Mavericks: Surfing and the Economics of Joy

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 14, 2008.

Here’s the extent of my surfing experience: in the center of my coastal hometown there is a monument to a kid who died surfing in the sixties. It’s a small memorial that sits on an island at the confluence of the village’s two main streets. Most people from the town are unaware of its existence, but that little memorial haunted me just enough that I never learned to surf. Also, when we were in the tenth grade, my friend, Saul, went surfing over lunch break and was washed out to sea. A couple hours, later members of the local volunteer fire department picked him up off the rocks at the base of a ninety foot cliff. Saul was fine, but it cemented the idea in my mind that you had to be nuts to surf, at least in the waves off of the Mendocino coast where the water is treacherous, rough, and very cold.

Nor have I looked to the surfing community for wisdom. My friends who surf tell me the experience is profound and often mystical, that it is humbling and transformative to be in the presence of the ocean’s power, but it always has seemed to me that the great spiritual insights of surfing don’t translate to those of us who never have experienced the thrill of riding a wave, whose feet are rooted in the soil, or whose noses are forever poked into the pages of books.

But last Saturday’s surfing contest at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay, California has changed my opinion of surfing’s potential to transform the world.

Each year when the conditions are right, 24 big wave surfers from around the world are given twenty-four hours to get to Mavericks—a fabled surf spot a half mile off California’s San Mateo County coast—to compete in the Mavericks Surf Contest, riding waves the size of a three story house in waters infested with great white sharks.

They’re crazy, of course, but they’re also athletes of the highest caliber; and this year the six top surfers at Mavericks gave the world a gift. They decided to surf for fun.

After being announced as the finalists in the competition but before surfing for the championship, Greg Long, Grant Washburn, Jamie Sterling, Grant Baker, Tyler Smith, and Evan Slater all decided to split the $75,000 purse six ways regardless of who actually won the competition. This means that Greg Long, who scored an unprecedented perfect 10 on his final wave, saw his first-place earnings drop from $30,000 to $12,500.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the surfers, while waiting for the waves in the championship set started “laughing and talking about how amazing their lives are.” They agreed “it’s not about the money; it’s about the love of it.”

So they split the purse and surfed for joy.

I hope someone in Major League Baseball was paying attention. It’s wonderful that baseball is trying to do more to prevent the abuse of performance enhancing drugs, but I’m guessing that baseball’s problems go deeper than steroid use. From where I sit it seems to me that no one in baseball is having any fun anymore. Maybe they should learn to surf.

And, for that matter, I hope our presidential candidates have taken note of the surfers’ gift. The field of would-be presidents gets serious and mean-spirited sometimes, and it’s a shame. I like the idea of Fred Thompson and Hillary Clinton surfing together with Barak Obama and Mitt Romney waiting for the next set. It would do them some good. The opportunity to run for our nation’s highest office is a rare grace, something to be undertaken joyfully, not for power or for gain, but for the love of a nation and for the pleasures of public service.

In fact, the surfers at Mavericks have given a gift to all of us. Life is awesome and to be enjoyed. If we spend our days consumed with a desire for material gain, scratching our way to the top of one heap or another, we’re missing out on the best of what life has to offer.

We need to surf.

So if the ocean will have me, I may have to make amends for my lack of experience on a surfboard. If surfing is a sport that enables the gift of the Mavericks’ surfers, then I would be irresponsible not to put on a wetsuit and face the waves myself.

8 thoughts on “Mavericks: Surfing and the Economics of Joy

  1. Now that’s a really wonderful story. Doing things just for the fun of it and sharing one’s joy should be a lot more common than it is. Don’t forget to wear a wetsuit, though.

  2. Vinny has a surfboard you can borrow, too. He also has your BCD whenever you are ready to don your wetsuit for that purpose! He has his own gear now so you could dive together!!!


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