What is a surfer?

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Surfing is an ancient form of sport and leisure featuring participants who glide along waves of water on a floating craft. The word surf is derived from the 17th century “suff”, used to describe a surge of water. Suff evolved into surf, surface and eventually “surfing”. People who indulge in this activity became known as “surfers”.

When you think of the word “surfer”, what do you see? Whether you like it or not, your mind will formulate an image – or symbol – for any word that is read or uttered, and thus brought into your conscious awareness. That’s what language is – a set of skeleton keys that allow you to access imagery, then reassemble it into stories, complete with meanings and feelings. What, then, does “surfer” mean to you?

Here are some stereotypes that may be conjured in your very own mind, the mind that is interpreting these words: pink elephant. Sorry, did you visualise a pink elephant? That’s the power of words to evoke apparitions of things, whether they’re in the past, present or future.

Common surfer stereotypes

  • Blonde-haired male with tanned skin. Shirtless. Blonde hair on arms and legs. Deep blue eyes and faint stubble. Muscular and flexible.
  • Blonde-haired female with tanned skin. Deep blue eyes. Lithe and graceful. Possibly wearing a g-string bikini.
  • Crusty surfer dude. Combine Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted with Keanu Reeves from Matrix Resurrected and you’ve got a crusty – with a capital C – surfer dude. He lives in a campervan and usually parks in the beach carpark, unless he’s moved on by a policeman. When Crusty pops open the back door of his van, a cloud of blanket dust emerges, scented somewhere between red wine, socks and an Amsterdam cafe. He sleeps with his board for safety reasons and is disdainful towards women. They wanted to settle him down but he craved adventure. Still he does meet a travelling surfer girl sometimes – and they love him because he is who he is.
  • Herculean surf god – ok, it’s Laird Hamilton (who could also fit stereotype 1, but deserves his own category).
  • Surf gangster – these are the bad boys and girls. Remember Point Break – where Keanu Reeves played a very-unsurfery character? Remember the gang on the beach? Those guys were actually the Red Hot Chilli peppers. They played a surf gangster cliché. You might watch a movie about Australia’s unfortunately named Bra Boys to see the surf gangster stereotype amplified. These and other surf gangsters around the world appear to ride big waves, party hard, wear sleeve tattoos and walk around with a sneer.
  • Hipster surfer. Think Donavon Frankenreiter but less talented. They have a curled moustache and 70s pornstar sunglasses. They ride a log and pride themselves on cross-stepping agility, especially while wearing a button-up shirt, unbuttoned, instead of a rash guard. They own a fish, but the log is, like, just so much more versatile. They hang out in whiskey bars or coffee shops with motorcycle murals on the walls. The hipster surfer takes photos on a Polaroid camera and gives them to the people he meets.
  • Competitive surfer. The stereotype has changed in recent years. Compared to Kelly, Andy and Mick a decade ago, the champion surfer nowadays is most likely to come from Brazil. My mind conjures the competitive surfer to look somewhere between Adriano de Souza and Gabriel Medina. Steely eyed, fierce but with a smile that is never far away. They cry when they win important heats (but so did Kelly) and surf better than damn near everyone.
  • The old surfer. White hair, tanned skin. Wears too little rubber. Arms aren’t as strong as they used to be and he doesn’t always catch the wave he wants. But when he does catch a wave, a glimmer of style still sparkles.
  • The big wave surfer. They have a faraway look in their eyes because they’ve seen some stuff, man.
  • The grommet. A young surfer who froths about anything to do with waves, competitive surfing and surf culture. They dream about being world champ one day.
  • The weekend warrior. They work hard all week so they can play hard on the weekend – and boy do they play hard. Weekend warriors are usually aggressive, hyperfocused and overconfident. They rock up in groups of three or four. Those who have built lifestyles around surfing love Monday morning around 9am, when weekend warriors are back at their desks.
  • The soul – or free – surfer. They could have been a competitive surfer but didn’t like the structure or pressure. Surfing to them is an art form, not a race to pack manoeuvres into a heat. They wear bangles collected from surfing in India and other remote destinations. They probably play guitar.

Now that we have our stereotypes sorted out, we will move ahead to what a surfer actually is. Or, more accurately, what a surfer is not.

A surfer is not

  • A Standup Paddleboarder. Never. No. There are better ways to age.
  • A foil surfer. These are stupid and dangerous. Please drive ten minutes away from the busy surf beaches and do it there. Unless you’re Kai Lenny, no-one cares how well you pump.
  • A bodyboarder. They’re shark bait in our eyes. They’re the unwanted Christmas guest. They’re ok to drop-in on. They surf gnarlier waves than we ever will and we pretend not to notice.
  • A windsurfer. Stupid.
  • A kitesurfer. Someone whose hobby requires the worst weather conditions.
  • A snowboarder.
  • A sandboarder. Those who board down dunes.
  • A body surfer. Some might say they precede surfers in the evolutionary tree, but we prefer to call them swimmers.
  • Jet and motorised board riders.
  • Those little surf toys. That’s a toy, not a surfer.

A surfer is

  • Someone who stands up on a surfboard and rides a wave.

Defining characteristics of a surfer may include one or many of the following traits:

  • Owns one or many surfboards.
  • Identifies as a surfer or surfer girl.
  • Rides either a shortboard or (begrudgingly) a longboard.
  • Lives close to the ocean purely to satisfy a desire for regular surfing.
  • Regularly monitors weather conditions in order to forecast good surf.
  • Has surf gear and apparel for all seasons.
  • Used to – or still does – own a collection of surf DVDs and magazines.
  • Dreams about going to the Mentawais.
  • Could look at surfboards all day long.
  • Is reading this article.
  • Loves Kelly Slater.
  • Has a tendency towards localism.
  • Likes the idea of dating a surfer girl or boy.
  • Has a disproportionate number of barrels on their Instagram feed.
  • Once bought (or was given) a GoPro.
  • Secretly likes Jack Johnson and knows his backstory.
  • Loves watching Filipe Toledo surf.
  • Knows all of the major surf brands.
  • Thinks Stephanie Gilmore is one of the most stylish surfers to ever ride a wave.
  • Feels at home in different marine conditions, from big and offshore to junky onshore slop.
  • Loves the feeling of having shoulders and arms like noodles after an epic session.


A surfer is someone who dedicates a significant part of their life to moving across the surface of the ocean, using only the momentum from a wave to propel their board. No paddles, no sails, no kites or foils.

Surfing is freedom. Body and board, wave power, shoulder power. Intimate knowledge of currents and impact zones. Back foot, front foot. Spray off the top. Tuck in for a head dip, marvel at the view. Highly tuned to changes in wind direction. Knows which board they’ll use when they see a surf report. They live for the sensation of dropping down a steep wall. The temporary clarity gained in those moments from bottom turn to whatever comes next. The complete absorption, yet complete release. When they’re not thinking, they become free.

Surfing is a fast-track to that place. The hyperfocus. The presence. The emergent phenomenon of human on wave. Mind and matter in motion.

Only a surfer knows the feeling.