Has Surfing Lost Its Soul?

From humble roots on the beaches of Hawaii to the multi-million pound industry it is today, surfing isn't what it used to be...

Leading British surfer Pete ‘PJ’ Jones on a surf trip to Australia back in the 1970s. Photo: Swansea Museum

Surfing is a soulful pursuit with a rich history, vibrant culture and spiritual essence, but has its soul been sold to modern commerce?

Since the sixties, surfing has slowly slid from ancient tradition to cool counter culture to corporate commodity. At each step, surfing’s soul has slowly been sucked dry….

Everything is made in China

I’ve got nothing against the Chinese, but China don’t surf! So why are Chinese, Thai and other eastern countries flooding our surf shops with mass produced surfboards?

Surfboards, for the unsponsored, are sacred objects. They help us create mini miracles, not just walking on water but completely shredding it.

“Mass-produced boards are Tough and last longer, but so is dried meat and I’d rather have a fresh steak any day”

Surfboards should look good enough to hang on your living room wall. They should be loved like a Lamborghini and raced just as hard. They should be shaped by craftsmen, who have an intimate knowledge of your surfing preferences.

Surfboards should not be mass produced by cold steel machines, in factories far from the sea, having never been touched by a skilled surfer’s hand. They feel and sound cold, hard and empty, like a long loveless marriage.

They are supposedly tough and last longer, but so is dried meat and I’d rather have a fresh steak any day.

A handcrafted custom surfboard is special, personal and part of your family as soon as you take delivery. A local shaper can carve the right lines in foam, glass fast and smooth, create a thing of beauty for your ultimate pleasure. Lose your local shapers and you lose the craftsmen of our culture.


Surf brands are no longer run by surfers

These guys, they are surfers… Photo: Chuck Escriba

Surf companies were originally created by surfers for surfers. They made quality innovative gear to keep us surfing for longer and looking cool (or at least different from the mainstream).

Mega-surf brands are now run by business tycoons who’ve never surfed in their lives, they’re run for shareholders not surfers. As a consequence, mega brands are spewing out goods for the masses.

The next generation of surfers want what we had: clothing and products that say ‘I’m a surfer’. They can’t do that if a fat bloke from Birmingham can pull the same surf branded t-shirt over his sun starved torso without ever having seen a wave.

So before you buy your next branded surf gear, do some research. There are still some companies run by surfers for surfers, trying to restore our faith in surf brands.

Show them your support. Otherwise we’ll blend into the masses and lose a part of our surfing identity.


The birth of the inland surf park

Artifical waves in Spain: is this what surfing is all about? Photo: Wavegarden

Surf and park are two words that just don’t belong together.

Surf is rough seas, exploding waves, salt water frothing like a rabid dog. A park is where you walk the dog, among rustling leaves and swaying trees.

Surfing is elemental. Surfers spend hours reading weather charts, checking tide times, discovering secret spots, waiting and preparing for the next swell of energy cast upon our shore by a distant storm. These are a surfer’s rites and rituals that are rewarded by Mother Nature’s blessings.

“Surfing is not riding man-made waves around a glorified pond”

Her blessings are delivered in unique surges of primordial energy rising from the unfathomable depths of the oceans. Every wave different, unpredictable, raw and ready to rip us limb from limb if we make a wrong move. We paddle hard through the crashing waves, take our place in the line-up, obey the unspoken rules.

Unless, of course, you go to a surf park – where the only prerequisite is to check the opening times.

Every wave is the same as machines pumps swell around a glorified pond. Just pay your money, join the queue and take your turn, until your time is up.

Sure, surf parks sound fun and fulfil the surf prescriptions of city surfers, but it’s not the real thing. Surfing is not for hire by the hour. Surfing is a lifestyle choice, it’s not just a sport where you ride a few waves on a Saturday afternoon.


Unfortunately, surf sells

Surfing is seen by many as cool. When marketing firms need a product to be perceived as ‘cool’, they show images of surfing. This is nothing new.

The Beach Boys didn’t surf, Old Spice is not the official cologne of surfers, we don’t all drink Guinness or watch the BBC. Yet everyone of these companies have used surfing to promote their product.

Surfing culture is cool. It’s music, history, fashion, art and spiritual nature is what makes surfing so special. The trouble is people want to take that element without contributing to our culture.

“If you want to smell like a surfer, you need to sit for hours in a pungent wetsuit”

Let’s be honest, buying the latest male cologne won’t make you a surfer, or cool. If you want to smell like a surfer, you need to sit for hours in a pungent wetsuit, then baste yourself in suncream and sea salt.

If you actually want to be a surfer, move close to the waves, renounce your worldly possessions, and immerse yourself in surfing. Your soul will tell you when you’re a surfer not an advert.

I think there should be a ban on using surfing for non-surfing related products. If it ain’t made for surfers by surfers, don’t sell it with surfing.

Otherwise ‘surfing’ will become just another word in the marketer’s lexicon, and no longer represent the lifestyle, culture and activity we adore.


In conclusion…

I think when surfing is used in the pursuit of profit, it has no soul.

Yet there are some surf companies who insist on fair trade, innovate so surfers can push their performance, use profits to support environmental and community projects.

There are also the local legends, the shapers and independent surf shops, who are an integral part of surf culture and help keep the soul in surfing.

Has surfing lost it’s soul? No, you just have to search a little harder for it.


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