Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who are these surfers?

I am writing a thesis exploring the idea that surf culture acts as a catalyst for inter-cultural connections. But who am I writing about? This needs more work, but here’s a little summary…

For many people, surfing is not just a lifestyle or a stereotype – it’s their identity and their culture. If we use a definition of culture as the process and framework by which we give meaning to our world, then we can see the significance this distinction has.

Stereotypes and imposed ideas have haunted surfing and surfers for a long time. In the 70s, competitions were started partly in order to validate surfing as a sport and as an activity. However now, there is a move away from the commercial, commodified side of surfing, and a growing interest in the history, people, styles and myths (within and beyond of competitive surfing) that have shaped and defined surfing until today. There is even a change in the way people are choosing their boards and developing their quiver, with an increasing focus on diversifying the kinds of boards used and with a resurgence in popularity of ‘retro’ boards – shapes, boards and designs from the 1970s and 1980s. This refocus on alternative boards and styles to those made popular by shortboarding, may also account for (or be accounted for by) the increasing number of women in the water, as well as the growing population of older surfers, who have maintained a commitment to the sport and the culture throughout out their lives. Competition forms an important part of this – a push for the hardware technology and performance board shapes to improve, an increased profile for the sport, an industry that (sometimes) supports the lifestyle, and a competitive edge that challenged styles, techniques and possibilities. The focus on competition and the lives of the ‘top 44’ has meant that the shortboard has dominated and that other types of surfing have lagged in popularity. Yet competition forms only part of the story and it is the other side of surfing that this project is examining; the culture and benefits of the everyday experience of surfing.

Surfing is an experience that people take part in every day, at many levels and in many different ways. There are longboarders, shortboarders, boogie-boarders, body surfers, surf-ski riders and the list goes on. For this thesis, which focuses on the surfing community of Byron Bay in particular, I will only be discussing those who ride longboards and shortboards. The styles of and motivations for surfing that go with each board-type can vary, but in the case of Byron Bay, I want to discuss the surfing community more broadly and I feel that to focus on one style over another would exclude large segments of this community unnecessarily. My focus is not on competitive shortboard riding, it is on the experience of fun and connection and I believe that can happen with whichever board a person chooses to ride

The act of riding a wave – whether it’s glide, power or pure fun – is a connection with the ocean and the world at a very simple level. This experience is best understood without explanation, but is instead something shared between those who have felt it and who love it. You can see it on the faces of those listening to the stories of catching a great ride, or of getting nailed – there is not just sympathy, there is empathy. This is where the community can be located; in the shared understanding of an experience.

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