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Once the province of Polynesia, surfing has been rippling across the globe for more than 100 years. Writer Maris Kaplan shows us a slice of the ocean obsession in North America’s surfing hub, California.
Author: Maris Kaplan
Country: USA

hen people from California or Hawaii travel abroad, the question they often get asked is, ‘Do you surf?’

Surf culture has definitely come to define the West Coast style and attitude, as well as its language. Now you can find people all over the country, and many parts of the world, adopting surf lingo. Words like “dude,” “tubular,” “radical,” and “gnarly” are associated with surf culture, and one of the primary terms used by surfers around the world is the word “stoked.” This refers to a mixed feeling of anxiety and happiness, originally used in reference to large waves.

Surfing, the act of riding an ocean wave on a large plank or canoe, has been a part of Polynesian culture for centuries. Surfing has now become such a major part of modern American culture that it represents a multibillion-dollar industry. Surfers are also credited with creating skateboarding, and more recently, snowboarding.

In 1907, landowner Henry Huntington brought the ancient art of surfing to the California coast as a way to entice visitors to the area of Redondo Beach where he had heavily invested in real estate. He hired a young Hawaiian-Irish athlete, George Freeth, to demonstrate surfing.

Often credited as being the “Father of Modern Surfing,” George Freeth grew up in Hawaii and had decided to revive surfing with a modified, shortened board. Visitors were able to watch Freeth demonstrate his surfing prowess twice a day in front of the Hotel Redondo.

Nowadays, all sorts of people practice the sport. As surfer PJ Johnson, 25 and originally from Minnesota, explains: “Some guys do it before work, after work, there’s all types … there’s dudes with suits and ties, like in San Diego. The usual type, though, smoke pot and usually don’t have a serious job … something simple.”

PJ moved to California in 2005 to attend Santa Clara University. There, he discovered that surfing was a natural transition from the snow sports he grew up with.

“I grew up playing hockey since age 5, and then I was a really good skier. After that, I switched to snowboarding. That was my base for surfing.” He also explains that the freezing water along the coast of California didn’t faze him because he was used to much colder temperatures during the winters in Minnesota. “A lot of guys in So-Cal were freaked out by that,” he laughs. So-Cal is slang for Southern California.

PJ and his friends were so dedicated to the sport that they would often wake up before sunrise to drive to the coastal town of Santa Cruz, about 45 minutes away, to go surfing and make it back in time for class! Giving some insight into the local culture there, he refers to a kind of territorialism: “If you put your surfboards on top of the car, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re an out-of-towner. You put ‘em inside the car if you can. Otherwise, people would mess with your car, like to say, ‘What are you doing here from the valley?’”

And no wonder the locals are protective of their beaches — a place called Mavericks in Northern California has become one of the most famous surf spots in the world.

Having only taken a couple of surfing lessons myself, I ask PJ to describe a typical surf day to me. He tells me that on a good day, he could catch four or five waves in a session. A session is normally about two hours and can be up to four on the weekend. The waves come in energy pulses similar to a heartbeat. Usually when storms come or there are northwestern swells, there are bursts of energy that create three to five waves that are bigger than the rest; these are called sets. On a typical day, most surfers sit in the water on their boards, looking at the horizon, waiting for the sets to come.

“You only see a set when it’s super close, so when you wipeout, it’s not that wave that’s the issue, but the wave that’s coming next. You want to be just beyond the breakers.”

A Wipeout, in addition to being the name of an extremely famous song by The Surfaris, happens when you fail to ride on top of the wave and instead become a part of it.

“You become part of the ‘rinse cycle’ so to speak. Depending on the size of the wave, it shouldn’t last more than five or 10 seconds. And you have to relax, especially if it’s cold, otherwise you might get a muscle spasm or something,” PJ explains. ‘To wipe out’ now also commonly refers to any time someone might fall or crash, similar to a surfer falling off his board.

PJ, luckily, is not one to wipe out very often. He got his start with a group of heavy hitters, guys who liked to surf tough spots. He explains that he wanted to break his way in and impress them, so he was pretty fearless. Perhaps his fearlessness fueled his success. More often than not, he would make the drop, meaning he made it to the trough (bottom) of the wave and made a turn. “If you make the bottom turn smoothly and don’t lose a lot of speed, then you’re in for a good ride. If you don’t make the drop then you’re in the inside — the impact zone — you’ll crash on the face of the wave. It will suck you up and throw you down, which is called going over the falls. That can really suck.”

