The Surfer: Categorizing the Unknown

A look at the difficulty of defining those who ride waves

Are you a surfer the second you get to your feet, or does it take more to earn that title?

In The History of Surfing, Matt Warshaw described attempts during the 1960s at creating a census of American surfers. Rough estimates varied widely: foam-maker Gordon Clark estimated that there were around 200,000 total surfers in the country, while Newsweek generously estimated that there were close to 1,000,000 wave riders nationwide.

According to Warshaw, the reason for the varied numbers was simple: it’s difficult to define exactly what a surfer is. Is a surfer someone who owns a board? Or what about someone who only surfs during the summer? For that matter, what about a sponger or body surfer? Do they even count?

Of the many who have sought to answers these particular questions, no one has offered a more poignant conclusion than the mainstream media.

In the ’50s, U.S. newspapers and magazines warned concerned parents about the danger of the lawless surfer; they only cared about sex, drinking, and of course, waves, and their immorality would inevitably corrupt innocent suburban youth. The movie Gidget, and other surf movies like Muscle Beach Party or Ride the Wild Surf, portrayed surfers as an innocent, fun loving bunch, who—despite their lack of responsibilities—were actually quite harmless. In the movie Point Break, a group of tribe-like surfers funded their “endless summer” by robbing banks Wild Bunch style—swearing, shooting, and then swearing and shooting some more. And who could forget Jeff Spicoli?

All were marketable hedonistic hooligans. But countless books, articles, movies, and TV programs capture only simple facets of surfing. What the media often chooses to negate during their process of simplification is that the nature of surfing itself is something that is complex, misunderstood, and highly fluid.

Surfing has few rules or guidelines. There isn’t a court, a field, or a stadium. There are contests, but they are subject to the fleeting will of the ocean. It is not easily mastered, and requires a lifetime of dedication. While a mountain or skate park may remain relatively consistent, surf spots vary remarkably, and range from frozen freshwater lakes as well as tropical paradises. There are countless styles of surfing, reflecting the evolution of a sport that has existed for centuries. A surfer’s ultimate goal varies from person to person; one might aim to surf the biggest wave, while another dreams of getting barreled, and still another may simply hope to one day stand up.

Surfing is so intricately complex and constantly changing it begs the question: Shouldn’t a surfer reflect that immense complexity? I take it to heart that being a surfer means more than owning a board or perpetually smelling of salt and neoprene. A surfer immerses himself into an alien world, where the constrictions that ground society on dry-land are cast away. He creates and embraces a form of expression that is free from rules or guidelines. Because of that freedom, no social construct—such as money, outward appearance, or social reputation—comes to define a surfer.

So, it’s safe to say, that we are more than what Hollywood portrays us as.

With all that said though, when do you consider yourself to be a surfer? What separates someone who has surfed occasionally, from someone who calls the water their second home? -Stefan Slater