Surf-Bathing Revisited

A salute to Mark Twain, one of the original “surf writers”

Early "surf writer", Mark Twain.
Early “surf writer”, Mark Twain.

Like millions of Americans, I was forced to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in school, and though I grasped the moral gist and imaginative elements of the stories, I was left with a decidedly ho-hum feeling about the author. To me, the books were so steeped in antiquated, provincial language that I could never get too involved in the plot. I understood Twain, I just didn’t like Twain.

But years later, after hearing many claim him as America’s greatest writer and humorist, I thought about giving Mark Twain another chance. Around that same time a surf publication mentioned that Twain was one of the first reputable writers to witness surfing in its native Polynesian state, and had written about it in his 1872 travelogue called Roughing It.

So I went to the bookstore, found the Twain section, and leafed to the brief passage about surfing:

“In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!”

Prodigious billow? Whizzing by like a bombshell? “You gotta be kidding me,” I thought. Twain was repelling me again. Except this time he had replaced southern drawl with pretentiousness and hyperbole.

At the time I took particular exception to the term “surf-bathing”, and wrote it off as the imperceptive observations of a kook. “Surf-bathing” seemed way too passive and languid for the sport of kings.

But then I read the rest of the paragraph…

“I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

…and had to concede that it was a pretty accurate—and entertaining—description of a wipeout. So I gave Twain another chance, bought the book, and read it over the next few days.

In short, Roughing It was a full-on page burner—insightful, funny, and extremely well-written. I finally “got” Twain and his formal, over-the-top lampooning style. Every sentence was full of tongue-in-cheek pith, every word cleverly chosen.

I was so impressed by Roughing It that I had half a mind to contact the National Education Association and demand they put it on a mandatory national syllabus. Forget Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer—this was the book that every American kid needed to read.

And just recently, Twain’s insight hit home again. After 30 years of surfing I had come to the conclusion that the best part of it isn’t about the wave riding itself—it’s more about paddling out and just being out there. About soul-cleansing union with the sea. About therapeutic immersion.

About surf-bathing.