I stepped onto the bluff overlooking Natural Bridges feeling the rough grains of sandstone slide beneath my bare feet. It felt like carpet compared to my daily journeys to the water, across burning asphalt. I lifted my head to see the early morning sun reflecting off the rough, turbulent ocean. I stared out into the distance and watched the white foam form after each wave broke with no surrender. All I could hear was my own heartbeat interrupted by squawking seagull, peaceful compared to the clicks of camera buttons and screaming tourists in San Diego. A familiar, nauseating stench filled the air. Flies buzzed, circling the very patch of algae making this godawful smell. Ahead of me laid new territory: Santa Cruz, California, where I was accepted for the vegetarian, surfing hippie that I am.
I sat there watching each surfer carve the waves like a child does to a pumpkin on Halloween and I began to wonder what they felt in that moment. For a split second I remembered the peacefulness I experience when I surf. Although I am out on a fiber glass object in a enormous body of water, I somehow feel more grounded than when I am on land. The technical movement has become second nature and I experience pure relaxation. I create a new reality; one where my anxiety doesn’t exist and happiness is an easy goal. Everything small, everything worthless, it all disappears. That’s when I found my new subject of research: “The Escape”. A new friend of mine explained this feeling when describing his first wave: “I just stopped thinking about everything on the land. It just became irrelevant. I don’t have to think about anything apart from myself, this board, these waves, and how it all flows together.” Surfing isolates you from land. It takes you away from busy towns, anxious people, every day tasks.
In the book Surfing and Social Theory, surfing is conveyed as “a moment of total involvement, total loss of self-consciousness – just being” (Brown 55).
It wasn’t difficult to meet a surfer within a day of staying in Santa Cruz. He had long blonde hair, blue eyes, and skin tanned enough to show he spends most of his time in the ocean. The smell of marijuana clung to his clothing in the same way a leech hangs onto human skin for dear life. When I spoke to him I always focused on the silver piercing where a soul patch once grew. The piece moved in an out after every word he spoke. It looked painful. He wore a tie die shirt that hid the black ohm symbol tattoo in between his shoulders. I knew this tanned, tattooed grom, as young as he is, would have some insight into the Santa Cruz surfing life.
My first question of many: “Do you feel a sense of escapism when you surf?”
“Yeah, but it’s more of a connection. You’re maybe escaping from repetitive thoughts that would be going on in your head everyday. It forces you to not think about those things.”
“A connection? A connection to what?”
At that moment I realized I never truly escaped from reality when I surfed, I simply found a new reality: my peaceful space. Surfers feel ‘The Escape’ from a connection to the ocean. They are not escaping the rest of the world, they are simply escaping their thoughts. For me, it’s memories. I escape my painful past that replays in my brain every day. I focus on simply the waves coming towards me and maintaining balance on my board. But do all surfers experience this escape or is it simply the ones who know what they are doing?
As Brown explains in Surfing and Social Theory, “at significant surf spots, the structure, rules, and strength of the local hierarchy control activity within the territory” (Brown 97). How long one has surfed greatly affects their experience out in the ocean. People who have grown up and surfed in one spot their whole life dominate the surf breaks. A concept all surfers must understand is Localism: “excessive devotion to and promotion of the interests of a particular locality; sectionalism”.
There is a secluded surf break in Santa Cruz called Two Mile. Locals are very territorial over this spot because waves break here while other spots are flat. My new friend walked to this spot a while back, after only living in Santa Cruz for a year. Two men dressed in all black wetsuits, easily mistaken for navy seals in uniform, walked by him. He asked them how the surf was and they stopped walking and explained that the surf was “no good” and it was “not worth the walk down there”. My friend was confused because he walked by Natural Bridges earlier where there was a fairly decent swell. He replied by saying thank you and that he was going to walk down there anyways. The two surfers continuously tried to convince him to walk back with them and not surf at Two Mile. Although, my friend ignored their suggestion and found perfect 6-8 foot waves.
I was shocked that other surfers, which I assumed would be friendly to people who participate in the same sport, would go out of their way to stop others from surfing.
My Santa Cruz friend explained, “I consider this my town and I feel as if you begin to have ownership of where you are. You want everyone to have the same respect and kindness for these places that they are going to”.
Therefore, locals will be disrespectful to new surfers to make sure they treat “their town” respectfully.
In Santa Cruz, the so called “surfing hierarchy” is dominated by local, older, male surfers. Next on this hierarchy is middle-aged, experienced, male surfers. Below them are skilled, teenage boys. And lastly, female surfers.
Where do I fit into this hierarchy? A young, female, intermediate surfer, about the lowest spot on the hierarchy. My first three weeks in Santa Cruz I didn’t surf once. In San Diego I surf every single day. What was stopping me? Fear of the locals.
As Kent Pearson explains in Surfing Subcultures, Surfing is “an outlet for social-emotional pressures, that relaxes and invigorates; it is not something one does but something one is a part of” (Pearson 145).
I need surfing. I need surfing in the same way a buddhist needs meditation or a priest needs his bible. Surfing is my addiction. Surfing is my escape. Although, this intimidating surfing hierarchy kept me from my addiction.
