Why It's Impossible To Quit Surfing

| posted on December 21, 2009
The thrill of extra-corporeal experiences roots itself deep into the mind and body, making surfing more than a hobby. It becomes medicine. Photo: Ryan Craig

The thrill of extra-corporeal experiences roots itself deep into the mind and body, making surfing more than a hobby. It becomes medicine. Photo: Seth Migdail

I’ve always wondered how you quit surfing.

I know it’s possible; I just don’t think I could do it. I’ve seen others drop the sport without much struggle, yet I’m not sure I quite understand the circumstances or physiology required to walk away from the ocean.

In Stephen Kotler’s West Of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, Kotler discovers (among other things) that the chemical processes that occur during the act of riding a wave closely mirror the emotional trajectory of drug use – specifically anti-depressants. His findings help illustrate how difficult quitting surfing can be; it’s literally like kicking a drug habit. The thrill of extra-corporeal experiences roots itself deep into the mind and body, making surfing more than a hobby. It becomes medicine.

That’s not to say other sports don’t have the same capacity to addict, but in my opinion, surfing holds dominion over its participants because the playing field is a dynamic one; a surfer must take into account the whims of his environment as the landscape transforms; he must be wholly engaged, which is a potent hook.

So how do you quit?

The most common and obvious answer I hear to this question is: “I moved.”

I’d argue that you can move away from the ocean without quitting surfing. It doesn’t count as quitting if you can still get to the beach two weeks out of the year with a board bag full of fiberglass. That’s not quitting; it’s being inconvenienced.

Another common answer I heard verbatim at the grocery store just last week: “I’ve got a family and wife and I don’t have time for that crap anymore.”

My retort: “You picked the wrong family and wife…or else surfing clearly didn’t mean very much to you in the first place.” A surfer could never refer to surfing as “crap,” and unless I’m vastly misinformed about life’s pursuits (entirely possible), a wife and family should not obstruct one’s primary passion; they should supplement it.

The last excuse I hear frequently goes like this: “My body just can’t take the abuse anymore…”

In my opinion, this is the most legitimate dispute. I remember a quote a friend of mine had inscribed on his wall in high school. It read: “In the end, gravity always wins.” I’m not a supporter of Radiohead, but this Tom Yorke quote, depressing as it may be, bears a lot of truth. Time will wear your body down, and aging can be a harsh process. Even as I begin to understand that physical limitations might prohibit the act of surfing, I think of those exceptions (that I’m sure some would contend prove the rule).

I think first of Doc Paskowitz, waking up every morning at the age of eighty and riding a few waves on his belly to shore – wearing the same smile as on his first wave in Texas. Said Paskowitz, “My road has been a straight road since the day I learned how to swim at nine years of age in front of Murdoch’s Bath House in Texas to the present day where I pushed myself off to into the ocean on a 9’0” soft top and rode on my belly. It is just one long road.”

I think of Jesse Billauer dashing down the line with the help of his friends. I think of Bethany Hamilton, and I shake my head at this excuse too. And I arrive at this conclusion:

If you want to surf, you will.

But you can never quit surfing; if you quit, then you must never have surfed.

– Zach Weisberg

  • Virginian

    One thing is for sure, brother: the plethora of pricks out in the water, the take over of beach towns and line ups by goons and toolboxes with much less to lose than your average 9-5er (like yours truly), and the overall shallowness and incestuouness of the present day surf culture (present company exluded, of course) dont help much.

    But you’re definiley right about one thing, even once a year is still better nothing. Thanks for the ecouragement.

  • Joe

    I SO miss surfing. I have 3 boards in my basement. Only problem is, my basement is, at least, 50 – 60 miles from the nearest beach. I’ve gone through terrible bouts of depression. Moving away from the beach, was at first, exciting. After all I’d lived near a beach for all 30 of my years, up til that time, 19 yrs. ago, when I moved to Phila. suburb. Got married. Had kids. Game over. Can’t stay in shape, anymore.

    But, no, I haven’t quit. I continue to surf. Only, now, I do it IN MY MIND.


