By Kai Miller
In the summer of 1907, an uncanny phenomenon began making regular appearances up and down the beaches of sunny California. Word of this eerie marvel spread quickly among Southern Californians as the Golden State residents flocked to catch sight of the spectacle. They stood in awe as they watched this man, this George Freeth character, defy nature and walk on water. The crowds expected Freeth, like the hubristic Icarus with his precarious wax wings, to fall, sink, and drown in that ocean. Yet somehow, armed only with an eight-foot long redwood “surf craft,” Freeth stayed afloat and wowed audiences across California. Because of Freeth, a subculture known as “surfing” was born.
By the 1950s, the subculture of surfing had acquired its familiar laidback image of casual beach parties, shaggy blonde hair, and Beach Boys music. Underlying numerous evolutions in this beach style, however, is a steady focus among even the most casual surfers to seek out a piece of the dangerous and forbidden, in defiance of the mainstream. The surfers of the fifties and sixties rejected post-war obsessions with luxury and consumerism, while today’s extreme surfers sacrifice mainstream values of safety and complacence. Although surfers’ sacrifices have changed, the end-result, a dynamic surfing lifestyle opposed to the doldrums of mainstream activity, has remained constant. Many of us, if even reluctantly, look at these surfers in awe — these wave-bound zealots who will sacrifice everything just for a chance to walk on water.
For many surfing pioneers, riding the waves was an almost intoxicating experience that brought them closer to God. Like devout monks, these surfers sacrificed the mainstream’s life of convenience as they took up an ascetic existence devoted to wave worship. In 1954, the year of the first Makaha surf tournament, the hardcore Californian surfers started making pilgrimages to this Hawaiian town in search of bigger waves and a more defined identity within their burgeoning subculture (Lueras 115). Sarah Park, a reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, describes the migrants as a small group of Californians eager to sacrifice the typical luxuries of contemporary living just to surf in Hawaii. Park writes that, “The new arrivals have taken a cottage across the street for $10 a month each and [they] have scattered swim fins, spears, and surfboards around their new house-with-kitchen” (Lueras 115). This young cadre separated themselves, physically and ideologically, from the Southern California mainstream, rejecting “American Dream” luxuries of TVs, cars and comfortable living accommodations, all for the sake of surfing.
Buzzy Trent, one of these young Californians, exemplified this asceticism by keeping a garden with other surfers and spearing fish and turtles for dinner. Trent claims that “it’s a community thing,” adding, “We are over here strictly to surf” (Lueras 115). This surfing lifestyle was based upon a blissful sense of isolation and wave devotion, resembling the cloistered hippie communes of the sixties. In both cases, these social outsiders rejected American consumerism to provide for themselves and concentrate closely on their unique lifestyle. Although this rejection of modern convenience baffled mainstream America, to hardcore wave-riders, their sacrifices seemed minimal when compared to the joy and purity surfing provided.
While these California boys were in Hawaii establishing the surfing lifestyle of sacrifice, a simultaneous migration of Hawaiians to So Cal gave surfing its much-imitated look. Like its lifestyle, surfing’s new look rejected social conformity and materialism by offering a more practical, laidback alternative to the preparation-heavy “greaser” image of the 1950s. Surfers chose to wear more simple and comfortable clothing, such as loose flower-printed silk shirts, and also longer-cut swim suits, cut just above the knee to prevent the leg from rubbing on the waxed board. Meanwhile, surfers rejected a mainstream emphasis on greasy and complex hair styles, in favor of maintenance-free shags. These looks brought radical change to the conservative mainstream styles of the mid-twentieth century, when most guys still went to the beach in speedos (Lueras 117). As a result, not only could outsiders identify surfers on sight, but the sub-culture also had a laid back, distinctly minimalist “look” to go with its ascetic lifestyle. Most significantly, these surfers’ ready sacrifice of hair-gel, hair combs and haircuts, (as well as various clothing luxuries), only helped articulate their subculture’s requisite devotion to wave-riding and little else.
