My favorite photos that come out from my research are the ones that politicize and action or question a norm. This one, though it attempts to be political (or satirical) is to me a photograph that is more representative of Miki Dora’s personality, which simply questioned what a surfboard is intended to be. It’s funny how an image that is intended to conjure the crucifixion makes me think of bonzer boards and fish tails.
The New York Times recently published an article by Bee-Shyuan Chang titled “Beach Hair is Riding the Wave” (May 23, 2013) that assessed the ever-popular hair style across the country; that “tousled, tawny and done to look undone” look that “has had staying power all year round.”
Source: New York Times
Chang seems aware of the ironies of beach hair. That people pay eighty-five dollars to have their hair professionally styled to get that “I was surfing in Costa Rica for a month look.” But even if he possesses this self-awareness, the focus of the article is the industry that has developed around beach hair. He tracks the trend back to model Gisele Bündchen, who’s hair apparently naturally possesses such a sexy, tousled quality. For those who don’t naturally possess such follicular magnificence but still want the Gisele or the Gidget look, one need only look into buying Bumble and Bumble Surf Spray, Organix Moroccan Surf Paste or Sachajuan Ocean Mist.
Retails for over fifty dollars a bottle
While the look is as summer as flip flops and tanning beds, its main appeal is that it caters to the culture of “chill.” No matter where you are, you want to be the person who has been hanging out at the beach all day, sun kissed skin and lightly frayed locks. Beach hair falls into that same category as ripped jeans. You either live the lifestyle that frays your hair and tears your pants, or you spend exorbitant amounts of money to create that identity for yourself.
This, still, is nothing new. The fact that beach hair earned an article in the New York Times style section is not in and of itself something to waste words on. But it fits into this broader idea of the surf mythos (bear with me).
Full disclosure: here is a photo of me from the mid-2000’s, sporting my grunge flannel, ripped jeans, and my so-cal surf hair.
The distinction that I am interested is that between the product of a culture and the cultural product. In other words, what results as a natural bi-product of a way of life or a hobby, vs. how that bi-product is adopted and re-appropriated for mass consumption.
Everything you find on-line about beach hair will tell you how to get it without going to the beach. But how does Rob Machado come to look like Rob Machado? Or how does Mary Osborne get that gorgeous Mary Osborne hair?
The science of hair and skin can be studied together (and relate to other studies of contrasts; i.e. the exoticization of dark skinned people with blue eyes, etc.). Under contact from the sun, skin darkens because of damage to layers of skin by ultraviolet rays. These UV rays trigger melanocytes to overproduce melanin in the epidermal, or top, layer of skin. Over time this alters the composition of the skin and darkens it (You are not, in fact, baking in the sun).
Hair, on the other hand, is given its color through the same process as skin, roughly. Melanocytes produce forms of melanin which create their own bi-products that give hair its color. But since the hair itself is actually dead, the melanocytes cannot replenish the melanin that was originally present in your lovely strands. As a result, the sun dries and fades the hair. It photolyses (breaks apart) the melanin and then bleaches the hair.
Ocean water then acts as a sort of rough soap the texturizes the hair, Add to that the natural tousling of wind and waves, and there you have your eighty-five dollar salon style.
This look comes in two varieties, which is fixed along gender lines. Type in “beach hair” into a google image search, and this is what you find:
Type in “surf hair” and this is the result:
It’s interesting how even in this seemingly minor representation of a sub-culture, the same stereotypes that pressure major discussions manifest themselves. Women are passive, observant and wafe-like “beach-goers,” watching the surfers and not participating. Men are the surfers, those being watched.
The market picks this up and pitches their products along these gender lines. Consider these two adds:
The notion of these gender differences is as contrived as the notion of beach hair itself. As the New York Times article wraps up, Change quotes Miami beach stylist Oribe, who says “When I’m at the beach, the moment I get out of the water, I want to take a shower.”
For me, personally, one of my favorite parts of surfing is running my fingers through my hair and feeling the grains of sand. My skin tastes saltier, and it feels softer, and I smell like the ocean. My hair is short now, but that feeling lies deep in the roots. Kelly Slater feels it, and he’s bald.
I just want to put this out there to my millions of dozens of ten or twelve followers. This kickstarter seems like a really cool project. It won’t save anybody’s lives and it won’t change the world, but it will tell a fascinating surf story from a unique time and place. Surfing is often portrayed as American’s travelling to exotic locales and eating tacos from around the world. But this, though still a travel story, is about two people tracing back their own ancestry and roots, and trying to find their own history, rather than sight-seeing the history of others. I’m gonna give ‘em twenty bucks. I just want to encourage others to do the same.
2013 Surfer Girls in the New World Order by Krista Comer (Duke University Press: 2010) Reviewed by Stewart Sinclair, Loyola University New Orleans
Last December, I reviewed Krista Comer’s ethnographic study of surfing, Surfer Girls in the New World Order, a fantastic analysis of surf culture and the role women occupy within that cultural space. The cultural studies journal Interstitial, picked it up and it is finally online.
Check out the interview, since it’s something I’m proud of. But when you’re done, read the book. Comer has done extensive research and has rigorously analyzed surf culture from a perspective that is rarely taken.
Krista Comer is from Oxnard, California and is a professor at Rice University. Her work on western frontiers and feminism is exciting and accessible, while challenging. For people who want surfing to be taken seriously as something more than stoners with free time, this is a good place to start.
Screenshot from Hironobu Sakaguchi’s iOS game Party Wave
Any research into surfing video games will likely yield one of two results: a history of surf games, or the mystery of their disappearance from the market. Regarding the former, several people have created informative and entertaining chronicles that can be found here and here. Within these articles, and likely with most others you will find, the conclusion will likely be the lamentation of the lack of new surf games. There aren’t many adequate explanations for the failure of this sports sub-genre. After all, titles like California Games from the 1980’s were highly successful, spawning sequels and eventually gaining multi-platform releases.
Further, games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Shaun White’s snowboarding game franchise suggested the viability of the niche-sport market in the world of commercial gaming. In fact, most any set of data points you can find suggests that a surfing game should sell.
So why haven’t they?
This question is harder to answer than it would seem. Obviously, there is no one reason, but some of the answers that seem sound take on water under scrutiny. For instance, it could be assumed that surfing simply does not have a a very broad real world audience, and therefore touches on nothing of the universal aspect of play. What fun is a sport you don’t understand? Most of us have played football, basketball, or baseball as children, and we maintain exposure to those sports and their inner-dramas throughout most of our lives. In a sense, skateboarding possesses that same universal accessibility. Yes, skateboarders are weighed down by certain stigmas and laws, but the world is your skatepark. But then we look at the success of snowboarding video games. The Shaun White Snowboarding franchise would by any marker be considered a success. The first game in the series sold over three million copies, hardly something to laugh at.
