The Surfer: Categorizing the Unknown

A look at the difficulty of defining those who ride waves

| posted on March 22, 2011

Are you a surfer the second you get to your feet, or does it take more to earn that title?

In The History of Surfing, Matt Warshaw described attempts during the 1960s at creating a census of American surfers. Rough estimates varied widely: foam-maker Gordon Clark estimated that there were around 200,000 total surfers in the country, while Newsweek generously estimated that there were close to 1,000,000 wave riders nationwide.

According to Warshaw, the reason for the varied numbers was simple: it’s difficult to define exactly what a surfer is. Is a surfer someone who owns a board? Or what about someone who only surfs during the summer? For that matter, what about a sponger or body surfer? Do they even count?

Of the many who have sought to answers these particular questions, no one has offered a more poignant conclusion than the mainstream media.

In the ’50s, U.S. newspapers and magazines warned concerned parents about the danger of the lawless surfer; they only cared about sex, drinking, and of course, waves, and their immorality would inevitably corrupt innocent suburban youth. The movie Gidget, and other surf movies like Muscle Beach Party or Ride the Wild Surf, portrayed surfers as an innocent, fun loving bunch, who—despite their lack of responsibilities—were actually quite harmless. In the movie Point Break, a group of tribe-like surfers funded their “endless summer” by robbing banks Wild Bunch style—swearing, shooting, and then swearing and shooting some more. And who could forget Jeff Spicoli?

All were marketable hedonistic hooligans. But countless books, articles, movies, and TV programs capture only simple facets of surfing. What the media often chooses to negate during their process of simplification is that the nature of surfing itself is something that is complex, misunderstood, and highly fluid.

Surfing has few rules or guidelines. There isn’t a court, a field, or a stadium. There are contests, but they are subject to the fleeting will of the ocean. It is not easily mastered, and requires a lifetime of dedication. While a mountain or skate park may remain relatively consistent, surf spots vary remarkably, and range from frozen freshwater lakes as well as tropical paradises. There are countless styles of surfing, reflecting the evolution of a sport that has existed for centuries. A surfer’s ultimate goal varies from person to person; one might aim to surf the biggest wave, while another dreams of getting barreled, and still another may simply hope to one day stand up.

Surfing is so intricately complex and constantly changing it begs the question: Shouldn’t a surfer reflect that immense complexity? I take it to heart that being a surfer means more than owning a board or perpetually smelling of salt and neoprene. A surfer immerses himself into an alien world, where the constrictions that ground society on dry-land are cast away. He creates and embraces a form of expression that is free from rules or guidelines. Because of that freedom, no social construct—such as money, outward appearance, or social reputation—comes to define a surfer.

So, it’s safe to say, that we are more than what Hollywood portrays us as.

With all that said though, when do you consider yourself to be a surfer? What separates someone who has surfed occasionally, from someone who calls the water their second home? -Stefan Slater

  • Lexi

    I believe that just like sexuality or personality types, there is no one definition or label that fits a surfer because each surfer is unique. Whether we surf occasionally or are on the water every spare moment, we are all bonded together by our love of the waves.

  • claudio elias

    A surfer is someone whose life was irreversibly changed by that first wave

  • 111makai111

    Hey, I like Claudio’s definition… When your life is changed after your first wave! You plan trips to surf, put surfing at a priority when the waves are good, yeah, that kind of example, you read about surfing, go to surf on your own and all that stuff that others just can’t understand or wonder about! Nicely done, Claudio!

  • Victor

    Yeah Claudio’s def is perfect. Whether it made you buy a board for summur or surf every single day, as long as ur life has been changed by that 1 wave on way or another, ur a surfer.

  • Jeff

    I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be more like the guy in the video.

  • james

    I live in Bali. I miss a lot about home – the security, my mates, the pub, a decent cup of tea, my folks and sometimes I feel as homesick as. Just when I feel like I’m ready to chuck it in and get on with life I drive 40 mins up the coast to a spot I have to myself most days. Perfect 4-6ft rights with volcanos and palms in the distance, sometimes the moon is still visible hanging overhead at daybreak. It’s 5.07am here in Bali now and I’m about to go load the car. I’ve been so excited about the swell due to show this morning that I could barely sleep. I’ve been feeling like this for 10 years ever since I moved to Java from London to learn to surf. Does this make me a ‘surfer’?

    • Geoff

      James, I think you’re bragging. Go back to London and smoke a fag, kook.

  • Shane

    It’s a matter of passion. Does surfing make you come alive?

    In contrast to James story, I was born and raised on Kauai, riding waves as long as I can remember whether it was on a sponge or a surfboard, but I realized when I was 23 that I wasn’t really a “surfer.” I was on an around the world trip and I had just flown from Germany to South Africa. Sitting around a table of guys in J-Bay listening to them talking about Andy and Kelly’s performance at the Billabong pro at Super Tubes, they asked me how many boards I brought. When I said I didn’t have a board and that I was from Hawaii, they were stumped. Haha, I realized that I didn’t care at all if I surfed in Jeffrey’s on a borrowed board or even if there was swell or not! I know I can always surf when I get home, even though Kauai has really horrible surf!

    I love surfing, but I’m not a surfer.

  • Amanda

    I think Claudia put it nicely. I surf a ton in the summer and I even began traveling to do it a lot more as well (I live in NY). Hence, no matter how hard I try I will never be Kelly Slater, and I’m ok with that, I am just having fun! So is it safe to say you have to be pro-status to be called a surfer? Or dedicate all your time and energy into one sport? I don’t think that’s fair. I think its definitely a feeling and if you enjoy it, reach a certain level where you can control the board, turn left /right and not be a total kook, why can’t you be proud to call yourself a surfer? I don’t think being able to hold that “title” you ultimately have to move to a foreign land, own a quiver of 12 boards and have a sponsorship…but that’s just me….either way surfing has enhanced my life and I think that’s all that matters in the end…

  • Mike

    Do you do it consistently? Then you are surfer. Just like if you run regularly, you are a runner. Do you golf regularly? Then you are a golfer. Seems pretty straight forward. If its something that you practice and do regularly then its part of who you are.

  • Tidestruck

    That video was painful

  • djconeuk

    HAHA Quality Vid! British humour @ its best!!
    some people just don’t get it

  • Stevie Dalpe

    I’m a surfer stuck in Ohio. All I think about is surfing from when I wake up until I go to bed my life has been rewarded and been a hindrence from surfing but I will never stop. I just have to surf it’s the worst addiction ever I can’t explain it. Luckily there is Lake Erie which produces surf sometimes…

  • Stevie Dalpe

    As the saying goes ” If you use to surf, you never did” – Stevie Dalpe

  • Lindsay

    Excellent article, Stefan. I’m not a surfer, but your article makes me want to try.

  • surfer

    That guy looks a lot older than 41 and obviously does not surf (at least regularly)