First reaction: This guy is INSANE! Second reaction: I must find out all ABOUT this!
Thus came to pass my introduction to the world of big-wave surfing.
Now, you need to know, I do not swim. If I fell overboard from a boat which for some unknown reason I was on, I could probably not swim well enough to save my life. I do not like getting my hair wet (well, it’s three feet long, it must be washed and set on rollers and dried under a salon dryer for two hours...). I do not like putting my face into any more water than a shower stream or my two cupped hands. I do not like getting water up my turned-up nose or in my pink and shell-like ears.
At college, I had to pass a swimming test before they would let me graduate. I said not gonna happen in my lifetime or yours and they said oh okay, just take the course twice and we’ll call it even. (I still have dreams that I forgot to go to the pool and they take back my degree...I have the same dream about math class, but that’s another story.)
So I took the course twice. By the end of the first installment, I could do a very passable sidestroke (kept my face and head out of the water, and which maybe I could still manage if I ever fell off that boat I was talking about). At the end of the second installment, they said fine, just jump in once at the deep end and you’re outta here. I tell ya, it took a loooooong time for me to force myself off that pool edge and down into it. After some very nasty seconds, I came right back up, and as I hauled myself dripping wet out of the pool I immediately resolved I would never be in water higher than my ankles again. EVER. And I haven’t.
Anyway, as I said, I saw this photo and I immediately wanted to find out more. So I bought a big-wave surfing DVD (the amazing and gorgeously photographed “Riding Giants”, directed by "Dogtown" 's Stacy Peralta), and I was, not to put too fine a point on it, hooked. I now own upwards of a dozen DVDs and out-of-print VHS tapes, and I can’t be bothered watching anyone surf anything smaller than 30 feet, and I can’t stop watching.
Which, for the compleat hydrophobe that I am—and I’m a Pisces, too!—is pretty amazing.
The DVDs are mostly about this reef break on Maui, Peahi (unironically nicknamed “Jaws”), and another one in Tahiti, Teahupo’o. Which means they’re also mostly about Laird Hamilton.
Hamilton (the guy in the photo) is held to be the greatest big-wave rider of all time, and watching these movies, it’s hard to disagree. Even I, who know practically nothing about it, can see that this guy is different from everybody else. He’s amazing to watch and also interesting to listen to. What I find even more remarkable than his performance is seeing the reverence in which other surfers hold him. No jealousy, no envy, just “He’s better than we are and we’d be idiots if we didn’t acknowledge it and that’s all there is to it.”
It’s a very pleasing thing to observe. None of the stupid macho posturing you get in team sports, though I’m sure some surfers have postures of their own—all those aqueous thugs called "locals", who beat the crap out of poor gormless idiots who dare to try to surf “their” break. But I’ve really only mostly noted—reading about it, watching it, talking to surfer friends—a refreshing respect and, in the case of big-wave riders, a genuine humility. The wave is bigger than they are, and so is Laird—and these guys are world-class surfers themselves.
And they’re not stupid, either. Like everybody else, I’d bought into the dumb blond surf junkie stereotype (when I thought about surfing at all, that is, which wasn't very often). Well, these guys aren’t all blond and they are, every single one of them, far, FAR from dumb. They talk knowledgeably about ocean-bottom geography and the physics of wind patterns and surfboard hydrodynamics—board-shorted, suntanned professors. They’re all "watermen", generalists in every form of ocean activity, but they're specialists, too: some of them surf only big water, or only one particular break, while others find new ways to ride (Laird's hydrofoil boards and stand-up paddling with a huge oar on an even huger board, underwater bodysurfing).
They admit it’s an obsession and even an addiction; that they can’t NOT surf, that when the waves are flat and they can’t go out, they’re still thinking about it. (Their ladies must be the most understanding women on the planet...) They realize how completely ephemeral their achievements are: you give an amazing wave the ride of your life, you kick out and it’s gone. Your stage, your page, your canvas—the place where you perform your art and perfect your life, all vanished in a matter of seconds, and you left staring after it. If it wasn’t filmed there’s no proof it ever happened.
