Water on the Brain

Like the soggy lobes implanted in Frankenstein's monster, pro surfers aren't always given the best shot at cognitive development.

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

I can’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Nice try” or “Good effort.”

Part of me wanted to slug him–just send a lightning-fast, North Shore haymaker to the side of his bearded mug. I had never thrown a punch in my life, but for a fleeting moment I fantasized about dispatching my fist on its maiden voyage.

The truth is that I knew Renneker wasn’t trying to be patronizing, but man did he make me feel like a little kid. He had just finished schooling me in the vocabulary game Boggle, and was actually just trying to add some encouraging words. But his comment came off like a master artist trying to boost the confidence of a kindergarten finger painter.

Up yours, Picasso.

The other part of me, the greater part, wanted to hug him. It had been a long, long time since I had hung out with someone as intelligent as Dr. Mark Renneker, and save the backhanded encouragement, treasured every moment in his presence. Not since college had I had the opportunity to converse with someone as bright as the good doctor.

This deep appreciation made me realize that I had developed a thirst for exposure to intelligent and scholarly ways, and a razor-sharp, perceptive wit. Later I blamed this parched longing on surf photography and years spent wandering the empty deserts of professional surfing.

As you might expect, pro surfers aren’t especially brainy or academic (with a few notable exceptions, of course). Some of the pros are hilarious, some are super nice, and some possess shocking courage, but being book smart, or having a high IQ, is not usually part of their resume.

There are a few stories that illustrate this point. They go something like this:

1) On planning an upcoming journey, one professional wave-rider asked, “So after France, we go to Europe?”

2) When informed that the World Tour had lost their umbrella sponsorship during an ASP meeting, one surfer retorted, “Screw those guys, I never even got my f—ing umbrella.”

3) Upon discovering a smashed window on his North Shore rental car, one pro surfer had trouble putting two and two together: “What’s this rock doing on my seat?”

Isolated anecdotes aside, the real question is whether critical thinking or academic knowledge really matters in professional surfing. Scholarly acumen is not tantamount to athletic success, and for those at the top of the game, it’s not necessary at all. Who needs brains when you’ve got that much talent?

On the other hand, for those that never quite reach the top—the better portion, in other words—lacking basic skills might not bode well when reality hits and a re-immersion into real life becomes necessary.

Why I’m even mentioning this obvious truth is because I’ve noticed over the years that basic aptitudes seem to be diminishing. From my experience, a greater percentage of sponsored professional surfers seem to be lacking basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. While this may be indicative of American society as a whole, it seems like an accelerated state of affairs for professional surfers—a sad fate that seems to be speeding toward a Spicoli cliché.

What’s weird to me is that this lack of academic interest has been addressed before. That’s why the NSSA was created in the first place—to put an emphasis on studying and staying in school. To create a proper balance between riding waves and cognitive reasoning.

Which is why I was so blown away by one of the teams at last year’s NSSA Middle School Interscholastic Championships: CAVA. CAVA, or California Virtual Academy, is an online education program for home-schoolers. Apparently some of the more promising juniors in the country “attend” these classes, and don’t go to a physical, real-life school at all.

From a personal standpoint, I understand home school for religious reasons. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. For surf training however, I think it’s pretty ridiculous—especially when it comes to juniors. I mean if you were 12 and you had a choice of devoting your attention toward getting shacked or conjugating a foreign verb, what would you choose?

I’m aware that we live in an era of specialization. An era where we need to concentrate our efforts on one thing and log those 10,000 hours into to our chosen path in order to achieve success. But at what cost?

The truth is that I really don’t know the answer. Fathoming all the subtleties of this subject requires way too much thinking. After decades immersed in water, my own brain has turned to mush.

In fact, this whole thing has got me pretty boggled.