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The End of History

Does progression matter in surfing?

Tom Blake loved surfing. He loved it. As much as one could in the early 20th century, Blake totally frothed. The whole concept of a blissed-out surf bum started with him. Blake was pretty much the beta version of what we now call "a surfer." He moved to Hawaii, lived on a boat, worked odd jobs, and surfed every day well into his 50s. When it got too crowded, he quit in favor of other watersports. Blake was also an early cultivator of that most important trait of the hardcore surfer: total disdain for landlubber society. The dude was dedicated. Nobody's ever lived the surf lifestyle with more enthusiasm than Blake. OK, nobody except for Mason Ho.

Incredibly, all of Blake's stoke came from riding boards that look more like counters from a hipster coffeehouse than a modern surfboard. He surfed on giant wooden airplane wings that still weighed 40 pounds even after he figured out how to make them hollow, and until he invented the skeg, all his boards were finless. He almost exclusively rode crumbly pointbreaks. He never got tubed. He never hit the lip. He never even did a turn. Tom Blake, as critical as he was to the pre-modern surf world, never once posted a GoPro barrel selfie to YouTube. I know. I can't believe it either.

What's truly shocking is that despite all the limitations I just mentioned, Blake and his contemporaries enjoyed surfing every bit as much as me and you, and almost as much as Mason Ho. There are two interpretations of this little slice of surf history: one that's simply interesting and one that's a bit troubling. Frankly, I'm not sure which interpretation is more accurate. Maybe both. It seems that either: 1) continual progression and change is necessary to keep surfing fun, or 2) just the opposite—progression doesn't seem to have made surfing any more fun or any more addictive than it was 90 years ago. I hate to say it, but I'm leaning toward the latter.

I'm not at all suggesting that we go back to 1930s hollow boards or anything. That would well and truly suck. It's also not the point. Progression is completely relative anyway. Imagine how blown Blake's mind was when he caught his first wave after slapping a boat keel on the bottom of his board and angling ever so slightly toward the Waikiki shoreline. At that point Blake had reached the pinnacle of high-tech surfboard progression. His cigar box was the carbon-fiber-railed, Kevlar-lined, stringerless asymmetrical six-fin of his day.

It took a few years before Blake's fin actually caught on, but once it did, surfing would never, ever be the same— Actually, surfing didn't really change at all. Surfboards did. And how people rode them did. But surfing itself, as a feeling, as a way of life—pretty much exactly the same, from Blake's era to today.

Following this logic, it starts to look like the whole endeavor to push surfing forward, whether through board design or performance, is, well, it's not entirely clear what it's for at all. There's no end goal in surfing other than pure enjoyment. At some point in the future—oh, I don't know, let's say in 2031, at the McWalmazon Pipeline Pro—some guy or girl will pull a switchstance standing barrel roll behind the foam ball on a 10-foot wave and we will have finally pushed up against the ultimate limit of peak human surfing capability. Well, non-cyborgian or PED-enhanced capability anyway. (That's a whole different column. Stay tuned.) Surfing will have finally reached Rick Griffin–cartoon levels of performance. What then? What happens when we can't get barreled any deeper, or air any air-ier? If surfing stops progressing, does it stop being fun? Of course not.

The hipster log movement and legions of Knost acolytes prove that. Not to mention anybody over the age of 30 who surfs every day with the diminishing returns borne from calcifying ligaments and bulging midsections. The resurgence of people riding retro boards shows that modern high-performance surfing has already outstripped the ability of average surfers. Point is, as individuals, we don't have to progress the sport to have fun. In fact, I'd bet my entire quiver of ever-more-refined shortboards that worrying about individual levels of progression saps more of the fun out of surfing than anything else.

But back to the surf world as a whole. What is hyper-advanced board design and ever-increasing performance doing for us if it's not improving the everyday experience of surfing? Nothing. We're not having any more fun than the dudes cursed with riding '70s single fins in tiny beachbreak surf.

This problem isn't necessarily exclusive to surfing. If you've got a new-ish computer or phone, you're probably pretty happy with its performance level. But in five years, when you're walking around with the newest, shiniest, most powerful brain-mounted computer-phones that Apple makes, you won't be enjoying those any more than what you've got now. Keeping up with largely unnecessary innovations is just a weird part of modern society, surfing included.

I'm not above any of this, mind you. Nobody is. There's nothing to be done about it, either. But it is worth reflecting on the fact that as surfing has grown and evolved since Duke kick-started the sport's revival a century ago, little seems to have changed when it comes to our pure enjoyment. Each successive pioneering generation of surfers has ushered us from one movement to the next, opening up more parts of the wave, obliterating the boundaries of wave size and power, redrawing the maps of where in the world we can surf. Yet the most fundamental part of the surf experience—the wave-riding self-satisfaction that we elevate above just about anything else in our daily lives—has remained unchanged this whole time.