Illustration: Jean Jullien
Illustration: Jean Jullien

The Significance Of The Frontier In Surfing History

What happens when we run out of doors to bust down?

[This feature originally appeared in our May 2017 Issue, “Frontiers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]

Surfing has always been at its best when it's looking forward. Not just looking forward, but screaming forward, brake lines cut, engine red-lined, a drunk passenger hollering, shirtless, leaning half out of the window and heaving empty beer cans into the wind, no idea where the destination is, just knowing that it's up ahead somewhere, just out of reach of the headlights, and we gotta get there now, like, right this very moment—dammit, can't this car go any faster?! It's that exuberant sense of discovery, be it waves, board designs, or performance possibilities, that have given rise to the very best parts of surfing.

It pains me to say it, but I think that surfing's forward momentum stalled somewhere along the way. Sure, people will continue to find ways to do more unthinkable things on surfboards, leaving us casual, "hope I get a few fun ones" surfers even farther behind in the dust. But surfing's cultural progression (or regression, depending on your perspective) from Polynesian leisure pursuit to multi-billion-dollar T-shirt-hocking retail industry and future Olympic sport has slowed its stride to a crawl. We seem to have seen it all, found it all, and surfed it all, and the fuel that's long propelled our reckless and totally awesome careening toward the future is running dangerously low.

But to make my argument, I'm going to have to look backward. Perverse, I know.

In 1893, an American historian named Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay that likely shaped how you learned, and how you currently view, American history. Turner's essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," argued that, more than anything else, including the Constitution, the character and culture classically associated with America—individual freedom, self-reliance, a population profoundly restless and innovative—were born in our pioneering push into the lawless West. It was amid this journey that we invented what it meant to be Americans.

The crux of Turner's essay is the real kicker. He was worried that the inevitable end of all that pioneering, once we'd become a "sea to shining sea" nation, meant that all the eager promise of America was exhausted. We were the dog that'd finally caught the cat. What would make rugged individuals out of us once we'd tamed the last frontier?

Unfortunately, lots of Turner's thesis was bogged down by racism and colonial-era thinking, but the kernel of his idea—that the constant striving for what lies upon limitless horizons helped shape who we are—is an interesting prism through which to view surfing's development over the last few decades. So much of our evolution as surfers through the 20th century, and the identity we assumed, came from our surfing forebears making it up as they went along and building from the ground up what it meant to be a surfer.

Where should we start? Culture? There was no Duke for the Duke to emulate. Tom Blake had to figure out on his own how to live like a surf bum. The middle-class rebellion of '50s Malibu in large part introduced surfing to the inland masses, but it also helped invent beach culture and bestow the curse of coolness on our beloved sport. The '60s and '70s gave surfing its freewheeling, anything-goes vibe—an essence that was borne in surfing's natural inclination to join hand in joint-holding hand with hippie culture, which gave rise to the idea that we all would be better off if we tuned out and just surfed. Pro surfing exploded in the '80s, giving us first a new breed of glam-oriented surf star, then, a decade later, the street punk antihero.

Performance? We lopped entire feet off the length of boards in the late '60s, added a second, third, and fourth fin by the early '80s, and used our newfangled equipment to discover new parts of the wave and radical new ways to get there. We found the tube and took to the skies. The most important aspects of surfing performance changed from, say, the '20s to the '90s, and everything, for the most part, changed for the better, because there was always a barrier to overcome.

Then, of course, there was the literal frontier of travel. Guys shipped over to the North Shore in the '50s and carved out the mythos of the big-wave hero. Then we started pushing into Central America, then Bali—the foyer of the holy land of Indonesia—and then the South Pacific. Suddenly surfers were world-wizened explorers, casting aside the workaday rat race, at least for a time, to live like vagabond surf monks.

But by the '90s, the first hiccups in surfing's progressive engine could be felt. Board design, which had proceeded at breakneck pace for decades, stalled at the thruster. We'd started to run out of uncrowded tropical dreams, or, at the very least, couldn't find any better than what already had been mapped. And the days of surf performance improving by leaps and bounds gave way to incremental, almost imperceptible, increases in barrel depth and degrees of aerial rotation.

The act of surfing today is just as enjoyable as it's ever been, due in no small part to our accumulated knowledge of phenomenal waves around the world and our unfettered access to more varied equipment than at any other time in history. But, like the American frontier a hundred years ago, our wide-open spaces to move and grow largely have been filled. Design limitations, performance restrictions, cultural constraints: surfers smashed through most of those frontiers and emerged better for it on the other side. And each of these thresholds was crossed by the pioneering icons we'd carve into surfing's Mount Rushmore if we had one. Kahanamoku. Edwards. Dora. Noll. Lopez. Lynch. Richards. Curren. Fletcher. Hamilton. Slater. All transcendental figures who built the foundations of what surfing has become. But we're running awfully low on pioneering icons these days.

Of course, some important frontiers do remain. Women like Paige Alms, Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore, and Keala Kennelly, among many others, are busily busting down some of the sexist doors that still stand, and they will take their place on surfing's Rushmore. The first non-white surfer since the Duke to achieve international surf megastardom will be a welcome sight indeed.

But once those final frontiers are crossed, what propels us forward? That, I suppose, is a question for futurists, not historians.

[Illustration: Jean Jullien]