Jeff Spicoli. You know, stoned, doofy, and happy go lucky. That’s the dominant surfer stereotype. I grew up surfing in South Carolina and wasn’t really part of the surf culture there. In 2003, I moved to Orange County, CA for law school, but mainly to get good waves. The surf is good, and the crowds mean you’re in proximity with the surf culture whether you identify or not. By 2007, I was working heavily in coastal advocacy with non-profit groups like the Surfrider Foundation. By then, I was up to my ears in surf culture.
The more apt stereotype is jock, plain and simple. The dominant reality in surfing is strong, competitive, aggressive, and often toxically male. Still, the traditional hippie surfer stereotype persists in popular culture. And even many surfers have always talked about surfing as their religion.
The idea of surfing as religion always sounded cute and lightly vapid. And surfing at the expense of the advancement of my career made me lightly identify with the concept. But a few days ago, around easter, I had an epiphany of sorts when the parallels between some religious groups and the surfers I hear on social media came into clear focus.
Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians around the country were defying stay at home orders to attend religious services, endangering themselves and others with possible COVID-19 exposure. At the same time, many vocal surfers engaged in similar anti-social behavior and rhetoric, growling bombastically about sweeping beach closures, in some cases skirting closures by defying orders or relocating their surf sessions to places without the resources to implement closures.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, persistently judged by bigots for my long hair and interest in other cultures, science, and pluralism. For a brief while in my twenties, I was pleasantly amused to characterize my obsession with surfing as some sort of spiritual clique where we existed on a higher plane. In reality, I was just a young, fit adrenaline junky.
But clearly for many, Surfing is very much a religion: It blurs some folks’ rational thinking, allowing them to act myopically selfish and lash out at logical social constructs as if the folks advocating for those constructs don’t understand surfers’ clearly superior interests.