Category: Surfing

Some Important Factors Within The Surfing Sports Activity Itself

Some Important Factors Within The Surfing Sports Activity Itself

The sport of surfing has received considerable attention throughout the world since it became popular during the early 1960’s.

Surfers, those who ride the surf on a surfboard, can be observed along nearly every coast of the continental United States.

The media, through television, movies, and magazines, has made it possible for people throughout the nation to observe this sport and its enthusiasts.

With all of this exposure, however, a very little sociological study has been done of those who actively participate in surfing.

For purposes of sociological preciseness, a clear definition, of what is meant in this paper by the term “surfing” is necessary. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1963) defines “surfriding” as “the sport of riding the surf on a surfboard” (P. 885).

This is not a particularly enlightening description.

More specifically, surfing is the act in which an individual slides across the surface of a cresting wave standing on a surfboard.

Within this definition are several technical elements of the sport which require additional elaboration.

Finney and Houston (1966) provide an excellent description of the technical process of surfing in their anthropological study of ancient Hawaiian surfing:

“A man surfs today in much the same way as did the Hawaiian kings of old. The most arduous part, of course, is paddling through rushing surf to the take-off point.

The ideal place to catch a wave is where its face is steepest, so the surfer gets in position just beyond the breaking place and waits for a set to build.

As the wave he chooses humps up to cover the horizon, he points his board toward shore and, to gain speed, digs his arms in and starts paddling…When the board is moving fast enough, he feels the wave’s power suddenly take hold.

Speed increases as he begins sliding freely down the slope. Then he jumps to his feet in the center of the board. …Today, except while learning or under unusual circumstances, standing is still the most popular position.

Once on the wave there are two places, to ride. One can ride “straight off” in front of the bouncing white water. This is the more amateur and often the most dangerous way to ride, especially in big surf where the foam itself may be a wall six feet high. It is more exhilarating to angle the board to the right or left immediately after take-off and cross the wave’s as-yet-unbroken face with the white water leaping and roaring behind you. The resulting speed is a combination of the wave’s forward motion and the board’s “across” motion. The surfer then is skimming down a bottomless incline that continues building below him as the wave-form carries him shoreward.

When the ride is underway, success depends on the surfer’s grace and balance and his ability to judge when and where the wave will break.

The surfer can’t allow his board to tip too far forward or water will grab the nose and he will “pearl-dive” while his board bounces to shore.

Neither can he stand too far back on the trail, or the board rears up, loses its grip on the wave, and stalls.

Stalling, however, works to the rider’s advantage if he wants to slow down until the break catches up with him, thus maneuvering again into the faster part of the wave.

He controls his ledge-like position in the wave with foot movement and shifts in body weight.

By leaning one edge into the wave in the direction he wants to turn the guides his board smoothly across the curling wall.

Near shore, he may turn into the break and ride “soup” to the beach, or he may whip his board over the wave top and paddle back to the take-off point.

If a wave breaks on him he may leap off the board, grab its, nose if he can, and dive under to ride clear of the wave on its seaward side. If he falls off or is knocked off, the board usually gets to the beach by itself, and the surfer, of course, has to swim for it (pp. 18-20).”

Surfers utilize two major categories describing the way in which one fulfills the technical goals of surfing.

The size of the wave ridden is one distinguishing characteristic. “Small wave” surfers are those who prefer to ride waves from 0.3 m to 2.4 m in height, “medium wave” surfers are those who prefer to ride waves from 2.4 m to 3.6 m in height, and “big wave” surfers are those who prefer to ride waves from 3.6 m in height up to the largest waves ridden, which are 9.0 m in height.

A second characteristic that distinguishes surfers is the way in which they “perform” or ride the waves. There are three basic “styles” of surfing. Briefly, they are “hot-dogging,” functional riding, and big wave surfing.

“Hot-dogging” refers to a stunt riding style of surfing, characterized by many trick positions and acrobatic stances. It is a dramatic style meant to “show-off” and demonstrates control in the surf.

Functional riding is a style that focuses on riding the steepest and fastest, most difficult portion of the wave without a lot of unnecessary movement. The emphasis in this style is on speed and maneuverability on the wave.

