AAAAHOOO! The first term found in a book on “surfspeak." is reported as the sound made by a surfer when up and riding a wave, when watching another surfer catch a hot ride, or when signaling others that an outside wave or set of waves is approaching. In addition. I have it on good authority that on rare occasions newborns have been known to make this as their first sound. When they do. the new mom is solemnly congratulated.
“You have,” the doctor says, “just given birth to a surfer.”
I was not a born surfer but came to images of myself flashing over blue water, the sun overhead, when I was nearly 16. That year surfers loping down the halls of my high school incited in me the purest envy. They were not the scholars on their way to Ivy League colleges nor the championship jocks ready to sign professional contracts; but at an age when style is everything, the surfers had mucho beaucoup.
And if adolescence is indeed a time of greedy conformism, I had it bad: I wanted the surfer’s golden sun-quenched tan. I wanted the surfer’s blond hair. I wanted to wear midnight black sunglasses and smear greasy white zinc oxide over my nose and lips. I wanted a wet suit you had to peel from your body like a banana skin. I wanted faded trunks so baggy and loose they looked in danger of falling off my lean teen flanks.
When John Benton's runaway surfboard smacked him in the mouth, his purple, massively swollen lips were to me as tragic, as honorable, as my father’s WWII shrapnel wounds: like Benton, I, too, wanted to suffer for the sport. I wanted to live at the beach and drive a Volkswagen with a surfboard strapped to the roof as perfect as a slice of creamy moon. I wanted to buy a round-the-world airplane ticket like the surfers in the 1966 movie Endless Summer who traveled the globe in search of the perfect wave. I wanted it all.
Unfortunately I was wary of water and sure some shark — ravenous and lurking— had my number imprinted on its pitiless primitive brain. The summer I turned 16, when I wasn’t bagging groceries to pay for my round-the-world airline ticket, I was at Mission Beach, sitting on the white sand, gazing out upon the water where I dreamed myself to be. To the casual observer, a black kid from Logan Heights may have seemed poor surfer material. But so what? In a country where even I might grow up to be president (so I was told), transformation into a surfer seemed to me small potatoes. Surfer style was what I valued, and it was here I set to work.
I shampooed with peroxide only to find myself, the next morning, standing under a canopy of hair the color of Tang. I slathered on Man-Tan, a tanning cream that promised a Florida glow overnight but stained my already brown skin a sickly shade of pumpkin. I cut my hair and waited while I faded back to normal, then I tried again. I got sunglasses like those Clint Eastwood wore as Dirty Harry; but the smear of white sunscreen looked, on me, redundant. Wet suits were clammy; and while white boys gave style to faded oversized trunks, my mother said I looked like I couldn’t afford better. As for the vintage woody, I got my father’s bulky brown pickup when he wasn’t using it.
If all wasn’t exactly right at the moment, I figured it would be put to order once I got my surfboard. My birthday was coming up, and I hoped my parents would accede to my pleas. They, however, exercising the cruel practical wisdom of parents, suggested I buy my own. That way, they said, it’ll mean more. I did not get a surfboard for my 16th birthday, but that same summer I happened to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with its powerful last paragraph. (“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast...”) By the time I closed the book, I’d turned my back on the ocean. From then on I would look to the grittier urban scene with its disaffected counterculture for my lessons on style and cool.
Still, I have remained a surfer wannabe, and in the intervening years, time and what might be called cosmetic breakthroughs have effectively made molehills of the mountains that once stood in the way of my surfer transformation. Take hair. Today, Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls regularly proves that for 60 bucks paid to the trained beautician, blacks can now boast a helmet of hair as platinum as any sex goddess, as bright as a snow cone. Tans are easy too. A burgeoning African American cosmetics industry assures me a tan of the same darkly delicious hue as one of Spoon’s barbecue ribs. Zinc oxide now comes in designer tints; wet suits, too. Oversized trunks are no longer oversized on me; and I bought my own Super Beetle to schlep around in. While there remains the peril of shark attack and drowning, for a “valley," the landlocked person for whom surfing holds a mysterious allure, in the end a surfer wannabe like me need only master the language.
It worked for Kerouac’s characters who wore black turtleneck sweaters and said things like “cool” and “groovy”; it worked for hippie wannabes who offered dopey smiles and uttered niceties like “make love, not war”; for gangsta wannabes who spew a litany of dirty words, it works for them too. Today’s surfer wannabe has surfspeak.
In 1991 a 30-year-old named Trevor Cralle did what Roget did with his thesaurus and Webster with his dictionary. He edited Surfin’ary, a compilation of surfing terms and surfspeak. No longer need you worry about blistering under the Coronado sun, getting beamed by a board, fighting over surfing territory at Santa Cruz, or undergoing exostosis (a bony outgrowth in the ear canal from exposure to cold water and wind causing deafness); no longer expect to suffer countless wipeouts, near-drownings at Waimea, or shark sightings in the Red Triangle. Now you can stay high and dry and still be a dude; lust learn to talk like a surfer. But beware. Surfspeak is notoriously parochial — a Babel tongue formed of local communities. What ranks you in the in-crowd at Sunset Cliffs marks you as out-of-it just a few miles up the coast. There is also the problem of pronunciation. For example, “sacred,” a term coined in San Diego to refer to something really cool, is pronounced SAKE-ee in Point Loma. Finally, like the ocean it seeks to describe, surfspeak is constantly shifting. And few things more clearly mark the despised gremmie, the odious hodaddy, than dated or misused surfer argot.
What follows, in alphabetical order, are a few words and terms — some dated and found in Trevor Cralle’s book, and some so current they have never before been published. Gathered from interviews up and down the coast, with surfers and watermen, professors and photographers, they have been selected to offer a wide view of surfer culture with, as its totem, a lone, near-naked body on a board skimming over blue water. Surfspeak may not be what poet T.S. Eliot, in another context, called a vital development in language, but that's no reason to bag it. As any poet knows, one word — the right word — and a world’s mystery stands revealed. Cowabunga!
aerial n. Any maneuver during which surfer and board leave the water and return intact.
aggro adj. Australian slang for aggressive behavior, usually aggression in the water
aloha n. Hawaiian word for (1) hello (2) welcome (3) good-bye. Usage: "I went under that wave and wondered if this was aloha." (4) love (5) Salutation used by surfers everywhere.
amped adj., adv. Overdoing it, overenergetic, making loud or sudden movements. Usage: "This spot is totally amped out."
arc (1) v. To turn in an arc-shaped line on a wave. (2) n. The line of a turn in a wave.
awesome adj. (1) Great, fantastic,,, as in "totally awesome." (2) Implying great respect for a given situation or physical achievement.
axe n. The lip of a wave, axed v. To be knocked off the surfboard by the wave’s lip.
Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher, asks rhetorically what is the source of the world’s suffering before going on to say it lies in the fact that we “hesitated to speak.... It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”
Undoubtedly Bachelard would approve of any attempt to repair the world’s suffering, namely to name the obscure and mysterious elements that make up experience. In the case of surfing, such naming must come from the authentic source—the surfer. If the surfer spends his time searching for the perfect wave to ride, I reasoned that I should search out the perfect surfer to interview. But where to begin? With surfers at the beach too busy getting in and out of the water to talk about how and why they say what they say, I was forced to make random phone calls, hoping to find a surfer or someone who knew a surfer willing to talk to me. One of those calls was to the Clairemont Surf Shop. A salesman, Troy Camiglia, answered the phone. I explained my dilemma. Camiglia said he was a surfer and would be glad to speak with me, but he was on his way out of the country.
“Maybe I can talk to you when you get back?”
“Sure,” he said, and went on to recommend a book on surfer language, the Cralle book.
I thanked him, said I looked forward to speaking with him on his return, and asked, by the way, where was he going.
