Perfectly small in Marshfield
New England surfers are perhaps the worst nationwide in regards to ability. We don’t get enough practice and for seven months out of twelve we wear rubber straightjackets. Yes, I said straightjackets. Insanity makes up a large part of our psyche. We enjoy pain. We welcome suffering. We expect disappointment. We are manic assholes, but there isn’t a group of surfers elsewhere who can rival our devotion, nor the undulating joys we experience while riding waves.
New England surfers wait out month-long flat spells. We deal with harsh, sub-freezing winds and tide sensitivities. We paddle out in deplorable conditions to keep our shoulders limber and for self-assurance. The majority of our sessions take place in chop, slop, and mush. When a decent swell does arrive, it seldom lasts more than a day and a half. Many of us have settled on lesser paying professions so that our schedules coincide with Mother Nature’s cruel and chaotic patterns. Lovers have left us. Family members have disowned us. We prioritize surfing over anniversaries, birthday parties, and wakes. We love surfing, but surfing does not love us back.
The same can be said for surfers from other regions in the country, but in terms of swell, the payoff for Californians, North Westerners, and fellow East Coasters is far richer than the crumbs upon which we New Englanders feed. Even the Gulf Coasters have it better than us. Think how much sweeter your life would be if the thickest wetsuit you owned was a shortie. It’s easy to be a surfer in Santa Barbara, California. It’s easy to be a surfer in Cocoa Beach. It’s easier to be a surfer in Jersey. The life of a New England surfer is arduous. It’s hopeless. We have dedicated our lives to chasing the shabbiest, unlikeliest of dreams, that in the end, all of our sacrifices will have been worth it.
So why do we do it? Why do we voluntarily slip into neoprene straightjackets? Why do we torture ourselves over some of the most inconsistent and lackluster surf on planet Earth? The cliché answer is something along the lines of surf stoke being relative or that it doesn’t matter what size or shape wave you’re riding as long as you’re having fun. This is a lie. The surf industry distributes this nonsense via magazines and movies. Consumers buy into it because the only alternative is to accept mediocrity, to accept the fact that you’re never going to surf like Kelly Slater or even a low-rated WQS pro.
Most New England surfers will never develop beyond the skills of a novice. Most New Englanders flail, hop, and stink-bug their way down the line. We are products of our environment. Our waves are ugly and therefore most of us surf ugly. We convince ourselves that this doesn’t matter. We convince ourselves that frostbite is fun. Such self-deception requires a high degree of psychosis. You’ve got to be a tad psycho to surf around here.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once stated that madness is a radical break from power. This is the defining characteristic of New England surfers. We’re mad. We’re disconnected from the industrial surf complex. We don’t give a rat’s ass about who won the world tour. We don’t dress like the surfers pictured in mainstream magazines. Sure, a few of the groms are wearing their Volcom hats sideways these days, but overall we operate outside of the industry. We don’t surf because it’s trendy. We don’t surf in the limelight, and we certainly don’t surf because we’re good at it.
New Englanders surf because they covet hard work and suffering, and the greater the misery, the greater the eventual pleasure. Any masochist worth his salt knows this. The distance between our highs and lows is vast. It’s part of our Puritan history. We trudge through the cold slop knowing that it will only enhance our joy when the waves actually get good. This is not to compare the thrill we experience on a clean overhead New England pointbreak to that of Jaime O’Brien surfing perfect double-overhead Pipe. I am not committing to the utilitarian belief that joy can be measured and calculated. I am merely saying that it is the pursuit of happiness itself that makes New England surfing special. If our thrill rivals that of Joel Parkinson surfing perfect Superbank, it is only because we’ve had to climb twice the emotional distance to get there.
I recently moved home to Boston after a yearlong stay in Santa Barbara. I surfed world-class righthand pointbreaks on a regular basis. The old East Coast aphorism that surfing perfect waves all the time makes one lackadaisical is a myth, probably invented by some guy who regretted living in Massachusetts his entire life. I never lost my edge surfing Rincon on a weekly basis. I never once took it for granted. I paddled out in everything. I maintained my scrappy New England sensibility in mellow yellow California.
Eventually, I got bored, but not with the waves. I grew tired of feeling good all the time after a session. I missed my misery. I missed having to suffer for my surf stoke. Everyone in California looked, talked, and walked like a surfer. Being a surfer in California isn’t special. It’s commonplace. It’s easy in every way. It’s a completely different activity than surfing in New England. I broke from power. I left California, the golden bastion of surfing, in favor of frostbitten toes and ice cream headaches. I preferred being a miserable big fish in a small icy pond. A solid wrap around cutback at my local break instantly awards you legend status. I might never make the WQS, but in Marshfield, Massachusetts, I catch all the shitty waves that one man could ever want.
Would I rather be in California? Yes. Am I happy here? No, but there’s an upside to my dissatisfaction. Aside from being a temperamental product of New England weather and waves, I am an egomaniacal Italian. The world not only revolves around me, but its very existence is ontologically dependent upon my perceptions, or so I like to think. In the water, I am a heaving double-up of merging psychopathies. I love myself. I loathe myself. I am neurotic. I am cynical. I am brash. I am a cruel joke, but misery loves company and there are hundreds of others committed to the loony bin of New England surfing. They hoot and whistle at my above average hacks and so-so tube riding abilities. It’s my own dark little world. I can shine here. I can mope here. It’s an egoist’s Utopia, a neurotic hideaway where I can live with myself, where I can live with being best of the worst, where I never have to worry about being happy.
Awfully glad to be alone