Sebastian Kevany: forging an identity through surfing | Photo: Kevany Archive

It is barely enough. I have been surfing - the mystic and ultra-cool and slightly absurd art of riding waves standing up on a board - for more than half my life.

Yet it will never be the full, surf-from-the-cradle life.

That is reserved for those who have been born surfers - or had surfing thrust upon them - rather than having to become.

Unlike so many other walks of life, in the closed and curious and protective and intriguing surf universe, even being an accomplished acolyte doesn't always make you the real thing.

Yet I had devoted so much time and effort to surfing - made so many sacrifices in terms of life, location, and love, that I reckoned it had to mean something.

Each related course change, in itself, had been necessary and worthwhile - yet some further explanation to myself of why I had to pursue becoming a surfer with such dedication was required.

But beyond that, there was all of the memory space it seemed to be taking up.

Recently, a doctor in a pub told me that memory is sometimes a physical event.

Certain moments are calcified (or something like that) so that the moment of recall is actually the contents of a protein.

Sebastian Kevany: surfing is all-embracing | Photo: Kevany Archive

A File of Surfing Events

I was lost in his terminology, but it made me realize that so many of surfing's moments are lodged permanently years later.

When names and birthdays and girlfriends and other life events have been forgotten (or can only be roused by reminders), there is a file of surfing incidents and accidents that can still be played out, in the mind's eye, at the drop of a hat.

Maybe it makes sense: surfing is all-embracing.

The intensity and rarity of its experiences necessarily banish all other ideas and concerns from the mind - thoughts are, at the very least, turned away from the mundane or repetitive; just getting into the ocean is an immersive event in itself.

These brainwashes can be gifts from the gods but also leave moments that stand out in weeks, months, or years of memory that would otherwise blur into each other.

These include wipeouts, great rides, and encounters with sea creatures; they are also not limited to wave-riding or being in the water but generally rotate around a single image when the moment of the visceral wave-riding experience is at its radical peak.

But what were the events that brought one there - why had I paddled out that day; why was that moment so enduring; to what extent did it reflect what was happening in so-called real life?

Of course, the answers are easy.

Any moment of drama or excitement or distress is, one hopes, logged in memory for future reference - usually as a warning of what not to do.

But to seek out those moments deliberately also takes strong motivations: to make those split seconds happen, that either scar or embellish memory, inexorably requires sets of events and circumstances (often, but not always, unwelcome and distressing) in one's broader life and evolution.

Similarly, the logistics of finding and catching waves - the petrol money, time, long drives, and manifold other needs - seem, in retrospect, both out of proportion and too easily forgotten.

Sebastian Kevany: to what extent does surfing reflect what was happening in so-called real life? | Photo: Kevany Archive

Why Surfing?

But why had I - why had anyone - paddled out into the ocean that day?

Those reasons are more complex - yet, as I discovered (and which, in turn, informed the structure of my book), they usually fit into a set of quasi-categories: escape from reality or the troubles of dry land, perhaps; a counter-culture move against bourgeois primness, maybe, or the mere forging of personal identity.

Maybe it was the need to evolve as a surfer and reach the next level of accomplishment, maybe camaraderie or machismo, or queasy or sentimental moments of life's crossroads.

Maybe it was the search for new sensations, or spirituality, or some sort of relationship with nature: maybe for health, habit, or addiction, or just the yearning for something - anything - to happen on a grey and rainy day.

Surfing is, therefore, maybe the product of other causes beyond wave-riding, just as it has deeper effects than surges of excitement.

Sometimes, one is driven to it by circumstance, but wave-riding can at other times be the catalyst for greater change, signposts in memory and evolution, or indicators of a hopelessly immersive stage of life - be it a relationship or a college degree or a job or a place - with all the trials and tribulations that went with it.

Not all such moments are worthy of deep analysis or review: that would risk repetitiveness and glazed eyes.

Other such moments can be summarised in just a few lines in their absurdity or motivation or consequence: only the special few surfing moments have the backstory and domino effects that justify the deeper description.

I can see, as a result of these stories, that the time, effort, and occasional pain required to pursue a surfing life has been worth it.

Without that structure and framework, there would no doubt have been other moments in life that would have calcified in memory, representative of key impulses over the years.

But surfing seemed to do it all: to capture so many of the decisions and choices and priorities that were implicitly made or determined.

To adapt the cliché that one only starts to live when one starts to surf, one might also say you only start to remember when you begin to ride waves.

From grey Irish university days to sunlit years in Australia and Africa, from work missions to Sierra Leone and two-week holidays in the sun to the beach down the road from the family house.

From times of solo life or soul-searching or indecision to times of being out of work or underqualified, from times of getting into (or out of) relationships as smoothly as I could, surfing provided not just solace and escape, amusement and excitement, but also a retrospective road map of the ups and downs of life.

Many surfers ride hundreds or thousands of waves in a year; too often, the multitude is lodged only in muscle memory and blurred recollection.

I, along with many others, have been super privileged to have had so many magical experiences, even if they leave no physical trace.

