AMONG BULLS AND BEACHES

THE STATE OF BIG WAVE SURF­ING

Carve - - CONTENTS -

Pete Geall and an es­say of rare fi­nesse com­par­ing the bull­fight to the big wave con­test arena. Any­thing that quotes Hem­ing­way is a win­ner. Life les­son there.

IN DEATH IN THE AF­TER­NOON, HEM­ING­WAY’S OPUS TO DEATH (AND CON­VERSELY LIFE), SPAIN AND THE BULL­FIGHT, HE AR­GUES THAT TO TRULY UN­DER­STAND THE ‘CORRIDA DE TORO’, YOU HAVE TO SEE IT HOW IT IS IN­TENDED: A TRAGEDY. THE BULL IS DES­TINED TO DIE AND IT IS THE MATA­DOR’S TRUE PUR­POSE IS TO BRING THE BEST OUT OF THE BULL IN ITS LAST, TRAGIC MO­MENTS.

MAN DIS­PLAY­ING HIS SU­PE­RI­OR­ITY OVER BEAST AT ITS MOST PRI­MAL AND GRAPHIC LEVEL. THIS WHAT PEO­PLE PAY TO SEE AND STILL PAY TO SEE; THIS CON­CEPT OF PREORDAINED ‘TRAGEDY’ IS THE BEAT­ING HEART OF THE SPAN­ISH BULL­FIGHT.

“THE SUC­CESS­FUL RID­ING OF A HUGE WA­TERY CLIFF TICKS ALL O F THOSE BOXES I N OUR SUB­CON­SCIOUS. THE CLOSER THE SURFER I S ABLE T O DANCE WITH THE DEVIL THE MORE EN­TER­TAINED W E ARE.”

The mata­dor phys­i­cally em­bod­ies brav­ery by ar­tis­ti­cally ex­pos­ing him­self to risk and con­trol­ling the dis­tinct acts of the fight with hon­our and flair. In­clud­ing the strik­ingly fi­nal one: Suerte de Matar.

So what rel­e­vance does the patently bar­baric act of the bull­fight have in com­mon with big wave surf­ing in its mod­ern in­car­na­tion? I would ar­gue, a sur­pris­ing de­gree.

Let me es­pouse a se­cret - de­spite the care­fully cu­rated nar­ra­tive which tells us that big wave surfers are a merry band of broth­ers, hon­ourably trav­el­ling the globe in search of their dreams and po­ten­tial eman­ci­pa­tion into über­men­sch; it is, at its base, the same self­ish aquatic dance we all par­tic­i­pate in.

The only dif­fer­ence be­ing the ex­trap­o­la­tion into larger, thicker waves. Fear is sub­jec­tive and not fixed. Shock hor­ror the myth­i­cal 100ft wave is not twice as scary as the 50ft one. We will have all ex­pe­ri­enced the real nub of ter­ror in our surf­ing lives at one point or an­other, whether that be in 20ft waves or head-high surf in your youth. I can still re­call my first ter­ri­fy­ing surf in four foot waves when I was twelve, I was shot with fear, 'Dad!' I screamed, 'what do I do?'

His re­ply, a sim­ple one, 'Go in.'

In more re­cent years the ad­vent of a sched­uled big wave tour and the in­stan­ta­neous na­ture of how we now con­sume con­tent of big wave ses­sions on­line; has has­tened big wave surf­ing’s in­ex­tri­ca­ble mor­ph­ing, into a heav­ily mar­keted, com­pet­i­tive spec­ta­cle for our view­ing plea­sure. The pad­dling of huge Peahi, Hawaii by women whilst in com­pe­ti­tion and re­cent in­clu­sion of Nazaré, Por­tu­gal into the WSL Big Wave tour are two such ex­am­ples of a fun­da­men­tal gear shift which is chang­ing our re­la­tion­ship with the act of rid­ing large waves.

A re­la­tion­ship that is be­ing in­creas­ingly be­ing pushed into our surf­ing lives and de­manded of us by brands. We now all have opin­ions (like my own here) about a realm we pre­vi­ously had only ad­mi­ra­tion for: 'They shouldn’t have towed', 'Why did she pad­dle for that one?', 'Their ski safety was shock­ing'.