As these surfing styles grew in popularity and eventually overtook the mainstream, the ascetic surfing lifestyle of the 50s and 60s began to vanish. Today’s professional surfers receive sizable paychecks, and the novelty of simply “walking on water” has worn off. As a reaction, many modern surfers of the 80s and 90s have sought out even more extreme ways to pursue their hobby, such as dangerous “big-wave” surfing, in an effort to maintain a degree of social aberrance. In the 1990s, Laird Hamilton, a California native and surf master, started conquering sixty-foot plus waves with the aid of his new “tow-in” technique, where jet skis dragged board-bound surfers out to the big waves (McCarthy 64). Hamilton likens big-wave surfing to driving a racecar, except the “racetrack…is moving too, [and] all of a sudden, turns pop up and bumps are flying at you…and that is part of the excitement.” In this modern era of big wave hunting, surfers continue to make sacrifices not at the cost of modern luxuries, but at the cost of their lives, health and sanity. For instance, in the last decade alone, big-wave surfing has killed three surfers, no doubt the “ultimate sacrifice” in the name of surfing (McCarthy 64). Thus surfing has evolved radically over the last half-century, but only to fiercely maintain its ethos of sacrifice.
Bethany Hamilton, a 15-year-old surfing star, exemplifies modern surfers’ take on the sport’s traditional values of dedication and sacrifice. Born to surfer parents in Kauai, Hawaii, a seven-year-old Hamilton was winning amateur surf tournaments at an age when most kids were getting used to riding a bike. By age 11, Bethany had won the 2001 Haleiwa Menehune Championships and her professional career was underway. After the win, Bethany’s rise to stardom seemed practically unstoppable until she experienced a potential setback in 2003.
In late October of 2003, Bethany Hamilton was out for a morning surf off the coast of Kauai when a tiger shark tore her arm off (Jerome 62). When asked by People Weekly to describe the attack, Hamilton recounted with a sense of humor, “You know how when you eat steak you kind of have to rip it because it’s kind of tough?” (Jerome 62). Bethany also mentioned with a laugh that the only thing going through her head during the maiming was “I wonder if I’m going to lose my sponsors?” (Jerome 62). Although it appeared Hamilton would be significantly hindered at the professional level with only one arm (prosthetics do not provide much paddle power), she went on to win fifth place in the 2004 National Surfing Championship, and later came in first in the Explorer Women’s division at the 2005 National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championships (bethanyhamilton.com). To the average person, the loss of an arm would make quitting surfing seem like the obvious choice. But Bethany, like many surfers, believes that her loss, her sacrifice, was a worthy exchange for the thrill, danger, and joy surfing provides her. Bethany’s resilience only widens the gap between surfers and this mainstream, as only surfers seem to understand the significance of surfing and sacrifice. “To stop something you love so much,” explains Bethany, “is like stopping your life” (qtd. in Jerome 62).
Surfers like Bethany prove that even in a modern sporting world, where being extreme is the norm, surfers still demonstrate a unique dedication that the mainstream and even those downhill mountain bikers would struggle to match or even comprehend. Bethany’s experience also demonstrates that while the world of surfing has had its ups and downs, its small changes and its revolutions, one thing has remained constant: a devoted sense of sacrifice for the sake of surfing. Ever since George Freeth took his act up and down the beach in the early twentieth century, surfers have continued to give up modern luxuries and even a sense of safety to “walk on water.” In turn, their sacrifices are rewarded with a sense of liberation in riding, and almost controlling, such a great force of nature.
Big-wave surfer Jeff Clark describes wave-riding as the extreme rush, “like running and tapping the dragon on the tail and getting away with flames all around you” (qtd. in McCarthy 64). The addictive sense of power and freedom on the waves gives purpose and direction to numerous surfers while allowing them to escape the monotony and conformity of the mainstream. For this distinction from the ordinary, many surfers will give up anything. While others look at surfing diehards in confusion, baffled at how surfing can matter more than work or safety, they also underestimate the sheer power of standing on that surfboard, riding a wave and, above all else, walking on water.
About the Author:
Kai Miller is an undeclared sophomore planning to major within the cinema school. A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Kai is more accustomed to “walking on snow” with a pair the cross-county skis than “walking on water” with a surf board. During his first surf — on a forty-five degree December morning without a wetsuit — Kai gained a new respect for the extreme conditions surfers confront readily.
Bethany Hamilton Bio. 2004. Online. Available here.
Hamilton, Anita. “Girls in the Curl: Women are Remaking Pro Surfing, and Girls are Flocking to the Sport”. Time. 26 Aug. 2002: 52+.
Jerome, Richard, Michael Fleeman and Jeanne McCabe. “The Next Wave: Undaunted After a Shark Tore Off Her Arm, 13-Year-Old Bethany Hamilton Vows to Surf Again, Whatever it Takes.” People Weekly. 1 Dec. 2003: 62.
Lueras, Leonard. Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure. New York: Workman Publishing, 1984.
McCarthy, Terry. “When the Surf’s Way Up: Who Cares if it’s Dangerous?” Time. 19 Jul. 2004: 64.