This hesitation was familiar, it reminded me of my favorite spot to surf in San Diego: Swamis. There is a long wooden staircase leading down to the beach from the parking lot where the locals park their old, rusty Volkswagen busses. Men with long beards and straw hats sit in the back of their cars blasting reggae music and talking about the “gnarly” waves. On the right of the parking lot is a small grass park where hippies, with dreadlocks hanging past their mid-torso, climb on each other doing the most intricate yoga poses you will ever see.
Last summer I went out to Swamis on a perfect day. Smooth, glassy water, making every drop-in easier and each ride much longer. It was sunny enough to go in with out a wetsuit and the water was full of middle-aged men with white faces, determined to catch more waves than the surfer beside them. I went out with my light blue, fiberglass, 8’2 longboard. The board highlighted my 5 feet in length and my short arms that could barely reach the end of the board. I paddled out and sat on my board surrounded by surfers full of adrenaline. I sat in the water for hours. My toes turned into prunes and my nose turned bright red.
After waiting my turn, I found my wave. I paddled as if there were a great white shark behind me and my biceps began to burn. My tongue hung completely out of my mouth; it helped with concentration. The water shoved me downward and I hopped onto my board as white foam formed behind me. Before I knew it, I had company. An old man wearing a wet straw hat, decorated with tan wrinkled skin, was right beside me. I was riding the wave right and he dropped into the wave headed left. Within less than a minute his 9 foot board hit me against my shin like a bull ramming into an enemy to fight for his life. I fell off my board and was held under the water by the overwhelming strength from the wave above me. I curled up in a ball, praying that my board or the intruder’s board wouldn’t knock me unconscious. I emerged from the water and took the massive breath of air that I so badly needed.
“Are you okay? I am so sorry!” he screamed.
He paddled away.
I was not fine.
I paddled back into shore and limped all the way up the wooden stairs to my car. My leg throbbed as if there were a little kid continuously throwing rocks at my shin. My eyes filled with salt water, but I held back any obvious tears. I couldn’t show my weakness.
That was the last time I surfed at Swamis.
I don’t feel a sense of escape every time I surf. I don’t catch every wave. But when I have those few minutes of simple peace and connection to the ocean it makes it all worth it.
As Pearson explains in Surfing Subcultures, “Surfing to me is an art-like music or poetry or painting because you have your own style and when you come in you feel as if you have accomplished something you have, you’ve improved yourself and your style and also learned a lot more about this art than when you went out there-it allows you to appreciate nature much more” (Pearson 150).
As much as surfing is about the ocean, the movement, and the performance, it’s about acceptance. I have to accept that I may not experience escapism every time I surf. The hierarchy, the locals, the days with out any waves; I have to accept it all. Although I surf to escape from my anxiety and the overwhelming thoughts that circulate my brain, I never really escape my inner-self. I become one with the ocean, my feelings, and my difficulties. I learn to accept them.
I sat on Natural Bridges for the second time, surfboard in hand, eager to enter my second home. It was time that I let go of my fear of upsetting others or not being high enough on the hierarchy to have priority on waves. It was my ocean as much as anyone else’s. I felt the icy water surround my body and the salty wind cling onto my skin. I began to paddle, ready to escape into a place of self-realization and peace.
Brown, David. Surfing and Social Theory. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print
“Localism.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 20 July 2014.
Pearson, Kent. Surfing Subcultures. St Lucia, Queensland: U of Queesnland, 1979.
LCC Mav Life News Article
With a majority of the student body in close proximity to the beach, it is no surprise that many students are involved in surfing in some way, either through the ROP Ocean Surf Life Saving class or the LCC Surf Team. A wide variety of people comprise the surfing community, which can lead to separation and discrimination out in the water.
With many different factors at play, some believe that there lies an order among surfers that determines who is entitled to surf in specific spots.
“In any kind of subculture like surfing there’s a hierarchy that exists,” Surf PE teacher Paul Giuliano said. “It has to do with not only ability, but the time that you’ve been involved with the sport or the time you’ve put in at a certain spot.”
Localism plays a large role in where surfers can be. Surfers living in a certain area often feel entitled to the better waves there.
“I see that hierarchy every time we have surf team practice,” assistant surf coach Craig Griesemer said. “We surf at Pipes and that spot has locals, our surfers should be respectful of those locals and should not drop in on them.”
Gender also plays major factor in determining a surfer’s place in the hierarchy. Women may often feel discriminated against by men in a predominantly male sport.
“A lot of [men] put us lower than them or think they are above girl surfers,” junior Sydney Wennerstrom said. “Society as a whole kinda thinks that girl surfers are below men and it’s kinda a men’s sport.”
Others echo the sentiment that guys place themselves about girls out on the water.
“Boys definitely put themselves over girls,” senior Hannah Dustin said. “[They] don’t respect you as much and don’t think you should be out there.”
Another possible determinant in the surfing hierarchy is age and surfing experience.
“People who have been doing it for longer would put themselves at the top,” Dustin said.
While some may be frustrated by a surfing hierarchy, others have learned to accept it.
“You’ll get more waves some places than others just depending what type of person you are, like your gender, your age, whatever,” Wennerstrom said. “You just have to earn your spot in the lineup.”
Despite it seeming inevitable that separation in the surfing community may occur, patience and respect may be the most important factors in earning waves
“Just because you aren’t higher up on this hierarchy that exists doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to get any waves or anything,” Giuliano said. “You have to be patient and respect the people who have ability and surf there regularly. If you give people respect you will get it in return.”