Is Surfing's Relationship with "Cool" its Downfall?

Is this board cool?!

One of the great things about shaping your own boards is the freedom it offers you. Freedom from brands, stock shapes, the mythology of shapers features and your apparent downfall if you buy a shortboard without carbon rail tape on it - for example. I absolutely love surfing my own boards and discovering that despite their flaws they work really well. The think I realised the other day was that, apart from shaping my own copy/version of a Tyler Warren "Bar of Soap" the boards I'm thinking of making are largely not the same as boards I was previously thinking of buying; that I was wanting. Why is that? I can only think it's the influence of 'cool', brands and received ideas.

It's subtle as well as unsubtle. The magazines we look at, the surf films we watch. Flashes of templates, fins, what's Joel Tudor surfing? Hey, Slater's cutback was amazing, just like I want to do. If I could just lay into a cool bottom turn like Al Knost... We believe the big double page Billabong ad is not sucking us in, we're above that. But even if that were true, the cool photographs, video clips, Instagrams are all constantly filling us with desire to emulate. How many boards or fins do you quietly and quickly think you'd like to own per day? Jamie O'Brien even makes you want to get a big foamie!

But unlike other sports surfing has a special relationship with 'cool'. Even outside of the world of people who take part in the sport it has a whole spectrum of desirable signification. Surfing is used throughout movies and advertisements to signify someone who is 'cool'. Stupid unwaxed surfboards are always in the background in movie scenes. We can't escape it. When I tell people I surf they often say "oh, cool!" When I tell them I have a shaping bay and make custom surfboards they say "oh, that's really cool!". Roland Barthes muses over the manipulation of meaning in the media in his book "Mythologies" and discusses how objects in the media are given extra meaning (meta-language) over and above its straightforward meaning. Surfing really struggles with this and further complicates surfing's appearance. Loads of people would love to go to Hawaii. Lots of people want to be tanned. We want to be fit and healthy. We want to be risky, dramatic, impressive. We want to be sexy (yeah baby!). A single photograph of Julian Wilson or Stephanie Gilmore getting barrelled can give us all those things in a single photograph. Sure, there are other sports that give us lots of those things (footballers, tennis players etc) but they are just not as 'cool'.

So, as surfers, the appearance of the sport we love in the media is always messed about with. Mythologised. And it fucks with our desire if we're not careful. I haven't been beyond thinking I'd love a Merrick "Semi-Pro". The thing is (apart from the mass-production) these are good shapes. A Channel Islands "Mini" would be a great shape in the waves I go out in. But the the way we're fed the brands is with an extra dose of sugary sweetness that coats them in an "Emperor's New Clothes" of desire. When people ask what longboard I have I'll inevitably first say a Christenson "Dead Sled". Rather than the truth: a 9'6 traditional single fin log, with slightly narrowed nose, pinched rails and a nice fat cedar stringer. The second answer has more actual surfing meaning. The first tells more of desire and brand.

The worst thing for surfing is that because it has to appear 'super cool' to the general public there will inevitably be big 'brand destroying' fluctuations in popularity and finances. (There is also big financial problem that the viewing of the sport doesn't generate income in the way that football does for example, people want to look like surfers, but aren't so interested in watching the World Surf League and standing on the beach is free.)

My point really is that surfing has this wonderful undercurrent of purity and idea of being spontaneous and in touch with nature. The unfortunate thing is that the way we lap it up on a day to day basis has a tendency to cloud all that and fill you with materialistic thoughts and distracting judgements about the 'coolness' of things. It's hard to strip away the myth and just stick to the craft under your arm, the wax and the sand between your toes. At this point it has to be mentioned that the "craft" under your arm is important: there is a difference between the beauty and craft in a well made surfboard (which is delicious to enjoy and savour) and it's 'coolness'. Peeling the veneer of coolness from the board - or any other product - is what I'm thinking about.

I've wanted lots (and lots!) of boards over the years, but a lovely surf the other day on my own board, getting fun waves, getting muddled in the froth, tumbling and gliding in the champagne foam that was glistening with sunlight reminded me what it's all about. And what it isn't. The sea is wonderful, beautiful, never resting, ever-changing and ties thousands of surfers around the world together in a unified global skin. When I sit in the water and look at the Atlantic stretching off to meet surfers on Long Island it's heartwarming to think of people sitting there on their boards too, looking out to the horizon. It's got nothing to do with being cool.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts