The Wall

Will surfers ever grow up?

| posted on December 02, 2012

Thanks to surfing, Kolohe Andino is destined to be forever young. Young man-hack, California. Photo: Ellis


So we’ve got one thing right, and that’s a start. We’ve decided to give the middle finger to the man, live by our own rules, and prioritize happiness over riches. The trouble is, what we dedicate ourselves to instead is Dionysian at best. Surfing is pure hedonism. Instead of doing something of lasting import in the world, instead of leaving any kind of legacy, intellectual or otherwise, we’re simply dancing to the band on the face of the waters as the Titanic slowly sinks around us. We have chosen to drink, and shred, and laugh, and lie on tropical beaches with our skin warmly drying in the breeze as melanomas are birthed on us.

I remember a lunch on Sloat Street, years ago, during which Matt Warshaw explained to me that surfing is a selfish, useless act, on par with masturbation. I sat there, across the greasy table from my elder, wondering at his obvious and shameful theory. I’d already dedicated 20 years of my life to surfing. And the foremost historian of my sport, the knowledge holder, after years of research, decades spent living and examining the surfing lifestyle, had come to this unfortunate conclusion: Surfing was a waiting room, a time in your life no more permanent than climax, in which you hold fast to happiness and delight before sadly sinking back down onto the truth, that life is sadder and more meaningful than our playtime. Life is doled out in a series of tragic moments, and beautiful ones, most shared between two people. These insights are not earned in the water, unless something horrible happens there. Otherwise, I fear, we learn little of lasting value.

Even if this is true—even if Warshaw and those guidance counselors are right: goddamned if it hasn’t been a good ride. Largely, the ocean has been good to me, as I believed it would, steering me from joyful moment to near-tragedy to joyful moment. I’ve made it to 35—marriage, kid, house, car, a garage full of kick-ass stuff. I’ve seen people I loved die, but surfing has always been there for me. I’ve kept with it even as countless friends have quit and moved past waves—lost to jobs, drugs, wives, happiness, criminal convictions, lost to heartbreak at how fucking lame surfing has become. Meanwhile, I’ve kept riding waves, despite contracts and commitments, despite watching friends be attacked by white sharks in front of me. I didn’t question my faith.


Lately I’ve felt the wall’s presence. I’m surfing as well as I ever did, and loving it again as much as before, just as I find great solace in organizing my surfboards and magazines in my man cave. But I know it’s a selfish act. I can see it plain as day, there in front of me, when my infant daughter smiles in surprised delight when she sees me. She’s surprised because, compared to her mother, she sees me infrequently. They are without me as I stand there in parking lots, waiting for the wind to switch. Compare that to watching my daughter in the bath, understanding for the first time that air is a different thing than water, trying in vain to feel the hard border between these two new elements with her miniature fingers.

That’s when the Wall seems real, and I wonder about the things I might have accomplished if I’d been strong enough to walk away from surfing for a couple years, or months, or even one honest 40-hour workweek. Spending more time with my family is just one facet of a more complete adult life I’ve never embraced. The rest is simple stuff: selfless acts, clear decision-making, a sense that you’ve challenged yourself to accomplish the things you know you can achieve. Instead I’m out there, lost in the foothills of Mount Doom, growing old as the quest goes on, too scared to throw the One Ring into the chasm of fire.

I’ve traveled far from my Northern California shire, and seen many things. Full moon swells at Desert Point, solo sessions as the light dims at Teahupoo—I’ve even seen my childhood hero, Tom Curren, salute me with a wave as I exited a high-line barrel at Outside Corner Uluwatu. Yet I’m reluctant to let the story move on without me, even though I know deep inside that there’s so much else I want to do, and that my love for surfing is preventing me from doing it. I can see the lines around my eyes these days as easily as I can see the line I want to draw on a dumping overhead left. Time passes, and I know the dance will be over, someday, and I’ll be left marveling at just how far I must have traveled across the faces of waves, without ever getting anywhere. Just another life in the cycle, amid the pelicans in cold offshore winds, white sharks below building swells—a grain of sand rolled out and then back in again with the tide. Perhaps the wall is breached, and adulthood achieved, when one realizes that, in the end, that is all any of us are. I might as well climb over sooner rather than later. I’ll plan the ascent after I see the next swell forecast.

  • 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.