The big wave style of surfing is very similar to functional riding, except for the added danger that very large waves impose. The focus in this type of surfing is survival while overcoming both the wave and one’s fears.

A second technical element within surfing is the equipment used while riding a wave. Without the proper equipment the entire nature of a sport is altered. An example of this principle is sliding down a snow-covered slope in a sled.

This cannot correctly be considered skiing.

The goal (sliding down the mountain) and the location (the snow-covered slope) may be the same, but the equipment clearly changes the nature of the activity.

In surfing the most elementary piece of equipment is the surfboard. Modern surfboards usually range in size from 1.5 m to 3.0 m in length, and weight between 2.5 kg to 5.5 kg.

They are most commonly constructed of a carefully designed polyurethane foam core and covered with fiberglass and resin.

The board also has one or two foiled fins laminated to-the underside at the rear for directional stability.

The length, width, thickness, and contours of a surfboard vary according to the size of the surfer, his experience, the type of wave he expects to ride, and the style in which he does so.

There are five major factors intrinsic to Santa Cruz that have earned it the title “surf city” in northern California.

Many of these factors are applicable to major surfing areas throughout the world, and these similarities, as well as the differences, will be noted in reference to the Santa Cruz area.

Surfing is not new to the Santa Cruz area, it has long been considered the surfing capital of northern California. Surfing was introduced to Californians in 1907 (Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 90), and demonstrated in Santa Cruz soon after.

However, it was not until a second demonstration in 1938 that surfing remained there as a popular recreation (Rudnicki, 1975, p. 4)..

This period of time is an indication that a surfing tradition has had an opportunity to become established.

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The first time I heard the term used was in the early 60’s at Windan’sea in La Jolla. It was used by Butch VanArtsdalen as a derogatory euphemism meaning “little asshole”.

I questioned some of the old timers (70+years) that I surf with and they recall hearing the expression used in the mid 40’s to refer to anyone who was acting like a jerk, not just a youth. A retired navy captain recalls hearing it used during WWII, in the same manner, i.e. as an euhemism for asshole.

It makes sense that it would originate with the navy, as a ‘grommet’ is:

  1. a brass ring used in canvas work.
  2. a thick walled rubber washer.
  3. a ring made of one strand of rope laid around itself three times.

The last goes back to the days of the large sailing vessels. It’s speculation, but I have to wonder if the ol’salts would refer to the cabin boy as ‘grommet’?

Another interesting piece of slang that was on the beach in the 40’s was beasel, beach+weasel, meaning a beach thief.

The sociological study of sports has been very slow in being realized. It is still wrought with controversy over many of its most basic concepts and terms, not to mention its methodology.

The sociology of sports has also suffered from a curious lack of interest by sociologists, both in this country and throughout the world–curious in the sense that sport has received so much media coverage and represents a significant amount of this society’s interest.

The past twenty years have shown an increase in recognition and development in this field, but an organized body of theory or data has not yet clearly emerged. For general purposes, A. S. Daniels (1966) has provided a tentative definition which concludes that:

“Sports sociology is concerned with the study of sport in society as it affects man’s development, his forms of expression, his value systems, and the interrelationships of sport with other elements of the culture (p. 157).”

The general consensus among the sociologists of sports seems to indicate that this new study includes two basic, descriptive approaches: The first includes the study of the culture and social structure within “sport” or a specific sport; the second is directed to the study of sports or a specific sport’s relationship with the larger society and its institutions.

This paper focuses primarily on these two descriptive approaches to the sport of surfing; however, it includes a third approach as well.

The subcultural perspective comprises this third dimension.

The study of a sport from a subcultural perspective is not new, and has precedence both in theoretical discussions and in actual research. John W. Loy, Jr. (1969) suggests that:

“Within the sociological study of sport, studies are needed: (1) which place greater emphasis on culture and social structure rather than personality; (2) which examine small groups as micro-social systems or subsystems; and (3) which consider “real” rather than “contrived” groups. . . . One manner of getting sport out of the laboratory and to correct the three oversights . . . is to study sport groups as subcultures (p. 67).”

