‘Wouldst thou’ – so the helmsman answered, learn the secret of the sea? Only those who brave its dangers, comprehend its mystery’ I first saw those words more than 20-years-ago. They were at the front of a PhD thesis belonging to Professor Paul Russell from the University of Plymouth.
The quotation is from Longfellow’s poem, The Secret of the Sea, and it suggests that if you really want to understand the ocean you have to get out there and immerse yourself in it, not just go to university and read books.
Paul is one of the world’s leading experts on coastal oceanography. He is also more than just a ‘keen surfer’; he is one of the UK’s most successful competitive surfers of all time, becoming European champion three times and winning a multitude of other titles during the 1980s. A lifetime of surfing has given him an understanding of the ocean beyond which any amount of study alone would have achieved.
A few years later I was researching for my own PhD, in Plymouth, under the guidance of Professor Russell. At the same time I was on a parallel learning curve, building up my big-wave experience at places like Guéthary and Meñakoz in the Basque Country.
I would sneak off down there whenever I could, sometimes carrying a pile of books with me. I didn’t really think about that Longfellow quote or any possibility that surfing would help me with my studies; I was just happy to get in the water.
I didn’t really think about that Longfellow quote or any possibility that surfing would help me with my studies; I was just happy to get in the water
One day, when I was sitting in the line-up at Meñakoz, an idea struck me that was to eventually become the cornerstone for my PhD research. It was based around ultra-long period waves that invade the coast during large storms. I know I wouldn’t have had that idea if I hadn’t been surfing big waves or surrounded by them. I went back to Plymouth and developed the idea, which led to a successfully-completed PhD.
Paradoxically, sneaking off to go surfing – which would have normally been considered a distraction from my work – had made me more productive. I suddenly remembered that quote. It was true: if you spend time immersed in the environment you are studying you will gain a much deeper understanding of it, and the knowledge you gain will mean so much more to you.
Since then I have stuck to that philosophy, not just feeling unashamed about taking time off from my work or studies to go surfing, but also forcing myself to do so when I’ve been sitting at the computer too long. I’ve also been telling everybody else to do the same. Maybe one day, institutions and companies will openly encourage, or even oblige, ocean scientists to get out there and immerse themselves in nature for at least one day a week, instead of sitting behind a computer screen all day, simulating Nature but never experiencing it.
I thought my surfing would be made more interesting if I found out a bit more about the waves I was riding
It can work the other way round too. Having some background knowledge can give you a richer experience of surfing, in and out of the water. This was something I had always been vaguely aware of, and was one of the reasons I enrolled at the university in the first place. I thought my surfing would be made more interesting if I found out a bit more about the waves I was riding.
It worked. Ever since I studied wave science, my overall surfing experience has been enhanced tremendously. The way I live a big swell is not just confined to those few hours in the water; it starts days earlier when the storm first appears on the charts, and might continue for years afterwards if that swell was a memorable one.
But do most surfers really care about any of this? I’d like to think so, yes. At least a bit more than a few years ago, when we all belonged to the ‘University of Life’ and reading was for people who didn’t know how to surf. Now, at least most surfers value some extra knowledge, particularly when it comes to wave forecasting.
At the same time, the public image of surfing has changed. At one time, surfing was considered a marginal sub-culture enjoyed by a handful of dope-smoking time wasters; whereas nowadays it is a mainstream activity as commendable as skiing or tennis. As a result, employees and people with in-laws don’t have to be ashamed or hide the fact that they surf.
So, a little theory behind what you are practicing enhances your experience; and a little practice adds meaning to all that theory. It’s a viscous circle, like the cat chasing its tail, a snowball rolling down a hill or the very physical processes that generate waves on the ocean.
Cover shot: The author of this piece and MSW's own forecaster Tony Butt, sending it at Menakoz by Hubi Schulz.