The Waves Don’t Suck, You Suck

Nikki Brand
Image credit: Nikki Brand

I used to bitch about the waves. The wind’s too strong, the wind is going in the wrong direction, the waves are too strong, too big, not big enough, the sand bars are all messed up, etc. Then I spent three years watching local Nicaraguan surfers getting barreled in 3 ft. waves, dropping into 7 ft waves in the face of 40 mph offshore winds, and doing 360 aerials off of 4 ft. waves in spite of onshore winds and pouring rain. And now I get it. The waves don’t suck, I suck.

Here’s the thing with surfing; the sport is in interpreting and navigating challenging conditions. I see this all the time; people assuming that if they go to another beach, the waves will be smaller, or bigger, or cleaner, or more perfect. This would be like leaving a golf course mid-way through a round because there’s a few water hazards or sand traps. Learning how to adapt to whatever waves are out there is part of the sport. Arguably, it’s the essence of the sport (and life). Too many people miss the point and assume it’s a board sport, like snowboarding.  While this may be the end goal, this would be like saying that the point of fishing is to feed yourself. It’s about the study of all the elements that go into better understanding the conversation with the waves. It’s about understanding how wind and swell and shifting sand all come together to produce certain types of waves, then figuring out where these types of waves are going to break and why.

If you’re totally new to surfing it can be intimidating, but there are no short cuts to learning or getting over this intimidation, other than just getting out there. Obviously, you want to avoid paddling into a potentially dangerous situation and you have to know and respect your limits, but too many people go out of their way to find gentler white wash or smaller waves, all for the sake of standing up a little bit longer, straight-legged, until the board sinks. This is fine and I totally get that people want to feel good about themselves on vacation, rather than feel physically and emotionally defeated, but be honest about it. Don’t claim you’re going in search of smaller waves because it’ll be better for learning. Do it because you want to have a nice, feel-good experience; do it because you want to have a Daiquiri at lunch and not have to worry about drowning in the afternoon session. If you’re serious about learning though (and it’s not going to put your life in danger), face the stronger white wash head on and get your ass handed to you a few times. Then you’ll start understanding the waves, if for no other reason than as a means for survival. Yeah, you might not be able to pop up and stay standing for as long, but what you’ll learn in trying and failing is far greater than what you’ll learn from completing a simple task in non-challenging conditions repeatedly. And back to my earlier point, it’s not just about standing up on the board, it’s about interacting and starting to understand the waves. For me, I’m as proud of the falls I take as I am the waves I catch. But that’s because I suck at surfing.

If you’re an intermediate surfer, same rules apply. Don’t complain or refuse to paddle out just because the winds are onshore, or the waves are too small or too fast, just channel the challenge and learn to adapt. My rule of thumb is if I see someone else ripping, there’s nothing wrong with the waves, I’m just not trying hard enough. Besides, learning to surf every condition will make surfing more enjoyable, which is important given how many surf spots have less-than-ideal conditions (just talk to any surfer from Rockaway, Scarborough Bluffs, Long Beach, Tofino, or Brighton). This attitude is best demonstrated by the difference between East Coast skiers, who are appreciative and humble stewards of their sport, and West Coast skiers, who are like a bunch of wine snobs pontificating over why Napa wines will never be as good as Bordeaux wines. East Coast skiers grew up skiing in -20C weather on sheets of ice. Adapt to that and learn to enjoy it and it’s impossible to not love the sport anywhere else. Set your standards too high and you’ll always end up being overcome by Eeyore-istic criticisms and unrealistic, idealist longings. Same goes for surfing. When I see onshores, I can’t wait to get out there*, because I suck at riding onshore waves. Everyone does because it’s hard and unpleasant. But learn to love and appreciate the waves, no matter what the conditions, and you’ll forever be a happy surfer. And person.

All this just to say, surfing is awesome, but learning is a bitch. Don’t apologize for wanting to seek out calmer conditions or a more pleasurable experience, just don’t do it under the guise of finding better “beginner” waves. Just admit to yourself that you suck (like the rest of us), then figure out if you want to learn, or you want to enjoy yourself.

But don’t blame the waves.

-From the desk of Dickie Thought Catalog Logo Mark

*actually, I usually go back to bed. But I don’t blame the waves, I usually just grumble something about having to get some work done.

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