Winton remembers a conversation with a neighbor who asked him what the point of surfing was. To him, it seemed like all surfers did was sit out on the ocean and wait. Winton agrees—surfing is a pointless exercise, and mostly, it’s just about waiting.
Winton’s acceptance that surfing is pointless is less of an indictment on the activity and more of a point of curiosity, setting the essay up to answer his neighbor’s question in a way that might not be totally straightforward.
At the age of five, Winton gets his first taste of surfing when his cousins push him out to the break on a longboard. After rushing to shore on the board for the first time, he’s hooked. He begins to surf on inelegant Coolite boards that chafe his skin, before getting his first glass board in 1973. The best thing about surfing is the momentum of rushing to shore on a wave—it never gets old.
Surfing doesn’t begin glamorously for Winton—it’s a clumsy activity at first, but it hooks him with its thrill. His commitment to it, and the joy it brings him, are evident when as a child he surfs until his skin hurts. He’s willing to endure pain for the happiness it brings him.
Surfing has Polynesian origins—the Hawaiian people valued its qualities of freedom and grace—and its spread has had a huge global impact and become a huge part of coastal Australian culture. In the 1950s, it was a way to express one’s individuality, and it had what Winton calls its “Romantic era” in the sixties and seventies. In his childhood, it’s a way to feel close to one another and to the ocean and to distance yourself from a normative linear mindset, focusing instead on the “waiting and flowing” it demands. Looking back, he suspects it inspired his artistic side.
Just like in church, surfing brings Winton joy partly because it allows him to connect with other people and the world around him. There are many similarities for Winton between a church surface and a day surfing, suggesting that surfing is another way he can access his spirituality, which seems to go hand in hand with his desire for creativity, too.
By the 1980s, though, surfing has developed a corporate edge, and the general population of surfers is distinguished by machismo, aggression, racism, and misogyny. Fewer and fewer women surf, put off by the unfriendly culture. Winton opts for snorkeling and diving rather than surfing—he doesn’t gel with the culture either. But he misses surfing, and after moving to a smaller town, he finds a group of surfers who are milder in nature and begins to enjoy the activity again.
The insular, unfriendly edge that takes over the surfing community drives Winton away from it. This echoes the way that he distanced himself from the church because of the congregation’s fear and rigidity. This pattern implies that one of Winton’s core priorities is the ability to be in peaceful harmony with the people around him, and to create a welcoming community.
Surfing offers Winton a chance to experience beauty and connection. It’s a meditative activity. Unlike other sports, it relies on being in communion with the ocean rather than exploiting it. It forces him to slow down and wait, the same way he does when he comes to his desk to write. When surfing, he has to be ready for a wave to come and bear him onward—when writing, it’s the same. When an idea arrives, he’s ready to catch it and follow it to the end.
The connection Winton makes between surfing and writing here also holds echoes of his thoughts about faith. For Winton, faith, just like writing and surfing, is firmly tied to the ability to be in communion with the world, to gain energy from the harmony he feels with nature and other people—whether it’s singing a hymn, riding a wave, or catching hold of an idea.