Does anyone seriously want to say that snowboarding is more accessible than surfing? Perhaps there are more white-bosomed slopes than surfable beaches (and if so, probably not for long), and maybe a surfboard costs more than a snowboard. But factor in lift-tickets, snow gear, and anything else that may be involved, and I promise the price will invariably level out, or more likely tip on the side of the snowboard. Still, if it is not the immediate accessibility, maybe there is some x-factor that alters a gamer’s view of snowboarding. Does its place in the winter olympics lend snowboarding enough momentum to propel it into the HD displays of American kids? If that were the case we’d all be playing Russ Howard’s Pro Curler.
Your child’s next obsession
The X-Factor exists in surfing. Unlike Snowboarding and Skateboarding, the human being on a surfboard is placed in a situation that is subordinate to nature. Rather than constructing wooden skate parks or “carving” mountain slopes, the surfer is instead at all times reading the ocean, and trying to estimate what it is going to do. This act of reading and studying implies a certain level of work that a sports gamer might not like to associate with the experience.
It once again sets the focus on the more seemingly mundane aspects of surfing, and paddling in particular. To paddle out for a wave is to work, and to work without the aspect of intermittent play. Think about Tony Hawk. The way to really rack up points is to perform tricks in between tricks—to manual all the way to the half-pipe.
In later incarnations of Tony Hawk it is possible even to dismount from the board and run and climb. Paddling allows for none of this. The natural conditions inside the break-zone mandate expediency. One of the reasons surfers hug close to jetties is because they create natural rip-tides that pull you out past the breaks, minimizing the effort to paddle into the line-up.
In fact, One recently developed game for iOS, Ripcurl Live, does away with paddling entirely. The entire game takes place on a breaking wave that you ride until you bail. This would seem to be the surfer’s wet-dream. Surfline reviewed it, claiming that it was a game for “regular old surfers looking for something relatively easy to keep them entertained while waiting for a flight, in the doctor’s office or in a boring class.”
Screenshots from RipCurl Live
But it received a lukewarm reception, in broader reviews, as simplified and repetitive. Meanwhile, a simultaneous and more immersive mobile release, Billabong Surf Trip, was a fully immersive surf experience taking the surfer from the shore to the breaks, with all the minutiae in between (except more technically complex maneuvers like duck-diving). However, the guys at Surfline found it less intuitive, and how many people do you know playing it on their phones?
From Billabong. An uncomfortable screenshot on many levels.
Virtual Paddling is as fun as it sounds
When we consider this one small aspect, we jump directly to the strange place that the surfer occupies. There has yet to be a game where a person constructs a surf spot. This is not because it is impossible. Surf spots are destroyed and created all the time, both by natural forces and by human intervention. The creation of a jetty or the extinction of a reef will both immensely alter the nature of a break. But that is not how the audience perceives it. Rather than skating to the half-pipe, the surfer waits for the wave. The duration of the wave is determined not by a human clock but by a complex set of circumstances varying from the fetch of the wind in the Caribbean to the phase of the moon in that hour. We accept the boiled down versions of skateboarding and snowboarding. We appreciate the degree of freedom that these games give us, where even the worst skateboarder can, in a virtual world, surpass the best. But I don’t think that that feeling has ever been captured in a surfing game. Ian Bogost lists a number of games that place the player in a position of weakness, and suggests that this runs counter to the expected narrative of most video games.
One wonders if the surfer is inherently in a position of weakness, and that no one is willing to be subjected to that state. And further, one finds an uncomfortable position for the surf gamer, where the stronger agent is a virtual ecology, which in all current incarnations is unalterable, massive, and poorly rendered.
Perhaps the savior of the genre is the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series. Years ago, Sakaguchi left Square Enix and founded his own studio Mistwalker in 2004. In June of last year, they released their first game for iOS, Party Wave.
In Party Wave you play in two modes: paddle and surf. Through swipping and touching the screen you control the movements of multiple surfers who must navigate water and waves, collecting objects and fighting bosses. The video beautifully lays out the nature of game play:
The game seems likely to gain traction in the mobile market, and though this is not synonymous with platform gaming, it would mark the first time since the nineties that any surf game gained serious attention. Sakaguchi accomplished this by abandoning the conventions of the form that people would have considered most crucial. The game does not play like a surfing simulator, but like an old-school strategy game with boss battles and reflex tests. Sakaguchi incorporates surfing in both literal and abstract waves. Yes, the characters are surfing, but the musical tone, the visual aesthetics are all incorporated to create a “surfer vibe.” As for the virtual ecology, in a sense nature is still overwhelming. In the surf setting the threat of a wipe-out is always eminent, and in the paddle setting sting-rays and jelly-fish are obstacles to avoid. But at the same time the incorporation of bosses like giant eels and jelly-fish provide the surfer with the opportunity to fight back against nature, proving that even while surfing, the person is the master of its domain.
Party Wave re-imagines the genre rather than trying to confront the deeper issues that prevent the purer surf game from gaining some sort of prominence. It situates the surfer back in the man vs. nature binary that seems comfortable at some base level. But Sakaguchi has accomplished anything, it is a reintroduction of the surf game back into the conversation. This is something he should have an interest in. After all, he’s a surfer.
“Surfing, a California sport par excellence if there ever was one. No longer a sport of self-control and domination directed towards some goal, it is just a practice of inserting oneself into a wave and letting oneself be carried by it.”—
Zizek, Slavoj. The Ongoing Soft Revolution. Critical Inquiry (Winter, 2004).
Big wednesday is one of the most iconic surf films of the 70’s and boy can you tell it’s a 70’s film! the hair, the cars, the clothes, not least the actors looking extremely young and robust compared to their rather withering older bodies now!
Big wednesday was one of the first surf films i’d…
Poster for Chasing Mavericks (2012), the ninth lowest grossing box-office mass released film in history
While I watched the latest big-budget story of Jay Moriarty I thought about David Foster Wallace’s essay How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The essay is his reaction to and review of tennis legend Tracy Austin’s sports memoir. Summing up his supreme disappointment with the book, he examines why we as readers continue to go back to the shelves and pick up these sports memoirs knowing that they will be full of nothing but flat, dead PR prose. He asks how the athlete can “shut off the Iago-like voice of the self” and simply perform their techne, that one thing a person does so well that, like the Homeric heroes, it “facilitate[s] a communion with the gods themselves.” Is such a person “an idiot or mystic or both and/or neither?”
Chasing Mavericks is not a sports memoir, but it shares a number of aspects with Wallace’s thoughts on Tracy Austin. In neither story, memoir nor biopic, does the reader/audience come any closer to understanding the feeling of the athlete. On winning the US Open, Austin describes the experience, saying, “I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” Compare this to the various platitudes that pepper the dialogue in CM:
It’s about finding the one thing in life that sets you free.
