Sitting wide

I was surfing recently at a spot that I often avoid as it's mostly populated by aggressive shortboarders. They were sitting so deep and are constantly playing for the inside position, a game that left most of them in the wrong spot to take off and miss the section of wave that crumbled and filled up. On the other side of the section, the waves ran much further and longer and cleaner and formed fast little sections to play in before they closed out. This didn't stop the crew from still sitting deep and hassling each other and then pumping their way along the face, trying to gain speed to get around the close-out section. As a longboarder, and as a someone who can generally (and unnecessarily) lack confidence in their surfing, the inside was not an option for me. Longboards are not welcome, and not making a wave is not an option.

Instead, I sat wide, out on the shoulder.

I was sitting wide for more reasons than my board and my ability though. I was sitting wide because I don’t like being in the thick of a hassle-heavy lineup. I don’t like fighting for waves, I don’t like having to win them. I surf because I don’t like competitive or team sports. I surf because I like just being out in the water, in nature, on my own terms.

But you can’t have that kind of attitude when you’re in a competitive lineup, you can’t wait and enjoy the space and time of being in the water. You have to be active in getting waves, as many as you can, otherwise, you’re just a sitter. And once you’re identified as a sitter, well, you’re fair game for being dropped-in on and getting snaked. After a while, being treated this way can be frustrating and upsetting, and you either give up and go in, or give in and change your tactics, so no matter what you want and how you behave, if you sit in the hassling section of a lineup, you’re part of the game.

Knowing this, I usually stay away. I didn’t use to – I used to get right in there – but I don’t like being part of it all, and I often recall the words of one of my research participants who explained that “You just have to stay really calm and try not to cross over to the dark side. Because once you’re like them, you’re like them.” When she said this, she was talking about politics of the lineup, and her choice to not participate in the competitive, aggressive, winner-takes-all sections off the points. She was explaining that there are other ways to do things, other ways to surf, that we don’t have to buy into the culture and politics created by men of the past and present. She was explaining that to do so was to be complicit and to be just as bad: Once you’re like them, you’re like them.

Over the years, I’ve certainly had my fair share of moments of being like them, of crossing over to the dark side. I’ve been complicit in hassling, yelling, dropping in, snaking, and being generally unpleasant, and none of it has ever made me feel proud. I’ve never pretended otherwise and have written about such moments over time, implicating myself in the politics of surfing and lineups. But since having this conversation with my friend, I’ve changed this. Her approach to surfing is one I’ve always respected and admired. She makes people feel welcome, but has a firm but gentle word with folk when they’re getting out of hand. She checks on people when bad things happen, and she’s consoled me in the sea at other times, holding my hand as I helplessly, publicly cried with grief. She surfs with skill, competence and style, and is always a stand out person at any break. She never shuns people who are learning or who aren’t as skilled, she encourages them. She encouraged me as I learned, cheering my small triumphs and making me feel like I was welcome. Her support in my early years of surfing was key to me being able to persist, and to feel like the lineups I surfed at were available to me. I have never seen her cross over to the dark side.

Her way of surfing is to not be complicit, and to not sit in the thick of the busy lineup, and yet she always gets waves. Good waves! As I watched her over the years I learned how she did it – by sitting wide and making good choices; not taking the obvious options; by knowing how the waves are breaking and how various folk are surfing. She does it by being better at surfing than the crew out on the point. She’s so awesome.

She is why, on that busy day that started this story, I sat wide.

I sat wide, and I watched.  

I got to know how the break was working, how the waves were breaking, the rhythm of the sets, who was going to make it, who wasn't. I used all of this to know when I could take off to make the most of the long wave face, just like crew out in the busy section, but without my hassling or playing politics.

Sitting wide has long worked for me. I've used it a lot at my home breaks, as well as new places that I surf: Newcastle, Manu Bay, The Pass, Rocky Rights, Currumbin, Burleigh…

Sitting wide has taught me how to surf outside a lineup, and to value things other than status or performance. It’s helped me find more patience in my surfing, to expect less, and to make more room for other people with less confidence and skill than me. Out wide, the stakes are lower: take offs are less critical, the water less crowded and there are fewer egos. Not always, but mostly.

That’s not to say it’s a tactic always works nor is it the only option in my repertoire of lineup strategies, but it’s a good one. Well, it's a good one as long as I am in a good headspace. As long as my expectations are mitigated, as long as I’m not looking for attention or validation or visibility, and certainly so long as I'm not trying to build my place in the pecking order amongst those who operate on the old, traditional lineup rules.

All of this goes through my head when I’m surfing at a busy break. Lineups ask me to find out how I can get waves, but they also ask me who I want to be – as a surfer and as a person.

And all of this is representative of a bigger aspect of surfing which is about the role performance plays in who we value in the surf and why. While the saying goes that the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun, this doesn’t always translate into that person getting waves. Often the people having the most fun are those in the whitewash, learning, not those getting the most critical take-offs or getting the best and most waves. Yet the style and aggressiveness of some surfers as they battle the throngs for respect and access, visibility and validation, lets the ‘having fun’ story fall by the wayside.

Not for me. I don’t have respect for people based on their surfing alone. I know plenty of very-good-surfers – they’re a dime a dozen around my parts. I can certainly appreciate and admire someone’s skill, but if they’re awful or rude or if they make things harder for people who are not as good as them, if they take every wave because they can and leave little for anyone else, then my respect dissolves into derision. I’m certainly not my best self around those folk.

For me, the best surfer in the water is someone who gets waves, but leaves waves for others, who take pleasure from watching others have fun, who doesn’t surf at the expense of others. I’ve mostly learned this way of thinking from other women who surf, but I see lots of my male friends do it too. They’re kind and generous, and at no real loss to their own enjoyment or wave count.

Sitting wide helps me be a better surfer. It helps me see more, understand more, know more. It helps me be more patient and expect less. It helps me better appreciate the waves I get, and to take more time to appreciate being in the sea.



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