Surf semantics

I know enough French to say, “Je m’appelle Jennifer” and, thanks to pop songs, “J’aurais toujours faim de toi,” “les yeux sans visage” and “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” I picked up a few phrases in German as a result of hosting a German houseguest. I had a working vocabulary in restaurant Spanish, but leaving my waitressing career behind cost me my best hopes for ever being bilingual. I would love to improve my world citizenship by speaking something beyond my native American – do we still call it English? – until then, I remain pleased over one of the surfing’s smaller joys, that of learning a new language. I don’t mean the sort of arcanum epitomized by words such as “sick,” “epic” or “brah,” but what a friend calls the great weather formula and rings of poetry to me: This sky, plus this wind, plus this tide, plus this swell, plus this temperature equals today’s best course of action.

I have written on this before, but am reminded of it lately. A friend of mine mentioned how he used to go to the NOAA offices to get weather charts, spend hours poring over them, learning to decipher the squiggles, lines, arrows, numbers. Still, one had to go look – and look often – to make sense of the patterns that brought good waves to spot A, but created nothing but junk at spot B. The old guys still drive around to the crackle of weather radio recordings.

My references are easier: a few bookmarked buoy and weather websites point me north or south or inform me to skip the whole thing. If the DSL is on the fritz, I can call the weather number (443-7062) and find what I need to know. If all else fails, I can actually step outside, see which way the wind’s blowing, take the binoculars to the high dunes to check the swell. Is it strange that firsthand observation has become a last resort? When I first started surfing, all I knew was to look for a low tide in the tidebook and check the online marine forecast – which, I’ve since learned, is, like any weather prediction, merely a suggestion of what may or may not be happening out in the world.

Months of learning to stand up and turn followed. At some point, a surfer who’d taken on the role of mentor tipped me off to a better site, one that showed real-time buoy readings. That helped. One day I showed up at the usual location, knowing the swell was running 3 at 12. Despite the low tide and Saturday afternoon, not a single person was in the water or parking lot. Confused, I left. Later, at the grocery store, I saw a few guys I knew well enough to ask if they’d surfed that day. “Yeah,” one enthused. “Oh,” I said, “because when I went and looked, no one was around.” They asked where I’d checked. I told them. They glanced at each other, at the floor, at the bulk goods, at the bounty of late apples. “Well…,” one finally said. “South winds.”

Courtesy Arcata Photo Studios

Another variable I hadn’t fully understood. I knew about offshore and onshore, but not as much as I needed to know. Not about outer winds and local winds and the effect they had on the sea. But I learned. And then I started surfing another spot, a little more demanding spot, and after showing up dawn after dawn, more lessons were given. Not explicitly, but hints dropped in conversation. Phrases uttered in a way that implied significance. If I didn’t know what that significance was, I had to suss it out, pay more attention to the sky, the wind, the tide, the swell, to see where the new factor might fit in. Acquiring such useful knowledge pleased me – earning that learning even more so.

But, while not yet ubiquitous, the internet and cell phones, web cams and sites devoted to providing detailed spot info existed even then. Like mathematicians simultaneously cursing and praising the calculator, or musicians lamenting over Garage Band, surfers both condemn and utilize the new tools at their disposal. How nice to have it all figured out before you leave the house – a look through the Camel cam, buoy readings known, the specific arc of the tide defined, a phone call from a friend at the beach to confirm – no waste of time or gas doing something so antiquated as driving around looking for surf. It’s found before you even start the car. Going out of town? Check gonnasurf.net or travelingkook.com to dial in the breaks at your destination. No need to actually befriend the locals, pay any dues, perpetuate any sense of global community. Your laptop and iPhone are all the friends you need.

As in so many ways, the internet – technology as a whole – serves to level the playing field, which sounds good, or more specifically, to reduce the distance between the ignorant and the experienced, which sounds less so. My shyness prohibited me from learning new things as a kid; surmounting it as an adult in order to surf was nearly as much a triumph as the first time I trimmed down a wave, a lovely waist-high left. I wasn’t expecting it, had been trying for weeks to just not fall. Suddenly the board turned, escaped the foam and glided along glassy green face. I’m sure I gasped. I definitely grinned. From there to paddling out in overhead waves at a more serious break, where I was ignored for months, probably in hopes I’d go away. But when I didn’t, when I’d actually caught waves time and time again, those stoic guys started hooting for me, hollering me into waves I was sure I couldn’t make, but did. And if I didn’t, I could laugh at myself, too. Again, all the sweeter from the effort put in.

I cannot complain much about the “new” surfers, the crowd at Camel Rock, the jostling for position in a takeoff zone of four square feet. I am one of the newcomers after all. My 10 years is nothing compared to those who’ve been surfing here twice that long. They’re the ones whose experience created the repository of knowledge we all reference. I like to think that because I gleaned it from them, because it was given willingly when I’d proven I deserved it, that I’m worth more than the guy from Orange County going aggro on the local groms because he memorized the Humboldt section of wavesforshredders.org before moving up here five years ago. That even though he’s surely a better surfer – fucking sick, brah! – I’m ahead in the soul department.

Or maybe I’m just envious. Or jealous. Or protective. Or want my efforts to count, not be obliterated by those who know nothing beyond the click of the mouse.

Maybe I just want to hold on to what poetry I can.

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