The psychosis of a surfer is a peculiar monster. The most seemingly trivial things can cause emotional upheaval in our lives. The shift of the wind from Northwest to Northeast. Flat conditions on a day off. But one of the most unsettling things surfers experience is the phenomena I can only describe as “wave envy.” We’ve all felt the cruel sting of this sickness, but why it affects us so much in the first place is a question worth examining.
For me, it starts at my laptop. This is stage one. My browser is open to a stock-standard ASP contest. There’s Kelly Slater summoning barrels and shooting out with the pixilated foam. His face shows no reaction, really. No claim necessary. He’s done it countless times. But the majority of the viewers are reacting: hoots, shouts, cursing. We’d drown a grom for a barrel like that. And we sit there, watching perfect sets roll in on a distant continent, wishing we’d be graced with a singular opportunity to surf those waves. Degree 1 of wave envy: seeing strangers score waves in far away places.
Stage two usually manifests on social media, cell phone screens, or forecast websites. Home break conditions are lackluster, and the outlook doesn’t look much better. But right above your “Shitty Forecast for the Week Ahead” is the “Photo of the Day.” You can already tell by the chocolate tint of the cavernous beast barreling across your screen that the photo hails from New Jersey. The inevitable vibration of your cell phone comes soon after, and reading the text from your friend in Ocean City, NJ, might as well be fingernail removal. “Dude! Was firing all day today! Got barreled out of my mind.” The rational part of you is stoked for your friend, but something about knowing he’s enjoying all-time conditions while your break sadly whispers pathetic sea foam onto the beach lowers your chin. A long exhale. Degree 2 of wave envy: seeing friends score waves in far away places.
Stage three is basically a temporary visit to the 9th circle of Hell. Even on the surf cam, the waves look of divine origin, and that’s despite the fact that your screen resolution sucks. Flawless conditions. Maybe the best day of the year, certainly of the month. But you’re stuck at work watching the clock painfully document each second of brilliant waves you’ve missed. There’s only moments of daylight left when you finally clock out and scurry up the dunes, only to find that the winds have shifted, the tide’s wrong, and everyone’s leaving. Your friend stops beside you for a moment on his way back to his car and turns to look back on the surf. “Shoulda been here this morning! It was insane!” If you didn’t feel the blade already, he’s just shoved it clear through your back and out your chest (Et tu, Brute?). Degree 3 of wave envy: Seeing friends score waves at home without you.
Wave envy in the third degree is not easily forgotten. Empty bottles and sleepless nights are bound to follow. What could be worse? Perfection at your home break, but you missed it. And it’s all your friends can talk about. Something as innocent as missing playtime in the ocean wouldn’t faze any rational human being. But maybe surfers aren’t rational at all. Psychosis is a more fitting description for this behavior. In a way, surfers do have a loss of contact with reality, believing so adamantly that those missed swells may have offered them the perfect wave they’ve forever been searching for. Physically sick to know that they missed out while their friends basked in the glory of it all.
But, in the history of the sport, has anyone ever caught the wave of their life and then immediately quit surfing? There is no perfect wave. Only the next one. When we realize that, maybe those unridden swells won’t feel so much like punches in the gut.