It’s the reason you were put on this earth.
It’s about something bigger than you are.
Actual lines from the movie, from various sections. The rest of the dialogue is just as canned, and there were times when I thought that the movie would be better off with no dialogue at all. And if the dialogue were all that was problematic, then it would be okay.
Jay Moriarty, legendary big wave surfer, who died free-diving at 23
The problem, in both cases, is that the people creating the book/film have chosen specific aspects to be loyal to, at the sacrifice of what makes compelling story. In both cases, the perspective lens is focused someplace other than where one would find what Wallace describes as the “almost classically greek” trajectory of both athletes’ lives. For CM, the concern of the creative parties involved seems to be making sure that their film accurately portrays surfing as a sport. To this end, the film exceeds expectations. From teenagers down at the subtle breaks of Santa Cruz carving the glassy waves, up to the immense feeling of inferiority and the seeming impossibility of the task that one feels when confronted with facing one of the largest walls of water in the world. Frosty, Jay’s neighbor, mentor, and father figure shines as an instructor, laying out point by point what it takes to accomplish this task. We understand the challenge of paddling across Morro Bay, the death-like stillness of holding your breath for four minutes. Even the complex nature of triangulation between guide-points to find your place on the wave seems understandable to the audience. But all of this care and precision is for nothing because we feel nothing for Jay.
Jay Moriarty at Mavericks
And we should fucking ache for Jay. His story is an extraordinary bildungsroman, his family life broken and desperate. His father abandoned him and his mother seems to be a barely held together alcoholic trying to scrape by in a job at Target. Jay seeks out a role-model on his own, works after school to pay for the radio receiver he needs to track storms, achieves the impossible, faces his fears, and marries the sexy blonde. All before he turns twenty-three.
Moriarty on the cover of Surfer
And then there’s Frosty. The man is a Homeric Nestor without the digressions. He is Jack London’s wet dream. He chases storms early in the morning, risking his life against his wife’s pleas, and upon her death, swears off surfing Mavericks to keep a promise to his wife that he never could in his lifetime. He gives up the thing he loves to raise his daughters.
The film does not prep the audience for any of this. Frosty comes off at times like a surf-bum version of Gerard Butler’s higher grossing Spartan character; Jay seems sensitive to, but ultimately disaffected by, his family struggles up until the last ten minutes of the film; and when Frosty’s wife dies of a sudden seizure, people in the theater actually laughed, completely disconnected from the reality we were supposed to be living.
So too with Tracy Austin we boil down the tragedy of heroic rises to fortune and Shakespearean falls from grace. No more does Austin’s book consider her tragic trajectory than does our biopic of Jay Moriarty.
True, in the last moments of the film we hear Frosty in voice-over reading the essay Jay wrote to Frosty about fear. In that letter we hear everything we need to hear about Jay: his fear about opening the letter from his father, the inner demons he confronted, and most interestingly his acknowledgement that life is ultimately short and fast. But it’s too little too late. After we see Jay succeed at Maverick’s, we cut to Jay floating in some other sea, where he is about to drown in a deep sea diving accident. Cut back to Frosty and a myriad other surfers in the ocean scattering his ashes. I felt nothing, though I felt obliged to feel otherwise.
Perhaps if the whole story started with that sense of fatalism. If it opened with the voice-over of the first half of the letter laying out just what it is that truly effects Jay, then the tragedy of the events to come would be foreshadowed. But without this foreshadowing, the film is nothing more than sports memoir.
Legends Start, and Flop, Somewhere
Wallace sums up his essay like this:
“Such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir… [Tracy Austin’s history] may also, in addressing the difference in communicability between thinking and doing and between doing and being, yield the key to why top athletes autobiographies are at once so seductive and so disappointing for us readers. As is so often SOP [standard operating procedure] with the truth, there’s a cruel paradox involved. It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able to see, articulate, and animate the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but they are its essence.”
The closer Chasing Macericks comes to portraying the sport, the farther it gets from describing the essence. Perhaps there is something of the athletes’ techne that will remain forever secret in that communion between the athlete and whatever god to whom they wish to pray.
Surfing and politics are two things that I am passionate about. Because of this, I’d like to take a moment to address the election, and the vote. I am re-blogging my Op-Ed recently published in Loyola University New Orleans newspaper “The Maroon.” while my argument has nothing to do with surfing, I guarantee that surfing is political. Perhaps more so than any other sports. Ours is reliant on a natural element that has yet to be adequately replicated in a stadium. An element that is in jeopardy from rising ocean acidity, pollution from run-off, and population issues. Further, surfers as a group tend to inhabit the areas most at risk from climate change.
We are political beings, many of whom are deeply passionate about one singular thing: surfing. The thing is, and what my whole project is aimed at trying to say, is that “surfing” is a microcosm of people across different, cities, states, countries and environments. The we mainly exist on the outermost fringes of society in terms of our chosen sport, we are deeply ingrained in our nation’s identity. So please, vote. I hope my following argument will refute any issues you might have.
Screen Shot of CNN’s front page on election day, 2012
If You Don’t Vote, You Don’t Matter
My first job in this city was as an Americorps volunteer in a public charter school. I spent every day for a year trying to teach seventh and eighth grade kids how to read and write. Many of them were reading at the third grade level, and it is likely that two-thirds of them will not graduate. These kids came to school hungry, tried to learn in a loud, violent and dirty environment, and walked down destroyed streets to run-down homes in neglected neighborhoods. They were the result of a city that neglected their needs: illiterate, impoverished, disenfranchised by circumstance.
These conditions aren’t the result of chance. The ebb and flow of political struggles in America over race and resources have created these circumstances. Generations of politicians made decisions that resulted in the streets these kids live on. These politicians came into office and held their seats through the arduous accrual of votes and maintained that power by suppressing the votes of the opposition. They shut out black and poor white communities in the South. Innocent people were kept away from the polls, beaten, threatened with scare-tactics and murdered, all to prevent their voices from being heard.
The end result of this suppression is endemic poverty, illiteracy, and a student at John McDonough high school having a higher chance of being shot than a soldier in Afghanistan.
We spend time in classes talking about voter ID laws and other modern forms of suppression. At the same time, people will tell me that their vote doesn’t matter. It’s as if they can walk or drive around New Orleans and ignore the potholes, the ghettos and the robberies around campus. These are the marks of the disenfranchised city. To quote Robert Penn Warren, “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter.” Voting does not solve the problems we face in our country. It takes protests, outrage, marching in the streets., but it starts with the vote.
Your vote matters. Whoever said otherwise lied to you. If it didn’t matter, then neither did the women’s suffrage movement or the 15th amendment. There would not be anyone fighting to keep people away from the polls this election year if your vote didn’t matter. Come Tuesday, I don’t care who you vote for. The election of someone I am opposed to is not a crime. This is a democracy. And built within it is the ability to alter it without violence.