In contrast, the moments of memory are often the only evidence: hard-earned quasi-war stories amidst the moments and dates that add up to a surfing life.

Sebastian Kevany: only the special few surfing moments have the backstory and domino effects that justify deeper description | Photo: Kevany Archive

Identity

In Ireland, as I grew up, the organized sportsman was a kind of king.

In other places, there were other gods: different parts of the country paid respects to different deities and elevated mortals for different reasons.

In some parts, maybe it was hockey or football or rugby or cricket - but it sure wasn't surfing.

Beneath the organized sportsmen, there were demi-gods: those who stood out academically, those who would win scholarships or are going to be doctors or lawyers.

Then, maybe, came those who had subculture skills that most had never heard about: those who lived for Irish dancing or chess or bridge; those who were into religion or were startlingly good-looking or cool or fashionable - those who had an edge of ancient genteel aristocracy in their veins, or who could play guitar, or sing.

All of them had it: enough, in terms of identity, to survive.

At the time, I didn't have it: adrift on the sea of Irish university life with indifference towards scholarship and a tendency to fill up empty hours with fellow revelers in college bars, the vacuum was so vast I still can't quite figure out how I passed the time - beyond elaborate plots to chat up girls.

Fortunately, there were still many lesser ways to gain identity in life.

Through work or accomplishments, family or travel - through, if desperate, a certain hairstyle or a certain taste in music or beer.

Through a preference for hot or cold climates, or the badge of a uniform or a society, through a protestor's banner, or a certain type of girlfriend.

But surfing was out of the question: the least attainable identity of all.

It is hard to say why any such identities even matter.

To many, it is a product of insecurity: your birthright and your background, your environment, and your DNA shape you - that's all there is to it.

A fait accompli: to try and attain or accumulate other identities through other means is a risky business, suggestive of otherworldliness or arrogance or disdain for the bread and butter of what you are organically entitled to.

Sebastian Kevany: meeting surfing friends is easy | Photo: Kevany Archive

My Path

But what happens to those who still don't fit, even after trying, with assigned identities - those who are still fish out of water?

For them, the search for identity can go on for much longer than the formative years, something that nature, time, and fate haven't yet revealed.

To further complicate, one person's ideal identity may change over time or be disdained by others; many may look down on the style of surfing and surfers long after you have striven to arrive at it.

There may even be surfers who don't want to be identified as such (though I have never met one).

But a surfing identity - if that is what you are looking for - is a nightmare to attain.

Its get-out-of-jail-free allures are so varied (too much time on the beach? "He's a surfer." Hair too long? "It's OK, relax, he's a surfer.”) that maybe it has to be hard to get - otherwise, surely, everyone would want it.

Sure, some are born that way - children of Hawaii or the Gold Coast or Southern California or those with surfing DNA or bloodlines.

For others, status has to be earned painstakingly slowly (even then, it will always be subject to scrutiny and question, like a migrant worker's papers) and often does not even begin to manifest itself until long after one begins catching good waves.

Oh, yes - even that is not always enough.

There are many who dabble in surfing and attain identity quickly thanks to time or space, natural ability or circumstance; others who travel and strive and dedicate and yet still never attain that treasured status.

Worse, there are so many layers of judgment and snobbery in surfing that identifying oneself as a surfer will, even for great surfers, often be dismissed by the highest elite inner circles - those who have sometimes sacrificed everything else for surfing and have the necessary wild and searching (and occasionally impoverished) edge to prove it.

Sebastian Kevany: partying and celebrating a surfing life | Photo: Kevany Archive

The Inner Search

Yet for the outsider I once was - and in some ways still might be - there are split-second moments in often long and blurred surfing histories when identity can be forged.

Moments of actual surfing, by the way - not of hairstyles and parties and beach time; not of suntans and choosing the right board shorts, though that is all part of the dance, the circus, as well.

The moments that stand out in memory forever, even if they are the events of just a few minutes or hours, over the course of years.

Starting with nothing but an Irish beachside background and disaffected with sportsman hero-worship, university summers in California surf (in between restaurant work and the dismal return to college afterward) combined with subsequent travels and misadventures give me that identity at times when I needed it most.

Amidst the dizzying range of choices and destinies that exist for the very young - with all the pitfalls and risks of failure or unfulfillment that each one entails - a surfing identity was my dubious choice.

As with any identity, there were moments of desolation and repellence: moments when hard-won laurels were stripped away, moments when the surfing life and all of the liberalism and lifestyle it entailed could seem cripplingly narrow.

Moments when it became meaningless: what good is a surfing identity, in most walks of life - apart from hinting that you are pretty laid-back, most of the time?

Yet everyone needs to identify as something, and identities are not tattoos; they can be changed over time.

To be a surfer, it was the hardest, best, and most unlikely one that I could attain, which only made it more attractive.


Words by Sebastian Kevany | Surfer, Field Epidemiologist, and Author of the book "Between the Moon and the Fire: Life in Surfing Moments"

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