The Modern Dilemma

The sacrifices of being a surfer

We've given up jobs and missed important occasions for waves like this. Photo: Ellis

I scheduled a brunch for my wife's birthday. I mean, really, what was I thinking? What kind of surfer does that? A middle-aged kook, that's who. In my defense, her birthday is April 1, which in Northern California usually means springtime conditions--onshore winds, junk swell, cold water.  It seemed like a safe bet at the time, so I went for it.  When it comes to dilemmas in forecasting, we're all gamblers, by necessity. We get good at losing because we do so much of it. So I rolled the dice and scheduled the brunch. What's the worst that could happen?

Thirty-two feet at 17 seconds. That's what. I watched the system develop with impending dread. It first emerged as a flaccid lump, a slight rise in the weekly swell graph, apparent only after I'd sent out invites for this ludicrous birthday brunch. Nothing to get alarmed about...but still. What if? The anxiety began to worm its way into my brain. When I checked again a few days later, that once insipid molehill on the graph had morphed into the stuff of nightmares. The numbers ascended like Apple's stock price. It became a big, raised middle finger pointed directly at me for being stupid enough to willingly create a potential conflict on a potential surf day.

Ah, surfing. What a grand disease. It used to be so simple--or at least, simpler. Surfers lived near the beach. They went surfing when the surf looked good. Or they traveled elsewhere for surf, and once they got there they surfed no matter what the surf looked like. But now, we suffer from modern problems. Thanks to technology, thanks to forecasters, we can look into that crystal ball and accurately predict great waves weeks out, across the world. And sure, sometimes this comes in handy: pro surfers chase the swell of a lifetime to Fiji. On the other hand, average Joes leave work early on Friday and jockey with a hundred other Average Joes who also ditched work for "chest- to head-high with occasional plus sets."

For some of us, forecasts often bring as much misery as they do joy. We focus in on the good days, only to find that we can't surf them, because of work, family, doctor's appointments...reality. So instead, some of us do the only logical thing: we check the forecasts again and again, hoping they will suddenly take a turn for the worse. Finally, when that magic day comes, we sit at our desks, checking the cameras, masochistically making ourselves more and more miserable.

At least we don't suffer alone. An informal poll of pro surfers reveals that, like Mitt Romney, famous rippers also suffer normal-people problems. "I think it will always bother a surfer when he misses waves, but for me it's a nightmare," Grant "Twiggy" Baker told me. "I have always tried to set my life up to make sure I am available if the waves are good, and if I miss a day it drives me crazy." The pros I spoke to seemed to have varying levels of insight into their disorders. Some, like Alex Gray, see swell anxiety as just another wacky, fun part of the surf life. Others, like Twiggy and Kelly Slater, are more aware of their plight. "It is honestly an addiction and source of anxiety for me," Kelly lamented.

There are general rules to our sickness. If a lip falls in the proverbial impact zone, and no one is there to hear it crack, it does not make a sound. We obsess instead over the days that our friends get, and we only get to hear about. "I would say the worst is to miss an all-time swell that your friends score," Twiggy agrees. "Even though you are stoked for them, it can drive a man to drink, or worse." In my case, Twiggy hit the nail on the head. I am indeed a habitual drinker, and I always get maudlin and darkly pessimistic when reminded of any day that I've missed in the last 25 years. I justify this melancholy by invoking the Socratic directive that "an unexamined life is not worth living."

We establish territories, and missing waves in these areas bothers us more than missing waves in distant lands. In fact, missing good waves across the world often bothers us very little--unless our friends are there to ride them, brag about them, and post photos. More than anything else, we fear missing the day of the year at our homebreak. "There's something about missing great waves at home," marvels Alex Gray. "You know you have a bad friend when he texts you that you're missing it--it's surf-bro code, you don't text your friends when you're scoring--those are almost fighting words." It's hard to fault Gray's logic, even if it relegates me and all my friends into the "bad friends" bucket.

Indecision fuels the fire, and much of the anxiety comes as we try to decipher how to respond to a forecast. As my wife's birthday approached, I weighed various options.

Meanwhile, pro surfers suffer no less over better choices. "I just spent a week agonizing over a small swell for Madagascar versus a big south for Indonesia," Twiggy recalls. "Back and forth, back and forth…and in the end I decided that neither were worth the money. But now I'm second guessing myself and hoping I made the right call."

As a rule of thumb, the more indecisive we are, the more anxiety a swell produces. "I am probably the most indecisive person ever," claims Ian Walsh, who has clearly not met Brett Favre. "Most of my decisions are made at the very last minute on the way to the airport." For me, the stress did not stem from deciding where to go surfing, but from getting over the fact I wasn't going to surf at all on the biggest day of the season. As the buoys built to 21 at 17, I cleaned the house in anticipation of guests. As my bros contemplated which gun to ride and which spot to target, I made extra ice, chilled champagne for mimosas, and considered how upset, really, my wife would actually be if I was 12 hours late for her birthday brunch.

