When you surf, as I then understood it, you live and breathe waves. You always know what the surf is doing. You cut school, lose jobs, lose girlfriends, if it’s good.”
― William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

It’s a common question: what is a surfer? The answer varies, depending on your perspective. Here’s mine.

I see my surfing life as a series of pictures, or short videos; flashes of memory across the span of my life. My first image is from 1966 riding a “foamie” in the surf a half-dozen times at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. At age nine I recall the power of the waves, the thrill of a high-speed drop, and the chaos of the white water. Ultimately my foamie broke. But the ocean made a strong impression on me and four years later, when I moved back to PB, it compelled me to surf again. Then, at 13, I had the freedom (and my mother’s permission) to pursue surfing full-time over the summer of 1970. And that I did: living at the beach full-time, every day, perfecting the art of surfing. Some would say this is when I became a surfer. I don’t disagree. Young, free of obligations, the warm waters of SoCal beckoning: the timing was perfect.

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Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. Photo by Michael James Slattery. Luminous Views Gallery, https://luminous-views.com/

It was an obsession that completely took over my life for the next 12 years. I lived to surf, everything else was secondary. Wake up, check the surf. If it was good that was my day, which including exploring for hours to find anything worth riding. In between swells, it was surf magazines, surf stories, skating, surf art, surf chicks, surf adventures. The only thing that ever came close to replacing surfing was surf photography, which led to my obsession to document everything with film. This of course led to surf film nights which created synergy with everything in my life. I was on the path of surfing but didn’t notice that other priorities were slowly pushing their way into my life.

Enter my career. Subtly, over time and through my bonds with the sea, my focus transitioning into marine biology, my next obsession. Like most surfers, I decided I couldn’t support my life through surfing and sought a path that would keep me close to the sea. It was a good choice. Beginning with graduate school in 1982, my interests evolved. I first studied the rocky shores, then the underwater kelp forests and coral reefs while SCUBA diving, and ultimately the deep-sea bottom with a submersible. Slowly, surfing became secondary to my intellectual pursuits.

Bt in 1975
Photo: Frank Dorenkamp

During these decades I transitioned from surfing weekly (early 80s) to monthly or less (late 80s to mid-90s). Married in 1988 with children in the 1990s, although living in Hawaii, my time became limited to a few times per year.  Eventually, in the 2000s, health issues reduced my surfing to every year or two. As I write this post, I haven’t been in the lineup for five years…. but I know I will return.

Because … I am a surfer. I am bound to live near the sea and feel the day-to-day rhythms of the ocean. I need to smell the water, hear the wind, and the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore. Every day I must see and feel the swells arrive and depart, watch them create synergy with the tides and the reefs. If I’m not near the sea I die a little. It’s in my blood and part of my soul, and always will be. I am forever tied to the ocean, the surf, and not a day goes by that I don’t look at the water and remember my days surfing.

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz. Photo: O’Neill

One look and I think of the smell and feel of the water. The crisp waves washing over as I paddle out, the water flooding my wetsuit, the sharp smell of the sea, the ache in my arms as I scramble outside, the jolt of fear as a set catches me inside, the thrill of a great wave. But most of all I remember the feeling as my board slides down the wave’s face, the energy surging through me, then turning and tucking under the lip as it keels over. The utter perfection and solace of being completely inside the wave, safe in its womb, a brief but intimate moment where time stands still.

At night, endless dreams of glassy swells early in the morning. Small but super fun. Just me and a close friend grabbing waves as the sun rises and the offshore winds pick up as others appear on the beach to watch. The thrill of riding a nice wave — ripping — as those on the beach and in the water hoot and holler. It’s an age-old, endless dream and never gets old.

underwater surf
Photo: Edges of Insanity

To me, that is surfing and as a surfer, it is forever a part of who I am. Surfing has been one of the biggest inspirations of my life. It has changed me in ways I can’t begin to understand: it has taught me respect and patience, kept me in good physical shape, influencing who my friends were and where I lived, focused my interests, and was the inspiration for my career in marine biology. And yet — and this is its charm — it is amazingly free. It is pure fun dependent only on the wind blowing across the sea and my ability to paddle out and catch a wave. The ocean asks nothing in return but gives everything.

So what is a surfer?

  • Is it that kid that caught a few waves but remembers it forever?
  • Is it a life dedicated to surfing above all else?
  • Is it someone who occasionally surfs while balancing career and family life?
  • Is it someone who lives close to the sea but rarely surfs?
  • Is it someone who surfed long ago but doesn’t anymore?

I don’t believe there’s an answer because it’s different for everyone. To some, it is an art, a sport, a religion, a profession, an addiction, or something you do on vacation. Maybe it’s the biggest thing in your life, maybe it’s your entire life, or perhaps it’s just an occasional joy. To me, it is all of the above. But who am I to judge? Who are you to judge?

Photo: Shutterstock

Ultimately, it is up to each of us to place surfing in the context of our lives and understand its significance. Sure, we have our opinions but ultimately the soul of surfing, what it means to you, is an intensely personal experience. If you live in the memories of surfing or still surf or crave to be in the water, then you are a surfer, and always will be in my opinion. Perhaps the better question is how surfing has inspired and changed your life. Only you can answer that question. Ride on my friends. For the soul of surfing is within us all.

Further reading:

6 responses to “What is a Surfer?”

  1. Hi Brian, That post could have been my story. I still think of myself as a surfer above all else even though I only surf a few times a year now. I am finishing my masters degree this summer and hope to get back into the surf more when I am done. As you said, work and life gets in the way even though in my younger years surfing was always the priority. It was nice to meet your student Aaron at QUEST this year. Thanks for the inspiration. Aloha, Donna

    Donna Brown, Coordinator Marine Option Program University of Hawaiʻi Maui College 310 Kaʻahumanu Ave. Kahului, HI 96732 (808) 984-3203 donnabro@hawaii.edu


    • Thanks Donna. Further proof that we are all connected in our experiences. Have you read Barbarian Days by William Finnegan? Fantastic book with many similar stories I’m sure you can relate to. Congrats on the MS degree and glad QUEST went well. Thanks for all your dedication to the ocean! You have always been amazing in all you do.

  2. Nice writing, Brian… almost like reading a great novel.
    Are you sure that English wasn’t your major at Cal Poly?

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