UNLEARNING. At the end of the trip, the end of the experiment–47,501 miles flown, 11 nations stamped in the passport, and 29 surfboards borrowed-it all came back to what Yoda said. The proclamation to unlearn was literally written on board Number 10–Richie Fitzgerald’s Yoda-airbrushed quad, adorned with the words of a Jedi Master: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
At first, I absorbed this pop-culture koan at the most basic level: In order to master the strange crafts strangers loaned me, I had to forget what I knew about surfing conventional stock thrusters, and instead embrace each board for what it was. True enough, I suppose. But by the time the trip was over, I came to the realization that the process of unlearning had gone much deeper than that. I peeled back the layers further, all the way to the beginning. I questioned that foundational pact I’d made with myself soon after my first wave–the decision to treat surfing as a pursuit, instead of a pastime. I’d worked for a quarter-century to master surfing, whatever the hell that meant. It took borrowing boards to teach me that the more I worked to master it, to control it, the farther I traveled from the heart of surfing.
Like many of us, I’d been suffering under the tyranny of performance surfing for decades. Toiling, tinkering, schleppin9 all this baggage, literal and metaphorical, every time I set out to find waves. Trying to be a better surfer than I was. Before the whole Borrowed Boards saga, my coffin weighed in at 68 pounds. I took it everywhere with me. Four or five boards, wetsuits, leashes … I’d push it to the edge of the weight limit each time, without even wondering if I actually needed all that crap.
All that before I even set foot in the water. From there, things deteriorated further as I suffered under the weight of my own expectations. I acted as if surfing was something quantifiable and measurable, instead of the slippery, ephemeral dance that it is. All around the world, you see surfers destroyed by this delusion. They’re the ones who scream obscenities when they miss a wave or bog a rail–those sad souls who are driven toward frustration by the misconception that some grand accounting of stoke will occur, that eventually all our good waves will be quantified in Huey’s Ledger, with another column of deductions taken for each misstep. What egos we have. If there is a God, it’s doubtful she cares how well we surf.
All we can do is try to learn, or unlearn. When I showed up in Ireland, my second destination sans surfboards, I had only my carry-on. My wife and I spent a day meandering along coastal roads, immersing ourselves in the environment instead of simply immersing ourselves in the sea. The Irish coast is consistent only in its variety–but the particular peninsula we were exploring wasn’t supposed to have any waves. I’d happily forgotten about surfing. Yet when we rounded a hairpin-turn high above a white, sandy beach, there they were: waves.
After Greece, clean offshore ankle-biters looked epic. Three surfers were out. I wanted nothing more than to go surfing, but where would I find a board to borrow when the only surfers I’d seen in 100 miles were all in the lineup? I waited patiently, hoping one of them would take a break. No dice. They weren’t going anywhere. So finally I did the only logical thing–I swam out into the lineup to bodysurf a few and explain my plight.
Another thing I learned along the way: When you travel without surfboards, every surfer becomes your new best friend. Suddenly you’re not as concerned about who’s a kook and who isn’t–there’s no benefit in passing judgment when you don’t have a damn board to ride. When I reached the outside, I introduced myself. They were German students, a shade past pure beginners. I pleaded my case, and they listened dutifully. “I’m traveling around the world without surfboards, it’s like a project, an experiment …” After some discussion in their harsh native tongue, the least adept among them handed over his best longboard, and stood shivering stoically in the shorebreak as I had a quick session. “I’m not expert,” he told me diplomatically. “Perhaps by watching, I may learn something.”
I suspect they taught me more than I taught them. I envied their innocence, and found myself caught up in it. For these neophytes, it didn’t matter what they were riding, how good they surfed, or how much our little Irish peaks did or did not resemble Pipeline. They didn’t yet know enough about surfing to be disappointed in what they didn’t have. What was it Jesus said? The kooks shall inherit the Earth? I’m not a religious man, but I think it went something like that.