What’s Bad News for Coastlines Can Be Good News for Surfers

What’s Bad News for Coastlines Can Be Good News for Surfers

Hurricanes Irma and Maria arose during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, when the ocean water was at its warmest. Because hurricanes draw energy from the temperature of the water, and because the ocean absorbs the bulk of the heat associated with global warming, it stands to reason that hurricanes will become more powerful in the future. But “debate rages,” the oceanographer Eelco J. Rohling writes in THE OCEANS: A Deep History (Princeton University, $29.95), “over whether we will see a stormier atmosphere in general, or perhaps fewer but bigger storms.”

Paleoceanography, Rohling’s area of expertise, is the study of ancient oceans and ancient climates as they changed and developed together over geologic time. It involves analyzing data like layers of sediment taken from the seabed. Much alarming information can be learned this way, as Rohling demonstrates, about how today’s oceans are likely to respond to climate change — with greater acidification, sea-level rise, mass extinction and so forth. But because storms leave no geological record, the precise effect of global warming on hurricanes is harder to gauge. Still, Rohling is confident that the combination of rising sea levels and some form of increased storm intensity “spells doom” for the world’s coastal regions. For surfers, rooting for hurricane swell may be increasingly difficult to rationalize.

Along with the moral questions of climate change, the surfer may have to confront the political issue of cultural appropriation. In her essay “Indigenous Surfing” in THE CRITICAL SURF STUDIES READER (Duke University, paper, $29.95), edited by Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman, the cultural studies scholar Colleen McGloin observes that a certain conception of surfing — as white, male, competitive and consumer-friendly — has been “integral” to shaping Australia’s modern national identity. But that narrative, she reports, is now being challenged: A widespread interest in surfing among indigenous Australians has not only served as a source of pride for them; it has also played a role in their politics by promoting a competing vision of nationhood.

The indigenous idea of a nation, McGloin tells us, “can refer to land or sea,” and includes geographical borders as well as cultural activities that underscore the commonality of a spiritual home. Apparently, it is not actually known whether indigenous people in Australia used to surf — the loss of such knowledge has been one of the many casualties of colonization — but McGloin finds it “reasonable to assume” that some form of wave riding was a central part of their life before it was disrupted. If so, it is fitting that during the 1990s, when indigenous political issues like land rights and reconciliation were gaining traction in Australia, indigenous surf schools began to pop up nationwide, emphasizing values like community and well-being. Reclaiming surfing as a way to reacquaint oneself with one’s Aboriginality, McGloin argues, constitutes a “form of active resistance” to the legacy of colonialism.

Perhaps we all give surfing the meaning we need it to have. In PERFECT WAVE: More Essays on Art and Democracy (University of Chicago, $25), an idiosyncratic blend of memoir and pop-culture reflection, the art critic Dave Hickey tells the tale of his youthful infatuation with surfing in the early 1950s. The story serves as a kind of founding myth for his career: a portrait of the critic as a young wave rider.

When Hickey was in grade school, his family moved from Dallas to Santa Monica, Calif. Out of place and socially adrift, he “gravitated toward the beach,” where he bodysurfed. A neighbor who paid Hickey to sweep his driveway owned a “beautiful red Billabong longboard,” which hung in his garage; Hickey spent hours “communing” with it. Finally, his neighbor gave it to him, and Hickey was on his way — “a real surfer who couldn’t surf.” Limited by meager athletic talent and “stupid feet,” he devoted himself to “the juju science of techno-surfing,” poring over bathymetric maps of the ocean floor and making a study of the patterns of wave sets. Surfing before and after school, he got good enough.

But Hickey was seeking more than the good. A natural-born aesthete, he “was always looking for anything perfect.” And one day, surfing Ocean Beach in San Diego, he found it: a perfect wave, “big and steady and hard out of the north and west.” He managed to catch and ride it before losing control, at which point he inadvertently “shot the pier” — surfing under the beach’s wharf, skirting collisions with its girders — much to the amazement of onlookers. Unfortunately, his wild ride ended with a crash into the rocks at nearby Sunset Cliffs, sending him to the hospital.

Hickey’s parents punished him by taking away his board, but he “swore to have his revenge.” He had tasted perfection and would now tirelessly pursue it, becoming a connoisseur of beauty. “There would be an accounting soon enough,” he says, “and today every word I write, I guess, is part of that revenge.”

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