  • Blake

    I am now 57 and been surfing since I was 10 and I have never quit and never moved away from the ocean. Sometimes I wish the lure of the ocean wasn’t so strong but it is . In the last year I have moved into the uncomfortable realm of the longboard but I am still having fun although the sessions are shorter and the recovery time is longer. To the younger guys I would say don’t quit your health and your life will suffer. Sure you have other priorities but surfing will keep you healtlhy and relieve stress both of which are essential. Its about balance you need physical activity and play so stay in the water and don’t succumb to the beer belly and obesity. Aloha

  • joey3434

    I’ve been in some bad accidents over the last 2 years and Have only surfed once if you don’t count my dreams. I also now live in west texas to be close to my daughter. The ocean will always be there but my daughter will only grow up once. I still rock my sex wax hoodie even though some people here think I’m weird. I always have this thought that I can’t control. Its always in my head and Some times I can’t help but to say it out loud and it says “I want to go surfing”. Surfing made me who I am. I will always be a surfer! I also just bought a epoxy quad fin. When will I get to ride it? I don’t know, but every time the sun sets I’m a day closer to being in the water again. I suffer from alot of depression that I know I wouldn’t have If I could get wet. Some times I cry about it. The only thing I love more than surfing is my daughter. I will always be a surfer.

  • colby.g.h

    I’m 39 years old, grew up in San Diego where the surf is very abundant. At 19, I moved to the Pacific Northwest and lasted one year. I moved back to SD and surfed of course, but moved back north for employment, etc. I surfed the Oregon and Washington coast every weekend I could and found good surf, but it was inconsistent and so was the time I spent in the water. I moved back to So. Cal. and did my best surfing in my entire lifetime up until I was 30. Work took me away again, and I moved back to the NW. I surfed rarely over time, but was stoked each time I hit the ocean’s edge, saying a prayer of thankfulness each time. Three years ago, I started to experience terrible pain in my hips. One year ago, I was diagnosed with osteo-arthritis and needed hip replacement surgery. I got the surgeries last summer. I also had a blown shoulder (torn rotator cuft) which I also had done right after that. For most people, just one of these physical impairments\repairs can be enough to put people on the disabled list in general life. However, I believe greatly, that because of my surfing and the DESIRE to want my relationship with the ocean and surfing, even though it may seem so long ago, has helped me to recover and keep my goals of physical recovery on a higher level than most people dealing with any physical challenge. Many people told me I’d never surf again, and then I saw the gal surfing with just one arm! Since then I read an article about a guy (don’t remember the name) who won a surf contest after he had his hips replaced! Awesome. I told all the skeptics that they were wrong, and that I would surf again, and get as close as possible to the level of surfing I reached at 30. My dreams are there and my desire is stronger than ever! I can honestly say that I WILL surf again. I’ve never quit! I wouldn’t know how! I haven’t gotten wet yet, but especially reading the other blogs, well all I can say is, SEE YOU IN THE WATER! No Excuses!

  • Reedster

    5-months before my daughter was born my wife asked me to stop surfing after seeing me shoot the Huntington Pier. I was 22 at that time, last week I picked up my custom Austin Surfboard and my first day out was 30 F air temperature, 50 F water temperature, with frost on the ground at the 1st Street Jetty, Virginia Beach. Even though I pearled on my first take off, the old feelings started to come back, as I recovered from my reintroduction to surfing. My current age is 61….its never to late, the skill sets and flexiblity might take time to come back; the final hook was when a pod of dolphins swam by me….probably thinking the old guy might need help getting back to shore. Even at my age, you never forget in the pit of your stomach how it feels when you takeoff down the face of a wave…its just a matter of getting back out in the water, and not jamming up the “A” riders.

  • Brian S.

