If you are reading this I’d think you’re a surfer or aspiring to become one. What initially got you hooked on the idea? Was it the surfer look? Was it the stigma? Was it the waves? The adventure of exploring the world? There are many reasons to pick up a board and ride waves and all of these encompass the broad definition of Surf Culture.
Surf culture is something that is constantly evolving over time; since its primordial roots in the ancient Polynesians to the WSL, we’ve seen a big change. It can be something very subjective, as we all have different experiences through surfing:
are you a city surfer with waves on your doorstep, big crowds and tension in the water? Or do you drive long distances in search of far-flung remote waves? While we don't all wear a shark tooth necklace and have beach blonde hair but we are all bound by our love of the ocean.
A big part of surf culture is the terminology that we use on a day to day basis, arguably best popularised by the ‘Get pitted, so pitted’. Surf lingo is one of the most characteristic and defining aspects of surfing. We all use these words although maybe not to the same extent as the ‘dude’ above. Words like, ‘keg’, ‘ramp’, ‘slab’, ‘doggy door’, ‘lip’ you name it –we often use it. And if you don't, in some places, you might be considered a "Kook".
Bikinis, board-shorts, messy sun-kissed hair and bare feet are all staples of surf culture and beach life; this has been shaped by the proximity and necessity that comes from living close to the sea. But while what is often portrayed as surf culture is often connected to the ideas of tropical beaches and warm weather, for many this is far from reality.
Having spent a couple of seasons surfing the North Sea in the depths of winter myself, the fashion is more about warmth and comfort than your stereotypical surfer look; we often looked more like astronauts/seals in the water and lumberjacks out of it.
We can all agree that one of the best aspects of surfing is that our arena is the ocean, we love and crave contact with nature. Regardless of the improved technology and meteoric rise of wave pools nothing will ever replace the natural world.
Wave pools are amazing tools for working on moves and techniques on an ever consistent wave, but there is a beauty in the inconsistent, unpredictable nature of surfing in the ocean that keeps us coming back for more with every moving tide. There is something so captivating about the ocean, our lives revolve around it; swells, winds, tides, constantly changing, while we patiently (who am I kidding) await the perfect combination to hit our favourite spot. Nothing beats the feeling.
Competition surfing has had a big part to play in the characterisation of Surf Culture. Maybe not in the romantic and idealised sense, but still it has pushed the limits of what is possible and has developed the sport in many ways. Without competition, surfing would probably still be a marginalised sport and people could not make a career out of chasing lumps of water around the world. The rising popularity of surfing as a competitive sport also opened the gateway to a new generation of free surfers (i.e.: surfers that don't engage in competition and are paid to just surf and get photographed by brands – brands that can then sell us products, appealing subtly to our inner aspirational hopes to be one day like said surfers).
I truly believe that one does not exist without the other, or at least not in the way things are nowadays at least. Free surfers seem to live the dream, from the outside at least: they get paid to travel the world, they surf the best surf spots; all without the pressure that comes from having to compete on the world stage. But does that actually mean that there is no competition? Far from it, these surfers still need to keep pushing themselves, create a steady flow of content to fulfil their contract requirements and promote the brands that support them, lest they become one day irrelevant.