There are no guarantees. We predict swells, pore over charts, scour surf cams searching desperately for a confluence of elements that may convolute, contort and corrugate the ocean’s fickle surface into rideable form. But there is never definitive proof that the waves will arrive on days off, vacations or dawn patrols.
We may book a vacation to Hawaii’s North Shore, right in the middle of their Christmas big-wave season, and it could run flat or howl onshore for every single day, except the morning we leave for the airport and a disappointed journey home. That isn’t to suggest an eternal pessimism for the surfers of the world.
In fact, the opposite is true; we are imbued with a fundamental optimism that helps us thrive and eek out the gems in the wind well and the treasures in the crowds. It is hope and luck and positivity that keep us paddling back out.
Our home breaks become a canvas of clues, a meteorological braille of climatic elements that we can read as easily as the daily broadsheet. We become attuned to it and can decipher its whispers, translating its nuances into the choices from our quiver and the pick of the break.
This is thrown into disarray when we travel and we live on hearsay, begging locals to teach us the language of their waves to find the perfection in a foreign lineup. But there are no guarantees. And what then? We pack up and go? We change flights and book buses to take us to another location? Or we sit and mope, miserable, cheated and melancholic about our ill fortune.
Half a year on a tropical island may be a paradise, but for a surfer, living on a beach in the crotch of Asia in the Gulf of Thailand, a swell-less backwater deprived of all but the weakest offering of wind swell, it is a cruel torment of salt air, sea breezes, blue skies…and mirror-still ocean.
In guilty complaints I pine for home breaks and epic sessions, overlooking the Eden that envelops me and the potential that lays at my feet for what I desire or crave. But the fault does not lay in my surroundings or the cooperation of elements to provide me with entertainment or the conditions of my choosing. That finger must be pointed inwards.
We swiftly eschew the challenging moments, the times that don’t conform, we cry self-piteous tears in the face of disappointment and deny the potential of the moments we dislike. Surfing ignites our passion, helps us thrive, stokes our obsession, but a flat ocean need not flatten spirits nor extinguish the fire. This myopic perspective of monochrome pleasures denies us myriad morsels that might feed us, supplements that might keep us stoked and help us prosper in a world without waves.
Still waters offer freediving and snorkeling, calm shores offer skimboarding, onshores offer kitesurfing. And on land, the craggy shorelines to which we cling are the playgrounds of climbers, no need for lofty summits, but inspired by traversing over azure seas. Skaters were born from swell-deprived surfers, emulating their oceanic experiences on the waves of bitumen and concrete between swells, between the buildings, their urban playground substitution for the surf.
The truth is, and though we all may wince at the notion, there’s more to stoke than surfing alone – it’s just a case of looking outside the box. The ideal, in every facet of our lives, is that we get what we want. Of course it is; this is what drives us and gives us passion. But desire is as destructive as it is productive. If we lack flexibility in our choices and wants, we shut off a world of potential and starve ourselves of opportunity and experience.
If perfect, stand-up barrels are all we want, we will surf five times a year. If we refuse to go backhand, that’s fifty per cent of the world’s waves erased. If 6’1” x 18 ¾” x 2 ½” is the only language we speak, that’s days worth of knee-high trimming, kilometres of rolling waves and a thousand cheek-aching smiles we cast aside.
A hundred times I have seen shortboarders frantically pumping to stay afloat, gain buoyancy in their perplexing paroxysms. An equal number of longboarders I have seen overgunned, pitched over noses as the tight parabola of a hollow wave refuses to yield to the nine feet of foam. And both I have seen infuriated by inferiority of mediocrity, their boards hanging from limp arms, dejection slumping shoulders as I grin with glee after two hours of barrels, fins and handplane in my grasp.
Surf mats are enjoying a revival from their heydays of the 1960s. The ribbed rubber mats, much appraised by the legendary George Greenough, who still surfs them to this day whenever the swell breaks round his Australian home of Cape Byron, are an admirable addition to any board rack. They make gutless onshores a source of fun, fat rollers that would turn a shortboard
into a Titanic into an overhead glut of stoke. It’s not about what you are riding, it’s about how big your smile is. You see, stoke is a surfer thing; we invented it, we patented it and now we feel we remain the self soul owners of it because, as is imprinted in our psyche by the media at large, ‘only a surfer knows the feeling’.
And maybe it is so. Maybe it is only a surfer that gets that engorged fluttering somewhere beneath our diaphragm. Maybe our bold and distinctive tan lines mean myriad happy sessions, not failed applications of sunscreen. Maybe we are the only ones who can share our experiences in over-excited onomatopoeia that is unintelligible to all but the salinically initiated. But why must we limit the single source of such pleasure to the distant currents that surge coastwards, cresting energies skywards into Pythagorean perfection?
Stoke is where you find it, and whether your waveless days see you revving the guts out of a 250cc as you rip through top soil and deserted forests, or slacklining from post to post in your own back garden, your subconscious transporting you to the lulling oscillations of the ocean, it is there in abundance.
Surfers can be like sheep, flocking to the best breaks, the Fistrals, and Snapper Rocks and Malibus of the world, huddling in hordes, desperate to claim their needle in the haystack of boards. But just down the beach, maybe half a foot smaller, a quarter of the length and a little bit onshore, is an empty peak. It isn’t the ideal, it isn’t the pick of the spots, but in any other place it would be more than good enough.
Some wave-starved, cold-water, windswell-riding devotees would trade in their quiver for a break like that in their front yard, yet in the shadow of it’s world-renowned peer, it is shunned. In times like this, it is worthwhile forfeiting quality for quantity, because oftentimes, that quantity is an emaciated handful at best.
Twice as many waves with half as many people have got to be better odds, even if those waves aren’t quite the hollow, two-hundred-metre pits of the Superbank. To come out of the water, hair dripping wet from a dozen good waves rather than torn out in clumps from pure frustration, arms weary from too many return paddles, a collection of short and gritty shore-break barrels tumbling across your memory banks is infinitely more favourable than watching a hundred of your fellow surfers out-paddling you into perfect kegs or being dropped in on by scores of hopefuls wanting to snatch your aquatic claim from under your feet.
Even such seemingly benign pursuits as yoga can hold their share of stoke. Yoga is more and more becoming recognised as the perfect way to keep your body supple, agile and surf-ready between sessions and seasons. Touching your toes for the first time in years, holding balance for five minutes straight, folding yourself into knots you never knew you could are all achievements of slow progression, but when you get there that familiar glow emanates from your solar plexus and, if you listen hard enough, you will hear stoke whispering back.
So let go of your preconceptions and prejudices, realise that, to remain a stalwart shortboarder or logger to the end is a fast track to disappointment. So expand your perspectives, bodyboard if you have to, climb trees, oil up your bearings and reunite with your old skateboard because, waves or no waves, the stoke is out there for the taking. All you have to do is find it.