Story by A. Muhe’e
Photo by Matt Mallams
If all goes well, by the time you read this I will have survived the North Shore surf season— made it through the Reef Hawaiian Pro, the Vans World Cup of Surfing, the Billabong Pipeline Masters, the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau …
To be clear, by survived I don’t mean, “avoided drowning in some of the world’s gnarliest waves,” but rather “held onto my job despite my darker angels.” This is because, unlike some desk jockeys who incessantly surf the workday web in search of talking dog videos, I’ve recently developed an addiction to live-via-Internet professional surfing.
I don’t use “addiction” lightly— this is serious, compulsive behavior. Can’t-turn-away, sweaty palm stuff. But to understand the depths of it, you first need to know a bit about the structure of a typical surf contest. The competition takes the form of a series of thirty- to thirty-five-minute heats with anywhere from two to four surfers competing at once. Losers are eliminated; winners trot up the beach for an awkward post-heat interview. A champion is eventually declared and hosed down with champagne.
Each contest takes roughly four full days to complete. But given the fickle nature of the ocean, they usually run over a two-week period—two weeks during which I am more or less incapacitated. It is, as they used to say back in the twentieth century, “a made-for-television drama.” Commentators push the various storylines (this one’s the man to beat; this one’s the up-and-coming rookie; this one was raised by dolphins). Most rides last less than thirty seconds, so in any given heat there might be a total of five minutes of actual surfing. Watching this play out live is not unlike watching a toaster: lots of downtime punctuated by the rare burst of grace and danger.
It’s those bursts that get me: When I watch (as I did just moments ago before forcing myself to unplug the Internet and get back to work) 19-year-old North Shore phenom John John Florence surfing at Sunset Beach, paddling into the kind of wave we used to call a “blue whale”— a wave three times his height, a wave that could easily kill him—and ride it as though it were two feet tall, I feel a physical rush. I have to remind myself that it’s not real, that I am sitting at a desk in Honolulu while he’s in the ocean on the other side of the island. It makes me a bit more forgiving of those who are hooked on football, porn or Glee.
Thinking about all of this leads me into waters where I’d rather not wade. I know it’s no coincidence that my favorite surfers bear a passing (very passing) physical resemblance to me at their age—i.e., twenty years before I acquired my very own lawnmower and personal mountain of debt. But a strange and wonderful thing has also happened on my way to obsessive- compulsing: I bought a new surfboard. I’m in the water more now than I have been in years and appreciate it more than I have in decades. I’m looking forward to the kids being old enough to paddle out with me. In a word, I’m stoked. I owe this to the Association of Surfing Professionals and guys like John John Florence. And I am only one of thousands of other armchair watermen who might proudly proclaim: iSurf.