Draw Your Own Lines: Surfing Without the Shackles of Dogma

Fully enjoying the unique feeling of the single fin sliding under the cresting lip.

Fully enjoying the unique feeling of the single fin sliding under the cresting lip. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“You write your songs on the face of the waters; then you erase them.
So does the poet when he is creating.”
-Kahlil Gibran “The Voice of the Master”

This past weekend was the first time I have surfed since February 19 and it hasn’t been for the lack of quality surf. I’ve been suffering a combination of bursitis, tendonitis, and overall weakness and pain in my right shoulder. I haven’t been able to get an exact diagnosis as I currently lack medical insurance and cannot afford an MRI. Luckily I have friends and friends of friends that are chiropractors and physical therapists willing to work on me and help me along with my recovery. I’m also well aware that in the grand scheme of injuries and what can go wrong with your body, this is fairly mild. Yet even knowing that, it’s been saddening for me, as I’m forced to come to the realization that as I age I’m more prone to injury and I heal much slower than I did ten years ago. Not to mention, I missed a lot of good surf in the past six weeks or so while being out of the water. Even now the bigger and best days I have to sit out, as I haven’t gained enough strength back in my right arm to continually duck dive larger waves.

In my absence from the water I noticed I was becoming, plainly stated, a cranky bastard and felt that I needed to test out my arm to see how I would fare in smaller surf. In addition I had picked up a new board which although not a typical shortboard, was the closest to a standard shortboard outline I had owned in quite some time. Needless to say, I was amping to get the board in the water and see how it felt under my feet. I paddled out at my local break, with glassy chest to overhead sets coming through. The conditions were clean and looking fun, but overall the incoming tide was making the wave a bit soft. There was a good amount of time between set waves which made for an easy paddle out, this was exactly what I needed with the weakness in my arm and shoulder. Being bombarded by a continual barrage of set waves would have probably ended me up on the beach, with ass on board. But this swell size and duration was perfect for testing the waters. I was catching a good amount of waves with ease, I felt like I was surfing well considering, and the new board had a ton of drive down the line. I was having some issues really laying into turns with my debilitated arm, but I still managed to get a few good ones.

While sitting in the line up, a surfer I see in the water frequently struck up some conversation and was looking at my board. He’s seen me over the past few years riding a variety of boards, all of which fall under the description of unconventional or alternative surfcraft. He kindly made a comment that eluded to me finally riding a “real” surfboard. I knew there was no maliciousness in what he was saying and I’m assuming he was just stoked to see me on a shortboard again. I did subtly laugh at the comment and then I felt compelled to contemplate what a “real” surfboard actually means. Was it the construction that made it “real”? The shape? Was it if the board was hand shaped, shaped by a machine, a pop out, or a cheap foamie? Was it the fin setup or simply the brand of the board? I think I know what this particular person meant, but on a deeper level, the comment irked me because it was an indictor of how brainwashed many surfers are by the way surfing is presented to them by what I would call the mainstream surf media outlets.

Riding a "shortboard" in 2002. Even then I went with shapes that had less rocker and a bit more volume, as I felt they worked better in the conditions I was normally surfing. Photo: Donna Zappo

Riding a “shortboard” in 2002. Even then I went with shapes that had less rocker and a bit more volume, as I felt they worked better in the conditions I was normally surfing. Photo: Donna Zappo

I was drawn to riding different boards for a variety of reasons. In 2005 I was still riding a typical shortboard, but at the time I wasn’t getting as much water time, and my surfing started to suffer. Eventually it got to the point where I wasn’t having fun, I was becoming frustrated with myself and surfing. In fact it got so bad that I had very little desire to go surfing. It seemed obvious that the best way to push through this setback wasn’t to keep riding the same old equipment, it wasn’t working for me. I decided it was time for a change and started seeking out different boards to ride. I wasn’t paying attention to any surf media outlets or the fact that many professionals were turning towards a variety of equipment to spice up their surfing a bit. So with no pretense this was what I feel was a purely personal journey to reconnect with the flow and joy of surfing again.

Over the last eight years I’ve experimented with longboards, mid lengths, mini simmons, performance simmons, widow makers, single fins, twin fins, and other boards I would have scoffed at in my twenties. All the experimentation was being propelled by the excitement of the unique lines various boards lend themselves to. It was challenging to learn how to ride boards I had no previous experience with, and it brought back much of that initial amazement I felt from surfing early on as a grom.

This was one of the funnest boards I road over the past few years. We dubbed it "The Pickle", a modified quad version of the mini-simmons. Photo: M.A. Spagnuolo

This was one of the funnest boards I rode of the past few years. We dubbed it “The Pickle”, a modified quad version of the mini-simmons. Photo: M.A. Spagnuolo

Surfing is like most pursuits, if you keep doing the same thing over and over, never leaving your comfort zone, it can become stale, stagnant, and boring. My comfort zone for most of my surfing life was high performance tri-fin surfboards and contest groomed aggressive surfing. As I began to delve into other equipment, becoming more versed in the way other boards worked, I began to blend what I learned in my previous surfing life with what I feel is a more laid back and stylish approach. On the equipment I rode before, I was doing everything without letting the wave dictate much of anything. Also it was all about packing as much into as little space as possible. “Forced” is a great adjective to describe how it looks and feels sometimes. I began to liken shortboard surfing to playing fast punk rock music, where everything is happening at lightening speed and there is almost no open space to be found. Then as I began to slow my surfing down, giving things space to breathe and expand, I likened that experience to the musical equivalent of the blues or reggae. There was space, there was less, but with that open space I began to find more.

I can go on and on about my personal experiences riding different shapes and the realizations about each through the experimentation. But I feel like it’s time to cut to the chase and get to the point of what I truly want to express here. There is no wrong or right in reference to what we should be riding on a wave. There are unwritten rules of surfing which pertain to respect and safety, but otherwise I don’t see the reason for indoctrination and dogmatic thinking in surfing. Surfing is a pursuit that brings a supreme level of freedom to the surfer. Why should we choke freedom with the shackles of what is simply the proseliyzation of others. If you want to ride a shortboard, a twinnie, a single fin, a bodyboard, a kneeboard or a bedroom door, if your cruising across the face of a wave, you’re surfing.

Define surfing for yourself and draw your own lines.

Take out a longboard and knee high peelers have never been so much fun. Enjoy! Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

Take out a longboard and knee high peelers have never been so much fun. Enjoy! Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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