– stripping surfing back down to its most elemental form

Waves of Peculiarity: Steps Towards A More Sustainable Surf

by Pete Lewis

The word sustainable gets thrown around a tremendous amount these days in the world of surfing. Whether in reference to surfboard materials or carbon neutral surf mags, sustainability is a contemporary buzz-word. However, some deep ecologists might argue that to really address sustainability we have to look beyond the reducing, reusing and recycling, and even beyond green technologies and alternative materials and address sustainability as a wider cultural concern. Put simply, our current consumer based culture still driven by a relentless capitalist economy can indeed be ‘greener’ but it can never be sustainable. Until a culture is giving back as much as it takes, (ie. maintaining a balance that nature seems quite capable of without our interference) it will eventually drain natural resources.

In August 2000 Laird Hamilton was towed into a wave at Teahupo’o in Tahiti that redefined the limits of surfable waves. A photo of Laird deep in the pit of a monstrously thick and hollow wave made the cover of Surfer Magazine, with the simple caption, “Oh My God.” In a subsequent interview, Laird stated that once a person rides a wave like that it becomes impossible to deny that there is a higher power. It was truly a mind-blowing event for surfing but for me at least, it was also the beginning of an analysis of ‘the surfing ideal’ and sustainable surf culture.

After all, here is a man, a bronzed Herculean god, with the physique of a Men’s Health cover model, getting towed into a wave that most surfers will never see in person by a petroleum fueled jet-ski on a distant tropical island and he is telling the rest of us about the existence of a ‘higher power.’ I had to ask myself, ‘Why is Laird Hamilton closer to God than some fourteen year old surfing 2 foot slop against an industrial backdrop in South Wales? And if that is the case, I am not sure that is a higher power I want anything to do with. Hamilton’s statements were not only outlandish and insulting but revealed a deep elitism within the surfing milieu- and an incredibly unsustainable interpretation of ‘The Perfect Wave’ or the surfing ‘ideal.’

Surfing, of course, has always been about adventure and exploration, or the quest for the surfer’s ideal conditions, location, and perfect wave. There is no doubt that the perfect wave can be interpreted in as many ways as there are surfers. However, there is definitely a universal ideal propagated by the surfing media, usually involving turquoise-colored almond-shaped barrels in a far off island paradise, accessible only by boat.

Who is to say where things went wrong? When modern surfing first became popularized in pre-war California, just driving twenty miles up and down the coast to see if rumors of a perfect point break were true must have felt like a wild adventure. During, surfing’s Golden Age of Travel in the 1970s, surfers went through extraordinary lengths to escape crowds and find better waves. They often went feral, deep in the thicket, far removed from civilization, way off the radar in pursuit of perfection and who can blame them. Exploration is a deeply ingrained in surf culture. Yet paths to exotic perfect waves were forged decades ago. In this day and age of mass communication and ease of travel it is now only a matter of wealth and privilege not perseverance and risk, that enables the surfer to score waves in once remote parts of the globe. Even the magazines that perpetuate the idea of exotic surf exploration admit the ‘Indo Boat Trip’ is surfing’s equivalent of Disneyland. A pre-packaged/every need catered to/satisfaction guaranteed/two-week luxury surf experience. Just jam a few boards into a board coffin, take out a credit card and you’ll be pulling into perfect shaped barrels without ever stepping foot in the malaria-ridden jungle or having to deal with the local inhabitants.

Of course the planet still offers many difficult to find, hidden, unexpected, remote and unlikely ‘Perfect Waves’ that are perhaps best left unmentioned, but by and large, surfing will never see a trail-blazing era of surfploration on the same level as the 1970s ever again. So what’s a dedicated surfer to do?

Accept the nature of modern surf travel, with all its tried and trite modes of adventure and detrimental ecological impacts?

Or start to think outside the box and redefine The Perfect Wave?