Yet this story is not an at­tempt to un­der­stand the in­di­vid­ual mo­ti­va­tions for rid­ing big waves, for which there are many and var­ied. But, rather turn the mir­ror to­wards us: what ex­actly do we from want or ex­pect from the surfers, what cap­ti­vates or piques us as spec­ta­tors watch­ing on?

As a teenager I would drink up the sto­ries of Ed­die Aikau, Greg Noll and Jose An­gel at Waimea, the solo ex­ploits of Jeff Clark at Mav­er­icks and in re­cent years the ad­ven­tures of Mickey Smith et al in Ire­land across the fa­mil­iarly cold pond from my home in Corn­wall. How­ever to­day, I pro­gres­sively find my­self tit­il­lated and turned off by much of what I see, in equal mea­sures. The in­flated egos, bound­less van­ity, be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of equip­ment and the es­pe­cially an­noy­ing overuse of cheer­ing/pray­ing/bow­ing hand emo­jis on so­cial me­dia. Perched at the top of the list is the un­re­lent­ing de­mand that we the au­di­ence, recog­nise the pro­fun­dity of each ses­sion placed in front of our com­puter screens as a totem of the surf­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

So, back to big wave surf­ing and bull­fight­ing

- for starters you can claim that the ex­trin­sic en­ter­tain­ment value of charg­ing heavy surf is based on a sim­i­lar power re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and beast (wave), the same that is dis­played in the Corrida. The big wave surfers’ suc­cess (in the eyes of the au­di­ence) re­lies upon their abil­ity to tem­po­rar­ily sus­pend our in­fal­li­ble be­lief in all con­quer­ing power of the ocean. Man part­ing sea. The suc­cess­ful rid­ing of a huge wa­tery cliff ticks all of those boxes in our sub­con­scious. The closer the surfer is able to dance with the devil the more en­ter­tained we are.

This ac­tiv­ity is not a science, but an emo­tive ex­pres­sion; it is why we get turned off by the XXL awards pre­cise mea­sure­ment of waves, or the ex­act speed in which they travel - did they not get the memo, or read Buzzy Ker­box’s fa­mous dic­tum: ‘A wave is not mea­sured in height, but in­cre­ments of fear’. This tem­po­rary, in­ten­tional dis­po­si­tion from our log­i­cal brain to ir­ra­tional one is sim­i­lar to when we see a street ma­gi­cian per­form: for the magic to hap­pen we have to en­ter a tacit agree­ment with the ma­gi­cian, al­low­ing us to sus­pend our firmly held be­liefs and en­ter a dif­fer­ent world, with dif­fer­ent rules.

I en­cour­age you to guf­faw at any per­ceived ar­ro­gance in that sug­ges­tion. ‘Surfers can’t dis­play su­pe­ri­or­ity over the nat­u­ral power of big

waves,’ you may re­tort. But it is dif­fi­cult to re­fute the no­tion that the out­ward ap­peal of big wave surf­ing re­lies on this in­ferred agree­ment be­tween us and surfer. That is not to say there aren’t other things we are in­ter­ested in, es­pe­cially the keen surfers amongst us. The stylish flour­ishes of the tri­umphant, the fre­quent acts of self­less­ness and ca­ma­raderie; the pu­rity of ath­leti­cism and men­tal for­ti­tude needed - ad­mirable qual­i­ties which peo­ple have long been fas­ci­nated with ever since the birth of surf­ing large waves. Co­in­ci­den­tally, an afi­cionado of the bull­fight could raise sim­i­lar points about the skil­ful passes of the mata­dor.

