One afternoon in the mid 1970s, while diving for black coral off the coast of Maui, José Angel lost his spotting boat. Angel was the principal of Haleiwa elementary school at the time and, in the words of Greg Noll, “The gutsiest surfer there ever was.” He was known to get up to some pretty wild things, like back-flipping off the lip of twenty-footers at Waimea for the hell of it. It was said that he could free-dive to a depth of over three-hundred feet. So there’s José, bobbing around in the Pacific with nothing but his swim shorts, fins and a dive knife, wondering what the hell to do. After getting his bearings and making a few estimations, he decides there is only one solution to his little problem: swim to Molokai. And that’s what he does – thirteen miles, circled by sharks the entire way. When he got to the island he walked four miles through dense jungle until he found a payphone and was having drinks with the boys that very evening. According to fellow surfer Jeff Johnson, “A little thirteen-mile swim didn’t bother him a bit. He told me the sharks started coming up and circling him. So he went down and yelled at them.”
There is something inherently slippery about the writing of surf stories. Jose Angel was a real man and he really swam between the Hawaiian islands after losing his boat, but as so often happens with the telling and retelling of tales, the details are lost, exaggerated or skewed into soft-focus. So, exactly what are we looking at here? It is narrative but not fiction, based on the truth, but sometimes too dependent on hearsay and unreliable witnesses to be journalism. Instead, it reads like a transcription of what leading academic Henry Glassie calls “folk history” whose “key figures are not great men so much as they are types, important more for their embodiment of eternal virtues than for their performance of notable deeds. They endure, yet in enduring they exhibit immense power and creativity. They make homes, win life from the sullen earth, and sweep the heavens with their poetry.” Nothing that happens in the actual act of surfing fits into Glassie’s definition of “notable deeds.” Or, as the writer Alex Wade, who has penned books on both surfing and boxing, puts it: “Riding a wave is utterly pointless.”
But from this pointlessness has sprung an influential culture that spans the globe. Brad Melekian, one of the most decorated surf writers to ever live and a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of San Diego, calls surfing a “narrative culture” and makes the interesting observation that it is principally conveyed by word of mouth. “Spend time in a parking lot,” he says. “Surfers talk, a lot.” The ‘parking lot’ in question is a place where the pragmatic duty of checking the surf takes place, but also where ideas and experiences are exchanged and cultural memory is created. This points to a characteristic almost unique in the postmodern age: surf culture, along with all the other sporting cultures it has spawned have been, until very recently, visual and oral traditions, spreading and thriving in an essentially pre-modern way through the neo-folklore of hearsay, rumour, urban legend, boot-legged videos and tall tale.
Oral culture is not always easily translated into the written word. Surfing and its sister cultures have proven no different in this regard, as they are still struggling to produce their own solid literary canon. It has not been for lack of trying. The problem – with notable exceptions like Kem Nunn’s noire-ish The Dogs of Winter, Tim Winton’s Breath, and Allan Weisbecker’s memoir, In Search of Captain Zero – lies in a certain kitschiness of execution. “Trying to explain why surfing is neat is an inherently masturbatory exercise,” says Melekian. “For some reason surfers, or surf writers, always feel the need to turn their writing into advocacy and always seem to be jubilantly exclaiming, ‘This is why surfing is super cool!’ rather than just telling an interesting story. Which is weird. Because of course surfing is neat and all that, but can we hear some interesting stories?”
Surfing, after all, is just recreation. It may be recreation developed to a very high level, but regardless of how amazing that feeling that “only a surfer knows” may be, describing it does not in itself equate to great literature. As the writer Daniel Duane once wrote, talking about surfing “becomes much like saying, ‘I masturbated today, and it felt great.’”
“From Gidget onwards, surfing has been a celluloid staple – and always to represent a hedonistic abandonment of responsibility, not something lyrical and/or dramatic. I think preconceptions about surfing deter serious writers from tackling it.”
