Tag Archives: surfing

Surfing Vs Shopping

Surfing

I hate shopping.

Shopping, and by extension the entire human project of reducing this miraculous home of ours into a giant department store and then looting it, is an exercise in enslavement. Surfing, on the other hand, or anything else that involves surrender to the laws of the non-human – hiking, gardening, mountaineering – is an exercise in freedom.

Freedom is not easy, and it does not make sense. Not like shopping, where you get anti-aging potions in exchange for the flutter of a contactless credit card. Or like war, where goodies kill baddies and then there is peace.

Freedom is awkward and time-consuming and looks a bit sad and deranged, especially when set against the slick marketing of shopping and war.

If you counted up all the hours I have spent trying to catch waves and set them against all the waves I have actually managed to catch and then subtracted all the ones I fell off or messed up you would probably advise me to see a psychiatrist. Especially if I admitted that my addiction to surfing is probably the reason I have never had a nine-to-five, saved for a pension, lived apart from the ocean for longer than six months or travelled anywhere cultural, as opposed to coastal. Don’t even mention children.

In many ways the only difference between an addiction to smack and my addiction to surfing is the fact that it keeps me in rude physical health. If you don’t count the torn ligaments and burned retinas and chillblains and the bones slowly extending over my ear drums to protect them from the piercing winds and the black eyes and the broken nose and the stubbed and bleeding toes.

Under normal circumstances my effort/achievement ratio would be wildly disappointing. But these are not normal circumstances, different rules apply.

Unless I have managed to get myself to the tropics (see burned retinas) surfing is cold, frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. There is nobody watching and nothing to see, nothing to achieve and nothing to win. I am not good enough to go anywhere near a competition and even if I was I wouldn’t go anywhere near one.

I am not interested in supporting the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that instagram-filters all the life and colour out of the ocean and then tries to sell it back to me as a flashy retro board and an overpriced pair of flip-flops. I can buy the tokens and then spend the rest of my month/year/life working to pay for them whilst watching youtube videos of other people getting barrelled. Or I can put my wallet away and step outside:

Witness the crack of dawn

And through it the effortless sea

And the muffled cry of the killing birds –

This is the way to be free.

Each and every single wave I manage to catch, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, is a fist in the face of the profit principle and the growth imperative and the oil wars and this idiotic age of consumption that manifests as spiteful billboards and food banks and translatlantic trade agreements and the grief of mass extinction.

‘Our religious and cultural heritage’ writes Barbara Kingsolver, ‘is to deny, for all we’re worth, that we’re in any way connected with the rest of life on earth. We don’t come from it, we’re not part of it; we own it and were put down here to run the place.’

Which is why if I had one wish this Christmas it would be that when everyone was done shopping they could spend a bit of time in no-man’s land – behind the low-tide mark, above the snowline, beneath the soil – to feel the blessed relief of knowing we do not own it and we were not put here to run the place and we are connected with the rest of Life on Earth. Life on Earth is frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. It is not for sale and it does not make sense. The gift (and the exercise) is in accepting.

As Gary Snyder pointed out:

‘To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.’

See you in there.

Panamania – Gnarly Goggles

This footage was shot by Becky after a day surfing on the Isla Burica, a desert island in the far north of Panama. It comes with a song from the Ribbons EP about the upside of heartbreak, and it comes with a story about fear.

Stumbling through the jungle looking for a place to sleep, we find a chicken hanging upside down off a makeshift clothesline, squawking. The chicken seems to belong to a couple of grass-roofed huts. I’m guessing it’s dinner. A couple of horses are tethered nearby. The whole thing is like something out of Tribe – apart from the surfboards.

The surfboards, which are newer than ours, belong to a pair of sexy, dark-skinned brothers. They tell us about the mythical wave we’ve come to surf – a fast right that breaks over rocks on the far side of an uninhabited island that sits half a mile offshore, guarding the unmanned coastal border between Panama and Costa Rica. Meeting the brothers is a stroke of luck. We expected to have to paddle across the channel, but they offer us a ride in their inflatable canoe. We arrange to meet them at dawn.

