What do surfing and The Beats have in common. Quite a lot really.

What do surfing and The Beats have in common. Quite a lot really.

The idea came up impulsively, drunkenly, under the twirling lights of a London nightclub, with something like ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ on the sound system.

Pro surfers Brad ‘The Gerr’ Gerlach and Marty Thomas had caught a lift up from Newquay that morning. They’d been competing in the 1987 Hot Tuna UK Surfmasters. Next event would start in five days in Biarritz. They’d left their boards and bags with a mate who was driving to France, specifically so they could wander the city unencumbered, and follow their whim. The evening started at the Notting Hill Carnival, where they shook hips to samba and marvelled at plumed, caramel-skinned women. In an old movie theatre in Leicester Square they watched Dennis Hopper shout,“Heineken? Fuck that shit! PAbst Blue Ribbon!” At a bustling corner shop on Chalk Farm Road they ate spicy kebabs. It was after midnight, in Camden Town, when they found the nightclub. They were so inspired by the bright lights of the city and the tender faces on the street and the tangy sauce slathered on their kebabs that anything seemed possible. They were leaned back on a sofa that reeked of beer. The music was loud.

“Let’s ride bikes to France,” said Gerr.

“Huh?” said Thomas.

Gerr spoke up. “I said let’s ride bikes to France. We go to the shop first thing tomorrow, buy a pair of badass bikes, and hit the road.”

Thomas took a gulp of whisky. “Great idea!” he said.

And that was that. They found a hotel, stayed up till almost sunrise studying maps and imagining open road. In the morning Gerr flipped through the Yellow Pages and found a nearby motorcycle shop. They entered in street clothes, backpacks slung over shoulders. They exited in helmets, leathers, boots and gloves. Gerr straddled a midnight blue Suzuki GSXR; Marty Thomas a white Honda 750 – all paid for on Gerr’s AmEx card. Only then did Gerr confess that he’d never really ridden before.

They caught the ferry to Cherbourg and travelled south along the coast, stopping for brochettes de la mer at brasseries and sleeping in roadside hotels. They rode under star-haunted skies, through tunnels of pine trees, along fog-shrouded beaches with excellent surf that they vowed to revisit. On a long straightaway between Nantes and La Rochelle, adrenaline gushing, they got their bikes up to 130 mph. Gerr compared the rush to dropping down a fifteen-foot face at Pipeline.

* * *

I can’t remember who passed it along to me, but I will never forget the first time I read On The Road. I was nineteen and had recently joined the ASP World Tour. With twenty-one events on the calendar, we jumped planes as if they were buses. We were in a new country every couple of weeks. On The Road helped me to make sense of this peripatetic lifestyle. I was not alone in my confusion. The ping-ponging from ecstasy to misery; the heady revelation that I could sever ties to my past and step into a new, higher self; that anxious, sad feeling of no longer knowing where home is – all of it was shared by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

And the timing was good. In the late-1980s, pro surfing was in transition. The defiant, countercultural spirit that had permeated the 1950s and 1960s was giving way to a new brand of professionalism. ‘Top Ten’ surfers employed Olympian training methods. Two-time world champion Tom Carroll signed surfing’s first million-dollar contract, and travelled with a manager. Quiksilver had recently gone public.

I was thrilled to see the sport gaining legitimacy, but not at the expense of its soul. The surf world that had captivated me in the late 1970s was made up of wild characters and barefoot hedonism. Now it seemed to be leaning in the direction of tennis or golf. On The Road connected me to surfing’s essence. It was not about sponsorships or contest victories; it was about hopping in a car with friends and chasing swell up the coast.

