Last Week Lost a Friend, nothing gained

A few mornings ago, the news broke of the loss; cell phones rang and text messages beeped throughout town.
He and I shared bits and pieces of our childhood together, especially during those middle school years, afternoons over at the Crews’ house, playing our own remixed version of Dungeons and Dragons, or weekends at the beach house, running back and forth across A1A to catch waves. Josh with his fins and bodyboard, me with my surfboard. Josh yelling up to me, ‘hey hana-baby, wait up!’ It was the nickname he gave me, Benihana with an affectionate twist.

He was gregarious, told stories larger than life, and loved to add ‘baby’ to the end of words he spoke.

As kids, both Josh and his older brother, Matt, read through books at a staggering pace, often several books per week. My father, an avid reader, coveted that and always urged me to “do some reading like the Crews boys”. Father offered me 10 dollars per book. I read the usual book report stuff for English class – Animal Farm, Old Man and the Sea, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye – but nothing clicked for me.

Josh, on the other hand, built relationships around his favorite authors. He tore through every book of each one, sometimes reading the same book over again. This was the case with James Clavell, who Josh idolized and could not stop discussing – Shogun, King Rat, Noble House, Tai Pan – his infectious excitement over Clavell moved me. I borrowed Shogun, the longest book I’d ever attempted. And there, I found my first love with a novel. Over the coming months, I also tore through all of Clavell’s books, even Whirlwind his 2500 page monstrosity that is subpar to all the rest. Josh and I connected over those books and many more in the remaining years. I think he held respect for other readers who respected his reads.

In later years, I saw Josh here and there throughout town, at someone’s house party, out drinking with friends, over at the beach, at the grocery. I always asked what he was reading, and he’d often turn me onto my next favorite author.

Josh was quite a storyteller himself, and he spoke with me at times over the years about his dreams to be a fiction writer. He became glassy eyed and serious discussing it, his desire to write quality fiction. He made attempts and hit roadblocks. We discussed them. One time, I told him that I felt it was his destiny to write a great novel, and he would never feel complete without that.

Last we talked, he discussed Florida cracker historical fiction and told me of a few books to purchase in that vein. He knew so many stories, more than anyone I’ve met. I’m not sure how far he got on his novel, but somewhere in some dresser drawer or closet there is a gem waiting to be discovered.

R.I.P. Josh Crews

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Tommy Days

The Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic has grown annually in its decade-long history, becoming a reputable event in the southeast surfing community.  With the addition of numerous sponsorships, media attention, night-time surfing, and a jet-ski powered aerial competition, this year’s contest potentially marked a step beyond regional recognition.

Flagler once received significant surfing notoriety during Frieda Zamba’s string of Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world title wins in the late 1980s.  In those days, Tommy and I and a whole gang of us were just learning to surf.  We quickly became obsessed with the sport, our lives subsumed by it.

We learned the talk.

“Did you see that rail grab air that Virginiak did yesterday?”

“Shit yeah, it was rad! … did you see mine?”

We donned the gear .

“Hey Ben, I just got picked up by Instinct… yeah, Hawk brought over a box of new tee’s and trunks and stuff. Where’s yours?  Oh yeah, forgot, you’re not sponsored.“

We plastered magazine posters on our walls and slowmo’d VHS videos of surf idols.

“Man, Wess, I don’t care what you say. Occy will beat down Curren any day of the week.”

“Look at his backside off-the-top at Jeffrey’s.”

We pitted ourselves against one another in ESA contests.

“Man, I knew you had me in that last heat.  But you know I hurt my knee skating last week…..uh huh, not at full strength really.”

A competitive streak dwelled among us, but it was low-key.  Mostly, we just wanted to surf the Flagler Beach pier, together.

A hierarchy existed at the pier back then with Flea Shaw, Frieda Zamba and a few others perched on top, catching the majority of set waves. I recall several of the older guys who regulated the peak, their colorful names like Scram, Doc, Marco, Dennis, Hawk, Merv the Perv, and Merle, to name a few.  They were a territorial bunch, tough and ready to scrap any out-of-towner who tried muscling into waves. They drank their beers in the morning and barrels and carving cutbacks by noon.  They egged vehicles, jumped on hoods, slashed tires, broke windows—anything to keep the crowds thin and non-locals out. And afterward, when the police came asking questions, the only report was a chuckle and a sigh: “You’ll never catch Scrambo.”

