Where Surf Meets Stone

Surfers at a point break in Ventura, California.

The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean as my wife and I took our first walk together along the beach in Ventura, California. We passed drifters talking in manic monologues, slowed to a crawl behind shuffles of retirees, and were passed by joggers hustling to make it home before the sun’s light fully faded. We strolled the paved promenade upcoast until we saw them: schools of waveriders undulating in the water at Surfer’s Point Park.

There we leaned on a fence railing and watched them for a while. Scattered unevenly outside the foamy chaos of the break, the surfers watched the horizon intently. Whenever a promising swell approached, a few would rotate and begin to paddle towards shore. One or two would find himself caught up in the lip of a cresting wave, at which point he’d kip up onto his feet and, depending on skill level and luck, catch a ride along shore. The repetitive dance of it was hypnotic.

In the parking lot behind us were old Winnebagos, Sprinter vans, station wagons, SUVs, and minivans, all converted in one way or another for surf life, with racks on top and livable (depending on your standards) quarters inside. There was even a bike leaned up against the rail that some dedicated soul had modified with an improvised surfboard carrier on the side, all plastic piping and foam and duct tape.

A couple of guys jogged up off the beach with boards under arm. At their vehicles, they began the process of peeling back wetsuits and rinsing off sea water. Chatting to each other about the conditions and the rides of the afternoon, they seemed so similar to the climbers I normally found myself with—the lifestyle of it, identities intermeshed with the activity itself, jobs and possessions carefully crafted to enable as much time in pursuit of the passion as possible…

Surfing and climbing have long invited comparison. Both are, despite wavelike peaks in mainstream popularity, largely countercultural, particularly when held up beside big-money sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. Both are one-player games (the partnership aspect of roped climbing not withstanding). Both take place in natural settings and thereby encourage a certain environmentalist mindset. Both feature a heavy focus on flow states bordering on mysticism. Both inspire questing, dirtbag lifestyles, as acolytes seek out the next great spot—ideally one the crowds haven’t yet discovered.

Of course, there are many differences too, but the similarities are too numerous to dismiss. On the whole, those who live to surf and those who live to climb seem cut from a similar cloth.

I’ve been reading a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. The author is a lifelong surfer and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is an extensive memoir structured around the surf spots that were both backdrop to and integral part of his personal development. Throughout the book, there are passages that could as well be describing the experiences of a climber as a surfer. A few examples:

  • “I did not consider even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”
  • “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.”
  • “I did love the water, and even saw it, from an early age, as my own medium of escape from dull striving, from landlocked drudgery.”
  • “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”
  • “Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K.” [This one is particularly interesting.]

I suppose my thesis is that climbing and surfing share a certain essential nucleus, even if their specific expressions are quite different. Living here in surf-centric Ventura, less than a half-day’s drive from Joshua Tree and Yosemite, I’m looking forward to testing this hypothesis on a more intimate level.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too.