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Of Dirty Wax and Rabbits’ Feet

Surf superstition is alive and well in our culture, and it can be the difference between our best and worst sessions

Some Major League Baseball pitchers hop over the chalk baseline on their way back to the dugoutat the end of an inning because they know that if they don't, something terrible will happen. Step on that chalk line, and you're practically guaranteed to give up a grand slam in the next inning. For them, it's almost a universal law. Yet other pitchers step on the line without a second thought. They're not worried about some kind of karmic penalty from accidentally messing up the baseline, because they know that the real talismanic protection lies in wearing the same unwashed undershirt beneath their jersey every single time they pitch. In their minds, if they forget that thing at home before an away game, they might as well start scanning the "help wanted" ads on Craigslist. Baseball is filled with these little superstitious rituals.

I don't know about you, but so is my surf life.

Can you walk to the water carrying your leash in one hand, unattached to the board you're carrying with the other hand? I can't. I don't remember when it started, but I have to attach my leash to my board before I leave the car to head for the sand. If I don't, I just know I'll be surfing like a kook that day (more than normal, I mean). I'm sure that at some point in the past I jogged to the water's edge holding an unattached leash, then threaded it through the leash string, strapped it to my ankle, paddled out into good waves and proceeded to blow like 15 tubes in a row. I don't remember that session, but something must have planted the seed of my superstition.

Oh, I've got others. If I lose my grip on the bar while waxing up and it falls on the ground, that bar is finished forever--I pitch it right into the garbage. If I surf like a god one day, I'll climb into the same cold, soggy suit the next session even though I have a fresh, dry wetsuit ready to go. I can't ride a board with a tail pad on it; just knowing it's there does something to my brain that makes even getting to my feet seem like a struggle. And these aren't indicators of a broader case of OCD, either; superstitious rituals don't follow me further than the parking lot at my local break.

I know I'm not alone in this. An informal survey of fellow surfers I recently conducted revealed that one good friend will rap his knuckles on his stringer while sitting out the back during lulls when the surf is big. If he doesn't, well, the consequences are too terrifying for him to imagine. Another friend brings the same towel and boardshorts that he wore the first time he went to Indo on every surf trip he goes on now. He doesn't use them, mind you, he just wants to have them along (hopefully
he's washed them, because his first Indo trip was in 1995). A few respondents reported that they refuse to surf before their, um, morning constitutional, but that's probably more of a comfort thing than a superstition. But who knows? Superstitions are weird.

So why do we have them anyway?

Well, for one thing, the ocean is vast and unknowable and it doesn't care about any of us. We can spend decades learning as much as possible about the bizarre behavior of the ocean in the littoral zone, but even then we'll never be able to assert any sort of control over what the ocean brings each of us when it comes to fun waves (Well, except for Tom Curren, obviously). A little pre-game ritual, a little bowing to superstition and a hint of magical thinking, however, can produce the illusion that at least some aspect of the insanely random surf experience is within our control.

I can't control the vagaries of tide, swell direction or sandbar formation. But I can control the way I carry my leash to the beach, and I can control the proximity of dirty wax to my surfboard. I can attempt, through repetitive behaviors, to take at least a little bit of the randomness of surfing out of the equation. And maybe, subconsciously, I hope that might cause a chain reaction -- that one correct action will cause more pieces to fall into place. Maybe a peak will bend a little more my way, or that shoulder hopper will back off and let me glide in without me yelling like a banshee. What's more, it seemingly costs me nothing to at least try. It takes only the tiniest bit of focus for me to keep from fumbling the bar of wax onto the ground like a doofus. It takes no effort at all for my buddy to rap his knuckles on his board. On their surface, these actions seem like an easy way to hedge our bets in the hopes that we won't surf like a dork or get pummeled by rogue sets.

There is, of course, the twin, dark specters of confirmation bias and self-fulfilling prophecies
at work here, too. Every once in a while, I forget about my leash rule and realize as I'm paddling out that I've already blown it. And sure enough, kookdom is the result. And I have no doubt that my buddy with the magic Indo boardshorts wouldn't make a single barrel if he went on another boat trip without his disgusting old trunks.

Now, deep down inside, I know that this is all really dumb. I fully realize that I'm perfectly capable of dropping wax on the ground, picking it up, continuing to wax my board and paddling out without blowing any waves. Just the same way Clayton Kershaw probably doesn't actually think he's giving up a grannie just because he smudged the baseline (not that he ever would dare tempt fate).

But, my god, surfing, like baseball, is random as hell and incredibly difficult to do well. You can't blame us for trying to create a sense of control, even if it is just in our own minds.

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