It only takes one…
It was a beautiful morning. A handful of friends, up early, out on a fairly secret reef point in Costa Rica. Sets weren’t big, about chest high, but you don’t need big waves here to have an amazing time. The sum of the lineup was 4 surfers, 2 paddle surfers, my 8 year old son and I was riding Donna, my 6.9 single fin. All friends.
When it’s just us on the reef we find a rhythm of catching waves. Andrew always opts for the sneaker lefts. Alex sets up wide and takes the swing sets. I like the waves that bowl up right on the main boil which sets them up for the second shallow spot on the reef that I call Bob.
From the lineup you can see folks coming out from the beach about 15 minutes before they show up, it’s a long paddle. Normally you can tell who it is because only a few of us surf out there. Someone’s stoke is like a fingerprint, and when you coach paddle surfing you can recognize someone by their stroke a mile away. And this morning we saw a paddle surfer headed our way, but he wasn’t a local or anyone I knew.
I admit it, I’m a paddle surfing snob. I guess that’s what studying a sport for four years does for you. I can make assessments quickly about the level of a paddle surfer just by seeing them take a few strokes. I can gauge what V/W ratio they’re riding, if they have a race background, and more or less, their level of surfing.
As I watched this guy paddle out I could tell right away that he’d given zero thought to his stoke. You take anyone and put them on a board and hand them a paddle and there’s this stroke they do. It’s all in the arms, body is a tree, paddle enters the water at the feet at a negative angle and pulls a few feet behind them. Zero study. Zero work. Base level. I’ve begun calling it the bar-b-que stoke. Guy grabs the paddle board for the first time at a BBQ after a few beers and it’s the stoke he adopts. The stonger the guy, the worse the stoke.
I love paddle surfing as an art. And I love participants that study and train in the art. I don’t care what level anyone is on, as we all start at the beginning, but I do hold a prejudice against a certain type of paddle surfer, someone who gravitates to the sport because of it’s advantages, not it’s beauty, was probably a bad surfer and holds a grudge because time or ability has passed them by, only cares about wave count and not improving – this peice is about them.
The paddle surfer, we’ll call him John, made it to the lineup. He was riding a big board, close to 1.7 V/W ratio, and proceeded to paddle around the group and take off, straight away on the next wave. Too deep to make it. Normally, when you show up at a reef break it’s customary to sit on the side and let everyone catch a wave before you catch one, you say hi, wait your turn and then go. He BBQ’ed his way right to peak and took off. Then, John paddled back to the channel, around the lineup, this time setting up about 20 meters in front of everyone, and took the next wave.
This continued for 30 minutes. I have the video, which I won’t release, but what I didn’t realize while out there was that he wasn’t even making the waves he was hoarding. What’s the point? You’re paddling deep just to catch waves you can’t even ride just to hold off other surfers.
Finally after a while, I said something. At this point, I, and everyone else in the water was beyond pissed, and as the local paddle surfer it was my place to step in. Maybe I could have been more diplomatic. I think I said something like, “Buddy, we’re just going to go when we want from now on, you’re taking every wave.”
His response is what got me. He said, “you’re catching the same amount of waves that I am.” Which is hilarious, because literally, in the previous 20 or 30 minutes he’d caught 2 times the waves of the rest of the lineup combined. But this shows that in his distorted view of reality, he wasn’t even doing anything wrong. Completely oblivious.
Ok, that’s all preamble for the points I’m about to make.
- As Colin McPhillips says, “An asshole in the water is an asshole in the water no matter what kind of board they’re riding.” While this holds true, the advantage of a paddle board can exponentially increase the power of said asshole. That’s why surfers hate us. And, in that moment, I hated us.
- If you read my blog you don’t fall into this category, but there is a group of paddle surfers who don’t care about progression, helping grow the sport in the right way, or integrating the sport with surfing. This group likes to paddle surf because they want to catch more waves. F@#$ technique. F@#$ the race to the bottom. Give me a huge f’in board and get out of my way. My surfing days have past me, so I’m going to ruin yours and take everything I want. There’s not many of these guys, but they do exist, and they are our enemy.
- It only takes one guy like this to turn every surfer he ever meets against paddle surfing. At the beginning, paddle surfing was a part of surfing. In One California Day, Joel Tudor is riding a standup. The Malloys were early adapters. Machado…. My guess is that one day they found themselves surfing with a guy like this on a standup and saw a scary possible future and then said, this could change a lot. And decided not to grow the sport. I definitely had that thought in that moment.
Think about the damage one guy like this, with that obtuse attitude, can do to paddle surfing. And the thing is, because he’s on a paddle board, and because it’s a different tribe than surfing, he gets grouped in with me and you. Within our own tribe we can differentiate. An asshole who’s on a shortboard is “Tom” the a-hole, an individual. But to surfers, the a-hole on the paddle board is the tribe of paddle surfers, the group of us. And that label, that feeling, sticks.
Done at its highest level paddle surfing is a high form of surfing, arguably the most technically challenging. Just paddling a negative float board is an art from. But at it’s base, lowest level, it has the power to be the ugliest form of surfing. It gives tools to those who choose to take advantage.
It’s our choice how we grow this sport and what behavior we tolerate from our own, and ultimately, which version of paddle surfing we want the world to know. Let’s make sure we have a hand in promoting the right one.
Looking forward to hearing the comments on this one… hahaha