Eternal sunshine and endless swell
“Man, you guys really missed it, you should’ve been here yesterday.”
- Bruce Brown, Endless Summer.
The Endless Summer can be credited for popularising the surf world’s most enduring trope: the search for perfection. You know the story, Bruce and Robert and Mike, with John Whitmore in tow, stumble onto the perfect waves of Cape St Francis. The “funny looking waves” become the centrepiece of the film and their discovery puts a pointed focus on surf travel. You’re not on a holiday, you’re on a search.
Another theme popularised in the Endless Summer is that things were better before you were here. The quote that opens this article is repeated multiple times in the film, adjusted for patois and accent. In the fifty-something years since the film was released the idea that things were better yesterday has grown, it’s aged, the surf wasn’t just better yesterday, it was better last decade, last century. Yeah, you really missed it.
You’ve only got to visit online spaces where old guys hang out, vintage board sites and the like, and you’ll see this line trotted out again and again, that the surf was better back in the day. But here’s the thing, no matter who’s saying it - even when it’s you - it’s almost certainly wrong. The surf wasn’t better back in the olden days, we just think it was.
To make sense of that we’ve got to understand how memory works.
Despite what we think, most of our lived experiences are forgotten, not remembered. No-one has a photographic memory, the ‘R’ button in their brain permanently depressed taking in all they see, hear, and do, recalling it later with perfect clarity.
To be sure, we’re continually taking in information, but we’re also discarding most of it too. Tossing it in the trash file. What neurologists now believe about memory is that information only gets committed to storage when it has an emotional component. When we’re emotionally aroused - excited, happy, angry etc - the adrenaline or dopamine flows, imprinting the memory with substance and telling us it’s something worth holding onto. Thus it bypasses the trash file for the hard drive - our long-term memory.
Let’s take a look at a real world example:
Kid gets up early in the morning to check surf, there is none, so kid goes back home.
Kid gets up early in the morning to check surf, it’s small so kid has an inconsequential grovel.
Kid gets up early, again and again with numerous variations of the above happening.
Finally, kid gets up early in the morning to check surf, it’s pumping, so kid surfs for hours in a state of heightened excitement.
Compared to every other scenario, the last one involves an emotionally significant event and will be assigned to memory, available for recall throughout the kid's life. The rest lack emotional significance and will fade from memory as if they didn’t even happen.
Our memory, therefore, is selective.
You often hear the term ‘selective memory’, it’s used as if people choose what they want to remember; that they’re constructing the past to their own design, always rosy and, of course, always pumping. Neurologists use it in the opposite way: what we consign to memory is involuntary. We can’t help what we select for memory.
The implications are clear in terms of long term swell patterns. Those classic days when the senses are firing and the emotions flow like a southerly sweep at Kirra, they get laid down the like the tracks of our lives, while periods of low swell and bad banks are devoid of any emotional component so they get forgotten, again, as if they didn’t even happen.
Those old guys aren’t lying when they say the waves were better back in the day, they just don’t have any memory of the all those small, flat, and onshore days. Their memory is tricking them and creating a false past - "a foreign country" as L.P. Hartley called it. It’s a delusion, yeah, but it's not deliberate. Just a glitch in our biology.
And at least those old guys have an excuse for thinking things were better before you came along. Unlike Bruce Brown who knowingly fabricated his version of events at Cape St Francis. It was a beautiful lie, but a lie nonetheless.