“Bali,” he answered.
bail v. (I) To abandon a ride, usually by diving or jumping off the board. Usage: “I really bailed.”
bareback adv. Surfing without a wet suit; same as TRUNK IT or SKIN IT. Usage: “I went out bareback yesterday.”
barney cuts n. Sharp cuts from barnacles.
barrel n. (1) A 1980s term used to describe the breaking motion of a perfect wave; same as PIPE (1960s) and TUBE (1970s). (2) A hollow channel formed inside a good wave when it breaks and curls over, as in “wide-open barrel,” or “sunlit barrel."
beached adj. Stuffed from eating. Usage: “I’m so beached, I can’t move.”
beef n. What happens when you eat it really bad. Usage (while watching a surf video): “Dude, check out these hot beefs.”
benny n. A person who dresses in the latest surf fashions and is hip on all the local surf lingo but neither owns a surfboard nor knows how to surf.
blind adj. Riding backward on a surfboard. Usage: “Did you see him ride that last one blind?"
blue juice n. A wave with a lot of energy.
boil n. Circular turbulence caused by tidal surges over shallow reefs.
bone yard n. The area where the waves break. Also known as GRAVEYARD, IMPACT ZONE, SOUP BOWL
bootie juice n. Seawater that accumulates in neoprene booties during a session, mixes with stinky feet, possibly urine, and empties out smelly and lukewarm.
bottom turn n. A turning maneuver executed following the takeoff and the drop to bring the rider back onto the wave face.
broly adj. Being cool, nice, or cooperative. Usage (if someone lets you grab a wave): “That was completely broly of you.” Or (if someone is uncool): “You’re being fully nonbroly.”
buck v. To fight one'»way out through the surf.
burly adj. (1) Used to describe freezing cold water. Usage “It’s burly out there." (2) Sometimes used as a substitute for GNARLY.
butt floss n. A California term for a G-string bikini, butter n. Girls.
butterfly n. A stance on a longboard where the surfer forms a V position by squatting down on the nose of the board with head down, arms straight back and out, and fingers outstretched.
canopy n. The curved overhead crest of a wave.
carve v. (1) To maneuver by digging the rail of one’s board into the water while turning, as in “to carve a turn." (2) To surf excellently. Usage: “He was carving.” (3) To perform constant, controlled maneuvering on a surfboard.
catch a wave v. (1) To ride a breaking wave on a board or on some other surf craft or with your body alone. (2) To view the world from a different perspective, as in the line “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world,” from the 1963 song “Catch a Wave” by the Beach Boys.
catch air v. This happens when both surfer and surfboard fly off a wave. Usage: “I totally caught air on that one.”
caveman, campfire squat n. A bent-knee, squatting-down stance on a longboard with arms stretched out in front as if being warmed over a hot fire.
chalk people n. People who live far from the beach.
chapped adj. The way you feel when you miss a perfect wave.
choicemundo adj. (1) Said of anything that’s cool. (2) The exhilarating feeling you get when you tube through a wave and flip over its back like an ocean pizza.
clean-up n. (1) A wave or set that breaks outside of most of the surfers, causing them to lose their boards, thus “cleaning up” the area; a preleash term. (2) clean-up set n. Large waves that catch surfers off guard, sweeping them into shore.
Clinton wave n. White-water.
clocking in the green room A long ride inside the hollow part of a wave. (Same as ROOM TIME) Usage: “I saw you clocking in the green room out there.”
cloud surf n. The biggest waves that one can remember.
“‘Coconut,’" said Trevor Cralle, introducing himself. “Or, if we’re being formal,” he added, laughing, “‘Dr. Coconut.’”
The playful associations offered by his nickname fit Cralle (pronounced Crawl-EE) well. (He managed to fit his nickname into his second book, a traveler’s companion of quotations called Flinging Monkeys at the Coconuts.) Cralle spent four years pulling together his dictionary of more than 3000 surfing terms. While happy for a wide readership, his book, he says, “was by and for surfers. It is a serious attempt to recall the surfers’ history."
coming off the bottom v. To crank a bottom turn and shoot back up to the top of the wave.
committed adj. When a surfer decides to turn or take off on a wave; when there’s no turning back.
cook, cooking v. (1) To surf aggressively, to make fancy moves. Same as RIP, HOT DOG, LACERATE. (2) (Of waves) To offer excellent surfing conditions.
crank a turn v. To lean into a turn at a radical angle.
cripple n. A derogatory term for a KNEEBOARDER. Implied in the question, “What’s the matter, can’t you stand?”
cyclops n. A grumpy old longboarder who bums everyone and never looks back.
The D-word. “Drowning,” I confessed to Cralle. “I worry about that, and sharks. I guess I’d say they were what kept me out of the water and stopped me from becoming a surfer.” He smiled, eyes of a periwinkle blue and two dozen big white teeth. An all-American swimmer, Cralle fears neither.
double, doubling v. What happens when a wave jacks up in size.
double bubble n. When a fast outside wave overtakes a slow inside wave, creating a larger and faster compound wave.
double stoked adj. Twice the stokage — without the caffeine.
drilled v. Used to describe a bad experience, usually with a rough or uncooperative wave. Usage: “Man, that wave really drilled me.”
drop in v. (1) To slide down the face of a wave immediately after it is caught; to take off on a wave and ride from the top straight to the bottom. (2) To take off on a breaking wave in front of a surfer already bunched, thus cutting the other surfer off. (3) Surfing’s most offensive behavior, to paddle and then begin a ride on the inside of a wave someone else is already riding. Usage: “Hey, you just dropped in on me!” dry tube n. A tube ride in which the surfer is completely enclosed and emerges without the wave collapsing.
dude n. (1) A surfing enthusiast, usually male, females are sometimes known as dudettes. (2) Another surfer who is your friend. (3) How surfers refer to the other guy, usually because they can’t remember his name. Usage (various, depending on inflection or emphasis): “Dude!” (Hello.) “Hey, dude.” (What’s happening?) “Hey. Dude." (Come over here.) “Killer, dude!” (Awesome.) “Later, dude.” (Good-bye.) “Yo, dude" or simply, “Dude.” (Said to get someone’s attention.) If your friend has locked himself in the closet, you might say, “Dude?!”
eat it v. (1) To fail off one’s surfboard; to WIPE OUT or GET WORKED. Usage: “I ate it somethin’ fierce.” (2) To eat the sand or a piece of your surfboard.
eat the cookie v. To wipe out on the white water
eat the rocks v. To get crushed into a rocky shoreline, with or without a surfboard.
eggroll n. A raw novice; same as EGG, KOOK, and RUBBER NECK. There’s a heavy pecking order in surfing; thus, according to the Surfin'ary, an “eggroll” is anyone who isn’t as good a surfer as the speaker.
el rollo n. 1) Originally a hot-dogging longboard maneuver in which the surfer lies prone and rolls with the surfboard a complete 360 degrees. Today, it is more commonly identified as a bodybuilding maneuver performed in small surf to exit a wave.
el spontanio n. A squatting position where the surfer looks back between the legs, ordinarily while riding at the nose of the surfboard. In a pure El Spontanio, the fingers must be interlocked behind the surfer’s back. The term is a corruption of the Spanish el espontineo (the spontaneous one).
el telephono n. A hot-dog riding stance that looks roughly like a bullfighter’s classic stance or like someone trying to be thin in a telephone booth crush. The term is a corruption of the Spanish el telefono (the telephone).
Endless Summer, The Bruce Brown’s 1966 feature-length film, which followed two surfers around the world in their search for the perfect wave. Brown originally planned to fly roundtrip to South Africa from Los Angeles, but it turned out to be $50 cheaper to fly around the world, so he went for it and produced what many consider to be the all-time classic surf movie.
epic adj. Classic; something of grand proportions, as in “epic' conditions,” “epic surf,” “an epic day."
