“As the ocean ‘waves’ the universe ‘peoples’. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. We do not ‘come into’ this world; we ‘come out of it,’ as fruit from a tree.” - Alan Watts.
The combination of this dead English philosopher, a big wave charger named Will Skudin, and the desire to end twenty years of bouts with crippling big wave jitters, finally put this whole God thing into perspective for me. Alan Watts, the dead Englishman, died before I was born. Will Skudin is very much alive and well and, as I write this, on a large boat filled with pointy boards, jet skis, and a whole crew of people who have spent their lives connecting with the rhythmic energy that emerges from the chaos of storms.
“With 20+ years of chasing swells, the most important thing I’ve learned is that it has nothing to do with the waves. Swells come and go, but the relationships in between can last a lifetime.” - Will Skudin.
That quote above is Will distilling the essence of big wave surfing into a beautiful brace of sentences that made me, however briefly, dear reader, insanely jealous that I didn’t write it first.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of having a meal with Will, you’ll know that he has everyone at the table hold hands while he says grace. The first time he did this I groaned audibly, probably because I had flashbacks to when I was little, at my uncle’s table, grasping cold hands and hearing the arduous thank you’s for God and Jesus and everything He made. It was a ten minute long ordeal of panic as the ham grew cold, the turkey went dry and potatoes got all weird.
Will’s grace lasts fifteen seconds, and is a space to come into the present and be thankful. It is like a wipeout where you know everything is fine and you just go with it. Then, when you’re back on the surface, you can’t help but have more appreciation for what is and has been right around you. He has said different things at every meal throughout the years, but all with the same theme. He gives thanks to whatever brought the people around the table together. It is undeniably nice, and therapeutic, and not the slightest bit weird.
It is about the people, and he wants to say it. I want to say grace when he’s not there but I don’t. I always thought grace was an act for people with faith, but Will’s grace doesn’t carry baggage. Maybe grace is for connected people to show life, the universe, and everything a moment of thanks. I believe in it now. Ya know,
Not the beardy fellow, nor the thin-nosed, impossibly comfortable looking lotus-sitting Budda, not Lono, that Hawaiian prankster who jetted around causing mischief, nor Kali, the Hindu god of darkness and negativity who likes to juggle and lick severed heads while on the body Vishnu. She may sound rough, but she enables all life and positivity. Without darkness there is no light and without negative there is no positive. Without the possibility of the worst possible scenarios, how do we know what is the best possible outcome?
Without death there is no life.
You may have heard there are no atheists in foxholes. That’s not true. There are loads of atheists in foxholes. They are just more fearful, I think, than the believers. I was always jealous of the god-fearing. I always figured that with faith there’d be no pre big wave surf jitters. Jitters is too gentle a word. It’s more like the feeling you feel before you fight a bear. It is a feeling uncomfortable enough to want to seek ways to deny it.
Can I ease my big wave jitters by expanding my existential philosophy? Is it bad to look for God or reason only to save yourself from the anxiety of cowardly worry?
I believe in the scientific concept of chaos. A big-ass bang. Subsequent random stuff happens, then chemicals, then biology, then dinosaurs, then me and big waves and pull-vests and friends. You, like me, dear reader, most likely had two choices about how dinosaurs and you and pull-vests and friends all happened. Either you were given a very organized creator with a beard who made all, and controls all, and will judge all and give us consequences and loves us, or a big-ass bang. And me, maybe like you or maybe not like you, believing I had only two choices, went with chaos. Chaos is not boring. Chaos is an exploding rockstar. But chaos, like a lot of science, happens outside of us.
Chaos does not account for art. And you will have trouble finding big wave surfers who dismiss art. Big wave surfers see the pattern of force upon a medium, the rhythms of developing intervals in nature and then the sudden end form of an energy as it feels and bends around ocean trenches and contours like sound going into an ear. The pattern becomes part of us quickly, like falling asleep on the warm sand in the hot summer while listening to the crash and the suck of the shorebreak. While surfing, you are not thinking, at least not in any conscious sense. A big wave surfer having a good session is tuned into something beyond consciousness. You don’t “think” about sticking that late drop, or keeping a line through a barrel, any more than you think about making your heart beat.
I like chaos because it’s rockstar, but chaos is problematic because it doesn't include tuning into a rhythmic system. Chaos and rhythm are things that are separate. Right?
I used to think that I had a definite choice too in the matter of surfing waves that scare me. I used to think that the metaphor of the fox-hole and the impact zone was too far-fetched. For me, the metaphor that the big wave surfers going surfing are soldiers going to battle was, at best, corny. At worst, cliché.
But I don’t think like that anymore. I know now that following my heart, the will of the universe, the force, the will of Allah, of Jesus, “whatever,” as Will says at the dinner table, “you believe in,” all those decisions I make with a part of me that is not my brain, leads me to more waves and amazing people. When your heart says ‘fuck it’ and you paddle out for a dig, or spin for a big set wave that you’re not at all sure you will make, it’s the same heart that packs up your gear two days before a swell and meets friends. You are tuning in, chasing the place where the energy meets its conclusion in the biggest and most beautiful way.
As I said before, if I’m tuned in correctly, I have no more choice in the matter of packing my gear and calling my friends to go surf big waves than I have in the matter of making my heart beat. I’m following myself, my force, my “whatever it is you believe in”. Every surfer knows the feeling of not following that pull.
The dead Englishman Watts says that there is no difference between me and you, dear reader, and the rest of everything and of nothing, too. We are all part of the same; the rocks and worms and moose and wombats and rainbows and the spaces between all exist in the same universe.
This thing we do, surfing big waves, is amazing. Awesome in the non-dude sense of the word: full of awe. Storms move around oceans sending rhythms of water waves like a bass drum sending sound waves through the air. My friends and I move around the oceans to intercept this energy, the way an ear intercepts sound waves for the acoustic experience for the brain. Big wave surfers are ‘brains’ chasing this rhythm of energy to find the ultimate acoustics. We are looking for volume and clarity and rhythm. It is becoming increasingly difficult to witness this awesomeness over and over without truly believing I am connected to something beyond the beardy Gods, and beyond the chaos of science.
We inherently know the chaos of storms, dear reader. If you surf, you know that from chaos, there are born patterns. We all understand patterns. And you don’t have to surf to know the pattern of life and death. We see the pattern of living and dying. We share that.
So we’ll have a think about Marcio Freire who died recently while surfing Nazare.
Also, a think about his family and those rescue people who tried to keep him here among the living.
I tried to bring a man back once who’d stopped breathing in my first year as a lifeguard. But I couldn’t. A ten year old son watched me work on his dead father. I was fifteen.
I brought another one back who had drowned in front of me. With the help of my pal Taz, we were able to bring him back. Those two things are connected, but not the way I thought they were. I was forty-two.
This is a community of individuals who are tuned into a very special frequency of the universe, these surfers. It’s a community who knows about energy waves and receptors, about wind and tide and intervals, who get together in small groups to have experiences that cannot really be described to others. These moments might be harder to describe than God, but they don't exist without the people and shared moments together.
As a community of surfers we experience our deaths together; we also experience our lives together. This year has started off well for the energy seeking big wave community. We are all sharing these clean, orderly, big towers of rhythmic energy meeting special formations, and our relationships to each other become the most important act of all.