We, the grommets, were near the bottom of the heap, not far above other kooks and non-locals.    The older crew called us “skillet lickers” or “mullet stompers” for the way we surfed: choppy and erratic.  Eventually, through dedication, some of us got our own name and a place in the lineup.  The whole process felt like something. Tommy grew up a part of that scene, along with the mullet haircuts and neon board shorts.

The mass of spectators, progressive surfing, and nighttime tow-AT competition at this year’s contest highlighted so many changes in the sport since Tommy’s day.  Beyond the contest, day-to-day freesurfing in Flagler Beach has changed plenty as well.

Frieda, Flea, and a few timeless others (Quin and Bob) still stand atop a fractured, at times imperceptible, lineup at the pier.  Some days I paddle out into crowds of 30 or so people and don’t see one recognizable face.  The colorful names of our youth have largely been replaced by ordinary ones—Jimmy, Pete, Chris, Chad, Eric, Sean. And yes, Ben too. Our crew grew up in surfing contests, which left us technically more proficient at surfing, but we lack the enforcement and fighting skills of the previous generation.  Unwittingly, we’ve created space for large numbers of beginners and out-of-towners unhampered by localism.

Though there are sometimes complaints about crowds and parking on weekends, the small town atmosphere remains. Flagler Beach is one of the few towns along Florida’s coastline with a legitimate foothold in the burgeoning industry of the quaint—no McDonald’s, no high-rise condos, no strip malls, and no metered parking (except for that brief spell). What was once a one-stoplight town now has two, along the road to A1A.  Coffee, guitar, art and souvenir shops have sprouted around the old Farmer’s Market.  It’s a miniature town center.  There’s even a taco shop behind Z-wave Surf Shop, in the little shack where we once stored our surfboards as kids.

The weekend crowds began to fill Flagler Beach, as predicted, following the replacement of the old draw bridge.   Several of the dilapidated bars were remodeled into near-presentable beach pubs where a strange mix of college students, Hammockian yuppies, and Daytona bikers congregate over beer, wine and whiskey.  On sunny days, inland beachgoers bearing “Salt Life” stickers on their vehicles come down to sunbath and stroll Flagler’s dune walks.

With people come rules: There are plenty of over-caffeinated police whizzing through town intent on enforcing them.   Exceeding the speed limit beyond 5 MPH along A1A is a major transgression.  We have leash laws for dogs and surfers. But while dogs aren’t allowed within 10 blocks north or south of the pier, the surfers can come to within 150 yards of it.  Be damned if you cross the lines.

Though we must bag dog poop along the same beaches we once rode on horseback as kids, many signs of an over-marketed “Salt Life” still have not come to pass—the onslaught of parking meters, cross walks, year-around lifeguards and bicycle cops.  In recent years, our relations with the lifeguards have improved. They seem to focus more on saving lives than antagonizing surfers as in the days of Robo-Walt.  I think we relate better with the police as well. Sometimes they stand on the dune walk and chat with us between sessions.

On balance, surfing Flagler is still a pleasure and privilege.  The grommets are every bit as stoked as years past, and I like watching them progress from a different vantage.  These days they come out of surf camps such as Jimmy B’s camp north of town.  A highly trained troop already know wave positioning tactics and post up contest results in new age divisions such as the “tadpole” and the “micromenehune.”  Skillet lickers for now, they will be marching into the lineup to take over the pier in just a few short years.

When Tommy lived here, it seemed we knew everyone in town. Not so anymore. But there are enough who lingered around that it still feels like home. I do wish he was here to enjoy and endure through the changes with the rest of us.

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Slater Exits Trestles, Enters Neverland

On the day following the Trestles surf contest, I logged onto my Yahoo account where a picture of Kelly Slater was featured boldly on the homepage. The article read, “The Best Athlete You’ve Barely Heard Of.”  Barely heard of?? In the week following the contest, the general sports media buzzed about surfing.  Variations of an article by Chris Mauro provocatively titled, “Could Kelly Slater Be the Best Athlete Ever? No Seriously?” spread like a stomach virus across ESPN, NBC sports, Fox sports, and Sports Illustrated.

