The Fallacy Of “Simplicity”

Why living a simple surf life is usually not that simple

| posted on December 27, 2012

Riding waves is relatively simple. It's everything else that isn't. Photo: Burkard

One of surfing’s foundational premises, one of its principal allures, is its simplicity. Consider the fact that among the most famous words ever written about the sport is a sentence that comes from the first issue of this magazine. It’s a caption to a photo of a faceless surfer, back to the camera, knee-paddling in utter solitude toward a perfect, right-breaking wave at Hammond’s Reef in Santa Barbara. “In this crowded world,” SURFER founder John Severson wrote in that 1960 issue, “the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”

If the sentence sounds familiar, that’s because it gets conjured in this magazine something like half a dozen times a year in one way or another, a fact that has remained constant for decades, as regular and predictable as the tides. (There was no way, for instance, that this essay on simplicity was ever going to not lead with the Severson quote.)

Of course, it gets reprinted at such an alarming rate for a reason, which is that, 52 years after it was first published, it encapsulates not only what the surf experience was in 1960, but what the surf experience is now. It’s a sentence that connotes solitude, a degree of brooding, and a constant, obsessive, and ultimately fruitless quest for that always-out-of-reach perfection in a decidedly imperfect world. It’s a sentence that, to my mind at least, remains the best, most reasonable explanation as to why anybody has ever put a board in the water.

I doubt he thought about it in the self-serious way I’ll interpret it here, but what Severson really seemed to be saying with that sentence was that surfing, simple as it was, offered at least the possibility of reconnecting us with what we’ve  lost. Surfing was the basic and rudimentary antidote to society’s ceaseless encroachment on our humanity.

And why did Severson portray surfing as such a change agent? Because surfing was simple. Think of the implied simplicity in both the image and the caption on that spread. In the image, the surfer is paddling out to a perfect, and perfectly ridable, wave, entirely alone. He’s unidentified. We can’t see his face. He is simply “the surfer.” He’s not wearing a wetsuit, of course, nor is there a leash in the picture (the wetsuit was in its nascent stages at that point, and hadn’t been accepted into the main; as for the surf leash, it hadn’t been invented yet, not properly at least). There are, of course, no crowds. There are only four elements: A surfer, a board, “the surf and his thoughts.”

No bullshit, in other words. Man, board, wave. Simple.

Look around “this crowded world” today and things are certainly less simple. There are the obvious facts of all the things that weren’t in the picture in 1960 but are very much in our proverbial picture now. There are wetsuits and leashes and surf cams and localism and overcrowding. Few of us will experience the aesthetic pleasure of a right-hand pointbreak as isolated and symmetrical as late-’50s era Hammond’s Reef. “This crowded world” has extended into the lineup, which is now just as overpopulated, overheated, and overhyped as the outside world Severson’s view of surfing was meant to protect us from, a world couched in by image and choice and indecision, by fear and gear.

I don’t mean to overstate the case. Some things remain constant, and when we’re surfing, we still get to spend time in an environment that itself seems to be elemental and essential in a way that few things are in the world today. Given that we live in a society that is relentlessly demanding of our time and attention, a society that presents a vague but threatening need to get things done, to remain constantly tuned-in, there’s certainly a case to be made for the sport’s lasting function as a simplifying agent. For those one or two hours that we are surfing, we get to sit in a large, undulating body of water and wait for a band of formless energy to come. And then we get to ride that energy for a handful of seconds before paddling back out and doing it all again. There’s nothing especially complicated about that.

But it’s also not simple. It’s not simple for all of the clichéd reasons—the multi-billion-dollar surf industry, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But to start blaming industry is to point out the obvious, and it’s also to miss the point.

No, what’s most complicated about surfing, I think, has very little to do with the business of surfing, with surf websites and surf cameras and surf clothing companies, with surf magazines and the basic ridiculousness of the idea of professional surfing in general—all of the avenues down which we tend to point our fingers. What’s most complicated about surfing, I think, is the fact that surfing tends to take away as much as it gives.

The things that I’ve missed, or nearly missed, because I was riding waves, or attempting to do the same are bountiful: My best friend’s wedding, my own wedding; the birth of my godson, the birth of my own son; job interviews; family dinners. And those are just the big ones. Add to that list the dozens and dozens of more mundane appointments, meetings, and dates that I’ve skipped out on to surf, or the fact that I can’t drive past a surf break without craning my neck to assess the conditions, that my eyes gravitate naturally to flagpoles and the tops of trees, the fact that I’m an otherwise responsible person who will more or less abandon all civility and dive deep into a pool of selfishness if the right amalgam of wind and waves and tide comes my way—add all that into the mix and what you get is the fact that for as much as surfing adds to your life, it takes plenty away in trade.

Recently I was considering the possibility of a job offer away from the coast. I was grousing to a friend of mine about the prospect, when he stopped me cold in my tracks. “The real problem here is that you wouldn’t want to take it because you’d have to move away from the water.”

