– stripping surfing back down to its most elemental form

Ode to Paddling: No Purchase Required

Surfing is a physical activity that for the most part cannot be made easier with purchase power. What I mean by that is that if you have a board that has enough volume to float you proper, and is constructed in at least a decent manner, the rest is up to fitness level and experience. Other sports, like mountain biking for example, can be easier to achieve a level of performance based on how much money one spends.

In mountain biking there is a huge range of equipment. You could get a steel single speed mountain bike with no suspension starting somewhere around $500. Full supsension ridiculousnessOr you could spend $5000 on a full suspension mountain bike made from fancy carbon composites. Both bikes are purpose built for riding single-track, as the trails are called. For a novice, or someone who only rides once in a while, the full suspension will allow him/her to ride faster and safer on rough terrain than the rigid single speed. This is because the full suspension bike affords the rider the ability to make mistakes in choosing lines as it absorbs the bumps from roots and rocks. But on the rigid single speed the rider is forced to pedal harder and pick the cleanest line in order to avoid bone-jarring impacts from the same roots and rocks and to maintain momentum.

Essentially, the price of entry into the sport is relative to actual dollars spent. Although it must be said that skill, built over time, can overcome the gear. There are plenty of examples of racers winning gruelling mountain bike races on rigid single speeds, outdoing the rest of the field, many of which sit atop several thousand dollar full suspension bikes. But this is not the case in surfing, in which the ocean is the ultimate teacher in humility.

Paddling prowess - bad man stylieMy initial inspiration to write this piece was as an ode to paddling. I love paddling, much like how I love pedaling my bike. But it wasn’t always that way. I used to obsess over my board — was it the right shape, too big, too small, the fins, the colour, traction pads? Then as time went on and I got to observe others I realized that it was paddling ability that separated the rippers from the schralpers. And not just paddling fitness, but knowing where to be on the wave, how to paddle into the peak, how to duck dive, especially in nasty beach breaks, this was the key to surfing better. I remember one day early in my surfing days, my friend Francis and I were sitting on the beach after a two-hour session on our longboards. We were laughing at a guy that walked past us wearing too short board shorts, a nasty long moustache and a bloated 80’s thruster – mind you this was in the mid 90’s before the 80’s were hip again. The guy proceed to rip, getting so much speed on the thigh high day that it seemed like had something we didn’t. And indeed he did, he had experience and paddling power.

So when I start thinking about new surf gear I try to remind myself that the gear won’t make me surf better. The only thing that will help improve my surfing is time in the water and a strong stroke. We are inundated every day by advertising telling us that if we acquire this thing and that thing our life will be markedly better. It’s bullshit. Going surfing, being out in the elements, riding energy as it moves through time, feeling the ache in my shoulders from a long session, these are the “things” will make life and my surfing better.

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8 Responses »

  1. Perfectly said…Just what I needed to hear.

    Yesterday I had one of those frustrating beach break days when I just couldn’t get in the right spots for the waves and tide. Kept blaming the equipment, my 2nd board, an older 5’10 thruster. Kept thinking, damn, if I had a nice wide fish I’d be catching everything

    Nope, it was just my attitude, if I would’ve relaxed, picked my spots carefully and paddled my ass off when it counted, instead of tentailvely paddling, for any bump that came my way, I would have gotten 10 more waves than I ended up with.

  2. Sorry…I’m out of touch with the surfing vernacular. Can you explain the difference between a ripper and a schralper? Are those Florida terms?

  3. Well said. Paddling and fitness are key. To a certain degree the equipment helps but after it’s all you.

    Your story reminds of a local legend in my area, Will Allison. I remember one time enjoying dinner w/my wife at a local beachside restaurant and watching him rip it up in 3 foot mushy slop while several others around him didn’t catch anything. And it was primarily b/c of his expertise and phenomenal paddling abilities. At age 56, he can pretty much out paddle any of the younger surf rats and catch more than his fair share of waves. It’s pretty inspirational.

  4. Paul, “schralper” is kind of a ubiquitous word that can kind of take on it’s meaning based on the context. In this example is used in place of “flailer” or “kooks”. More of a negative connotation, but it could be used in a positive light too, as in “That guy was schralping it up on that wave”. Just one of those stupid surf terms that’s funny because it’s so ambiguous and purely based on the context in which it’s used.

    I first heard it used by the surf-report guy at Natural Art surf shop back in the early 90’s. He’d start off with “Good morning schralpers…”, I don’t think it’s a Florida term, UrbanDictionary defines it as:
    “One who does gnarly, old school tricks on a skateboard. Most often found in the deep end of a bowl.” so it’s been around a while.

    Sharkbait, I think every area has their own version of “Will Allison”. So many guys who have been around for ages and are just cruising under the radar. For me, it’s a guy named John Holeman. He had a heart transplant, he’s in his mid 40’s and he never quit riding twin-fins and the guy is still doing air 360s and generally just making everyone else look like schralpers. :D

  5. Nice timing. I just, as in juuuust (last night), sold two mountain bikes for much of the reasoning you mentioned… in the end it was/is about simplification, scaling down and valuing up the pure essence of a person and a board.


    PS. Love the blog.

  6. I agree with you, but I would like to add that, as a freesurfer, to keep paddling well I need to exercise weekly, doing push ups, swimming, stretching (yoga) and anything that can help making my next session better. After turning 30, I’ve realized that not only surfing can help me keep surfing, if you know what I mean. :)
    Congratulations for the blog. I’ve been checking it for a while, but know decided to say hello.
    Cheers from Brasil,

  7. I’m reading this entry with sore shoulders from lots of paddling yesterday. Waves were 2-3 but not that crowded so I did a ton of paddling to get as many as possible. Nice thing about sore paddling muscles is that they remind you of a good session.

    Interestingly I have found that I often paddle more when on a small wave board. When on the noserider or fish I’m paddling into every little bump and end up doing more overall paddling. But having a good paddling small wave board increases wave count, then overall paddling back out, then increased paddling ability.

    Cool post.

  8. Jdog, so true. It’s those small days when you’re just doing laps from wave after wave that you really feel the effects of all that paddling.