I am wary of surfing. Growing up in Houston, a mere 45 minutes from Galveston, my friends and I would often make pilgrimages to the beach to sit around and loiter at somebody’s parent’s vacation home or just sit and get drunk on a pier. At some point, a few of my more athletic fellows decided that surfing might be a way to look and be more rad. I couldn’t have been less rad, so I bought a surfboard and some surf wax and spent the whole summer carving my nipples to shreds on the sandy board, stockpiling bubbling sunburns and applying Adolph’s meat tenderizer to the various jellyfish stings about my body. A few of my friends kept at it, while I went back to sitting drunk on piers
In this context, it was with a little trepidation that I began The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, co-authored by Peter Neushul and Peter Westwick, two surfer/academics known for teaching a wildly popular course on the history of surfing at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It didn’t help that the book begins with the affirmation: “We are surfers.”
“Oh, man,” I thought. “Here we go.” But after dipping my toe into Neushul and Westwick’s vast, well-researched sea of what is indeed an “unconventional history” of surfing, I found myself ready and willing to go along for the [surfing metaphor].
Spanning the arrival of the first Polynesian surfers in Hawaii during the fifth century A.D. up to the present day (in which surfing is a $10 billion mega-industry, practiced by over 20 million people around the globe), The World in the Curl explores how the advent and evolution of surfing has changed the way we live, and more importantly, how the way we live has changed surfing and its surrounding environment.
Surfing has a paradoxical history: For such a peaceful and sexy looking undertaking, the trajectory of the sport is fraught with a distinct brand of seedy belligerence. From colonialism, racism, war and predatory capitalism to sexism, rampant drug use and environmental disasters (to name just a few), the history of surfing hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s a story that Westwick and Neushul felt needed to be told.
“Part of what makes surfing unique is its connection to nature,” says Westwick. “Water, the ocean, is the last wild frontier left on the planet, and this is part of the appeal. But it’s true: if you peel back the history of what we’ve done to our coastlines, you’ll see a tension between surfing as natural activity in contrast to its influences on modern civilization. We wanted to explore that tension between the natural and the artificial.”
Whoever wants to thank a Norse moon demon or mighty Poseidon or some other aqua-deity for the killer waves at Newport Beach or Maalaea should reserve their thanks for none other than the Army Corps of Engineers, who has, like Poseidon and various Norse moon demons, done its fair share of damage.
However, The World in the Curl isn’t a stuffy litany of ills brought unto the world by surfing and its aficionados. To the contrary, Neushul and Westwick want to do justice to their subject on both personal and professional levels, while giving surfers, historians, and dubious dudes sitting on piers alike a wide aperture through which to look.
“We looked at a lot of what had been done in terms of surf writing, books by surf journalists,” says Neushul, “and we saw the culture of surfing as being surrounded by the building up of heroes.” Westwick adds that during their course at UCSB, the students served as a good sounding board for what material captured the most interest, while still proving relevant and informing the greater narrative history. “We tried to steer around mythology and legend,” he says (although by virtue of being itself, surfing retains an inherent mythology and legend, well-documented in the book), “and it also helped having taught the class twice. Students’ faces told us what worked. I did a lecture on surf media and surfing’s relationship with advertisers and the students were not into it, even though it’s important. So when it came to writing the book, we’d weave things like surfing and advertising in and not do a stand-alone section.”
Finally, and most elusively, is the nature and definition of “spreading the stoke,” a refrain read often within the pages of The World in the Curl. What exactly is the stoke, I ask, and how exactly does one spread it?
“The stoke is a personal thing,” says Westwick while Neushul adds that the stoke came on him recently when he was having “a super small day on a longboard.” Neither answer is particularly satisfactory and I feel like a kook for just asking. Their extended silence confirms my kookdom.
De gustibus non est disputandum goes the old saw, and so while I won’t be paddling out on a big wave thruster at Pipeline, or on a sinking plank of jellyfish-infested wood at Galveston anytime soon, after reading The World in the Curl, I am left with a profound sense of understanding about the fragile relationship we share with the ocean, and of the rich and unconventional history made in its waters every day.
As for the stoke, the closest thing I can imagine to what these surfers are talking about is that feeling you get right when the Adolph’s meat tenderizer hits the wound.
Tyler Stoddard Smith’s writing has been featured in UTNE Reader, McSweeney’s, Esquire, The Best American Fantasy, The Beautiful Anthology and The Morning News, among others. He is also an associate editor of the online humor site, The Big Jewel. His first book, Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession, was named one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2012.