It’s dawn. I feel sick. This might be because all I’ve consumed is very strong black coffee, brewed like porridge over a driftwood fire. Or it might be exhaustion due to the massively effortful journey to get here. A two-day hike from the Caribbean to the Pacific involving several boats, four increasingly decrepit collectivos, one night in the Pension Balboa (named after the local beer) overlooking an all-night bar specializing in ear-splitting Reggaeton (I spent most of the sleepless hours watching staggering drunks try to mount their long-suffering horses), another collectivo (zero suspension), a very painful two-hour walk in the midday heat through the jungle with boards, backpacks and enough food to last a week, the chance encounter with the brothers, a sleepless night in a hammock wondering if those very strange lights out at sea are drug boats (apparently we are camping in a clearing recently vacated by police looking to catch human mules heading north on foot), and the twenty minute trip across the channel in the squashy inflatable, our four surfboards floating behind us, chained together by their leashes.

I am scared before I even see the wave. This is partly because of its mystery – it’s not on Magic Seaweed or in the Stormrider – and partly because of the hyped-up way the brothers are talking about it. They’re saying it’s a big day, although the channel itself is sheltered from swell, which is why we have to go to the island. I am convinced I won’t be able to handle it. Sure enough, when we finally get close enough I see exactly what I was expecting to see – a hideously hollow wave, full of rocks, and closing out on the bigger sets, which are too big for me. The brothers are amped. They slip and slide over the rocks, wait for a gap between sets long enough to allow them to jump in and paddle maniacally out of the danger zone.

‘Nice little right’ says Becky.

Becky’s brain is wired up differently to mine. This is why surfing with her is so much fun. It’s also why it’s frequently so terrifying.

Panic-stricken, I search for a place to paddle out that does not involve rocks and danger zones.  I don’t see any. This island is made of rocks. Nothing but rocks. And dense coconut forest, and crabs. Not friendly hermit crabs dressed in bottle tops, either, but weird black jumping crabs that hurl themselves through the air like batman, clearing distances upwards of two feet in a nanosecond. I don’t like these crabs. They’re inhuman. I don’t like this island. I don’t like this trip. Life is shit. I want to go home. I want to go home and sit in my shed and watch TV and be safe. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve come too far.

I look around for Becky. I’m going to suggest we walk a bit, look for a nicer wave, sack it off. But she’s already gone, slipping and sliding over the rocks like the brothers, falling, dropping her board, picking herself up. One of the brothers manages a very steep take-off and gets a  long ride back to the rocks. He waves at Becky, who is already paddling out. I am still standing rooted to the spot, feeling sick.

These days my life seems to be full of moments like this. Moments where I find myself in a situation so far out of my comfort zone it’s almost funny. Posting things I’ve written, standing up in front of people and singing songs I’ve made, reading from my book in public, dealing with the rejection and failure that comes with being alive and not hiding in my shed watching TV.

Often I’m a pussy. I duck out of waves, miss opportunities, don’t make phone calls. But sometimes I’m not a pussy, and that’s how I’ve finally learned something big and slightly embarrassing.

It’s not life. It’s ME. I’m wearing GNARLY GOGGLES.

I did paddle out that day, and I didn’t die. In fact, as soon as I started focusing on the task in hand rather than the monsters in my mind, I started enjoying myself.

‘Nice little right’ I shouted over to Becky.

I will be singing at the Shine On festival in Totnes on Sunday. A nice little festival. I plan to leave the gnarly goggles at home and enjoy myself. Watch this space.

Panamania – Night Surfing

NS3

‘Surfing is not a sport, it’s a disease’ said my friend Dom the other day, on Facecrack. Here’s an example:

It’s our last night in Panama. It’s dark. We’re sleeping. I say sleeping. For fiscal reasons, the trip has not been as restful as we expected. Aside from five luxurious nights on the Caribbean, in bunkbeds in a dorm shared with six other people, we have been roughing it. At first we used tents, but then Becky had a snake in hers. A small Boa. She was lucky it wasn’t a Fer de Lance – the venomous, aggressive version of Boas, known as Ekees by the locals, their name for the letter X.