“Europe has something like 30 different surfing magazines,” said the editor from Surfer, one of four guests on a call-in show offered on a Northern California public radio station. The subject was surfing, and I’d caught it on my car radio earlier in the day. “When you compare this with the fact that there are only three ski magazines in Europe,” the editor said, “you have a sense of this sport’s growing worldwide popularity.”
I heard neither the magazine editor’s name nor that of the next speaker, a lawyer from Surfers Environmental Alliance, who offered a startling figure. “I count a million surfers in Orange County alone!” he said. “On the water these numbers translate as a competition for resources, namely waves."
A third person took the mike. “Each wave,” he said, “is like a diamond — precious.” I caught my breath, repeating the phrase like a mantra: “Each wave is like a diamond — precious.”
The speaker was Daniel Duane, 28-year-old author of Caught Inside. The man had returned a kind of wonder to the discussion. His book, a recently published account of his year spent exploring the California coastline on his surfboard, was described as part personal history, part cultural history, and part natural history.
The gradations in the ocean’s blue had tipped him off; not genius, but an intimate knowledge of place, an eye adapted to particular minutiae. Still, nothing earned, gained, or earned in a public way, just his secret discipline, his private pleasure.
I had been driving up the coast since early morning. I now roared into a gas station, jumped out, and jammed money into a telephone. When I at last got through to the station, a recording device assured me that a program assistant would be with me shortly.
Coincidence. Synchronicity. Was Daniel Duane, I wondered, my perfect surfer? A recorded announcement explained that callers might experience a delay as there were often several callers waiting.
While I remained on hold, it happened that the vision of a diamondlike singularity of the waves, the solitary pleasure of the surfer, were being dispelled by Karen Cody, the only woman on the panel and a professional surfer. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, she said surfing was a physical sport, that it was intimidating on the water where everyone was on their own. “Competition surfing,” she said, “has led to more aggression in the water.” The language of surfing, it was generally agreed by the panel, had taken on a new tone. Words like “flash,” “ripping,” and “shredding” suggested that the myth of the solitary, easygoing surfer, at one with the ocean, was just that — a myth.
The panel agreed that the surfing magazines, having promoted the sport (with its wealth of surfing merchandise) into a billion-dollar industry, were in a unique position to address the violence on the water.
evening glass n. The calm, glassy surface of the ocean in the evening after the wind has died down.
excellent adj. Great, fantastic, exceptionally high quality, as in “totally excellent,” “excellent waves,” “most excellent.”
explosive adj. Used to describe a style of surfing characterized by high-speed cutbacks, blasting off the tops of waves, and throwing around lots of spray.
extraction operation n. Sending in a game fisherman to catch a rogue shark.
extreme adj. radical; pushing the limits while surfing, as in “going to extremes.”
face n. (1) The unbroken wall, surface, or nearly vertical front of a wave between the crest and the trough. (2) The desirable part of a wave to surf, as distinct from the white water.
fade n. A move similar to a stall, in which a surfer slows down either to go deeper into the tube or to avoid colliding with another surfer on the same wave who is blocking the exit track.
faucet nose n. A phenomenon, according to Surf-in’ary, that occurs when you come in after surfing, bend over, and the whole ocean pours out of your sinuses. The condition is caused by having water forced up your nose during a wipeout.
fear adj. Used to describe scary waves or scary women. Usage: “The waves are fear, it’s so good out there.” “That girl was fear."
filthy adj. Hot, unreal — in other words, totally great. Usage: “The waves were filthy out there.”
first rider up Refers to a competitive surfing organization rule that gives priority (right of way) to the first surfer to stand up on a wave. Other surfers must yield to that person.
floss, bun floss n. A thong-backed bikini. Same as “butt floss,” “butt thong.”
flow v. There are several meanings, but the most interesting is that of getting free stuff from a surf shop. Usage: “Flow me some wax.” “Flow me a leash with that board.”
Forum was the name of the radio program. While I waited, checking my watch as the minute hand steadily climbed, the four guests painted surfing as a huge commitment of time and energy, one in which individuals, “lone wolves,” sought an adventure just beyond the urban center. They agreed that surfers often became willing slaves to “this thing with its own rhythms.”
When the screener came on the line, I shot at her certain critical facts that were (a) that please! I couldn’t be put on hold anymore, (b) that I was at a pay phone at a gas station, (c) that I had driven up from San Diego for the purpose of interviewing people about surfing language, and coincidentally (and certainly irrelevantly), (d) that just that morning I’d seen a statue of the Duke, the Father of American surfing, (e) that the show’s subject was of immediate interest to what I was writing about, and, finally, that I was at the point where I absolutely had to speak with Daniel Duane before the show was over. The program assistant apologized, saying today’s program had turned out to be a surprisingly popular one, but she would put me through next and to have my question ready as the hour was running late. Thanks a lot, I said. Then she was gone and the program host was back, announcing the topic for the next day’s show.
full-on adj., adv. Complete, entire, total. Usage: “I had the full-on wipeout today.” functional maneuvers n. In a surf competition, any of certain well-defined maneuvers that can be scored; for example, a floater, cutback, or tube ride.
“I’d like to thank our guests,” ended the announcer. “I’m sorry that we have not enough time for other callers...”
gel n. A flake. Usage: “Did you see that guy trying to pick up my girlfriend on the beach today? What a gel.”
get air, getting air v. To maneuver the surfboard so that both rider and board leave the surface of the ocean. Usage: “Hey, dude, check it out. Did you see me get air?”
get piped v. To achieve a tube ride.
getting a place wired v. To figure out how the waves break at a specific surf spot.
gitch n. Referred to in Surftn'ary as half girl and half bitch.
glasshouse n. A smooth ride inside a tubing wave. Usage: “Did you see me pull into that glasshouse?” Also called “greenhouse.”
glassout n. A day when the surface of the ocean is unruffled and ideal for surfing.
glue foot n. A surfer who almost never falls off the surfboard.
gnarly adj. (1) Treacherous; same as HAIRY. (2) A dramatic term for a wave with a real mean streak. (3) A term for monster surf, your gnarlyness: The proper way to address an important dignitary or good friend.
gremlin a (1) A beginning surfer. (2) A selfish, undesirable pest who is constantly in trouble and constantly creating trouble for fellow surfers, grinders n. Big waves, grommet n. A young surfer-type person, intent on maximizing beach and in-the-tube experiences; a trainee surf mongrel on the way to full “surf nazi” status.
guava n. (1) a grommet word for cool. (2) A yummy-tasting tropical fruit.
gyro, gyro wanker n. A derogatory term for an overdisplayed surfer — someone who does a lot of wasted arm flapping while maneuvering on a wave.
gyro-spaz n. A derogatory term for someone who wrecks a wave by ripping, slashing, and tearing it up into tiny bits; someone who really screws up a wave.
hair n. Nerve, the courage to take off on enormous waves. A surfer who is exceptionally brave or crazy is known as “having hair.”
half men n. A derogatory name for “kneeboarders” because they surf while kneeling instead of standing.
hammer n. What descends on a surfer when the wave lip comes over and there’s nowhere to go.
hammered v. To be totally immersed in an uncomfortable situation. This baptismal spinning, tossing, and gasping for air while trying to find which way is up is the price the surfer pays for trying to ride juicy waves.
hang loose A Hawaiian term for “everything’s cool,” usually conveyed by a hand signal called the shaka. Usage: “Hang loose, brah.”
hang ten v. To ride so far up on the nose of the board that the toes of both feet are extended over the front end. This involves not only nose riding but also abandonment of the usual diagonal or one-shoulder-forward stance.
haole n. A Hawaiian term for a white visitor, resident, or mainland surfer. Not necessarily a bad thing to be called, depending upon who says it.
