Surfing—What’s It All About?
As told to Awake! correspondent in Australia
WHAT does it feel like to go skimming effortlessly along the waves on a beautiful sun-bathed beach? Thousands of people around the world regularly have that thrill. They are surfers, and surfing is their particular pleasure in life. I invited three Australian friends to explain surfing’s special attraction. As you read their experiences you will also catch a timely word of advice. I will let John Gittins tell his story first.
“I was awakened by the thunder of huge waves pounding on the volcanic rocks below me. The sound excited me and yet made me feel a little scary at the same time. Why? Because shortly I would be testing my wits and strength surfing on those watery monsters.
“Still half asleep I groped around in the dark of my little van, looking for my board shorts. On opening the van doors my wildest dreams were realized. Perfect ten- to twelve-foot* waves were peeling off the point down into beautiful Honolua Bay, on the island of Maui, Hawaii. I was looking at a surfer’s dream.
“I had surfed at some of the top surfing spots of Australia, South Africa and Europe. Now in Hawaii I was at the surfers’ Mecca. Before my eyes were the biggest, most powerful well-shaped waves I had ever seen. Surfboard under arm, I ran down the track between the wild cacti to meet the sea. A quick but careful scan of the oncoming waves revealed there was a lull, giving just enough time for the final dash to the jump-off rock, and then I was into it—the beautiful, cool, clear Hawaiian surf.
“I paddled out and, at the right moment, stroked into the face of one of the big waves. The incredible rush as the wave took over and the smooth speed of the drop are still clear in my mind. Turning at the base of the wave, I slotted up into the long green wall, racing along the face faster than I had ever done before. The roar of the thundering curl went right through me. For a moment I thought it was all over as the throwing lip of the wave encircled me. But finally I made it out the end and slid off the back of the spent swell into the deep water of the inside bay. What a thrill it had been!
“Now, surfing may not be your idea of fun but most people at least like to stand and watch. The camera bugs, with their zoom lenses, really get excited. And wherever there are big waves it is more than likely that there will be surfers too. Many travel all over the world just to ride good waves. In fact, surfing is now a professional sport with its own points system and increasing financial prizes.
Is Surfing Monotonous?
“Some people ask, Isn’t surfing monotonous, just waiting in the water for some suitable wave, and doing the same thing over and over again? Not at all. Every swell of the sea is different. Every sandbar, or reef, forms a distinct break. Every wave ridden varies, not only in size and power but in speed, texture and rate of peel. There is certainly no room for monotony!
“What about the expense in surfing? Is it costly to get started? Not really. In fact, one of its attractions for the young people is that it offers a lot for little outlay. To begin with, the ocean is free. Of course, you have to get there first. Then all you have to buy is the surfboard, and a wet suit if the water is cold. Otherwise any swimming gear is good enough.”
Are There Any Drawbacks?
To answer that question I went to my second informant, Rob McTavish, who is well known in the surfing world as a surfboard designer.
“I have travelled all over the world surfing and have seen the changes that have crept in during the last two decades. Not all have been for the better.
“By the early 1960’s a complete life-style developed around the sport, one that ran counter to the materialistic succeed-at-all-costs culture. Many surfers threw away potential careers and pooled their funds for gas in their world search for quality waves. Money was not considered to be all that important. Basically, surfers then were simply trying to enjoy the natural gifts of sun and surf.
“As the sixties progressed many surfers got swept into the counterculture, the hippie movement, and, of course, the drugs that went with it. I have seen many previously dedicated healthy surfers end up on the human scrap heap of degradation and addiction.
“Another negative factor in the sport has been the increased competition, commercialism and professionalism. This has been more evident since the innovation of the short surfboard in 1967. That small board opened up the wave-riding aspects of surfing to entirely new levels of excitement. More powerful waves are needed to drive it, and that means travelling to places like Hawaii and Indonesia for the big mid-ocean swells that create the really high-quality waves.
“With more people surfing, an aggressive spirit has crept in. Crowds of surfers hustle and fight for the best waves. This can often lead to fighting and ‘punching each other out.’
“Maybe you are wondering what happens when a surfer gets older and the competition for waves is tougher. Many have found themselves in a quandary. They may have spent their entire teens and twenties chasing waves, only to find themselves with a wife and children and not too well qualified to earn a living. Others have set themselves up in life by peddling drugs and eventually becoming part of the new ‘establishment,’ just like the one they opposed in the sixties.”
How Safe Is Surfing?
I wondered about that question and decided to ask ex-surfer John Wright for his opinion. He is specially qualified to answer, as you will discover.
“At eleven years of age I was already riding waves on the Australian coast. When a team of surfers from California visited Sydney in the summer of 1956, the surfing fever really caught on. Just watching those Californians perform their tricks really inspired us youngsters—‘cornering,’ ‘walking the plank,’ ‘spinners’ and ‘head dips’—they made it all look so easy!
