January 30 2012
Weekends are usually spent on the coast north of San Francisco, in Western Marin. We wake up early and drive for 45 minutes over the Golden Gate Bridge, through protected coastal lands. The landscape immediately transforms into a mixture of forests, cliffs and beaches, intertwined with small organic farms and cattle ranches. Life here is about fishing, farming and village stories, with an independent population that fiercely preserves the pristine landscapes and keeps development away. It’s hard to believe we are so close to the technological centre that is the Bay Area.
Our days are spent in a surf shack of sorts built without permits in the 1970s. Surfing and welcoming new and old friends is our weekend hobby. An open door policy and no schedule means that anyone could be showing up. On Sunday we spend time with Matthew Grey, the Plastiki expedition coordinator, who recounts for us his sailing crew’s incredible and harrowing journey from San Francisco to Sydney on a symbolic boat made of plastic bottles. As I have done with so many visitors, I take Matt surfing, give him a small amount of instructions, and see him quickly master the small weekend waves.
Surfing has become a very big part of my life. Six years ago I decided to try something new. Having windsurfed all around the world for the past 25 years, I first wondered about the reasoning behind starting a new sport that I was going to be much worse at. What I realised is that the drive to learn something new, to acquire knowledge and skills, had greater lure and excitement than simply continuing with what I had already mastered. I made a simple parallel between my own desire to try new things and the observation that children are driven to constantly learn and discover. This is something that gets lost with age.
So I launched myself into surfing and, with much persistence and commitment, learned a sport typically acquired with much greater ease earlier in life. More recently, I also started to learn kitesurfing.
Surfing is, for me, about letting the mind be uniquely and singularly focused. There is no room for other thoughts while I am in the water, no place for work or family reflections. Unlike other sports that have routines attached to them, surfing is more like improvisational jazz; there is no predictability that allows the mind to wander. Focus has to be absolute. Reading the waves is essential if one wants to ride them. Is it breaking here or there? Is it closing out (a wave that falls all at once)? Is it breaking right or left?
When I surf, my mind is in a Zen-like state, the brain observing the horizon in search of the next set, reading direction and height. It is also a beautiful moment of looking at the world from the ocean, a unique perspective that makes the coast and the world seem entirely different. Nature is all around, beneath the surface with seals, dolphins, fish and even whales, and above us with majestic pelicans using the wind created by waves to plane over them.
When a breaking wave finally comes, there is no other feeling like its push. The acceleration, the instinctual jump to stand, the steep drop and the millisecond reflexes take the surfboard through the crashing, zipping water.
In a world where almost everything is manufactured, surfboards represent a rare moment of craft. In fact, surfboards are among the last objects that respond to unique needs: shaped differently depending on the weight and skill-level of the surfer, the type of wave and location, the technology and type of material, the aesthetic and culture of the place.
In many ways, surfing represents, for me, that improvisational moment between skill, craft and the elements. I do believe that surfing sharpens my instincts and my intuition.
Later, we have a sunset barbecue at the house of a friend who recently moved to this coastal area, welcoming them to the magic of the place. Back home, the kids have been playing outdoors all day; they are exhausted and full of stories from their playdates and bike rides. That night, I realise I am without my MacBook charger. I go knocking on a friend’s door around the corner, borrow his charger and finish this diary.