He was quite serious. 'It's the most beautiful place on earth,’ he said... It only took him five minutes to get out that he was the first person to surf this place, that he'd been surfing here for 30 years, and that back then the reef had been quite different, much better. And best of all, there’d been nobody else here, ever no fishermen, no weekend sun-bathers, no mountain-bike geeks, and most important, no surfers. ‘We used to park a mile up the highway,' Vince said, ’and walk down here, just to throw off the valleys. Only about ten guys even knew this place existed, and whenever some geek parked too close — this was in my wilder days — we'd smash their headlights and leave" a note on the windshield telling them where to park and how to walk down here. We held on to this place five years longer by doing that, five more years before it finally got overrun.' — (Caught Inside. A Surfer's Year on the California Coast)
hodad, hodaddy n. There are many definitions for this derogatory term for a nonsurfer, a stranger to the lineup, or anyone the surfers don’t like.
hondo n. A derogatory term for a nonlocal, or anyone living inland from the beach. Usage: “Did you see all those hondos at our break today?"
hoon n. Someone who tends to compensate for a lack of su rfing ability with eye-catch-ing performances in the car park.
houge (HO-ghee) v. To scarf down food after surfing. Usage: “Let’s go houge."
I continued on my way north.
I had missed my chance to speak with Daniel Duane. Sure, I had a full day ahead with an appointment at Stanford and my interview with Trevor Cralle (reported earlier), but I was now glum, my mood dark. My vision of the surfer as the lonely iconoclast atop a board, skimming between ocean and sky in quest of the perfect wave, had gone sour. As the radio panel had made clear, not only did surfers show a marked sense of in and out groups and territoriality, but much of their language was a catalog of aggressive and derogatory terms aimed at those unlike themselves. The image was that of a moody, aggressive male dumbly intent on having his own way. If I was ever to find my perfect surfer, what would he be like?
And there was something else.
“I don’t think you’d have anywhere near the same number of surfers if everybody had to go out by themselves,” one of the two surfers I’d earlier interviewed had said. He said that surfing was something of a spectator sport, that surfers enjoyed watching each other and being watched.
“And they like spectators on the beach,” the other had said.
“They sure do," agreed the first.
I knew that surfers, when describing themselves riding waves, borrowed terms from stage directions. (For example, a wave breaking such that a surfer must turn to the left to stay ahead of the curl is called a “left"; breaking the other way, it’s a “right.") Such directions echoed a theatrical event, implied an audience. And so what? I certainly was not troubled that a football player or a dancer should wish to be seen executing moves for which they have long trained. Why should I mind that surfers might get off being watched?
impact zone n. The area where a wave first breaks, thus exerting maximum force.
in the curl Refers to surfing inside a barreling wave; getting “tubed.”
inland invader n. Anyone who travels to the beach from deep inside the interior.
inland squid n. A derogatory term for a surfer who doesn't live near the beach.
inlander n. A derogatory term for anyone who isn’t lucky enough to live within walking distance of the beach.
insane adj. Really great, usually used to describe the surf. Usage: “It was totally insane.” “It was an insanely hollow wave.”
inverted air n. A bodyboarding maneuver that involves turning upside down while catching air.
island pullout n. An exit from a wave, identified with the first surf riders from Hawaii to popularize the sport in California and elsewhere; performed by grasping the board’s nose, swinging the stern shoreward, and pulling the board back through the wall of the wave. Syn. HAWAIIAN PULLOUT.
jack, jack up v. (1) (Of waves) To suddenly gather water and gain elevation when moving from deep to shallow water. Usage: “The wave really jacks upon the inside.” “Look at the wave jacking.” (2) The motion of a wave when it suddenly lifts up just before breaking. Usage: “I saw you smack a jacking six-foot lip.”
jam v. To block the ride of another surfer.
jams n. Very colorful swim trunks, almost knee-length and usually loose to the point of bagginess.
jell-o arms n. limp limbs from excessive paddling.
jet v. To make a quick disappearance. Usage: “Let’s jet.”
jonesing v. Craving — how a frustrated surfer feels when begging for a great wave.
juice n. (1) The energy or power of a wave. (2) Big, powerful surf. Usage: “Those were pure juice.
junk, junk surf a Choppy waves created by local winds. When the surface is chopped up, the approaching swells are harder to ride.
Just imagining there existed a “perfect surfer” seemed, on the face of it, a concept as ineffable as the perfect wave. But like the wave, I was able to list certain specifics to define my surfer.
I expected it would be a male (there are vastly more men than women on the water), that he would love the sport and be able to articulate why, that in the end there would be that mysterious something to distinguish my surfer from all others.
I’d seen a pair of surfers riding in at Huntington Beach. The sky had been still smoky with dawn. Atop that dark chill watery lip, clothed in black wet suits, they appeared and mysteriously disappeared, flickering almost, as they sailed toward shore, each beautiful, each heroic. Or so Joseph Campbell might say.
A popular mythologist, he defined the hero and the heroic quest. Campbell might say surfing (with its demands and dangers, with its requirements of skill, grace, and courage) is the stuff of the hero and the heroic quest. That the surfer does no more than chase wave after wave in order to ride them lifts his particular quest into the realm of the existential. The beauty I admired in the young men at Huntington Beach lay sublimely in the fact that their early-morning activity carried no value except for those engaged in the act and for those, like me, watching them. Surfing—as utterly useless as a pirouette, a well-executed dive, a painting that touches us — is beautiful because it is “useless,” because it awakens the soul of actor and audience.
A few blocks away there stands a bust of a real-life hero.
Duke Kahanamoku. His bronze bust, a faithful rendering of the handsome “Father of Surfing,” stood spotlit at the Huntington Surfing Museum. Just as with the Elvis Presley stamp, the artist chose to show Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Huliko-hola Kahanamoku (1890-1968) well past the moment of his first triumphs — as a 30-year-old Olympic gold medalist in the 100 meter freestyle in Stockholm, Sweden, and Antwerp, Belgium — and certainly long after he had popularized surfing in California (on a visit in 1911) and introduced surfing to Australia at Freshwater Beach, Sydney (in 1915).
“I have never seen snow,” the Duke said, “and do not know what winter means. I have never coasted down a hill of frozen rain, but every day of the year where the water is 76, day and night, and the waves roll high, I take my sled, without runners, and coast down the face of the big waves that roll in at Waikiki. How would you like to stand like a god before the crest of a monster billow, always rushing to the bottom of a hill and never reaching its base, and to come rushing in for a half a mile at express speed, in a graceful attitude, of course, until you reach the beach and step easily from the wave to the strand?” (Waikiki Beachboy. Grady Timmons, 1989)
The Duke’s bust, the gleaming bronze an eternal tan, stares through glass doors onto an empty parking lot. This irony is repeated in Waikiki where the statue of the Duke is placed to gaze out, not upon his beloved beach, but busy Kalakaua Avenue where tourists pass to and fro, shopping.
kick five n. A longboarding maneuver in which the surfer goes out to the nose of the board, hangs five with one foot, kicks the other foot out in front of the tip of the board, and then shuffles back.
kick stall n. A hot-dogging maneuver in which a surfer shifts all of his or her weight to the tail of the surfboard, causing it to stall, and then quickly shifts forward again, retrimming the board.
killer board n. A board on a wave with no rider.
killing it v. Surfing well. Usage: “You were killing it out there today."
the kind n. A Southern California expression for the best.
kook or kuk n. A rank beginner; a know-nothing; someone who is generally blundering, out of control, and in the way or who gets into trouble because of ignorance or inexperience; a lame surfer.
