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Thursday 11 June 2020

Guest Post: Jennie Englund On Surfing: Thoughts from Someone Who’s Never Really Done It

It was late summer 2018 when I took my second solo trip to Oahu. 

I was 46, a professor, and mom of three young adults when I shuffled across the sand, journal and pen tucked under my arm. 

Per editor’s orders, I’d returned to the island to study surfing for my upper-middle-grade novel, Taylor Before and After—and I was all-in to break the code of the secret world and bring it to young readers.

Before leaving, I’d spent a year browsing blogs, comparing tide charts, studying underwater footage of reefs, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube clips of backside tube riding. 

A research writing instructor, I was well-versed in the academic approach to gathering info: read, filter, repeat. So, I’d gone cover-to-cover through Surfer Magazine’s articles and advertisements for wax, wet suits, leashes, energy drinks.

The greats—Slater, Machado—in Robert Redford’s Momentum Generation exemplified dedication. They’d broken arms, noses, and shoulders; gotten reef rash; busted up boards and relationships. They’d aged, had families, jobs, and charities, and still, they devoted their lives to catching the Big One—or simply just riding whichever wave came along.

Not everything I found was good. For a sunny, coconut-kissed adventure, the sport has a carbon footprint. Environmental concerns rose up repeatedly: sunscreen, polyurethane, resin, neoprene, coastal development.

Certain sponsors have come with questionable ethics. Globalization, outsourcing, and child labor have not rendered surfing immune. I traced drug routes from Mexico that fed into the island’s addiction, abuse, and poverty. Once a local pastime, surfing has become a fast-growing, worldwide industry, generating celebrity athletes, media, tourism, apparel, and gear, yet the media misrepresentation of surfers is alarming. The New York Times’Surfing’s Dark Side on Oahu’s North Shore’ gave a glimpse into racism, appropriation, turf wars, gangs, and violence.

Sometimes, I cried. Surfing stole young lives—talented, promising ones—from its most dedicated backdoor riders, goofyfeet. Watching Lydie Irons, weeks before having her baby, throwing orchids into the paddle-out for her late husband Andy, was heartbreaking.

For him, Foo, Chesser, Joyeaux, the ocean, the culture, claimed a high cost. With risk that great, I decided, the reward must be enormous.

I had read books like Coleman’s Eddie Would Go, and watched films like Bustin’ Down the Door. I had information. What I wasn’t getting was the experience. ‘What does it FEEL like?’ I’d asked my neighbor, who drives to the coast as the construction week ends, to ride the waves Jerry Lopez once ruled, with his sixteen-year-old daughter. He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked up at the sky, eyes shining. And, he started laughing.

Finally, when I poured over William Finnegan’s 2016 Pulitzer-Prize winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, I got an inkling of what I wasn’t getting—that unless you surf, you don’t really get it. That would come to be a theme in Taylor—the tension between Taylor’s older brother and their dad, the family’s lack of understanding his passion. ‘Come on, Grom!’ Eli calls to Taylor from the water, ‘Next wave has your name on it!

I wanted to know what was so powerful about standing on a board on some water, and no amount of reading was getting me there. I had to DO it. But, because I am truly un-coordinated, it was going to be hard. I postponed falling off, getting salt water in my nose, hitting my head, being sore all week, being laughed at.

The day before my departing flight, I ended up at The Hilton Hawaiian Village, which, it turned out, had a concrete lagoon! There were no waves, no reef, but stacks of paddle boards. That would do!

Pushing the board halfway between shore and water, I reminded myself this was in no way actually surfing. It was getting on a board on the water, not competing in the Triple Crown.

Laying belly-down without even pushing off, I immediately started laughing! I had never felt a peace, a thrill, like it! If laying was this good, I wondered, what would actually standing feel like?

I paddled out past the island, (where I couldn’t fall on anyone) and, legs shaking, I GOT UP!!!! I was up, and laughing like the biggest fool who ever lived! And three Australian sisters as curvy as me were laughing too! We were laughing together, and I was SO PROUD of my AMAZING, athletic, brave SURFING self…I completely toppled over in the water!

When I got back to Oregon, I replayed the scene, the sound, the feel, over and over. I still really don’t know anything about surfing. And I don’t see myself in a line-up at Wimea anytime soon. But something changed me after hitting up the lagoon. I got it, how my neighbor laughed up at the sky when I’d asked him what surfing’s like. It’s indescribable. It’s not a thing or a sport. It’s being—something you have to try for yourself, in a style that’s exactly your own.

A National Endowment of the Humanities fellow in Hawaii, Jennie Englund lives in Oregon and teaches research writing and firefighters. Taylor Before and After is her first book. Connect with Jennie via: 

Twitter: @englund_jennie
Instagram: JennieEnglundBooks