    I moved away from the ocean at 25 to keep my long distance relationship together and I’m glad I did, that was in 1992. Since I moved I have traveled to more far off surf locals than when I did while in San Diego. I can still surf as well or better than when I was in the water consistently. How? I wake surf behind my Tige boat! I get pulled on a 5’4″ with rope (which I bought at the Hanalei surf swapmeet for $20) and shred the top off that wave. Also, I ride my 6’2″ and work the little bowling section, stalling and walking the nose. Need proof it works?
    When I went to Tavarua, there were 20+ guys on the flight, bus & boat ride all spouting off about how great they surfed, some were worthy, most not. During the 24 hour trip I was asked where you from, etc. Based on Spokane, WA being the answer they wrote me off as a kook. You arrive on the island in the afternoon of first day and all 28 guys hit the water at the same time, it’s the only session like this since they break up the other days and guys go out in shifts. Everyone was ‘jonesing’ to surf after the Rusty team, who left the boats and island when we loaded up, said the swell was fading, yet still overhead at Cloudbreak. After swiimming 5 miles a week in a pool for 3 months I was in killer shape and bursting at the seems! I must have caught 5 set waves and shredded them to bits. Pretty cool that at dinner all the guys were asking “Where are you from again? When did you learn to surf? You never lose the ability once you standup, you just need the paddling strength.
    One day I’ll be out there full time again, that’s in God’s hands though, but I will and have not ever quit surfing, it is impossible! Also, much thanks to Surfer mag for keeping the stoke alive with great photos and stories.

  • Chris

    There are no excuses. Either you surf or you don’t. If you want to surf, you’ll find a way to surf. And with today’s advancements in wetsuits, you can pretty much surf in any conditions (except flat). Anyone that has excuses as to why they can’t surf anymore doesn’t deserve to be in the water. I don’t even think that half the guys in the lineup deserve to be in the water. Real surfers respect the ocean, the beach, the wildlife, and each other. All others should be banned from the water.

  • Noah Dundas

    i started surfing when i was 5 and surfed pretty much every day up until i came down with a mysterious disabling muscle disorder at the age of 26, ‘im 36 now. actually i continued to try and surf, even paddling out into 10’ surf my last time even though i couldn’t do a push up anymore. in my case i would say you can quit surfing, but if you were a surfer, then you never stop being one. a good friend of mine whom i meet in the hospital who is somehow recovering from ALS is a surfer as well, even though he has not surfed since the 70’s. but being surfers, we found each other out, even in a hospital in portland, or.
    due the financial implications of getting sick and becoming disabled young, i have had to live further away from the beach than i ever have, and i have not been in the ocean since 01, but ever day i surf in my head. i check the webcams at my homebreak, steamer lane and stay connected with old friends like flea, ruffo and ratboy via the internet as well. in addition i’m almost finished editing a book i wrote about surfing, loosely based of my life and others growing up surfing in SC.

    in my heart once a surfer always a surfer.

  • whamo

    Health problems have caused me to quit. Heck, even Furdog quit surfing, everybody quits, eventually.

  • scared

    i have been surfing in hawaii since i was 10, those days were the best, you just woke up and if there was waves, there was waves, NO FORECAST involved. now days its ridiculous, it actually hurts. i dont even surf in december on the north shore, there are THOUSANDS here now. i always said that if i could go anywhere to surf for a month it wouldn’t be here. SO…am thinking of moving to the great american northwest…reading some of your stories is scary, i actually teared on some, don’t know if i can do it, as crowded and over run as it gets , i dont know if i can do it?? thats all

  • scared

    i know if i dont surf for a few days…weeks, i become a complete dick, just ask people around me. And then when i do and its a near decent session, WOW, it is like a drug, completely different person, does that mean I NEED IT? i have done nine months in the middle of Texas, not even swimming. i would like to think…and even believe that there is more to me than just surfing…there are other things i like, so why does this one thing (surfing) have such a hold on me…its scary when the artcile compares it to drug addiction, becomes it seems like thats what it is, an addiction that makes you happy and healthy, keeps you fit, and close to nature. YEAH, we dont need that!!

  • Noah Dundas


    i think surfing is an addiction, the pleasure impulse, i mean surfing on wave, nothin like it. anyways, for me the same thing that drives you crazy is what keeps me going. even though inside i know this also increases the crowds. i grew up sufing when the only way to know what the waves were like was to ride you bike and check it. i sometimes wonder if i could surf still, would I? crowds r insane, 100+ at pipe, 60+ back home at the Lane? Jezzz!
    if you come to the NW, there r some great waves but its fickle as fuck,colder than fuck and the tidal shift r like ten feet so its only good for an hr at a time, which with a two drive to the coast is hard to time. but i have meet more people from hawaii here than i ever did in 2 yrs living in the islands.

