Surfing Is Us

In my continuing fascination with the link between creativity and the lone, extreme physical pursuit, I am delighted to follow Lisa Scullard’s wonderful post on parkour with a piece from one of the most brilliant and original voices in the literary landscape. I first came across Jonny Gibbings when he undertook a one man guerrilla campaign on the threads of the Guardian Books Blog a few years back. No matter how many times his ingenious plugs for his gloriously unapologetic, anarchic, drop dead hilarious debut Malice in Blunderland he would be back, a few minutes later, with another one. I was fascinated and impressed by his unfailing sense of optimism and determination. The more I got to know him, the more I was won over not just by his style but by his talent and, most of all, the shining example he offers us as a human being. His article “a battle cry for the dreamers” is one of the most inspiring things you will find on the internet. Jonny isn’t just someone who writes about iconic existential figures, he is one. A committed vegan, animal welfare campaigner, and surfer, he is a man who personifies compassion, humour, and an icy determination. I’ll be talking to him soon about his new book, Remember to Forget, but here he is talking about his passion, surfing.

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Waves are the children of storms. They are the product of a collision between warm and cold air, a relationship that quickly spins into a violent rage, destructive and angry, the winds ferocious in spite of each other, growing ever more wild and on a journey of ruination until there is nothing left of what they touch or the storm itself. The waves like refugees flee for thousands of miles away from the violence, staring out raw and angry, yet over time the waves refine and calm, growing proud in shape, the wildness long since dead. The waves become confident and beautiful, ending their epic journey on shoreline in walls of lucent glass. I mirror this, I am a wave. The child of unspeakable violence, the wild anger and homelessness, rage, prison. It wasn’t until distance through time could I calm, learning to read and write in prison that turned the ugliness, the emotions, the embarrassment and pain into words. Yet I am not unique, the best and most creative writing comes from a heart that is wrought with scar tissue, and there are so many of us with shadows on the inside, and so many storms. If I go to the beach and there are no waves, I know I only have to wait, knowing numerous storms are out there and so much troubled water, that if not today soon there will be waves. Just as sure as there will be more great poets and new beautiful fiction.

The parallels between surfing and creativity doesn’t end at the waves themselves. Surfers are a few, and to those who know nothing about surfing it is difficult to explain. Surfing isn’t defined by the quickest time or a ball going into a net. Surfing doesn’t have a season. There is no right or wrong to surfing and once done, unlike playing tennis or squash, there is no winner. You play football, you play golf… you go surfing. Unlike the status of having expensive golf clubs or the fanciest football boots, surfing’s creativity doesn’t end with the riding of waves, the equipment is a varied and individual as the act itself. Boards of different shapes and sizes, some long, some high performance and short and each hand made by a craftsman. I often ride a crap old board made in 1972, and one of my favourite boards I made from insulation foam thrown out at a building site, the resin surplus from a boat builder, the fins wooden and shaped from an old table that was fly-tipped. The board free and truly recycled. I made it in the summer with my thirteen year old son in the yard as a lesson in ecology. It’s ugly, but unlike any other sport, we don’t get laughed at when using it, it provokes conversation and then admiration and so many times I get asked “Can I have a go?”.

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Waves present like naked paper, what you do with it is up to you, there is no right or wrong. Some like to draw long flowing lines on the wave, harmonising with the fast sections, turning in long sweeping arks and flowing majestically. Some like to vent their anger, hitting the lip of the wave, taking to the air with radical powerful turns, throwing water, sparring with the raw power of nature. Sure there are some rules, but these are basic and only exist to ensure you get the most out of surfing while not diminishing the enjoyment of others, but these are no more constrained than grammar. Surfing is all about interpretation, spontaneous and immeasurably creative because no two waves will ever be the same. A waves surface changes in micro-seconds, each breaking differently than the last, with different ‘pockets’, the term for areas of speed. Wind and tide constantly alter the surf. And so not every wave will create a rolling cylinder of water. Actually, not many waves create a tube, and when on a wave that does you have to be in exactly the right place at the right time and will only be able to arrive there by your investment in surfing and the ability to feel it about to happen.

