Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from the soon to be released“The Average Surfer’s Guide,” a book about forgetting the glamour of the professional surf world and telling a relatable story from the average, everyday surfer’s point of view...
Surfing is unique and incredible in so many ways. It gives us all so much. The feeling of riding waves, being in nature and having the main arena for our pastime located in some of the most beautiful places on Earth is a nice return on investment. Watch surfers coming out of the water and you will see them smiling, bursting with contentment and self-confidence. Surfing is a life-long journey and commitment — the one constant commitment in all our lives.
Having a partner who understands surfing is a true passion is important. I run into a lot of surfers who have partners, both male and female, who state that their partners do not fully understand what surfing is to them and think they are just playing and goofing off in the water on the weekend. Essentially, we are just playing. But there is also something way deeper than that. Surfing makes us stronger, it satisfies the spiritual and supernal side of our selves. The side that is most neglected and relegated in modern society.
Surfing has a stigma that other hobbies don’t. Perhaps the time demands set out by surfing are why some partners find it hard to accept. The return on investment with surfing is largely internal and not outwardly evident to our better halves. So, many of these partners see surfing as an immature, meaningless activity that offers no more than some fun in the water. This can cause numerous problems. It is likely the same partner would give more credibility to a more mainstream activity they could understand.
Sometimes, I still find it a little embarrassing talking to people who are not surfers about all this. On Saturday morning I was dropping into overhead bombs and grabbing rail like my life depended on it. On Monday morning, I was explaining it to the office receptionist who was staring at me as if I was speaking a different language. Perhaps I was. Either way, it is almost impossible to accurately express the feelings and emotions stirred by surfing to a non-surfer.
I count myself lucky that my better half understands this addiction and has her own separate love affair with it. My other half is Steph. She is a fascinating, alluring, beautiful woman. Half Hispanic and half Filipino with a head of long, wavy, thick, brown hair. She has dark skin and an athletic build. She has a natural beauty but is completely unaware of it and has an innate humbleness about her. That shyness disappears when it comes to her passion for surfing and anything adventurous or outdoors.
One cloudy and cool day in late April, I was driving back from a surf session at San Onofre with Steph. We had both had incredibly difficult weeks with work and some general life stresses. Getting away to the ocean together is always a remedy to fix a bad week. We had surfed for three hours in waves that were waist high and slightly onshore. It wasn’t great but it was something to soothe us. It was one of those days where the sun wouldn’t quite come out from behind the clouds. I hate those days that have all the promise of summer but the grayness lingers like a shadow. Also, the water was also unseasonably cold.
Regardless of the conditions, we were destined to have a good day. Afterall, we were surfing. We did have a lot of fun that day and while driving North on the I-5 back to Huntington Beach, we were chatting and laughing as usual. The cars whizzed past, the strip malls of Southern California were ever present, and the freeway was busy. That day though, there was an added aura of gratitude to surfing that was in the air. The extra stressful weeks we had both experienced and the fact that we had not surfed together for some time meant there was a blissful surfed-out feeling escorting us home. Our shoulders ached, our hair thick, our eyes salty, and our spirits satisfied.
Then Steph said something that made me think long and hard. She explained that she was trying to change some things about herself for the better. She was trying to live a little more in the moment and worry less about the future or past. And surfing is one of the only places in life where she doesn’t think about the future or the past, or stress or worry about other things. The only thing that matters when she surfs is surfing, the next wave, the joy, and the challenge. No more, no less. This was something I had heard stated by others and probably stated myself before. However, I had never really contemplated what it actually meant.
When any surfer paddles out into the water, we surrender completely to a higher power, the ocean is a vast, expansive body of living and breathing nature. In comparison, we are just a microorganism. Mother Ocean can do as she pleases with us. She doesn’t care about human advancement or technology, our weapons, possessions, structures or egos. She is the mightiest of forces on the planet. She is beautiful, powerful and deadly all at the same time. So when we leave the ocean after a surf session, whether we have surfed well or not, we have survived the water.
“Across all spiritual traditions, cultures, and times, you find the use of water to achieve states of awe, grace, and love,” Biologist and author, Wallace J. Nichols once said. “We scientists avoid those words like the plague. But if you’re on the water a lot, those end up being the words you need to describe your experiences.”
We know that water is the lifeblood of the planet and our very existence. We also know that water is soothing and healing. Flow state is the psychological term for when people are fully engrossed in what they’re doing at that moment. Many activities can put one into a flow state.
Surfing, however, has some extra added physiological benefits thanks in part to the mammalian dive reflex. The mammalian dive reflex is the physiological effect of cool or cold water on the human body. When our face enters any body of water that has a temperature that is cooler than the surrounding air, our bodies have an extreme reaction. In 1962, a Swedish-born researcher named Per Scholander gathered a team of volunteers, covered them with electrodes to measure their heart rates, and poked them with needles to draw blood. Scholander had seen the biological functions of seals reverse in deep water; the seals, he wrote, actually seemed to gain oxygen the longer and deeper they dove. Scholander wondered if water could trigger this effect in humans.
