I made the mistake of accessing the Darknet recently (sometimes called the “dark web” or “deep web”). I instantly wished I hadn’t. I was exposed to human trafficking, sex slavery, and earnest conversations about which poison is the most effective to make someone choke on their own blood (carefully stipulated that it must be tasteless and odorless, of course). It really is a place that I wish I’d never been, and it did make me question humanity. The thing is, getting caught in the dark web really isn’t all that different to surfing. The deeper you go, the worse it gets. And once you’ve been there, it lingers.
Enough has been written about the parallels between surfing and addiction. We certainly suffer from withdrawal symptoms. We undoubtedly have moments of bliss when nothing else matters, except perhaps trying to repeat the feeling. In contrast, there are obvious benefits to your physical health, but the detriment surfing causes to your mental health is rarely brought to light. Despite this, there are very few people I’ve ever heard of who quit surfing. Why would you? It’s a socially acceptable addiction.
I have a friend who’s thinking about moving his whole life elsewhere, purely for surfing. The place he wants to move to is a deadbeat town at the ass end of nowhere. There is nothing there, aside from some world class waves. This is fine–until you put it into context. If he weren’t leaving anything behind, I’d have no issue with it. But be has a job that he enjoys and he lives in a beautiful place right now. He is in his mid-30s, surrounded by friends and family, and his wife-to-be has just announced that he is to become a father this year. She also says that there is no way in hell she would ever move to the deadbeat town. Despite this, he has announced to everyone that he is moving, whether they like it or not. Can you honestly tell me that this is a healthy mindset?
When you start surfing, no one tells you the truth. No experienced surfers in the car park are going to advise you what combination of wind and tide might work there. The guys glowering at you from the peak won’t point you in the direction of the rip. And of course, nobody tells you that when you get far enough down the rabbit hole, you’ll end up just as dark-eyed and hostile as they are. The better you get, the more serious it becomes; the darker it becomes. And the catch is this: you will never be good enough. There is no end. On your deathbed, you will reflect on all the goals that you never achieved in your life as a surfer.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment you start silently posturing in the lineup; the day you transition from cheery intermediate to scowling veteran. It happens to everyone, though, provided they are serious about surfing. But who isn’t? The layman’s view of surfing is so contradictory it’s not funny. People outside the sport see sun-bleached hair, tanned skin, and carefree bliss. They don’t see the drop ins, the intimidations, the passive aggressive paddle strokes. They don’t see the beatings. And they certainly don’t see the dark cloud that descends when you haven’t managed to get in the water, or worse, had a terrible surf witnessed by someone.
Part of the problem with surfing now is the internet (the irony, I know). Writing this piece has been partially motivated by the barrage of hate I received after penning something about Kelly Slater. I stand by what I said. I know my writing can be acerbic, but isn’t that the alleyway that the Internet has trapped us in? If something isn’t reactionary and controversial, then it gets overlooked, swiped away, lost in the digital ether.
Surfing is a sport which is performed by the individual and judged by the masses. We might be alone on our boards, but we are forever shackled to trends, fads and the opinions of other surfers. Before we knew the collective hatred that could be summoned in the comments section, our experiences of negativity were mostly confined to the water. Now the kook lynch mobs scream through our screens 24/7. It’s no wonder surfers are standoffish; we’re all too conscious of making a kooky error in the snake pit. Those who surf are often so focused on being surfers that they forget to be people.
I read an article recently about Moroccan surfer Jerome Sahyoun. The piece documented Sahyoun’s quest as he chased swell around the globe. Meanwhile, his wife stayed at home and looked after their two young children. It portrayed him as a conquering hero whom we should all look up to. It boasted that he was so adept at being away from home that his children “seemed perfectly adapted to seeing their father for no more than 30 seconds.” It also noted that Sahyoun flew to Europe to chase a swell five days after his wife had given birth, and that he and his wife spent six months in Bali, leaving their children (aged 1 and 3) at home. The importance of being a father in relation to being a surfer seemed grossly distorted. Children were speedbumps, minor inconveniences to be negotiated and swept out of the way. Call me old fashioned, but I feel that prioritizing surfing over your children is tantamount to neglect. I couldn’t help see a lack of humanity in the reported actions of Jerome Sahyoun, much like when I accessed the Darknet. Surfing is undoubtedly the greatest pastime in the world, but we need to recognize that it can be highly addictive, and that addiction of any kind is destructive.