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Let’s go… Surfing by Dirk Herpel | 5th December, 2014 | Personalities

Calling surfing a sport like any other does not do justice to the phenomenon and would probably cause most surfers to disagree vociferously. To them, their surfing life does not come to an end even if they do turn their backs on the waves and the beach eventually. Surfing is a lifestyle: cool, casual and relaxed. And an art form to boot!

Seen from a purely rational point of view, surfing makes no sense at all. It leaves no traces on the waves – at least not for long. It is an ephemeral art, and a very difficult one at that. “The ocean surprises you every day” – this is true even for surfing icons like eleven-time world champion, American Kelly Slater. If you look at the sport more closely, this is hardly surprising. Catching a wave is no mean feat. You have to learn the right technique to be able to stand up on the surfboard. In order to paddle up to the wave in the right location in the first place, you also have to grapple with the currents, as well as with the wind and wave directions.

When you finally manage to stand up, there is a fair chance that, after a wild ride akin to being inside a huge washing machine, you end up washed ashore, disoriented and gasping for air. With any luck, you may not have to suffer an annihilating glance shot at you by another surfer, whose surf you have disrupted with your attempt. Bruises and sore muscles – in places you did not even realize you had muscles – can scarcely be avoided.

But beware: surfing makes you happy! The incomparable feeling when the wave lifts the board and you start gliding: you brim over with a mixture of amazement, happiness and a sense of freedom. This feeling is enough to make you want to ride the waves again and again. But unlike a slot on a tennis court, you cannot simply book a wave. That is why surfing dominates the lion’s share of most surfers’ lives: business meetings are canceled at short notice and friends stood up, all just in order to be at the right beach at the right time: the beach which has the perfect waves. Having said that, perfect is an imprecise term. To surfers, each wave has its own character waiting to be discovered. From the often-perilous immediacy of “Teahupo’o,” a powerful wave off the coast of Tahiti, which only allows unequivocal responses, to the relaxed gentleness of the Pacific waves at Waikiki Beach, which flirtatiously beckon almost every day. Surfing thus becomes a lifestyle that lasts a lifetime. This is because only those who spend enough time in the ocean can understand it. No matter whether you use a shortboard, longboard, stand-up paddling board or something else to catch the waves – once a surfer, always a surfer.

If you include bodysurfing, which is surfing without the aid of a board, the sport is probably one of the oldest in the world. The first documented description of the activity produced by Europeans, was of surfers off the coast of Hawaii. We have Captain James Cook’s search for the Northwest Passage, the water route between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, to thank for it. James King was the first lieutenant on the Discovery, the vessel with which Cook undertook the third of his expeditions. When the ship was anchored off the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, King dedicated two pages of his log to the art of surfing, which was, at the time, central to Hawaiian culture. Places on the islands were named after famous surf sites. Only the Ali’i, the kings of the islands, were allowed to surf the waves on their “olo” boards while being watched by their adoring people. The boards were up to seven meters long and weighed 90 kilos. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, there were only a handful of surfers left on the Pacific islands. European missionaries, who had arrived in Hawaii not long after Cook, considered swimming, dancing and surfing a total waste of time. Alcohol, epidemics and diseases introduced by the foreign sailors caused the native population to dwindle.

The downward trend for surfing was only reversed with the advent of the “Waikiki Beach Boys,” a group of teenagers who paddled out onto the ocean on their outrigger canoes every day and surfed the Pacific waves. In 1908 one of them suggested constructing a beach clubhouse with changing rooms and space to store surfboards. The plan was implemented and only five years later, there were more than 100 surfboards on the beach again. At the same time, another Waikiki Beach Boy made surfing popular around the world. Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was a double gold medalist in swimming and a handsome Hollywood actor, but above all he was a gifted surfer. He is considered to be the godfather of modern surfing. To this day, a life-size statue of him greets all visitors to Waikiki beach. At first, he gave surfing demonstrations only in America. During his 1915 visit to Freshwater beach, however, he also whetted the appetite of Australians for surfing.

Today Australia and the United States are the two biggest surfing nations in the world. They are followed by Brazil, which because of its prodigy Gabriel Medina might break through the phalanx of American and Australian surfing world champions this year. In Europe it took until 1957 for the first surfer to take to the waters: Peter Viertel, a Hollywood scriptwriter, relaxed this way during a film shoot in Biarritz. Together with Georges Hennebutte and Joël de Rosnay he founded the first surf club in the city. A fitting name was quickly found: Waikiki.

Surfboards have radically changed over the years. First, they were fitted with course-stabilizing tail fins, then they became ever more lightweight. The Australians popularized so-called shortboards. These are significantly shorter than the longboards, which had been used up to that point and which measured approximately 2.7 meters. Shortboards allow surfers to stay much closer to the breaking part of the wave. The world of surfing is also indebted to Jack O’Neill for an invention which made surfing popular even in places where cold water had previously impeded its progress. At the beginning of the 1950s, the American, who is now 91, invented the first suit made of neoprene – the material that keeps surfers warm to this day, even in Antarctic waters.

Surf music, surf fashion and surfing movies: the 1960s saw the sport become a mainstream phenomenon in the U.S. On a good day, there were more surfers than swimmers in the water at the most famous beaches like Malibu, in California. It was a first taste of what was to come and what is today the rule at many excellent surf spots around the world. The chances of catching a wave completely alone are almost as remote as winning the lottery.

Over the years the lifestyle of rebellious teenagers has become a global industry, but the magic of surfing, the rush of catching the right wave, still remains. dh

IssueGG Magazine 01/15

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