I was surfing at home recently with two men and a woman — strangers, and remarkably kind. This little traveling pod of kindness was on a road trip looking for waves. They were clean and healthy like a Patagonia catalog. They shared well and were, in general, delightful people. They were very far from home.
This wave we were surfing is, despite being perhaps my favorite place in the universe, not a very good wave. For the most part, it is a weakling. Fun, but not life-altering and definitely not a wave to lose your cool over.
The kindness pod and I had a lovely time trading waves for a couple hours and then they went in. I watched them walk down the beach and wished they would be my friends.
By the time I walked up to the parking lot a half an hour later, everyone had retreated to their corners. It was clear that something had gone down. What I gathered from a bystander was that the clean, healthy kindness pod was changing out of their wetsuits when out of the blue, 280 pounds of local color went insecure, and attacked them in a drunken rage. Bystanders did their best to restrain him but he managed to get ahold of one of their boards and smash it Jimi Hendrix style against the pavement. There was nothing more to the story. The local guy hadn’t even suited up that day. He was too drunk.
The territorial mindset of the surfers I grew up with has always appeared to me as the desperate rally cry of a profoundly insecure group of mostly men convinced their community could be lost at any moment. Their identities are inseparable from the land they inhabit. Without this territory—these waves and these cliffs—the essence of their persons would be lost. Localism, in this context, is about much more than an uncrowded lineup. They are the self-proclaimed guardians of a history and culture that is threatened by infiltrators who know nothing of their unique plight, however abstracted and inarticulate that plight may be. The land, it would seem, is all they have.
Surfers are like this everywhere, not only this remote wave land where I grew up. The reality is, surf culture condones aggression. When I was 10 years old I internationally ran over my best friend because she didn’t move out of my way. I put a six-inch gash in her board and I yelled at her for making me do it. We are not at our best when we surf. We are hungry idiots.
It’s a shame because surfing is one of the few things I have found that makes me feel so right in my weird skin. Maybe that pure, bone-deep joy we feel when we stand up on a wave is just too strong. Maybe we aren’t ready for surfing.