The big water is also sloshing with testosterone: women are only beginning to get into big-wave surfing. Which seems more for physical reasons than psychological ones: most of the guys who ride big waves are big guys—if the wave you’re going for is sixty feet high, it helps to be a six-footer yourself. Yet to my eye, at least, there seems to be little antler-rattling. It’s beyond that.
And, of course, it’s dangerous beyond belief, so there’s the adrenaline-junkie aspect figuring in there somewhere too. Big-wave riders have made their kind of surfing a team sport, no longer the solo romance of one man and one board against the swell. They need a jet-ski and driver to whip them into waves too big to catch by hand-paddling the old-fashioned way. And another ski and driver to hang out watching in case anything goes wrong and can run in and rescue them. And often a support boat, and a helicopter and pilot, ditto and ditto.
Which has many “purist” surfers up in arms: it can’t possibly be REAL surfing if you need all that help to catch your wave and get yourself safely out of it. But the fact remains that if you didn’t have all that help, you wouldn’t get anywhere NEAR these things. So it’s all tremendous fun to watch, you have no idea, and the surfers who do it all say it’s tremendous fun to actually DO.
For me, though, where it gets REALLY interesting is when Hamilton and his posse speak of the ocean, and the wave itself, as a living being. Which they do on almost every single DVD (“The Ride/The Day”, “To’: Day of Days”, “All Aboard the Crazy Train”, “Riding Giants”, etc.).
They call her “She.” They make offerings. They clean up the beaches. They salute the wave with respect and honor. There used to be prayer chants in the old Hawaiian religion, to call the wave, to call the wind that makes the surf; if these surfers aren’t doing that, and I have a feeling some of them are, they’re certainly doing the next best thing to it. And they feel it matters that they should do so. So, for them, it does.
I have no idea why this so powerfully appeals to me. Sure, it’s pleasant watching hunky bronzed gods slide impressively over the face of the raging waters. But that’s not it. It seems to refresh my spirit in some psychic or psychological way. Maybe it’s a way of exorcising my water fears and dislikes at one remove: I’ll never do this myself, but seeing how other people handle it does something on a cellular level.
The other amazing thing is that watching these DVDs actually got me signed up to a gym membership for the first time ever. Yes! It did! I, who never lifted a finger (except the middle one) in the direction of physical fitness since college, am now hitting Crunch three or four times a week. Weird, really. But watching "Riding Giants" for the twentieth time, I suddenly thought Well, I could NEVER be in the shape that these people are in, but I COULD be in SOME kind of shape.
So now I have a regular training circuit...I can't believe I'm actually typing this...of weights, recumbent biking (7 miles a day at six minutes a mile, working up to more and faster), yoga (which I've practiced all my life, and which has kept me very bendy; I can put both palms flat on the floor up to my wrists and can touch the floor from the bottom step of a flight of stairs---as can my 85-year-old mother), Pilates stretches and a big finish of two miles on the treadmill. And soon I'll be moving on to those cool machines.
Hey, I know it's not Laird Hamilton's workout, but it's more than I've ever done in my LIFE, my doctor is thrilled with the shape I'm in, and I owe it all to "Riding Giants."
Obviously a sign of the Apocalypse. But at least I'll be fit when it happens!
Still, the fact remains that I’m never, EVER, going to surf anything wetter than the Web. You won’t be hearing any stories from me about how I paddled out on a board and popped right up and carved my way to the shoulder straight down the line on my first wave (I can’t believe I can now discuss all this in surferspeak, either...or that my dear friend Kathleen Q had a serious surfing past and relationship history herself and didn’t think to mention it in the 16 years we’ve known each other!). But the combination of technique and power and spirituality will continue to fascinate me.
Beats the living HELL out of football. (We'll discuss my adventures with Major League Baseball another time...)