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.

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

8 thoughts on “Where Surf Meets Stone”

  1. man I am with you with this feeling.
    i think it’s pretty common to like many activities involved with freedom, rebellion and the outdoor.
    i guess the same logic could apply to skateboarding too, a lot of friends of mine are used to skate and boulder then.

  2. I was a surfer before I became a climber and thought the exact same thing. The communities are so similar, one of the reasons I liked climbing at first.

    I live in Ventura and know plenty of people who consider themselves both surfers and climbers.

  3. Correct. There is a connection, as a arborist I find being up a big tree in the wind like being on the ocean. Touching life and being connected to the elements is what we need. Being cold when it’s cold and hot when it’s hot. Not a air conditioned easy life. There’s a patient fluidity that core elements help us balance our soul. Actually… I think it’s doing something that reminds us of our insignificance. Fire gazing. Water. Rock.

  4. Lovely writing. I was led here from semi-rad, so you should thank Brennan for the referral. ;-)

    This article in the New York Times had me thinking very much the same thing about surfing and mountain biking. In fact, you could list virtually the same attributes for all three sports. We all vagabond after the big wave.

    I especially liked “They were the object of your deepest desire (… and) your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.” Sometimes, when I pull up to the trailhead, I feel like I don’t even want to ride that trail. Then I have the best day ever.

  5. Welcome to the west coast. I found when moving to Long Beach that my lack of access to afternoon climbing was bolstered by morning surf sessions. Often while bobbing out in the line up, I considered my anticipation similar to waiting for another red point attempt; a moment to practice my skills and focus on the process of finding the perfect movement, something that just feels so right.

    I hope you can find the same, even if the central coast rock is sorta crappy… the waves this time of the year are getting nice.

  6. “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”

    This resonates with me. Ill parse through boulders and routes, admiring the seeming perfection in the form of a specific hold, or a sequence as it crescendos through a crux, but also being intimidated by a move that may be difficult or dangerous. Interacting with naturally created sculpture in such a fleeting manner is a magical feeling

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