Sports bloggers did not appreciate the insult. One bellyacher quipped, “To be the greatest athlete ever you need to play a sport. Surfing is a hobby like driving a car or playing chess. If you want to include Slater into the conversation then I vote for either my middle school bus driver (who always got us there on time) or the super computer that plays chess.”  Slater again, as so many times in his career, briefly surfed his way onto the world stage of sport.

Mythic characters transcend coastlines. Whether Slater is the best athlete ever is open to debate.  Whether Slater is a mythic character is not. The recent Trestles win marked entry into his latest, if not final, epoch.

A discussion of this mythic character may be enlightened by the works of Carl Jung, an influential thinker and theoretical psychologist of the early 20th century. Examples of Jung’s work include concepts such as introvert, extrovert, the complex, and the “mid-life crisis.” Through extended studies of myths and religions of the world, Jung discovered common trends which he believed were part of a shared unconscious.  Within this collective unconscious are different archetypes or character blue prints that humans attach to a story or saga. An archetype can be understood as the unlearned tendency to experience things (like history, dreams, or myths) in a certain way. Various Jungian archetypes include God (example the Force), The Hero (the Jedi Knight), The Wise Old Man (Obi-wan or Yoda), The Shadow (Darth Vader), The Anima (Princess Leia), etc.

Jung described numerous archetypes that we unconsciously apply to the world around us. In the last two decades of professional surfing, Slater has occupied several of them.

The Child-hero: Slater’s early amateur surfing days.

Even as a menehune (in the 12 and under division), crowds lined the beach to watch the child spectacle. His childhood was marked by repeated victories, fame, and bewilderment within the amateur surfing community. The crowds grew proportionately along with Slater’s abilities. He was widely expected to one day take the mantle of professional surfing.

The Trickster: Slater’s late amateur and early professional career.

Slater brought many tricks to the table and began revolutionizing surfing even before his first world title. What began as “tricks” soon became common contest maneuvers. He displayed them during his first pro win at Trestles 20 years ago, and before long, he had slain all the surfing heroes of the era: Curren, Occy, Potter.

The Hero: Slater’s first seven (or so) world titles.

This phase began even before the time of Slater’s first World Title at age 20, which in itself was a record-setting accomplishment. Slater won fourteen Surfer Poll Awards beginning in 1993. His dominance seemingly led to disillusionment and he retired from the World Tour for a few years. His Hero status only intensified after leaving.  Upon return, Andy Irons presented a formidable anti-hero. With a few immature antics and negative comments, A.I. filled the role well, enhancing Slater’s likeability and style.

Puer aeternus (Eternal Boy):  Slater’s 9th through current World Title runs.

At over 35 years old, Slater became the oldest competitor on tour while still managing to win his 9th title. This year, he continues to reinvent himself by placing more airs and versatility back into his contest performance. His willingness for experimentation with surfboard design is unmatched. He’s unbelievably still vibrant, young, and winning.  We are all drawn in by the archetype. Can he do it again?

And now, a first round defeat in France. It’s just one loss, but it invokes an idea Jung once communicated: “the wine of youth does not always clear with advancing years; sometimes it grows turbid.” The potential pitfall of the Puer aeternus is a sort of Peter Pan Syndrome in which the eternal boy, unwilling to relinquish to age, eventually becomes a shadow figure. Think of figures that tarnished their brand in their final seasons – Jordan, Armstrong, Favre.  This year Slater appears to have already cleared a worthy path, but what happens next? Or the next?

Perhaps Slater’s most endearing quality along the way has been his presentation of self while at the same time displaying so little of his shadow. We have seen glimpses though. The most interesting aspect of professional surfing today is not how this season turns out; it is how Slater does

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It is our perpetual yearning to overcome difficulties and danger, to see the hidden things, to penetrate into the regions outside our beaten track – it is the call of the unknown – the longing for the land of Beyond, the driving force deeply rooted in the soul of man which drove the first hunters into new regions – the mainspring perhaps of our greatest actions – of winged human thought knowing no bounds to is freedom.  (Nansen, 1927)

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Hierarchy or Heist

One day Cain laid down and bought a stand up paddle (SUP) board.  Some say that it was the years of being traumatized by overzealous paddlers in Hawaii that caused it, but I’m not sure.   Maybe he just gave up hope, the kind that the old Brian Eno albums and a hammock in the living room couldn’t cure.