Thorough published research related to the subcultural perspective of sports are relatively rare, but special note should be given to several papers using such an approach (Aronson, 1952; Polsky, 1967; Scott, 1968; Stone & Oldenburg, 1967).

A review of these studies has proven very helpful in facilitating this research. Even with these previous models of research to refer to, however, it has been necessary to create a new format for what the author believes to be an accurate and complete view of the surfing subculture.

The sociological term “subculture” has become a widely used concept in recent years; yet with all of this usage it has received very little critical attention. It has often been construed as synonymous with deviants and their activities, or the “sub” has somehow been interpreted to mean inferior. Neither of these versions are accurate in reference to a surfing subculture.

Throughout this thesis terms like surfing scene,” “surfing world,” and “surfing way-of-life” are used in an effort to avoid such connotations. There is no denying that the subculture concept is applicable to the study of deviance.

What is meant here is that “subculture” refers to any group of people within a culture, who formulate a way of behaving that includes some of the dominant features of this culture, and also includes certain features of this culture, not found elsewhere in the society. A quote by Etzioni (Arnold, 1970) presents a similar view:

“The American society is not a…universal melting pot, into which all ethnic groups “blend” sooner or later, by accepting the dominant culture of the real American tradition. It is, as has often been pointed out, a pluralistic society, with many subcultures and subgroups. All integrated groups accept some values of American society, but at the same time hold their own particularistic tradition and values (p. 85).”

Many sociological studies of subcultures have been based on the view that “descriptions of these subcultures must be stated in terms of the fully indoctrinated member rather than the average member . . . (Arnold, 1970, p. 86).”

Within the subcultural study of sports, this has been the most common form.

This is perhaps the best way of describing a sport in which there is a large and clear proportion of the group’s members who are professional (i.e., totally committed). In a sport like surfing, which has so few professional participants, this view is not considered the most appropriate.

Subcultures are usually characterized by the fact that an individual can function within more than one subculture at one time, with varying degrees of commitment and sometimes pass through several stages as he grows older or his attitudes change.

By including this concept of peripheral marginality (Arnold, 1970, pp. 81-89), by accepting the blurred borders which most subcultures have, an important dimension of the surfing subculture has been added.

In the surfing subculture, patterned interaction is characterized by a process that includes the beginner as well as the professional.

The study of subcultures has many times been limited to a description of the group.

This is a necessary first step in any study of a subculture. It is vital to define the subculture, its norms, and values; it is important to describe the subculture’s relation to the larger society, but something more is necessary for a study to truly contribute to sociological knowledge.

There must be some effort to explain the phenomenon. In his article titled “A Process Model of Subcultures,” David Arnold (1970) proposes the use of a “structural-interactionist model” approach to the study of subcultures. He describes such a model in this way:

“In examining and working with the structural-interactionist subculture model it is important to view subcultures as systems of norms, not as groups of concrete individuals. The model looks at the people involved in order to explain how the subculture develops.

The first element of the structural-interactionist model is structural position, that is, specification and description of the population segment under consideration. The second element is differential interaction…The third element of the model is the segment-related subculture, that is, the subculture that results from the differential interaction of people sharing the same structural position…Finally, as the fourth element…we have the individual manifestations of subcultural membership, i.e., individual variations in behavior, attitudes, beliefs, etc. (pp. 114-115).”

This model serves as a basis for the presentation of the surfing subculture in four different parts.

Chapter two will consist of the technical and mechanical aspects of surfing which contribute to the character of the population segment who surf.

Chapter three will be a description of the population segment under consideration, through the use of various demographic data and some tests of correlation.

Chapter four will consist of a description of the process of becoming a surfer.

It is an attempt to synthesize the nature of the central activity, the population segment who participates, the social structure that exists, the socialization process that occurs, the norms that are expressed, and the values that are imparted.

Chapter five is primarily concerned with an analysis of the surfing subculture’s relationship with the general culture in order to demonstrate the surfing subculture’s central tendencies and its variations of marginality.

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A Sociological Study Of The Surfing Subculture In The Santa Cruz Area

A Sociological Study Of The Surfing Subculture In The Santa Cruz Area

It has been over twenty years since I originally conducted this study, and as a result of continued requests for copies I have finally had the original manuscript converted into an electronic version.