As an en­trant in this years Nazaré Chal­lenge Damien Hob­good ini­ti­ated a per­ti­nent con­ver­sa­tion af­ter the 2016 con­test had fin­ished. He ar­gued that un­like the more tra­di­tional big wave spots on the tour, even a suc­cess­fully ex­e­cuted ride at Nazaré could be fol­lowed by the drub­bing of one's life, thus rais­ing the ques­tion as to whether that should war­rant or bar its in­clu­sion in the tour. A vein of eth­i­cal dis­cus­sion fol­lowed in the ethe­real hum of the surf me­dia. Should we be­ing hold­ing surf con­tests at un­pre­dictably dan­ger­ous venues such as Nazaré or is that not the whole point?

Big Wave tour cham­pion Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker weighed in and added: 'Nazaré as a wave is a phe­nom, as chal­leng­ing and beau­ti­ful as any big wave I've surfed but the dan­gers in­volved seem to out­weigh the re­wards. Those 20 min­utes dur­ing each heat, on the back of a ski, hold­ing on with all your strength while jump­ing 10-foot walls of foam, were some of the most ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of my life and some­thing I can't see my­self re­peat­ing?'

Per­haps the bull (wave) is too fe­ro­cious, too wild for com­pe­ti­tion; the risk out of kil­ter with the re­ward. Both Damien and Twiggy un­der­stand the core tenet of big wave surf­ing is re­liant on the suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of ride. The tri­umphant act of the big wave surfer sur­viv­ing, con­quer­ing in the face of the im­mea­sur­able dan­ger. This has tra­di­tion­ally been the money shot of big wave surf­ing.

But what of the wipe­out you ask? The glorious pin-drop off a five-story tower of wa­ter à la Tom Lowe's in­cred­i­ble Mex­i­can mo­ment, the gut­tural gasps of oxy­gen in foam­ing, whipped sea; the vi­o­lence of the im­pact zone and the pur­ga­tory mo­ments of be­ing caught in­side. With­out the (per­ceived) risk of the wipe­out, then there can also be no big wave surf­ing Hem­ing­way also de­creed the bull­ring was no place for skill with­out risk.

This is why tow-surf­ing has drifted into the pe­riph­ery on large non-slab­bing waves in the past few years. Be­cause the ever chang­ing per­cep­tion of risk had be­come skewed so heav­ily in favour of the surfer, and ski-team, that the il­lu­sion re­quired to cap­ti­vate the surf­ing pub­lic had be­come lost in translation. ‘Heck, if I had the balls...’ had be­come a com­monly ex­pressed sentiment in dis­cus­sions of tow­ing in. You don’t hear many say­ing that about waves like The Right in West Aus­tralia be­cause the au­di­ence still ap­pre­ci­ate this warped, un­pred­i­cat­able slab of South­ern Ocean juice is an en­ter­tain­ing in­ter­play of skill ver­sus risk.

Dur­ing the Nazaré con­test I had the du­bi­ous hon­our of watch­ing on­line as my friend and Cor­nish surfer Tom But­ler sliced his ear (al­most in two) and end up in hos­pi­tal with wa­ter on the lungs. To what ef­fect? For what gain? Tom is one of the best surfers at Nazaré, prov­ing and im­prov­ing him­self year on year, but I won­der

“DUR­ING THE NAZARÉ CON­TEST I HAD THE DU­BI­OUS HON­OUR OF WATCH­ING ON­LINE AS MY FRIEND AND COR­NISH SURFER TOM BUT­LER SLICED HIS EAR (AL­MOST IN TWO) AND END UP IN HOS­PI­TAL WITH WA­TER ON THE LUNGS. TO WHAT EF­FECT? FOR WHAT GAIN?”

whether the con­test pushed him and other rid­ers too far in the search for two huge, win­ning waves, un­der a time con­straint. A feat that may have tra­di­tion­ally taken a whole sea­son or much longer to ac­com­plish.

Per­haps the con­test pushes those who dare, to even greater feats - but I’m not too sure these are the kind of guys and gals that need push­ing. A big wave surf con­test by its na­ture, forces the mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tors for par­tic­i­pa­tion away from in­trin­si­cally held val­ues, to the chas­ing of ex­trin­sic gain (recog­ni­tion, re­spect and money to name but a few). This shift has seen us the au­di­ence, un­dergo a trans­for­ma­tion, from one of dis­tant ad­mi­ra­tion of the ac­tions of these men and women - will­ing to put their one, pre­cious life on the line to achieve their as­pi­ra­tions; to im­plicit fa­cil­i­ta­tors in their com­pet­i­tive, risk -laden per­for­mance.

