AMONG BULLS AND BEACHES
THE STATE OF BIG WAVE SURFING
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) 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.
(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...
(right) Cape Solander. A lethal field play.
(below) Cotty cruising.