Professor Will Leben is a robust, supremely physical man with startling, pale blue eyes. The former chair of Stanford University’s linguistic department, he threw back the door to his office, as easily prepared, it seemed, to tackle or invite me in. His office had gunmetal gray bookcases, filing cabinets, a brown oak desk, masses of books, academic papers, and a chalkboard covered with words from the African tongues on which he is a world authority. The office was in chaotic disorder because Leben, dressed in cotton slacks and a T-shirt, was packing for a Fulbright year in Africa. He had squeezed me into a schedule crammed with last-minute details.
“When African Americans lived in the South,” I said, “our slang borrowed from its rural roots. When we moved to the urban centers during the Great Migration and shed our overalls for sleek bebop suits and pointy polished shoes, our slang reflected that change. (During this transition, to insult someone was to call them ‘country.’) Today,” I went on, anxious to get to the point, “rappers use a tough urban language to reflect their world view. Surfers, the group I’m studying, borrow from an environment that, like the ocean, is always shifting.” I handed him a copy of Surfin'ary. “Is there anything more you can tell me about their use of language?”
l.eben, standing amid the dregs of a distinguished career, glanced through the book. (Was it then that I jotted down a line from the jacket of Benjamin Whorfs Language, Thought and Reality: “The structure of a person’s language is a factor in the way in which he understands reality and behaves in respect to it....”” Leben handed back my book and cleared his throat. “All over the world,” he began, a lecture style second nature to him, “groups invent specialized languages to set themselves apart from others. For example, siblings have special ways of talking to one another that their parents and friends won’t understand. Urban youth in America, Africa, and probably around the world develop their own terms for things that make them ‘hip,’ both from their own view and from the point of view of outsiders. Surfers use language in the same way.”
From what he’d seen in the book, Leben said, it seemed that surfers’ language had much to do with waves and surfboards and surfers’ lifestyle. “This is understandable,” he said, “but some of the terms that surfers apply to surfing seem to have been extended to apply to more general concepts. For example, while the noun 'lineup,’ as the place in the water where surfers gather to pick up waves, is relatively clear, ‘live,’ a word surfers used as an adjective and which was probably first applied to waves, is now extended to mean ‘great’ or ’awesome’ in general. At the same time, many of the terms are appropriated from the standard language and given specialized meaning. For example, among surfers, apparently, to use ‘lunch’ as a verb means to be tossed about by waves, as in ‘I got badly lunched out there.’ ”
Leben checked his watch, suggested I look up something on hidden and secret languages, then showed me to the door, apologizing for the brevity of the visit. On the other side of his door, I checked my watch. I’d been in his office 11 minutes.
mack, mack out v. To eat enthusiastically and without inhibitions, usually after a surf session. Same as SHOVEL or MOW.
macked v. To be smacked by a big wave.
make waves, making waves v. To catch a wave and ride it. (A California bumper sticker reads, Surfers don’t make waves, they ride ’em.)
Malibu Barbie n. Label for a girl with the IQ of a Barbie doll. Usage: “She’s just a Malibu Barbie.”
manson n. A psycho surfer.
maxi-pad cowboy n. A derogatory term for a body-boarder so called because the bodyboard resembles an absorbent feminine pad in shape.
meat wave n. A carload of valleys.
milk, milking v. To get the most out of a wave, as in "milking speed and energy from small surf.”
miragey adj. The effect when a wave looks huge from far away but is actually quite small by the time it reaches you.
moke, big moke n. A local heavy surfer dude who may or may not be aggressive or in a good mood.
monkey hop n. Surfing straight out to the fiats.
Moping around the university with its Spanish-style architecture and palm trees did not seem something I wanted to do. Having anticipated a longer meeting with Leben, I’d set my interview with Trevor Cralle in Berkeley for late afternoon. With extra time on my hands, I headed south for Santa Cruz. There, I found on the beach, on the ground level of the former riding the wave.
OTA Optimum tanning angle — positioning one’s body in direct line with the sun to absorb the maximum amount of sun rays.
outrageous, outrageous to the max adj. Incredible; said of unbelievable waves, food, or women.
pass v. To sleep. Usage: “Are you gonna get passious?” peak n. (1) The highest point of an advancing wave, marking the spot where the wave will begin to spill, break, or plunge. (2) A wedge-shaped wall of water that throws out as the wave breaks.
pearl, pearling v. (1) To catch or bury the board’s nose in the water; usually occurs on a takeoff and is caused by the steepness of the wave or because the surfer has put too much weight toward the front of the board. Usage: “I pearled on that one.” (2) To nose the surfboard under a wave.
perfect wave n. A wave that files off, or peels, with mechanical perfection. The movie Endless Summer involved a search for the perfect wave.
“Performance artists” — this was the term I was searching for! In the middle of an interview with a couple of young surfers and a skateboarder at Emerald City, a Coronado store filled with sporting gear and clothing, I’d found myself thinking that I’d come upon a band of performance artists.
Jake Wonders, 22, platinum blond and somewhat shy, was a store manager. Tall, lean Rob Rucker, 21, was the yarnspinning Huck Finn of the group. Twenty-year-old Josh Ball, as tall as Rucker but heavier, was all silence throughout the interview. His presence lent support to the others.
“Do you remember your most exciting surfing moment?” Wonders hesitated. Not so Rucker. He lacerated the interview, recalling with mounting enthusiasm his three-day holiday in San Miguel where “epic waves” were lined up, “killer waves” in which he “snapped” and did “round houses.”
“What,” I asked, “was your most terrifying moment?” “I was surfing off the tip of Point Loma — called the Donut Holes — when something bit cleanly through my leash,” said Rucker. He paddled madly, aiming for a nearby boat, sure that a shark was about to claim him.
“How long," I asked, imaging myself in his place, racing for my life, “did it take you before you could go out again?” He shrugged and said almost right away, and I thought to myself that this was exactly why I’d always been a surfer wannabe and never a surfer. You have to be crazy.
It was then that I thought to call them “performance artists.” After all, I’d come here for a story and the three of them were pleased to give me one. I did not imagine they lied, only that they were pleased to give me what I wanted. And why? Because the three of them, fresh, even innocent, were still young enough to presume that the world would remain always like this: that their youth and its conceits were lasting, that their golden days were forever.
I asked what would be the greatest insult delivered to them as surfers.
“A dude calling me a kook!”
“...or a Barney!”
Rucker added another major full-time insult: surfers telling him to get out of their water. “All surfers should be bro’s,” said Wonders. “We need to learn how to share the waves.” With the interview coming to a close, I asked for their three favorite surfer words. Wonders paused. Rucker was right on it. He snapped his three right off.
“Chicks! Chicks! and Chicks!” he crowed.
peroxide, hydrogen peroxide n. A bleach; commonly used in the 1960s to achieve instant surfer blond.
pet the cat, petting the cat v. The motion of a surfer who crouches down and strokes the air or water to get through a section^ doesn’t create speed and has no functional purpose, but everyone does it.
pipe n. (1) The inside curve of a wave that creates a tunnel. Same as “tube,” or “barrel.” (2) Short for “pipeline.”
Pipeline n. Probably the most famous wave in the world, located on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, between Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, off Ehukai Beach Park.
plugged adj. Used to describe a crowded surf spot. Usage: “The place was really plugged.”
pocket n. The portion of the wave inside the curl.
pocket surfing n. Riding in or near the curl — fundamental to the modern short-board era because the short-boards of today are incapable of maintaining their momentum out on the shoulder of a wave.
pod v. To pass out. Usage: “He’s poddin’.”
pour over v. What a wave does when it breaks.
primo adj. Top rate. Usage: “The waves are gonna be really primo-bitchin’ today.” prosecuted v. To get wiped out to the fullest extent. Usage: “Guy got prosecuted on that wave.”
pseudo n. Someone who only pretends to be a surfer.
pumping down the line v. To work one’s board along the wave to extract the most energy out of a fast ride.
punch through v. Tonegotiate an oncoming wave.
quakers n. Big waves.
