few places. The rapidly growing agricultural empire coming into place, combined with the immigration of foreigners, also contributed to the decline of surfing, along with many other sacred aspects of the Polynesian culture. If not for the dedication of a few Hawaiian kings like David Kalakau, an advocate of all Hawaiian sports , surfing may not have survived to see the 20th century (

In the early 1900 s, a young Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku and his friends began surfing together at Waikiki beach. They even created their own surf club, Hui Nalu, or “The Club of the Waves, now commonly known as the Da Hui. Later a two-time champion Olympic swimmer, Duke s popularity enabled him to spread the love of surfing around the world. His introduction of surfing to the spectators on the beaches of California ignited a revolution in both surfboard design and wave-riding techniques. The California shores soon became grounds for surfing expansion and innovation. According to legend, Duke rode some of the longest, biggest waves ever attempted, and one such ride was said to have been over a mile. Soon people everywhere were attempting to copy the grace of Duke in their local line-up. By this time, the missionaries’ influence over the island had begun to decline, freeing up an avenue for the reintroduction of surfing in Hawaii. Today Duke and his friends are credited with the rebirth of surfing in Hawaii.

II. Surfboard Evolution

In order to get the full perspective of the surfing culture, it is necessary to examine the tool at the heart of it, the surfboard. When the first Polynesians began standing on waves, the Kapu system determined how, why, and with what materials surfboards were to be made. The type of wood used in making a board depended on the future rider’s status in society. Class distinction in old Hawaii was as apparent in the ownership of surfboards as it was in all other aspects of the culture. If shaping the board for the ali i or ruling class, a lengthy surfboard, called an olo, between 14 and 16 feet long was precisely crafted using premium wiliwili wood. Because of their size, these boards could weigh up to 175 pounds. The other board, called an Alai, was normally intended for the commoners and was made smaller, 10 to 12 feet, with a heavier and denser wood, koa. After the craftsmen selected the wood to be used, they prayed and placed a ceremonial fish, kumu, in a hole near the tree’s roots. Only after this ritual was completed could the tree be cut down. They then hauled the tree away and chipped and shaped it to size with a bone or stone tool. When the surfboard was finished, its creators dedicated it before its first voyage into the sea. After each use, it was habitually treated with coconut oil and wrapped in tapa cloth to preserve and protect the wood.

(Interview: Byzak, 2001)

Traditionally, Hawaiian boards as well as being heavy, had no fins. To make a turn of any sort, a surfer had to drag a foot in the water behind the board. But soon the boards were being adapted, first with fins, then in the 1940’s as hollow plywood boards.

By the 1950’s balsa wood and fiberglass made carting boards back and forth from the beach a lot easier. The hot-dogging age had begun, with everyone trying to hang five or hang ten. Competitions and surfboard companies began to boom in the 1960’s and people started altering their boards to get an edge to win. By the end of the 1960’s everyone was experimenting with size, and boards ranged from the traditional 10 6 down to a mini 4 8 . Today s technology allows surfboards to be made strong as a rock, light as a book, and designed for creative aerial tricks, although there are still those who prefer the classic shapes of the past. Shaping has truly become a sophisticated art form, with many surfers choosing a board maker with more care than they do their waves. Board makers (shapers) dedicate themselves to getting a mix of art and science, creating boards as individual as the surfers who ride them.

III. 50 s-70

The sport of surfing was unlike anything the world had ever witnessed, and by the 1950 s a California onlooker might have thought the fever really was caught through the water. Helped along by Gidget and her beach bopping teen movies, a new culture began to emerge under the guidance of legends such as Lance Carson, Phil Edwards, Mickey Dora, and Mike Doyle at places like Malibu (near Hollywood, Ca.). With rapid technological advances, surfers began looking to equip themselves for the larger and more challenging surf, such as the treacherous North Shore of Oahu during the winter months. The gentle waves found at Waikiki beach were perfect for the promotion of surfing, but it was the lure of giant waves that prompted the real dares for surfers looking to put their lives on the line. By the 1960 s, the attraction of the North Shore’s swells had brought on a migration of surfers from California in search of the ultimate ride down some of the world’s biggest waves. When the winter swells hit at Waimea it is not uncommon to see waves climb to nearly 25 feet in height. “When surfing big waves it is essential to have the proper crazed attitude that implies a certain reckless disregard for personal safety. If you paddle out thinking you are going to get hurt, you will. If you think you can’t make the drop, you won’t. If you begin to wonder what in the world you’re doing out among those threatening waves, it’s time to be thankful you’re still alive and head for the beach, (Interview: Slingerland, 2001). It was this kind of thrill seeking and addiction to big wave riding, by people such as Greg Noll and Pat Curren, that revolutionized the sport of surfing. In the late 60 s and early 70 s, surfing became a peaceful way to escape the hardships of life on shore, as the use of drugs and the call to war was a major turning point in the lives of young men. During the 1970 s, surfing had a very soul searching nature appeal, and contests became less of a focus while style, performed by the majestic Gerry Lopez at Pipeline, was of utmost importance.

