“I JUST WANTED SURFERS TO FEEL SPECIAL; to realise that we were the luckiest people in the world! And that was the thinking behind the saying, ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling!’ For me, ‘THE FEELING’ is paddling into a wave and realising all of a sudden that this magical force has a hold of you, this thing you can feel but can’t see. It’s the feeling of locking into that power, feeling it beneath your feet and just going with it. But ‘THE FEELING’ is something different for everybody. Surfing is what you want it to be, and that’s why that saying has really resonated.”
– Gordon Merchant, Billabong Founder
I remember as a young grommet in the 80s watching a surfing video by Billabong called Surf into Summer. It was the first surf movie I’d seen, and I remember it having quite an impact … which is probably because it was the first surf movie I’d seen. It also brought to life a couple of my surfing ‘heroes’ (Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo and Tom Curren) who, up until that point, had just been posters on my wall. But, funnily enough, what I recall most was the narrator’s quote at the beginning of the film … which, some 30 years later, I still remember verbatim:
“Try to describe what surfing feels like to someone who doesn’t surf, and you’re gonna come off like a total idiot. Guaranteed. It just can’t be done. We’re into something totally unique, and those who don’t do it will never really understand. The truth is, only a surfer knows the feeling …”
Growing up in South Auckland, we were a good 40 minutes from the closest surf beach (not an insignificant obstacle to my young dreams of being a pro-surfer!). Surfing, at the time, was still loosely associated with dope-smoking hippies and didn’t have the mainstream influence it does today. We were curiosities (albeit cool curiosities) in our large, rugby-focussed school, and our small band of skaters and surfers were the minority – which is probably why the above quote resonated with me. We knew we were into something totally unique, and I probably came off like a total idiot …
We were lucky, though: our family had a bach at a well-known surf town in the Coromandel where our grandparents lived, and we spent many weekends and school holidays there. It was our Uncle Ron who introduced me and my brother to surfing, giving us an old single-fin surfboard to get us started properly. This, believe me, was a welcome upgrade from the nipple-destroying, rash-inducing, polystyrene boards my parents started us on.
Anyway, that old single fin used to hum when we surfed it – and the music we made while riding that vibrating green and blue board got us well-and-truly hooked. Surfing had taken hold of us. We now knew the ‘feeling’ that Gordon Merchant spoke of, and, without exaggerating, our lives were never going to be the same.
It started innocently enough: growing long hair and plastering posters of our favourite surfers on our bedroom walls. And, as the years went by (and income levels went up), the surfer lifestyle made even more of an impact. There were surfboards, wetsuits and other necessary surfing paraphernalia to purchase … adventures chasing waves across the country in our beat-up, unreliable cars … and then (when money allowed) plane trips to exotic surfing
destinations and their perfect waves.
I remember being a little jealous of my cousin Tim, who finished his education and then disappeared surfing around the world for a few years, while I was stuck at Teachers’ College. Which, to be fair, was a vocation I’d chosen for the holidays … so I could go surfing!
Anyway, my cousin finally settled in a famous West Australia surf town, while my brother and I ended up back in the Coromandel … this time permanently.
I guess what I’m trying to say, (without boring those who don’t surf!), is that once you truly catch the surf bug, people go to extraordinary lengths to keep that ‘feeling’ alive. I mean, on more than one occasion I’ve had to remind my wife of our wedding vows: “… to have and to hold, from this day forth, unless the surf is pumping, or till death do us part!”
New Zealand has some 15,000 kilometres of coastline – making it the ninth longest in the world – and has an estimated 145,000 people who call themselves surfers. How many of those people would identify with the narrative ‘only a surfer knows the feeling’? Well, probably not all of them, but regardless, there are now a fair few of us floating around in the ocean on any given weekend – certainly a lot more than when we were growing up.
The rise in popularity of surfing over the last decade or two has been a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, the more mainstream it’s become, the more money the industry can generate – which in turn leads to better funding for the competitive side of the sport: more televised surfing, better sponsorship opportunities, etc. There’s now a greater range of surf-related products than ever, which has made it all a little more affordable for your average waxhead.
For the travelling surfer, the options are endless – with fancy (and not-so-fancy) surf resorts and charter boats popping up all over the place, making previously difficult-to-access locations (like parts of Indonesia) a lot more accessible. Then there’s the recent proliferation of man-made wave pools – including the recently opened URBNSURF in Melbourne and of course, Kelly Slater’s famous Surf Ranch in California. And (just between us) there are even rumours of one coming to a town near you … you heard it here first!
While the New Zealand media still only flirts with its coverage of professional surfing – unless Kelly Slater visits or there’s been a shark attack – there’s no doubt surfing has crawled out from under the alternative rock where it was hiding and is currently basking in its newfound attention. I mean, heck, its going to be in the Olympic Games this year!
Does that now mean it’s mainstream …?
All this brings me to the other side of the sword … which for most long-time surfers can be summed up in one word: crowds.
At the not-so-secret location where I live, it’s not uncommon to have 60+ mostly out-of-town surfers sitting in the water at our well-known surf break … and, during Easter a couple of years ago, we counted 105! That’s a lot of people sitting in an area not much larger than a school playground. The travelling surfer faces the same issues – with crowded line-ups in once secluded world-class surf spots.
With all this extra attention, more people are finding out what we’ve known for a long time. And on those crowded summer days when I’m sharing the line-up with my brother, my boys, and and a bunch of mates … and 60 Aucklanders … I’m starting to wonder: Is the secret out?
But then I drop into a wave, manage to avoid hitting all the floating tourists, and lock onto this magical force that has a hold of me … this thing I can feel but can’t see … and just go with it, revelling in the fact that, at that moment, I’m the luckiest person in the world.
… now, ssshhh! Don’t tell anyone, okay?