“Some kind of osmosis takes place,” says Barry Haun. “You wait maybe hours for seconds of a wave, and you’re willing to pound into a freezing, mid-winter ocean to get those seconds. If procreation depended on the same kind of enthusiasm, we’d have all died off.”
Barry Haun has been surfing, he says, “since ’72” — the golden summer of his memory — and is now happy to be the creative director of S.H.A.C.C., the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center, in California, which receives thousands of pilgrims every year. It’s here that he looks after the centre’s collection of more than 600 surfboards — probably the world’s best, including early wooden boards, four attributed to the sport’s spiritual founder. “We get offered a lot of boards,” he says. “But, you know, everyone thinks their board is the Mona Lisa. But invariably they’re not.”
Compare, though, the likelihood of anyone thinking of their old tennis racquet as a work of art, or their football boots. To mount a surfboard on your wall and call it a sculpture is not a preposterous idea. Indeed, from graphic design to movies, music to fashion, even to language — ‘wipeout’, ‘riding a wave’ — surfing has had a remarkable cultural resonance beyond the activity itself.
Think of surfing and, even if one lives in a snowbound city in a land-locked country, one conjures up a self-consciously free and easy lifestyle and the saturated colour of an Elvis film, like 1961’s Blue Hawaii (a role for which Presley had to spend many hours under a tanning lamp in preparation) or perhaps Sandra Dee’s Gidget (1959), the movie that gave us the image of the surfer as laid-back to horizontal. Then there are the surf-ploitation flicks, like Beach Blanket Bingo, The Horror of Party Beach and, yes, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
Or one hears the Pendletones — a group named after the Pendleton over-shirt that surfers wore to warm up after a spell in the water — who were renamed the Beach Boys, their early hits, such as Surfin’ Safari,‘Surfer Girl,Surfin’ U.S.A., driving a genre of surf music that gave the world the likes of The Surfaris and ‘surf guitarist’ Dick Dale. Such media rode the cultural wave, so to speak, but also transmitted it, making surfing symbolic even for those who would never see it, let alone do it.