This Selfish Pursuit

San Diego's obsessive surfers

“It’s indefinable, the power [surfing] provides. It’s almost too poetic. Until you’re hooked, you don’t get it. Only a surfer knows the feeling.”

It’s a warm Monday afternoon in July, and we’re sitting at a picnic table on the beach at Cardiff Reef. The morning started off hazy, but now the sun is beginning to break through. Families lounge under brightly colored umbrellas and tents. A handful of surfers bob out on the water, waiting for waves. When we’re finished here, Bass will change out of his short-sleeved white button-down shirt and jeans, into his rash guard and board shorts, and join them for an hour or so before his next meeting.

For now, the fast-talking former editor of Surfer Magazine regales me with a four-part hypothesis about what makes surfing so addictive.

First, there’s the physics. When you think about it, he says, “these waves were formed by some crazy, low-pressure system,” and surfing is about the transference of that wind energy, and trying to capture its power.

The second part is what Bass calls the “Darwinian” angle. “When you go in the water, subconsciously, you know you’re going into the food chain. There was just a 15-foot shark [sighted] off La Jolla.” When surfers come out of the water, they’re energized by the idea of their own survival.

Third is the “incredible joy of getting wet, exercising, and ridding yourself of anxiety. When we paddle out, it’s just like being 12 all over again.”

For the fourth part, he conjures visions that, while not quite surf images, recall our fundamental connection to the earth. “When we’re in our cubicles, we’re not close to nature.” When you come out of the water, though, you feel as if “you’ve reaped and you’ve sown.”

Bass takes his eyes off of the waves and looks at me through his sunglasses. “I’ve answered that question [of what makes surfing so addictive] a million times,” he says. He pauses. “That was the best [answer].” He smiles.

Back in the day, Del Mar was Bass’s hunting grounds.

“We’d wake up at my mom’s house, grab our surfboards and skateboards, cross 101, and surf our brains out. We’d stash towels in the bamboo. I was a complete tow-head. That hasn’t changed at all. Fourteen-year-old groms are doing the same thing today.”


“Young surfer kids. It’s from ‘grommet.’ Australian slang. Now it’s universal.”

Today, Bass is 47 and has two kids who he says are “full groms. The gnarliest groms. They’re completely grommed out.”

Running the Boardroom (an annual consumer show focused on the shapers, designers, chemists, and others who use their skills making surfboards) is a full-time job. Bass keeps long and odd hours. He spends a lot of his day driving his Toyota Tundra up and down the coast to networking meetings and events. He keeps his surfboard and shorts ready in the back of the truck.

“I’m at my office right now.” He gestures around us at the sand, sun, and water. His arms are covered with sun-bleached hairs. “I can surf from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. and be in San Clemente by 6:00.”

The drive to create a surf-centric life is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1970s, Bass says, business-savvy surfers created the soft goods — T-shirts and such — that would eventually bring surf-cool (think O’Neill and Quiksilver) to the masses. But, he claims, those guys weren’t as interested in popularizing the sport as they were in financing trips to “our Nirvana,” as Bass calls Indonesia.

“It all circles back to selfishly pursuing this act of riding waves.”

In search of...

As interesting as I find Scott Bass’s four-part hypothesis on the why of surf addiction, I’m more intrigued by something else he said: Until you’re hooked, you don’t get it. Only a surfer knows the feeling. In an attempt to understand, for example, why anyone would (ever, in a million years) want to participate in a dawn patrol, I coerce a friend of a friend to take me out and make me a believer.

It’s a gorgeous, clear August afternoon, and the borrowed shorty wetsuit I wear (it’s called a spring suit) has a lovely slimming effect. As R and I make our way down the slope from the street to the shore at North Pacific Beach, he carries the longboard on his head. I follow behind happily, already feeling on the edge of some wondrous new world. I anticipate the knowing I’ll behold in the next hour or two.

Because it’s the middle of the week, the beach isn’t crowded. A few sunbathers, a handful of families digging in the sand, and five to seven guys participating in a formal surf lesson and practicing the “pop-up” on the sand near an orange tent. Out on the water, ten or so surfers bob on their boards. Newbies, according to R.

I start down to the water, but R calls me back to the sand. For the next ten minutes, he plays Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid, making me wax on, wax off with my pop-up. It’s harder than it looks, and I’m clumsy at it. I figure it’ll be easier on the water.

I am so wrong about that.

After 40 minutes of saltwater up my nose, sand in my teeth, back pain, and a headache from the board banging the back of my skull, I drag myself onto the sand. Learning to surf, I decide, is not as much fun as surfing appears to be.

I will not be able to purchase a house for my mother on surfing money alone.

Later in the afternoon (after returning the spring suit, but before washing what’s left of my non-waterproof mascara off my face), I make my way up to Tourmaline Surf Park beach, where the parking lot is rapidly filling with the cars of after-school/after-work surfers.

Here I meet Farrah, a 25-year-old political science graduate from UCSD. She’s unstrapping her board from the top of an old Toyota Corolla. Farrah has been surfing three times a week for “three solid years,” and this week she’s going to register a domain name for a new blog for female surfers — “SoCal Betty.” While I pull seaweed from between my teeth, she offers the following advice (and a huge smile):

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Great story, Elizabeth! But who is that wonderful Mr. "R"? See you on the waves...

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