I was recently asked a question in an interview from a surfing organisation in the UK.
How long does it take to truly understand surfing?
Which I guess is another way to ask what is surfing all about.
The correct answer to these questions is I don’t know.
But it did make me think a little.
And what surfing is about and has always meant to me is a couple of things.
As a board maker and keen surfer, or previously as a professional surfer, surfing has meant being on a quest of refining and developing boards that will improve my surfing experience by solving the problems that the current board I’m surfing is throwing at me.
This can be things like the board I’m surfing let’s say in 1978 at 23 years old with a single fin 6’6 19¾ 2¾ round pin vee bottom and it’s going ballistic in perfect Narrabeen 4 to 6 feet lefts holding well off the bottom, turning tight under the lip, plenty of speed thru turns etc, but is a little slow and stiff in smaller weaker waves, how can I make it work there?
Every surf is a test session, every turn is a test moment, every element is under scrutiny to be improved or remodelled to fit new conditions or performance levels.
Every trip away or new contest presents a new experience of success or failure as board maker and surfer.
The end game is to have under your feet equipment that produces a pure performance in the water.
Where the board responds perfectly to every situation, holding a pure line throughout the bottom turn, extending up the face to transition exactly where you intended the board to be hitting the lip and to feel this through the soles of your feet the satisfying turns at speed that flow one to another.
This is a pure mission, a never ending mission as it turns out.
I’ve had plenty of landmark boards, boards that are magic, that produce the above pureness of line and feel, but it’s never enough there is always new ideas or rehashing of old elements to push board design and surfing to new levels.
As it turns out new generations of surfers who have an imagination and vision of where surfing can go are also game changers and equipment changers.
I know myself growing up at Narrabeen watching the best most progressive surfer in the world Col Smith surfing at a level never seen before thru the late 60’s and early 70’s.
I also remember watching Wayne Lynch at times thru this same era surfing under the lip on his backhand.
The best surfing ever done to that point.
I was inspired by this surfing, you couldn’t help it, and I worked on what I saw them doing and with the steady improvement in shape and design it was possible for me and my generation Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards, Dane Kealoha, Rabbit etc to build on their legacy.
You see it today with Kelly Slater, how could anyone build on his legacy, I don’t know but they did, Dane Reynolds, John Florence, Medina etc. Taking surfing beyond Kelly, beyond what’s possible, you see it in their technique and surfboards.
I believe boards have evolved to the point where they no longer work??
They are too fast and too loose??
I say this because of how they are surfed at times.
Surfers now can gain enough speed on a relatively moderate sized wave to launch higher into the air than it is possible to land successfully??
Obviously they aim a little lower, but none the less they have the speed to go beyond the makeable.
Surfers are also consistently going too fast to execute turns on the face so they have invented ways in which to turn at a speed too fast to hold a rail.
The drop wallet off the top and the rail grab round house cutback.
2 manoeuvres defying the laws of motion and physics.
Through the Kelly era we have seen the development of the modern high performance board, it wasn’t necessarily the best era for the average surfer. Getting on equipment that helped Kelly go to the next couple of levels was not necessarily good for Joe average surfing.
The modern HP boards have low volume, making it difficult to catch waves and are generally too twitchy and sensitive for lower level or older surfers. In spite of this you could occasionally do the best turn of your life, but other than that it was a bit of a mess connecting turns. Anyway, this is a great position for surfing and board makers to be in, we can take all the good stuff from the modern high performance board and sprinkle it with practical elements to heighten the average surfers’ experience.
Which I think for me has become part of my mission, to heighten the experience of the individual the same way as I’ve tried to heighten the experience of my own surfing thru the years, by making just what I need for the conditions at hand. A nice reliable step up board for stronger waves, a good all-rounder for 3 to 5 feet, a lively shorter board for 2 to 4 feet and a fishy thing for 1 to 2 foot little summer conditions.
So this is a big part of what surfing is to me, but having said that I realise that at my time of life, 60 in 2014, my needs are changing relatively quickly as I get older. My surfing experience is that I really need to work on my surfing to stay at a ready state to be limber and flexible enough to perform at a level that brings satisfaction. Having done this I then need the equipment to be there right for the conditions again in order to execute turns that feel good to me now.
These days I need more volume generally just to make sure I catch the wave efficiently and get going as quick as possible. This is essential in an area like Sydney where the waves can be short and the best section will be the first one you hit after the initial take off. But when you hit the good section you don’t want the board to feel too big and slow and getting that balance right is the hard thing, but key.
I still find I’m the same person as the 23 year old from 1978 working on my boards to produce that pure line thru a series of turns.
Sometimes I wish I could let go of the development or even the continued assessment of my boards and just surf, is this surfing for me I guess because the surf is always different and I’m older and slower the mission is still there at the forefront of my consciousness to assess and adjust to improve.
I’m very fortunate to be a board maker and to be able to test out the occasional new idea or a slight modification of an existing shape. I don’t have to tell anyone how wonderful it is to surf a new shooter that goes beyond expectations, it is one of the great experiences in surfing.
To me the other great experience, probably the key experience, the pinnacle, the best is to surf in good waves either alone or with just a few other surfers in the water.
This is my other answer to what is good about, or what does surfing mean.
Surfing is definitely about surfing good waves with a magic board and just a few guys/girls to share it with.
This is pretty much stating the obvious, master of the bleeding obvious I am.
You do need the magic or at least good reliable board so you take advantage of the session and don’t blow the wave of the day if you get it. But unless you live in a remote region or a great wave region this situation, uncrowded perfection, is very uncommon and requires a good deal of perseverance and effort to bring about, but ultimately I think it is a key ingredient to defining what surfing should at times be. You will need to follow a lifestyle pattern that will allow you to achieve this at least a couple of times a year or ideally every month or two to be, in my opinion, in the game to be a surfer in tune with surfing.
There are more spiritual connotations to the surfing experience, the bonding with the ocean, swell rhythm, tide flow etc. I’m not a big subscriber of this but going surfing can make you feel pretty good no doubt. And you definitely need to stay in touch with the ocean to be on hand and be ready for the good days.
Midget Farrelly I believe made the statement the best surfer is the one having the most fun, for some guys it’s about surfing the biggest meanest waves possible, for others it’s the reverse.
Surfing is a personal journey I say don’t waste your life go surfing.
This is another general quote I’ve heard “at the end of your life not many people make the statement I wish I spent more time at work”.