[Ed. Note: This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.1, “Evolution,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
I’m writing this column just a few days before Donald Trump is sworn in as the President of the United States. By the time you read this, “President Donald Trump” may seem normal, but here in my present, your past, the concept still boggles the mind. Where I live, in the People’s Republic of San Francisco, something like 90 percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton, so the concept is especially mind-boggling. But a quick Internet search shows me that Brevard County, Florida, home to some of Florida’s best surf (Sebastian Inlet, Spanish House, Melbourne Beach) overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Presumably, a big chunk of those Brevard County voters who cast ballots for Trump are dedicated, lifelong surfers. So, I suppose, for many Brevard County surfers, “President Hillary Clinton” would probably be nearly as mind boggling as President Trump is to me.
But hold on a second. If surfing is so fundamental to our existence, and we build our whole lives around surfing, shouldn’t it have some impact on our politics too? Sure, surfing doesn’t really seem to have much to do with politics on the surface. But, in terms of lifestyle, San Francisco surfers probably have a lot more in common with Brevard County surfers than we do with people who support the same political positions as us, but who live in landlocked states and have never set foot on a surfboard. That doesn’t seem to matter, though. We like to think that surfing makes us some kind of a likeminded tribe, but at least in terms of politics, that’s clearly not true, even at a fundamental level.
This is both a good thing, and a bad thing.
The good part is that the physical act of surfing transcends politics. For most of us, the act of waveriding takes place entirely within a political vacuum. In fact, I’d venture to guess that in democratic countries with surf populations, the days after a big election are probably some of the most-surfed days in history, as members of the losing side use surfing to blow off some steam and try to forget the impending political doom. While the famous bumper sticker overstates it a bit, there’s a lot of truth in the motto that, “There’s nothing a good day of surfing won’t cure,” including feeling like your country has gone completely insane.
Sure, I get plenty pissed at fellow surfers in the water for myriad reasons, but their political beliefs are not one of them. I couldn’t care less about what they think of universal health care or the legalization of marijuana while I’m trying to strategically elbow them off of the peak. For the most part, any fears or frustrations I have about paying too much in taxes, or other people not paying enough, disappear the second I start clawing through the freezing impact zone of my local beachie. And if it’s clean and barreling? I’ve never even heard of politics at that point. Zorkon the Destroyer could be elected president and I wouldn’t be even remotely aware once I get to my feet on a screamer. The surfers around me would agree, I’m sure, regardless of their opinion of Zorkon’s policy to eat everybody’s first-born son.
As an example, I often surf with a lifelong friend whose politics couldn’t be further removed from mine, and while we’re constantly at each other’s throats on social media, we don’t discuss politics in the water. Ever. It’s great, especially for him, because it’s the one time of day he’s not totally wrong about every single thing he thinks about the world. (You reading this, Chris?)
Even if you do doggedly drag politics into your surfing life, you can pretty much force the surfing lifestyle through whatever political filter you’ve got. Are you an Ayn Rand-quoting, libertarian, free-market enthusiast? Too easy. You can make all the money you want, move to Baja to flee your tax responsibilities and live unfettered in pursuit of off-the-grid point break perfection. Big-government proponent? No sweat. You can vote for all the marine-habitat-protecting, clean-water-loving politicians your bleeding heart desires, and hold your head high knowing you’ve helped keep your favorite lineups pristine. Somewhere in the middle? That’s fine too. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, from “that government is best which governs least” to the most strident socialists among us, you can frame your surfing lifestyle through any political lens. Which pretty much blows apart the notion that there’s some kind of binding culture that surfers share, outside of liking waves, of course.
While I’m thankful that surfing doesn’t really dictate my politics or vice versa, there is an argument to be made that if we could coalesce our political beliefs around waveriding, we’d flex a decent amount of political muscle. Pollution—let’s start there. We—meaning voters and elected officials who surf—could have a tremendous impact on the cleanliness of the ocean. Nobody seems to know how many surfers there are in the U.S., but even in the very low millions, that’s a sizable voting bloc. Imagine if all surfers put environmental regulation near the top of their political wish lists, simply because we were surfers. If we stood together to prevent development of beautiful coastal lands, and committed to preserving them for the public, how incredible could that be for future surfing generations? Or if we went to the other side of the political spectrum and supported massive tariffs on imported goods —what would that do for board builders and the people employed by the domestic surf industry?
We’ll likely never know. Surfing, for as much as our world revolves around it, stands stubbornly removed from the politics of most surfers. At least until the “Zorkon’s Permanent Set Wave Priority” bill gets signed into law.
[Illustration: Jean Jullien]