By Michael Fordham
Illustrations by Kelly Angood
Every December it happens. The northern hemisphere swivels into winter and the shortest day approaches. As sure as Iceland will have an annoying celebrity selling their Irritable Bowel Syndrome buffets, the Instagram feeds, the Facebook updates and surf cult Tumblrs begin to crank into motion. Your social screens are swamped by the cobalt coloured barrels and glittering line-ups of the North Shore of Oahu. Bros throw shakas in Lightning Bolt tees and Patagonia trunks, bro-ing down to a backdrop of coconut trees, rustic surf shacks and coral reef. Safe in the knowledge that they are there, in the cradle of surf culture – that they are the anointed ones: ‘You should be here, bro’ they seem to say. “Here where the water is the temperature and texture of piss expelled during a mai-tai hangover.” But you’re not.
It was murder being an English surfer before the Internet. Now it’s a nightmare.
Every surfer carries within them a little element of the surf dream. You cling to it. It’s the thing that got you to paddle out in the first place. No matter how far from the fantasy your actual surfing life becomes, the dream becomes something you have to believe in. You have to maintain that dream of the perfect wave. Otherwise the reality would be unbearable.
I’m scraping ice from the windscreen of the 25 year old Volvo wagon. Icy easterly winds have been sweeping in from the Urals for the last ten days, whipping round the high pressure system lodged over Europe, keeping the big, persistent storm at bay way out in the North Atlantic. The BBC news is buzzing with iced road disasters and hackery about how this winter will be the toughest in memory. Out somewhere south of Greenland meanwhile, that tight anticyclone is spinning, relaying long, sweeping isobars in unfolding furlsdown into the Bay of Biscay and around the Celtic fringes of Britain. For a surfer based in the west of these islands, this usually means great waves – clean, orderly lines of swells racking up to the horizon like corduroy – accompanied with light winds coming from the shore, grooming them so that when they break, their faces are clean, their feathering lips held up. Thing is, these elements come together only a handful of days throughout any given year. And this usually happens in the colder, more brutal months, when the tropical elements of that surf dream you first glimpsed are far, far away.
So there you are in the week of the shortest day, suffering the updates from Sunset Beach and Pipeline, loading up a ragtag wagon full of fetid, sand caked wetsuits, lengths of foam wrapped in fibreglass, everything smelling softly and sweetly of Sex Wax. You’re on the road two hours before dawn. The BBC shipping forecast confirms the rare conditions and the tang and flutter of expectancy fizzes around your nervous system. The heater in the wagon hasn’t worked properly for a decade, so next to your skin is a couple of layers of merino topped off with Patagonia down, rather than board-shorts from the guys at Ventura. As you get over the height of Exmoor and wind down to the coast you can see the forecasts were right and there’s a pinwheeling refraction stretching out to the the still-dark western horizon beyond the point. Still, even with this amount of time waiting, this amount of time anticipating– you can’t actually imagine getting naked, pulling on a half- dry steamer and jumping into the water. You think that you might just watch the waves and mind-surf the lines – you think that you might feel more comfortable with the surf myth wrapping you in its arms rather than actually paddling out to meet the challenge, the pain, the ache and the cold – to suffer the possibility of humiliation, of lost illusions – the possibility that you can’t really do this.
Those of us who didn’t grow up in the heart of the surf dream paddle out motivated by the lore of a second hand myth. All you know are bits and pieces of imagery, fragments of seductive ideas about what surfing is all about. But these things are so powerful that for you the myth of surfing IS the reality. It makes me cringe to acknowledge but I wanted to be a surfer because of the star spangled dream of California purveyed by The Beach Boys... but, yes, it was Brian Wilson’s harmonic soundscapes, full of imagery of endless youth, two girls for every boy, shooting the curl and fun-fun-fun that attracted me in the first place. Ocean Pacific T-Shirts and Okanui trunks had something to do with it too, as well as that stack of old surf magazines that I found in my uncle’s bedside cabinet, next to Playboy and Penthouse and other seductive icons of otherness. Here was something so foreign, so exotic, so far from East London at the threshold of the seventies and eighties. Wherever it was, I wanted to be there. I stuck the pages torn from those magazines on my wall next to the Tacchini stickers and Aquascutum swing tags and got on the road as soon as I had the chance. When I paddled out for the first time at the age of eighteen to one of those less rare, less elusive swells at Noosa Heads in Queensland, I nevertheless didn’t know how lucky I was. I was struggling to paddle a battered old 6’6” single fin that some surf shop ocker had flogged me, but I was stroking into the dream, pushing through the veil to the faces of the waves, bursting out to a shower of spray filled with a thousand tiny rainbows. I didn’t realise that the smell of kelp and salt and ozone, the weightlessness, the euphoria I felt at the first rush of green under the keel would produce in me years of search, years of hurt – years of being elsewhere.
But even if your back yard was the mellow Pacific, right from the start being a surfer was all about ‘buying the t-shirt’. In post war California military surplus tees were ubiquitous. It wasn’t long until the backyard shapers began to stick logos under the glass when they finished their boards. They didn’t just give their hottest surfers boards to ride – they gave them t-shirts to wear too. Surf culture thus helped give birth tobranding. In 1957 a cheesecake movie called Gidget exploited what had been a coastal cult and popularised the idea of surfing all over the states. Pretty soon Kansas teens were rocking washed out Levis and Surf Tees and doing the surfer stomp. Now, at a time when we are defined by the things we consume, it’s perfectly possible to be a surfer without ever having paddled into a wave. You can buy the gear. You can lease the VW transporter. You can learn to talk surf, to describe the conditions, talk eloquently about tidal ranges and wind direction, swell period and cobble points. You can sticker up your psychic back window with all the accoutrements of surferhood. Whether or not you’ll end up the other side with a fulfilling life in the ocean is another thing entirely.
Another thing no one tells you is that surfers lie. It’s a bit like the Fisherman’s one- that-got-away myth. It’s as innocent as that. But it’s necessary. When you spend a goodly proportion of your time thinking about waves, reading about waves, writing about it and waiting for the surf moment to actually happen, you have to make sure that you are fulfilling your place in that mythic system – in case it all comes crashing down around you. Despite the fact that the sessions get further apart and your body atrophies as time and circumstances change; despite the training, the cycling... the fucking yoga. You tell yourself that every time you talk to a mate who ‘scored an epic session’ that they were probably lying too – that’s OK, though. You tell yourself that every wave ridden renders an individual improved and that the world's a better place.
But the truth you come ultimately to realise, and surfing’s true saving grace, is that it is always worth paddling out. Even when, out for a two hour session in the depths of February, you lost all power and energy after the first twenty minutes, that for a few moments out there you hated yourself and your pretence at still calling yourself a surfer, that you put yourself in the prime spot for one set wave, spun round, head down, paddled hard, and then the cold cramp crept up from our calf, up to your thighs and round to your hamstring, and that you had to pull out, trying to stifle the curse and the pang of the pain, but that three minutes later, it was OK, you pushed forward, spotted one early, skipped to your feet and found the Kodak moment of the curl over your right shoulder, the face opening up and unravelling that tension as the sand grained manyness of the water, for a few moments, made everything right again.
“Stoked again”, you’ll say.