Surf's Always Up in Mind of the Brave Daydreamer
Summer is the season for yearning. Amid our everyday business and busyness,
the sultry weather and languid days at the beach evoke the nostalgia of
childhood vacations and youthful vitality. We don't want summers to end.
For me at least, the dog days of August are liberating; my mind readily
wanders from the routine of workaday concerns and the horrors of
foreign wars and terrorist plots to thoughts about simpler things.
Reveries displace realities—at least for a fleeting moment. August is
the month for daydreaming, for looking at life through a gauze of
wonderment tinctured with regret about missed opportunities or vacant
Lately I have been daydreaming about surfing. My
twenty-something son Jason is a passionate surfer. I am not. Instead, I
must remain content with being an admirer of talented surfers. They
literally live on the edge—the edge of a board and the edge of
safety—they relish the perils of wave-riding. Perhaps it is because I
don't have the balance or the panache to ride a narrow board on surly
waves that I invest the activity with such envy, awe, and curiosity.
It's an intriguing sport. Or perhaps it is more accurately termed a
graceful form of recreation. Surfers do not keep score. Nor are they
required to perform within a defined time period, like football and
basketball players. Wave-riding requires little money, lean bodies,
tremendous balance, split-second decision-making, adolescent courage,
and elderly patience.
are nomads. They usually converge in small clusters at favorite sites
known for the best waves. Once they are in the water, conversation is
rare; the camaraderie of surfing is usually unspoken. As California
surfer Chris Brown explains, he rides waves in order "to escape. I
detach myself from land and separate from my troubles every time I surf.
Unless it's crowded, surfing is a very private time for me."
to absent themselves from crowds and immerse themselves in salt-water
solitude, surfers paddle out furiously, only to sit quietly astride
fiberglass-and-foam boards under cloudless skies, their gaze glued to
the horizon, their hearts keen with anticipation as they assess the
potential of each swell and break. The typically long intervals between
good waves give the undulating sport its unique rhythms. Waiting and
watching, paddling and preparing, and only rarely able to stand and
dazzle, they persevere, often from dawn to dusk. When the rare great
wave finally appears, it excites a surge of adrenalin that makes the
on the Carolina coast places a premium on patience. Really good waves
are rare. The lulls far outnumber the peaks. Compared to the West Coast
or Hawaii, the Atlantic surf is usually timid and tepid. Marginal
two-footers are the norm. As a consequence, surfers spend most of their
time paddling and waiting. And thinking. Yes, thinking about the nuances
and elusiveness of expectant waves and shifting winds and currents, but
also thinking about unrelated matters. Wave-waiting invites reflection,
and surfing involves more time for reflection than virtually any other
sport. It's a lot like fishing. No clock regulates its activities; only
the mysterious workings of nature determine its pace.
in sum, is a unique blend of athleticism and beauty, solitude and
camaraderie, freedom and dependence, intensity and calm. Its alchemy is
addictive, its aura alluring. Middle-aged Bob Shacochis, in his book Return of the Prodigal Surfer,
describes getting back into surfing after a long absence. "I had
collided head-on with my youth, and with what needed resurrection. I
wanted more waves. I wanted more waves the way a priest wants miracles,
the desert wants rain."
bring on more waves—whether real or imagined. Waves of insight and
waves of excitement: they both give surfing its distinctive appeal and
its peculiar ability to stop time. Indeed, the most famous movie about
surfing is aptly titled "Endless Summer." May your summer be endless
too—if not in reality, at least in your mind.
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University