SI Vault
Michael Baughman
December 24, 1979
I was never much of a surfer, but I recall it as a fine sport, one which often demanded the virtue that Hemingway labeled "grace under pressure." Defined in prosaic language, this would be one's ability to handle danger calmly. And the danger in surfing is often clear enough, because a 15-foot wave is a relentlessly moving wall of water as high as a house. Once such a wave curls and breaks, its rolling white water churns with terrifying power. A mere six- or eight-footer is a force a novice should be wary of.
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December 24, 1979

Before Most Of Us Had Heard Of Surfing, There Was A Perfect Wave

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So I caught the wave, and I calmly and mysteriously succeeded. I will say that the fifth wave was 10 feet high, though I truly believe it was closer to 12. It was so steep when it reached me, feathered on top, ready to curl, that I only paddled once and I was on it.

I turned the board left and stood up. Then there was a flood of beauty and emotion. Up near the crest of the wave, sliding left, I heard a crash and roar behind me. Glancing over my right shoulder, I saw a tunnel of silver water only feet away. Ahead of me the first four waves rolled hugely in.

The break was gaining on me, was almost over me when I stepped forward on the board. For once I felt myself in control. There was no pearl dive, only the smooth acceleration of the board and the feeling of enormous power behind me—power to be used, not feared.

The board was mine. The wave was mine. The very sea itself seemed mine. The ride had begun better than a quarter-mile offshore, and it ended near the beach, the wave finally spent and dying. I had sense enough to quit then. I never looked toward the sea as I paddled in.

When I left Hawaii in 1955, new and improved boards had already arrived from California—Malibu boards, they were called—and they were made of fiber-glass-covered balsa, and had large keels. Hundreds of young California surfers arrived with these boards; the sport as we know it today had been born. As is usual, much has been lost in this process of growth. I'm lucky, I think, to have surfed when I did. One sweet, mysterious wave turned five years of struggling with a redwood plank into a memory that has warmed me for 25 years.

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