Surfing, like many sports, has its inherent dangers. The biggest for surfing is the risk of drowning. Being a strong swimmer with physical endurance is required, and most surfers will have a horror story or two to exchange with one another. PJ shares his, beginning with, “I had this gnarly experience in Northern California, like around Mendocino County…” He explains that in Northern California (or Nor Cal for short), the coast is very wild and rocky with many sheer cliffs.

“You look for other people to surf with. When you find a wave, you can’t go out alone because there’s Great White sharks. It’s the opposite from So-Cal, where you try to get away from the crowds,” he continues.

He and a friend had spotted a wave from the top of a cliff, and even though it looked intimidating, they thought, “We can do this.” They put their wet suits on, and by the time they came back for a second look about ten minutes later, the ocean had completely changed for the worse… but they decided to give it a try anyway.

“We swam out from a little cove and paddled through the rip currents-we had to do some crazy maneuvering. We surfed this wave that was sucking up dry reef … that’s when there’s not enough water underneath the wave and you see everything that’s underneath … After a little while, my friend supposedly saw a shark fin, so we called it quits. We paddled in, it was so difficult, and for a few minutes, I got sucked under. I had to hold my breath for several minutes,” he says, his eyes wide.

He recounts another time, at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica, California, when he got swept out to sea. “I was still a newbie then and I didn’t know how to navigate through a rip current. You’re supposed to go sideways out of it, not straight against it. My arms were like noodles, I couldn’t swim anymore, and my buddy had to come save me. I told him not to mention anything when we had dinner with my folks that night!” he confides.

The camaraderie evident between PJ and his surf buddies is nothing unusual. He points out that the surf community is ‘really big’ around the world, and when you meet another surfer, you automatically feel like you know one another.

“It’s a kind of soulful sport, really, like everyone is searching for a connection with nature … and the endorphins.” Perhaps this is partly due to the shared language. And some words and expressions have really traveled, PJ tells me. For example, “No worries” is an Australian expression, and ‘dude’ comes from cowboy culture.

So how does he feel about non-surfers using the lingo? He’s totally OK with it, because it has become such a big part of California culture. He feels a stronger connection to California than his Minnesota roots.

“But, with the surf community, it’s really obvious after a few minutes of talking to know who actually surfs and who just likes the attitude…” he discloses. “Often when someone is really good at surfing they don’t need to say much — it’s a sort of secretive sport in a way … Everyone’s got their secret spots.”

Fun Facts

  • Surfers pee in their wetsuits to stay warm!
  • The first official surf contest took place at Corona Del Mar, California in 1928.
  • Kelly Slater is the highest paid surfer. He brought in $3 million as the ninth time world champion surfer in 2009.
  • The first university to offer a degree in surfing is the University of Plymouth in England.
  • The biggest wave recorded was more than 500 meters, or more than 1,700 feet, in Lituya Bay on the southern coast of Alaska.
  • The longest ride ever done on a wave was 37 minutes at the mouth of the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean. When the ocean pushes into the river, long waves known as Pororoca are created.


Surfing Slang .

Surfing is a sport that originated in Polynesia, but has been growing all over the world for more than 100 years. California is famous for surfing and when people from California travel abroad they are often asked if they surf. West Coast style and attitude is defined by surf culture. People all over the country and in many parts of the world use surf words such as ‘dude’ and ‘gnarly’.

In 1907 surfing was brought to California by Henry Huntington to attract more visitors to the area. He hired a young Hawaiian-Irish athlete to demonstrate surfing. Visitors could see him surfing twice a day in front of the Redondo Hotel. Nowadays, all sorts of people practice the sport. Some people surf before work and some after work, but most surfers don’t have serious jobs.

PJ Johnson, a 25 year old surfer originally from Minnesota, shares his experiences with surfing and explains more about the culture. He talks about some of his bad experiences and about a time when he got swept out to sea. He reveals that the surf community is very secretive but also very united.



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Catching the wave



Grammar in Use

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Elementary: Fun-Funny

Intermediate: Homophones


Surf Slang


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