By Lauren Hill
Some surfing is like pop art: literal, obvious, and made for the masses. Other surfing is like high-end art: obscure, unexpected, and esoteric. We are all attracted to styles of art, music, or surfing in varying degrees, or maybe not at all.
Could you be with someone whose art or music you didn’t admire? If your lover was devoted to playing off-note Wurlitzer interpretations of polka classics that you found offensive, could you still be with them? Music is a subjective experience, and so is surfing. But for a surfer, does the act of riding waves actually end up playing a role in romance, or in choosing a partner? If so, does style factor into the romantic decision-making process? Do surfers even want to be with surfers?
Surfing has long been a part of the courtship process. In Surfing, A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, Finney and Houston state that in ancient Hawaii, “If a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried out in the surf, when a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.” They go on to note that, “this equality and sexual freedom added zest to the sport and was important to its widespread popularity.” More bluntly written by historian J. Waimau, “If a man and woman rode in on the same wave together it was sometimes a sign of attraction. If that was the case, it was entirely natural for the two to later get into it, sexually.”
Perhaps these accounts are the mistaken, twisted history of white Europeans attempting to navigate a culture about which they actually understood little; still, they serve as evidence that surfing has probably played a role in romance for as long as people have been riding waves.
I (very unscientifically) questioned 50 or so surfers, most of them in their 20s or 30s, male and female, about the role that surfing plays in their relationships. A few patterns emerged about the ways in which surfing effects dating and/or love.
First, every woman surfer that I spoke with stated a certain preference for dating a surfer—specifically, someone who surfed better then them. Most women were vehemently opposed to the idea of dating someone with lesser wave-riding competency. Julia, 35, responded, “No. Never would. It just seems weird. Like dating a student. Creepy.” Kristin, 28, admitted, “I would always prefer for the guy to surf better than me for both of our comfort.” And Lex, 26, added, “I have dated someone that surfed worse than me and it was not pleasant. I cringed every time we surfed together and that was not a fun feeling. Plus, everyone coming up to me and telling me how much better I surfed than him was not taken as a compliment, I was embarrassed.”
The issue of style also conjured up much concern: “Even when I thought I was potentially in love, I can’t say I never worried about what my brother or other close guy friends would think. It’s also a turn off.” Another echoed her sentiment: “Bad style can be unattractive. It’s exciting for me to watch someone rip a wave with perfect style. Just a matter of talent in general, it’s magnetic.”
When asked the same question regarding a preference for dating a surfer, most men said that it didn’t matter, or that they preferred not to date a surfer—that they’d rather surfing be their own escapist experience. And they nearly unanimously did not want to be with a girl who surfed better than they do. One male told me: “It would be completely annoying if you had your girlfriend out there flailing around poking her butt out and showing everyone her small bikini. Or out there getting in the way causing a scene. You’d have to defend her so you’d get in a lot of conflicts and probably have to fight a few people. Not fun.”
Among the surfers with whom I spoke, it seemed that when choosing a mate, men tended to care less about what a woman does and more about how she looked doing it. Women, on the other hand, tended to care more about things that display a man’s masculinity (and preferably in a fluid, stylish way).
Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter how love and romance factor into our surfing lives, or how surfing factors into our love lives. But perhaps at its most basic level, there’s more to these preferences. Perhaps our partiality toward an adept surfer is a factor in our partner-choosing process for a more fundamental reason. As one friend wisely quipped: “When a guy technically surfs well but looks like they’re humping the wave, it probably reflects what they’re like in the bedroom—a humper—and really, that’s just boring.”