This Is What Surfing Teaches Us

This Is What Surfing Teaches Us
Maybe it’ll teach you to look before you leap? Photo: Andrew Stickelman//Unsplash

When I moved to California a few years ago from New England, a mind-blowing realization struck me like a load of bricks: there were waves every day. The problem is, I was out of surf shape, I struggled with injuries, and to be honest, I wasn’t as skilled a surfer as I thought. Plus, to my dismay, surfing more – at least at first – didn’t automatically help me improve. On the contrary, it illustrated my weaknesses, including my knowledge of where to surf when, as I often found myself at a sketchy spot with rocky obstacles I had no knowledge of, or taking closeouts on the head when up the shore, guys were getting into perfect waves. 

An old friend of mine and fellow surfer used one statement to combat all my frustrated texts: “Just keep paddling out.” 

Years later, I realize that the more you push yourself to get out there, the more you improve, and even more importantly: the more you learn about life. Here are just some of the things that surfing teaches us, because I could go on all day.

To Be Good to Ourselves

When you start the day in the water, the depth of the experience changes your emotional outlook and sense of self for the rest of the day. Some might say that it’s selfish to treat ourselves to a surf first thing, but many of us hit the gym or the roads in the morning. Our workout is just way more fun, and it echoes throughout our day because regardless of how crowded it was, when you made it out, or how you surfed – you spent some time in the ocean, and are therefore full of good vibes for the rest of the day. A comment I’ve heard at surf breaks all over the country, either on the way in or out of the water, is “hey, you’ll never regret it.” Of course, many of us are unable to surf in the morning because of work, family, and assorted life commitments, and that just means…that you’ve made all the wrong choices (I kid).

To Respect Nature

To surf is to test your human abilities in nature’s playground, and you can’t help admiring the unique beauty of the environment as you realize that we’re just lucky sea tourists who get to play in the waves. Spending time at the beach among the marine mammals, crustaceans, fish, birds and more changes us for the better; perhaps this is why many surfers are environmentalists and activists. We realize both how perilously humans treat the natural world, and how vulnerable nature is to an influx of trash, plastic and yes, our surf-related pollution that includes boards and wetsuits. We’ve got stuff to work on, but I have faith we’ll get there.

To Get Outside (and Offline)

Many of us, myself included, can get caught in a death trap of death scrolling that sometimes regretfully starts while still in bed. When we get out to surf, we trade the constant push and pull of emails, social media, cable news, and videos of lizards dancing and parrots rapping for an untethered hour or two of focus solely on the waves. Not only is this good for our physical self, it does wonders for our mental health, as surfing can improve self esteem, help curb depression, provide a dose of heathy distance and perspective from the rough times that everyone goes through, and more.

To Respect Others

Lineups are often messy and crowded, but ideally, there are rules in place in surfing, both seen and unseen. Surf etiquette requires us to understand our place in the water, take turns, and practice patience and restraint as opposed to just blindly going on every wave. Surfing also requires us to honestly appraise our skill level, lest some of us charge out into conditions we can’t handle. Whenever and wherever we paddle out, it becomes abundantly and rapidly clear that there is an established pecking order. 

In some cases, the lineup is fluid, and so is the hierarchy – we might be near the top somedays, and the bottom other days. However, based on things like fitness, talent, expertise, efficiency, and knowledge of the wave and spot, surfing is not an “everyone gets a trophy” kind of jam. It’s a meritocracy, which gives all surfers something to aspire to. Just like in the real world, our waves – and days – can be polluted by those who refuse to respect others. But ideally, the fairest and most talented surfers prevail, and those who refuse to acquiesce are overruled (and hopefully don’t make the drop).

To Be Confident

Regardless of skill level, surfing provides a potent sense of accomplishment. Sure, there may be days when we get skunked, can’t even make the paddle out, or get dashed against the rocks because we didn’t study the current beforehand. Typically, though, we simply paddle out and challenge ourselves to score some waves. 

As we’re leaving, we scan the ocean and the surfers still out there with a feeling of accomplishment: we came, we paddled, we conquered. No one can take that away from us, and the pure adrenaline and exhilaration stays with us all day, a shadow of pure stoke. The rest of the day is a little bit easier because, is that meeting at 1 p.m., home repair project, or visit to the dentist – or any acts of dread-filled obligation – really as challenging as when you wiped out and got held under, got caught inside at exactly the wrong time, or your leash snapped, and you had to body-surf in? 

To Have No Regrets

I may be a biased source, since I surfed this morning and had a super fun session, but I believe surfing goes beyond hobby or sport, and makes us better people. If you don’t agree, no worries. But…keep paddling out. You’ll never regret it. Thanks, old buddy.

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