Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sail on Sailor

March 9th, 2012 was a great day for Captain David Ryan. The plans for his James Wharram Tiki 38 were United States Coast Guard approved! The Captain has put his oceanophilia where his mouth is, and I for one am very impressed.

Sail on sailor!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dropping Out, Dropping In

In my last post, when briefly discussing population growth, I mistakenly referred to The World In Balance. Instead, the film I had recently watched and had intended to highlight was How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?. I've corrected my mistake and added some statistics. I'm glad I had occasion to revisit the film.

An important part of the premise of my graduate research is that classing surfing as a sub-culture or counter-culture (stock-standard critical and popular approach) is wrong. There is a long-perpetuated myth that choosing one’s passion (waves) must come at an irreconcilable cost and requires the surfer to "drop out." The myth is perpetuated by even the more lucid and perceptive of surf writers.

One key to understanding why surfers were, and still are, cast as drop outs is this: the most itinerant members of the culture--uncoupled (usually) young males--were also the most visible during their free (non-surfing) time; they did a lot of conspicuous hanging out and looking fairly disengaged from the mainstream. But these "juvenile males" can be found anywhere--they are not unique to surf culture. The rest of the surfers, when they were not in the water, were busy at home or at work, raising their families, and went under the public radar so-to-speak. This is as true today as it was at the beginning for surfers in California. The drop out story is a romantic (sometimes tragically so--think Mike Hynson) one. Reminds me of this cartoon. Even courage in service of overcoming really bad decisions sells, or tugs at the heart strings (mine anyway) at the very least. I think that is why the myth gets so much play. We tend not to notice the more normative examples of *anything*, including surfers.

In choosing to see surf-life as impossible for the responsible, here is what gets missed. Choice is not the same as trade-off. One implies equally viable paths, the other, some kind of loss or deficit. Choosing to arrange one's life around surf does not preclude having a work-life. The fact is, most surfers manage to nurture a surf-life while maintaining a robust work-life and could actually be counted as the more highly functioning members of American society. One does not need to "drop out" in order to "drop in."

So why does it matter? The matter is twofold, as I see it. Twofold, at least.

1) The American work-centric cult(ure) has gone off-track, and in a bad way. Industrial countries "remain responsible for the bulk of the world's resource consumption." Chronic disease (against which modern medicine is, so far, somewhat less efficacious than it has been against infectious disease), including diseases that respond to lifestyle change such as diabetes and coronary artery disease, are fast bankrupting the American economy. The irony? The more we work, the more material wealth we accumulate, the more chronic disease we create, the more we can't work enough to keep up with the health costs of that work. Vicious. Not sustainable.

2) One thing that early California surfers had going was they had, as a general rule, found a way to live full, rich lives within the local environment, making escape from it (via travel and stuff) less necessary. Very sustainable.

At last month's Surf Research Symposium, there was one person who pulled no punches with regard to our local roles in sustainability. Apparently not beholden to social norms that, perhaps, kept others from saying it, Fernando Aguerre pronounced “We are not sustainable!” There was some visible squirming in the room. Aguerre’s statement was followed by the suggestion that the conversation be kept on track. But I thought this was on track exactly.

Elephant number three.

In the United States, consumption is, generally speaking, a function of work-life. The more we work, the more we consume—whether directly with over-sized homes and much needed vacations, or indirectly with staggering healthcare and, many times, unnecessary, ineffective, or only marginally-life-extending medical costs. In addition, our consumption patterns, and our subsequent impacts on the planet's overall natural resources, far outweigh those of our less consumptive, even if higher-birth-rate counterparts in less developed areas of the world.

"To have a state of sustainability where we remain within the productive capacity of the planet means that people in the industrialized countries are going to have to give up consumption of a great deal in order to create the ecological space for needed growth in the Third World. If we don't make those kinds of compromises, then we are going to continue to erode the resource base of the planet to the point where we all suffer" (Reese, From How Many People Can Live On the Planet?, 30:50).

Americans today, many surfers included, need to rethink their individual relationships with locality as it pertains to consumption. Any surfing that depends on air travel in, say a Boeing 747, has some obvious problems with sustainability. And while partnerships like that of the Surui and Google Earth Outreach attest that globalization is here to stay, that we all must participate thoughtfully and positively (or else!), there is still much to be said of what goes on at home--that other side of the coin.

