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THE MOST SUPREME PLEASURE:
Surfing bibliophiles are at this very moment lining bookshelves with protective sheets of plasticizer-free polyester, trolling online for first editions of Hawaiian Surfboard and You Should Have Been Here an Hour Ago, and gently sniff-testing the pages of old favorites for cursed mildew. Happy on the beach, happy in the library. This is a different breed of surfer. But even the most devoted surf-world bookworm will admit that the sport is shown to best effect in visual form. "Surfing is so photogenic," wrote New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell in 2003, "it's hard to believe that film wasn't invented just to capture it." True. The sport's emotional range, and much of its history, can be easily arranged into a chronological pastiche of images, from black-and-white National Geographic plates to Kodachrome Surfer magazine covers, vast IMAX panoramas, and downloaded QuickTime video clips.
But surfing also had a long precelluloid history, followed by a much shorter period where photography wasn't yet the sport's equal, mechanically or artistically. In the late eighteenth century, the politely amazed surf-related entries from CAPTAIN JAMES COOK's seafaring voyages were published without illustration, as was HERMAN MELVILLE's brief but captivated take on the sport in 1849's Mardi. MARK TWAIN's self-deprecating paragraph on surfing, from 1872's Roughing It, is accompanied by a pair of line drawings, but the real attraction is Twain's sauntering wordplay. All three pieces are short-surfing before the twentieth century was never more than a curiosity to nonsurfers. But notes of color and feeling did get transmitted and they arrived in well-crafted words, phrases, and sentences, not photographs or film clips.
JACK LONDON was the first well-known writer to really take surfing on as a literary assignment, after he tried "surf-riding" while visiting Waikiki in 1907. "A Royal Sport," London's 4,000-word essay, was illustrated with surfing action photographs, but the waves shown are small and gentle, and the images are reproduced on the page as near miniatures. London's prose is meanwhile nothing but oversize as he trumpets the sport's thrills and dangers, adjectives landing like cymbal shots, with waves variously described as "mighty monsters," "bull-mouth breakers," and "great smoking combers."
London's voice echoed across the next forty years of surf writing, while the sport was exported from Hawaii to the Americas and Australia, and presented as an attractive new form of daredevilry. A surfing philosophy of sorts emerged after World War II as surfers turned their sunburned backs on the hardworking postwar prosperity, and instead put value on time spent in the water or lounging on the beach. The new surfers were younger and more insolent than those of the prewar generation, and by the time Czech-born screenwriter FREDERICK KOHNER reintroduced the sport to the reading public in 1957 with his debut novel Gidget, beachfront city councils were moving against "surfing hooliganism" with no-surf zones, surfboard licensing fees, and other small but annoying legislative acts. Kohner also thought surfers were coarse and reckless, but he dug their easy-rolling style, and honored the magnetic attraction of a warm beach met by a pulsing summer swell. Gidget has no shortage of babble and froth. But that's not a bad thing if you've set out to capture the rampantly stoked voice of a fifteen-year-old girl "in love with a surfboard," and this slender book holds up nicely as the first modern piece of surf fiction.
Captain James Cook
Excerpt from a voyage to the pacific ocean
The first published accounts of surfing are found in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, a popular four-volume set of books originally published in 1784 that describe the final voyage of celebrated British sea captain and navigator James Cook (1728-79). Cook himself has long been credited as the author of the original description of wave-riding-a short but enthusiastic report of a canoe-surfer at Tahiti's Matavai Point-but researchers now believe the passage was taken from notes made by one of Cook's lieutenants. A longer description of board-riding, in Hawaii, was developed from notes written by James King, who became captain of the voyage following Cook's death. Both entries are presented here.
December, 1777, Matavai Bay, Tahiti
NEITHER ARE THEY [the Tahitians] strangers to the soothing effects produced by particular sorts of motion, which in some cases seem to allay any perturbation of mind with as much success as music. Of this, I met with a remarkable instance. For on walking one day about Matavai Point, where our tents were erected, I saw a man paddling in a small canoe so quickly, and looking about him with such eagerness on each side, as to command my attention. At first I imagined that he had stolen something from one of the ships, and was pursued; but, on waiting patiently, saw him repeat his amusement. He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He then sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach. Then he started out, emptied his canoe, and went in search of another swell. I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea; especially as, though the tents and ships were so near, he did not seem in the least to envy or even to take any notice of the crowds of his countrymen collected to view them as objects which were rare and curious. During my stay, two or three of the natives came up, who seemed to share his felicity, and always called out when there was an appearance of a favorable swell, as he sometimes missed it by his back being turned, and looking about for it. By then I understood that this exercise...was frequent among them; and they have probably more amusements of this sort which afford them at least as much pleasure as skating, which is the only of ours with whose effects I could compare it.
March, 1779, Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii
The surf, which breaks on the coast round the bay, extends to the distance of about one hundred and fifty yards from the shore, within which space the surges of the sea, accumulating from the shallowness of the water, and dashed against the beach with prodigious violence. Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost height, they choose that time for this amusement, which is performed in the following manner: Twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet, they plunge under, and suffering it to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way...out into the sea. The second wave is encountered in the same manner with the first; the great difficulty consisting in seizing the proper moment of diving under it, which, if missed, the person is caught by the surf, and driven back again with great violence; and all his dexterity is then required to prevent himself from being dashed against the rocks. As soon as they have gained by these repeated efforts, the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always much larger than the others...their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. If by mistake they should place themselves on one of the smaller waves, which breaks before they reach the land, or should not be able to keep their plank in a proper direction on the top of the swell, they are left exposed to the fury of the next, and, to avoid it, are obliged to dive and regain their place, from which they set out. Those who succeed in their object of reaching shore, have still the greatest danger to encounter. The coast being guarded by a chain of rocks, with, here and there, a small opening between them, they are obliged to steer their boards through one of these, or, in case of failure, to quit it, before they reach the rocks, and, plunging under the wave, make the best of their way back again. This is reckoned very disgraceful, and is also attended with the loss of the board, which I have often seen, with great horror, dashed to pieces, at the very moment the islander quitted it. The boldness and address with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.
Copyright © 2004 by Matt Warshaw
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