In 2008, I was among millions casting their first ballot, many of us feeling like we were moving our country into a new era. Since then the number of voters in my age group has dwindled, diminished by the contrast between their initial hopes and the political reality. But even though the reality is harsh, and even if the people we elect let us down, it should not deter us from voting. It is our first line of defense against tyranny.
The October 2011 issue of Surfer is titled FEAR. The word is superimposed over a speck of a human trying to glide across the surface of a wallowing tube. The guts of this ‘zine will inevitably be stories of monster waves and rocky breaks, but the first article tackles the often uneasy to mention possibility of facing your fear: chickening out.
In his editorial, The Fear Compass, Brendon Thomas doesn’t rehash a story of his own own heart-stopping drop off the face of a skyscraper-sized wave, but rather with an “admittedly modest day” at Mavericks. One where he admits to being “a lowly cubicle dweller…not an athlete.”
In a nutshell, Thomas gets a text one Christmas morning while on a drive to San Francisco. It’s from Grant Baker, and he wants to go surfing. Thomas realizes that surfing with Grant Baker isn’t surfing. It’s suicide. There’s a swell coming in at Maverick’s and Baker wants him to be in on it.
Half-Moon Bay from Above
From there we get the rarely written perspective of a surfer who gets butterflies in his stomach, looks into the tempest sea, and decides that he’d rather drive home.
What I like about this article—and what I think makes it possibly one of my favorite pieces that I’ve read in this publication—is how Thomas juxtaposes the pristine conditions of a sunny, peaceful day in Half-Moon Bay with the imminent ferocity of the swell. If you’ve never been there, by the way, this is the location’s natural state.
During the Maverick’s Surf Competition
This Summer I spent four days visiting a writer friend of mine who lives in Moss Beach. I had brought another friend with me. She was from Mobile Alabama, a place where a beach is a place to float around on paddleboats. Her only experience of the Pacific Ocean had been a couple flat days in San Diego and some beach-breaks in my hometown, Ventura. So one evening I took her down to a seal sanctuary in Half-Moon Bay that stands out as a crooked point. It was a full moon, accentuating the jagged crisscrossing of waves coming together at inflection points from the northeast and the southeast. They weren’t big. Just a few feet high, and the sky and the view from the beach was incredible, but from that little point, as with most any in that alcove of the Pacific, we felt the immensity of the whole ocean. I had tried to explain to her all Summer what it feels like to drop into the surface of a wave, even one just a fraction taller than you, and how it’s not just that ripple of water you’re on, but the pulse of the whole sea beneath it. Sitting on that bench on that beach, she said, “I get it.”
So there stands Brendon Thomas, at the much more imposing Maverick’s, feeling its “icy chill.” Until he stood there he was ready to paddle out, to face his fear and maybe die in the process. When Grant arrives and coaxes everyone but Thomas to get in the water, Thomas speculates why they would do it:
“To me, it seemed more out of valor than volition, something I understood only because somewhere deep inside me I felt my pride trying to eek out a possibly ill-fated win over common sense.”
As a surfer who’s never paddled out for a double-overhead wave, I found comfort in someone like Thomas having just enough common sense to chicken out. I’m tired of tales of overcoming fear. I want to thank Brendon Thomas for embracing his sanity.
The surf drought that has plagued the California central coast for most of the summer hasn’t kept me out of the water. It has a cold bite, even in July. Here in the silence of an un-undulating coast, I float. My board hardly stirs a ripple at Surfer’s Point. It’s times like these when a surfer can actually reflect on the cultural white-wash about how we experience peace and harmony with the ocean. We feel a part of it. Not so much like a molecule of water, but like stalks of sea weed.
Die-Hards watch the horizon awaiting the second coming of a swell they heard was here yesterday, was promised today, and has yet to materialize. They keep the faith. Gristled old men with brine in their beards and weathered crows’ feet under their eyes lean over the cold aluminum rails of the Ventura Promenade. They don’t move much. They’ll be there every morning in flannel and jeans. They’ll smoke cigarettes and drink strong coffee black from styrofoam cups. Their mustaches will yellow. The old men will die. The Die-Hards will age.
Salty: the flavor of the air you breathe; the texture of the particulate oxidizing aging automobiles; a sea-dog’s voice; your mouth’s bitter flavor when you bail off your board; the corrosion of the coast; this way of life.
We embrace it. We let the salt seep into the crevices of our skin. It settels into our lungs’ bronchial tubes. We oxidize. We rust. We become pillars of salt forever looking back at the sun setting and rising like the flickering flames of Gomorrah. This is a dead sea in the summer.
The terminal: an isolated biome of circulated air pumping through the rafters of expansive atriums; where baggage carriers glide across the precisely laid out tarmac; a placeless place devoid of what we typically call nature.
There’s no surf in this place.
Today the baggage handlers are wilting like safety-orange flowers under New Orleans’ hot hot sun. Outside it feels like one-hundred-and-ten degrees Fahrenheit. Inside it doesn’t even feel like a temperature. I am in a place that does its best to simulate a warm environment. But the goal of an airport architect is to design a stream-lined conveyor belt for people to get from zero to thirty-two thousand feet in a matter of minutes with no more than two bags and a couple of kids. So the airport itself fails to simulate a natural environment. Photos of flowers don’t offset the true form and function. No one is fooled.
Louis Armstrong International Airport
I just bought a Red Bull a few moments ago from the airport bar. I stared at the ceiling fans while I drank it. The fans hung down on long steel poles that shined down from the windows above. Every surface was either steel, white or flat grey. The fan blades were shaped like airplane wings. Maybe it had some sort of aerodynamic advantage, but I think that mostly they were meant for people like me to look up and say, “hey, check that out.”
While I checked it out my mind started to wander to other things—to places that weren’t airports. I intended to get my mind as far from this placeless place as possible. And despite all the seemingly busy assemblage of design puke that composes an airport terminal, it was surprisingly easy to let my mind go blank. After all, all I needed to do was wipe clean the whites and greys and the steel beams and then my mind was left with absolutely nothing. All the people surrounding me were strangers. Without any real personal connection to anyone, they all became hats and dresses framing people-like figures. I was alone and selfish, adrift in this airport’s ocean of function and form.
Function and form. I kept watching the fan-blades rotate. They spun round and round until my eyes lost focus and the blades became grey disks with a red ring around the outside edge. Then the fans disappeared entirely and I found myself paddling out against pounding surf in Ventura, a strong swell with waves that hung just overhead beating me back on my 6’ 2” board. I paddled arm over arm ascending over each crest and dipping into each trough. My board’s nose lapped the water like a sick thirsty pup.
