A while back I was sauntering back up the sand on New South Wales’ northernmost beach break. It was a wild and stormy day, with squalls and biting rain, yet semi clean 4ft peaks were ensuring the line-up was fairly full. I noticed up towards the bush-line a familiar sight, an umbrella and perched beneath it a cameraman and a kneeling surfer, both scanning the horizon. They were deep in conversation it seemed, as I got closer, I then saw the cameraman begin to gesticulate with hand motions to his audience of one. A spitting barrel with one hand and the 2-finger swoop of his other hand indicating a bottom turn and an off the lip snap. How did I know this? Because I’ve seen it literally dozens of times. From a sunrise lit car park on the beach in England, to a sweaty Bintang soaked back street bar in Bali, these gestures as a surfer are very much universal.
Our phones and media tell us constantly that the world is dangerous and on the brink of destruction, you would be mad to talk to somebody you don’t know
It got me thinking, that as a sport and leisure activity surfing actually has a very special and individual communication style between participants. Take for example the openness we have to talk to a complete stranger. You know the one, you’re stood scanning a spot, coffee in hand and analysing the wave quality: is there any girls out there in bikinis? Do I need to visit the toilet before I paddle out? A fellow wave rider might be doing exactly the same and you exchange some small talk about how good it was yesterday, the banks have never been the same since (insert year) and that the tide turned half an hour ago and it should pick up. A complete unknown person to you. Could be anyone. Our phones and media tell us constantly that the world is dangerous and on the brink of destruction, you would be mad to talk to somebody you don’t know. But, like you they decide to step into the ocean and ride waves, this unknown human shares the same passion.
This individual has merely been squeezed through a slightly different social and physiological mould to you, and subconsciously you decide that’s ok.
A recent experience of this camaraderie involved myself in the lineup and a set wave being missed by everyone. The guy next to me peered over his shoulder and through squinted eyes exclaimed, “it’s still going mate, look!” I turned to look and my new middle aged kneeboarding friend was correct, everyone had indeed missed a great wave. The thing was this; he wasn’t irate because he didn’t catch the wave, he was genuinely irate that nobody had caught it.
Shakas, hooting and calling your best mate into the wave of the day are fairly normal occurrences for surfers. Don’t get me wrong though, I doubt the hardy surfers of the Netherlands or other cold regions are throwing out too many shakas as they paddle out into wind blown frigid water, but they still share that fire and stoke. We feed on that energy in the water, it’s that energy that will have you giving, (again a complete stranger) a smile and nod as they make a ridiculous drop right before you, the shout of “GO” to someone as you realise you won’t claw your way onto that wave - the list really does go on. Where else does this happen? it’s hard to pin down another outdoor pursuit. Certainly not on the golf course that’s for sure.
depending on the surf spot and how the offence goes down behaviour can range from dirty looks to full blown fist fights in and out of the water
With all said and done, surfing can be a confrontational affair. It really is a double-edged sword. That stranger who you had every chance of exchanging pleasantries with has just been dropped in on, and is not happy about it. The aggression can reach boiling point and physical altercations are a real thing, depending on the surf spot and how the offence goes down behaviour can range from dirty looks to full blown fist fights in and out of the water. The switch can flick and that sudden atypical friendliness can just as quickly go the complete opposite way. For those around these affairs they either come off as comical or quite awkward, thankfully most people will leave their egos on the sand and surf for the pure enjoyment. However, you are always going to come across that ‘one guy’ who is out to ruin everyone’s day and thrash around the line-up, trying to catch every wave. These people ultimately attempt (albeit most of the time unconsciously) to kill the vibe in the water. One occasion I witnessed this, a few older guys with a few simple looks at one another and muttered words began working their magic to block the perpetrator, even snaking him on a couple of waves and before you knew it our gate crasher had enough and was heading in. It isn’t every day or session our angry friend and his ilk paddle out beside you, so I can live with that.
The genuine connection you can have with somebody you don’t even know or even better still a close friend in the water is priceless though. The excitement and exhilaration you share in the whole experience from the early morning phone calls, spraying your mate off the back of a wave to the post surf dehydrated beers is truly a one off. I fondly hold onto a memory of surfing a little reef break in Indonesia with two close friends, just us, no one else out. As our little taxi boat and its endlessly smoking driver sat bobbing in the channel, we exchanged wave after wave. The last light of that afternoon sent incredible colours across the sky the like I hadn’t really seen before or in fact since, and those hoots and yells we shared echo in my ears still to this day.
Photo credit: Daniel Kimber @dkimber_photography
Words by Alex Mitcheson