The Culture: An Upside To Downturn

When Did Surfing Become So Complicated?

For something as simple as riding a wave, surfing can be an extraordinarily complicated affair.

Simple: Take board to water. Catch wave. Stand on wave. Repeat steps two and three.

?Complicated: Purchase $4,000 all-inclusive travel package from [SURF TRAVEL COMPANY A], stuff [SURF INDUSTRY BRAND B] travel bag with [SURF INDUSTRY BRAND C] logo clothes, pack four to eight late-model surfboards from [CURRENTLY SIGNIFICANT SURFBOARD SHAPER D] into two lightweight, four-wheeled surfboard coffins made by [GENERALLY ACCEPTED SURF BAG MANUFACTURER E], fly halfway across the world, board a boat skippered by [CELEBRITY BOAT CAPTAIN F], carry on about the existential joys of traveling, etc. etc. etc.

Surfing became complicated when it became monetized. Recent history is testament to that fact, as we now consider our status while licking our wounds in the trough of a great period of excess.

No matter how much we romanticize it, surfing does not exist as separate and apart from the real world.Recent years are best characterized as having been void of rationalism and debauched with excess, and surfers were no different. Because surfers are a highly suggestible lot, and only two, three years ago, we were out of control. Surfing was "booming," we told ourselves, and the evidence was everywhere: magazines were lousy with advertising, surf companies starting up in every warehouse in and around Orange County. We bought boards two and three at a time. Brand-new suits. We "invested" in condos steps from the beach purchased with 3/1 ARMs, because "land--they're not making any more of it." And "board collecting,” we said, was just rated by Forbes Magazine as one of the "hottest investment trends in the U.S."

Then we lost our collective asses.

Surfing is a simple thing, requiring a bare minimum in terms of material goods. Somewhere along the line the notion of what constituted "bare minimum"got turned around to mean blathering on about "dead" boards and "last year's model" and "stretched-out wetsuits." We bitched at the slightest hint of discomfort, bemoaned anything that required effort, and tried to buy our way out of these "problems." We forgot that we come from a line of pretty tough dudes. We became prissy candy-asses, the spawn of a throwaway culture.

But then this economy thing happened, and surfing's reality changed. For the better. Just as a tough landing after a hard fall awakens people in the real world (Americans are saving more than they have in a generation? Really?), the same can be said of the surf culture. When you don't have much, you don't have many options. You're forced to make choices: Could I make this wetsuit last another year? Do I really need a new board? Is it really normal/necessary to spend four grand on a surf trip? Do I really need to spend any money, in fact, to go surfing?

This reckoning has been a long time coming, and the best part about the recession has been the trimming of the excess. Knowing what you need, and, more importantly, knowing what you don't. Knowing that most of the items advertised in this magazine, for instance, are completely immaterial to the act of surfing.

Surfing has responded by remembering that it's a culture, not an industry--an act, not an identity. You see this in the water a lot more now, in the faces of the people sitting next to you, focused as they are on catching waves, not on what they have.

Of course, it's not all happy. Now the drive to the surf involves reminders of the impact of a difficult time: that half-built housing complex where construction has stopped, the mom-and-pop surf shop that was the cornerstone of the neighborhood but was forced to shutits doors, the wetsuit you pull on gingerly so as not to aggravate the slight tear in the arm, the surfboard yellowing around the rail crack.

But when we do make it to the water, we're more focused on surfing's simple joys: take board to water. Catch wave. Stand on wave. Repeat steps two and three.

And it's that shift in perspective--remembering why we surf, remembering that it's simple, that we're lucky to be able to do it--that is making us better surfers, collectively and in the complete sense of the word, than we've been in some time.

There's hope in that. The clouds are clearing now. Things seem to be looking up. Whether or not we make use of this experience is entirely up to us. The old political axiom rings true: Never waste a catastrophe.