In the first instalment of four articles, Sam Bleakley explores The Soul of Surfing alongside the stunning photography of Katie Rae.
Immersed in Water
Today there are over 30 million surfers in the world, a rainbow spectrum of ages and nations, all seeking fulfilment from riding waves. You can surf reefs, points, beach breaks, river bores and inland wavepools. Surfing is used to promote gender equality and other aspects of social justice. Surfing is used therapeutically to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and to channel the energies of otherwise wild kids, and surfers have been amongst the most effective groups promoting environmental activism and education. While surfers seek hollow waves, whatever else it may be, surfing is not hollow but packed with soul.
The ‘soul of surfing’ has been infused with, and shaped by, ‘cool’ lifestyles since the 1950s: the beats, beatniks and bikers; the mods and hippies of the ‘60s; punks of the ‘70s; and hipsters of the ‘00s. As Leroy the Masochist (played by Gary Busey) says to the young kid questioning Matt Johnson’s (Jan-Michael Vincent) credibility in John Milius’ Big Wednesday (1978): “He ain’t no hodad, squidlips!” Nobody wants to be a ‘hodad’ – an imposter, a hoax, somebody who pretends to surf when they don’t. The ‘soul of surfing’ is a skin you put on that gives you a permanent itch. The minute you finish a session and drain your sinuses, you cannot wait to get in the water again. It’s your natural habitat. And even when you’ve been traumatised in the water, the urge to heal the trauma through surfing again is huge: Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton lost an arm in a shark attack, yet still surfs at the highest level.
Surfing attracted its own music in the early 1960s – Dick Dale, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, and instrumental ‘beat groups’ like the Surfaris and Chantays. But as longboards gave way to shortboards to shape a more frantic, carving style of surfing, loud punk, grunge and garage became the go-to soundtrack. As a longboarder into style, I see the perfect match to soul surfing as soul jazz (Blue Note circa 1961) and soul music – cross-stepping to crisp beats, a walking bass, crackling snare drums and growling Hammond organs. Think Booker T and the MG’s (the house band for soul music pioneers Stax records in Memphis, Tennessee) 1962 instrumental ‘Green Onions’ as twelve wave sets meet twelve bar blues. The pedal bass is a line that stalks the stabbing chords, echoing the unwinding wave and your punctuations all over it through sweeping bottom turns and cutbacks.
For many the definition of the ‘soul of surfing’ will simply be ‘the pure love of water breaking’, fulfilled through a range of equipment and approaches, from an adaptive surfer with cerebral palsy riding prone in a specially developed surf seat with friends for company, to someone so skilled on a board that she knows the inner workings of the tube intimately as the water curtain falls to a god’s applause, where time stands still and pure spirit distils from the saltwater cure erupting all around.
We all recognise our local salt-stained guru on every street-corner and backwater of surf culture. A classic Hollywood depiction is in William Phelps North Shore (1987) where Rick Cain (played by Matt Adler) wins a competition in an artificial wave pool in land-locked Arizona, and spends the $500 prize money on a trip to Hawaii to enter the Pipeline Masters. He falls under the wing of Chandler, and a tough apprenticeship ensues with the bearded, post-hippy, board building surf-sage (played by Gregory Harrison). Ultimately Cain loses the prestigious Pipeline contest because Lance Burkhart cheats (played by Laird Hamilton, ironically now celebrated as one of the most accomplished ‘soul surfing’ watermen in history). Hollywood Burkhart, driven by magazine cover-shots, is the antithesis to the soul surfer, his soul sucked out by commercial interests. Even Chandler protests the foul play. Unfazed, Cain shrugs his shoulders and remarks that “it doesn’t matter to a soul surfer.” Corny stuff, but a useful reference point, although not quite Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988) where free-diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) – the soul of free-diving juxtaposed to his competition rival Enzo (played by Jean Reno) – chooses to swim away with the dolphins rather than re-surface for air and his girlfriend Johana Baker (Rosanna Arquette). Every surfer craves the experience of surfing with dolphins, enjoying the companionship of seals, or sitting close to basking sharks. An encounter with sealife is an immediate connection with some deeper animating soul inherent in all living beings. The ‘soul surfer’ is then humble, aware of her surroundings, and respectful of the places she interacts with, open to the ocean as a great leveller, a teacher.