Quasimoto n. A hot-dog riding stance invented by Mickey Munoz; performed riding on the nose of a surfboard in a crouched, hunchback position with one arm stretched forward and the other arm stretched to the rear, queber n. Geek.
Queen Mary n. A board too big for the rider, one that is usually very large and buoyant.
Quotes (some usable, many not) accumulate in the course of writing a long piece. I gather them from the fiction and nonfiction, the poetry, the self-help books, whatever I happen to be reading. Even if I cannot use them, they mirror the theme or some aspect of it. When I reread them later, they serve as a barometer of my moods. Some of the quotes I jotted down while preparing this article include:
If you are reluctant to ask the way, you will be lost. — Malay proverb
Repetition is the only form of permanence nature can achieve. — George Santayana
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. — Albert Einstein
Nothing happens for the first time. — Norman O. Brown
If he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share. — Charles Olson
I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry. — John Cage
The world being illusive, one must be deluded in some way if one is to triumph in it. — W.B. Yeats
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall That wants it down. — Robert Frost
A permanent state of transition is a man’s most noble condition.
A wave breaking such that a surfer must turn to the left to stay ahead of the curl is called a “left”; breaking the other way. it's a “right.” —Juan Ramon Jimenez
It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul... then I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can. — Herman Melville
This article began as an inquiry into language. As I did background research, as I accumulated my quotes and later reviewed them, only then did I find I’d begun to explore the consciousness of someone struggling with loss, at home with repetition, at ease with mystery and a permanent state of transition, someone who finds his personal peace at the sea: I’d set out in search of the perfect surfer.
rack flyer n. A surfboard that you forget to tie down on the roof rack of your car and that becomes airborne when you drive away.
radical adj. (I) Heavy-duty, extreme, outrageous. (2) Pushing the limits; going for broke. (3) Used to describe a difficult surfing maneuver or an outrageous surfing style.
rage v. To go off (refers to a surfer). Usage: “I fully raged on that wave.”
rager n. A good surfer party. Usage: “That was a real rager last night.”
raize v. To bother someone or give them verbal abuse. Usage: “If that guy raizes me one more time, I’m gonna rub Vaseline over his wax.”
rappin’ adj. Used to describe a wave as it pours over. Usage: “The lip was fully rappin’.”
rat holing v. When somebody drops in on a wave from behind another surfer; distinct from SHOULDER HOPPING, when they snake in front of the surfer.
The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life by Thomas Moore, bestselling author of Care of the Soul, makes a strong case for a culture dedicated to enchantment and our “need to live in a world of both facts and holy imagination.”
According to Moore, when a story touches our hearts, as when a mythic moment seizes us passionately, we feel caught in a spell — “a sign of being enchanted.” Moore believes that if a person can “find a deeper story to tell, one less familiar and worn, less useful in maintaining the status quo, then something might happen that we call change....
“We are all bundles of stories that are interlaced, embedded in each other, and connected to stories of greater scope. One story, even an autobiographical one, only hints at other stories that could be told, and in that we are like an onion: peel off one story and another appears, until it is no longer possible to tell a story.”
reentry n. A maneuver in which the surfer shoots to the very top of a wave, briefly skates along the top of the lip just ahead of the curl, and then drops back down along the face. The most difficult reentry is to go past vertical in ascent or to recross the path of the original vertical ascent when descending.
releasing and reengaging rails n. Bending and flexing the legs to exert pressure on the surfboard, allowing for ultimate maneuvering in critical situations.
rhino n. (1) A bodacious wave; the ultimate surfing experience. (2) A board over seven feet long and weighing over 15 pounds.
riggin n. A surfer who won’t stop talking.
right of way n. The first rule of surfing etiquette — that a surfer already on a wave and riding has the right of way, especially if he or she is on the inside closest to the curl. Anyone else coming into the wave should respect this right.
righteous A term for some-thing that’s right on, killer. Usage: “Righteous, dude.”
ripe adj. Used to describe a perfect wave waiting to be surfed.
rodney wave n. A wave where everyone drops in on you and you get no respect; named for comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
room time n. Time spent in the tube.
roost v. To bail — fast. Usage: “Let’s roost.”
rubber arms n. (1) The term for a surfer who doesn’t paddle hard enough to get a wave because it’s too large or too critical (2) The feeling you occasionally get in your arms when you’re paddling for an unusually large wave and you’re not quite sure you want it.
rule v. To dominate the waves. Usage: “Let’s rule, dude.”
S-turn n. A move intended to keep the surfer nearer the pocket, like an abbreviated cutback and fade, followed immediately by a turn in the original tracking direction.
sandruff n. Scalp full of sand, like dandruff.
sand flea n. Someone who avoids the water and just stays on the beach.
sandwichable syndrome n. Getting crunched by a wave.
sano adj. Used to describe very, very clean waves. Usage: “It’s sano out there.”
sardine n. An old term for shark.
scam v. To hit on someone; to look for and hopefully get together with someone you are attracted to. Usage: “Look, he’s totally scamming.”
scareamundo adj. scary, schooling tuna v. To dial in on some butter. Usage: “Let’s go school some tuna."
see-through wave n. A murky-free, clean curling wave that is backlit by the sun.
session n. Any time spent surfing. Also called a “surf session.”
shine, shine it, shine on that v. Forget it now. Usage: “Let’s shine this place." “We fully shined it.” “Shine on that. Come to the party.”
The Sibling Society is Robert Bly’s attempt, like Thomas Moore, to recapture his place as a bestselling author. Bly’s earlier Iron John, an inquiry into the struggle contemporary western man faces in establishing his masculinity, sold exceedingly well, not least because its author was given major credit for creating that part of the men’s movement. Bly’s first book argued little that was not, by the time of its publication, well known (and perhaps better reported elsewhere). The premise underpinning The Sibling Society is equally limited, easily described in the space of the book’s jacket. “What he shows us is a culture where adults remain children and where children have no desire to become adults — a nation of squabbling siblings.” His premise is not especially new or substantially argued. But Bly is a poet, first and last, and while it seems that only once in the book does he choose to remind us of that fact, in just one paragraph he renders something of the wonder, the enchantment, that Thomas Moore speaks of. He takes adolescent turmoil — the necessary revisionist estimate the teenager must make of the mother and his mother-dominated childhood, how he must step out into the world, how he attends to his first experience of sexual love (“a beauty so deep”), and finally the heady exaltation that comes from his walk in the world. (I am reminded of the feet that surfers call the ocean “Mother.”)
