Saturday, December 25, 2010

Surfing, Sport. Joy

Surfing, Sport and Joy

I spent last week in Hawaii and trekked to the north shore of of Oahu. There I watched the great waves of the Banzai pipeline. The churning waves two or three stories tall bobbed with surfers. They watched, waited and broke into sudden frantic paddling, scramble up and catch a wave. Most fall, backs arced, the board shoots one way, their body the other while bound together by the umbilical chord connecting them.

The surf pounds them and hides the screams of fear and joy. They swim back out, recover their boards and bob and weave, then catch another wave. Some ride high and slow, a few cut back and slice down again and again extending the rides. Most flop,flail and roll before they finish their runs, then do it again, and again and again. Some, laughing and tired, straggle from the foam, new surfers, young and not so young, usually males with some intrepid females stride into the fickle waves.

I laughed watching them and remembered my failed attempt to learn which ended with a surf board stuck up my nose, don't ask. Then my attention riveted on some huge arcing near waves.

A few bend, balance, glide and finish their runs, then return to the waves. Twice I had the pleasure and honor to gape at a rare surfer, knees flexed, arms balanced, flowing successfully through a pipeline.

I smiled out loud. Surfing reminds me of why we love sport. Quite frankly, bobbing in the ocean with a board and jumping onto tons of piling ocean water that has traveled several thousand miles and crashed into a the north shore of a Pacific volcano makes no sense. Quite loony actually. Unlike many sport or athletic activities, it does not grow from warrior or work practice. Surfing has no practical value or purpose and no guaranteed outcomes, thank god.

Surfing developed independently in Africa, South America and Polynesia. The sheer joy of taking on whatever nature presents drives the surfers. No groomed trails or manicured greens masquerading as nature; surfers take then ocean neat with no chaser. Raw, unpredictable, massive, careless water cascading over and around the surfer beckon, each wave, each moment incomparable.

Surfers never know. Each wave will be a unique never repeated challenge. Every morning dawns fresh and presents an absolutely new test and experience. Every time a surf mounts a wave, no one know what will happen, that is the singular beauty of doing it.

The surfers I watched did not surf for money nor did they compete in rankings except among their cliques. They test their eye, reflexes, balance and courage or foolhardiness depending upon your point of view. They surf in pure exuberance feeling the strength of their bodies and reveling in a perfectly useless but demanding action. Each wave requires a combination of spontaneous skill and judgement attuned to each.

Sport at its core is not utility. It is play. Surfing exemplifies this.

Play refines and trains and tests us. Play can be hard, even dangerous, and play requires work and mastery. Humans often invest their play with ritual meaning, even turn play into professional competition. In parts of Polynesia surfing was reserved for the nobility or required prayers to the sea gods with whom the surfer would contend.

The essence remains the play, the pure clear risk of one's body, mental focus and skill against the ruthless test of of the sea. Anyone can risk and train and try. Some will be smitten, and the sport will become a life long passion woven into the texture of their identity and community.

They will surf for challenge, joy and love, the distilled essence of sport.