Question: Does The Ocean Love You Back?
A foreword to Chris Gudenswager's latest work, 'Does The Ocean Love You Back?':
A quick look around the urban lineups of Australia reveals that surfing is changing. However, the change isn’t how we’re surfing, but who is surfing. There are currently more learners, particularly adult learners in the water than ever before. The changing demography in the water is reflected on the shelves of my local bookshop with what appears a whole new genre of literature targeting surfing’s newcomers; titles aimed squarely at those who’ve just picked up a surfboard and are embarking on a surfing life.
These books are not written for those surfers.
I understand that may sound confrontational but allow me to explain. This two volume set is compiled of experiences from surfers of a particular milieu. All of them are what I call ‘lifers’. Some may be on the cemetery side of fifty, others right in the guts of middle-age, while a few are still running high on youthful energy, but the thing all lifers have in common is an unshakable commitment to surfing. Each contributor has devoted themselves to the ocean and by dint of time and effort they now have stories to share, and in these books they do.
To call them mere stories, however, is to undersell the offerings inside. When something becomes so central to your identity as surfing has for all the contributors in these books, it pervades your soul. You begin to see the world through the surfing perspective: you open your eyes to nature through surfing; surf trips allow you to meet people beyond your local clique; shared lineups reveal the array of human behaviour; physical limitations are tested in big and heavy waves; while impermanence is understood through the unremitting change of seasons. Beyond all the perfect waves ridden, the real gift of being a lifer is how bloody-minded dedication sublimates itself, sometimes as fitness and ardor, sometimes as knowledge and prowess, and sometimes it even presents itself as wisdom.
Lofty stuff, yes? But let’s back away from the precipice for just a moment. After all, surfing has a bit of a guru problem with cheeseball chin-strokers like the Kahuna, Bear, Bodhi, and Chandler playing the obligatory Wise Elder roles on screen. Thank heavens for real life.
When I began surfing I also began devouring surf media in earnest. Each trip to the newsagency would see me returning with two, three, or even four surf magazines under my arm and I’d read each of them cover to cover, taking in the names, the places, the board labels, even all the inconsequential small print about publishers and employees would be ingested.
In fact, I first became aware of the author of these books through an early issue of Australia’s Surfing Life. Among glossy photos of Gold Coast hotties like Michael ‘Munga’ Barry, Sean ‘Reg’ Riley, and Craig ‘Scat’ Pitchers, was a fellow named Chris Gudenswager - ‘Swag’ for short - pulling in backside at Kirra. “Poor bastard,” I recall thinking to myself, “a goofyfooter on the Gold Coast”. But I digress...
My attitudes and opinions were being shaped by the early surfing magazines that I devoured. Thousands of them over the years. Yet I don’t ever recall reading an article that posed a question such as the central query of these two books. Partly that’s to do with the nature of magazines, which at heart are immediate and breezy, with surfing magazines being particularly fun and irreverent. Yet it’s also partly a result of how surfing has developed. Time was that surfing was a young person’s sport, that surfers would quit once they became adults and assumed responsibility, yet surfing gradually became a thing you could do all your life. The surfing magazines I devoured were catering to a young audience, but the audience grew up and they didn’t stop surfing nor thinking about it.
The magazines of my youth barely exist anymore - victims of the great digital disruption. But if magazines were unsuited to asking weighty questions then the online world is even worse - too fleeting, too volatile for gentle and timeless considerations. A savvy operator might see a gap in the market: a mature subculture who loves telling stories and sharing experiences, yet with no adequate forum to do so. Thankfully Swag - the poor bastard goofyfooter from the Gold Coast - stepped up to fill the gap. This is his fourth book in as many years.
Let’s not brush over that fact as it’s an almighty effort. Some writers go through their whole life without finishing a book, but Swag….well, he almost went through his whole life without being a writer. Once he decided to be one, however, he took on the job with gusto. Surfing always presents best when the stories are told, not by Hollywood movie directors or media moguls or pens for hire, but by surfers, and we should all be thankful that Swag - who’s not just a lifelong surfer but a third-generation surfer! - is keeping the job inhouse where it belongs. May his quill never sit still.
Before ending, I’m going to revisit the point I made earlier about this book not being for new surfers. Books targeting new surfers will show you how to pop to your feet quickly, or they’ll show you how to put a legrope on correctly, but none of them will show you where a surfing life can lead. These books will. So if you’ve just joined us, treat this two volume set as inspiration and understand that the reward of a surfing life will be much more than what you ever realised.
// STU NETTLE