IV. Today

Through my research it seems that modern surfing and commercialism have evolved hand in hand as both the sport and the tourist/travel industry have developed over the years. In essence, the “soul theory of surfing evolution” is no longer existent. The relaxed, free spirited, athletic personification that surfing emitted appears to have been the perfect marketing tool. The simple act of surfing now seems to be ill-fated in comparison to the benefit gained from capitalist moves to gain recognition in magazines. Many people feel that many of the recognized professional surfers of today are overrated and commercialized (Interview: Honda, 2001). While still others view people such as 6-time World Champion Kelly Slater as a god, a legend in his own time (Interview: Bandov, 2001). There s no doubt that without widespread exposure the sport would never have been able to advance so quickly. Despite the capitalist drift, surfing is and always will be a sport of intense physical and cerebral excitement, thus the shared joyful experience of riding waves is what’s most responsible for its revival.

V. The Language Within

Bro, I was so amped, just digging for this one epic rogue peak at blown out Lowers on my rhino chaser, and just as I was getting pitted on this reeling, just dredging left, this kooking haole grommet, snaking me on some barge just bailed in front of me and went over the falls, and right as I was getting spit out I just got hooked by the back wash and took the worst wipe-out ever. Ended up rock dancing the whole way in with this gnarly ding on my tail. Whoa, stoked, should ve done a Barney roll. Huh? Say that again

As the sport of surfing has progressed over the years, with board innovations allowing for an array of inventive maneuvers, a sub-language used to describe the various situations developed right along with it. To outsiders the speech may seem confusing and unrecognizable, yet this apparently is exactly what its creators had intended. Because surfing has changed from a royalty only sport, to something now enjoyed by millions around the world, it is evident that those dedicated to the sport needed to create a way to distinguish themselves from those who were simply interested. Just as a tourist can easily be recognized by their confusion among locals in a foreign country, a beginning or highway surfer (one who carries a surfboard but never surfs) stands out among a crew of devotees. As a one-man sport, the language is simply another was to retain the individualism. So perhaps many may view it as ethnocentrism among the surfing culture, but it can be understood when compared to indigenous peoples of the world fighting to preserve the unique aspects of their own culture.

Another part of the surfing culture, which has developed in recent years as a result of the widespread popularity, is the unwritten laws out in the water. These laws ensure proper edict between everyone out in the water, regardless of their surfing ability.

The Unwritten Laws:

Don t Drop In (the person taking off closest to the breaking part of the wave has priority). Don t Paddle Out Through the Break (go around, it’s safer and won’t spoil any rides).

Don t Hog Waves (riding each and every wave in a crowded break is bad manners).

Don t Endanger Others (uncontrolled and unnecessary maneuvers are dangerous).

Don t Surf Beyond Your Ability (you could put yourself in places beyond your ability).

Don t Surf On Your Own (surf with a friend).

Share the Sea (everyone has a right to waves – share them).

Any violation of these laws may result in an argument, fight, injury, or even death. In most cases, these laws are rarely discussed until they re broken, but by then it s too late. Surfers generally learn the unwritten laws as a result of time spent out in the water observing others. In recent years, many surfers have attempted to create another unwritten law, If you don t live here, don t surf here, (Interview: Benedict, 2001) Yet not only does it already break an established law, it erases any possibility of surf pilgrimages, an essential part of the surfing culture, thus there is no chance of approval by the house.

