There are likely as many reasons surfers first pick up a board and paddle out as there are wave riders throughout the world.
But, in my opinion, the majority of surfers I’ve met over the past four decades stick with it for one of three reasons: They love the social aspect of riding waves; they want to test themselves against others in a competitive environment; or they enjoy the solitude and meditative reflection that can result from riding waves.
Many of us will vacillate within these groups throughout our lives but there is usually one predominant predilection that determines how we approach this pursuit we love.
The social surfer is one who can’t stand a solo session. They want to be among friends and fellow wave riders at every opportunity, and they’ll announce on Facebook or via email that they’re heading out and invite a pack of like-minded people to join them. Please.
It’s easy to spot this type: He’s the one who will look for the only other surfer out on a given day on the seawall and paddle out at that spot, rather than enter the water a bit down the beach. They’re also usually a most talkative bunch, piercing the melodic sounds of the breaking waves with hoots and hollers so that everyone can join in on the revelry. Surfing is a party that’s meant to be shared, or so I like to imagine the thinking goes.
The competitive surfer is the serious one in the water. He’s not going to smile, not even grunt a hello to the others in the water. This one has a mission: Catch as many waves as possible in the least amount of time and try to rip the waves apart, one off-the-top and cutback at a time. Surfing is a contest, the ocean a force to be tamed. You can tell the competitive type by the number of times he glances at his watch, comparing his wave count to the minutes clicking off the 20-minute timer, an imaginary beach-front announcer relaying his exploits to the assembled make-believe crowd.
Then, there’s the wave-riding meditator, the glider, the surfer who just wants to enjoy a few hours in the water and be left alone to do it. This type is easy to spot too: she’s alone in the water on purpose, choosing to paddle out down the beach or where the least number of people have congregated, even if the waves aren’t as good at that location. The reflective surfer eschews crowded parking lots and large groups next to piers and jetties, and instead finds himself on our island’s West End or driving down a deserted stretch of Padre Island coast to avoid camaraderie. A crowded day is one other surfer in the water and a pod of dolphins cavorting on the outside.
You might recognize yourself in one of these descriptions or have generalizations of your own about the people who comprise our oceangoing brethren. Regardless, I’ve found that at one point in my life I’ve been all three or have identified with one or the other of these subspecies.
As I’ve aged, however, my preference is clearly empathetic toward the solitary surfer.
I’m not sure whether that’s a function of the turns of the calendar or that surfing becomes more spiritual as one gets closer to his own demise. Either way, I’ve made peace with my pursuit of finding lonesome waves away from the masses, even when those numbers continue to swell as surfing grows in popularity.
You just have to drive a bit further and look a little harder for that solitary spot. The effort has always been worth it.