Nostalgia and tradition are at the heart of surfing, but don’t let that ruin your experience now

Just use the past to better enjoy your present. Photo: Jeremy Bishop//Unsplash

Surfers, it seems, are never satisfied. A constant thirst for bigger, better and emptier waves drives us to roam the coastal charts, drive to new breaks and braving harsher conditions to mark. But what happens when surfers dream that the best waves are… in the past?

I knew the the grass is always greener syndrome. It seems like every time you come out of the water, someone stands on the shore, commenting that things were “so much better” an hour ago, or that you “missed” the best window. Trust them, your timing is just stopped.

But what I wasn’t used to was people dreaming of waves they could never surf. Once, after surfing a short but glassy evening at First Point, my friend looked at the waves and put his hands in his pockets. “Malibu is a lost cause. It’s been over since the sixties,” he laments in a dry, bored tone. This friend was no more than 23 years old. He hadn’t seen Malibu in the 1960s. But he was convinced it was a thousand times better than today.

Part of me can’t really blame him: Malibu is crowded. The wave has amendedwater quality has got worseand there is tension in the water. In the 1950s there was a group of surfers who rode Malibu and pretty much had it to themselves. Foam boards didn’t exist, and people didn’t come from everywhere to crowd the waves.

But, in the 1950s, shortboards too did not exist. Neither leashes. Or combinations. Surfing was more expensive and more difficult. So, like anything else, the luxury of an uncrowded wave had its downsides. And people were still fight on these waves.

Any surf spot worth its salt has a story. And a lot of that story is fun, crazy, and compelling. San Onofre is famous not only because of its beautiful waves, but because of the car park scene and the characters it has drawn in over the years. The North Shore has seen a huge swell in 1969, and it was also the exact moment of the shortboard revolution and the popularity of psychedelics. People like Jock Sutherland were surfer Waimea on acid (or so the story goes).

So yes, in many ways the 50s and 60s were the golden years of surfing. Scenes by Bruce Brown endless summer highlight the pure pleasure of traveling and discovering spots that no one else overrated. Today it is almost impossible.

But, there is always another side. In the 1940s, for example, surfers have been arrested for trespassing in Trestles when Camp Pendleton completely cut off public access. Plane tickets were much more expensive and boards were bigger and heavier, so while your stay home might be less crowded, you were surfing more or less that same stay, except for a few trips of surfing.

So the question remains: when does nostalgia become detrimental to our present experience? I would say change happens whenever we stop appreciating what we have in favor of remembering what may have been. Some things were better, yes, but some things were worse. Things were just… different.

It’s human nature to find reality disappointing. Surfers, of all peoples, should know this. How many trips are planned just to end up completely missing a swell? Or how many remote places turn out to be more like home than you thought?

While it’s tempting to play the “what if” game, we can remember surfing’s best eras without cementing the idea that we could never be a part of them. We can appreciate the guts of Greg Noll, the finesse of Phil Edwards and David Nuuhiwa, the creativity of Rick Griffin and John Severson, the finely tuned boards of Ben Aipa. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore who – and what – we still have today.

Just because people have done things before doesn’t mean they are doing the same things now. There are still movies to make, places to explore, parties to throw, parking lots to hang out in. What if others did it first? It’s funny!

Understanding where the roots of surfing are is important for maintaining core culture on land and etiquette in the water. But appreciating the history of surfing doesn’t mean forgetting the present either. While it’s fun to think about how wild and carefree those San Onofre parties must have been back then, or what it was like to discover an unspoilt Bali, don’t let daydreaming distract you from the surf while you can. There are still waves there. And if you’re not on one, for better or worse, you know there are others who will be.

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