Last week I picked up a heavy bag of long handled sticks and spent a few frustrating hours zigzagging my way around a large swathe of perfectly manicured green grass. I was attempting to play golf, although I’m not sure my swing and general technique allows me to cite what I was doing as ‘golf’. Yet despite my frustrations, my wildly (sometimes dangerously) inaccurate drives down the fairway were given nothing but positive encouragement. “Ooohs”, “ahhs” and “nice shots” were liberally banded about. A desperately scrambled hack from within a bunker was awarded a gentle round of applause – in fact the shot that sent the ball entering the bunker was even deemed to be unlucky. It wasn’t bad luck. It was the simple fact that I’m rubbish at golf, but still, the sentiment was nice. I should have been laughed off the course, had my clubs thrown in the lake and told never to show my face around these parts again. Instead, I’m going back next Thursday.
All of which led me to think that this would never happen in the water. Positive words of encouragement are rarely offered to the others in the line-up. Surfers, as a rule, are miserable bastards.
When was the last time someone paddled into the line-up cheerily greeting every fellow surfer they passed on their way to the take off zone? Anyone casually welcoming newcomers with a friendly smile and gentle wave will certainly invite comments questioning if they have recently reconsidered their ‘lifestyle choice’. If you see someone you recognise, a nod might suffice, possibly a grunt and a quick exchange about: a) last night’s antics, and b) what the waves are doing, but after that, they’re on their own. And if you don’t recognise the person paddling towards you, well, even eye contact might be pushing it.
So why is this? If you told a non-surfer that the line-up is such an unfriendly place they’d probably question your motivation for being there in the first place. But I bet the majority of us wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s clichéd and unoriginal to say, but sitting in the ocean waiting for the waves to roll in is a peaceful and absorbing pastime. Being at one with nature is a terrible phrase, over-used, misunderstood and usually irrelevant. Except that, in the surf, it kind of makes sense. And just because you’re not yelping at the person next to you it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an inherent connection with them. In fact, if it came down to it, I bet the bond you have with those in the water is greater than exists on any generic golf course around the world. If the shit hit the fan there’s comfort in knowing that any one of your fellow surfers would help you out. And you know this because you’d the same for them in an instant.
I think this is why to the majority of surfers claiming a wave is still considered a bit gauche. I get that in the pressure cooker of competition there is genuine relief in having landed an air, and that claiming is simply a way of expressing that elation. But to the majority, raising two euphoric hands to the sky is unnecessary. A one-way ticket to looking like an idiot.
In my experience there are a few exceptions to the norm of instantly adopting the ‘surf-poker-face’. When you’re lucky enough to score an empty line up with just a handful of your best friends, the mood is impossible to contain. Anchoring just outside an un-named, un-ridden playground in deepest Indo’ sees the no yelping rule go out the window; powerful carves are applauded and even unsuccessful maneuvers are afforded a little praise. You can’t keep a lid on perfection. The other instance seems to be when the surf gets big. Properly big. Big enough to be dangerous. The adrenaline levels hit new heights, excitement starts to fizz, and smiles begin to crack onto even the most hardened of weathered faces. There’s an even more defined togetherness, a real sense of we’re in this together and to suppress all emotions in these situations is impossible.
So perhaps ‘miserable’ is the wrong word? Maybe: ‘quietly self-assured?’ ‘Unassuming?’ ‘Humble?’
On second thoughts, let’s stick with miserable bastards.