The object of surfing is to stand on your feet and stay calm while being chased by a wave that has every intention of eating you alive. There are certain refinements beyond this, such as hanging both feet, all your toes and as much of your stomach as possible out over the tip of the board while going at full speed. After that, in the roar of big water, it really gets ridiculous.
Still, in recent years, more and more people have been getting better at surfing in these poses of grace and guts, and it was inevitable that one day they would all get together and surf each other unto the death. In the past two years world surfing events were staged in Australia and Peru, with results that seemed to prove there was a home-ocean advantage, and then last week the contest came to San Diego, where the sport had its best—and perhaps its first actual—world championship.
Funny how images change. Even the President of the United States took notice of the championship and wired greetings. Mr. Johnson did not exactly say, "Kowabunga! you guys," but he did say, "It is always heartening to see people from throughout the world meet in friendly rivalry and good fellowship," which is a pretty accurate translation.
California Governor Pat Brown issued the most stoked proclamation of his eight years in office, grandly announcing that, "The essence of democracy is no better reflected in any sport than it is in surfing. Surfing offers the individual a choice as free as the waves in the ocean." You can't beat receptions like that.
The entire scene began to draw such respectful attention from high levels that one nearly expected Ronald Reagan to slip into a pair of baggies and sneak down to the beach to shake hands all around. It was that way all week. Everybody was being very proper in his burnished new image, carefully explaining to everyone else that surfing is a strange sport whose players need a lot of sympathetic understanding. This is because some people still think surfing is entirely populated by gremmies and ho-dads. A few years ago, maybe. But not any more.
What happened to surfing was that the image-busters and beach-wreckers, who were never surfers anyway, simply dissolved, taking their knives, knuckles, bicycle chains and Iron Crosses with them. Surfing went straight, and here was the 1966 world championship being held right in good old southern California, with the place suddenly full of surfers from nine countries, all tanned and fresh-faced and glittering with bursts of white teeth. It was the week the sport seemed to come of age.
To be exact, it came of age last Thursday afternoon when a lanky, boneless lad named David Nuuhiwa moved out on the nose of his surfboard, blasting along the foaming edge of a seven-foot wave. The wave was collapsing fast behind him, crashing and roaring. Then Nuuhiwa suddenly arched his back and raised his arms and stood there like a fluid, copper-plated statue for 8.3 seconds—just soaring along. The crowd on the beach suddenly broke into applause and several people jumped up and down at the sight of it. Then, when it was over and Nuuhiwa had been swallowed up by the wave, everybody looked around, embarrassed, and they grinned self-consciously at one another. But they knew that they had just seen what surfing is all about. The whole thing was something new and special in sport—a fast game being played by bold new athletes.
From that point on the week was casual, which is fine. Surfers have never been known as particularly organized people, anyway—like, say, golfers, who will walk out of the clubhouse and expect to find the first tee right where it was the last time. The ocean moves around more, and surfers are people who spend a lot of time standing on beaches, wriggling their toes in the sand and looking out with hot eyes at the shore-breaks as they talk about the mystique of it all.
San Diego, playing the gracious host to teams from as far away as Ireland, South Africa and Australia, turned over the whole local Pacific Ocean to them from Point Loma north to the Windansea Cove, on the theory that somewhere each day the surf would be up. Then city officials named it officially "World Surfing Week in San Diego," donated $1,495 for a public-address system that would operate under sand and turned everybody loose.
It does not matter that the next few days were confused. For one thing, all the surf seemed to have gone to some other coast, maybe Maine, and every morning the committee would send scouts out into the 4 a.m. darkness to look frantically for waves. For another, the judges were struggling with the complicated scoring system. Competitive surfing is still a young sport and nobody is quite sure how it should be graded.