I learned something this past week—or rather, remembered something that I once knew but had long since forgotten.
I just finished a week of lifeguarding on Namotu, and when I arrived in Fiji seven days ago, the forecast wasn't exactly stellar. It had pumped the week before, and it was going to pump again the week after, but during our stay there wasn't much more than knee-to-chesthigh waves projected—with a lot more knee-high than chest-high on the charts. By the end of my stint on the island, I’d only pulled a shortboard out of my bag once, which says a lot about the swell we got. We had a couple small sessions at Cloudbreak (see the charts HERE), but for the most part it was 1-to-2ft Namotu Lefts—not exactly what you think of when you envision a trip to Fiji.
The entire week, I waited for the inevitable blowup—for disgruntled guests to finally get fed up with the sub-par conditions and start snapping at each other, the staff, and anyone else they could get their hands on. But the riot never came. Which sort of confused me. Why wasn’t anyone grumbling about the fact that they were getting skunked?
It wasn’t until day six that I began to realise the guests weren’t rioting because they weren’t actually bummed. My moment of clarity came when a guy named Dave paddled in from a glassy but somewhat lazy, chest-high session and told me, “I can’t believe we just surfed that alone—that was the best surf I’ve had.” As Dave talked excitedly about his “best-ever” session, it was impossible to tell if he meant best session of the week, best session out of all his trips to Fiji, or best session of his life. But it didn’t really matter, because he was clearly on a major high—from surfing two-foot Namotu Lefts.
That’s when I remembered what I’d forgotten years ago, after decades of desensitisation at the hands of the surf media: Most people don’t want to surf 10-foot Cloudbreak—or 10-foot Teahupoo or Pipeline, for that matter. They don’t want Nias or Kandui or Skeleton Bay, and they definitely don’t want Maverick’s or Peahi or Nazare. No, the average surfer wants a two-foot, user-friendly point break—and that was exactly what we had this week in Fiji.
Throughout our stay, we rode soft tops, SUPs, kiteboards, longboards, fish, mid-lengths, and foil boards—basically everything you are supposed to ride when the surf is down and you are stuck waiting for the “proper” swells to start up again. But as it turns out, no one on the island was waiting for a bigger swell to arrive. In fact, most of them hadn’t even bothered to look at the forecast at all.
What we didn’t ride was even more noteworthy than the boards we did use. We didn’t ride shortboards, step-ups, or guns, and we definitely didn’t ride barrels, bombs or high-performance wedges—the types of boards and waves that make up 99 per cent of surf photos and video edits you see online. And as I watched this happy, friendly, diverse group of surfers revel in the small, safe waves out front, I realised that there is a massive disconnect between the type of surfing that the media portrays, and the type of surfing that most people do.
I realised that there is a massive disconnect between the type of surfing that the media portrays, and the type of surfing that most people do
The latest research indicates that there are 35 million surfers in the world, but I’d bet money that there aren’t 350,000 of those who boost airs and pack barrels and paddle into 20-footers. In other words, less than 1 per cent of the surfing population has a surf experience that even remotely resembles what we see in the magazines. And the other 99 per cent? They cruise down the line on user-friendly, chest-high point waves—and they love it. And that’s awesome.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder what sort of effect this disconnect between the surfing we watch online and the surfing we actually do has on us. After all, there are a lot of parallels between that disconnect and the one that is created by the unattainable, airbrushed standards of beauty magazines, or the sex that we see in movies and porn.
And despite our addiction to these fantasies—or perhaps precisely because of them—I think that most of us know that they aren’t exactly healthy for us, both on an individual and societal level.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a buddy I’ve known practically my entire life. He’d come back from a session at Rocky Point completely bummed out on surfing. He got a speeding ticket on the way there, paddled out grumpy, surfed worse than he could ever remember surfing, then ran his brand new board into the reef on the way to shore. It took a couple of days for him to shake the session off, and in that time he spent a lot of time thinking about surfing and the role it plays in his life. Once he had processed everything, he called me up and told me that he has spent the past decade approaching the ocean completely wrong.
Because I believe that I shouldn’t be stoked unless I do something noteworthy, like dropping into a massive, life-threatening slab. And it’s ruining the entire surfing experience for me
I asked him what he meant, thinking that he had come to some sort of epiphany about technique or style, and was surprised when his answer involved nothing of the sort. “I’ve realised that I get a thrill out of making a late drop on a weak, overhead burger of a wave,” he said, “and then I feel lame for being excited by it. Because I believe that I shouldn’t be stoked unless I do something noteworthy, like dropping into a massive, life-threatening slab. And so I end up judging myself for not charging harder, or surfing better, or ripping to the level that I’ve come to equate with good surfing. And it’s ruining the entire surfing experience for me…taking something that I used to love and making me hate it.”
I thought about that conversation a lot this week while watching a bunch of unknown frothers riding tiny waves in a markedly non-high-performance fashion. And I realised that if professional surfing were to disappear tomorrow, our lives probably wouldn’t suffer at all. In fact, we might just end up surfing more than we do now, and enjoying ourselves more while doing so.
Someone once said that the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun. I think most of us can agree that this isn’t quantifiably true—we know who the best surfers in the world are, and we know that what makes them the best is their abilities on a board, and not the size of their smiles. But maybe being the best doesn’t actually matter. Maybe the people who paddle out stoked no matter the conditions, and who measure the value of their sessions not by how well they perform but how much fun they have are the ones who really have it figured out.
So here’s one for the 34,650,000—the 99 per cent who will never have a shot run in an article, and who don’t give a damn, because they are too busy having a blast on their two-foot peelers. Bula!