We would do well to rethink what it was that local, community-oriented surfing of the past had over today’s satellite-predicted surf contests and surf expeditions. What are our prevailing relationships with time, locale, and work? A reordering of these, one that allowed for more days per year in the water at a local surf break, could mean less pressure on catching that perfect wave during your once-a-year, two-week vacation. It could mean less pressure that causes expensive, chronic disease. It could mean that when the time comes, a life well-lived will help in being a little more ready to go. It could mean less pressure on world resources as whole.

In the midst of the onslaught of the consumptive, industrial culture of the 20th century, surfers were already at the fore, leading us out of that unsustainable way of life. Having passed, via heritage and culture, a particular ethos—an ethos not of “dropping out,” but rather of balancing work- locale- and surf-life priorities, surfers and their children are poised to take up where the eldest generation of California surfers are now leaving off.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Audacity, Biology, Sustainability, and Surfing

Last time here I was talking about the roles that surfers have played or might play in the trajectory of human activity on the planet. Big ideas, I know. Sometimes I wonder why I should have the audacity to toss my hat into this particular ring.

But then I see this person... looking back at me.

Surfers are not a series of lone wolves, peppering our coastal zones. They are a collective body that gathers breadth and depth as culture passes to the children, the spouses, the neighbor's latchkey kid, all of those who are touched by the -philia that drives one to a life of surfing.

Surfers, being human, are subject to the same impulses that lead any of us to be greedy, petty, blind, self-centered, etc. At worst, surfers are racist, sexist, elitist, heterocentric, neocolonialist. At best, however, surfers are environmentalists, humanitarians, pro-social entrepreneurs, and, let’s not forget, fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, aunts, uncles, and cousins who are out there on that leading edge, with something very positive to contribute. That something is a way of relating to the natural world where nature, rather than being regarded as a pleasant backdrop, becomes integral to the “field of perception." The passing to kin of this alternate relationship with the ocean is the reason that I believe surfers are already are saving the world. 

So in thinking about our kin, let’s turn attention to the topic of that next elephant.

Population. It’s out of control. This one is, I think, that is much harder to grasp. Because it goes against the biological, even spiritual, underpinnings of our beings. If you are like me, numbers in the billions are too abstract to fathom. The documentary How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth? (a part of the "Horizon" 2009/10 series from the BBC) illustrates the current population trajectory with sobering clarity.

From the film: "Over the last ten thousand years, in general, there's been very little change. It's a very boring picture. But from about the year 1800 onwards, you have a major increase, a very large increase, from about 1 billion to up to 7 billion today." -Professor Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics.

Something has to change. But what? And how? This question of population goes into the heart, the place where the urge to ride waves is born. It is the same place that drives us to reproduce and create life. And for those readers who were at the symposium, there’s a reason you “give your girlfriend full dick—not half dick—full dick." It’s called biology.

The surf world has begun to ask and even act on what its role might be in the global population crisis. In surf-tourism hot-spots, like the Mentawai and Nias Islands, Dr. Dave Jenkins of SurfAid is making strides to address population issues by promoting basic sanitation and clean water measures, introducing simple medical interventions that reduce infant mortality, and even promoting breastfeeding, which has been shown to reduce family size. Wow, surfers teaching women how to breastfeed… warms the heart, doesn’t it? This is welcome and ironic progress from the days when missionaries first convinced Hawaiian women to cover up.

Still, collectively, we do have a long way to go. In service of that journey, I believe that appearances are important. In recently screened Behind the Palms, Jenkins explained the work of his organization SurfAid almost entirely in his own words rather than featuring the words of locals telling the story of how their local challenges have been addressed by SurfAid programs. I, personally, became more sensitive to the efficacy of the latter technique through watching films like A Generation of Hope: Orphans of the Zimbabwe AIDS Crisis and Sudden Shock by filmmaker, surfer, and sea captain David Ryan. When people are filmed describing, in their own words, their experiences of a given situation or the benefits to them of a given program, this does two things. First, it allows those administering the program moments to listen and opportunities to reflect on this question: ”Is my program making a difference in a way that is meaningful to the people I intend to aid?” Second, it removes the unsightly appearance (whether deserved or not) of neocolonialism.

Of course, over-population is just one side of the coin that is pushing our global sustainability closer to the brink. Other side, next post.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


At last month’s surf research symposium, writer Steve Barilotti described surfers as “innovative” and “adaptable.” These are just a couple of the ethics I alluded to in my last post. When Polynesian surfing came to California, “innovative and adaptable” combined with “oceanic literacy” and created a new ethos, an ethos that continues today, where surfers are not riding on the underbelly of cultural hegemony; surfing quite certainly is not a reaction to society. Where it comes to societal placement, surfers are out in front, just like they are out in front of the waves they ride. And, I believe this is true of those making strides for a sustainable surf tourism, as well.

