The Wall

Will surfers ever grow up?

| posted on December 02, 2012

Surfing has kept Shane Dorian in a perpetual state of adolescence. How do you explain this reckless line at Mavericks? Photo: Trefz


You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful wife? And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? The days go by, and it’s no longer 1986, I am no longer 10 years old, subscribing to SURFER Magazine for the first time, obsessing over Curren’s bottom turns while listening to Talking Heads. Our first American ASP World Champion took hold of my pre-teen mind in a way that my cartoon heroes—Scooby Doo, Optimus Prime, Inspector Gadget—never had.

Even my plain-clothes heroes—Albert Einstein, Bill Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, Bob Dylan—did not move me the way Tom Curren did. I literally dreamed of surfing with Tom as a child, just as I dreamed of seeing a ghost in my bedroom, and being able to call Ghostbusters, and have Egon and Venkman launch proton packs into my attic. I did the things kids do, and adults don’t: drew cartoon surfers on my binder, along with tail templates and the cover art of Led Zeppelin, spent an entire day at the beach in my wetsuit, built sandcastles between sessions, believed that surfing better would somehow make me a better person.

After 25-odd years wasted in the water, I am still reeling from the sheer joy of being young and falling in love with surfing. To be immature and a surfer is to be infinitely lucky. As an introspective kid who immersed himself in books and toys and fantasy, I rarely felt obliged to insert myself into the real world. And then came surfing—and I was out there, and suddenly unafraid, even though little things like walking to the deli counter alone still terrified me. My obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings and Star Wars meant my mind was prepped to view life in gothic, romantic, struggle-for-survival terms. I felt like Frodo, suddenly thrust into a new world, surrounded by great beauty and great danger.


Northern California’s rugged, desolate reef peaks took on the grandeur of the Mountains of Shadow, a wasteland of darkness on the edge of Mordor. I was no longer playing make-believe with Star Wars action figures, using a Chinese paper lantern as my Death Star. Instead, I put myself gleefully in peril, pushing farther and farther into littoral zones that tourists and family members justifiably saw as life-threatening. After all, beachcombers were swept off rocks every year to their deaths, and even local fishermen caught in high swells sometimes never returned to shore. But I was undaunted. From the very beginning, I was convinced that an angry sea could be placated by knowledge and devotion, convinced that if I loved surfing enough, and paid enough attention, nothing bad would happen to me. In short, I was convinced I was the hero of my own quest.

But all quests must come to an end. What does it mean to let surfing remain the central focus of your adult life? Does it have to do with riding waves, or does it have to do with warped priorities? In America, at least, a good citizen prioritizes success over everything else, and success is invariably defined financially. There are more than a few ways to get there, of course. You can go into banking, or law, and basically dedicate your life’s energies to learning how to navigate corporate cultures, which invariably celebrate ethics, but reward criminality (at least criminality in which money is fleeced from everyday Americans who are too stupid to understand corporations are out to fleece them). Or you can be a youthful tech visionary, and use a set of skills that nearly preclude social intelligence to build interfaces that tell less intelligent Americans how to socialize with each other. Or you can simply become famous for the sake of wanting to be famous, as long as you want fame badly enough to reshape your body for it, with a barrage of scalpels, injectable bacteria-created toxins, and bulimic purges. To be a real surfer means that you have rejected these concepts of financial success, deciding instead that success is dictated by how many waves you have caught, how hard you rip, and how awesome your quiver is.

  • Whamo

    At age 60, unable to go in the water, I’m sure glad I spent 35 years surfing when I could, between jobs, family, and school, and I don’t regret a minute of it. You only live once.

  • Jimmy the Saint

    Another great article Mr Samuels, This kinda reminds me of the classic “playing Doc’s games” when the author is questioning the commitment he makes to surfing. I haven’t started questioning it yet, but at 30 years of age I can see that over the next ten to fifteen years my priorities may change. For now though, surfing is (family and health aside) priority number 1!

  • Ben

    Just fantastic. Samuels blows the other surf scribes away.

  • Matt

    I don’t agree that to be a “true surfer” you have to reject financial success. I know plenty of surfers that rip and made it rich through their own hard work and success.

    Lewis, maybe you can do it one day.

  • tim finn

    Great article I am 51 been surfing the north atlantic for 40 years and dont plan on stopping, I have a 21 year old daughter and a beautiful wife of 22 years surfing is a priority, better than drinking drugging or golfing keep the stoke goin Lewis your dead a long time,

  • pat

    ugh… we’re useless. great article.

  • NorCal Neptune

    After surfing for better than 3 decades, I’ve heard all the arguments from non-surfing friends and family; grow up, support your family better, buy a house, go back to school. Well, I did go back to school, graduated college, got a better job, and bought a house. I now have 3 sons that I take out surfing and it’s given me a credible excuse to silence the surfing haters.

    When the kids are grown, I’ll take the grandkids out. As far as I’m concerned, those who keep telling me to “grow up” are just boring and jealous. I always laugh about the fact that chasing a ball around a golf course is “adult”, yet charging double overhead is “childish”.

    My advice would be to surf until you’re unable to surf anymore, and in the meantime, make it a family event and introduce a new generation of shredders into the club. Cheers.

  • big Al

    Mr. Samuels:

    Beautifully written, and highly introspective– especially for the oft-flaky genre of surf literature.
    Might someone point me in the direction of more of his writings? Cheers

  • joe

    Unreal, loved it! The problem is I just keep banging my head against the wall can’t seem to get over it.