So we moved into hammocks. At first we put the tents up beside the hammocks, to put our stuff in – money and passports, that kind of thing. Then we ran out of money and couldn’t be bothered to put the tents up, so it was just us and the stars and the driftwood fires we cooked on, morning noon and night. There are advantages to running out of money. We re-mapped the night sky, for one thing. There was the machete, the coconut, the pelican (I had to work to win Becky over to that one), the cafe con leche (that one, too). There is something about naming your own night sky. This was the northern hemisphere (just). Since returning, when I step outside my shed and spot the machete smiling down at me I am reminded that the whole tropical thing was actually real and not a dream. Then I quickly go back inside and sit huddled by the fire, watching endless repetitions of Nashville and weeping.*

But that night I was still on holiday. Only I wasn’t sleeping. Not just the usual kind of not sleeping you do in hammocks in the jungle – a sort of half-sleep, with one mammalian inner eye always alert to the weird sounds the crabs, iguanas, racoons, potential jaguars, howler monkeys etc make and the other mammallian inner eye alert to the fact that one’s feet are accidentally wrapped around one’s head. But this night I am really not sleeping. I am listening to the sound of waves breaking. Swell has arrived. We’ve been waiting for it. Now it’s here. And we’re leaving.

My third mammalian inner eye knows that the perfect wave that has caused us to set up house under this almond tree in the jungle and that has been a little too small thus far, is only surfable at high tide, because of rocks. I’ve already had some interactions with these rocks and do not wish to have any more. We have no watches, phones or other devices and yet, judging by the position of the machete in the night sky, and using my fourth mammalian inner eye, I think it’s probably about 3.30am. It takes forty five minutes to walk up the beach to the wave, due to difficult terrain. I know that if we wait until it’s light it’ll be too late. I’m convinced that if we go now we’ll get there just before dawn. We’ll be in the sea at first light and catch some of the swell before the tide drops out and we have to go and catch our plane. I glance across at Becky. She is sleeping. It’s night.

‘Becky’ I hiss, wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

‘Hmm?’

She is not sleeping.

‘I’m going to go for a surf, do you want to come?’

Becky looks at me, through one of her actual eyes.

‘It’s night.’

‘I think I heard a cockerel crow.’

This is not true.

‘Okay’ says Becky, and gets up out of her hammock. She is already wearing her bikini.

I love my friends. I really, really love my friends.

An hour later we arrive at the wave. It’s a delicious, perfect, peeling right-hand point. We think it’s breaking. We think it’s quite good (bigger). We don’t know for sure, because we can’t really see it. It’s still night. Luckily there is a moon. There is no sign of first light. I convince Becky there won’t be any sharks (I have no fear of sharks, simply because I have never seen one and am therefore unsure they actually exist. Becky has seen a few and possesses a healthy fear.)

Sharks come out at night. We get in anyway.

There is no wind. The surface of the sea looks like black oil. I can just make out the rocks as I paddle over them, glowing green in the moonlight. I have no idea where I am in relation to the land. I have no idea where the waves are breaking. I find out by getting nailed. Getting nailed in the dark requires me to use my most fish-like senses – my skin, my lack of breath. I can’t use my eyes. I am totally disorientated. Back on the surface, I am still totally disorientated. I try to catch waves. It’s a game of chance, but I luck into a couple. It’s just like those trust games, when you fall backwards and hope somebody will catch you. I paddle and hope I’m in the right place. I have no idea. I try to feel when to jump to my feet. Time slows down.

Back at the camp a few hours later it is still night. I realise my fourth mammlian inner eye was mistaken. There is no sign of first light. We are eating porridge, cooked on a driftwood fire.

‘The best part was watching you’ said Becky. ‘Like a negative photograph.’

I knew exactly what she meant. Soon after we paddled out, while I was still trying to get my bearings, I saw Becky take off on a steep, head high wave. She looked like a superhero. Which is why we do it. Obviously.

