A Gathering Place: A Brazen Attempt to Define the Surfing Community
By Elinor Cripps
photo: Candice O’Donnell
Community is the connection of people over time and defined by the boundaries of a place. Community is a constantly shifting idea and experience – particularly with the advent of globalization. Small villages have been replaced by roaring cities and the town square replaced by Facebook. Surfers are a simultaneously modern and ancient community. Its members: fellow wave riders. Its gathering place: the ocean.
For many, conventional communities are failing us. Families are becoming disparate, small village communities simply don’t exist anymore and it is easy to feel a sense of loneliness and distance in big cities. These are broad sweeping statements but we are in an era where a traditional sense of community is being redefined at lightening pace. True community offers a sense of self worth, purpose, history and place. Modern community is displaced community. We place the burden of self worth entirely on the shoulders of one other partner (rather than the rest of the community), we confuse our leaders and idols with nameless perfect faces in advertisements, our elders just don’t look old anymore and we bond only in places of consumption – pubs, shopping malls and supermarkets.
Perhaps land based communities just don’t cut it anymore. Maybe this is why a number of us are turning to ocean-based alternatives. After all, an ocean-based community is systemically different from land-based communities in a number of ways. Though a little obnoxious and ambitious, it is worthwhile to try and broadly outline exactly what defines a surfing community. At the end of the day, what brings us together?
Surfers are unique in the way they connect. In the most literal and metaphorical way we are constantly connected through the medium of water. Wave riders are thrown together in a kind o f primordial salty soup. We are suspended together in an in-between space – half in the ocean, half in the sky. Here, what happens to one, happens to all. No matter your age, skill or gender that salty spray feels just as refreshing. That set out the back is going to clobber everyone, equally. For those rationally inclined, it’s comforting to know that a chain of water molecules connects you to your fellow surfer in the most elemental and intimate of relationships – touch. For those who lean toward an esoteric experience of the ocean, water’s ability to energetically cleanse or transmit vibrations might keep you perpetually coming back to the sea.
We are buoyed together by the most elusive of elements to draw boundaries around. Other communities find refuge in concrete, immoveable gathering places such as town halls, pubs, village centers, or Facebook walls. The ocean, on the other hand, has no stationary boundaries, inside or outside. The ocean is a vast, fluid gathering place that has historically defied markings except for vague names like the Pacific or the Atlantic. Even now when we collectively refer to the name of a beach such as Snapper, The Pass or Sunset we are generally referring to the piece of land that meets the sea, not necessarily the ocean itself. Once we are out in the ocean, it’s all the same. We finally cross that boundary from a controlled and demarcated land to an infinite ocean.
In this sense, oceans breed expansiveness. In the ocean, it is possible to see beyond one’s horizons. This is what makes the surfing community a truly global one. It is an absolute luxury to be able to travel overseas and connect with locals purely through the shared experience of surfing. While localism occasionally rears its ugly head, I’ve found that most surfing communities welcome other surfers. Because, after all, the ocean I surf on the east coast of Australia is the same one in Hawaii… in California… in Indonesia… in South Africa… How lucky surfers are to have such a vast and global ocean to call home.
While we are a global community, we are also temporary. We exist for only a few moments when the conditions are right. Waves. Wind. Tide. Sun. A number of these elements need to align before we’ll paddle out and come together as a community for a few fleeting hours. Strangely modern I suppose. But at the same time deeply ancient. The rhythm of our community is in tune with the natural rhythms of the ocean. We have a deep connection to the elemental forces that have shaped human societies for centuries. We are not necessarily ruled by our clocks, but by the position of the sun. Surf sessions aren’t pre- planned in our daily organizers but dictated by the direction of the wind.
This is how we used to live before civilization and culture bubble-wrapped us against the inconveniences of nature.
The surf community does seem to straddle both an ancient and modern divide. Yet, unlike many other communities, our history is not continuous. The Ancient Hawaiians were amongst the first to find joy in wave sliding. They were a complex culture. One that developed intricate and complex rituals dedicated to the art of surfing. With the arrival of white missionaries this culture was wiped from collective consciousnesses. Until the 1890’s when Princess Keaulani reacted against the destruction of indigenous culture and…surfed.
Modern surfing now bears little resemblance to its ancient heritage. Competitive, exclusively male and hijacked by corporate excess are ideas that come to mind when contemplating the modern surf community. Yet we are learning to draw on our ancient past and redefine “modern community.”
Perhaps the one thing that connects both our ancient and modern surfing communities is the unabashed pursuit of fun. As surfers, we take fun seriously. At its most basic, we come together as a community to ride little bits of fiberglass or wood on the surface of water. Why do we do this? Because it is insanely fun.
I believe having fun is the most pure of pursuits. Playing is a meditative experience. Having fun is a means and an end unto itself. We don’t want to have fun to further ourselves, make more money, develop a better understanding of the world. We want to have fun… because, well, it’s fun. What a simple and timeless endeavor.
Unfortunately, like the waves we ride, we are a fickle people. We are completely selfish. If the surf is good anybody else’s concerns become irrelevant. We sometimes loathe inviting newcomers to our community. In fact, we prefer to run over learners rather than help them. We don’t care that our surfing community has totally trashed cultures and landscapes around the world (in Bali, for example). I could go on but I might start to offend some people. I hope that at the very least, all this suggests that we are a real community. We have real attributes and real problems. At the very least – we have a real voice.
Let’s include the voice of women. For too long they have been pushed to the peripheries of the surfing world. Let’s include the lessons and histories of our elders. In our youth obsessed culture their wisdom is being lost. And finally, we need to rethink who a wave rider actually is. Humans are not the only ones. Whales, dolphins, fish (shit, even krill) surfed long before we ever did. We share our gathering place with other beings. We need to include these creatures in our community.
We need to embrace our community for what it really is – the good, the bad and the ugly. We are more than the community envisioned by marketing gurus. We are a group of people connected by the ocean, our pursuit of sliding fun and our checkered history.
We are a real community.
Please use Sea Kin as a medium of communication within this community. Write in stories. Send us letters and emails.
Tell us about your surf community.
You define it. Let’s start a conversation.