So recently I’ve been reading up quite a bit on the differences between play and ritual and it’s gotten me thinking about how it relates to surfing. You might be wondering, “hey Stephen, why the fuck are you ‘reading up’ on the difference between play and ritual?”. Well, to keep it short, I studied History of Art and Visual Culture at uni and, believe it or not, this stuff is actually interesting to me. Recently, I’ve been exploring the ways rituals function in different cultures, mainly around Central Africa, and how sometimes the lines between play and ritual blur. But this is an article about surfing, not Central African rituals, so let’s get back on topic.
The common perception to the rest of the world is that surfing is an act of play, just some people who like riding waves for fun. And this is true, to an extent. I’m sure a majority of us started surfing for this same reason. But as many of us know, once you have some skin in the game and have been surfing for much of your life, it is so much more than just an act of play. In many ways, surfing transcends play and begins to work its way towards ritual. It becomes less of a hobby and more of a necessity, to the point where if we aren’t able to surf for more than a week or two, that gap can take a toll on our psychological health. There’s a sense that something is missing in our life.
This transition into ritual is also when the spirituality comes in. As surfers, we feel a spiritual connection not only to the act of riding waves itself but to every aspect of surfing. The ocean becomes the greatest cathedral ever built. With that, world renown waves become less like destinations and more like sites of pilgrimage. Dawn patrol becomes a religious practice that gives you peace of mind for at least the rest of the day. We covet these practices as sacred and perhaps the most sacred of all, is the surfboard.
Dawn patrol becomes a religious practice that gives you peace of mind for at least the rest of the day. We covet these practices as sacred and perhaps the most sacred of all, is the surfboard.
Your board becomes your priest, guiding you towards how it wants you to practice. It’s like a holy medium between the ocean and yourself. When that board is hand-shaped, it only gets better. If the board under your feet was shaped specifically for you, the experience that comes from riding becomes elevated and deeply personal. You have a connection to that board that only comes from knowing where it came from and knowing it was crafted just for you. Surfing becomes more and more of a spiritual practice and perhaps even a religious one.
If you’re thinking, “jeeeeez how meta can you get about surfing??” the answer is, well, pretty fucking meta. When surfing becomes ingrained deep into your life and your sense of being, there’s no denying its spirituality. Some people call it “The Church of the Open Sky” and I’d have to agree that it’s not too far off from the truth. Surfing began as a highly ritualized and religious act practiced by ancient Hawaiians and I think slowly but surely it is returning to that once again. Maybe next time you get in the water, remind yourself that this is essentially your church and you might just appreciate that session a little more.