Are Surfers Smart?

JW14FJ5D0336John John Florence, one of the smartest men in the world. Photo: Jimmicane

Dumbass Geniuses

Surfers — as a group, a demographic, a family or even a tribe, depending on how high you are — are stereotypically stupid. We are carefree, easy-minded beings who lack motivation and are gluttonous for a good time. Our critical thinking skills are figured to be similar to those exhibited by a cardboard box stacked high with grapefruit, but it’s OK because we grow our hair long and have great f–king abs. This is a cute way of thinking. But it’s wrong.

Surfers — as a group, a demographic, sometimes a family and definitely not a tribe — are wildly intelligent. Some of us verge on genius. An established surfer could sip martinis with a renowned geologist, an avant-garde psychologist and a high-rolling financial advisor, and very well be the brightest in the room. It’s just that, unlike his distinguished peers, the surfer chose to pursue knowledge in an unpopular and mostly arbitrary subject.

But, still, we’re smart. Think of your brain as a shopping cart. Think of the world as a store. You choose which aisles you walk down, just like you choose which school you attend and the courses in which you enroll. You pull products from the shelves of the store just like you pull books from the shelves of a library. And over time, your brain cart becomes filled with items, filled with knowledge. The only issue is that it’s stocked with chocolate chip cookies and Mickey’s malt liquor, while other, nobler carts are full of brown rice and skim milk (accountants, I’m looking at you).

On our cookies:

Have you ever seen a photograph and exploded with ideas? Course you have. You’ve seen an image of a brown, roping lefthander and instantly — almost subconsciously — recognized that it’s Mundaka. And you know that Mundaka is in the Basque Country. And you remember when Bobby Martinez won the WCT event there. And how they toss the winner off the cliff into the water as part of the ceremony. And you think about Andy Irons’ tubes there in Taylor Steele’s Trilogy. And that “Wolf Like Me” song that soundtracks Andy’s greatness in said film. All these thoughts within half a second of gazing at a small, inky depiction of the sea. Same goes for G-Land, J-Bay, D-bah, P-Pass and probably not T-Street (unless you’re from San Clemente). That’s called knowledge. You’re brimming with it.

And how about the act of catching a wave? You know, seeing a wall of moving water that 85 percent of the world would be terrified of and reacting by paddling at a controlled speed to meet it at its zenith. Consider all the nano-decisions that factor into that. All the subliminal comprehension. You understand the ocean — the biggest f–king thing on earth — in a very complex way and that’s something that very few people will ever experience. According to Harvard’s own developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, that’s called “naturalistic intelligence.” Check it off the list.

Now think about a good businessman. Think about how he knows exactly what to do or say in every meeting, no matter who the client. Think about how you ride a wave and how it’s not any different. Like a person, every peak is a unique expression of energy, another snowflake in the blizzard of possibility. And you can read it like a damn book. You know where to do a turn. Why to do a floater. How to do an air. You’re able to perceive every opportunity and you know exactly how far to push things. That’s called savvy, and you’ve got enough to make Mark Cuban look like a fool.

However, there are no P.h.D.s awarded for surfing. No Surfing Nobel Prize. Sad, but true. Because no matter how knowledgeable, naturalistically intelligent or intuitive we are, none of it is conventional. It’s too far from the beaten path, too obscure to matter. We won’t be saving the world, but the same could be said about a prosperous stockbroker or insurance salesman. And you might as well get barreled while not really mattering, right?

So think of your brain as a shopping cart. And know that it’s filled with a vast net of surfing knowledge, along with ice cream sandwiches, condoms, chicken wings, potato chips, cheap rum and everything else that makes life fun. Laugh at the people who’ve filled theirs with boring intelligence. They’ll be laughing right back at you. Mostly because you’re barefoot. —Brendan Buckley