Why We Surf: Give Us Surfing or Give Us Death


Glassy, empty and firing, if this isn’t why we surf then I don’t know what is. Photo: Christopher Dunlea

As I sat there on the bluff, overlooking Emma Wood, staring down at the barely knee high onshore dribble rolling in with more than twenty guys vying for a piece of the action, the question of “why do I surf?” became rather prevalent upon my mind. Initially we all start surfing because it is appealing as a fun, healthy, and a one with nature activity. Of course this comprehension of the sport soon becomes blurred, as one begins to progress further along. It doesn’t take long at all before a novice is completely engrossed in awe of the magnitude of the shadow casted by the word SURFING.

In reality that shadow is more of a spectre to be feared rather than admired. We as surfers embrace this sport so much so that it actually becomes a full on lifestyle and that is when it becomes scary. I used to teach surf lessons to make extra cash to help get me to the next contest. Most of my students were just random people paying me to help them strike another notch on their belts of things they could say they did. Every so often I would get a pupil whom upon standing up for the first time acquired this spark in his/her eye that wasn’t there before. This would lead to more lessons and eventually me beginning to see this person in the water on a regular basis. Just like that a new surfer had been born into the world.


We surf because of moments of brilliance where all the elements come together to make something beautiful. Chris Lisanti engrossed in the golden hour. Photo: H. Rayburn

I always found it rather interesting as I would keep contact with such students years later, as their entire lives changed as a result of their participation in surfing.  There was the high profile NYC lawyer who after three years of surfing quit his job, bought a small little spot in Costa Rica and decided to spend the rest of his days surfing. There was the high school prom queen that was given the lesson as a graduation present. Proceeding a summer of diligent surfing she decided it more prudent to bail to Hawaii rather than attend college. I once gave a lesson to a Russian millionaire who took up surfing for exercise and now nearly 10 years later the dude never misses a day. He has managed to put more surfing destination stamps on his passport than I ever had as a professional. I could go on and on with enough people turned surfers to fill up an entire book, if not volumes.

Most of the tales by mainstream ideals would be considered complete failures. Yet to me all of these students were protégées. I grew up surfing and it was all I ever knew. A surfing life was as a result inevitable, as it is for the majority of kids who begin surfing at a young age. I wonder if there is something in the makeup of our brains that causes surfing to completely take over our lives?  Why is it that others can surf a few times a year and be satiated, meanwhile we need to surf every 12 hours if possible?


If a scene as surreal as this doesn’t have one coming back for more I don’t know what will. Photo: Chris Lisanti

I have read all of the scientific explanations on addiction and addictive personalities. I am not discounting it, yet I like to think there is so much more to it than that. I like to think that as surfers we were called to the ocean by a stronger power than our own and this calling unites us, the true blooded surfers as a tight knit community. No matter where I go all I have to do is look into another surfer’s eyes and I can tell if he/she is part of my society. Whether that person is friend or foe, he/she will always garner my greatest of respect.

Once again I put forth the question of why do we surf?  You can ask the question to a million different surfers and will get a variety of answers. The top ones would be enjoyment, a sense of well being, stoke, the ride, good vibes, etc. I think the one we can all agree on is this: if we didn’t surf what else would we do?  It is for that reason that I don a wetsuit every day and paddle out regardless of the conditions. Give us surfing or give us death!


Sometimes our commitment pays off and we are rewarded for our diligence. Chris Lisanti being reminded of just that. Photo: Christopher Dunlea

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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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