Andrew Ladd reviews a new book about surfing, and wonders what it can teach us about being a good man.
So far we haven’t spent much time at the Good Men Project talking about surfers. I suspect that’s because—regardless of whether the stereotypes are fair—the stereotypical surfer doesn’t have much in common with the stereotypical good man.
The former is a beach bum who says “dude” a lot, is regularly high, and doesn’t care about much except being in the water and finding his next great ride (usually that means a wave, though sometimes the stereotype also includes hitting on hot surfer chicks).
The latter, on the other hand, cares about gender and family and his responsibilities as a man, and spends a lot of time thinking about those things and trying to do good in the world.
But a new book, Mark Kreidler’s The Voodoo Wave: Inside a Season of Triumph and Tumult at Maverick’s (W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95), gives us good reason to reconsider both of those stereotypes, against the backdrop of one of the wildest swells on Earth.
Maverick’s surf point in northern California is a rare spot in the continental United States, where waves regularly top 25 feet and can almost as easily top 80. A combination of things are responsible for these monster waves, and this same combination of things also makes Maverick’s insanely dangerous: a giant underwater “ramp” of reef and rock, and massive winter storms from the west Pacific that, in just the right conditions, sweep across the ocean, through a bottle neck of small surface islands, and straight up that ramp into those massive swells.
That means the best time to surf Maverick’s is between November and February, when the water is at its coldest and the daylight hours
at their shortest—and that when you wipe out, which is often on waves so big and rough, you can easily get pinned and smashed against the hard underwater ramp.
Indeed, reading about Maverick’s can make it seem like certain suicide, but the death count there has remained remarkably low—despite the number of people who attempt to surf it and, in recent decades, a surf competition held there annually as conditions allow.
That surf competition and the politics surrounding its “ownership” are the focus of Kreidler’s somewhat meandering book, which often feels like a magazine feature with delusions of grandeur. There just isn’t enough here to sustain an entire 250 pages: throughout, facts are recycled repeatedly without alteration, and the real action of the story is dragged out far beyond what’s necessary. Meanwhile, the characterization of several of the major characters is sketchy or non-existent, which sometimes makes it hard to keep track of who’s who.
Still, the action, when it comes, is stomach-churning, and the overall story a fascinating one. And then there are the descriptions of the wave that Kreidler finds through his research:
“Normally,” [Maverick’s safety patroller Shawn] Alladio later told the San Francisco Chronicle, “when you go over a big wave, you get pelted with spray. But these clots of water were huge, the size of your fist, and they exploded like you were getting pounded by water balloons. And on the wave fronts, each time we went up I could see all these fissures or ravines in the surface, and there was some kind of crazy light energy vibrating inside the wave like electricity. And I remember thinking, ‘Those are the fingers of God.’”
With material like that I’ll happily slog through the rest.
So what can Maverick’s teach us about being a good man? Well, first of all that we shouldn’t be so quick to stereotype, though that should really go without saying. Although most of the surfers in this book are precisely the reckless, irresponsible young men the stereotype predicts, most of them also face larger struggles. Failed marriages, drug addiction, poverty, crises of identity: they’re all represented here.
And while it’s tempting to make the argument that the surfers here face these problems because they’re so reckless and irresponsible, that’s facile logic; perhaps they turn away from safety and responsibility to escape the problems they face elsewhere. Besides, even if they are making their own beds, shouldn’t that be a cause for sympathy instead of scorn? Surely we’re not really “good men” if we sneer at people who so obviously need help.
Even that assessment, though, smacks of snobbery and noblesse oblige: oh, yes, those poor souls, in such desperate need of our help. Actually, the surfing community portrayed in Kriedler’s book has its own complicated mechanisms of support, respect, and even, in a way, of family. They might seem like reckless, irresponsible bums, but if so they’re reckless, irresponsible bums who take excellent care of each other.
There are the competition pacts formed waveside, away from spectators or other outsiders, to split all prize money evenly, regardless of the outcome. There are the couches offered to near-strangers at surf points around the world. And most strikingly there’s the devotion to community and the respect of elders visible throughout the battles over Maverick’s. Just because these guys don’t go in for “normal” families and responsibilities doesn’t mean they don’t have any.
It doesn’t mean, in short, that in their own, meaningful way, they aren’t “good men” too.