  • scared

    i spent 2 months in tacoma at the end of a summer and some nice folks took me to …i think the place was newport to surf, all they could lend me was a longboard, and the wave was maybe 2 foot at best, never wore a fulll suit till that day…a still remember it as one of the best sessions i ever had and i’ll always remember…put simply it was different, every one, although begiiners, was having sooo much fun, i had soo much fun. loved it !!
    i think what i am scared of is missing a good day at ehukai during a sick sandbar in the middle of spring on a weekday, an uncrowded day at a westside spot in the summer with just the boys, or just a simple day of surfing with family. but maybe change is good?? after all…isnt that what got me/us into surfing??

  • scared

    you probably heard it said too many times already but….HAWAII JUST ISNT THE SAME ANYMORE…its gone…surfing isnt the same here anymore, just look, lopez left, knoll left, slater will only come for his pipe master heat, and then POOF!!!! ( he barely makes it too that on time, cant blame him, this place is a circus/parade included in december)
    its just hard if you something to be a certain way and its completly, totally, entirely not anymore!!
    its okay though, ive been thinking..maybe its time for me to go.

  • jay

    this article is so right and the first excuse has been why i havnt suefed in 6 weeks because i moved to a country red neck town in south weat ga. i got no car and no drivers licence. so im stuck for now but the great news is as its states in the first excuse is i havnt quit surfing i have just been inconvienenced

  • Jerome Cone

    Hey, Zach.

    Great Post. I related to it very much. I grew up in Houston, so getting to the beach for a day of surfing wasn’t very difficult. (I know. I know. Texas doesn’t offer much in the way of beaches.) But it’s what we had available, and I still had a ball on the 2-3 foot breakers with my longboard. Just like you said, I now live further away from the ocean — La Grange, Texas to be exact — and I have a family, too. I’ve always thought of myself as a misplaced surfer who just doesn’t surf anymore. I always look at the surfing websites and drool at what’s out there.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog. Keep it coming, man.

  • Dermitage Scam

    I find I continue to keep returning to your website. Great material. Thank you for posting.

  • J

    There is only one Man who Will make you completely fulfilled, and that Man is Jesus. I promise that if you seek him and let him into your heart you will experience rest and Everlasting Joy. I pray that you will take this message to heart and experience TRUE Happiness in Jesus. God Bless. ps. Pray to Jesus about all of your problems so that he will help you like he has helped me always.

  • JG

    I guess I’m going to stand out as a sore thumb here. I think I quit going surfing. It happens to tons of people … its called “life.” I don’t live by the beach, I have no motivation to spend all the gas money to get down to the beach and the time on the road. Just not worth it to go out into the water for an hour and fight crowds who are mainly egotistical assholes in waist high crap. I just think the surf industry has absolutely killed the sport by creating this surfing is cool image and if you carry a damn board under your arms at the beach you become a part of that image. Bullshit. I used to be a huge surfer! Traveled a bunch of places, surfed all kinds of conditions. Once I paddled across the intercoastal waterway at Holden’s Beach when a hurricane closed all the roads and beach was forced to evacuate. But as I’ve gotten older other things have become more important. Seeing some of these people down at the beach who are carrying surfboards around and going into surfshops now I feel like I’m in a goddamn bubble gum machine, makes me think surfing has just gotten really cheesy and kind of silly. Maybe I’m wrong all together and besides all this I wish I had something in my life that meant as much as paddling out used to mean.

  • Micah G

    knee injuries and cant walk? Body Surf
    bad balance? bodyboard 🙂
    If you want to surf, you will! I myself was stuck in a weird position in life, I knew the 9-5 workforce would be a difficult one as a surfer. Did I make excuses? No, I moved. I moved to Hawaii and have a 9-5 job and surf more than ever. Even with my job during the summer time I can surf 2-3 hours every day. In the winter time Im a weekend warrior and drive 40 miles (one way) to surf the North Shore every weekend. In regards to agro lineups, those are everywhere! If you put the time in, the respect will come naturally. I hope that I am never one of the people here stating why they quit surfing, that would be terrible!

    By far the best quote ever “a wife and family should not obstruct one’s primary passion; they should supplement it.” That should apply whether its hobbies, passions, or life goals.

    For all of those who question whether its worth it, I guarantee that you always feel better coming out of the water. Plus a sunset a day is good for the Soul. Good luck in all your endeavors.