The jagged blue line’s surges and plunges read like the electrocardiogram of a manic patient. But the line tells an innocuous story. It’s the wave report for San Diego County as described by the “swell height plot” at Scripps Coastal Data Information Program, a site I accessed not through a science query but from the Surfline Surf Report (www.surfline.com/sur-fusa2.html). The data found here belies the myth that surfing is an insular activity situated outside society. On the Web, surfing has more to do with NOAA buoy reports than with a countercultural lifestyle, and that can be a comfort to someone like me who has come to surfing as an adult.
When a woman who I had been dating for several months handed me a book as a gift, she said a little too cuttingly, “I know you’ll like it, it’s a boy book.” Not only did I believe that I had just been insulted, but I recognized at that moment the ebbing goodwill in our relationship. What a thing to say, a “boy book,” as if there’s something wrong with the modifier. A driving force in my life is nostalgia for boyhood, though people, women especially, have told me that trying to get back to a place where I don’t belong tends to paralyze me (hmm, maybe that’s what she was saying?). Anyway, I like sports, a lot, and I like to recline and tuck my hand in my pants when I watch television. I also think surfing is cool.
The book my friend gave me was Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast, by Daniel Duane. She was right; I liked the book, and it is a boy book. I like that the book’s facade of dude culture, surfing mechanics, and physicality fits so nicely over a story about nostalgia; Duane uncovers the dialectic bred by motion and paralysis. Duane writes, for example, of dipping a “finger in the water just to believe it’s happening" and feeling “the light joy of effortless, combustion-free speed.” What my friend did not know, because I hadn’t told her, was that surfing had become my newest obsession. Shortly before we met, I had tried surfing for the first time, and though I sucked at it, I began to browse the Web for wave reports and pictures of Costa Rican breaks.
Web surfing is, I know, the less hip kind, but at the time I was living in San Francisco and chumming with my limbs for Farallon-bred Great Whites at Stinson Beach was just too rugged for this boy. Plus, as I said. I’m a bad surfer. I surfed for the first time at Dana Point. My brother and I rented foam boards in Laguna Beach and lamely loaded them into our car. Before that day, surfing had seemed to me an intuitive sport, but walking down the beach at Dana Point with the board under my arm, I couldn't help but feel that I was doing something wrong. I believed everybody could tell I was not a surfer, which was, of course, true. The foam board was one sure sign, as was wearing my prescription sunglasses into the water and the walk of shame back to my towel to take them off.
Things got worse in the water. Unlike bodysurfing, where a wave comes and you ride it, to catch a wave on a surfboard you have to start paddling long before the wave arrives. Not being able to see the waves without my glasses, I missed most of them. Also, my arms burned like hell from paddling, my knees were bruised from knocking the board, a ten-year-old kid called me a “fucker” for almost decapitating him, and my nipples were badly chafed.
So I stuck to the Web. As much as my first surfing exertions were a bust, I felt invested in the sport. To have failed at such an elemental sport, a sport that looks so natural, seemed to me a comment on my status as a physical being. Uncool? Sure, but was I a lubber too? To my surprise, most of the surfing Web sites I found were more about the science of the sport than its culture. Surfing sites don’t advertise dudeness; expressions of that sort are saved for the water. Most sites aim to be utilitarian; they forecast weather, currents, and water conditions — anything that might influence the size and regularity of waves.
At SwellDirection (www.sweMirection.corn/sd/sd.html), for instance, you’ll find precise descriptions of conditions: “SSW swell is on its way down at most beaches today. We should have sets in the waist- to chest-high range — maybe sets a little bigger with the tidal I believed push. Water is a little warmer, but you may still everybody could need a fully (full wet suit] for the morning dawn tell I was not a patrol. Nothing much going into the weekend Surfer. The foam other than the NW swell, which will be too steep board was one of direction for most areas.
Maybe N. Baja could be Sure Sign, a call.” Here colorful charts of wave height accompany talk of fetch, wind speed, and “bummer” or “killer" atmospheric systems. One of the country’s most respected surfing pages, La Jolla Surfing (facs.scripps.edu/surfing.shttnl), offers visitors more lessons on the downloading of weather-related computer software, such as Tide Prediction Version 3.09 and D.A.T. Designer 5.0, than on surfing etiquette and lingo. Rather than engage the exclusive nature of the sport, these sites reveal the global aspects of surfing — mainly, its dependence on weather and the scientific community.
After Dana Point, I didn’t try surfing again until I met Daniel Duane in San Francisco. Our meeting was encouraging; he’s a nice guy, and he wears glasses. Surfing, I’ve learned, has no prerequisites — other than waves and a love for what water does. This morning Surfline described the swells in Narragansett, Rhode Island, where I’m now living, as “glassy tubes.” Oh boy.