It was a punch to the gut, mostly because my friend was absolutely right.

It was a realization I’d had a few years prior: That surfing, something I held dear to me presumably because it in some way enhances my life, something that in some way simplifies my life, often serves the exact opposite function.

Someone had offered me the prospect of a well-paying job I love doing, a job that would provide security for my wife and son and daughter, and the most obvious mitigating factor was that I might have to give up something as inherently meaningless as riding a wave?

Ironically, it’s that need to always be near the surf that makes some people hang it up altogether. About a month ago, a nice shot of swell ran up the coast, and as I hotfooted down the trail at my local break, I ran into a friend I know from the water. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I hadn’t seen him in far too long. He’s one of the best surfers at this break—the type of guy who can get any wave he wants any time he wants, and the type of guy who can ride the wave better than most. His wetsuit was pulled to his waist, but he wasn’t carrying a board. Instead, he had in his hands a pair of swim fins.

“Not surfing?” I asked.

“No, bodysurfing,” he replied.

“Where you headed?” I asked. The sun was out, the surf was a few feet overhead, and at the bottom of that trail was a nice A-frame and a light crowd. But while I looked out at the main peak, this friend of mine swung his arm hard right and pointed to a bit of closeout shorebreak a hundred yards down the beach.

“Looks like fun,” he said.

I stared at him quizzically. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I quit surfing,” he said, all business. “Gave it up. I can’t handle it any more. It’s too much.”

He didn’t provide any further explanation, but I understood exactly what he was talking about. It’s a gripe I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency in each passing year.

You see it every time the ocean kicks up even a modest bit of energy, energy about which you’ll be alerted by your favorite surf forecasting website, from which you receive email notifications and swell updates. That website informs you that “significant swell activity” will be coming to your area. You cross-reference that swell forecast with tide charts and wind models, and with the excitement that it all adds up comes a healthy dose of modern-day surf anxiety. What are you going to do? Drive three hours north? Ten hours south? Will you take your 5’2″ Mini-Simmons? Your 5’7″ Dumpster Diver? Your 6’3″ step-up? You’ll take them all, of course, each individually wrapped in their respective solar-reflective board bags. But what kind of fin setup? Quad or thruster? Standard fiberglass or carbon fiber? FCS or Futures? When you get there, when will you paddle out? Hit the tide push or wait till it sucks out? Fight the morning crowd or hope the wind stays off it and get it in the afternoon? Left or right?

Being simple has never been so exhausting.

The obvious reaction to all of this growth, for a certain type of person at least, is to brace himself hard against the onslaught. To cloister himself, and to ignore the surfing mainstream. To take hard stances against things like SURFER and Surfline and the ASP Tour. To ride outdated boards on outlying waves. To greet surfing’s increasingly complicated tableau with a makeshift simplicity: Black wetsuit, white board, no leash. Keel-fin fish instead of a quad-fin shortboard. No-fin alaia instead of tri-fin thruster. Duck Feet bodysurfing fins instead of any board at all.

When we discuss this particular brand of surfer we tend to frame our discussion in either spiritual or sartorial terms. These throwback characters are either being “retro” because they want to affect a certain look, or because they think taking a more elemental surfing stance will bring them closer to enlightenment, we tell ourselves. We poke fun, even as we envy, but we rarely stop to consider that the choice might have far less to do with fashion or faith, with wanting to be perceived a certain way at all, and far more to do with wanting to experience surfing in a more simplified manner. This type of surfer wants to know that in this crowded lineup, they can still seek and find something authentic, if not something perfect.

Because part of being a surfer is to feel like you have an inside track on something that other people don’t know about. We’ve given ourselves over to an environment that grounds us down in some way. It’s not golf: The range is not always open, the tee time can never be set. Instead, if you’re going to have any chance at succeeding, any chance at finding that special combination of reeling waves and light crowds and surfed-out bliss, you’ve got to keep your eye tuned to things that are exceedingly basic and elemental—wind, weather, the rhythm of ocean tides and currents, swell patterns, the fundamental sways, really, of nature itself.

All of which feels simple. But of course it’s not. Because there’s nothing simple about being that tuned in to anything. Like love or drugs or food or whatever the hell it is that people get hooked on, being compulsively needy over any one thing might feel cathartic and single-pointed and self-assuring, but it does incredibly complex things to a person. Living as a surfer is no different. Living as a surfer turns out to be a complicated undertaking, one that leads to conflicting and competing desires. Which is the point. Surfing might be simple. But at what cost to us?

  • Nicolás Leonhardt

    enjoyed reading this article as much as I do surfing. It´s impressive how much truth there is to this article. Excellent writing, made me realized that yeah we give up allot for surfing, but hey, if it makes you happy keep doing it! It all depends on how much we get involved in surfing and what things we give up for surfing! If you miss your sons birthday there is obviously something wrong with your priorities.