It is the union between us and the water, the commitment to being at the coast to ride the last moments of storms and the freedom to express yourself with utter abandon that becomes addictive. Some say it is an healthy obsession, but it is much darker than that. I am a junkie that has peddled my drug to my children. As much as I imagine addicts of cocaine never set out to be an addict, more to have a good time, surfing can have consequences. It has cost me relationships, careers. The need to exist close enough to the coast to ride each storm often means less well paid jobs, driving a shitty car that always has the fuel light on. And while other peoples smart phones and tablets have twitter and facebook, ours have synoptic long range weather charts, wind forecasts and tide times. We surfers wake at 4am to surf before work, watching the birth of a new sun, often in sub-zero conditions, only to return again after work to surf and witness the suns last moments. Life burns, it hurts and it scars. Heartbreak, shitty jobs, recessions, worrying about my kids, war. The only thing that has ever made sense to me is surfing. It asks nothing of me, doesn’t care if I have an off day. As things I love left, surfing has always been there, my only true constant. One morning the sunrise painted the sky bright magenta, with clouds forming undulating lines of purple, it was truly beautiful. I caught a wave, gliding along its surface not performing a single turn on an ocean like glass, I became emotional, so lost to the beauty it brought tears. As some will know I’ve done some bad things, but surfing doesn’t judge you. Regardless of who you are it rewards you with days like this.

As with all addictions, surfing can have a darker side. The more you invest in time, the better you get, the bigger the waves you can surf and so the bigger the thrill the risk and the reward. Reefs where giant waves crash over solid rock tempt you. What you once deemed unridable become a challenge. Much like when we start to write, we mirror what we’ve read and liked. Soon you write like you. Yet for some they find themselves committing to paper brave and challenging words, performing them to a room of strangers. Some of us, we have to see how far we can go.

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When hurricane Hercules was heading to our shores, news reports were forecasting the worst storms for forty years and never before seen wave heights. As some abandoned their homes, and others barricaded themselves against the soon to arrive storm. I, like a few others headed to the coast, searching for a spot where the monsters are able to form a wave that I could ride. This turned out to be Wolf Rock, at the mouth of Salcombe. Waves so big that when they hit the cliff you could feel the vibration through your feet. Myself and two others climbed down the cliff face and threw our boards into the sea, then jumped in after them. We paddled for our lives into deep water where the waves were breaking. I sat for forty minutes in boiling wild seas waiting for the right wave. Three foot of water cubed weighs a ton, a forty foot wave weighs more than a double decker bus and moves at about thirty miles an hour. Every cell in your body, even reason screams at you to paddle away as the monster approaches, but you don’t, you paddle for it, trying to catch it. Soon you are being lifted to the sky as the wave begins to stand up, paddling so frantically to catch the face that it feels like acid is in your veins. It is like dropping down the side of a block of flats and trying to stand up as an avalanche of water detonates with a sound of thunder beside you, turning on a giant wall of water to outrun disaster. We get called adrenalin junkies, but that isn’t the adrenalin, it it’s the dopamine, the high afterwards. Pure euphoria as your body hits you with its home made heroin.

Nobody ever got into surfing to be famous or to be rich, they did it because their dad did it and they wanted to spend some time with him or simply just to have fun at the beach. No kid has ever been pushed into surfing to be the next Tiger Woods or David Beckham. At the extremes of surfing that I do, I have lost teeth, broken both feet, fractured two vertebrae and hit the reef so hard a rib snapped and punctured my lung. I have nearly drowned twice. Life though is about living with a story and a scar. Some say I will kill myself, but it is way beyond having a choice. Besides, it isn’t death I fear, it’s a life unlived.



5 thoughts on “Surfing Is Us

  1. “It isn’t death I fear, it’s life unlived.” Now that is some quote. Top banana!

    Alas after a somewhat gung ho youth I am in possession of a few less knee ligaments than usual. As a result I have to pick and choose my forms of exercise very, very carefully. On the up side, I absolutely get you about the oh shit what am I doing but at the same time, loving it, aspect of surfing. Because I do get something, on a reduced level, when I pick my forms of exercise without due care and attention. That feeling of ah, yes, if one of my knees gives way now I will die. That feeling, when you are aware of the risks, when your sensible brain is telling you that this will probably end in tears, but the rest of you argues that you’re trained and experienced and then does it regardless.

    Lovely post.



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