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California Surf Culture

Joe Reid
Joe Reid
English 101
California Surf Culture
The manufactured image of health and happiness that became synonymous with the California Lifestyle has over the years become more refined, molded into a specific state of existence that is, by definition, a contradiction placed at the ocean’s edge. The exploitation of this natural condition has been traced from the innocent origins of early local surf industry into the contemporary realm of multi million dollar public offerings on Wall Street. The recreational sport of surfing is but one of several histories through which the process of co modification and exploitation becomes obvious. Stripped of its innocent beginnings surf culture has become a malleable part and participant in the construction of the California dream and of a style unique in its own because of it’s message and underlying theme.

Surfing’s origins date back to the days of the ancient Hawaiians. Nobody exactly knows when the first surfers first paddled out to ride on wooden boards. Surfing among the Hawaiian culture is an important aspect of their relationship between man and nature. Surfing among Hawaiians was almost lost near the latter part of the eighteen hundreds until a young Hawaiian beach boy named Duke Kahanamuku revitalized the sport, introducing the modern surfing scene. Duke Kahanamuku was the “Original Beach Boy” of Waikiki beach in Hawaii around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Duke excelled in surfing and swimming. He later won a gold medal in the Olympics in swimming, bringing global attention to the Hawaiian culture. Duke brought surfing to mainland California where it was an immediate hit among those close to the beach. Surfing came from the desolate beaches of ancient Hawaii to the modern beaches of the world.

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The surf industry in California and the world, began innocently enough in the middle of the nineteen hundreds after the impact of Duke Kahanamuku. As the sport developed from a sleepy, eccentric pastime of a few thousand in Hawaii to the fad explosion of 1959-1963 (kicked off by the Hollywood movie Gidget) the millions of new surfers needed surfboards.

A garage industry, as specialized and quirky as was the act of riding the waves, tried to mimic big-time sporting goods manufacturing. Through the sixties, a dozen or so factories manned by surfers who suddenly saw the opportunity to make a living around something they loved. But by 1969, the surfboard industry had imploded back into hundreds of “do your own thing” underground garage builders with no financial overhead that the larger more commercialized board builders had. Skilled craftsmen could make good wages on the local level and even became admirable figures, and that’s the way it is today.

Surf trunks were another matter. These functional bits of surfing paraphernalia had a charisma of their own. Surfers used colorful and insolent style variations in their trunks to make statements about who they were. This habit was turned by some clever image manipulators and marketers into a lifestyle industry, based around the reliability of real surf trunks for sale at real surf shops, as an authentic image base to penetrate a mass market hungry for real stuff.

Growing out of the same surf trunk distribution network into the mass market, screen print Ts, the personal statement-of-affiliation billboards of our times, became another huge success spawned largely in the core-surf market. By the late 1970s, several surf wear companies were doing multi-million a year sales mostly in these two categories of goods. The industry as a whole was heading towards a billion dollars a year. By the late eighties those same companies sales were topping a hundred million a year each and some were going public. At that stage, little of it had much to do with serving people who rode waves. But as an image base, it remained intact and called itself the “surf industry.”
Surf T shirts of today have not changed much from their first mainstream introduction. Surf T-shirts are typically any color and have generally a small logo on the front breast and a larger logo on the back. The designs reflect the laid-back nature of the surf culture yet showing the artistic, personal, extreme aspect of the sport. Men and women alike wear these shirts on all occasions. When the occasion calls for formal attire a typical surfer will usually wear a nice Hawaiian print button up shirt with loose shorts or pants. True surfers back in the sixty’s, could identify where one another is from by the designers clothing they are wearing. Someone wearing a Hobie or Rusty shirt could be identified as being from San Clamente or Dana Point Beach, whereas someone wearing O’Neill would be identified as being from Santa Cruz. Of course with the popularity of Surf paraphernalia those means of identification have transformed into brotherhood and comorodery.

The latest phase in the “greening” of the “blue room” is that the roots-paraphernalia of the fifties and sixties have become collectibles. As the teenage, baby boomer surfers of the sixties have grayed, they have begun to venerate such items and they now have the cash to act on their passions. Many items from surfing’s past, including printed matter, photography, period surf trunks, and of course, old surf boards by other manufactures, are being picked up for such unprecedented prices that even the Wall Street Journal recently recommended a buy in this category.