VI. A Lifestyle

One of the greatest parts of surfing, besides actually surfing, is the life that it instills outside of the water. For those unable to experience the incredible professional life of constant travel and surfing for a living, the simple health benefits seem enough to remain content. If surfing on a consistent basis, the cardiovascular exercise is excellent for the body. Yet in fact most surfers don t surf to workout but rather surf to surf (Interview: Stiegler, 2001) and focus on how they could improve their surfing outside the water. The majority of surfers are in top shape as they stretch, eat healthy, and workout in order to increase their performance level and surf bigger waves. Some people even train for big waves by running on the bottom with small boulders which increases ones ability to hold their breath while exerting energy (Interview: Gaukel, 2001).

An additional aspect of the surfing lifestyle is fashion. Regardless of climate most surfers are known to wear baggy generally earth tone colored clothing as a way to accentuate their relaxed/nature oriented lives (Interview: Olson, 2001). Yet to each his own, as the regard for individualism is still a very fundamental part of the culture. Commercialism and flashy logo s have led some people to believe that surfers are trendy (Interview: Rassel, 2001) or walking advertisements (Interview: Bussinger, 2001). Yet in general it appears that the majority surfers are into anti-fashion and continue to try and distinguish themselves from others, so true to style in fact, that as soon as a company becomes popular with non-surfers they stop wearing it. Surf posers are everywhere, we try to keep em guessing, (Interview: Shatto, 2001).

It seems evident that individualism is a prominent aspect of the surfing culture, yet one of the most substantial contributions to the growth of surfing and its accompanying lifestyle was the creation of surf clubs, a family for the individual. Throughout my research I found that if a surfer had never been involved with a surfing association, although showing interest, they had very little knowledge of what types of things occurred within. What really stands out is that the relationships with other members of the association are much like a shared salt-water bloodline, (Interview: Brolaski, 2001). Everyone is there to support each other, to give tips out in the water, to encourage during contests with other clubs, and to create surfing awareness out in the community. This awareness, a spreading of local knowledge, contributes to the organization of things such as beach clean-ups, water testing, and surf lesson days for those previously unwilling or unable to try. Through surfing associations, the surfing culture is truly able to make a group effort towards improving local communities. Many surfers are disappointed in the cleanliness of nearly all the beaches they visit as frequent water time shows first hand the horrible consequences of pollution. It s not uncommon to find tar on the rocks, trash in the sand, and dead fish on the shoreline from polluted water (Interview: Pidgeon, 2001). In turn this water may give surfers ear or throat infections, even impetigo, as the ocean tends to be the run off for everyone s trash (Interview: Barnett, 2001). The main goal of surf clubs is to spread the love of surfing, yet due to the massive pollution now witnessed on a daily basis, the focus has now become environmental awareness. As a result of the strong environmental views, many surfers have joined the Surfrider Foundation in addition to community surf clubs, to help promote the fight to save our coastlines.

VII. A Religion

As a result of the incredible devotion that most surfers have to the sport, this relationship with ocean suggests a deeper meaning in their lives, for many it appears may go so far as to call it their religion. A preposterous stretch? I think not, because for thousands of years nature has been the center focal point of religions around the world. The methodical rhythm of the ocean and the serenity of its presence around the body create a calm and peaceful state of mind. Surfing seems to create a euphoric level of consciousness, allowing the worries of life to just melt away. Such a mindset provides surfers with an easygoing view of the world around them. Perhaps the calm life approach is simply due to the pure physical exhaustion. Yet while more relaxed in their thoughts, in fact many surfers actually find themselves energized after a surfing session, comparable to a restoration of faith reestablished by an animated sermon from a priest.

I can’t hope to adequately capture the experience of surfing in words, because just as it is impossible to describe a religious experience in regular language, the two are often the same for many surfers, a religious experience and surfing. Imagine, if you will, a typical attendance at Mother Oceans Church of Surfing It’s early, very early in the morning. For some reason, like fisherman, surfers feel that being up before the sun increases one’s chances of success. It is as if they are proving their dedication to the wave gods by arising abnormally early, and in turn shall be rewarded with waves to surf. Before paddling out, there is a ritualistic stretch many times done in the rhythmic pattern of the rising sun, an awakening connection of the body to the soul. Next the sacred surfboard, a design passed down through the generations, is waxed and prepared for its ocean journey. Perhaps it even has a name and is gently spoken to in order to promote safe and thrilling rides. Upon first entry to the shoreline a handful of water is caressed and allowed to gently role down the contours of the face, a daily type of baptism to show an undaunting appreciation. Out in the lineup, waiting for the waves, one has to be content with the waiting, because patience is undoubtedly the first lesson taught by Mother Ocean. During this time many surfers close their eyes and take a deep breath of the rich ocean air, brief meditations in attempt to further focus oneself into the soothing rhythms of the sea (Interview: Anshel, 2001). It’s absolutely meditative, thus you might expect all surfers to be happy, spiritual people. This, as we know, is not the case. Where some people, known as soul surfers, find beauty, peace, and contentment in surfing, others find reasons to be jealous, reasons to hate. Even on the great days, there is waiting and watching, and the waves will not be hurried and nor get bigger in response to the frustration and wanting of the surfers in the water. The waves come when they want to come, and they build and break as they please. One could make themselves miserable, wanting the waves to be bigger, faster, and more frequent. Yet even then, they will never be just as everyone wants them. Surfing teaches that the world works on it’s own time, not ours.