I hope that it provides readers with a useful reference point for future sociological work on related subjects.

This version of the thesis is almost identical to the original and no effort has been made to update or “modernize” the concepts, language, or cultural references.

Readers should be reminded that this research was conducted as a scholarly effort and had to conform to specific academic standards for organization, method, content, and writing style. It is not a natural narrative form for surfers who prefer to “talk story”, and I had to pay a professional typist a lot of ’70’s dollars to type four different versions before the academicians were satisfied.

In retrospect, the emotional effort it took to “objectify” the activity, culture, and social fabric of an experience that I was so passionately involved with, was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

As I defended the paper to my sociological colleagues, I received the usual compliments and several suggestions that I “publish” it. I was understandably flattered, but as a surfer, I felt that sending the work as a whole or in parts to surfing publications would have been suicidal.

As a sociologist, I believed that in general surfers had an “unprofessional” reputation in academic circles and submission to professional journals was pointless.

Life went on and in the end, I was perfectly content to put the book on the shelf and get back to the luxury of totally subjective surfing expression.

As I read this study again after all these years, I was gratified that much of what I had written still offers useful insights. There are certain details that are totally outdated, but overall I have concluded that it is still worth sharing.

Many of the names and faces in the lineup have changed significantly, but much of the structure remains.

There were a few phenomena in surfing that I failed to anticipate: the return of longboarding, the “graying” of the sport, increased female participation, and the development of local/regional surfing family “dynasties.” I probably could have seen them coming if I had been paying closer attention to Hawaii’s modern surfing culture evolution. Oh well.

I still surf regularly, along with many of the “locals” I grew up with. It is almost unprecedented in my experience to see a social bond created so early in our lives continue to keep us close.

In many cases, it has outlasted families, marriages, and serious chemical addictions. While surfing has not always fit easily into the rest of my life, I have always made room for it. It has become a profound part of who I am and how I define my “self.”

In a world of flux, career changes, crisis, and relocation; surfing has been one of the very few consistent threads in the fabric of my life that have provided my existence with some sense of continuity.

If you are not academically inclined and surfed twenty years ago, maybe a few sections will bring back some memories.

If your introduction to the sport has been more recent, have a few good laughs on me. In any case, keep the stoke.


This thesis is an attempt to describe, and to a lesser degree, analyze the surfing subculture in Santa Cruz, California. This paper is intended to provide sociologically relevant information about the surfing phenomenon, much in the tradition of the “Chicago School” of sociological study.

In addition to a description of the Santa Cruz surfer’s world, it is meant to test an instrument designed to measure the actor’s degree of involvement in the surfing subculture, and to explore the meanings that surfing has for its members within the Santa Cruz surfing “scene.”

This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of surfing in Santa Cruz, nor to represent strictly empirical research. It is meant to establish a theoretically-cohesive sociological description of the surfing phenomenon and some of its relationships to the larger society.

The content of this report has relevance for several fields of study, including the sociology of sport, the study of subcultures, the study of deviance, the study of leisure, and the sociology of youth. Because of the multi-dimensional nature of this report, relevant theoretical information will be introduced where it is required or appropriate throughout the thesis.

The methods of data collection used for this study are primarily of the participant-observer type.

The primary source consists of the writer’s own active participation within the surfing subculture in the Santa Cruz area, and among a specific group of surfers at a Santa Cruz County beach, over a 13-year period extending from 1963 to the present.

A brief autobiography is included in the appendix, describing the extent of the author’s involvement in surfing. The second source of information is the interviews, both formal and informal, conducted during the past 18 months.

The third source of information is the subcultural literature, consisting of several surfing periodicals and information provided by the Western Surfing Association. The fourth important source of information is a senior thesis written by a fellow surfer who attended the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The fifth source of information is a survey of surfers in the Santa Cruz area, conducted during the month of July, 1974, and which is described in more detail in a subsequent section of this thesis.

Unfortunately, information regarding surfing in the Santa Cruz area, be it of a statistical nature or otherwise, is practically nonexistent. For this reason it must be made perfectly clear that this is strictly an exploratory study. There is much more work that can be done in this field.

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