What is a surfer? (A cultural inquiry)
“What is a surfer?”
This is the question that got me thinking these last two weeks at La Pointe de la Torche.
It’s clear that I am not.
Not because of inability, but because to be a surfer means more than being able to surf. It is no more the case that everyone able to surf is a surfer, than that everyone able to write is a writer.
Not because I’m English, because surfers come from everywhere. You don’t have to be Hawaiian or Australian.
And not because I don’t have dreadlocks. You can be a surfer whatever your haircut.
So what is a surfer?
My first definition would be “One who organises his life around surfing activities”. Here at La Pointe, there is a small surf shop and school that opens at 10am and closes at 6pm. Just before and straight after, the young sole employee is found 800 metres down the road getting his twice daily minimum dose of surf. Occasionally in the middle of a really good day, he slips off for an hour or so whilst his manager holds the fort. It doesn’t matter how many tourists are in shopping. The surf dictates. The waves must be followed.
In some extreme cases, the surfer follows waves around the globe around the year. Not Kelly Slater, nor Point Break’s Bodhi, but normal real surfers who simply want to ride every day. They seek out swell and different breaks like a train-spotter might seek out platforms and engines. A small percentage of people who do this are funded by sponsorship, a successful start-up sold to “the man” or some inheritance or lottery winnings. But the bonafide surfer type who is the subject of this exposé is more likely to meet his limited economic needs with seasonal or informal work or by trading some service in return for meals and board.
The surfer is not concerned with health insurance and pensions or other future-safe solutions. Not through ignorance or naïveté, for he knows very well that tomorrow may not look as good as today. But living with the swell is a momentary thing and each moment follows another in a simple way, without fear and anxiety. Those “other guys” can deal with that. The surfer has better things to do than spend his lifetime worrying about later, trying to please “the man” and living as long as he can at all cost.
The extreme version of this “here and now” surfer archetype is the big-wave surfer. His church is where the open ocean meets land with force and speed and wondering about tomorrow is the last thing he can permit himself when taking-off on a 64-foot wave. He has chosen his wave. Mother Nature will take care of the rest.
Believing in Mother Nature, the oneness of the universe or the simple kindness of “kin” is another fundamental piece of the surf culture. To live in the “here and now” requires a great deal of trust in one’s own ability as a human, as well as the actions of others. You can see this on the faces of the real surfers. Stoke. This is not just the giddy wide-eyed “stoned” look that follows an awesome ride. It is a deep look of calm and peace and integration with one’s surroundings.
At La Pointe de la Torche there are a lot of people faking it. Not people like me. I am just a regular guy who comes to surf. No longer trying to prove anything. I am not a surfer and I know it. But some of the others are pretending. You can tell they are pretending when the laid-back beach behaviour is aggressive in the water. This is “my” wave and “you” are “just” a “tourist”. The real surfers are not claiming anything or fighting anyone. Everyone and everything “is” and that’s all. It always has been and always will be. There is nothing and no-one to fight against. We are all one and there is enough stoke for everyone. The real surfer is more likely to offer a small advice or grin from ear-to-ear when the tourist does something groovy.
So what would a surfer be without a wave?
If we were to start stripping away the layers of Trompenaars’ “culture onion” in search of a surfer, we would be tempted to point at words like “awesome” and “cool” and the poster-image of floppy clothes and tribal tattoos. Looking for norms and values, we might label the surfer as “carefree” or “anti-establishment”.
But in fact, “surfer” is nothing to do with these stereotypical labels and ideas. The core of the surfer onion is simply “one who organises his life around surfing activities”. Everything else is just bling.
..and so I can extrapolate to other cultures and domains: A musician is not just someone who can play music, not even someone who plays music for a living, but simply someone “who organises his life around music-making activities”. A writer organises his life around writing activities.
In conclusion, I suspect therefore that what makes a surfer a surfer, a musician a musician and and writer a writer is neither the surf, the music nor the writing. It is focus. It is the single-minded pursuit of one core thing that directs everything else. It is living in its own here and now, akin to others of its own type, sharing its own beautiful universe with anyone riding the same wave.