A Brief History of My Brief Surf Travels
I am thirty-seven years old. I have been surfing for twenty-four years. I like to think of myself as an above-average surfer. By New England standards I'm probably even better than that. I'm probably one of the better surfers from my area and I mean that in the most specific way possible, which is to say I've obtained whatever level of surfing I do possess having barely left Massachusetts. In twenty-four years of surfing, I have only gone on two legit surf trips. On both occasions, I pretty much got skunked. My being in Mexico and Nicaragua for five weeks a piece, two years apart, in no way bettered my surfing. Five years ago, I moved to Santa Barbara for fourteen months. I wouldn't say it bettered my surfing, but certainly ironed out a few kinks. In regards to surfing ability, I am what I am based on twenty-four years of riding waves in Marshfield and Little Compton (south swells). This fact depresses me as much as it makes me proud.
Here's a brief timeline of my shabby surf travels and whereabouts.
1986 Started surfing year round.
1990 Six-day trip to Cape Hatteras. Three days of head high waves. Two days of waist to chest.
1996 One day of surfing overhead Biarritz on rental board while traveling Europe for three months.
1999 Seven-day surf trip to Hatteras. One day of waist high waves. Skunked the other six.
2003 Five weeks in Nicaragua. Surfed three to four days a week. Marginal quality. Never bigger than shoulder high.
2004 Mexico for five weeks. Mostly visited friends. Surfed three times. Head high close-out beach break.
2005 Seven-day trip to Hatteras. One day of waist high waves. One day of chest high slop.
2005-2006 Lived in Santa Barbara for fourteen months.
Why the meager history? There are a few reasons. First of all, my timing has always been lousy. I was younger than my friends by a year or two, which meant they were finished with college and venturing to Indo and South Africa while I was still on campus studying literary modernism. After that it was graduate school while they were surfing just about every quality spot in Central America. By the time I was finished with school and ready to travel, my friends were getting married and having kids. My wife (then girlfriend) is probably the most lenient surf widow you’ll ever meet. She’s also a hardy traveler, but I couldn’t expect her to sit around for a few weeks watching me surf three times a day. There had to be some give and take. Our compromise was to find surf destinations with personal and/or cultural offerings. This worked out for my wife and only half for me, which come to find out is not such a bad thing.
When my wife and I traveled to Nicaragua and then a year later to Mexico, we did so during their flatter season. I knew this upon going to both locations, but my graduate school and her career restrictions limited the availability of our schedules. At the time of my Nicaragua trip, I was studying Latin American literature. I had met some of the country's best writers at a conference and my trip was as much about studying Ernesto Cardinal and Sergio Ramirez as it was surfing. Despite the mediocre surfing results of our trip, I do not regret going there when I did. It remains to this day, one of my favorite places on earth.
Mexico was a similar story with a more personal addition. A close friend of ours had moved there, met a guy, and was now raising a family. They lived in the Michoacan city of Morelia. The nearest beach was hours away. My wife and I would make weekend excursions to various stretches of coastline and the result was always the same, either dead flat or long closed-out beach break. This trip left me frustrated in terms of surfing but it's not every lifetime you get a chance to immerse yourself in a culture by living with someone for a month, eating chicken feet soup at their dining room table and modifying yourself to the pace and tempo of their lives. We also had the honor of meeting the grandfather of our best friend's children. A wonderful man who was kidnapped two years after we left. Although his grandchildren may never know him, my wife and I can at least play some tiny part in providing Derek and Lucy with some understanding of who their grandfather was. At the very least we will be able to verify all the great things they will surely hear about him.
My Hatteras trips, aside from the first one, were wildly disappointing albeit fun as hell. Both involved a van full of best friends, weed, booze, porn mags, farts—the cheapest and easiest of laughs. The surf royally sucked so we got drunk, fished, got more drunk, rode go-carts, crashed into each other in said go-carts, got banned from go-cart place, drank more, found another go-cart place, got kicked out of there, drank more, smoked more, went out for dinner at a bar with man-woman ratio of 12-1, went home drunk and horny only to beat the shit out of each other, breaking furniture and hence losing our security deposit. In essence, the vacation of every man's life.
So why tell you all of this? What's my point? Well, for one, perhaps surf travel is overrated, or at least the wave quality of your surf travels. Maybe scoring perfect waves isn't the end-all of surfing overseas. I've done some extensive traveling but only a tiny bit in search of waves. I know who I am as a surfer. It's who I am as a human being that I like to scratch and claw at when land-locking myself in a strange and foreign place. It's easy to cling to surfing as an identity, but true self-examination only comes when we step out of our element. Riding perfect reef waves at some tropical surf camp will tell me very little about myself. By way of pleasure, it will fulfill obvious aspects of my ego, but the very point of traveling in my opinion is to lose your ego and all the preoccupations by which you define yourself. Doing so can be existentially jarring. It's why many Americans prefer Epcot's simulated version of the world to actual countries. Most seek an ethnocentric self-affirmation when experiencing new places. It should be the opposite. Denying the self. Tear the self down. Strip it bare until you’re shivering with angst and uncertainty. That is the true road to self-actualization.
As a surfer, you'll never know who you truly are basing the majority if not all of your travels and experiences on catching sick waves. You'll most likely become a gluttonous pig, and a well-tanned muscular pig at that. If you're a New England surfer you'll probably wind up being one of the best surfers in a given line-up. The biggest New England standouts either grew up surfing somewhere else or were born here but moved away for considerable lengths of time only to return their prodigal talents to our mediocrity. Either way, they've dedicated themselves to surfing and hence limited their mind and body experiences to wave-riding and wave-riding alone. Look around. The best guys in the water are often times the most self-centered. They've got the biggest egos. They're the biggest wave hogs. So what's my excuse? I don't have one. I'm just an asshole. But at least I have come to know and accept that about myself. The world would certainly be a more peaceful and accepting place if more men could come to terms with their character flaws. Ditto for the surf line-ups.