Op-Ed: Our love/hate relationship with surfing

Italian surfer and writer Antonio Muglia and photographer Giulia Mameli put together an e-book about surfing. “One man, one wave – Deliriums of love and hate” celebrates not the epic waves and beers with bros at sunset side of surfing, but instead the mishaps, frustrations and utter disasters. It’s a refreshing, funny alternative to endless portrayals of surfing’s blissed-out vibe. Read below for a passage or buy the whole book here online.

The squeaky-clean sanitised image of surfing makes it look easy, laid-back and something everyone can do. Above all, it comes across as an activity to be shared: shared emotions and resources – the beach, the sea – in an endless repetition of summer sunsets, beers and good vibes.But surfing is far from the clichés suggested by the media, the advertising business and the self-celebratory Instagram stories – surfing is very definitely something else. First of all, it’s loneliness. And sometimes, it’s the very antithesis of the principles behind sharing. Technically, waves are actually a scarce resource, to be controlled and protected. Above all they are a gift to be conquered and, over the years, always have been conquered, with intelligence and knowledge of the sea, the acid sweat of tenacity and maybe just a little aggression.

The world of surfing today includes a number of aspects that up to a few years ago would have been unthinkable.These range from wannabe stars obsessively seeking approval on social networks, arrogant rookies and not-quite-adults who think they’re too good to waste time learning the ropes; then there is the “surfing is a way of life” school of thought (but only when it’s hot) up to the WhatsApp groups in which information, photos and videos are exchanged in order to avoid having to learn about and understand the weather, (unfulfilled) expectations and finally those so-called wash-out days where you can’t do anything: the equivalent of gym days for every surfer.

Yet before all the social aspects that have changed this sport, before it becoming a media obsession and even before the existence of identity groups (crews, cliques or whatever the hell you want to call them), it is absolutely essential to go back to grass roots and focus on the single most important thing, which is all too often forgotten. Surfing is the relationship between a person, a single human being, and a single wave.

It’s windy, it’s cold and mountainous seas are in motion. Some of them crash over rocks that are too high or too low. Others don’t find a shore on which to break: they wander, sometimes solitary and often in groups, skimming over stones and coasts, crossing light and darkness until eventually they subside back into the sea.

But every storm is magic and so it happens that from those gusts of wind and from the pushed and driven water, from those shapeless, dark, impalpable and metaphysical caverns, creatures are born. Each of them aspires to perfection and supreme beauty. For each of them there is someone ready to challenge, love and hate her. Their relationship is complicated. They are man and wave.

Before you there is everything else. The throbbing head aching with cold. Feet and ankles in the icy water. The tense muscles and nerves. The frozen bones. But I couldn’t resist you. I saw you and made up my mind. And more than saw, I felt. I had listened to your whisper, your snoring, facing the sea.
Then I dreamed of you. Before even having you, before climbing on top and picking up speed. Love at first sight? Call it what you like. To me you are magic. You, oh wave, that I always feel inside, and desire, and love and hate. You are pure magic.

Me and silence. Me and the seagulls. Or me and the clouds. Or just me and that’s it. If there’s no one else. Always hanging there. When I’m waiting for you, hanging there. And if I’m really alone, in the sea, my mind is empty. If they could look at me from the outside, empty. There are no thoughts or tears or joy, only the wind. The wind that penetrates my ears and goes round inside my skull. I’m waiting for you. I’am out there. I look over the crests. I look at the log on the beach. The tip of the board. My hands. I don’t think about anything. There is the wind and there is you, oh bewitched wave, and you are coming.

I slam into the water that is no longer water but feels like concrete. I lose that little bit of breath in my lungs and then I am twisted round. I bang my feet on the bottom. I also smash my head on the bottom.
Am I damaged? No, I don’t think so. Oxygen? No, for sure. I try to re-emerge. Air, air! And I flounder in the foam that drags me with it; finally I’m floating. I get close to the shore. I touch the bottom and walk. A sea-urchin punctures my skin which has been softened by salt and water. I swear with a shortness of breath. I reach the shore and sit down. The sharply pointed rocks are really comfortable.

