[This feature originally appeared in our May 2017 Issue, âFrontiers,â on newsstands and available for download now.]
Surfing has always been at its best when looking to the future. Not just looking forward, but screaming forward, brakes cut, engine edged in red, a screaming drunk passenger, shirtless, half leaning out the window and lifting empty beer cans in the wind , no idea where the destination is, just knowing it’s somewhere ahead, just out of reach of the headlights, and we have to get there now, like, right then, shit, that car can’t she go faster ?! It’s this exuberant sense of discovery, be it waves, board designs, or performance possibilities, that gave birth to the best parts of surfing.
It pains me to say it, but I think the surge’s momentum stopped somewhere along the way. Of course, people will continue to find ways to do more unthinkable things on surfboards, leaving us even further in the dust, “I hope I have some fun ones.” But surfing’s cultural progression (or regression, depending on your perspective) from Polynesian recreation to the multi-billion dollar t-shirt retail industry and future Olympic sport has slowed its progress. We seem to have seen it all, found it all and surfed it all, and the fuel that has long propelled our reckless and utterly awe-inspiring run into the future is dangerously low.
But to make my point, I’m going to have to look back. Pervert, I know.
In 1893, an American historian named Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay that likely shaped how you learned and how you view American history today. Turner’s essay, “The Importance of the Frontier in American History,” argued that, more than anything else, including the Constitution, character and culture classically associated with America – individual liberty. , self-reliance, a deeply restless and innovative population – were born in our pioneering push into the lawless West. It was in the middle of this trip that we invented what it meant to be American.
The crux of Turner’s essay is the real kicker. He feared that the inevitable end of all these pioneers, once we had become a nation “from sea to sea”, would mean that all of America’s enthusiastic promises were exhausted. We were the dog who finally caught the cat. What would make us strong individuals once the last frontier is tamed?
Sadly, much of Turner’s thesis was mired in racism and colonial-era thinking, but the core of his idea – that the constant search for what lies on unlimited horizons has helped shape who we are. are – is an interesting prism through which to view the development of surfing in recent decades. Much of our evolution as surfers through the 20e century, and the identity we have assumed, came from our surfing ancestors who invented it as we went along and built from scratch what it meant to be a surfer.
Where to start ? Culture? There was no duke to imitate. Tom Blake had to figure out for himself how to live like a surf bum. The Malibu middle class rebellion of the 1950s largely brought surfing to the indoor masses, but it also helped invent beach culture and bring the curse of freshness to our beloved sport. The ’60s and’ 70s gave surfing its freewheeling vibe, anything goes – an essence that grew out of surfing’s natural inclination to join in with hippie culture, which gave birth to the idea that we We would all be better off if we log off and surf. Professional surfing exploded in the 1980s, giving us first a new generation of glam-oriented surf stars, and then, a decade later, the street punk antihero.
Performance? We cut entire feet to board length in the late 60s, added a second, third and fourth fin in the early 80s, and used our state of the art equipment to discover new parts of the wave and new ones. radical ways to get there. We found the tube and took to the skies. The most important aspects of surfing performance changed, say, from the 1920s to the 90s, and everything, for the most part, changed for the better, as there was always a hurdle to overcome.
Then, of course, there was the literal boundary of the journey. The guys went to the North Shore in the 1950s and shaped the myth of the big wave hero. Then we started to grow in Central America, then in Bali, the home of the holy land of Indonesia, then in the South Pacific. Suddenly, surfers were globalized explorers, giving up the rat race at work, at least for a time, to live as wandering surfing monks.
But in the 90s, the first hiccups of the progressive engine of surfing were felt. The card design, which had progressed at a breakneck pace for decades, stalled at the thruster level. We had started to run out of tropical desert dreams, or, at the very least, couldn’t find better than what had already been mapped out. And the days when surfing performance improved by leaps and bounds has given way to incremental, almost imperceptible increases in barrel depth and degrees of aerial rotation.
The act of surfing today is just as enjoyable as it has ever been, in large part thanks to our accumulated knowledge of phenomenal waves around the world and our unlimited access to more varied equipment than it has ever been. any other time in history. But, like the American border a hundred years ago, our great spaces to move and grow have been largely filled. Design limitations, performance restrictions, cultural constraints: surfers have crossed most of these boundaries and come out better on the other side. And each of those thresholds was crossed by the pioneering icons we would carve into Surf’s Mount Rushmore if we had one. Kahanamoku. Edwards. Dora. Noll. LÃ³pez. Lynch. Richards. Courren. Fletcher. Hamilton. Roofer. So many transcendental figures who built the foundations of what surfing has become. But we’re terribly short of pioneering icons these days.
Of course, some important borders remain. Women like Paige Alms, Carissa Moore, Stephanie Gilmore and Keala Kennelly, among many others, are busy breaking down some of the sexist doors that still exist, and they will take their place on Rushmore surf. The first non-white surfer since Duke to reach the international surfing megastar will indeed be a welcome sight.
But once these last borders crossed, what makes us move forward? This is, I guess, a question for futurists, not historians.
[Illustration: Jean Jullien]