“As I grew older my appetite was whetted for the big waves of California and Hawaii. At the age of twenty-one I dropped out of college and started to work and save for my first trip to the USA. When I finally made it I saw that the surfers’ life-style was not a whole lot different from what it was in Australia—drinking parties, brawls, loose morals and the misuse of drugs. Fights over waves were common.
“But you are wondering, what about the safety? Obviously in surfing you take a lot of falls, but usually into water. So as long as you are a good swimmer, there is normally no real danger. But there is always the unforeseen circumstance that can strike anyone at any time. Take my case as an example.
“One day in 1975 while I was testing out a new surfboard at a local break, I was doing a ‘reentry’ on a four-foot wave. The wave ran across a shallow sandbank and the lip of the wave speared me headfirst into the sand. The whole weight of my body came down on my neck. I sprang to my feet and then collapsed face down in a foot of water. While lying there I wondered why I could not move.
“Just as I was about out of breath, a fellow surfer who had caught the wave before me saw me floating there and came to my rescue. He rolled me onto my back and floated me to shore. By this time a small crowd had gathered on the beach. It seemed like hours that I waited for the ambulance. That was the last time I rode a surfboard. I had broken my neck. Ever since then I have been a quadriplegic.*
“The thought of being confined to a wheelchair weighed heavily on my mind. Gradually, with the help of physiotherapy, I have regained a lot of use in my arms and hands and am able to get around with the aid of crutches, thanks also to the constant encouragement from my loving wife, whom I married in January 1980.
“Although I am unable to surf, I do enjoy swimming, which helps to keep me fit and I still get pleasure in watching the surf and the many skilled surfers riding the waves near our home overlooking the ocean on Australia’s east coast.
“Is there any lesson to be learned from my unfortunate experience? Accidents can happen in any sport due to unforeseen circumstances. If I would have hit that sandbank with my hands instead of my head the story would have been different. Obviously you cannot trifle with the blind forces of nature. A wave, carrying tons of water, can generate a tremendous force. That is why a surfer has to know how to harmonize with the flow and the rhythm of the wave. It is also helpful to know the kind of terrain that is lying under the waves and be prepared to take emergency action if necessary.
“When I look back on my surfing days I can think of many happy and thrilling moments. There was a joy in harmonizing with the ever-changing movements of the waves. But there were also the negative aspects of a life-style that included drug addiction and loose morals. In addition there is the aggressiveness and competition.
“I am also forced to reflect on another aspect of surfing. All sport is supposed to be a recreation, a pastime, a change of activity from the normal run of life. Of course, if one is a professional that is different. But I must admit that surfing was more than that to me. It was a time- and energy-consuming full-time occupation. Whole days were spent surfing, waiting for the perfect ‘tube,’ the really big wave. I can see now how easily it became a self-centred activity, with hardly a thought for anyone else. And at the end of the week or month, what was there to show for it? Of course, as a spare-time recreation surfing is as good as any other sport. But now, as an active Christian I am bound to say that it should not be practised to the exclusion of other people and responsibilities.
Surfing With a Better Life-Style
“During my surfing days, and while on drugs, I was plagued by questions about the spiritual side of life. I wanted answers to questions such as, Why are we here? Is there life after death? If we are meant to live in harmony with nature and God, why is mankind so intent on destruction? In my search I examined various Eastern philosophies, but they didn’t satisfy me. Then a couple of surfers with whom I was working began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was soon impressed by their changed attitude. They became less aggressive and seemed to develope a genuine concern for their neighbour—in this case, me!
“One day we were discussing world conditions when one of the men showed me a scripture at 2 Timothy, chapter 3, where it mentions the ‘last days’ and describes what people’s attitudes would be like. This really impressed me because I could relate it to our time period. As I progressed in my understanding of the Bible I began to learn about this loving God, Jehovah, who is going to take action to ‘bring to ruin those ruining the earth.’ (Revelation 11:18) So I could see that it was necessary for man to bring his life into harmony with God’s purpose. That meant that I had to make changes in my life-style. I stopped living an immoral life and gave up drugs. In 1974, before my accident, I was baptised as a dedicated servant of God, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Of course, my love of surfing did not diminish, and I went surfing whenever I could. But it was no longer dominating my life as before, and I could enjoy it in relation to the Creator and his great works, one of which is the oceans.
“My accident has not affected my belief in God and his promises to transform this earth under the righteous rule of his kingdom by Christ. With health restored in God’s future new order, I look forward to enjoying again the thrills of the waves. Meanwhile my wife and I are doing all we can to help others, including surfers, to know the true God, Jehovah, and his Son, Christ Jesus, through whom salvation from this corrupt system of things is possible.”
3.28 feet equals 1 meter.
Quadriplegic—one paralyzed in both arms and both legs.
[Picture on page 15]
Although a rare occurrence in surfing, unforeseen circumstances can sometimes cripple