It’s easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as invulnerable against nature. Our technology makes us feel superior to the world of wind, waves, rain, and snow. This is an illusion always shown to those who dare enter the sacred ocean realm. There is a power in nature, and in the waves, that should inspire awe, fear, and respect. A wave of sufficient size to ride is also of sufficient size to pin one under the water, in the sand, unsure of which way is up, until ones breath goes. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu writes: The forgiving water is more powerful than the stone, for in time in it’s meandering, the water goes on, while the stone is made smooth. The Tao teaches the same manner of responding to the world that the sea does: accept what is given, do not hurry the world, and in acceptance comes strength.

Respect for nature, ourselves, and those around us is the second lesson learned in the surfing church. Not only do surfers have immense respect for nature but for the animals, which live within it as well. Sharks, with the ability to take away life as they please, are viewed with such respect that many call them a deity to the surfing culture. You eat shark, shark eat you, it s their territory out there, and surfers know, so they show them respect, (Interview: Watson, 2001) Dolphins as well are perhaps another deity, viewed as the ultimate waveriders they can often be found riding waves right along side surfers. We sometimes start to think that we somehow own this world, in which we ride always on top of the waves, dominating them. The Bible sets human beings against nature, makes human beings superior to, and in control of, nature, (Kinsley, 1995). This again is an ignorant illusive view. The sea teaches surfers gratitude for what they have, what they receive, and the delicate world around them.

Another element in the view of surfing as a religion is the pilgrimages. To some perhaps they are little more than an adventure, yet for most not only do they signify a spread of the culture, but a quest for perfection. The search as it is called in the surfing community, is the constant desire to find enlightenment through the waves. Consequently, most surfers, although not practicing, feel they are capable of ridding themselves of every material of man, almost. Wandering the Earth naked with a surfboard would be enough to make me happy, (Interview: King, 2001). Each surfer may hunt but never find the ultimate ride, while others may perhaps experience it everyday. It all depends on where the individuals look inside themselves to find exactly what it takes to make them happy.

The quest for perfection and self-awareness in the surfing culture is quite similar to some of the themes found in Buddhism. Buddhists feel that the struggle to attain self-mastery is far more worthwhile, and far more difficult, than the struggle to gain mastery over others as practiced by other religions such as Christianity (Kinsley, 1995). Surfing is an individual’s sport, thus improvement comes exclusively from inside the individual. Self-analysis through meditation, causing no harm to others, and ridding oneself of satisfaction cravings are the basic teachings of Buddhism in order to achieve enlightenment (Ibid). Now perhaps surfers may never achieve the Buddhist form of enlightenment, but it is good to know that they may at least follow in their path.

VIII. Conclusion

Overall, surfing has come a long way since the days when only only the royalty of Native Western Polynesians practiced it. Later, as a result of incredible efforts by Hawaiians to retain the unique aspect of their culture, surfing was kept alive in a time of rejection and spread to the rest of the world. As its popularity grew, so did the advancements in surfboard design, allowing for incredible maneuvers in waves once viewed as unsurfable by even the bravest of souls. In turn the sport produced a culture with its own unique vocabulary, unwritten laws, and fashion. Surf associations emerged to spread the love of surfing and to create environmental awareness throughout the community. Many feel so consumed by surfing that they consider it their religion. With its own unique practices, pilgrimages, and deities, surfing focuses on self-awareness and respect for nature. As a result surfing can now be compared with global religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. In conclusion, I hope those who read this ethnography shall give surfing a try themselves, perhaps benefit from what it has to offer, and ultimately become more aware of the precious world in which live. After all, God must have been a surfer.

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