Losing My Religion
As I write this the surf is four to six feet and clean as a whistle. There’s a nearby sandbar throwing up the odd beautiful peak and there’s not a soul surfing them. Partly this is because there’s minor flood levels of rain thundering from the leaden skies but also because the waves require a fair amount of physical effort to chase down the gems amongst the overloaded beach break. The good ones out there are hollow and powerful. Abrupt takeoffs necessary to drive under the pitching lips and through throaty tubes. It’s the sort of waves I typically dream about. Today I returned home and began to write this story instead of surfing. Those waves feel like they’re beyond me.
For the past half year I’ve been experiencing a health situation which has had bizarre effects on my physical abilities. I won’t go into the details too much, save to say that my speed getting to my feet has slowed substantially. This has dramatically affected the types of waves I feel comfortable surfing. Unless the situation improves, waves I've spent years chasing no longer appear to be viable. There’s no chance I’m going quietly into the night and accepting that this is my fate. Every effort to strengthen, stretch, and train my way out of this is being undertaken, yet there’s no escaping from the reality: sooner or later everyone’s Big Dreams about surfing have to be reassessed and measured against reality. Age does weary and the years do condemn. I’ll be the first to grab you by your shoulders and scream that you ought to rage against the dying of that light but unfortunately the heavy weight of time will outlast us all.
The question then is how you accept the change.
Quitting surfing is not an option, though I’ve seen plenty of passionate and capable surfers simply walk away over the years. Sometimes it seems that the decision to stop surfing completely was something which incrementally overwhelmed them and gained more momentum every time they left the beach without getting wet. After a while they believed that the decision has been taken out of their hands by a run of poor conditions or increased crowds. For the sake of reassurance, let’s assume that none of us plan to ever go down this road. Did anyone ever plan to go down that road?
So keep surfing we must. Though how to reconcile a love of surfing built upon the Gambler’s Fantasy that tomorrow you may pull off some unprecedented manoeuvre or get the best tube of your life, if the ability to improve performance and successfully ride challenging waves is removed ? The inherent hope that the future still holds the peak underlines so much of my passion for surfing. As much as I find sincere spiritual fulfilment in being amongst the pure idyll of the ocean, how can I get excited about a surfing life without the dangling carrot of thrill and physical sensation?
I’m no Kelly Slater but my mind is still preoccupied with mentally simulating possible tweaks to my cutback, ways to increase turn speed and criticality. I’m not sure if surfing will mean as much when these dreams of improvement are taken from me.
It’s hard to describe the void felt in my soul when I returned from another flailing session at a mellow beach break and realised that the allure of exotic tubes might no longer be something I’m capable of pursuing. Why travel half way around the planet only to admit that the waves are beyond you? Who’s ready to look themselves in the mirror and speak the truth that they’re closer to their final wave than their first?
There’s a couple of spots on the map where I always assumed I’ve got destiny to fulfill, places of open barrels over shallow coral, in warm, tropical waters. I hadn’t reckoned on that dream being denied by physical inability so soon in the piece. The story isn’t over, but it’s a lot to take onboard when the possibility that dreams of magnitude are not there forever. Whether or not my temporary outlook improves, the certainty is that one day, somewhere, you will ride your last wave and that this day is always closer than you’d ever want it to be.
I’ve been there when a close friend rode their last wave, when they were overcome by the truth that something they’d been so good at and loved so wholeheartedly was no longer possible. Sadness doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt for them on that day. To be forced to turn your back on something so special and so important to you was heart-wrenching to watch.
I guess a lot of the importance is self-imposed. It depends on whether you define yourself as a surfer, which I do. I’ve elected to create my life around an involuntary love of surfing. This love of surfing has dictated where I live and formed the catalyst for almost all of my most enduring friendships. It’s put me on a path which led me to the love of my life and an incalculable number of resonating moments of happiness, satisfaction, and joy. Surfing has literally built me into the person I am. My interpretation of the world has been elevated by it whilst it’s also shaped and sculpted the body in which I move through the world. Broad shoulders, strong arms, blonde hair. Eyes red with pterygiums, ears thick with wind inflicted calcium deposits. Surfing has occupied my mind, ambition, and outlook since I became hooked decades ago. It’s outlasted almost everything else in my life.
So what do we do when we are faced with a future of declining satisfaction from surfing? I guess we just keep paddling out as long as we can. Don’t stop. You can try and temper those dreams of threading big tubes, convince yourself that a future steering a softboard gently to shore will be as fulfilling. I’m not sure. I don’t have the answers. All I know is that one day we will all paddle out for the last time and catch our last wave.
In the meantime I suggest you do what you can whilst you can. Don’t wait, hurry up. Life is shorter than you think. Do everything you ever planned to do whilst you’re able. Get tubed. Do an air that touches the sky. Time and tide wait for no surfer.
In the words of Andy Dufresne, "it comes down to a simple choice: get busy living or get busy dying."
I’ll see you guys around. Right now I’m going to paddle out into those empty beachbreak peaks and see if I can’t somehow squeak into a cavern or two.
// JOHN DORY