Like capitalism’s definition of growth, success and productivity, our culture’s definition of exploration and travel is very one-dimensional and dictates that you aren’t really going anywhere unless you are going further than those before you. There is a Buddhist saying that goes along the lines of one can learn more by never leaving one’s garden than by attempting to see the whole world and attempt to make sense of it. Perhaps, there is more to be learned by focusing on one tiny piece of the planet that you have constant access to than trying to capture brief and fleeting glances of vastly spread out locations.

There are countless ways to step outside your comfort level, have new experiences, and see new things by barely leaving the region you live in. And this also applies to the surfing and the quest for The Perfect Wave.

It is going to be a challenge to redefine the surfing ideal. But again, consider one of the basic tenants of Buddhism, ‘The cause of suffering is desire.’ We all yearn for more profound experiences but most of that yearning involves distant and exotic lands. What if we re-focused our outlook to seek profound experiences in our own backyards? And what if we began to reconsider the constitution of a perfect wave? They figured out decades ago they could subvert the physical surroundings of their landscape by focusing on the effects physical geography had on their psyche. As Guy Debord put it, “The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

Debord and his fellow Situationists used a technique called ‘Derive’ or ‘Drifting.’ Drifting is an alternative way of exploring your physical surroundings, usually in a dense urban environment but there’s no reason it can’t apply to suburban sprawl or the stretch of coast you surf on, by taking random turns, taking other modes of transport, sneak into places you aren’t supposed to go, deliberately step off the path you beat on a daily basis and subvert routine and familiarity. See how it affects your psyche, see what you find; see how stimulated you can be by things that were always right under your nose but you previously ignored.

It is time to ‘de-school’ ourselves as surfers and invest in becoming ‘participants’ instead of ‘spectators’ of the surfing ideal. Stop yearning for stuffing yourself in an almond shaped, South Pacific green room and start thinking about how you are going to make your daily surfing experience more stimulating.

If you must have a quiver, build it around boards that will excel in the surf you are likely to endure on a daily basis. Sure, it is great to have a board ready and waiting for when your favorite reef starts to pump but don’t make the waves the magazines want you to surf dictate your surfboard choice. Let the regional idiosyncrasies and subtleties of your local surf region dictate your board design. Get excited about boards that are going to be fun when the waves are marginal. Thankfully, there is already a substantial movement towards this in the surfing milieu. It was only a decade ago that many of us were struggling to make highly-rockered 6’2″ Slater-inspired potato-chips in two-foot slop.

And take care of your shit. Heavy boards can be good. Get them glassed heavy. Perhaps stick to one board, learn how to ride it in everything, stick with it and ride it to death instead of constantly desiring that new stick that will only work in very specific conditions.

There are so many ways this can apply to your daily surf. Hitch-hike to the waves. Bike to the waves. See how this changes your perception of what you find. Deliberately seek out giant onshore beach break to see how you fair. Take out your back fin. Take out all your fins. Ride the board you’re not ‘supposed’ to in the given conditions. Stop searching for the ideal that is thrust upon you by the surf media. Close the mags. Hit the road with one board and see what you get.

Think back to your first couple of years of surfing. Perhaps you knew very little about the rest of the surf world. Every wave was a profound experience. But the more you surfed, and the more you tapped into wider world of surfing, the more you were shown bronzed young men with sponsorship deals, tucking into warm water, crystal clear barrels and launching all manner of wild air variations. Suddenly you realize your average surf, isn’t all that glamorous, sexy or sellable. Again, stop reading the mags. Put them down. Make your own. Document your own experience and share it with others in your region. This will not only keep you excited about what is relevant to you but also stimulate a unique scene that will be peculiar to your region.

Who wants to live in a world where wherever you go people attempt the same surfing moves, ride the same type of boards, use the same surf jargon, read the same mags, wear the same clothing and share the same idea of perfect surf? Well we live in it right now.