He started the experiment by leading volunteers into an enormous water tank and monitoring their heart rates as they dove down to the bottom of the tank. Water triggered an immediate decrease in heart rate. Next, Scholander told the volunteers to hold their breath, dive down, strap themselves into an array of fitness equipment submerged at the bottom of the tank, and do a short, vigorous workout. In all cases, no matter how hard the volunteers exercised, their heart rates still plummeted.
On land, exercise greatly increases the heart rate. Water, meanwhile, has a powerful capacity to slow our hearts. Scholander noticed something else: Once his volunteers were underwater, the blood in their bodies began flooding away from their limbs and toward their vital organs. He’d seen the same thing happen in deep-diving seals decades earlier; by shunting blood away from less important areas of the body, the seals were able to keep organs like the brain and heart oxygenated longer, extending the amount of time they could stay submerged. Immersion in water triggered the same mechanism in humans. Perhaps this is a reason we feel so relaxed in the ocean, provided we have an ability to swim and stay calm.
There are numerous other reasons why surfing can make us feel fully focused, relaxed and free from stress. Although technology is slowly encroaching into the lineup with Apple watches, GoPros, and even phones, we are still relatively distraction-free when surfing. Even when we paddle out with friends we surf most waves alone. Solitude is especially good for human healing and development. Although we are tribal by nature, we can benefit from being alone.
Personally, I work five days a week, I have bills, rent, a partner, three dogs and a business. I have had times in my life where I have worked two jobs, I’ve had times when I was distracted and stressed, depressed, and neglectful of myself, my health, and my spirituality. Surfing was always there, though. It was nagging deep down inside of me, reminding me that that there was a cure. In the end, I have never come in from a surf session and felt more stressed out then before I paddled out. So if you truly love surfing — if it is truly in your blood and in your soul —then you know it calls you like an addiction.
So why am I not addicted to other hobbies? I love football (soccer, for the American reader), for example. I have been a diehard Tottenham Hotspur fan since I was five. I grew up playing footy every day of my life. Every afternoon after school from the ages of five through 13 I could be found kicking a ball against my back fence or with friends playing a pickup match in the park. I played for my school teams and still love to kick a ball around today. Most weekends I get up at 6 a.m. and drive to the British pub to watch the Spurs play live with a hundred other nutters. I love the game. I also love music. I learned to play the guitar when I was nine and have a vast record collection, albeit in digital format these days. I can get lost for hours playing guitar, writing music or listening to a couple of albums. So why didn’t either of these things influence my life like surfing? Well, surfing took over my life both consciously and subconsciously. It transcended everything. It got into my mind, my veins and my blood, and it made me an addict.
But what does that even mean? According to a popular definition, addiction is a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences. There is scientific evidence that addictive substances and behaviors share a key neurobiological feature: they intensely activate brain pathways of reward and reinforcement, many of which involve the neurotransmitter dopamine.
So do we all have a surfing addiction? It sounds paradoxical, because as stated, the word “addiction” is tied to detrimental consequences. For the addict surfer, a detrimental consequence could be having a partner break up with you because you spend too much time in the water. It could also show in the selfishness of the activity. We don’t want to share waves and we get mad when someone drops in on us. Even worse, the consequence could be getting slammed on to a shallow reef and sustaining an injury or even death. There are definitely possible consequences to a wave-fueled addiction. But unlike most addictions, surfing has numerous and bountiful positive outcomes too. We all know the cliché, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” If that phrase is talking about the act of riding a wave alone, then that feeling only we know is triggered by the release of happiness hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins These chemicals have mood-altering effects and are known to be habit-forming. Good waves are the source of intense joy for a surfer and of course, we want to relive those feelings over and over again. Those same waves can also turn to terror in an instant. We live and experience some of the best and worst moments of our lives out in the ocean.
On the flip side, it is all too easy for us to let selfishness and ego rule us when we surf. Much like an addict, we forget to be compassionate and giving when we are out looking for our fix. We want the next ride, we want the secret spot to ourselves, and we don’t want anyone ruining our session by stealing waves. Maybe that is why surfing transcends like nothing else. Maybe it is literally so stimulating to our brains that it becomes a true chemical addiction.
The truth, though, is that I can’t answer the question of why surfing holds such a powerful force over so many. But I can still fill the pages of a book one hundred times over with real stories of people whose lives have been changed by surfing. They are people who have had a real spiritual and metaphysical experience when surfing came into their lives. They have ended relationships for surfing, stolen for surfing, cried for surfing, and have become better humans through surfing.
But what if surfing is nothing more than a fun activity and we are such a neurotic bunch that we just hopelessly try to attach meaning to it? All so we can justify the time we spend talking about it, doing it, writing about it or dreaming about it. When we paddle out, we surrender to the uncertainty of nature. Are the waves going to be good? Am I going to surf well? Will I get hurt? That uncertainty is a good thing as it humbles our ego and reminds us that ultimately, we are not in control. Do golfers feel those same feelings when they walk onto a course? Perhaps, but I doubt it.