Why We Surf

This short story was written for SURFER Magazine in 1994, last-minute before deadline as usual, in a single sitting in a tiny, sweltering room out in Makaha Beach. This little ditty was designed to evade a more studious (and time-consuming) essay to answer the assignment of Why We Surf. I had forgotten about this decades-old story but a number of people have asked about it over the years, so here it is dredged out of the attic:

Scooter Boy Kaopuiki and Sandy

Scooter Boy Kaopuiki and Sandy


”So, why do you surf?"

     A surfer on a flight to Hawaii is confronted with that question so often that it becomes as routine as the air safety demonstration. The man in the next seat wasn’t much different than the hundred before that had asked the same thing: Late-middle-age, suit and tie, sort of a human Chrysler. One of the “Legions of the Unjazzed,” as Phil Edwards had once called the non-surfing herd.

     I’d seen millions like him on many roads to the surf: staring vacantly at stoplights in a cranberry four-door, smoke curling from a cigarette pinned to the wheel in a pale hand, Kleenex box on the rear dash, bumpersticker with some inane yet telling pun ("I owe, I owe, so off to work I go”). Always I shuddered at the thought of their lives and destinations. Not so much with sympathy or or angst, but with relief that it wasn’t me. What if it was ME that was going to some 9th-storie beehive office instead of that lonely cove up the coast? Sometimes, mired in traffic, it seemed like I was the only one going somewhere special, a place one desperately wanted to be, while those in the other cars around me all had the defeated, slumped shoulders and glass eyes of those headed to the in-laws.

     Like this man sitting next to me: what if I was on a passenger jet to Hawaii wearing hard shoes, Argyle socks, with a heart that couldn’t pump me up a flight of stairs?

     “I don’t know if I could explain it to you … or anyone,” I said. “Surfing is like one of the bright and ornate tide-pool creatures that crumble to pieces when you try to remove them from the tide-pool, and shrivel up grey and lifeless after you put them in jars of formaldehyde. Like that delicate and lovely creature, surfing has dissolved into sodden mush regardless of the medium that’s tried to depict it."

     “Well, I’m sure all sportsmen feel the same way about their sport,” replied the man, absently flipping through a glossy magazine on his lap. “See, I’m a golfer. In fact, after my meetings I’m going to play a little golf in Hawaii."

     “Sure, that might be true enough,” I admitted, “if surfing was just a linear sport that consisted of riding a wave in to shore and paddling back out, like going from hole to hole on the links. …But surfing is so much more that mere athleticism or acrobatics, more than just ‘birdies’ and ‘touchdowns.’ It’s more a lifestyle, a religion even…."

     “Hmmm. …sounds like some cultish California sort of deal,” said the man.


     “Look,” I said finally, “forget everything you think you know about surfing. The Beach Boys, beach bums, hanging ten, 'dude' this and 'dude' that — it’s all just superficial Hula-Hoop fad-bytes.

     “Now,” I continued, “when you get to Hawaii you’ve gotta go down to the beach at Waikiki. Take off the monkey suit and the hard shoes and sift your bare toes through the warm sand. Breathe the Hawaiian air deep into your lungs, and smell the salty tang of open ocean mixed with the musky scent of mountain sun showers on plumeria. Feel the sun warm your back, and look seaward to where the waves are breaking like wedges of snow skidding over turquoise, and think to yourself ‘This is where surfing was born; this is how it feels to really be ALIVE.’ If you don’t understand the attraction of surfing then, well…"

     “Hmmph…sounds like a great vacation,” scoffed my seat mate. “But what about making a living, a good job — you can’t just surf all your life."

    “Well, that depends,” I countered. “Would you rather have the cranberry Lexus or feel the sand between your toes every day? For most surfers it really does come down to a pagan hatred of shoes."

     He smiled politely and glanced down at the magazine on his lap. Conde Nast Traveler. A call-out quote caught me eye: “My husband and I recently spent a week in the Cinque Terre and the pesto was to die for…” In the lull in our chat I tried to imagine what it would be like to travel like these people in that magazine, to have no goal or purpose, no Grail to seek — to just go so you could return home and prattle on about “atmosphere” and “haute cuisine."

     Travel is the mantle of the surfing life. In our veins runs the blood of every English seadog, every Viking that yearned for new horizons. What surfers most remember when rummaging through their memories are the sensations and moods of The Hunt, not the base mechanics of waves ridden from A to B (It’s no coincidence that our most enduring slang borrows form hunting lingo — ‘safari' and ‘big gun,’ getting ‘skunked’). How that first duck-dive felt after a long, sweaty drive into Baja, the cool water combing through hair thick with desert dust. The fall mornings with Santa Ana winds ablaze with the aroma of chaparral. Stopping for thick-shakes at an Aussie milk bar on the way to Bell’s Beach. Watching a fresh Antarctic swell pound the tip of southern Africa from Table Mountain, then racing it to Jeffrey’s Bay through the long winter night.

     Finally I broke the silence. 

     “You know, the best way to describe why people surf is how you feel every time you go into the ocean. It’s a soul-fix, regardless of what the surf is like. When you get out of the water, you peel off your wetsuit and dig your feet into the warm sand. The breeze plays over your skin like cool peppermint. Every pore sings. You’re refreshed spiritually and physically, whether you are at the local beach or on the other side of the planet. Sure, there’s a lot of factions in surfing, don’t get me wrong, but the overriding universal draw for all surfers is that addiction to being immersed in seawater. And slowly, over the years, it changes your perspective on life and what matters in it."

     The man thought for a minute, seriously thought, I’ll give him that. Finally he said: “It just seems so hedonistic to fritter away your life just … hanging out at the beach. What about a career and responsibilities and paying the bills? Isn’t there more to life than … than just fun?" 

     “Sandy didn’t think so,” I replied.

     “Sandy? Who’s Sandy?"

     “Sandy was a stray dog in Waikiki in the 50s,” I said. “The beachboys there taught him to surf. He loved the beach life, and was really fond of surfing. Sandy preferred to share a board with the expert surfers, growling if someone caught a bad wave, and if he felt you weren’t up to snuff, why, he’d jump off the nose of the board and swim in.

     Eventually Sandy became a local celebrity, I went on to explain. A local celebrity. Everyone knew him. If he pawed at any door in Waikiki, he had a place to sleep. Restaurant owners would feed him, though the front door, mind you. He lived a long carefree life in the sun with his surfing buddies, owned by nobody and beholden to no one. 

     When he died of natural causes the beachboys arranged an enormous funeral at sea, spreading Sandy's ashes from a fleet of canoes in the lineup at his favorite surfing spot. On shore one of the grieving beachboys happened to be standing next to some tourists, a man and his wife from New Jersey. They were impressed by all the pageantry — the armada of colorful canoes, the lei scattered in the water, the regal mien. They asked the beachboy what was happening.

     “A funeral.” replied the beachboy.

     “Oh, my,” exclaimed the man from New Jersey. “He must have been an important person!"

     “No,” said the beachboy. “Just a dog."

     “That does it,” the man from New Jersey said to his wife. “Honey, we’re moving to Hawaii!"

     My seat mate thought for a moment or two then said, “So the moral of the story is what — that we should all move to Hawaii and live under a palm tree and eat table scraps?"

     “No,” I replied. “No, the moral of the story is that some dogs live better than people."

     The man with the hard shoes chuckled a little at that and folded his magazine into his briefcase. Our ears popped lightly as we descended towards Honolulu. There our separate worlds awaited us. For him, the world of business meetings, cruel shoes, gold, and complimentary Mai-Tais.

     For me, towards my life as a dog.