We go to sleep. Again. When we wake up it’s day. And the wind has gone onshore.

And the moral of that story is – if it’s good at night, don’t wait till morning.

My book was published this week. You can buy it here. The EP to go with it is late, due to the fact that I spent January in Panama. Previews and info here.

*Obviously I don’t really watch Nashville – far too cool.

Shakespeare on Surfing

winter surf web

‘This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air: thence I have followed it

Or it hath drawn me rather.’

When I was at school we studied Shakespeare’s Tempest. I remember our teacher trying to explain to us – a classroom of giggling fifteen-year-olds going through the sea-change of adolescence – what a sea-change was. It must have been frustrating. Our school was less than a mile from the sea and we knew as well as any kids on the planet how it changed. Our very landscape changed with the tides, and the tides changed with the moon and the waves changed with the wind and mountainous swells rose out of placid lakes all in the space of an afternoon. Earlier that summer some other children – city children – had clambered down too far on the rocks beneath Land’s End, got swept off by the seemingly calm sea, and drowned. We would not have done that. We understood the sea. The problem was, we didn’t understand ourselves. We hadn’t made the connection. We hadn’t worked out that our new monthly periods and storms of PMT were like spring tides, and our watery flesh and salty skin and unbearable mood-swings were only the human face of this great untrammelled wilderness that had been roaring in our ears our whole lives, from the moment we woke until the moment we fell asleep.

It was only later, when I grew up and started surfing, that I began to understand what our teacher and Shakespeare had been trying to tell us – that the sea is as powerful a metaphor as any for human experience. I have come to suspect that this, more than the thrill of the ride, is the reason why surfing is so addictive. It’s a controversial position. In their latest ad campaign, surf industry giant O’Neill claims that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. But I’m not sure clambering into a cold, damp wetsuit before breakfast in order to get smacked in the face by lumps of freezing water qualifies as fun, exactly. Surfing is more essential than fun. Like breathing and eating.

Another thing Shakespeare was trying to tell us, and something that I have since learned from the ocean, is that humans need, more than anything, to make sense of their lives. I believe it’s no accident that I got hooked on chasing waves in my early twenties, a time when my life made so little sense I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. I had been utterly nailed by my first experiences of love and death and it was only in the sea, where getting nailed was survivable and to be expected, that I began to find something resembling a sense of perspective. On land my legs wobbled with grief and everything I looked at was tinged with loss. In the sea, everything I looked at was impersonal and constantly changing. I spent half my time underwater, eyes open on a world as mysterious as the inside of my own troubled head. Face to face with all that change and supported by the salty water I gradually learned to trust life again.

Ten years have happened since then. Ten years of choices that make sense only in the context of surfing. I have been scratching a living as a DJ, singer-songwriter and author where there aren’t any people, living in a tin shack with no hot water, when I could have gone to London and been paid properly. I’ve never had a job, because only by working for myself can I stay free enough to surf whenever I need to. I have no savings, because I’ve spent any money I have managed to make on trips to far-flung corners of the world. I have damaged and lost relationships, filled my ears with water, burned my eyes and broken my nose. I tore the ligaments in my knee so badly I couldn’t walk for three months. But in spite of all this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. I know I am one of the very, very lucky ones. Even in the winter, when the wind chill is pulling the temperature down to below zero and the ground is a hard frost. When my bones ache with numbness and I have to hold one hand in the other and use it like a piece of wood to turn the key to unlock my van. Especially in the winter, where just getting changed requires the kind of strong determination of an Olympic athlete. When the wind is howling offshore, the spray off the back of the waves is like a freezing pressure hose and a dark grey sky is spitting hailstones. Because winter sucks, and sometimes life sucks, and sometimes the only thing for it is to paddle out into the big old, sea-changing ocean and get smacked in the face for a few hours. Trust me, it works.

This is a piece I wrote for the winter 2014 edition of the Barefoot Diaries, a quarterly magazine exploring a slower, deeper, more intimate connection with the land.