But here’s the rub. There were a few elephants in the room that day. I think I’ll just take them one at a time here. The first is best unveiled by this statement, made by one member of the non-profit CEOs panel, in answer to the question of what had motivated him to start his non-profit? “We were surfing in this village where all they had was this subsistence fishery, and we thought, ‘What can we do about that?’”

Mine seemed to be the only jaw in the room to hit the floor.

Here we were, in the middle of the day, in a massive, air-conditioned, artificially lit university building, gathered to discuss sustainability, each with our individual plastic water bottles--who knows what our collective “footprint” was for those five hours alone--and one premise around which much of the discourse focused was this: it is such a shame that the locals could actually subsist in their environment that someone ought to create a non-profit devoted to changing that. Hmmmm.

To be fair, what people do, what people hope to do, and especially, who they are, is rarely contained by one or two statements. Still, that was his answer. To me, that answer betrayed a cultural-centrity that, I believe, has us (Westerners) headed down our own unsustainable path. Elephant number one. We (in the United States) haven’t wrapped our collective heads around our abiding expectation that our diligent, human economic activity will rightfully lead to economic growth, if only properly carried out. Therefore we haven’t wrapped our heads around the true meaning of sustainability. If we look to our most-recent selves as the model, we are in trouble. We need to begin to see the relationship between subsistence and sustainability, where subsistence isn’t a dirty word.

When, in our youth, my brother and I traveled to Punta Eugenia at the tip of the Vizcaino, we marveled at the finely tuned abalone and lobster co-op in which the local, natural resources were carefully stewarded by the local community—not to mention the desalinization plant locally built and operated that allowed the village a great deal of political autonomy. Walking the surrounding reefs of their town was like stepping back into SoCal yesteryear. Abalones peeked from every crevice, and species of fish, like sheephead and white sea bass, indigenous but rare on the Alta California coast, were swimming to and fro, right in our sight. My brother turned to me, “This must be the California that Al (Nelson) and Carl (Ekstrom) used to talk about.”

Perhaps I wasn't the only one who noticed this particular elephant in the room. Perhaps I wasn't the only one to politely pick my jaw up off the floor either. Serge Dedina of WildCoast, in working closely with fishing communities in Baja, has apparently gleaned this simple insight, and he shared it during his symposium presentation: “We have a lot to learn from them.” This is an idea that I think is worth repeating. I hope to revisit it in coming posts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


A new research center spread its fledgling wings. It’s called the Center for Surf Research, and it rides under the auspices of the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. To kick it off, Center Director Jess Ponting, Assistant Professor at SDSU, put together the Center’s inaugural symposium entitled, “Rising Tide Symposium: The Audacity of Stoke.”

Of course, I went.

The tagline for the event: An intellectual jam session on surf philanthropy and those who dare to care about surf destinations and their communities.

You might be surprised to learn that many major surf companies have well-developed philanthropic arms that are devoted to addressing the social and environmental challenges precipitated by the surf industry, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, and Billabong among them. And “sustainable surf tourism” is a rising sector, as well—an expanding industry in and of itself. Between lecturers from the likes of Fernando Aguerre, Rusty Miller, Serge Dedina, and Dr. Dave Jenkins, two panel discussions were held, the first seated by seasoned members of the surf industry, the second seated by four relatively new or up-and-coming, surf-inspired, non-profit CEOs. The program wrapped with a screening of the short film “Behind the Palms” from SurfAid International.

The essential question of the day was this: what are the social and environmental roles, responsibilities, and opportunities for surfers in the often far-flung (both culturally and geographically) destinations in which they surf? And, as if in answer to this question, Jenkins opened his presentation with this audacious statement, “Jess and I believe that surfing can save this planet.”

Add me to that list.

For the last couple years, I’ve been working on my own ideas about the pro-social roles that surfers will, and already have played on our planet. Call it cultural placement. And here is what I have come up with.

Social theorists have overwhelmingly relegated surf culture to the more easily dismissed realms of either sub-culture or counter-culture. I don’t quite see it that way. At its very origins, mainland California surf culture was not (initially) a part of the sub-cultural or counter-cultural experience. These surfers were not dropouts, nor were they reactionists. How these surfers came to be understood as such by non-surfing culture is of interest, but I digress.

First California surfers, by riding waves rather than evading them, were responding proactively to nature. First California surfers were responding proactively to an unexplored aspect of their local geography, venturing into ocean territory that had not yet been surfed. First California surfers proactively engaged in highly innovative surfboard design and constructions adapted from evolving aeronautical and war-time technologies. In fact, the first mainland California surfers were not reactionary at all but were proactive in a most profound way.