I looked at my board, in my daydream, and it seemed more like a shape than an object. It was an abstraction; one that I soon realized was the same shape as an airplane’s fuselage. Flip the surfboard over and you have the near perfect profile of a plane. Air or water, after all, are both functions of fluid mechanics.
At this moment I’m waiting at Gate D-6 of Louis Armstrong International. My thoughts are so submerged in surfing and flying that my actual movement through the airport hardly registers in my consciousness.
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing…
I’m waiting for my plane. Bulbous clouds rise in the heat and bubble out like boiling water. Sitting here looking at the clouds is no different than waiting in the line-up, really. My chair isn’t rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean. But whether I’m here or out passed the breaks, I’d still just be sitting and waiting and watching the clouds bubble up in the sky. I’d catch snippets of strangers’ conversations. I’d rub the back of my neck or tap my fingers against my armrest or the giving surface of the sea.The airport’s meticulous system of tickets, lines and gates is the same as a surfers’ unspoken etiquette: If a surfer doesn’t wait his turn in the line-up, he may as well be walking through security without taking off his shoes.
I am in waiting. The most common state for today’s traveller/surfer. But in an hour or so I will board my flight and the aircraft will take off down the runway, just as I might paddle beneath the crest of a glassy wave.
The plane’s lilting bounce as it rolls onto the runway will imitate an ocean’s unsettling surface. My seat, adjusted to the upright and locked position will make me feel like I’m in between sets, the nose of my board aimed up at the sky, waiting for the next ripple to trickle over the horizon. And then it will form.The captain will ask the flight attendants to prepare for take off, and the engines will start to rumble like the wave crashing beside me as I hustle into position. Then as the airplane ascends, my stomach will get that same feeling it gets when I drop in, and the wave takes over, and it feels like flying. Hydroplaning across the water as if it were wind.
I feel obligated to say something about this clip, and there is, truly, a lot to say. But I don’t know where to start. So for now, consider this clip a curious peek at what you might find when you google 1960’s surf scenes.
Oxy-acetylene spewed between my father’s teeth when he spoke. His pink welding cap’s brim turned backward poking out of the back of his protective black mask. Rod struck iron and an arc hot as the sun spouted up. Torrents of sparks like salamander tears. He drew the bead with love, my father.
I played the floor is lava and other games while I ran around the shop. I had favorite places. There was the back of my father’s welding truck. That was a favorite. There was a v-shaped crevice along the edge of the bed where dismembered metal beads accumulated. They dropped red-hot when my father cut strips of scrap metal down to appropriate proportions. He tightened them in the vice grip anchored to the truck and lowered his mask with a flick of the neck. His torch was as good as a light saber. When he finished I liked to loosen the vice. He called me Man-Cub and walked back into the main shop. I listened to hammers clang against anvils in the distance while I loosened and tightened the vice. Sometimes I put my finger in it and tightened down slowly. I tightened until the X-etched grooves in the vice were imprinted in my finger.
Another spot, and the one that I remembered when I sat down to write this: storage Shed B. My father was at the shop late washing what I called “The Big Green Truck.” There were three storage sheds. I don’t remember anything about the other two. I’m guessing there were too many spiders keeping me from pressing passed their entrances. But when I opened the door to Storage Room B the entrance seemed plenty free of arachnids. To the right were tall (to me) stacks of file boxes; the ones with the easily removable lids that were designed so that you could hang files in them. I looked to the left and found a hulking dusty surfboard. Until then the only surfboard I had ever gotten close to was my cousin Wyatt’s. His was a sleek 6’2” Al Merrick. If skateboarding is anything of a thing in your mind, having an Al Merrick board was like having a Tony Hawk Birdhouse deck at that time, which was somewhere around 2001 or ’02. By contrast, this board in Storage Room B was as clunky as stealing the wheels off your sisters roller skates and strapping them to a couple 2”x4”s duct-taped together. I touched it. The rough grit on its surface was the same as any piece of scrap metal at the shop.
“Stewart!” my father shouted, or hollered or grunted. Whatever noise he made, I ran out of the storage room.
This is part one of a three part examination of surf rock and the music associated with surfing…
What’s amazing about sound is how incredibly fast it travels, approximately 768 miles per hour in dry air. It moves in invisible waves that become apparent as soon as they make contact with an open field, a hanging tuft of hair, or your delicate and precise personal eardrum. There was a time when it seemed almost as impossible to break the speed of sound as we believe it is to move faster than light. Now jets fly at two-to-three multiples of the sound barrier, casting off single or double sonic booms that make us crane our necks to the sky, so surprising that birds burst into the open air and fly home early for the winter—a boom that continues to make us marvel at our species’ ingenuity.
I experienced the breadth and universality of sound two weeks ago at The Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. Sound waves are no different than any other type of wave. If I clink my Heineken against Matt’s Pabst, the sonic waves will disperse in concentric spheres from the source of impact and continue until friction or the force of too many objects dissipates it to an infinitesimal trace of itself. That night the sonic wave from our brown glasses clanked against the hard body of a Fender Stratocaster in the hands of the man who brought the original Strat prominence, Dick Dale. Like most people, the sounds he emitted, or rather the sounds he coaxed from his instruments, traveled faster and farther than he ever could. They collided with other sounds and formed new types of music, just as the sonic tides of so many others reverberated and influenced Dale.
When waves collide they don’t impact and shatter like cars or bones. They move through each other and culminate into some sort of absolute value. If two waves move in the same direction, one larger than the other, by the time the faster wave catches up to the front-runner, the two will collide and form a larger wave. But if their frequencies are significantly different, the result is more like static: white noise. Dick Dale represents one of those moments when waves come together to form something more significant than was possible before the culmination. He is considered the man who invented the surf rock sound by attempting to recreate the rhythms he experienced while surfing in Orange County.
This isn’t a review or retrospective on Dick Dale. Its not an ode to surf rock. It is a consideration of the elements, or waves, that culminated in the mind of Dick Dale and his contemporaries in the early 1960’s—elements that to this day are inseparable from popular surf iconography. This is a jumping off point, the initial chord in a string of notes meant to examine what the sound of surf is and how it came to be. To start, here is a chronology of one of Dick Dale’s most famous songs, “Misirlou,” originally composed by Tito Demetriades in 1927.
The song is Greek in origin, but the title Misirlou means “Egyptian Girl,” which explains the more Arabic music style.
It wouldn’t be until later in the 1940’s that Misirlou would make it State side, but by the time it does orchestras in New York are ready to increase the tempo, jazz it up and make it their own. Some people opted to add in their own lyrics, but most renditions dropped the vocals completely, which is as important to bear in mind as is the ethnography of the song.
But around 1961 the song was popularized by Dick Dale in a version most people of my generation are familiar with not by association with Dick Dale, but by Quentin Tarantino.