I recall the days when Cain was quite ashamed of the purchase. We all razzed him.  In those days, he told us of self imposed regulations he had made.  Intentions for the family.

Rule number one, only ride the SUP when it is too small to surf.  Two, always paddle to outer reefs, sand bars, or other faraway places.   Three, don’t paddle out anywhere that people are surfing.

Overtime Cain began to enjoy the newfound equipment – no longer a total SUP hater, just disgruntled.  One evening over a beer with a couple friends he admitted, “I have not had this much fun in the surf, out on my own, just cruising since my childhood days.  Stand up paddling is quite freeing- like the  uncrowded days of the 70’s.  You kind of stand above it all.”

The next several months turned into years. Cain slowly began to strain his regulations.  His libidinal quest for better waves pressed firmly against the dying force of the moral etiquette.  Each week I saw him encroach upon the main breaks a little further.  It was a gradual process which eventually met with external resistance, but Cain continued.  Like all of us, he desired the best waves at the best breaks.

Abel became frustrated.  It had taken Abel years to develop his paddling, wave positioning, and wave riding.  His seniority in the lineup had grown accordingly.  He had done everything corresponding to law.  But when Cain paddled out, none of this mattered.  Each day Cain sat far out on the peak, he was up and riding long before Abel could even paddle for a wave.  And of course Cain had followers, many of them.  None of whom understood the culture or etiquette in the lineup as Cain had years ago.  Before long, Abel was ravaged by Cain and his crew of oversized equipment.   Clashes ensued.

Then, unexpectedly, the legislative gods roared down upon Cain.  In an unprecedented response, they marked him with a black ball and a 450 dollar citation payable to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Cain was scarred, banished to restlessly wander the California coastlines.  He cried out that the curse was too harsh, but most of us believed banishment the only solution.  We are only saddened by the fact that it was the gods themselves who took him away.  Let this mark on Cain be a sign, a meaning, an omen.


District Superintendent’s Posted Order No. 925-10-018.  Special-use-areas-Vessel Operations Restrictions.  State of California.  Dept of Parks and Recreation, Orange Coast District.

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Why do we surf? A matter that ad campaigns won’t settle

Surfing is the most ephemeral of sports. Research has shown that only around 4% of a surf session is spent riding waves.1 That percentage dwindles further when one also calculates the time spent waiting for the right swell, searching for the best break, and waiting to catch the right set wave. Think of all the, thousands of dollars spent on a surf trip half way around the world only to find lackluster waves. This is not to mention all the occupational conflicts, relationship conflicts, and obsessing over the weather forecasts. It all begs the question that surfers eventually find themselves asking, “what makes it all so worth it?”
Apparently, the advertisers at Billabong recently caught onto this aspect of the sport and started an ad campaign called “I surf because…..” in which surfers write one-liners about why they love to surf. This goes into an online competition with the “very best” answers winning surf travel and placement on the Billabong website.2 It is clear that Billabong is searching for the briefest, catchiest, commercializable answer. The true answer to the question always seems elusive.
Human beings are notoriously poor at determining the causal aspects of their own personal motivations, behaviors, likes, dislikes, etc. Any educated guess about our reasons for habitually surfing requires a broad understanding of psychological theories and concepts.
While introductory texts simply define psychology as “the field of science that deals with mental processes and behavior”, further inspection reveals some debate over whether psychology is a discipline of science at all. Many of the most popular psychological theories appear to result as much from philosophy and personal intuition as that of scientific experimentation.
Though psychology may have spawned from philosophy, it strives mercilessly to be a discipline of science. Each theory must be vetted and supported by research experimentation which results in predictable outcomes. Unfortunately, the most interesting of human topics are not conducive to this type of research. For instance, the reasons for surfing cannot easily be tested with rigorous scientific or laboratory experimentation yielding results that will later provide for the development of laws or theories about surfing. As Georgetown Professor Daniel Robinson once said, “you can’t perform an experiment on Napoleans loosing in Belgiums”.3 That is to say, complex, one time, events such as “why someone chose to surf this morning” cannot be answered by rigorous scientific experimentation. “Why we surf” involves complex events that only take place through personal agency- unfortunately we can’t use lab rats.

