The Wall

Will surfers ever grow up?

Surfing has kept Shane Dorian in a perpetual state of adolescence. How do you explain this reckless line at Mavericks? Photo: Trefz


You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful wife? And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? The days go by, and it’s no longer 1986, I am no longer 10 years old, subscribing to SURFER Magazine for the first time, obsessing over Curren’s bottom turns while listening to Talking Heads. Our first American ASP World Champion took hold of my pre-teen mind in a way that my cartoon heroes—Scooby Doo, Optimus Prime, Inspector Gadget—never had.

Even my plain-clothes heroes—Albert Einstein, Bill Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, Bob Dylan—did not move me the way Tom Curren did. I literally dreamed of surfing with Tom as a child, just as I dreamed of seeing a ghost in my bedroom, and being able to call Ghostbusters, and have Egon and Venkman launch proton packs into my attic. I did the things kids do, and adults don’t: drew cartoon surfers on my binder, along with tail templates and the cover art of Led Zeppelin, spent an entire day at the beach in my wetsuit, built sandcastles between sessions, believed that surfing better would somehow make me a better person.

After 25-odd years wasted in the water, I am still reeling from the sheer joy of being young and falling in love with surfing. To be immature and a surfer is to be infinitely lucky. As an introspective kid who immersed himself in books and toys and fantasy, I rarely felt obliged to insert myself into the real world. And then came surfing—and I was out there, and suddenly unafraid, even though little things like walking to the deli counter alone still terrified me. My obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings and Star Wars meant my mind was prepped to view life in gothic, romantic, struggle-for-survival terms. I felt like Frodo, suddenly thrust into a new world, surrounded by great beauty and great danger.


Northern California’s rugged, desolate reef peaks took on the grandeur of the Mountains of Shadow, a wasteland of darkness on the edge of Mordor. I was no longer playing make-believe with Star Wars action figures, using a Chinese paper lantern as my Death Star. Instead, I put myself gleefully in peril, pushing farther and farther into littoral zones that tourists and family members justifiably saw as life-threatening. After all, beachcombers were swept off rocks every year to their deaths, and even local fishermen caught in high swells sometimes never returned to shore. But I was undaunted. From the very beginning, I was convinced that an angry sea could be placated by knowledge and devotion, convinced that if I loved surfing enough, and paid enough attention, nothing bad would happen to me. In short, I was convinced I was the hero of my own quest.

But all quests must come to an end. What does it mean to let surfing remain the central focus of your adult life? Does it have to do with riding waves, or does it have to do with warped priorities? In America, at least, a good citizen prioritizes success over everything else, and success is invariably defined financially. There are more than a few ways to get there, of course. You can go into banking, or law, and basically dedicate your life’s energies to learning how to navigate corporate cultures, which invariably celebrate ethics, but reward criminality (at least criminality in which money is fleeced from everyday Americans who are too stupid to understand corporations are out to fleece them). Or you can be a youthful tech visionary, and use a set of skills that nearly preclude social intelligence to build interfaces that tell less intelligent Americans how to socialize with each other. Or you can simply become famous for the sake of wanting to be famous, as long as you want fame badly enough to reshape your body for it, with a barrage of scalpels, injectable bacteria-created toxins, and bulimic purges. To be a real surfer means that you have rejected these concepts of financial success, deciding instead that success is dictated by how many waves you have caught, how hard you rip, and how awesome your quiver is.