How Did Surfing Come to Feel Like an Elite Sport, Anyway?

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Editor's Note:

Aaron James holds a PhD from Harvard and is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Assholes: A TheoryAssholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, and Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy and numerous academic articles. His latest book, Surfing with Sartre, uses the experience and the ethos of surfing to explore key concepts in philosophy.

It really is one of those things one should try before one’s death, like dragging paint across a large canvass. In surfing a wave, you’re carried along by a wave’s natural momentum, but not passively. You’re actively sensing the wave’s coming moment, skillfully adapting your body and weight as appropriate from one moment to the next. When you adapt attunedly, you find yourself sliding along the wave face as it curls and breaks, with speed, flowing lines, and stylish efficacy.

Why surf? For the fun of it, of course. But mainly for the reasons why it is joyful – because it’s a sublime and beautiful thing to do in one’s limited time in life.

It was in Tahiti around 1770 that Captain James Cook first laid eyes upon surfing. One of his crew members even tried it, surfing in a canoe. After observing the spectacle, a fellow crewman who documented the spectacle wrote: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”

Word traveled back to Europe and inspired a new notion: Happiness was not just an idea, but livable in one’s earthly lifetime. According to some historians, that thought fueled the French and the American Revolutions. In 1776, the American founders tweaked John Locke’s natural rights to “life, liberty, and property” to become “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Eventually, the hard labor of the industrial revolution gave way to the forty-hour workweek and post-war prosperity. Surfing became iconic of a new leisure culture. Seven or so decades later, the line-ups are crowded. More girls and women are hitting the waves, and there are plenty of opportunities for beginners. Even bodyboarding on an easy breaker gives a taste of the joy in being harmoniously propelled along.

Yet surfing remains something of an elite sport, for being difficult to learn. Even aside from the rudiments of paddling the damn wobbly surfboard and pushing through constant breakers, it takes a long, long time to reliably sense how an approaching wave will shift or inflect – and then get oneself in a position to catch the wave as it crests. It takes longer still to glide down the wave line as it reels down the beach, eventually doing turns and maneuvers.

Being so time-intensive, it helps to be fortunate (and rich) enough to live near an ocean. Yet even those lucky enough to surf like crazy as teens can find surfing slipping away under the responsibilities of adulthood, never quite finding an understanding spouse and a job with forgiving hours.

The rebel or hippie surfer is mainly gone; most surfers work regular hours in a culture that treats surfing as either “recharging the batteries” or self-indulgence. Doing it faithfully therefore depends on steady counter-cultural resistance to a perverse set of priorities. You tune out conventional expectations, focus on what is most worthy, and carefully count the high cost of work and moneymaking in time lost for surfing. When status seeking and the emblems of material prosperity tempt, you remind yourself that the workaholic suffers under an unfortunate affliction, or just isn’t in on the secret. Anyway those dudes are not spending a lot of time in the water.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – surely the hope was for something more than long days of work, whether in scraping by or in getting ever-richer. Meaningful as work can be, more people might feel alive and freer to pursue happiness if they had more time for other things. Maybe the balm for fading dreams and angry discontentment in “advanced” society is not the politician’s “jobs, jobs, jobs,” with even more labor, but rather a time-efficient thirty- or twenty-hour workweek. Maybe workers should be paid the same on average for less time in work, perhaps with greater per-hour efficiency, aided by technology.

Not that one’s “surfing” would have to be wave riding. Maybe it’s sailing or fishing. Or arts, crafts or music, golf or gardening. Or getting to know one’s spouse or playing with the kids at the lake or the beach.

Whatever one’s self-transcending pursuit, having more time for it, to really pursue it faithfully, might leave all of us feeling like a surfer: profoundly fortunate to be alive, if only to be around to keep on surfing.