You want to eat me. You are liquid and juicy, you want to swallow me and often you succeed, I go inside, and you are not making love to me, you are massacring me. Sometimes I can fly, overtake you, cheat you, see you slide under me. I jump first. I don’t always make it, but when I can, yes. The board? Take it. And before smashing my face into the water that always seems to be no longer water but stone, I scan the horizon, the sky; there’s a plane, the beach, and I imagine myself when there are girls there in the summer, children playing and old women walking along the shore, and the sea is as flat as a millpond.

I get angry. I bear a grudge. It can last a long time, for days. If the direction of the storm had been right. If the wind had turned north. If I was really fit. If, if, if…I punch the board, scream, send it to hell, you’re a bastard! You fucking bastard! The rage is internal, the screams explode at full volume but only in my head, my eyes narrow, my neck swells. “Breathe”. I breathe. Air in, air out. I sit astride the board. I set off again.

Finally after months I’m in the right place. Months? What am I talking about! Years! Years of paddling, water in the mouth and nose. Then one day I’m there. I can see you coming, far away, placid, veiled by the mist or by the blinding light of the sun. But it’s you. So I look around. There is no one, not even a cormorant. Just you and me. Me and you, and it looks like there’s lots of you but you are always and only one, one alone. I shake out my arms, my back is stiff, the board glides. It glides and lifts, the speed increases and I’m on my feet. It lasts no time at all, a few ephemeral seconds, just a few seconds.

Even though I was leaving, even though I went inside you and saw the light blue room, the reflections of the sea, the curl, I turned to look at you and admire you. And you were breaking, you were there clinging to the rocks and by now you were turning into white foam, into countless salty bubbles and for once, once at least, I didn’t swear at you. I watched you go and thought that you can be nice and kind when you want to, although generally you’re always abrupt and violent, but I can love you, or I can at least be enchanted by you, at least once, once in a while.

Suddenly the clouds are no longer so dense, the sun bursts through them and illuminates the bay. My knees are bent and I feel you are exploding in front of me. The foam follows me. I look over and imagine you as a twisted horseshoe. Maybe you are the horse, but for me you are a wave, a wave to be loved and right now. My arm reaches out and my hand searches for you. I know you want to be stroked, so here you are. Do you feel my fingers brushing against you and the palm of my hand that seems to press against you?

Outside, with the fear of not catching you on the crest and back, of seeing the bottom and drowning. I paddle, inhale and jump into the hole. I admire you full on, I look for the point where to plant the edge, my knife, to let off steam and hurt you. And my thighs are warm, my feet are pressing and I ask for more, more, and I line up on your back until my legs relax and the rocks are close, then tired, I let myself go. I smile and I am euphoric, I would say happy but you are not there, you have disappeared with the last drops, and now that I am smiling at you, you’re not there.

I grit my teeth and breathe. One hand grabs the board, the other tries to slow down. Maybe I look like a contortionist. You stare at me and laugh. I don’t know if my brain is producing logical thoughts, all I know is that I’m trying to stop time, trying to match my speed to yours. Whether it’s only half a second, I get inside, then shoot out and maybe shout with joy, together. But I won’t be able to, because you’re up to it, not fast enough, you’re not powerful enough, or I’m not capable. I hear you laughing. There, you’re laughing.

You owe me the last adrenaline rush of the day. I know you’re somewhere nearby, travelling to find me, looking for me again. You owe it to me. You’re hidden in the cracks of the horizon in this cold sunset. You move slowly, you make me want you. I am paddling against the current, my muscles ache and I’m shaking, but soon you’ll see me sitting here waiting for you. You are a wave, just a wave, and I’m just a man, sitting on a board, waiting for you in the middle of the sea.