Surfing – A Numbers Game

I have been jogging consistently for 32 years with one consistent goal: to never, ever, run a marathon.

I have never, I am fairly certain, run more than five miles at a time. I don’t time myself. I don’t do races or fun runs or mudders.  I run when I feel like it and stop when I’m pooped.

I have applied this methodology to my other pursuits as well: I am a bird watcher without a “life list.” A cook who usually ignores the recipe. A fisherman with no idea how much my biggest catches weigh.

For me, my hobbies are a way to get away from a life strictured by brutal work deadlines, frantic family schedules and obsessive checking of the 401k. In my free time, the goal is to get the fuck away from goals.

But as 2020 began, I made a weird decision to quantify and document the one passion of mine that least lends itself to quantification: surfing.

Wave riding, as we all know, is about quality – how good the wave was, the way you rode it, the line you drew, the wipe out you survived. Nobody every says, “I surfed 4 times and caught 75 waves last week with an average length of ride of 4.5 seconds.  (Not yet anyway. God fucking help us when that app comes out.)  

But starting in January, I vowed to start counting, numbering and documenting every one of my surf sessions.

The plan: take one picture and type a few lines summing up the session for an Instagram post.

Part of the goal was to simply create a record, like a diary entry, to jog my memory down the road. Even when the waves suck, there’s always something – the light off the back of the wave, a pelican coasting over the crest of a swell – worth filing away and not losing.

And look, I’m 50 now. Sometimes the oldest person in the lineup. You start to wonder how many sessions you have left and don’t want to forget a single one.

The other reason for counting the sessions was that I had no real idea how often I actually surf.

I live on the East Coast, where you can surf 5 days in one week and then wait while the surf goes flat for a month. I wasn’t sure if I had surfed 30 or 90 days last year. No clue.

 I did set a vague “wouldn’t it be nice” goal of surfing 100 days at age 50. The vagaries of East Coast swells and covid-forced cancellation of an overseas surf trip have ensured I won’t get close to that.

But over the last 11 months, what has emerged as more interesting than any one session or the total number of them,  is how the quantifying and counting has changed the experience itself – enhancing it in some, corrupting it in others.

See, the second you start counting how many times you do something you start wanting to run up the numbers. I have often  had to resist paddling out in shitty conditions just to add a digit. It’s a now regular tussle with a motivation that feels foreign and suspect. 

And yet there have been times where it has pushed me go when I might have otherwise stayed home, and I wound up scoring, either in the form of good waves or just a solid clearing of the head.

Like Session #60 where the allure of that milestone number pushed me to set the alarm for 4:15 am. The waves were bonkers that day. And so, my pursuit of quantity yielded quality.

And during an utter feast at my favorite break in May, I was so amazed at the consistency of the surf and lack of a crowd that I decided to achieve the symmetry of riding 21 waves for my 21st session of 2021. I lost track in the mid-teens and stopped counting but I’ll never forget that morning. I forgot to take a picture and there’s no document or IG post. But just adding some numbers gave me a kind of file cabinet tab to help me pull the memory more readily.

 But it’s a tough decision whether to do this again in 2022.

 I have decided to forgo the Instagram part of it, which corrupted the whole thing with an element of performativeness in a way that only social media can. That’s a whole other post.

But the counting and quantifying?

I am still processing how just this little act has changed my relationship to a passion I have largely built my entire life around. The more I do this, the more it’s likely to change it even more.

In 2022, can I surf more often than I surfed in 2021? If I do this for five years and start to see a decline, will it stress me out and cause me to worry that the sun is setting on all this? Don’t I surf to avoid that kind of worry?

If it’s December 2024 and I’m one session away from breaking my record, do I feel unconsciously compelled to paddle out into conditions that could hurt or kill me? Or does the numbers thing drive me to stay on top of my game and keep me surfing til I’m 80?

This morning the waves were damn near microscopic.

But they were ridable, glassy and fun on my 9’4” Hap Jacobs. And I was alone, no one in sight for as far as I could see. As always, it was amazing to be out there.

There was nothing worth taking a picture of so I didn’t.

It was session #63 and I hope I never forget it.