There are many reasons to start surfing and lots of articles have been written about the reasons why you should try. However, there is a dark side to surfing that many of us forget.
Surfing can be bad for you. Here are ten reasons why.
1. Surfing is addictive
I used to seriously wonder what non-surfers do on weekends. It perplexed me. Imagine not having an overwhelming drive to seek out and ride waves in every spare moment. What would life be like if 80 years of existence were as empty as those days when there is no swell?
Having now ‘grown-up’ I realise that, for many of us, weekends are all about family. Little kids quickly assume priority over sneaky surf trips. Wives and husbands demand their share of attention, too.
So our devious surfer minds begin plotting how and when our toddler will learn to surf. At what age can we push them into their first wave? Will they become addicts too?
Whether or not surfing is a possibility, we spend a disproportionate amount of time scanning surf reports and looking at passing clouds. We might even check the surf reports of our favourite spots half a world away. Surfing is addictive and addiction is definitely bad for you.
2. You get burnt
I don’t mean having others surfers drop in on your waves – although this certainly happens. Rather, be prepared for getting scorched by the sun. A study of 1348 surfers showed that almost 14% reported a form of skin cancer.
While surf hats and sunscreen technology are certainly improving, the reality is that surfers spend more than their share of time exposed to salt and sun. Depending on your pigmentation this may be more or less of an issue. Native Fijian surfers don’t need sunscreen. Those whose ancestors hailed from Northern Europe almost certainly will.
A rash vest, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses can all help protect us from the sun, especially in savage environments like the Pacific Islands, or New Zealand in summer. Surfing early and late in the day can also help.
Ultimately, however, you’re going to get burnt. A study showed that women who experienced five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 to 20 were 80% more likely to develop melanoma skin cancer later in life. Most surfers far exceed that count.
If you are going to go surfing anyway, use products like Surfmud to protect your skin.
3. Surf holidays are expensive
Anyone who has arrived after a long journey to a different coloured ocean and clean swell lines will know the exhilaration of surf travel. Dream surf trips usually involve flying somewhere far from home – the further the better. The more accessible the destination, the more crowded it will usually be.
We all have a fantasy destination, whether it is racing the section at J-Bay or paddling into a bomb at Cloudbreak. To get there will require savings, logistics, time off work and navigating obstacles from pickpockets to finger coral.
Mostly, however, the trips are expensive. Surf camps and boutique accommodation providers know how passionate we are. Even basic camps can be expensive. In places like Fiji, you can expect to pay over $500 per night for board and lodging at premium resorts like Tavarua Island.
But when you’re addicted, money becomes a line of numbers that remove barriers to fun. So we save and plan and dream and flock to dream surf destinations in greater numbers than ever before.
That money could be used for more sensible things, so I’m told.
4. Surf injuries are serious
Anyone who has surfed for more than a year has been injured. Fibreglass boards, sharp fins and other surfers present real danger. Reefs, rocks, sea urchins and coral are threats to the more intrepid surfers.
Lacerations are common injuries and many surfers will receive stitches over the course of their surfing life. One hopes the cuts occur on the legs or arms rather than stomach or head.
Head trauma is potentially the most dangerous aspect of surfing. I’ve had a friend become permanently deaf, seen professionals like Owen Wright suffer a severe head injury and heard horror stories of drownings.
Then there are the repetitive strain injuries – hips, shoulders and backs. Surfing takes its toll physically.
Many surfers have died while surfing.
5. Surfing is bad for the environment
Manufacturing surfboards is dirty business. The ingredients are highly toxic and one can only guess where the manufacturing byproduct goes. A quick peek into any shaping bay reveals post-apocalyptic scenes straight out of Mad Max 2 – layers of white powder and crusty old men in gas masks.
Brands like Firewire are doing their best to build eco-boards but the board building and distribution process is still complex and powered primarily by energy sources including oil and coal.
Wetsuits require rubbers and glues. Boardshorts are made of nylons and synthetic blends designed to dry fast but not to last.
