Why surf?

Author Shawn Zappo surfing his home break in New Jersey. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

Author Shawn Zappo surfing his home break in New Jersey.

Recently I was posed with the question “Why surf?”.


At first, as a surfer, I felt the question was silly. My natural instinct was a knee jerk reaction, Why not!? But with the question standing there with purpose, looking me dead in the face, I thought it certainly deserved a thoughtful answer.


My personal surfing story started sometime in the mid eighties. I had already been skateboarding since 1984, and I had a cheap body board I would take with me to play in the surf on my days at the beach with my mother. With my body board I did little more than ride the white water onto the sea shore. As simple as that was in and of itself, it brought me much joy.


Surfing, stand up surfing that is, seemed like an act only people who possessed a magical ability could partake in. We also thought surfing was an activity reserved for what we at the time referred to as “rich kids”. Little did I know both my assumptions were wrong and surfing would soon become a huge part of my life.


The fall of 1986 rolled around and I had immersed myself in skateboarding. Flying through the air, launching in contorted poses off makeshift ramps constructed with the help of friends; trying my best to reenact photos I saw in magazines. I read Thrasher as if it were a holy scripture of sorts and worshiped Mark Gonzales as the deity of deities. If there were a “God” in skateboarding, well it surely must have been the Gonz.


My friend Keith and I had got our parents talking the previous summer, a conversation that came up during one of our many days at the beach. The plan, we were going to be sent together to a skate camp in St. Louis for the following summer. As the school year pressed on and we got closer to the date, Keith informed me he wouldn’t be going, he wanted to learn to surf instead. Keith said he was going to be getting a surfboard with the money set aside for the trip. I thought I should follow suit: adapt and survive or be left behind. Skating in the summer heat and humidity of New Jersey was not a pleasurable task anyway, so days spent in the ocean didn’t seem like a bad deal.


That summer I was off to Grog’s Surf Palace in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. My parents bought me a used 5’6” Hot Stuff Gary “Kong” Elkerton model and an O’neill spring suit. I still remember the smell as I waxed my board for the first time. I would chew on the wax as if it were ambrosia. If it smelt divine, well it must taste divine as well. I was sadly mistaken with the reality of each chew.


I was at the beach nearly everyday, all day, my first summer surfing. I would surf anything. Knee high chop, head high tubes, ankle high whitewater, close out shore break and hurricane swells in August. Most days I would spend dropping in straight, blasting out way in front of the wave only to steady myself in the whitewater. I went over the falls numerous times, I think the nose dive was my best maneuver for the first two months. It wasn’t until August that I actually rode the face of a wave, then it clicked. If there was a temporal moment of enlightenment for me at that time, roller-coastering across the face of a three-foot wave was the moment in which it happened. I had found the magic and I was now the magician. Surfing was the art of the supernatural and I wanted to learn every way in which the brush could be stroked. But with all the majestic words aside, surfing was fun. In those early days, the act of riding waves was pure, incorruptible fun.

Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“I am madly in love with being in the ocean and riding her waves.” -Shawn Zappo

Now at the age of 39 with nearly 30 years of surfing behind me, the ebb and flow, the changing tides and conditions of a life dedicated to sliding across rolling walls of water, the question “Why surf?” holds a lot of weight for me. It’s both complex and simplistic.


I surf first and foremost because I love it.


I am madly in love with being in the ocean and riding her waves. Surfers oftentimes get the stereotype of being unreliable and uncommitted, especially in relationships. In my younger years this was very true, in the sense that I would ditch just about anything and anyone to surf. As I grew into being an adult, I slowly learned to balance all the facets of life, while still setting aside what I consider ample time to surf. It was never that I was unreliable nor uncommitted, my commitment just laid much more heavily with the ocean and her call. When the waves came, in my mind, it was blasphemous not to surf. True surfers are some of the most committed human beings I know, people just don’t see or understand the commitment.


“Why surf?” Again I can hear the question.


I can’t answer this question for anyone other than myself. I also wouldn’t attempt to define surfing for anyone but myself. I imagine as I change over time, as all things do, my answer will also change. My answer will evolve as my relationship to the ocean and surfing refines over time. Surfing, like life, is never stagnant, it is always changing, rearranging and taking on new shapes, new forms, new life.

Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“Surfing, like life, is never stagnant, it is always changing, rearranging and taking on new shapes, new forms, new life.” -Shawn Zappo

For me, surfing is more than a sporting activity. It is a meditation, a cleansing ritual, a spiritual rite, a way to communicate and associate with what may be called “God” by some. I personally have no static definition of God. I shy away from the word most times now, as I feel it has been completely perverted and twisted. That said, when I am sitting on my board in the vast ocean and my attention is focused on the moment, I feel connected to something that I cannot explain. If we take the time to listen closely and pay attention to the whole trip of surfing, there is an experiential wisdom that comes along in due time. But to put that experience and the wisdom it brings forth in a box labeled “this” or “that” would utterly cheapen the depth of it all.


As surfers we become attuned to the ways of our natural surroundings. The winds and the directions in which they blow; the descent and ascent of the tides, the moon and its various phases; and the play it has on the ocean. Seasons change and we continue to brave the elements, attuning ourselves to our environment…with the help of man-made wetsuits of course.


All this said, I surf because I love it and because quite frankly I must. I’m called to it by something much bigger than myself. At this point in my life I surf because I exist, I surf because I am. Yet ultimately, I surf because it is FUN!


I only hope I have more years of surfing ahead of me then behind. Keep surfing. This is my mantra.


All Photos: 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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