He sometimes inhabits two feeling states simultaneously: mourning and being in love. His mourning is for his lost mother it is deep, wordless, the grief of an exile. At another moment, he is at home on the earth for the first time. Trees and their leaves are astonishing; children move like walking jewels; the face he loves has a beauty so deep that he knows it is divine in some way no one else understands; he understands classical music; he experiences exalted emotional states.
shoot v. To ride a wave, as in “shoot the curl.”
shoulder n. The smooth hump of a breaking wave that moves ahead of the curl but has not yet become a wall.
shoulder city n. Waves that are shoulder-high.
shoulder hopper n. Someone who insists on sharing a wave, thereby breaking the rule of one-wave, one-surfer, a surfer who cuts in on another surfer's right of way.
slash n. A radical, carving cutback, performed on the steep face of a wave.
slice v. To carve a turn or cut through a wave; to run over another surfboard.
snake pit n. A wave full of shoulder hoppers.
sognared v. When a dog that’s been playing in the ocean shakes off on you; to get sprayed. Usage: “I got sognared by my dog.”
soul surfer n. A surfer who surfs for the joy of it; a noncompetitive surfer.
sound v. To deliver harsh words to an unwelcome surfer. Usage: “That dude totally sounded me.”
sparkle factor n. The diamondlike glistening of the sun’s rays reflecting off the ocean, especially in late afternoon as the
surf A total of 189 nouns are listed in The Surfin’ary, including those in which the word is used as a prefix.
tag v. To leave one’s signature as graffiti under a bridge at a local surf spot. Usage; “Yeah, we tagged our names over by the river mouth.”
taking gas , v. To have trouble, especially the kind that leads to a wipeout; to get trapped in the curl of a wave and lose one’s board. Usage: “I saw you taking gas out there.”
talking to the seals v. Vomiting. Usage: “I got seasick this morning and started talking to the seals.”
tanker n. A very old and heavy longboard.
tanning center n. Skin-cancer ward.
taste adj. Said of fine-looking waves or babes. Usage: “Oh, dude, that’s taste.”
ted adj. Bloated from eating too much. Usage: “Dude, I’m ted.” Get tedly: To eat a lot. Usage: “Let’s get tedly.”
ten over n. A riding stance where the surfer is so far forward that both feet extend over the nose of the board. Also called “hanging ten.”
thick / thin adj. A characteristic of some waves; applies mainly to the wave lip, which may be said to be “really thick” or to “peel thinly.”
Three summer movies in a Sunday entertainment section of the New York Times had surfing as a subtext. In an ad for Escape from L.A., the star, wearing wet suit and eye patch, clutches a submachine gun while he rides a surfboard. A crashing tidal wave sends him across the page, straight at the viewer. Elsewhere, in a promotional story for a gross-out comedy in which live cockroaches crawl out of the actor’s mouth, Joe of Joe’s Apartment is photographed carrying a surfboard. In the third movie, the artsy film Basquiat, the actor who plays Jean-Michel Basquiat is reported as gazing up at the New York skyline where the image of a lone surfer riding a wave appears behind the buildings; as Basquiat’s drug habit worsens, he looks up to find the surfer wiping out. (A week later A Very Brady Sequel, skimmed into theaters afloat an ad campaign picturing a clutch of smiling Bradys balanced on the longest of longboards.)
Surfing thus proves itself a widely regarded and durable metaphor for daring courage, youthful insouciance, catastrophe, and even mindless entertainment.
throwing the brains n. When male surfers expose themselves in front of their friends.
TK adj. Totally killer. Usage: “TK, dude.”
toast adj. A term for California surfers who are “burnt out," usually from too much sun. Usage: “Look at him, man, that dude is toast.”
tool, wave tool n. A surfboard.
tube n. The tubular or barrel-shaped form of a breaking wave created by the plunging lip throwing out in front of the advancing wall.
tube radical n. A ride during which the surfer is completely covered up and emerges out of the tunnel before the wave collapses.
turn turtle v., n. Flipping the board upside-down and hanging on underwater as the wave passes over. Usage: “I had to turn turtle.”
turnpiked v. What happens when you get stuck on a wave and can’t get off and are forced to take it all the way in or face a heinous paddle out through tons of white water. Usage: “I just got turnpiked. It took me 15 minutes to get back out there."
A U-turn, and I headed back down the coast. Mine had been a long day. Having passed through the surfing territory of Northern California known as the “Red Triangle” (the offshore area between Monterey — including Santa Cruz—the Far-allon Islands off San Francisco, and Tomales Bay in Marin County), watching pairs of surfers, here and there, riding indolent waves, I was returning home. (The Red Triangle boasts the largest number of reported great white shark attacks in the world.)
In a single day I’d watched early-morning surfers riding in, missed speaking with Daniel Duane, stood outside one surfing museum and visited another, interviewed Will Leben of Stanford University, and had a late lunch with Trevor Cralle, the book editor, in Berkeley. It was still sunny when I took the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. The water of Tomales Bay had a fiery aspect, a burnished sparkle playing off an indifferent tide. A handful of surfers, their silhouettes blackened, sat astride their boards in the water. The scene was pierced with a forlorn beauty. In another context, Seamus Heaney put it well:
You were our night ferry thudding in a big sea....
Suddenly the feelings of a vague distaste that had haunted me throughout the day lifted. So what if the surfer jealously guards his portion of the ocean or if he accords women and nonlocals unsparing derision? The surfer was a myth amalgamated from America’s twin fascination with the idea of a disappearing frontier and the image of the lonely individual in heroic struggle. Neatly packaged with California’s blue water and bright golden sun, it was then exported to the world on a grand scale. Did it matter that the surfer should act out some of the country’s less admirable attitudes? Was he not a citizen of his time and a child of his land?
I made the U-turn and headed back down the coast toward San Diego. I still had one person left to interview. It had been Troy Carniglia who, leaving for Bali, had suggested that I read Cralle’s book. At the time we’d talked also about the myth of the dumb surfer, about Carniglia’s own mixed feelings about speaking for attribution. When I explained that I hoped to find out what lay behind the myth, not to support it, he’d agreed to speak to me.
ultimate cannon n. A very fast big wave board; the fastest of the gun class of surfboard.
Uluwatu n. The world-famous left-ride surf spot off the southern tip of Bali, Indonesia. (I would later learn that Troy Carniglia surfed here as well as at G-Land, the abbreviated term for Grajagan, cited as one of the world’s hottest surf spots for lefts on the island of lava in Indonesia.)
underboarded adj. Using a surfboard that is too small for the size of the waves. Usage: “He’s way underboarded."
unlocal n. “Nonlocal.” As the slogan reads, “No unlocals.”
up adj. Said of the surf when it’s big, or good for surfing. Usage: “Surfs up!"
urinphoria n. The deliciously warm sensation that comes when one’s elimination process fills one’s wet suit with its product. Same as “internal heating” and “peter heater.”
VAIL Valleys Against Ignorant Locals, an organization formed in the early 1980s by surfers in the San Fernando Valley who “got pissed at local fags who think the ocean is only for people lucky enough to live by it.”
val n. Short for “valley” — a person who lives inland, val-ish adj. Having “val” characteristics. Usage: “That’s so valish.”
“ ‘Valley Go Home!” I’d been told to look for graffiti of this sort along the California coast, and especially in Santa Cruz, but I’d not seen any. I probably hadn’t looked in the right places. But having seen bumper stickers with “Native Californian” and “Welcome to California! Now Leave!” it struck me that the problem (if it was a problem) was not only among surfers, or even Californians. The problem had to do with the myth of America as a vast and empty continent. It was vast, all right, but no longer empty. The surfer, in myth, had taken us to a place where it was still empty — only to discover it was in danger of being as crowded as everywhere else.
vert n. Short for “vertical,” as in “going beyond vert.”
vertical adj. Refers to the perpendicular orientation of a surfboard relative to the ocean horizon, achieved while riding up to the top of a wave; getting vertical.
vibe v. A derogatory term for giving someone, usually a nonlocal, the silent treatment. Usage; “She vibed me.” getting vibed, bad vibes, vibe of the session, n. The atmosphere created by how surfers react to each other, whether by sharing waves and taking turns or hogging waves; yelling at one another or not, etc. The assortment of people in the water at any given time changes the vibe. According to Trevor Cralle, the attitudes around surf contests always reduce the vibes, never enhance them. .
volcano n. A surf knob with an open wound that, because of constant knee paddling, is never allowed to heal.
wag n. A jerk, loser, nonsurfer.
waiting room n. The area beyond the breakers where surfers wait for incoming waves.
walking v., n. Moving about on a surfboard.
wanks v. Sucks. Usage: “It wanks.”
wannabe n. A neophyte or inexperienced surfer; a former hodad.
waterman n. A surfer, or anyone else, who participates in water sports. They are distinguished from surfers in that they often move from surfing into other areas relating to water. I met three watermen while writing this piece.
