The Wall

Will surfers ever grow up?

Thanks to surfing, Kolohe Andino is destined to be forever young. Young man-hack, California. Photo: Ellis


So we’ve got one thing right, and that’s a start. We’ve decided to give the middle finger to the man, live by our own rules, and prioritize happiness over riches. The trouble is, what we dedicate ourselves to instead is Dionysian at best. Surfing is pure hedonism. Instead of doing something of lasting import in the world, instead of leaving any kind of legacy, intellectual or otherwise, we’re simply dancing to the band on the face of the waters as the Titanic slowly sinks around us. We have chosen to drink, and shred, and laugh, and lie on tropical beaches with our skin warmly drying in the breeze as melanomas are birthed on us.

I remember a lunch on Sloat Street, years ago, during which Matt Warshaw explained to me that surfing is a selfish, useless act, on par with masturbation. I sat there, across the greasy table from my elder, wondering at his obvious and shameful theory. I’d already dedicated 20 years of my life to surfing. And the foremost historian of my sport, the knowledge holder, after years of research, decades spent living and examining the surfing lifestyle, had come to this unfortunate conclusion: Surfing was a waiting room, a time in your life no more permanent than climax, in which you hold fast to happiness and delight before sadly sinking back down onto the truth, that life is sadder and more meaningful than our playtime. Life is doled out in a series of tragic moments, and beautiful ones, most shared between two people. These insights are not earned in the water, unless something horrible happens there. Otherwise, I fear, we learn little of lasting value.

Even if this is true—even if Warshaw and those guidance counselors are right: goddamned if it hasn’t been a good ride. Largely, the ocean has been good to me, as I believed it would, steering me from joyful moment to near-tragedy to joyful moment. I’ve made it to 35—marriage, kid, house, car, a garage full of kick-ass stuff. I’ve seen people I loved die, but surfing has always been there for me. I’ve kept with it even as countless friends have quit and moved past waves—lost to jobs, drugs, wives, happiness, criminal convictions, lost to heartbreak at how fucking lame surfing has become. Meanwhile, I’ve kept riding waves, despite contracts and commitments, despite watching friends be attacked by white sharks in front of me. I didn’t question my faith.


Lately I’ve felt the wall’s presence. I’m surfing as well as I ever did, and loving it again as much as before, just as I find great solace in organizing my surfboards and magazines in my man cave. But I know it’s a selfish act. I can see it plain as day, there in front of me, when my infant daughter smiles in surprised delight when she sees me. She’s surprised because, compared to her mother, she sees me infrequently. They are without me as I stand there in parking lots, waiting for the wind to switch. Compare that to watching my daughter in the bath, understanding for the first time that air is a different thing than water, trying in vain to feel the hard border between these two new elements with her miniature fingers.

That’s when the Wall seems real, and I wonder about the things I might have accomplished if I’d been strong enough to walk away from surfing for a couple years, or months, or even one honest 40-hour workweek. Spending more time with my family is just one facet of a more complete adult life I’ve never embraced. The rest is simple stuff: selfless acts, clear decision-making, a sense that you’ve challenged yourself to accomplish the things you know you can achieve. Instead I’m out there, lost in the foothills of Mount Doom, growing old as the quest goes on, too scared to throw the One Ring into the chasm of fire.

I’ve traveled far from my Northern California shire, and seen many things. Full moon swells at Desert Point, solo sessions as the light dims at Teahupoo—I’ve even seen my childhood hero, Tom Curren, salute me with a wave as I exited a high-line barrel at Outside Corner Uluwatu. Yet I’m reluctant to let the story move on without me, even though I know deep inside that there’s so much else I want to do, and that my love for surfing is preventing me from doing it. I can see the lines around my eyes these days as easily as I can see the line I want to draw on a dumping overhead left. Time passes, and I know the dance will be over, someday, and I’ll be left marveling at just how far I must have traveled across the faces of waves, without ever getting anywhere. Just another life in the cycle, amid the pelicans in cold offshore winds, white sharks below building swells—a grain of sand rolled out and then back in again with the tide. Perhaps the wall is breached, and adulthood achieved, when one realizes that, in the end, that is all any of us are. I might as well climb over sooner rather than later. I’ll plan the ascent after I see the next swell forecast.