Reflecting the emerging countercultural youth movement of the time, the term ‘soul surfer’ appeared in the 1960s, but blossomed in the 1970s, to describe the non-commercial, non-competitive surfer who rode waves for pure joy, a more spiritual pursuit, without rules for company. The term stood as an opposition to the rise of professional surfing, paralleled later in ‘freeride’ snowboarding that developed as a loose but electric off-piste response to the rigid rules of ski competition. This is of course arguably a more selfish journey, riding for personal gain only. But this approach framed surfing as ‘art’, ‘dance’ and ‘performance’ as opposed to ‘sport’. But it was misleading to polarise surfing this way, inferring professional surfers could not be soul surfers. The ancient Greeks developed competitive sport as a complex cultural and ritual occasion, birthing the Olympic Games. Sport was a way of saying something through the body, a form of persuasion or rhetoric in front of an audience, an aesthetic event, a display of beauty. In developing the Greek notion of arête, you engaged in an activity to discover its soul, its highest perfection and its challenges. Surfing’s total reliance on unpredictable ocean conditions separates it from other sports. Yet surfing, even at the highest level of competition, remains an aesthetic display, and surfers, even as beginners, in a sense, are always competing in the ocean, as they attempt to better what they did yesterday. ‘Competition’ here means ‘quality of expression’. Many people surf as if they were professionals in contests. I have had a career as an international competition surfer, and have experienced as much of the soul of surfing in this context as I have teaching kids to trim for the first time in Haiti, or riding empty, epic waves in Gabon to the soundtrack of Booker T and the MG’s.
Surf historian Doug Harvey explains: “Due to their rigid competitive criteria, sports are under-recognized as aesthetic disciplines – though virtually every aspect of athletic culture is determined to some degree by discriminating between visual, kinaesthetic, and other sensory information, often with vast litanies of subjective distinctions and rankings underlying the binary qualitative principle of win/lose. Nowhere is this truer than in the lonely sport of surfing, with its odd patina of romantic bohemian introspection, its emphasis on individual experience and virtuosic performance, its frequent religious overtones, its incredibly detailed vocabulary for subtle variations in wave structure and board technique, and its strange and deep impact on popular culture in the early 1960s.”
Clearly the ‘soul of surfing’ is elusive. Therein rests the appeal. Maybe experiencing the wipeout gets closest to soul, as a mixture of elation and fear, as you press the soul of your seven millimeters thick neoprene wetsuit boot into a hard layer of winter wax and skitter across a coldwater face before being swallowed whole, nearly drowning, and being reborn in the afterlife (with a sinus infection). The wave’s pressure as it breaks and the lip folds over forces a mass of water to plummet deep, as an underwater cylinder. Caught up in this, you not only get forcefully tumbled, but you hear the eerie noise of the wave dissipating under water – a low growl of a hungry animal combined with a keening, sinister wail. All hunter-gatherer traditions tell of the shaman’s work, where he or she ‘dies’ on behalf of the community in order to go to the underworld where he or she meets the animal soul, the totem of the tribe. The sound of this totem is the same sound as the wave’s dissipation under water. Surfers surviving tough wipeouts, often in near-death experiences, have undergone shamanic journeys to converse with soul (that can be defined as the ‘depth’ in things). Of course, recovery from a wipeout offers the prize of an adrenaline rush to which big wave riders in particular become addicted.
But the wipeout is not just the physical process of falling off during a ride, it is the whole emotional process of coping with the fact that at that point, the wave’s energy, passion and motion has outwitted you. Bad wipeouts are not just limited to big waves where you are held under whitewater until your lungs are about to burst. Hollow-shaped waves, even at chest height, can whip you over on their backs, pulling you ‘over the falls’ and dumping you unceremoniously. This is no fun if they are snapping onto a live, sharp and poisonous coral reef; a ledge just feet under the sucking and violent water; or onto sand in the shallows in just two feet of ocean. Every travelling surfer has experienced these moments and often bears scars as a result, both physical and emotional. And a wipeout suffered at a crucial point in a surf contest because you pushed yourself that little bit closer to the edge to gain extra points on the ride, or a wipeout suffered amongst peers trying to compete with one another to be best on the beach, is just as important a learning experience – or a humiliation – as a wipeout on a roiling big wave. But most wipeouts are safe and fun, and when surfing with friends you’ll often pop up laughing.
The wipeout is where we encounter turbulent water and bathe in a chemical cocktail triggered by the ions found here. Breaking waves alter the physical structure of the air and water, forcing apart molecules and releasing charged ions. This abundance of negative ions has a positive effect on mood by triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin and blood flow and oxygen circulation through our bodies. Other ecosystems with negatively charged atmospheric conditions, such as waterfalls and mountains, produce similar effects. Organisations like The Wave Project and Surfers Not Street Children, have tapped into this to treat psychological health conditions, depression, schizophrenia, autism, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Building confidence, self-esteem and providing an escape can give otherwise abused kids new hope to follow their dreams and live for the future. Surfing and wipeouts are, quite simply, good for your health, happiness and creativity. When exploring the soul of surfing, the spirit of the wipeout is key.
Photography: Katie Rae https://www.katieraephoto.com/Back to Journal