“I wasn’t much of a surfer,” Tom Keck admits today. A tall, likable man with the air of an aging hippie, he continues to surf in middle age. He is a professional photographer whose shots are included in this piece.
John Elwell is a cannonball of intense activity. A retired teacher in the San Diego school system, he began surfing almost 50 years ago. Handsome, with the nattiness of an Englishman, Elwell’s uniquely personal and historical perspective on the sport is offered in stentorian tones because he suffers from “surfer’s ear,” exostosis. Elwell maintains an especially deep affection for Bob Simmons, a Southern California surfer with an engineering background who made major contributions to surfboard construction and who provided the link between the redwood board and the modern surfboard in the 1940s and early 1950s. He died in 1954 while surfing at Windansea.
“Simmons changed the face of surfing!” says Elwell, speaking loudly. And he is right — at least according to the Cralle book, which notes that Simmons played a central role in the transition to lighter-weight boards (he experimented with different materials like sandwiching balsa, plywood, and Styrofoam together), in the use of fiberglass (Simmons was the first to combine lightweight materials and fiberglass), and in the use of foam in a surfboard (the farseeing engineer was the first person ever to try foam in a surfboard — polystyrene foam in 1950).
Tim Searfus was my third waterman and very nearly my perfect surfer. In his mid-30s, he has retained that clear gaze and straight-talking enthusiasm that characterizes the seasoned surfer. Darkly handsome and genial, he first began surfing at age 12. The sport that would send him through Spain, Portugal, and Mexico in pursuit of the perfect wave did not take on a quality of magic until he was 14, when, on one summer day he rode the biggest wave of the day and suddenly understood, he says, “something essential about myself and my connection to the ocean.” Today Searfus, a married man, keeps himself busy with three jobs — all designed to allow him ample time to surf. He holds an advanced degree in Latin American Studies and enjoys teaching others to surf.
Passionately engaged and altogether committed to the sport, Searfus has spent so much time in the water that he, also, has developed the surfer’s exostosis. “It’s a small price to pay," he says.
I thought to myself that here, at last, I’d found my perfect surfer. Then he mentioned his brother, Stan. Not only, he said, was Stan his best friend, but when they were in the water together, each surfed his best. My throat went suddenly dry. Searfus went on to describe the pleasure he found in surfing with Stan, of their good times together, of an incident involving a key that — were it not for a near-magical synchronicity of the brothers’ thought — would have invited certain catastrophe. As he spoke, my thoughts drifted elsewhere.
Fantasies are funny. Delicately constructed, fantasies, like origami cranes, when unfolded lose their distinction and become just paper. My pursuit of the perfect surfer was in the nature of a fantasy, the vision of a perfect surfer alone on the waves, the lonely hero skimming over blue water. If my perfect surfer was my alter ego, a daydream with long-ago self in action, then Tim was fine. Tim with his brother, Stan, however, was suddenly, irrevocably, all wrong. When surfers voice their fantasy of the perfect wave, are they envisioning a couple of them coming one right after the other? Isn’t duplication antithetical to perfection? In the same way, my search for the perfect surfer had never included two perfect surfers, a pair matched together by blood and skill.
Searfus had brought his key-story to a close and was smiling at me, awaiting my response. I’d only been half listening. “The only thing I can say,” I said, “is that you’re too much.”
wave There are 35 nouns listed in Surfin’ary for which “wave” serves as a prefix, including “wave attack” (a radical style of surfing, as in “Look at that dude’s wave attack”) and “wave train” (a succession of similar waves at equal intervals).
way adv. An intensifier commonly used in California to make adjectives way more cool sounding (e.g., “way cool,” “way rad,” “way stoked," etc.).
weekly n. Refers to a “weekly chick,” a nonresident female who rents an apartment near the beach for a week or two and takes pictures of people she meets to show off at home as souvenirs. Usage: “I had about six or seven weeklies this summer.”
whine n. The sound of the tail of a surfboard cutting through water at high speed.
wilma n. A female “dweeb”; from the character of the same name on The Flintstones.
wired (1) v. Figured out; understood — to have a surf spot wired is to understand its individual nature, to know which swell, wind, and tide conditions suit the break best. Some spots are hard to wire. (2) adj. Feeling great. Usage; “I was so wired after that tube ride.”
wish was n. Someone who wants to be a surfer. Same as wannabe. Usage: “He’s just a wish was.”
work v. (1) To attack or take on a wave. Usage: “He’s really working the inside.” (2) To cause injury to a car or person. Usage: “That jerk totally worked me just because I took off in front of him."
“Xtra large T-shirts,” I said. The young woman pointed and said This way, leading me through the South Coast Surf Shop in Ocean Beach where there was enough surfing equipment and merchandise to set forth an armada.
“Any special kind?” she asked, speaking over her shoulder.
I hesitated, embarrassed. I had given up my search for the perfect surfer. I was here for a T-shirt.
Erika, a tall honey blonde with a winning smile, had turned. I want a black one, I said, and then explained that I’d seen a kid with dyed hair, tattoos, and nose ring wearing a black T-shirt with the words—and here I hesitated — “Butthole Surfers” written across the front. Rushing to hide my embarrassment over what I took to be an unsavory verb, I went off on a tangent, explaining that a decade before, Blackglama Furs had run an ad campaign with the tag line, “What Becomes a Legend Most.” The way I looked at it, I said (not altogether sure where this was going), surfing had become so much a part of the culture that in these more sardonic times, the “butthole surfers" line was actually a kind of an approbation more in the nature of “We Love Surfers....” At least, I said, shrugging, that’s how I read it. Erika was staring at me.
“It’s a group,” she said, and began to laugh. “The Butthole Surfers,” she explained, “they sing songs.” Her shop, she added, did not carry the T-shirt.
Why was I here? I looked around. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into. This was my third surf shop, the Clairemont Surf Shop, and like the shops in Coronado and Ocean Beach, it was filled with an amazing amount of this and that. (Tim Searfus had confided that it bothered him to imagine how far what he and other surfers spent on gear might go to keep a family in South America alive.)
The young salesman had gone to the back to fetch Troy Carniglia for me.
In the course of this assignment, I’d traveled up and down the coast talking to surfers, an editor, watermen, an esteemed linguist. I had discovered that the reality of surfing today was different from the myth of the surfer—that the reality itself was but a mirror of issues affecting contemporary society. So what did I expect Carniglia might add?
yarner n. Someone who tells stories for hours on end, with no apparent objective or point.
yuk n. Surfing in polluted waters; same as “woofy.”
yummy yellow n. Reportedly a shark’s favorite color of wet suit. Some sharks seem to avoid dull-colored objects; they are attracted instead to bright colors, such as yellow or the orange often used for life jackets so that they can be easily seen by rescue crews.
zero break n. The outermost line of breakers on a day of exceptionally large surf.
ziplocked adj. Tucked inside a barreling wave.
zoners n. A semi-derogatory nickname for surfers from Arizona.
A kid of about 16, deeply tanned, his hair sun bleached, was standing at the display counter describing to his pal his experience of the day before. “It was a zoo out there," he said, “but I had a couple of rad sets.” Toward the back were two men, both in their mid-20s, of average height, and sharing a loose-jointed ease with their bodies. One man was dark haired, the other blond. From where I stood, catching a word or two, I was uncertain if they were speaking about gear or just chatting. The salesman, unwilling to interrupt, waited. Finally the blond turned. "What's up?" he said.
Troy Carniglia had used the last word in Cralle's Surfin'ary, squeezing the phrase into one surfspeak word.
'Zup," he had said.
It was perfect.