Along with the adaptation of the song to suit a rock combo, Dale also included elements of Latin American Mariachi music by use of trumpets.
Misirlou encapsulates what Dick Dale determined to be the sound of surf. Perhaps. Maybe he never really found the sound, but the popularity of this particular sound became a permanent fixture of surf pop culture. There are three main sounds that culminate in Misirlou: The Arabic transient desert sound, the Latin American mariachi sound, and the sound of the rock guitar which was being invented as it was played by Dick Dale. His original contributions (the use of an electric instead of an acoustic bass, single instead of double-coil pick-ups, quasi-heavy metal tempo, screaming animalistic lyricism)along with the adaptation of classic elements acted like frequencies culminating into more potent waves.
Again, this is an introduction to this whole topic. It’s meant to do what seeing Dick dale perform did for me, which is mainly to explode a topic that you might not have given much consideration. These are thoughts on the association of sound and action; ruminations on how humans ascribe tones and meanings to actions. In the next few posts there will be a lot of ground to cover between Tito Demetriades and this:
Adam Knox has seen the world from every surfable coast. This week The Deep Water Breaks had the opportunity to get his take on surf culture. Knox gave us his thoughts on everything from the fundamentals of surf to his relationship with the late, great Andy Irons.
DWB: Do you feel like surfers are pro athletes?
KNOX: Yes and no. I consider myself a professional athlete but not in the same degree as my buddy Victor Ortiz. I hang out with him for one day and I feel like saying that I’m a professional athlete is kind of just a sham, you know? We are and we aren’t. Surfing is the hardest sport out there. Guaranteed. You can be the most talented athlete in the world and it’s still gonna take you four or five years to get good at it. Victor would say the same thing. In the sense of talent and being athletic and having the will to survive, but really we kind of have more of a kicked-back lifestyle. We surf when we want. We don’t have many coaches, even though that all seems to be changing now. A lot of new guys have coaches. It’s getting there, but it’s not quite there.
DWB. When you look at skateboarding and surfing, they seem similar enough, but why is Tony Hawk a household name while Taylor Knox and Kelly Slater aren’t?
KNOX. You can skate anywhere. By the beach. In Arizona. In the middle of the U.S. Everyone can do it. And you can practice on the same rail over and over again. You get to understand the progression a lot quicker. You fall in love with the sport a lot faster. When you go surfing, you paddle out, the water’s cold, the waves are big, it’s raining, you have to put a wet suit on. People don’t want to deal with that. People don’t understand the feeling once you get that first turn down on a wave. I don’t remember what that feels like any more but I know that’s what caught me. You can’t just walk up to the beach and surf and understand it.
DWB. It’s different than skating the same bowl every day…
KNOX. Yeah, you’re not going to be skating and have the sidewalk collapse on you and hold you down. And if you hit the ground and scrape your head or break your back, it’s not like you’ll suffocate to death on top of everything. When I get hurt underwater it’s not like I can just sit there and wait for the pain to go away. First I have to get thrown around on the reef and get cut up, holding my breath, then come up. Hopefully.
DWB. So when you consider that aspect of surfing, the psychology and the risk, how does that make you feel about man-made waves? Does surfing in a wave pool even count?
KNOX. Indoor surf parks have a long way to go. It’ll be surfing when it actually helps your progression. When you can practice your airs and you don’t need a jet-ski assist, maybe then. When the wave produces power and a little bit of a threat, then you can call it surfing.
DWB. How much of surfing is just that fear of the unknown?
KNOX. The X factor. It’s hard for me to say. I’ve been travelling around and surfing all the waves, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the breaks. But it all comes down to knowing the risk. It’s worth risking your life if you come out with the best wave of your life. But I’m not one of those guys who go out and surf mavericks just to get my rocks off. There are scary days, but when you finally get off the beach after a close call, it’s kind of like going through war and making it out again.
DWB. So in all these places you’ve been, what’s the strangest place you’ve surfed?
KNOX. I went to El Salvador a few years back with this magazine called Surf Shod. They had had a civil war not too long ago, and it’s also where MS 13 is from. Two guards picked up the six of us and our photographers. They had shotguns on them. They jumped in the van with us and took us to our camp and the guy there had a shotgun. Even when I went to the store I dropped a candy bar on the ground and I went to pick it up. When I looked up, the clerk had his hand on a shotgun pointed at me. It was probably the best trip I’ve ever been on waves-wise. But we had a party down at the beach and somebody shot at us for being too loud.
Virginia Beach was weirder than getting shot at. I was there for ASP (world Qualifying Series). The waves were tiny. The ocean was covered in Jelly Fish. Our heats kept getting interrupted by freight boats. If a boat came by in your heat you wouldn’t get a wave. There were also “No Cussing” signs on the street, confederate flags everywhere, and probably 1,000 sixteen year old girls on the beach looking up at our hotel room. I was twenty at the time, trying to figure out where all the older people were. Just kids and jellyfish.
DWB. Like other sports, a lot of surfers tended to grow up on the less-affluent side of things. At least that seemed to be the case where I came from. Is it like that on the national stage?
KNOX. A lot of the pro surfers come from, well not really poverty, but they’re not rich by any means. I think the reason for that is that beach communities are tight. When you don’t have that much money growing up you gotta find something to do, right? A lot of families use the beach as a way to pass the time. There’s a lot of other things going on around you, so if you stick to surfing or something then hopefully you can make it out.
Knox at Solimar in Ventura, California
DWB.What’s a specific image that represents surfing to you?
KNOX. There are two surfers whose image represents surfing for me. Dane Reynold went through his “I don’t care” routine, and I think he was being himself, but he didn’t know how to word it. But then he got to travel, to get a little more worldly, met some cool people and found himself. From an article I read recently, and just from conversations I’ve had with him, he seems to have got it figured out. He’s all about cruising and having fun. He was able to set himself aside to finally become the best and strangest surfer, and to make that work.
Mick Fanning is a good friend of mine and I always admired the way he carries himself. He’s a contest surfer and he’s got the best rail ever. He’s the type of guy who likes to have fun and party, but he can definitely focus. When need be.
DWB. Those guys make me think of the flip side of that image. Someone like Andy Irons.
KNOX. Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. What happened was a bummer. It happens, but you can’t take anything away from Andy.
DWB. Are stories like his common in the pro surfing world?
KNOX. No. Andy was a beautiful surfer and just a beautiful person. I got the chance to hang out with him in some different places. I dated his wife’s little sister, so I knew them really well. You could be the best surfer in the world and still have all these problems, or call them demons or whatever, whatever makes people do things that are self-destructive. Andy’s a human. He’s not gonna sugarcoat anything for you. Or for himself. He’s just a real person and uh, shit happens I guess.
DWB. Considering your own family legacy, and the changes in surfing from Taylor Knox to you, what is a piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of surfers.