Hem­ing­way recog­nised in post-war Spain a swath of peo­ple, in­clud­ing him­self that still had a zeal for the para­dox­i­cally life af­firm­ing act of death: 'When they can see it [Death] be­ing given, avoided, re­fused and ac­cepted in the af­ter­noon for a nom­i­nal price of ad­mis­sion they pay their money and go to the bull-ring.'

I worry that the WSL, in pur­su­ing a bullish ap­proach to drum­ming up in­ter­est and thus gen­er­at­ing rev­enue out of big wave surf­ing, is lay­ing a foun­da­tion for the fu­ture of big wave surf­ing that is per­versely rem­i­nis­cent of the at­trac­tions of the ‘Corrida’. That is, a di­rect ap­peal to the base an­i­mal in us all, the same base ap­peal that has raised the Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship (UFC) into a ca­sual,

main­stream ac­tiv­ity where bar­barism is a cheap thrill to be en­joyed over a chilled beer and the vit­ri­olic trolling of an on­line com­ment. In many ways this trans­for­ma­tion is com­plete, surf com­men­ta­tors al­ready talk in gilded sim­i­les and metaphors which speak of are­nas, gladiators and bull­fight­ing…

His­tory is be­ing forged live as we watch. But why are some of us not en­ter­tained? Rais­ing the fur­ther ques­tion of whether a com­pe­ti­tion should be held at in­her­ently un­pre­dictable waves like Nazaré? Not be­cause the surfers want it ... some­one will al­ways want it. But whether we want it. In Hem­ing­way’s world bull­fight­ing is pre­sented as an art height­ened by the pres­ence of death and, if the spec­ta­tor can project him­self into the mata­dor's place, in the ter­ror of death.

Are we right to de­mand the threat of deathde­fy­ing con­di­tions in com­pe­ti­tion, or have it thrust upon us as an art­ful ex­pres­sion of big wave rid­ing. Do we want to be sub­ject to ‘Death in the Af­ter­noon’ or per­haps more fit­tingly, ‘Death in the Morn­ing Wedges’. Or is the in­creas­ing po­ten­tial for se­ri­ous in­jury or worse, a no­tion be­yond the terms of en­ter­tain­ment we seek? As a ca­sual spec­ta­tor of a big wave surf con­test, I won­der where our re­spon­si­bil­ity and com­plic­ity will lie for the fallen com­peti­tor.

Hem­ing­way fa­mously moved to Spain, to be among bulls and beaches. Cut from the same cloth, men now move to Nazaré to be among beaches and tow­er­ing surf. It is a sel­dom known fact that there is an old bull­ring in the hills over­look­ing the town of Nazaré; where peo­ple would watch the artis­tic passes of the mata­dor deal out death on a summer’s af­ter­noon. They can now line the cliffs, high above the tem­pes­tu­ous At­lantic in win­ter, or pas­sively sit be­hind glow­ing screens, watch­ing the artis­tic passes of surfers danc­ing with death and oc­ca­sion­ally in com­pe­ti­tion with each other.

(above)

Big wave surf­ing is a gas. Fun fact trav­el­ling with in­fla­tion vests is re­ally hard. The can­is­ters get con­fis­cated a lot.

(top right) Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp!

(bot­tom right)

Last year’s Cape Fear pushed the lim­its of what is sen­si­ble. And was all the more elec­tric be­cause of it. This is Blake Thorn­ton in a wave some effed up it’s not even funny.

(above)

Ian and Luke Walsh at Jaws at Peahi. Looks some­body ate more than their share of por­ridge...

(left top)

In­dar Unanue about to feel the Mully smack­down.

(left bot­tom)

Maya Gabeira who lit­er­ally faced death at Nazare.

(right)

Cape Solan­der. A lethal field play.

(be­low) Cotty cruis­ing.

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