I shape my surfboards at Jeff Hull’s boat yard in Ventura and count myself lucky to have what must be one of the most beautiful commutes on the planet – that sparkling channel in all its moods with the islands beyond like a standing invitation both on my way to work, and then home again to Carpinteria with the option to take an hour or two to go surfing. Six or eight boats under construction at any given time give a feeling of ocean-focused labor to the yard, which fits nicely with the practice of shaping. The crew are a weathered and skilled set of workmen as one would expect in the boat building profession, and we often have friendly banter about the happenings in our respective lives.
Today (Tuesday, March 9) one of the guys told me about a surf trip he made in pre-Covid times to Indonesia. We were talking about the way that working and raising a family means much less surf time generally, and his strategy of scheduling a 10-day trip each year to replace the quantity of his surfing days with quality (even if his last Indonesia trip had less-than-stellar conditions). The conversation touched on the merits of bringing the family along. It would be yet another compromise (not to mention the three, or, in his case four, extra plane tickets and meals, hotels, etc.). And the surf-all-day, drop-dead-to-sleep-at-sundown program would not likely be well received by either spouse or offspring. The upside would be the children experiencing the culture of Indonesia and the pristine beaches of the remote surfing grounds. The downside, my friend noted, is the real possibility of someone in the family contracting cerebral malaria. Of course, now that we’re living in a pandemic we’ve become accustom to living among potentially deadly disease.
My buddy’s kids are close in age to my own and like me he’s been surfing since childhood, so it’s just rolled into the rest of his life over these past 40 years or so (assuming, like me, he starting surfing at 10 years old and never wanted to do anything else, which, I’d be willing to bet, is the case – you can just tell with these guys). He said a little wistfully that he wished his kids were into surfing, but that he wasn’t going to push it on them. “You see some of these parents,” he told me, “they’ve got the kids in homeschool, and they’re down at the beach every day, like, ‘go! go! go!’ just grinding on them to be pros.” I nodded, picturing the elementary-aged kids I see, boards stickered-up like World Tour surfers. Then again, I thought, these children seem to have a healthy focus and get in the ocean every day striving to better themselves. “It’s just lacking soul,” he said of the competition-focused kids and their parents.
I nodded again, and we agreed that adventure was at the core of our surfing ideal before turning to the day’s work. One of the things I love about shaping is that although it is a complex task with multiple variables, the job breaks down to a series of repeatable steps that leave room for thinking. The solitude of the shaping bay and the long even cuts on the foam with the planer are like driving an open desert highway with the purring of a V-6 motor. So, I thought more about the notion of “soul” in surfing, and in life in general, as I pulled the trigger on the planer and made the first passes of the day.
Judging anyone’s supposed level of soulfulness is a dangerous business, since we only tend to label people we don’t really know. And even the ones we think we know are due some measure of latitude because life is challenging and most of us are doing the best we can. But I don’t mean to turn my friend’s comments about the would-be pro-surfer kids and their parents back on him, either – after all, we’re also entitled to our opinions and observations, and two different things can be true at the same time. It’s possible, for example, that there is a lot of “soul” in all that work ethic and goal-oriented style of surfing, not to mention the loving investment of time and dedication from the kids’ parents. And I’ve known plenty of supposedly soulful surfers – vehemently anti-competition and opposed to photo-documentation – who have burned out, consumed perhaps by their own negative crusade, pot smoke, beer and the ravages of time.
Surfing, in almost any form, is soulful – all that ocean energy jazz. It can be a beautiful, almost monastic approach to life when one strips away the extraneous and seeks his or her best. Surfing can also be extremely self-centered, and unless a surfer raises a family in a shack on the beach with nothing much else to do, it inevitably means leaving to get waves. For most of us this supposed surfing ideal of the beach shack is an unattainable fantasy. Where in the world would one go to live this way in the 21st century anyway? Instead, we weave and balance life’s obligations, hopefully having surfed like gluttons in our youth (thank God for those decades!) and then, also hopefully, we go easy on the people we encounter who do things differently than we would.