Should we Feel Guilty for Surfing Through Natural Disasters?

Matt Rott

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Updated 11d ago

California is on fire right now. Tens of thousands of people displaced, 1,500 homes destroyed, ash raining down on San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The pictures filtering out look like a scene out of Judgment Day in Terminator. Most of the attention has been focused on the fires up north, but Orange County is on fire too—and this time of year, that isn’t much of a surprise. The Santa Ana winds blow in October, and that often means fires.

Santa Ana winds also mean offshores in Southern California. The best waves I’ve ever scored south of Santa Cruz were during an October Santa Ana flow, while Ensenada, San Diego, and the Inland Empire burned.

Over on the East Coast and down in the Caribbean, tens of thousands of people are just beginning to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Jose. Homes were destroyed, lives were lost, entire islands were flattened. And a few hundred miles north of there, surfers in New York and North Carolina were scoring the best season in recent memory.

Typhoons smash the Philippines, and the west Pacific scores swell. Monsoons flood South East Asia, and mysto spots in the South China Sea pump. Disaster strikes, and we surfers celebrate, because we finally are going to get our fix.

The destructive path of Hurricane Irma.

Are we assholes?

Actually, I don’t think so. In fact, I’d argue just the opposite. We are the ones who search out silver linings, who turn lemons into lemonade. When bad things happen, it’s an opportunity for humanity to become better—to support each other, and to find something good in all the destruction. And that’s what surfing is: “Go ahead, do your worst. We are going to find a way to take your disaster and turn it into a game.

And that’s what surfing is—our way of looking life straight in the eye and saying, “Go ahead, do your worst. We are going to find a way to take your disaster and turn it into a game.”

That’s the beautiful side of surfing. But there’s an ugly side too. Because too often, surfing turns into a selfish case of the “me first gimmee gimmees.” We burn and back paddle each other, vibe beginners and fight on the sand. And worse, we make gluttons of ourselves without stopping to consider those who are suffering so that we can have swell.

Maria produced some of the best surf for the East Coast.

Maria produced some of the best surf for the East Coast.

© 2017 - Shawn Casey

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with scoring waves from a storm that smashed someone else’s house—that’s an example of humanity’s capacity for transcendence. But to do so without acknowledging that others are hurting while we score—well that’s something else entirely.

We are all coastal dwellers, all susceptible to the same dangers—cyclones, tsunamis, fires, and flooding. Eventually, we are going to be on the other end of the stick, suffering while others are surfing.

So yes, let’s ride those waves that were created when Puerto Rico was destroyed. Let’s enjoy those offshore winds that spread the fires that burn people’s homes. Let’s find something beautiful in the midst of all the destruction.

But when we paddle back to shore and reenter reality, let’s take a moment to remember how privileged we all are to have toys and leisure time and something as pointlessly fun as surfing. Let’s acknowledge the fact that fortune is smiling on us at the moment, but that others aren’t so lucky.

And let’s do what we can to help them. Because if we can buy $70 pairs of board shorts or $140 sets of fins, we can sure as hell afford to support those who are on the front lines providing relief—organisations like Waves for Water, SurfAid, or your local shelter for fire evacuees and hurricane victims.

If we all pitch in, it takes very little to make a big difference. And maybe next time we chase a hurricane while everyone else boards up their windows and flees the coast, they’ll think of us as a compassionate army of lemonade makers, rather than a bunch of selfish thrill seekers.

Cover shot: Barrels awakened in Aruba as Hurricane Irma tore through left us feeling conflicted. You can read about that HERE. Image by Armando Goedgedra.


Matt Rott

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