It was a fishing line that saved my life. A wisp of monofilament thread, just a hairsbreadth in width, nearly invisible to the naked eye, about as insubstantial as physical objects get. Nevertheless, it was strong enough. When I reached out and felt that tiny bit of clear plastic thread, I grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. The line and the rod it was attached to pulled me up from a dark and unpleasant place. I held on tightly and the line hauled me toward a light—a bright, shining future full of vibrancy, promise and renewed life.
Wait, shoot, sorry about that. I meant to say a fishing line saved my “surfing life,” not my, you know, life life. Although, to be honest, for quite a while I’d had trouble telling the two apart. That was sort of the problem, actually.
The joy of surfing, I realized, is simple. Same with fishing or whipping through the trees on a mountain bike, hubs whirring. But sometimes we just can’t help but make it complicated.
Surfing had taken up so much of my daily existence, it began setting the tone for pretty much every facet of my being. If the waves were good and I had plenty of surf time, I was happy, (relatively) fulfilled, experienced a deep and anchored sense of purpose and just generally felt like myself. I’d skip up and down the beach like Pat O’Connell in “The Endless Summer II” when the waves were pumping, even.
But if, and when, the surf was bad or I just couldn’t surf for one reason or another, I’d become listless, irritable, bored, deeply dissatisfied, concerned that my performance level was slipping, envious of surfers in other places who enjoyed more consistent or higher-quality waves. My wife would become justifiably annoyed with my moping. In other words, I behaved like a typical hardcore surfer, if one who was unusually dedicated to the pursuit.
The point is, as a surf addict for much of the past few decades, my whole world (or, at the very least, my general outlook on life) rose and fell depending on how often and how well I was surfing. Which is the case for many lifelong surfers with salt water in their veins. Same could be said for skiers, mountain bikers, kayakers, you get the idea.
But as adult life piles on more and more responsibilities over time, it’s extremely difficult to let surfing exert such control. With work demands and family commitments and sitting in traffic and staring at phones and getting mad online—all crucial elements of modern life, of course—dominating our schedule, we lose the ability to let surfing monopolize our time and attention. Which, for adult surfers, often means missing windows of great surf we didn’t have to miss in our 20s when it was easy to blow off classes or casual date nights, or to get someone to cover our shifts at Big Dave’s Fish Tacos or wherever.
For some of us, this introduces a level of frustration and a kind of low-simmering annoyance in the water. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of overly-aggressive surfers (“assholes,” if we’re being honest) in the lineup are just frustrated by their lack of surf time, and maybe crabby because of their declining skills. They’ve forgotten that surfing is supposed to be fun, not the defining pursuit of your life. I know, because I forgot just the same.
And that’s where that miraculous fishing line came in. During a particularly shitty, windy, waveless spring, I learned about some out-of-the-way lakes nearby that were quiet, ringed with beautiful pine trees, and, more importantly, stocked with trout. Rather than force bad sessions in terrible surf, or whine about missing out on waves, I started learning to fly fish in those lakes and some nearby streams. Instead of warily watching flags to see what the wind was doing or scouring tide tables, I’d just go fishing whenever I wanted—without having to worry much about conditions (much like surfing, when you’re a beginner fly fisherman, you don’t even realize what bad conditions are).
Since then, fly fishing was joined by lots of other outdoor pursuits. Trail running, remote backpacking, mountain biking—you name it. Thing is, these other hobbies/sports/passions—whatever you want to call them—fill a similar niche to surfing. They take place in beautiful bits of nature, they require years of practice to achieve any sort of competency, they can produce adrenaline-soaked thrills and they scratch an itch to be outside, moving, doing something physical and soul-affirming. But they didn’t require the same perfect convergence of swell, tide, wind and free time.
It almost seems backward, but when other sports and passions elbowed their way onto the pedestal I’d placed surfing, I began appreciating the act of surfing more whenever I returned to it.
Gradually, as surfing became joined by lots more outdoor hobbies in my big metaphorical gearshed of cool stuff to do, surfing actually became more fun. More fulfilling. More rewarding. It almost seems backward, but when other sports and passions elbowed their way onto the pedestal I’d placed surfing, I began appreciating the act of surfing more whenever I returned to it. The less tightly I gripped surfing, the less frustrated I’d become with gaps in surf time, the less concerned I was about whether or not my performance remained up to snuff. When I stopped forcing surf sessions out of some kind of obsessive compulsion, I started to relax in the water, to experiment with different boards and to enjoy my sessions more thoroughly.
And, strangely, all of this actually improved my surfing. Fly fishing taught me patience, improving my wave reading. Hiking strengthens the legs, which, I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, helps every part of surfing. Mountain biking boosts cardiovascular strength, making sprint-paddling for a set wave feel like a leisurely stroll.
But more important than all that, the perspective that blending surfing with other outdoor sports brought meant I could better appreciate the sheer mindless fun of surfing, become less serious about the whole thing, stop holding on so tightly, squeezing the life out of what had been the activity by which I defined myself. The joy of surfing, I realized, is simple. Same with fishing or whipping through the trees on a mountain bike, hubs whirring. But sometimes we just can’t help but make it complicated.
Top photo: Valentino Funghi
For more on what life as surfer is truly like, pick up a copy of Daniel Duane’s excellent, Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast. Bill Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is another great, and Pulitzer-wining, choice.