In California during the late sixties and early seventies, surfers were divided into two groups; real “Beach Boys” who surfed daily, and the “Valley Surfers” who drove along the coast imitating real surfers. The distinction between a trend and a lifestyle was and is vague and it creates tension between those who actually live the real surfer’s lifestyle and those who look like they surf, but in reality never have. The tension was apparent all over southern California beaches, and still creates tension today. Those who love the sport of surfing take real pride in their lifestyle and their label of a “surfer.” Anyone appearing to be part of the surfing culture however doesn’t share a love for surfing is considered a “poser” or someone trying to imitate something they are not. This creates tension and harsh feelings among those who actually surf, towards those who don’t. This is why surfers constantly strive to look different from their generic counterparts. In essence, surfers ultimately love the ocean and anyone cheeping their love for the ocean is considered a threat to the soul of surfing.

When surfers enter the ocean and paddle out they experience a detachment from land-based concerns. Their concentration is focused on reading the ocean surface to pick up incoming swells and be in position to catch the best wave of a set. With enough practice, perseverance and luck, once or twice in a surfer’s life all forces will align for a brief instant and the wave will throw-out over the surfer’s head as the surfer streaks along through its hollows, encompassing the very essence of flight. Wave riders have several names for that space in time. Some call it being in “the blue room.”
Politics, money matters, work stress, golf, affairs of the heart, all are cleansed from the recesses of the brain when you’re in the water chasing waves. A flight of pelicans undulating along the swell line comes into unusually clear focus. As seen sitting straddling your board sixty yards off shore, the geography of the land and modern human structures look completely different from when you’re standing in the middle of it. It becomes apparent that the structures are merely superficial add-ons. From this viewpoint one can see clearly that land and sea flow together in a powerful logic, and those things that seem so important on land become extraneous. It is a yin and yang relationship.

By understanding a surfers mind frame you can begin to understand how surfers see the act of riding a wave as a pure form of spending time, a non-productive, non-depleting pursuit, the essence of the here and now. Spiritual. Personal. A dance form on a liquid stage, complete with audience, open to all, which nature’s beauty and complex human life, share the same space.

Some people misinterpret this love for the ocean that a surfer has, for a lackadaisical, pointless attempt to live life in a dream. The stereotype of surfers being lazy, underachievers with no respect for mainstream society is largely a myth. Surfers come from a multitude of different races, religions, cultures, countries and families. Most surfers have many different opinions and perspectives that are irreverent from one another, but they hold their love for the ocean and the beach as a common bond that crosses all barriers. Surfers in general are composed of so many different types of people that stereotypes regarding them are widely untrue and stems from jealousy. Now this stereotype may be untrue in itself, but why would someone say something so untrue about a culture that is in-tune with mind, body, spirit, and nature. A surfer’s essence is desirable by all those unable to passionately connect with themselves and nature. The creation of these untrue stereotypes has its roots in Hollywood. When the movie “Fast times a Ridge Mont High” came out in the late seventy’s, early eighty’s, “Jeff Spicole” played by Sean Penn was a surfer who didn’t care about anything other than pot and the ocean. The modern surfer was labeled a slacker and a menace to society. A surfer was someone who your parents didn’t want you to hang out with. Although Hollywood portrayed surfers so negatively, a good portrayal of a Surfer is in the movie, “Endless Summer” (1964) by Bruce Brown. This movie shows the love for the ocean that a surfer has and it shows the adventuresses unique qualities that only a surfer posses. Bruce Brown accurately showed what it was like to be a surfer.

Even today their position in society is distinct and fuzzy. Surfers stand as a symbol of freedom and uniqueness. They are the living curators of the ocean and of harmony with nature. Surfers hold a distinct position in society. Some say surfers are the voice of the ocean, and others say they represent the true essence of human free spirit in life. Surfers are viewed differently all over the world, but in Southern California they are viewed as a distinct representation of California’s coastal culture and history. They are viewed as easygoing people with a love for the ocean. Elsewhere, stereotypes of surfers are usually negative and are based on ignorance and inexperience. In places where surfers are not prevalent their place in society is small and irreverent to the local social scene. Essentially, surfers are not among the highly respectable or the highly influential, they are among the few who love nature and are independently in tune with nature, mind, body and soul.

Thus, it is with some sense of irony that I must state that this unique and charismatic sport of surfing, arguably the opposite of organized social behavior, has become bonded at the hip to a billion dollar surf industry, a term that surfing entrepreneurs like to call the ultimate oxymoron.

In spite of all the money now involved in surfing, most of the millions of surfers in the world still paddle out solely for personal reward. The industrial aspect of it has had little effect on their wave riding. The two realms exist, still bonded at the hip, but worlds apart. This unusual element of integrity, the ongoing intensity and purity of individual experience, is what allows the sport of wave riding to outlast all its gaudy commercial attachments while continuing to serve as their engine. Surfing survives, expanding and contracting like some elemental force, from decade to decade, from generation to generation, in spite of the affectations that each superimposes on it.


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