Sunscreens containing chemicals like Oxybenzone damage the DNA of coral, causing degradation of reefs.
Surf travel is arguably the worst aspect, producing a carbon footprint that even the WSL is feeling bad about.
6. Surfers are greedy
If you think you’re not a greedy surfer then paddle out on a crowded day when you’re better than the other surfers in the line-up. Suddenly, when you’re top of the pecking order you’ll see the monster you become.
We are a selfish bunch. We hang off the shoulder of waves hoping that the person on the inside will fall. Sometimes our paddling will collapse a section that ruins their ride.
Regularly practising selfishness in the ocean means we are more likely to become selfish on land. Nerves that fire together wire together.
7. Surfing is frustrating
You watch the surf reports all week long. Green blobs morph into yellows and reds. Swell is predicted and winds look promising. Magicseaweed is giving it a five-star rating. Then Saturday morning rolls around and the webcam shows a grey ocean devoid of lumps. The local is okay, a few lines but nothing special. So we race up the coast to that spot that should be firing but it is wobbly and blown out.
We try a few others just around the next headland. It’s after lunch and we drive back home only to find it worse than it was at the start of the day.
There’ll always be another day. But in the present moment, surfing can be frustrating.
The same can be said of our skills. Sometimes the feet just don’t land where they should. A good wave is wasted because the rail digs unexpectedly. Feet slip off wax. The wave outruns us. Get stuck in a rip. A set wave breaks on the head. Oh yes, surfing can be frustrating.
8. Surf media sucks
The same surf clips spray out across social media, showing some ex-pro surfer slinking into velvet barrels at an unnamed paradise. They exit the barrel after the spit and paddle back to an empty line-up, GoPro in mouth, ready to slide into the next one.
It’s nice to know that others are living their dreams. But it creates a deep resentment that even the most good-natured of us store up in some reservoir of bitterness that only gets released when some poor soul cuts us off in traffic.
Surf magazines are full of garish ads and surf blogs are even worse. Online surf magazines spout nonsense to attract clicks and likes, playing upon human emotions to drag eyeballs to their pages. The irony of this statement is not lost in the context of what you are doing right now.
Watching surf comps is fun. The WSL have done a good job of streaming events live via the internet. With the days of Kelly v AI long gone, the drama is minimal, not that we need drama to make surfing fun. For the most part, however, the comps are a little boring. There’s got to be a better format, surely.
Maybe Kelly’s Ultimate Surfer is the sad, sad way of the future.
9. Surf technology is so slow to evolve
Shouldn’t we all be riding hoverboards by now? Surfboards are basically unchanged since the nineties. Fin systems are a cool evolution, although FCSII can test one’s patience. We still use wax and tail grip. Zipperless wetsuits tear in the places where zips used to keep them locked down.
Surf hats still generally suck. Reef boots feel like you’re walking on memory foam pillows. Coldwater booties are even worse.
Wave parks are interesting but expensive and slow to commercialise.
Come on surf industry. We’re ready for new surf inventions.
10. You’ll inevitably get worse at surfing
At some point in your life, you will peak as a surfer. Your skills, coordination and experience will align to make you the best you’ll ever be. After that, it is mostly downhill.
We’ve all seen ageing ex-pro surfers struggle to paddle into waves. Greybeards struggling to race the section. When we’re young we can’t imagine that one day we’ll ride our last wave. But as we get older, we recognise the brittleness of our bodies and the ephemeral nature of joy and happiness. Time passes so swiftly. As we age, the trickle of experience becomes a torrent of responsibility and with it rush our hopes and dreams. All we can do is reach out our hands and catch a few drops from time to time if we remember to.
Our cognitive faculties will decline as we age. Motivation and energy diminish. As the speed of the world increases, we lose our momentum. What was once fun becomes hard work. The natural response is to become grizzly old men and women, lamenting how things used to be.
We all age and one day we’ll find ourselves unable to surf anymore.