Monoculture is not only uninspired, it is boring, it is unhealthy and it is unsustainable. Regional peculiarities ensure diversity, greater immunity from detrimental outside forces and ultimately, sustainability. Just look at how the current worldwide economic crisis was a result of the ‘globalization’ of local economies. The same vulnerability applies to culture.

Focus on your own surf region. Reconsider what you will paddle out in. Surf a spot that isn’t considered a surf spot. Redefine what constitutes a good day of surfing. Relish in your regional peculiarities.


Recently, two reef-slabs were ‘discovered’ and featured in mainstream surfing magazines. Both spots produce ludicrously shaped barrels that are barely surfable. One is in my current home in Oregon (Surfer Magazine, Feb 2009) and the other is in my homeland of Wales (Carve Magazine, Jan 2009). Both had been surfed before by dedicated locals but were traditionally far from the surfing ideal. I have to thank the magazines for this, but both features really drove it home to me that amazingly profound surfing experiences can be had in my back yard. In the magazine features, the Oregonian slab was surfed by out-of-towners who were blown-away that a wave of that caliber can exist up here in the Pacific Northwest but the Welsh slab was surfed by locals who realized a wave they yearned for was right in front of them all along. Professional Welsh surfers have been losing some limelight recently to other parts of Britain that produce barrels of deathly slabs that the surf media loves to photograph. It took awhile but the Welsh lads finally realized there was one right down the road that they had always considered unsurfable. Ironically, it took a re-definition of the Perfect Waves to force them to paddle out but it highlights the fact that Paradise is lurking in unlikely places and with the right frame of mind and approach to life, it is often right under your nose.

Re-define your surfing ideal and definition of The Perfect Wave to suit your local region and daily reality. It is just a matter of being willing to open your mind. And of course, it costs no extra money and won’t increase your carbon footprint. What could be more sustainable than that? Because ultimately, sustainability can mean doing as little as possible by finding your own personal adventure in your backyard, satisfying your desires by playing the lead role in your own story and not living vicariously through a stringent image fed to you and millions of others by a global surfing monoculture.

artwork by Pete Lewis

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4 Responses »

  1. not to really rise in defense of laird, but, —i wonder if he had to go to that extreme wave to ‘find god’ maybe his experience was soooo jaded that he had to be slapped upside his head to see what is to be seen in every wave all over the world 2 ft to whatever ft.

    as to surf travel—the quote the Lopez—-surf is where you find it…

    I find my self actually riding fewer waves per session and more time just enjoying the time not on the land….drives my son nutz,

  2. hey pete

    yeah dig the groove your on. along the lines of becoming an inhabitant toward a new sense of critical bioregionality. also develops and ethic of care and intimate knowledge of a place which should translate into a politics of hope for its longevity. a laidback mobility (ontology) such as you flag, speaks of a lived cartography and map of the heart such as micheal taussig expresses in the notion ‘to travel the land is to have it travel through you’ and more so when you include the sea. the more you scratch the surface the deeper the itch to be part of the whole. the bioregion is the key to symbiosis, on the way to cutting the ties with shadow places that suck the life of their hosts like parasites. we all grow up as parasites, true pedagogy is about learning to live in the overflow of synergy. source be with you

    ps chuck reverie rocks

  3. Good piece, Pete. Good to see you on Phoresia. You coulda done a whole bit on Laird and that quote. I have the vid in which he makes that statement. It bothers me every time I hear it. It’s not for me to deny anyone THEIR religious experience; they happen and people start believing. But the moment someone says “there has to be…” because of their religious experience, I withdraw. I admire him on the water, but I wish I’d never heard Laird make that claim.

  4. Brilliant article, best thing I’ve read in a long time. The surf here where I’m from has so much potential for everytype of wave and surfer and it’s a shame to see most people just going to the same usual easy to find spots and then getting down on the conditions or crowds or thinking it isn’t as good as whereever the mags are telling them to go. I hope this article inspires a lot of surfers to take a second look and learn to better appreciate how incredible surfing can be.
    I just wish it was warmer here.