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The Appeal of Surf Culture

May 7, 2018

Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Shop in Hampton, NH. (photo courtesy of nhpr.org)

Let me start by saying that I am definitely no surfer myself. I have never even tried it, regardless of how many times I have thought “maybe someday…” But, I have always loved the idea of it. Maybe it’s because of the movie “Endless Summer,” or the music of the Beach Boys. Maybe it’s because every time I thought about surfing, I wouldn’t ever actually think about the sport. Instead, I would visualize effortlessly tan people walking along the beach, boards in hand.

When I was younger I wanted to be like that, so laid-back and carefree. But as I got older, I realized that is the surf stereotype, and not everyone fits this mold. It is no longer uncommon to see lawyers, pharmacists, or even stay-at-home moms out there on the surf. Surfing is not as exclusive as it is perceived to be, and many enjoy it. Now that I have moved on from just the fantasy of the surfer lifestyle, I ask myself, “what is it that draws so many people, myself included, to the sport?” And in the lively Hampton Beach area, I realized I might be able to find an answer.

Some winter waves out on Hampton Beach. (photo courtesy of nhmountainhiking.com)

Almost directly on the shores of the frigid waters lies the mecca of New Hampshire’s surf culture: Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Shop. In summers, this little store is even more cramped than on the mid-March day I decided to stop by. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted with the calm and relaxed vibes that the surfing community is known for. This is what makes people so attracted to the sport. The surfing community is known for its “cool, edgy adolescence,” as noted by author Peter Heller of the book Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave. Heller says that surfers are an “intense bunch and love their coasts like they love their mothers.” Sounds like a pretty good crowd, right? In order to get a better understanding of this “surf culture,” I spoke with the shop owner, Dave Cropper. He told me what surf culture means to him, what it means to other local surfers, and how his small shop has a big impact on the community.

I began by asking him if he believes there to be a surf culture locally on the New Hampshire coast. As I’ve found in my research, there tends to be slight differences in the cultures in different locations. The amount of coastline is one factor. In an article published on newhampshire.com, a local surfer said that, around here, they have to “share a little more because of the small coast.” While this is certainly true, there are also other reasons that surf cultures can differ. Some spots might be more into the spiritual aspects of surfing, as an article in The Atlantic reads, “surf culture is full of people who have made their daily plunge a spiritual practice.” In a source titled “The Spread of Surf Culture,” it is even said that the Hawaiians would “pray for good waves and conduct rituals when building surfboards.” History shows this important aspect of the culture. Spirituality is definitely a large part of what makes up the surf culture and this idea that the ocean has healing powers resonates with many surfers. One local surfer that I interviewed said that he feels a sense of spirituality and attachment to the ocean when he surfs, because “you’re at times at its mercy and at times connected so closely you feel like you’re a part of it.”

Although some may believe surfing to be highly spiritual, there are also those who disagree, and would rather let surfing be just that: surfing. In that same article in  The Atlantic, there are people who believe there should not be any spiritualism involved with the sport. They see this spiritual aspect as perpetuating the stereotype of the “hippie surfer.” But people will take what they will from the sport. Dave backed up this claim, mentioning that “everyone will individually get what they want to from it…it doesn’t matter how you look at it.” I personally liked this, as it was what I would have expected him to say. Dave’s “anything goes” mindset is a pretty fair representation of the surfing population. Considering that most surfers are known for being open-minded and allow room for expression, this attitude reflects the surf culture well.

An old postcard from Hampton Beach, NH. (photo courtesy of Yankee Magazine)

I then asked him how he would describe NH’s local surf culture, and how it is different than the surf culture in other areas of the US and the world. Dave told me that, in order to surf around here, you have to be “a little crazy, for sure.” Another local surfer that I asked agreed, saying that “around here, there are some die hards” who would do anything they could to catch a wave, even if it was a bit insane. If you went over to Hampton on that March day and walked along the beach, you’d agree with both surfers – my toes were numb! And yet, there were still surfers out there enjoying the waves, which seems to be a core value of the surf culture: enjoy what you have. When the waves are good, you better get them while they still are. And even when the waves are not great, it is still a good time. Hampton’s Lane Memorial Library’s website linked to an article featuring Dave Cropper’s business, which matched this idea perfectly. The article includes a piece interviewing a surfer who visited the shop saying,  “no waves whatsoever, but it doesn’t really matter, because the sun is out, the beach is warm, and you’re in the water all day. You can’t lose.” This optimism is something that others envy about surfers and the culture – a laid-back and go-with-the-flow attitude that cannot be faked. If we are able to enjoy what we have when it is in front of us, we should consider ourselves lucky. Not many people can do that, and surfers seem to do it with ease.

A surfer enjoying the waves in Hampton Beach, NH. (photo courtesy of hamptonbeachguide.org)

Another core value within surf culture is giving back: to the ocean, the environment, and the community. There is a “love of the environment,” as that same article from the Lane Memorial Library says. One local surfer I talked with agrees, saying that in most surf culture areas, “the surfers are very aware of the beach, pollution, keeping animals safe on the beach, eating and being healthy, and so on.” Another talked about having respect for the ocean, with its “peacefulness, ferocity, and constant change.” I asked Dave in what ways he feels that he contributes locally, and he told me about the “Surfing with Smiles” program that his shop sponsors every summer. It’s an event all about having fun and giving back to the community, Having respect for those around us, our environment, and ourselves is at the heart of surf culture. If one doesn’t share those same values, Dave notes, a person cannot really be a part of this culture. It is not about how big or bad the waves are that a person rides; it just comes down to having respect for our world.

The event Dave’s shop sponsors each year, Surfing with Smiles. (photo courtesy of The Eagle Tribune)

Just as surf culture itself is open and accepting, different people are going to get different things out of surfing. The article “Where are Surfing’s Most Creative Subcultures Today?” in Huck Magazine makes a very good point: “to surf and be involved with surfing means something different to all of us.” A source simply titled “Surfing” says that most surfers are nonconformists. They all do their own thing and reap their own benefits. Some surf for the physical activity, some surf to become closer to God, and  there are others who do it just because they can. As Dave mentions, it is not about how well you can surf, because anyone could jump on a board and try it out. Sure, many love the sport because it’s just that: a sport. But the essence of surf culture is that of learning and bettering oneself and those around us, as well as connecting with others on the pure basis of sharing a common interest. A local surfer I interviewed summed up this point very well, saying that “there’s tons of different kinds of surfers, but when you get down to it, we’re all just intrigued with riding waves.” That is the irony of this culture: in going against the general norm, they inadvertently created their own group, with its own values and beliefs. However different surfers may be from each other, they still have that shared common interest.     

But how can non-surfers learn from the surfing community and its culture? An important takeaway is that surfing culture is not just about surfing. Sure, surf culture stems from the sport. Dave even said this himself. But the interesting thing is that a person doesn’t even need to be a surfer to identify with the values that the surfing community embraces. Enjoying the moment, coming together with people with different walks of life, and having respect for one’s community and environment are all simple things that anyone can incorporate within their own lives. Even here in Amherst, almost an hour drive from the beach, this ethos can be incorporated into our daily lives.  In the society we live in today, it’s easy to be sucked into a commercialized, materialistic lifestyle. But surfers and their culture are hoping to escape that. That is the beauty of who they are and what non-surfers can learn from them. Someone like myself, who has always loved the idea of surfing, yet has never actually surfed, certainly has. Everyone could learn a thing or two from the surfing community, even if it isn’t how to catch the best wave.

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