  • Billy legs

    Nice intelligent piece…50+ yrs of surf…my only regret is missed days of being in the water. Go fer it!

  • Rodger Eales


  • CC

    As I type this I can hear the swell off the left point break outside my window in Morocco (yes left point in Moroc). I am 48 with a metal hip. This was a good read mirroring some thoughts I have had recently, well maybe have had for ever. It’s all a balance: be it music, surf, family, life. Live for today but plan for tomorrow. Easier said than done, as most deserving things are. I will work here another year and a half before I return my house blocks from reefs I have surfed most of my life. My work, and my wonderous family, have all allowed me to keep surfing around the world. Surfing keeps me in better shape than any other activity. Keeps me calm. Keeps me happy, and this then allows me to give that much more back to my family and the world. Coverting the energy ot the sea to good deeds…So, maybe not too worthless: a gift that keeps giving. Though I still cringe like I lost winning lottery ticket every day I miss it (usually due to work: the paraodox!). Yea, ok, peace, go find some empty waves …or better, near-empty ones with smiles all around.

  • Turvyjj

    Wonderful writing. 51 years old, newly (and first) arrived daughter –Vera– right yesterday, and my closet full of wetsuits. You were fast, Lewis, just 38…

  • Tyler Vaughan

    really enjoyed this article…. I need to get in the water!

  • Andrew

    As if I’m not proud enough, this article (along with every word I’ve ever read by Mr. Samuels) makes me really fucking proud to be a surfer.Forever.

  • not a boo local

    To the mouth that roared–it’s Sloat Blvd. not Sloat St. I guess the new way for all transplants is to change the names of places and things. Doesn’t matter if it was named over 100 yrs. ago. OB hmmmm?

  • Sir Simon

    I’m 40 and been surfing since 15. You can have a full time job and still surf, just have to make time for it. I’ve been prudent with my money and am taking some serious time off next year to travel and surf.

    The whole thing is to not get too caught up in keeping up with the Joneses, and have an understanding wife. And in those moments when you don’t feel like it, push yourself to go surf anyway, you’re always the better for it.

  • drifter

    Great article. Some of the reply’s very inspirational.

  • tuna

    The sentiment that “surfing is a selfish, useless act, on par with masturbation,” is invariably true. However, drawing a comparison as simple minded as this fails to showcase the differences between either activity and television, exercising, or reading. None of these things lend to a more successful individual any more than surfing does. To real surfers, the amusement of surfing, exploring and socializing is leagues beyond that of which television can supply, yet a vast majority of our world’s civilization is constantly adrift in a zombie like state of wasted vitality while plopped in front of the tube getting fat. And is there really any more monotonous of an activity than running without going anywhere, on a treadmill for example? Or lifting large weights in order to appear more robust to the fairer sex? Yet people that exercise are regarded with admiration among society. And as for reading, aside from increasing our vocabularies and exposing us to different ideas, we are undoubtedly ignoring every adult-like responsibility while indulging in it. I’d simply rather be getting pitted.

    Personally I find the theme of this article to be pretty far from the truth. I’m not going to get into reasons that surfing is in fact an extraordinary way to spend our time or the importance of cultivating youthful traits. Instead I’ll conclude by echoing, the time is now – let us all step away from this wasteful activity. And once all the line-ups are empty, those of us that were able to stand strong against societies judgment and that of any newly converted responsible adults, will be left ripping your favorite break without a single convoluted soul blocking our line :p

  • Drew

    I have been in and around the ocean for 30 years. As I got older my jobs, relationships and life revolved around my time in the water. Well at 32 years old I broke my neck in a car accident. I am fortunate enough to be able to walk but now have spinal fussion from C3-T1 which does not allow me to look up. I tried to surf again but as you can imagine it is pretty darn impossible to paddle and see what is infront (or to the side) of me. I am so very grateful for the all the sessions I did get over the years. Surfing helped me spirtitually, physically, and socially. Some days are tough (offshore winds & swell) but being in a chair or dead is much worse. To all that read this, ENJOY EVERY SESSION YOU GET because you never know.

  • Radsurfer

    At age 60, I have many waves behind me and many before….and i believe every well ridden, or just well, ridden and enjoyed… generates mana to the world.

  • justin

    Great article.

    Do we run to the ocean to ride the waves, or do we use our passion for waves to run from the wall and all that entails?

  • james

    great read, thanks. I’m in the new dad status too.

    ps: I don’t know about you guys, but i think about surfing every single day. When I buy a new board, i start thinking about the next one.
    Surfing is rad, i’m not giving it up, unless I have to.

  • Woody

    I am 40 and still surf as well as I did in my 20’s… maybe even a little more refined now. I have had one wife and countless girls leave me because they would not take 2nd chair to the ocean. I do not see myself quitting any time soon either.

    Oh and Drew… Excellent Advice.

  • Cesar

    Great article!!!, congrats…….
    I’m 71 and have surfed until 60. Always managed to work for living and to surf for plasure and performance. I hv two children already grown. My son is 35 and he works and surfs even better than me, travelling to far away places as Bali- Indo etc. Now, I enjoy seeing pics of my son surfing and I project my mind as if I was there. That is life, when you put love into it, you can do what you like eternally.
    The best way, is to consider life as a great wave, if you’r a good surfer you’l surf it to the end, successfully.

  • Martin Kelly

    Great story. Really well written and thought through. I’m 50yo and still obsessed more than 40 years after catching my first wave. Done plenty so far, still so much to do. And the things you see along the way…

  • Ugo

    What a great article.