The non-surfer writing about surfing can be even worse, says Melekian. “The only well-reasoned explanation as to why no established fiction writer has turned his or her attention to surfing is that they’d be laughed off the beach. Turns out Tom Wolfe is a pretty good writer, white suits and all. He was able to write about fucking astronauts, but remember what happened when he tried to write about some surfers at Windansea?”
Melekian’s comments evoke an interesting dichotomy between surfers and “polite society” that is also highlighted by Jamie Brisick, a writer and ex-pro surfer who sits uncomfortably on the border of both those worlds. “There has always been an ‘us versus them’ mentality that I would trace back to California in the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. “In that lineage, surfers take a proprietary stance regarding surfing and surf culture – they are suspicious of outsiders. For instance, if Surfer did a story on, say, Jeff Hakman in the 1970s, Hakman would open up to a staff writer like Drew Kampion because he trusted him, whereas an accomplished journalist from a mainstream publication may never get the access. Surf journalism has traditionally been insider and incestuous — at times to a fault. Surf journalists can lose their objectivity.”
Wade, also points a finger at the sometimes complacent journalistic culture – “Many mags persist in pushing the cliché,” – but adds that there has been something a little cynical about the way surfing has often been co-opted by wider culture. “Hollywood and the marketers got there first. Surfing was hi-jacked many, many years ago. From Gidget onwards, surfing has been a celluloid staple – and always to represent a hedonistic abandonment of responsibility, not something lyrical and/or dramatic. I think preconceptions about surfing deter serious writers from tackling it.”
“In many ways the surfing world and the literary world are sort of polar opposites,” Brisick says. “The skill set cultivated from a life on the waves is very different to the skill set necessary to write a great novel or non-fiction book.”
Exactly what this skill set entails is a matter of debate. The writer and skater Justin Hocking, who edited the essay collection Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End and is the current Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center, believes that pursuing a sport like surfing or skating can cross-pollinate with writing. As an example, he cites an essay by the long-time skater and Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, Bret Anthony Johnston. “[Johnston] talks about how insanely difficult it is to learn something like a kickflip. It takes literally hundreds of failed attempts – which is exactly the kind of persistence it takes to successfully write, edit and revise sentences. It’s hard work and it demands an almost obsessive dedication,” Hocking says. “Haruki Marukami is another author who talks about the physicality of writing — in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he draws direct parallels between running a marathon and the long haul of writing a novel. They both require superhuman physical stamina and a willingness to take big risks, and I think you could say the same about skateboarding/surfing.”
As Wade points out, there have been a number of famous writers who were also fine sportsmen, if not professional, including Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Joe Simpson. All of these men drew on an insider’s knowledge of various sports to write convincingly about them, but perhaps it would be overstating the case to say that each man was somehow moulded, or formed, by his chosen sport. Ex-pro skater and writer Scott Bourne chafes at the idea, often put forward, that skateboarding produces skateboarders as opposed to the other way around. “The thing is that skateboarding came out of me, I didn’t come out of it,” he says. “Skateboarding was just one way I chose to express myself at a young age just like now I express myself with my writing or my photography.”
His words remind us that there doesn’t need to be a great surf novel or a great skate novel any more than there need be great novels about love, war, race or religion. These things come from a writer; the writer does not come from them. “I don’t think colleges or creative writing courses can produce good writers,” says Bourne. “In actuality I think they may even destroy them. The only thing that makes anyone good at anything is experience. Now what makes people write about their experiences is a totally different question and I don’t have that answer.”
There is also a wider question regarding the compatibility of folklore and literature; it brings us back to the great Jose Angel. He didn’t need a writer to create him. Indeed, a writer probably couldn’t have thought up his like in a thousand years, much less put him in a book, published it and distributed it all over the world. Angel’s path to story-book immortality was much simpler, but in a way, much more complex. All it required was a man to live it, a few friends to tell it more or less how it happened and enough parking lots where idle chatter can somehow become lore.