KNOX. When it comes to surfing in general, just don’t forget where surfing came from. It all comes from the rail. Get your basics down. Make sure you can do a cutback and a bottom turn before you try aerials.
Knox receiving advice from his big brother Taylor.
DWB.In three words, what is surfing to you?
KNOX. Speed. Power. Slow. That’s surfing in a nutshell. It’s not really the emotional or personal feel of surfing. But it’s the core.
Adam Knox is a professional surfer and is currently working on a reality show called “Hard Knox Life” featuring himself and his brothers. He is sponsored and supported by JetPilot Clothing, Roberts Surfboards, Olaf Mexican Grill, Aerial 7 Headphones and A-Frame Surf Shop.Knox is also a surfing coach.
Surf iconography isn’t going anywhere. Considering how few people actually participate in the activity, it’s astounding how flexible the image is. When one of my professors sent me a screen-shot of the Delta Airlines website I was encouraged to think about an interesting use of surfing: marketing and advertising.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Christopher Schaberg, author of “The Textual Life of Airports” and “Checking Out/Checking In,” a project featuring his work and that of Dr. Mark Yakitch.
The image is supposed to encourage me to book a trip, ideally to some beachfront hotel. But the traveller doesn’t go to Delta to find a destination. The goal is to obtain a boarding pass. With most of the world’s civilization locked in inland valleys between surfable coasts, the odds are pretty slim that most travelers will be surfing.
In fact, the emphasis of this screenshot, and the point of the image, is to sell the AmEx credit card with the frequent flyer package. How do two surfers slogging ashore in the sunset achieve this goal? It would be more interesting to view the surfer in the ocean, paddling to catch a double-overhead wave. Or at least to see these two guys walk into the ocean as the swell builds.
Forget it. Placid sea. Content surfers. Setting sun.
How do we read the photo in relation to the credit card (itself a part of the photo, super-imposed but flattened into a oneness on the screen)? The card is meant to signify the same notion of completion that we ascribe to the surfers stepping out from the ocean. The surfer’s boards point to the credit card. They walk towards it. By spending with AmEx, we now are saving little by little to afford the trip we desire. But like surfer’s walking away from the ocean, perhaps we are moving in the wrong direction.
Cars and Surf Culture
Maybe it’s more natural than I assumed to connect travel with surfing. The Woody is as big a surf icon as the board itself in Southern California. After all, how could a person get a ten-foot board to the beach without a car? Moving from air to land, there is plenty of visual culture linking the two.
This advertisement for the Triumph Spitfire Mk2 ascribes all the sexiness, power and fluidity of surfing and surf culture to the car.
In this ad by Jeep the car and the board become synonymous.
The above ads don’t suggest the same connection between surfing and cars. In the Spitfire ad the car embodies surf culture; while in the Jeep ad the vehicle enables the possibility of “Fun.” The car facilitates the journey. The next ad will perhaps take a little more unpacking.
This ad is a partnership between MiniCooper and Malamalama Board Shorts. The catch: Malamalama board shorts don’t exist
That’s right. Mini-cooper invented a board-shorts company and purchased additional ad-space to produce this inarguably eye-catching ad. Like the Delta photo the Malamalama ad features the surfers looking away from the beach, while their friend peers over the edge of the advertisement construct to the adjacent wall. Like the AmEx frequent flyer card, the eye is drawn to the MiniCooper. In this case, the car seems to be driving off with the surfer’s board. Bummer.
And if we could look straight on at the Mini-Cooper ad, it would look a lot like the Jeep ad.
Look back at the Malamalama ad and it’s slogan:
CUT FOR THE SURFING GENERATION
Just because Malamalama is a fake company does not mean that this is a poorly constructed board shorts ad. The same sex appeal, power and edginess of the Spitfire is embodied in the line of surfers on the beach. The slogan is designed to simultaneously make the wearer feel unique and part of a larger movement.
And though Malamalama is a fake company, it’s a real word.
It’s Hawaiian, meaning: Light of knowledge; clarity of thinking or explanation; shining, clear.
The Other Side of Surf
I want to finish this post by looking at the flip-side of surf imagery in contemporary advertisements. These two need little introduction, but would be aided by plenty of explanation.
Part of Pepsi’s “Dare for More” ad campaign.
It’s hard not to appreciate the brilliance and beauty that advertisements are capable of. In this case Pepsi has impregnated its entirely abstract logo with all the meanings of epic surf and stormy red skies. The brand loses nothing, and gains everything. Just looking at this photo gives me that same feeling in my skull that I get when I drop in on a wave I can’t handle and realize I’m going to make it.
That same power is evoked in an ad campaign by Guinness:
Part of Guinness’s “Good Things Come to Those Who…” Campaign.
It’s not possible to see the conflict by looking at one advertisement, but when the whole array of surf iconography is analyzed, the duality of surfing’s representation is apparent. Intense power and Taoist passivity come together in the sport but cannot be represented simultaneously in the media. It doesn’t sell.
Look at the surf movie posters of the sixties and seventies and two motifs easily stand out: One or two surfers walking toward the ocean; or a lone empty wave curling on itself, devoid of an inhabitant. This is just one representation of the surfing mythos. Surfers are at once in awe of nature while simultaneously attuned to it.
Movie Poster for Endless Summer (1966)
The Morning of the Earth Poster, (1972)
This image is less prevalent in modern surf films (though still representing a significant percentage). A recent article in Australia’s Surfing Life explores what could be a pretty respectable explanation for the decline of this trend. Matt Miller’s piece, Surf Forecasting: A Gift or A Curse? explores the introduction of this new web technology, weighing its pro’s and cons:
“The rise and rise of internet surf forecasting websites…[has] brought simple and easy-to-read forecasting to the masses. Now everyone is scoring the best waves, we all know when the next swell’s coming and what day the wind’s swinging offshore. But is that necessarily a good thing?”
Miller goes on to compare surf forecasting to farmers utilization of technology to better plan for their crops. Surfers have used the technology to plan surf competitions with pinpoint accuracy based on conditions. But at the same time, Miller wonders if the new trend has resulted in the overcrowding of once coveted surf spots.
Take this example of a swell he and his friend had tracked in a specific location and flew out to catch:
“We got to Lakey’s two days before the swell was predicted and the whole place was deserted. The next day there were 40 surfers in the water by lunchtime. Every one of them using the same internet surf forecasting sites as us. Everyone is now a weather expert.”
There are practical reasons to want to limit the number of people out on the water. Crowding in the line-up means less opportunity to surf. Delicate locations become damaged, suffering the wear of hundreds of people swarming en masse for short periods of time. Many of the world’s best waves are outside of city limits, with little resources for upkeep or cleanup efforts.
But then there’s the deeper threat—the idea that shakes the surfer’s psyche. The search for the perfect wave is over. The Endless Summer is cooling down. There is no more sitting, waiting, wishing and praying that you are in the right spot at the right time.
