“I don’t judge waves.” That’s what I used to tell my friend who had made the unfortunate mistake of committing to teach me to surf in Wrightsville Beach, NC. He would say something along the lines of, “The wind’s holding the lefts open,” or, “The take-off’s a little mushy, but it walls up really nice on the inside.” But I couldn’t appreciate the analysis that went into these statements. I just assumed they fell into the same category of blabber as the ones my other surf buddies would make, like, “There were some frothy mountains coming through.” So I would just sit there and laugh, as if I had constructed a moral highway that towered far above judgments placed on lumps of salt water. But then I got dragged to a special “secret spot.” I guess the secret was out, because the lineup was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, offering up heaving, head-high surf. I immediately threw my leash around the wrong ankle — I was still learning — and started sprinting toward the shorebreak like a 3rd-grader released to recess. Meanwhile, my mentor was actually taking the time to survey the waves. And before I leapt onto my board, from over my shoulder, I heard, “Hey, today’s all about wave judgment, okay? Don’t just take any wave.” But I was completely oblivious to the fact that almost every wave breaking that day had closed out in a compression of sand and foam. So I wrote his comments off as condescending. “Thanks, Dad,” I thought. “Who needs judgment? It’s just surfing.”
That’s when I proceeded to paddle for a bomb. I didn’t even know what direction I was supposed to go if I caught it. Straight maybe? Then, as I attempted to make the drop, I saw my friend waving me off and yelling something along the lines of, “Did you listen to anything I just said?” But it was too late. I was immediately introduced to the sandbar in about a foot of water. We didn’t get along too well. As I was spitting up salt water, and probably some blood, all I could hear in the background was laughter. And that’s how I learned. Judge waves. Always judge waves. Because you have to.
It doesn’t take much more than a solid thrashing to get something through my water-logged head. So I repaired my dings and paddled back out a few days later, but I didn’t even think about trying to catch a wave. I just sat there on my polyurethane and watched the Atlantic’s currents smash into the unseen oceanic topography below me. Because I now understood that, if you want to surf, you need awareness. Observation. You have to be conscious of everything. Because what doesn’t affect the shape of a wave? I used to just paddle out without thinking. I’ve since become an amateur oceanographer. Ask me about swell direction. Ask me about wind direction. Ask me when the falling tide’s going to throw backwash into the face of the wave. I had finally realized that it all affects surfing. When your face has sand rash on it, you realize that it all affects surfing.
So I started judging waves. And I got fairly decent at it, too. Once you’re good enough, you don’t need to eat shit anymore. Or, at least, not as frequently. You have a better feel for how the wave is going to warp and change. You can predict what each gust of wind is going to do to the texture of the face and where the white wash is going to attempt to prematurely end your life. I finally got it. It was important. You should always judge waves. But then I crossed a line. I thought to myself, “If you’re judging waves, you might as well judge people, too.” Why not? I had become knowledgeable enough, at least at my own break, to know what the waves were going to do before they even began to topple over themselves. Why would people in the lineup be any different? Before I even noticed the leap I had made, my judgment transitioned from water to flesh.
So, you have a GoPro mount on the end of your funboard? I’m waiting for you to eat shit. You have no wetsuit on and the water’s still 50 degrees? I’m not even looking when you paddle for the wave; I’m just taking it. You’re surfing near that kid I’ve seen air out over the spike-walled jetty of death at the lighthouse? Yeah, you can have that wave. If I haven’t seen you before, then you’re obviously from Virginia Beach. You’re surfing a rental? Just please stay far, far away from me so I don’t get knocked unconscious by your board and drown in tummy-high surf.
I assumed I knew what other surfers would do before they even twisted their boards toward the beach. But then I was proven wrong, again and again. Some guy with a GoPro blasted spray into my eyes on the most vertical turn I’ve ever borne witness to. A surfer ballsy enough to paddle out sans wetsuit scored the deepest barrel of the day. The kid who’s supposed to be the local pro blew a soft take-off that my little brother could have made. The guy on the rental just launched an air… and landed it. People aren’t like waves. People prove you wrong.
When you’re wrong about a wave, you’re just wrong. And maybe you might fall. But when you’re wrong on an assumption about someone else in the lineup based on your preconceived notions, you’re not just wrong. You’re a judgmental asshole. It’s the kind of prejudice they warn you about in Sunday school. There was a line between judging waves and judging people. And I was on the wrong side of it.
Then I realized, “If I’m arbitrarily making assumptions about other surfers, aren’t I just as likely to be in their crosshairs?” Every time I blow a perfect wave, are the rest of those guys going home later that night and laughing about it? “The set of the day came through, but some jackass called everyone off,” they might say. “I could tell he was gonna blow it. He did. Kook sauce.” But who are any of us to draw quick conclusions about any other human being based on our own limited knowledge? Judging waves is important to surfing. Judging other surfers is not. Because people will reveal themselves to you in time.
I was once out in the lineup at a wave that wasn’t really meant for surfers. All the bodyboarders in the village had gathered there, and they were scoring head-high waves breaking right on the shore in about a foot of water. Occasionally, somebody on a surfboard would take off on one of these waves and get detonated on the inside for their efforts. But hey, it was a nice day out, so why not surf, right?
I watched a set wave roll in that broke much like the others. A bodyboarder took off closest to the peak with clear priority. But some middle-aged surfer tried to go for it as well. Frustration had been building in this guy’s face for a while now, since the bodyboard mob had monopolized the only peak. I heard the bodyboarder say, “Hey, heads up,” and the surfer replied by leaning over the lip, just short of taking off, and hawking the biggest cannon of spit I’ve ever seen straight into this guy’s face as he took the wave. The bodyboarder didn’t even notice the glob attached above his eyebrow. But everyone else did. And we were all horrified. “Did he really just spit in that guy’s face for taking a shorepound wave?”
Obviously, there’s no need for assumptions and prejudice when a few minutes of floating next to someone will prove their true character. So judge your waves, and surf them accordingly. Become a master of your own break and know how every inflection of wind and swell direction will affect your surfing before you even duck-dive that first set on the way out. But don’t cross that line and start judging people. Because some older guy on a foam-top board could whip a perfect roundhouse on the wave of the day. Or he could be that guy who sends you home with a sour taste in your mouth. Only time will tell.