* * *

It’s not a huge jump from On The Road to The Endless Summer, the seminal 1966 surf film. In the book, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty travel back and forth across the US, mostly by thumb, sometimes on trains and buses. They chase girls, puff weed, get down with the locals, and groove to bebop in smoky jazz joints. In the movie, Mike Hynson and Robert August fly to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. They surf down giant sand hills, ride curious waves that break both towards and away from the beach, and introduce the ‘sport of kings’ to Ghana. Both stories are about a search: Sal and Dean seek freedom, self-determination, God; Mike and Robert try to find the perfect wave, which for many surfers is synonymous with God.

There are about 20,000 things to like about surfing, but perhaps the greatest is the travel factor. The idea that we start at our local break, wander down the road apiece, venture into the next town, county, or state, and eventually go abroad is essential to the sport. In the 1950s and 1960s the Mecca was Hawaii. Throughout the 1970s all kinds of new locales were pioneered: Fiji, Central and South America, Indo, Morocco, etc. Travel became even further embedded into the surf ethos when, in 1976, the IPS – later to become the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) – was introduced. Whether you followed competitive or free surfing, you couldn’t pick up a surf mag or watch a surf movie without being transported off to somewhere far-flung. This has been standard ever since.

It’s hard to imagine surfing without travel. So obsessive is the wave-riding buzz, so demanding is it to live at nature’s beck and call, that it often consumes entire lives. Travel is what rounds surfers out. Travel is what feeds the surfer mind.

* * *

After reading On The Road in 1986 I talked about it with my tour mates. Brad ‘The Gerr’ Gerlach had read it, and cited it as a major inspiration. Same with Derek Hynd, the eccentric surf journalist and coach. Derek went on to tell me about a recent road trip he’d taken. At the Buondi Instinct Pro in Ericeira, Portugal, an Aussie pro got knocked out of the event in an early round and wanted to fly home immediately. The only problem was that he had a rent-a-car that needed to be returned to Bordeaux, France.

“Hey Derek,” asked the Aussie pro. “Want to drive my car back to Bordeaux for me?”

Bordeaux is 750 miles from Ericeira.

“Yeah. Why not?” said Derek.

Derek had recently read an article in National Geographic about the “world’s most polluted city”. It was located 3,000 miles away, near Transylvania, Romania. Fuelled by strong coffee, insatiable curiosity, and the adventures of Sal and Dean, he hit the road. He stopped only to eat, use the restroom, and nap. After what felt like a week of driving he arrived at the soot-covered industrial wasteland, marvelled at it for a short while, then got back in the car and headed to France. Essentially, he drove across Europe and back in just a few days.

It’s hard to imagine a world without On The Road. Few books of the Twentieth Century have done more to inspire wanderlust. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met never graduated from college, but they travelled widely, threw themselves at experience, lived with great passion. Or, as Kerouac writes, they were “open to anything, ready to introduce a new world with a shrug”.

* * *

On a recent trip to Sydney I met an On The Road detractor. Not the book, but the idea that travel is the ultimate empathy-breeder and horizon-expander.

“The paradigm has shifted,” argued Ben. “Now the thing is to embrace the local. I’m talking about the artisan movement. I’m talking about making things that serve the immediate community.”

Ben and I were at a café in Bondi Beach. He wore navy blue Vans, oatmeal chinos, and a turquoise V-neck American Apparel T-shirt. He had a scruffy dark beard and sipped a flat white.

“The world has become so homogenised,” he said. “And there’s so much interesting stuff right under our noses. My girlfriend and I play this game. I blindfold her, spin her in circles, and have her pin the tail on a map of Sydney. Wherever the pin lands, we go and spend a Saturday there. We’ve been to places we’d never go – Valley Heights, Gilead, Bringelly. Beforehand we do a lot of research. ‘Urban hikes’ is what we call ’em.”

Ben went on to say that within a fifty-kilometre radius of our homes, there is much to be discovered. I appreciated his sentiment. At the same time, Ben was a guy I’d met randomly in a café, 16,000 kilometres from my home.

Jamie Brisick writes, surfs and lives in New York. His memoir, tentatively titled My Whole Life is This Wave, should be out Spring 2013.