The Stain on the Soul of Surfing (page 5)

Riding a wave is a perfect opportunity to test our human nature, face up to our failings, and focus on bringing out the best in ourselves. Consider the non-violent example of Ghandi. He understood the devastating effects of an unchecked ego. For ten years he resisted becoming the leader of India's independence movement until he felt ready to be a powerful, yet selfless, man of inner peace. His autobiography, "The Story of My Experiments with Truth," is a wonderful inspiration in dealing with the subjugation of ego.

This is good news. Surf spots are extra special natural environments because they give people a chance to play with the ocean's energy. There is no cause for selfish and sometimes violent behavior over waves that belong to no one. As the legendary North Shore surfer Owl Chapman once said, "Be nice, share a wave, give a smile, say Hi". I couldn't agree more: a friendly vibe in the water makes the surfing experience complete.

So the next time you're tempted to vibe someone you don't know or take more waves than you deserve, consider things from the other guy's point of view. Only when courtesy and sharing define our behavior is it possible to fully realize the promise of surfing. Show some respect for Mother Ocean and leave your ego on the beach. If you're a visitor, the same rule applies: don't be confrontational, but at the same time, remember that you owe the ocean a lot, so don't turn tail and retreat without trying to work things out verbally. Localism is a toxic spill that has contaminated a lot of surf spots, and sometimes you have to help in the clean up.

If you really have surfing in your heart and soul, you simply have to act in the name of civility in the water, starting with an attitude of cooperation and sharing. If it's too crowded, get out of the water and wait on the beach, or surf someplace else. Battling the pack endlessly brings out the worst in people. Same goes for any territorial feelings you might have about your favorite surf spots. There is no excuse for desiring euphoria so much that violence becomes a way to get it. This aspect of surfing simply has to change, and that's all there is to it.

As Charles William Maynes recently said with reference to Bosnia and Kosovo, "Society . . . depends on deference, deference to tradition, authority, to law, to treaty commitments. If you lose that, the only thing you've got left . . . is force." In surfing, we have no governing authority, and the times we've resorted to criminal law to resolve our disputes have been excruciating embarrassments to the sport as a whole. So we must defer to each other in the water and respect the best traditions of riding waves: the traveling, the welcoming of visitors and the sharing of waves exemplified by the early longboarders. Thus, we must commit to personal treaties of peace with all our fellow surfers if any of us is to truly deserve the joy to be found in surfing.

Yelling to get waves, challenging guys to fights on the beach, pushing off shoulder-hoppers, giving strangers stink-eye, dropping in on kooks: Lord knows I've seen and done my share. But let me tell you from personal experience: a surfer's soul feels much better when you really make a pacifist attitude a part of your surfing identity. Always being generous and cooperative, especially when the waves are good, can be a long, and difficult lesson to learn: ask Nat or Johnny-Boy. But if we all behave as if our children are watching us surf, we will someday cleanse the stain from surfing's soul, and the localism and violence of modern surfing will be nothing more than sad chapter in a distant past. I may not see it, but if there's anything I can do about it, my children will.

* * * Glenn Hening started the Surfrider Foundation in 1984. He currently publishes an annual "Groundswell Society" covering ideas and projects of interest to "Renaissance" surfers. This article first appeared on Sections of it were developed for a series of essays that appeared in the second edition of Glenn Hening's Groundswell Society Annual Publication. The third edition is in the works and will be available this fall. Contact Glenn for more information at