The Odyssey, Part 1
The Endless Summer provided the blueprint: We fall in love with surfing at our local break, venture up and down the coast in search of bigger thrills. Our appetite is whetted. Soon we are trekking to far ends of the earth on the quest for the perfect wave.
I know it well. From 1986 to 1991 I traveled on the ASP world tour. This was pre-webcast; contest venues were chosen on the basis of big parking lots rather than great surf. Pack as many bodies onto the beach as possible, in other words. But we got our A-grade waves. Between events we surfed Jeffreys Bay, Mundaka, Kirra, The Box, Coxos, etc.
At the time it seemed to be all about competitive excellence, burrowing deep into the barrel. But with hindsight it was really about the travel. What has stayed with me, what has shaped my life most profoundly, is not the semi-final finish in Brazil or the six-to-eight-foot A-frames at La Piste, but rather the engagement with the foreign and exotic, the need to venture out of one’s comfort zone.
I’m still on tour, albeit a tour that no longer needs an ocean. Here are some highlights.
In Rio I rented a bike and rode the stretch of Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. In the southern corner of the beach, not far from a ricocheting righthander that offered short, bursting tubes, I watched a group of capoeira kids duck and weave and dart and flip in the afternoon greyness.
In Tavarua, in what’s essentially a cemetery for broken surfboards, I met Johnny. We exchanged no words, but we had in common the desire to plant our feet on foam and fiberglass, to dig toes into wax, to dash across the blue and curvaceous.
In the fall of 2013 I traveled to Lebanon with Waves4Water. In the Bekaa Valley we distributed water filters to Syrian refugees. It was not a happy scene. The refugee camps were spartan and hard. Nasty winter cold was on its way. But the kids were joyful and bouncy. On dirt roads they played games with sticks and balls. They laughed easily.
On that same trip I visited Shatila refugee camp, originally set-up for Palestinian refugees in 1949. Our Lebanese guide told us that under no circumstances were we to reveal that we were American. About 20,000 people crammed into a few city blocks, raw sewage smells wafting from open drains, dodgy electricity at best—it is a tough place. But the people were warm. We visited an extended family squashed into a single room. They offered us tea. A child did homework in the corner.
On the North Shore I spent a few days with the Florence family. At the time John John was all pre-pubescent unrealized potential, with big pressure riding on his back. But he took it in stride. For the three brothers, the world was banked, curling. The Ke Nui bike path was a two-mile wave, with long, hollow sections. I followed behind, in the same outfit I wore when I was a thirteen-year-old grommet: Birdwells, baseball cap, face covered in sunscreen, no shoes. This is Nathan Florence, deeply barreled.
In 2006 I traveled to South Africa with the Florences. We scored great waves at J-Bay and Seal Rocks. We did not see any sharks, but we thought about them, spoke of them in whispers. We did visit a nearby township where a human rights protest was in full-force.
In Jamaica I stayed at Jamnesia with the Wilmots, a vibrant surf family who run a camp near Kingston. By day we cracked lips at a zappy spot called Lighthouse. By night we went to clubs in Kingston, saw local bands, ate jerk chicken from food trucks. I have stayed in five-star resorts and I have stayed with families, sleeping on dusty floors, getting munched by mosquitos. The latter, I find, always brings you closer to the source.
A lot of history in these Waikiki waters. A couple hundred yards out from this rock wall, the great Duke Kahanamoku rode a long, rolling, reforming wave that supposedly went for over a mile. A little to the right, in 1907, Jack London tried surfing for the first time, wrote about it gushingly, and helped spread the stoke across mainland USA. I thought of none of this as I photographed these kids in 2000. I felt the sun and I heard the splash. That seemed to be more than enough.