Whenever psychologists venture into discerning internal desires, lusts, loves, and the like, they invariably move toward the soft science side of psychology. This form is based on a combination of qualitative experimentation, case histories, inciting events, inductive reasoning, and extrapolation from pre-existing findings. Many of the highly cherished theories in the field of psychology are only partially backed by experimentation and are often in conflict with findings from other schools of psychological research.
Although aspects of psychology can be viewed as a soft science, it is an important one that has taught us greatly about the human brain, the mind, and human behavior. I mention this out of defensive guilt for much of the theoretical yet unscientific suppositions this (or any) future articles will have to offer about surfing. Having mentioned this, I do believe that psychology represents the lens through which one may discover all the kaleidoscopic variations as to “why we surf”.
The field of psychology is very broad, and there must be at least 20 subspecialties within it. In this blog, I began by researching Sport Psychology, a young subspecialty within the broad field of psychology. Sport Psychology is generally defined as the “study of the mental factors that affect and are affected by participation and performance in sport, exercise, and physical activity”. It also seeks to understand mental factors that affect performance in sports activities and applies these to enhance individual and team performance. For example, research-based applications may be used to improve performance by understanding “peak performance”, managing emotions or minimizing the negative psychological effects of injury/loss.4 My initial venture into Sport Psychology seemed a logical choice.
In my spare time, I poured through professional journals such as the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, the Psychology of Sport and Exercise, and the International Journal of Sports Psychology. However, there was little evidence or discussion even tangentially related to the question of “why we surf”. Sport Psychology is more focused on applications such as improving competitive ability, reducing injury, and dealing with drug use and mental disability among athletes. I perused titles such as “Novice motor skill performance and task experience is influenced by attentional focusing instructions and instruction preferences” and “Construct validity of multiple achievement goals: a multitrait-multimethod approach” abound in the literature. Another of my favorites, “Analysis of contextual information sharing during table tennis matches: an empirical study of coordination in sport” convinced me that this line of research was not for me.
The hope I had that Sport Psychology would answer some of my own questions about surfing were largely dashed. However, the research and development in sport psychology is being applied to surfing, especially at the professional level. In recent years, the sport of surfing has drawn enough notoriety and financial success that it is feasible for professional counselors to actually follow the tour, helping young (and old) athletes achieve greater success. Surf psychologists and counselors are available to national amateur, WQS, and WCT athletes. The standard sport psychology interventions include relaxation training, deep breathing, visualization, imagery, mental practice, self-talk and goal-setting. Over the last decade, psychologists and counselors consulted professional surfers in such techniques to help the mind become better grounded for competition. I had not realized the extent to which sport psychology had become involved with competitive surfing until I came across Richard Bennett’s book The Surfer’s Mind.
First published in 2004 and reprinted in 2007, The Surfer’s Mind appears to be the premier surf psychology text. It is well resourced by Bennett’s experience over several years following the ASP circuit, numerous interviews and quotes from professional surfers, and Sport Psychology research. Each chapter can stand alone as a meditation. Chapters cover subject matters such as the core elements of performance, tuning in your surfing, and career (surfing) development. In an interview Bennett explains, “A free mind is a powerful mind. The best way to free your mind is to let go of attachments, transcend fears, trust your intuition and keep things simple.”
Bennett’s book covers most performance aspects of surfing such as how to focus on maneuvers, how to deal with localism, how to surf bigger waves. As is typical of a sport psychology text, it focuses on the how’s of surfing. The book is applicable to surfing in many ways, but sport psychology ultimately left me wanting more answers to different questions. I found myself searching to know the why’s of surfing.
I moved on to other aspects of psychology. Many schools of psychology exist including psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, social learning theory and humanistic psychology just to name a few. The ideas are swimming around in my head between surf sessions.
Some would say that to go on intellectualizing about “why we surf” is antithetical to the whole vibe and feeling of surfing in the first place. Don’t we surf to get away from all that? Today, I am in agreement and content to leave my views on the matter alone. In the words of Isaac Newton, Hypotheses non fingo – I feign no hypotheses.

1. Mendez-Villanueva A, Bishop D, Hamer P. Activity profile of world-class professional surfers during competition: a case study. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Aug; 20(3):477-82.
3. Robinson D. The Great Ideas of Psychology lecture series. The Teaching Company. 1997

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