Former competitive junior surfer turned architect, Jacob Down examines the unique spatial and environmental sensitivity that comes from a life of surfing.
Jacob Down: Sensitivity of Place
Forensically analysing wind and swell forecasts, visually scanning beach contours, identifying currents, examining the vast open stretches of chaotic beach breaks for well formed wave peaks, the raw interaction with the seasons, the embedded rhythm and varying magnitude of tidal mass. As a surfer you inherently become attuned to these environmentally spatial characteristics of the ocean. Despite being in constant flux, they become the dictating rhythms of one’s life.
I like to think of this as a wider spatial awareness, something that dedicated ocean folk acquire through lived experience, not just in the water but outside of it as well. A material and immaterial connection that extends our human existence wider and deeper into our fragile landscape and shifting body of ocean. That physical connection with the elements develops through viscerally feeling the shifting seasons upon and within your body. A relationship that compounds year on year, decade upon decade.
The cracking of icy puddles underfoot. The stinging of hailstones on cheeks. The sound of the rain on the back of a wetsuit hood. Refraining from wearing gloves again this year in order to retain that sense of cold water flowing through my palms, as I paddle out to that deep water sandbank.
At the same spot, six months prior, I was riding a nine foot Donald Takayma longboard wearing a 2mm short arm wetsuit, surfing solo with a solitary bottlenose dolphin. On that occasion, I had blue zinc smeared across my face and a bucket hat tied around my chin with a shoelace. Pulling it low on my forehead to keep the sun’s glare out of my eyes.
Tapping into that accumulated knowledge of place, I spot a set of waves on the horizon, a series of deep shifting bands of blue. I make clockwise motions with my calves, swinging the weighty nose of the board past the cliffs and towards the shoreline. I dig deep with my first few paddle strokes, to break the initial inertia. The water feels cool and light as the bare skin of my forearms cuts through the glassy liquid. A peripheral glance over my shoulder confirms my trajectory is going to align with this undulating rhythm of energy, born naturally from a low pressure weather system acting on the ocean’s surface thousands of miles away.
Just like every wave that’s ever been ridden, this one is unique. A morphing, highly complex spatial form that dictates a full flow state in order to read, reconfigure and adjust to its tune. I push my body up off the board just as the wave begins to jack up, forming a steeper transition than anticipated. This is sensed through a deep combination of visual and kinaesthetic stimuli: acceleration, a change in body-board pitch, a subtle shift in weight felt within the body's core. The physical force of the water's mass sweeping over the legs and lower back of the body. A visual steepening of the wave's face, and an unstable surge of energy through the whole of the board.
Within a fraction of a second I intuitively respond to these stimuli, countering the unbalanced forces by utilising the body's position and mass in a subtle but decisive manner to steer the board to a projected space that my mind is already occupying.
Hands have left the rails and although my feet have made firm contact with the deck of the board, momentarily, weightlessness is exerted as the body accelerates under gravity's pull; committed, engaged, and immersed in that moment. In the following instant, the fin re-engages with the liquid terrain as we reach the bottom of the wave's transition. An instant feeling of drive through my entire being as the body, fin and rail all work as one.
I relax, look back and offer an outstretched arm to the small critical part of the wave folding perfectly over itself. This aids feedback within one’s kinesphere, feeling the wave’s surface through the fingertips, helping to judge speed and locate the body in space. I hold that line and that feeling for as long as the pocket of the waves allows. Nothing forced, just flowing in frequency with the wider context of that place.
I’m operating in a highly engaged state, completely absorbed in this moment of anticipatory resoluteness. Utilising my visual field to identify certain patterns, rhythms and motions within the morphing terrain, acting upon embodied ocean knowledge to intuitively react and reconfigure the body's posture, flexibility, centre of gravity and balance through subtle and minute adjustments in muscle tension, thus facilitating the ride.
This visual awareness is coupled with a kinaesthetic awareness that is read through tangibly experiencing the physicalities of the space; fluctuations in the liquid terrain are translated through the surfboard into the ankles, knees, and lower core of the body, the flow of air on the skin of the face and forearms, the speed and motion felt deep within my inner organs.
The energy dissipates. I glide off the back of the wave to see the bottlenose dolphin having already finned into the following wave, gliding seamlessly deep within the heart of the wave. It barely displaces a drop of water from the wave face as it foils beneath the surface, making powerful and poised changes in direction - dancing to the tune of the liquid terrain.
I spent over an hour with that aquatic mammal. We traded multiple waves, floated side by side and stared eye to eye. A few beach goers had trekked out towards the point to get a closer look for themselves. Behind them, the dramatic backdrop of flora, luminous greens, saffron yellows and patches of parasitical pink dodder forming a real life Kurt Jackson painting which evolves into deep dark hues of brown, purples and army greens annually - each year the same, but different.
As I make my way up the beach I study the position of the tide and the undulations of the sand. Is it high or low? Can I see the wreck? To what extent are the granite boulders exposed along the high tide mark? How much swell is on the lighthouse? How strong is the wind and how cinematic are the clouds? Extended environmental stimuli to take in, absorb and introvertly process.
The intelligence gathering of nuanced and intricate details of place, some absorbed consciously but many subconsciously; environmental human osmosis accumulating into a unique sensitivity of place. Facilitated by the physical interactions with the planet’s energy and magical encounters with its natural processes and systems.
An understanding that grows deeper and deeper over time, season after season, year after year.
It is this which fuels my creative curiosity.