The surfer can take a place in the American pantheon alongside the cowboy and the transcendental poet.
Not quite the same vibe…
Bob Burns only has to turn right or left, and see the hordes waiting for the set to come in, kicking their legs in their Rip Curl suits, to know that his coveted locale has already gone viral. Miller began his essay with an anecdote about his father:
“My old mans mate, Jonesy, a renowned sea dog and synoptic guru, always had a huge advantage by putting himself in the right place on the right day, constantly one step ahead of the crowds. The internet has changed that forever.”
In this case I’m only talking about surf movies in the documentary/travel-logue sense. Not so much about films like “Gidget” or “Blue Crush,” about which there is enough to say, though in a different vein of thought.
The spray from the whitecaps breathed through the planks of the pier. Rainfall burst against the boards. Between the beams the ocean surged and plunged: a pneumonic lung. The sea was cobalt—mercurial. I walked slow and stayed behind Travis.
“What if my board snaps?” I asked.
“Don’t land on top of it. Toss the board away from you.”
“Yeah, ok. But what if it snaps?”
“Swim, I guess.”
I was wearing his spare wetsuit. The legs wrapped my heels. I hiked on the balls of my feet to keep from grating the suit against the wood. We were three quarters of the way down the pier. The storm distorted the shore; veiled it in uncountable droplets. The grey of the sea was the grey of the sky. The surf rolled, rabid with foam. I felt the sea in my gut like a meal churning.
The storm bore down on the ocean. The waves whooshed under the pier. The waves were big but they didn’t break in the deep water. I looked over the edge of the pier. The water looked more like rolling dimpled hills rather than that teardrop shape a wave takes when it crests. I imagined a whale rolling towards the shore like a kid down a hill. A squall rose and my board shot out of my hand and smacked into a bench. I chased it down and knelt beside it to check for dings. I hardly noticed Travis run passed me until I heard the next whoosh. Not just heard it but felt it—felt the water wallop the pier—felt it rise between the slats—felt the pylons in the pier tremble—saw but did not feel the blood run from the hand that caught my fall. My board was smashed against the side-rail. The board was still in one piece. I remember a steel wire strung on a flagpole clanking when it smacked the pole in the wind. There was no flag to flutter.
Travis might as well have been parked on the side of the 101 freeway, checking the surf while his father’s thumb pressed on the carb of a small purple pipe stained in the chamber with resin. To Travis the storm swell was no different than any morning set at Solimar or Rincon. He strode to my board and grabbed it with his free hand. I stood up. He handed it back to me.
I never knew until then what it meant to be weak in the knees. It doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with a woman. No, it’s really just the bodily sensation that goes along with pussing out. Later it’s a sour stomach. And you have to relive it whenever someone around you says, “Hey, Stew, remember that time when…”
The Channel Islands were washed out and so were the oil derricks that bore into the ocean halfway between the islands and us. It didn’t matter. He looked to the ocean while he laid his surfboard against the end of the pier. He didn’t have to look at the railing while he hopped over. His feet sprung over the railing and landed on the outside. Then he took his board in his hand.
I leaned my board against the railing and climbed over. My feet stuck on every slat along the way. My hands gripped the top of the railing just above a brass plaque. Travis was next to me. He was right next to me and he finally looked serious. That modest, experienced look was gone. His lips hardened into a line. His nostrils flared, but not wildly. Travis wasn’t frightened but his heart was beating hell. His eyes darted from over the horizon down into the sea, which I hadn’t even considered looking at from this side of the railing. But I did. I did and it scared the shit out of me. The tide brought the water up so high that it nearly touched our feet and then just as quickly took it down to a twenty-foot drop. The pylons expanded and contracted in the water, submerging the mussels that clung to their bases. When the water receded I saw ropes of seaweed dangling from the top of the pylons—dangling until the wind knocked them free and they flew like scarves and smashed into other pylons.
Travis grabbed my surfboard and brought it over the railing. He gave it to me and I felt it shake in a gust of wind and I nearly slipped. I thought about almost slipping and I felt my eyes spin. My brain whomped in my skull.
“Set’s coming in,” said Travis.
He jumped when the water was low. I saw his body shrink beneath me. He threw his board and it spun in the wind like a white fiberglass leaf until its forward motion was choked by the leash around Travis’ ankle. I didn’t hear him splash in the water. I did see him pop out of the surf and swim to his board. He paddled out to sea away from the pier. I couldn’t let go of the railing. I watched him set up on the wave, watched him paddle into position and get under the brute force of the thing, and I watched without realizing that the wave was high enough to come over the top of the pier…
…and it did and I gripped tight and felt the wood cut into my arms and dig in fat blisters. My ankle slipped and hung over the ledge and the weight of the surfboard or maybe just shock kept me from pulling myself up and over. And fuck reaching down to undo the leash. There was nothing to do. Nothing physically possible in my fear, which I wore close to my skin. Tight as a wet suit. I just held the ledge and did nothing—did completely nothing except hold on. No matter what the height of the water, I knew that if I let go I would be nothing but a piece of sea-weed slapped against pylons, or just another mussel drowned in brine, except that mussels are made to be drowned. They drown again and again and that’s how they live. I drown once and don’t ever drown again.
I looked to the horizon and it took no amount of skill to identify the monstrosity yawning my way. I knew if I didn’t get on the right side of the railing then I would be a bloated thing tangled in the pier with other bloated things. With the surfboard velcroed around my ankle I couldn’t climb back over the railing. But there was enough room between slats to squeeze through. The wave lumbered like a thing pretty much alive and unstoppable—like a wall that could howl. As I pulled my torso between the slats I thought to myself, I’m never going to kiss a girl.
I turned to look at my legs and saw Travis paddling. He wasn’t setting himself up for the wave. He was hauling heavy ass trying to make his way over it before it crested.
I made it through the railing and hurried to undo my leash but my fingers were numb and I couldn’t unstrap the Velcro. My leg blurred when I shifted focus to Travis, who was no longer vertical to the face of the wave, but completely upside down and about to be slammed into the shallow trough beneath the impossible height of the cresting wall. Before he went under I felt the pier shake. It was like being hit by a car. It was like being swallowed. It was like being chewed. It was most like what you might imagine it would feel like to be caught in a washing machine during the spin cycle, except that instead of being a shirt among shirts, you are a living bag of organs among rocks and nails…
…and the washing machine is jet-fucking-powered.
I kept slamming against the same spot on the pier because my leash was still on and my board acted like a knot tying me to the railing. But after some time the leash snapped and I floated down the pier, wet suit torn to shreds, body not doing much better. I was close to the entrance of the pier. I could see the beach. Travis was hacking up saltwater and maybe his guts on a stretch of pebbles.