 Proactivity could be considered a hallmark of the way in which this generation of surfers responded to and navigated their experience. Proactivity, as I see it, is the opposite of the reactivity that spawns counter- or sub- cultures. Through this proactivity, California’s first surfers found themselves at the leading edge of a new way of life: a new culture, a leading culture (not the Leitkultur associated with Bassam Tibi) that would come to be admired and emulated the world over.

Of course, provenance is no small deal. And “seascape epistemology” or “oceanic literacy,” thank you Karen Ingersoll, as passed (or some might argue grabbed) from Hawaiian surfers is the necessary, non-substitutable ingredient in of all of this. Still, the Californian-thing was the result of a unique set of ethics colliding at the perfect moment in time. So that what began as a hard-core hobby for a few became a lifeway for many and may actually be the ethic needed to redirect our current global trajectory.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Welcome to Stokology

Hello Stokology readers. If you are here, chances are you have some interest in, experience with, relationship to, or curiosity about stoke. I do, too.

For the last several years, I have been engaged in scholarship that explores the cultural position occupied by a group of surfer-musicians who maintain a more than seventy-year-old music tradition on the beach at San Onofre. My work describes the ocean-centered culture that they co-created, inspired by Polynesians, here in California and describes some of the ways in which that culture has foreshadowed societal trends here in the United States, as well as around the world, trends now seen as mainstream, trends that will be ever more important in the not-so-distant future.

As creators of culture, these surfer-musicians tailored the very mundane experiences of being human, including family life, organized sports, and social clubs, to fit into their ocean way-of-life. This also included music. My scholarly research explores the essence of experience for members of this community, as well as the epistemological framework used, maintained, and disseminated by these earliest of California surfers. To put it simply, their lives and our inheritance were transformed by surfing; they were stoked, and they were a movement in the making.

The more time I spend thinking about stoke (and contemplating the reasons I find myself on such an unlikely scholarly path), the more I understand my own relationship to it. To begin to introduce myself, I'll start here with a little backstory:

If not for stoke, I probably would not be here on the planet. No really. Read on.

My father hails from Jersey City, 1930s. It was a rough place, from what I can tell. He learned to swim in the Hudson River, jumping off the docks across from New York City. His parents were Irish immigrants, neither of whom had the opportunity to complete high school. But they took raising their boys seriously, and all four became “white collar professionals” with graduate degrees or better. This is to say, they worked hard. They pushed. And each of the four children put himself in a position to have some choice.

My father’s choice was to surf. Soon as he was able, he ventured west, made certain professional and economic sacrifices, all so that, at day’s end, he could immerse himself in the cold California Pacific to catch waves. Like the surfer-musicians at San Onofre, he put oceanophilia at the center of our family life, and in so doing, adjoined our lives to a particular and burgeoning culture.

Now, being a lean, muscular man with very little body fat, my father would come home from those sessions chilled to the bone and promptly immerse himself in the hottest bath water he could handle while my mother got a hot dinner on the table—very Ozzy and Harriet, kind of. Imagine, for a moment, what these daily soaks did for his fertility. No babies came, and it was not for lack of trying, so I’m told. Maybe he got sick and stayed out of the surf for a week, maybe he attended an out of town conference that was followed by a particularly joyous homecoming before a return to the usual cold, then piping hot, water activities? I don’t know. I was eventually, however belatedly, conceived. Had my parents hopes of children been met sooner, had the Pacific been a few degrees warmer, I probably would have been a wasn’t, and somebody else would be writing this instead of me.

But that is hardly the only reason I am invested in the subject.

I was lucky to grow up in a small, southern California coastal town at a time when skin-diving for plentiful abalone was walking distance from our home; when one of my favorite winter-time treats, the gathering of California sea mussels to cook in a beer and butter bath, still was legal; when pre-kindergartener that I was, I could run down to the beach, unattended (while mom was at home making dinner, but that’s another subject) to greet my neoprene-smelling father as he emerged from his surf session so that we could watch the sun set together. I remember glittering, moonlit grunion runs and family camping trips to central and southern Baja. A few years on, my brother and I hitch-hiked the entire Baja peninsula, including its Vizcaino peninsula all the way out to Isla Natividad. We never gave it a second thought. I definitely caught the tail end of a very special time. Those days are gone.

But stoke is not. Stoke endures. Stoke, a transcendent experience, has a tremendous amount to teach us about the art of being human and will have a tremendous impact on the next millennium, if we are just clever enough to let it.