In October 2016, I decided to ping over to Peniche, Portugal and finally attend my first professional surf event after watching online for years. There, on the beach, I met a bloke (with some assistance from a friend, thanks Liz!).
Aside from being fun and hot, this bloke happens to work for the World Surf League, the organization responsible for the global professional men’s and women’s surfing competition. My one night stay in Peniche turned into a week – and a plan to join him in Hawaii in December.
That plan evolved into a relationship.
This year, our relationship has spanned nine professional surfing events, four continents, up to three months apart and sometimes a ridiculous amount of time together. I’ve been beach caddy, hung out with his colleagues, and spent time up close and personal with some of the planet’s best professional surfers.
What have I learned from this experience?
Professional surfers are nice. They are absolutely competitive, yes. But out of the comp jersey, many are mates. All of them were nothing but friendly to me: Mick, Courtney, Kelly, Tyler, Conner, John John, ok I’ll stop name dropping. At some events athletes get changed by their car – no locker room, no perks. They share rooms and houses. Sure, there are different characters: some are more private than others and most are difficult to pin down for an interview, especially if the surf is pumping – but there is an almost complete absence of diva behavior.
The WSL entourage who make the events happen are awesome. Personalities certainly differ, and working in such high stress, live-to-air situations causes the occasional explosion. The team spends up to two tiring months at a time on the road, working long days far from home, living in close quarters with colleagues. They are aware that they have what many would consider to be a ‘dream job’, even those who spend the entire time in small, windowless, cold, portable units somewhere hidden behind the main comp site, emerging only for an occasional 2-minute whizz break. There is genuine stoke to do what they do. Also, the commentators are awesome humans and even the judges are nice. I’m sorry to be boring but it’s true.
There is an ugly side to professional surfing. Surf brands are still brands, and thus driven by the dollar. It’s difficult for some athletes, especially women, to obtain sponsors to travel the world and pursue a pretty expensive career. The company, if not the industry, is something of a boys’ club. And the WSL is a growing corporation, with all the politics, budget cuts and bullshittery that goes with the corporate environment.
I am lucky to have encountered professional surfing at a time where it’s mellow, accessible and there is a genuine sense that passion for the sport is the driving factor, not just money. I worry that commercialization of the sport will slowly destroy this laid-back vibe and make the shareholders, rather than the surfers, the key factor. There are a lot of things I’d do differently if I were CEO of the WSL. But I’m not.
All in all, it was an epic rookie year. Fingers crossed I requalify for 2018.