What’s the essence of being a surfer?

If it’s individuality, then why are there surf clubs? Surf clothes?
If it’s freedom, why are there contests?
And, if it’s fun, why are so many surfers so f–king bitter?
The answer lies somewhere in those very contradictions. Now, we here at the mag spend a lot of time talking about surfing. What makes a good surfer; what makes ’em not so good. We talk about performance, commitment, wave knowledge, experience. We probably waste more hours talking about riding waves than we could ever kill actually doing it. (Another painful contradiction every surfer can share.) We use words like “faith”, “passion,” sometimes even the dreaded “tribe.” Yet, for all the accepted clichs, we rarely agree on the exact definition of what a surfer is. Probably because we get too caught up in our own life stories to ever reach an accord.

Our ed staff alone is a kaleidoscope of conflicting case studies. We’ve got 20-somethings, 30-somethings, one’s 50-plus. Three of us are proven competitors, two national champions; another has never entered a contest, and the remaining one never should’ve even tried. Three are from California — one grew up on the coast, one inland, and one came here from Hawaii. There’s even a native Aussie, and a token East Coaster. Start mixing and matching, you could build 1000 different images out of just five people.

Most of the time we get along famously, the very definition of a team. But occasionally we argue. Those are the times when our subtle differences in breeding surface.

“That turn’s so weak!” yells one of the schralpers.
“Wave’s not beautiful enough,” scoffs the Aussie.
“Too brown,” notes a Cali dude.
“Go ask Kelly if it’s too brown,” trumps the Rightie.

Molded by years of experience, each of us is so sure we’re the true example of surfing that this simple act of waveriding — something we share so routinely on a mid-day lunch run — can split us like a wedge. We’ll retreat to our offices seething over a tiny caption, feeling as if our very manhood’s been attacked.

Don’t laugh. Most lifelong boardriders grow up believing they’re the “model surfer”, the rites and beliefs interwoven with their very egos. Psychologists have written piles about early development, those pre-adult years where we define our individuality. It’s the reason otherwise innocent “groms” can become suddenly aggressive. It’s how posers get heckled. And it doesn’t stop at adulthood. Over the years, we’ll invest our whole lives into a so-called “recreational pursuit” — picking colleges, jobs and mates — determined to champion the image of the ultimate waterman.

Well, lighten up, Laird, ’cause it’s a losing battle. Just when you’re feeling cutting edge, some vintage longboarder will gut you with tales of hacking through the Cental American jungle using a dull penknife, pioneering the vacay spot you just booked on Orbitz. And just when you think you’re the souliest legend on the block, a young punk in a spiked belt will pull out a surfboard he shaped himself while you were busy waxing historic. Such is the curse of mirroring yourself in an image that’s constantly changing. And the more popular surfing gets, the less often we’ll look at a lineup and see ourselves . . .Matt Walker