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Collective Mapping In Our Modern Surf Age | Pete Geall

Surfers are master map makers. We create, nurture and build narratives around our favourite spots. The fluid nature of our pursuit offers flux and change on a constant level. We understand this innately; no two waves are the same and so often one surfer can have a shocker, whilst another can score. We impeccably detail our experiences, regale tales of misfortune and grasp transient glorious moments with passionate fervour. All successful surf formulas are noted, filed away for future reference and individual superstitions squared for good measure.

Before it was regarded as a field science, Cartography was an art form. The subjective interpretation of the space we occupied, how we interacted with the landscape, opportunities for the taking and hazards to be avoided. Leviathans of the deep, sea monsters and unknowns abound; admissions of fear, astonishment and doubt permitted, given utmost prominence in the maps of old. Modern maps don’t project this ambiguity: presenting linear grids and flashing LED icons - filled to the rafters with information, allowing us to process the exactness of the environment we inhabit. The invention of the grid map in the sixteenth century paved a way for cartography to present context to the entirety of space. For once, we could relate to a newly discovered space with a set of guidelines which could be contemplated from afar. Objectivity immediately became the name of the game. The features of todays maps reflect this neutrality, often reduced to a cursory legend of symbols which serve as mere complements to the roads that will get us from A to B. Modern surf forecasting sites echo this approach, with a shift away from the once ubiquitous daily eyeball surf report and subjective interpretation of the weather charts. Aiming to reduce surfing from its rich emotive foundation to its scientific one; number crunching data and churning out convenient 10 day forecasts. The intended purpose, to save many a landlocked/time constrained surfer from futile hours searching for surf where there is none.

The earliest sort of maps would have been story maps, spoken cartographies if you will. Passed on from generation to generation, they sought to identify the landscapes and events that took place in them. Spoken maps can be amended and bolstered by collective experience: rivers change course, glaciers retreat and surfing sandbars are in constant flux. Spoken maps are by very nature fluid, almost sensual in their responsiveness to change. Cultures that grow up connected to a particular terrain often develop unique ways of symbolising their land or waters. The Innuit people famously have hundreds of words for snow, Indigenous Australians have a deep reverence for the ‘Country’ they occupy and even us, the surfing tribe have multiple ways of describing even the most minutiae of surfing topics. Take for example the humble lip, a projection which can chandelier, crumble, rifle and at its most provocatively stand up, turn square and offer a certain magic to the beholder.

All surfers yearn for a future but inevitably look to the past for guidance and direction. The best surf guides offer hints for the uninitiated, poorer examples are derided for providing something that should be learnt and earned. Context is key to our collective mapping, we often compare waves to ones at home, or even ones we haven't surfed. Absorbing knowledge through images, words and stories which captivate our imaginations to such a degree as to leave a strong sense of latent comprehension. Pipeline will never be just a symbol on a map for us. Even its name, provokes an impassioned response, we can all relate to the power, majesty, history, localism and joy encapsulated within. The aphorism ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling’ was used to success in a famous surf campaign, but its direct appeal to the individual misses the subtle, yet crucial importance of the collaborative effort in mapping our surfing path.

The richness of surfing comes from the time, effort and enjoyment applied at its bountiful seam. Being a surfer involves reading between the lines; treating our vocation as a fluid activity which transcends the linear conformity and everyday humdrum of our existence. These are the experiences which make what we do all the more special. It’s why we find joy in the vagaries of surfing wedges, rock jumps, rip bowls, seeing your friend get pitched with the lip (one of the highest pleasures known to mankind) and talking story over a cold one - whatever your poison.

The plethora of data available to us, which seeks to leave no-stone unturned, prescribes a distinctly beige vibe to the modern surf experience. The disparity between expectation and delivery often results in ‘forecast’ days not living unto what we had hoped for. The focus on calculated strike and score surf missions, serving to suppress the tactility of adaptive plans. Ironing flat the imagination and wanderlust from our relationship with the world. It is why when looking just outside of the surfing realm, we can recognise a raw authenticity to skate culture, a tribe who strive to search for new lines and interpretations of the urban environment beyond what they were originally intended.


Surfings growth and burgeoning popularity has changed the landscape we inhabit, as crowds continue to thicken to a gelatinous consistency, we must become soup aficionados. Some things aren’t so bad, surfing is now seen by the mainstream as healthy path not just a rebellious folly; communities/councils are increasingly providing for our needs and wants. However this growth comes at a price, the glorious hodgepodge map of surf culture around the globe rewritten, as we watch with confusion as multi-nationals try to equate their latest ad campaigns with the purity of taking ones clothes off, leaving earthly problems behind and making that plunge into the unknown.

Yet, despite the advances of technology, surfers still embrace our collective stories, sharing at level previously unheard of. The intimacy of social media allows us to jointly commune and relate with surfers around the globe. We share and document our experiences creating a wonderful diverse map of the differing surf experience. From big wave, cold water, tropics, nose ride, air game, right through to weekend warrior. We can all relate. These are all things helping to foster our sense of emotive identity in the brave new [surfing] world.

Surfing is imbued with the righteous sense that obtaining perfection is not the end goal but rather the search for it is. In that search we represent the ultimate idealistic seekers. This has kept surfings soul perennially youthful despite the reality that our local spots are primarily comprised of middle aged surfers pulling on wetsuit hats and normal folks squeezing in a post-work thwack. Surfing culture has always had a fixation on the search for Shangra La. A compulsive wanderlust that mirrors that of the explorers of old - seeking what lies beyond the horizon line. It’s just in the modern interpretation we shouldn’t feel ashamed about not trailblazing new spots in remote corners of the world, but rather celebrate novel ways of re-connecting with hidden gems and nuggets of joy in our crowded domains.

We look at maps and demand precision, but we don’t want that from our friends surfing tales, we expect the unexpected and revel in the chaos. Surfing is both an art and a science, its magical combination of personal expression and group bonding lets us all disband our rational mind and embrace the artists within. It is not the conformity of grids or physical science of surfing that defines us, but rather, the human emotive experiences. Individual effort, collective mapping and shared joy is what elevates us above the lip.


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