    So keep doing what makes you happy and balance your surfing with your professional and personal life.

  • evan

    this is especially true in inconsistent places like santa barbara. Every time there is a swell, the entire county is on the spot

  • Steve

    good writing, I enjoyed it.
    could have been more simple though….. 😉

  • Elina

    THANK YOU Brad Melekian! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about! Comforting to know that somebody else does too. Great that it was published in Surfer!

  • Pingback: THE FALLACY OF “SIMPLICITY” | California Native

  • joe

    Very real words here, thanks for sharing.
    I enjoy voyaging, on canoe or stand up board, it gives me solitude and connectedness much like surfing a remote break.
    Aloha brudah~

  • Jdubbs

    Like anything, obsession is never healthy, but knowing the beach is always there and being able to surf it sometimes makes this life so much more liveable. I don’t get caught up in the latest gear fads, and its pretty easy to ignore the industry.
    Driving to the surf playing my favorite tunes is still one of my favorite simple pleasures in the world 25 years into my surfing career. I’m in the middle of a world surfari right now in fact and wouldn’t trade the experience and the people I’ve met along the way for anything.

  • Jo

    Just know that Southern California is one place and the whole world isn’t like that place.

  • Eric

    Nice piece, Brad. I grew up ‘figuring out what others didn’t know’, and dodging crowds. It’s changed, coming to grips with that and still loving surfing can be a struggle, but also a relief. Some days just walk away, others just grab a board and go surf no matter what.

  • Rui

    Such an interesting piece, i was just discussing exactly the same a few days ago.

    I moved 1 year ago from Portugal where i had my daily surf addiction to Munich, Germany
    and i kind of feel reliefed i have surf away from my life and now i can enjoy all the other
    things that life also has to offer… whenever i go back to the water i just want to surf
    in the spot with no crowd, which tend to be the one with shit waves… the good thing
    is that shit waves aren´t a problem anymore, they are also fun 🙂

  • Kooks

    Evan, I’ve scored SB points on some of their best days of the year with a handful of guys and plenty of waves. As for the switch from surfing to body surfing, as long as you are still riding waves you didn’t give up surfing you just switched from Beer to whiskey.

  • Chaz Stamps

    What a great read. I started surfing relatively late in life, at the age of 33. I have never been a beach person, opting for more snowboarding than anything else. But now, with about 5 years of learning, and progressing all of which was stated in this article i feel i can relate to. Starting my surfing in San Diego, i was blessed with year round surf really. When on deployment, i only cared where the surf was. I’d scour the internet looking for a spot which might be “Hitting” when the ship pulled in. Because of that I can log: Philippines, Thailand, Dubai, and Costa Rica in my “Places I have surfed” memory bank. I now live in Bremerton Washington, just two hours from Westport, WA. Because of the endless pursuit of that “Perfect day” i along with all the other penguins in the water, have subjected myself to miserable conditions…..just for that “Una Ola.” You’re article is an excellent summation of what has become my life…..thanks.

  • Cyrus Sutton

    So True! another great read. Thanks Brad

  • Pete

    bravo! if more things like this got printed here, i might buy a surfer for once

  • Ben

    I tell you what: I surfed head-high, blown-out OB today with just a few guys, and it was pretty damn fun. I think it comes down to whether you can appreciate what you’ve been given.

  • Frankie


    It’s not simple…the lifestyle. Some folks make the life look easy. However, it’s certainly not that complicated when you get right down to it. The beauty of simple lies in the beholder (which is where the articulattion of your article goes wrong). Retro or picking your “step up” certainly provides a challenge most certainly.. The tee time is never set. Yet, it’s the experience that brands us. From the newbie to the old school. You could flail all day long, deal with the paddle as we do up north in California…the frustration as it is in most cases.

    It’s not simple like the old school, but it is still the simplicity in riding a wave. It’s those magic sessions with 50,000 of your best friends at Pipes or your very best friend at a sharky reef (which I’ve had in San Diego and reefs north of SF) which lay tracks of simplicity.

    The act is what’s simple. The analysis makes it less than.

  • who

    if theres anything in this world that is going to consume me and take over my life, boy, i’m glad it’s surfing.

  • Gus

    Good read Brad. Not sure how I stumbled across this article but it really speaks to me. The Hawaiians had it right I reckon. Strip it back. Right back. No rocker, no fins, no leg rope, no wetsuit, no hype, no guilt trips from family or fiancés, no interventions, no obligations. Just pure commitment to the ocean. Wood, wave and waterman. Etherial simplicity.

  • Steve

    Crazy that such a profound article would have so few comments…

    • JC

      You’re right this is profound. I wish my Mom could understand Surfing. I wish the people in life I love the most can understand it. But they don’t. Its been my own private addiction for 15 years. I always tell myself The Ocean is the only thing that will be honest with you and give you a fair go. And yet, I always choose the city, and the bs. Its complicated to just choose the Ocean, but thats what it might have to come down to for me.