In moments of clarity, even the most surf-obsessed pro knows that the need to always be "on it" is unsustainable and perverse. We know we are sick, and we try to evolve. "Of course it's not reasonable," Twiggy admits. "It's shallow, self-absorbent, and childish. You try to convince yourself it doesn't matter, but deep down inside it always kills you." Greg Long has gained some perspective as he's aged. "When I was younger I used to beat myself up regardless of swell size and sometimes regardless of whether even being there to surf the swell was realistic," Greg recalls. "It took some time but I realized that letting your emotions be controlled by something that is so unpredictable is just ridiculous." Well spoken, Mr. Spock.

My wife agrees with Greg. She loves to argue that, after the fact, I don't even remember the days I miss. But that's not true. We all have that swell that got away. For Twiggy, it was Fiji's 2011 swell of the year. "I was all set to go," Twiggy recalls dolefully. "But the ticket price ended up at $3,500, which is one-third of my entire year's travel budget, and in the end I couldn't justify the expense. I still wake up with cold sweats knowing if I had gone I would have scored the barrel of my life."

I woke up on my wife's birthday hoping it wouldn't be one of those epic swells. True dedication leaves us so single-minded that we devalue our families. Or perhaps our families devalue themselves by often seeming less awesome than surfing. Who knows? The point is, some of us end up deceiving loved ones like con men grifting marks, hoping our white lies will help us score barrels. Others take a more blunt approach, telling significant others that surfing always comes first.

"Since I was a little kid, I've sacrificed my family, friends, girlfriends, partying, the list goes on and on," Alex Gray tells me. "I've sacrificed everything in my life for waves, and that's a crazy thing to say." But Alex is not alone. "I made a pretty stern rule for myself at a young age that I would never miss a trip or a good swell for a girl and I have been really adamant about sticking to that," Ian Walsh claims. "Maybe that's why I'm single." Or maybe Ian's single because handsome pro surfers basically get to live every bachelor's fantasy life. And while we're on the subject, the alarming trend of pro surfers getting married before 25 is all the proof you need that pro surfers are generally as dumb as nails.

Some are smarter than others, of course. "I'm 38 years old and have never been married and don't have kids, so I guess that says much about what kind of person I am," Grant Baker told me. (And yes, I warned Twiggy not to use that line again when talking to men in San Francisco.) "Surfing almost always comes first," Twig added. "But my girlfriend Kate does come along quite a bit these days, and to say she's understanding is a major understatement." In addition to being understanding, Twig's girlfriend is a Playboy playmate. Recently, Grant entered a video of Kate's bikini nip-slip in an online contest. Which just goes to show, Twiggy's girlfriend is totally not uptight, unlike the girls I dated in grade school. But we can't all be Twiggy. Most pros justify their prioritization of surfing based on the fact that surfing is their job. The rest of us don't have that excuse.

On my wife's birthday, I gave her the best present a man can give his wife: I waited at least an hour before sneaking a check of the buoys. And that's when I knew my wife would have a great birthday after all--not because she was surrounded by friends and family, or had her health, but because the big swell turned out to be a junky mess. Maverick's was a wind-whipped whiteout. Santa Cruz was mostly a blustery washout as well. I'd worked myself into a state of miserable paralysis, staring at those forecasts, all for nothing! If there's a lesson there, it's that God loves me.

Or perhaps the lesson is I need to be less uptight, like Twiggy's girlfriend. After all, 99 percent of the days I worry about missing, the only wave that could change my life is the one that could change my life drastically for the worse. I've caught dream waves, and although each barrel brought temporary joy, no particular wave changed my life. They only bred greed. Each time I score my best-ever barrel, I just start jonesing for another better shack. Surfing is a process. No one wave can heal you, or save you, or define you (unless you're Greg Noll). But a single wave can drown you, or maim you, or paralyze you. It's a cruel calculus. We desire that next perfect wave more than anything. But perhaps what we really need is to learn how to let go of that desire. How to ignore the forecasts, and actually live in the moment...whether that moment is in the water or on land.

And if you find yourself backsliding, and checking those cams from work, making yourself miserable, at least know you are not alone. Hell, somewhere out there, Kelly Slater is probably doing the same thing. If you think Slater's scored enough perfect waves not to care anymore, you're fooling yourself. When he's stuck at a contest, and the waves suck, Kelly often checks in with friends to get an update on the epic days he's missing elsewhere. Why? "I'm masochistic," Kelly admits. "But I also wanna know what to look for next time on the maps."