Art of Waves
Instead of competing on the windsurfing world tour full time when I turned 18, which is what most of the windsurfing world expected of me, I went to university. At that time, I wrote poetry and enrolled in creative writing seminars in which I was lucky to be taught by great American poets like James Richardson and Brenda Shaughnessy. Not enough physical fear was the reason Richardson said that I would not write truly great poetry. Shaughnessy was more encouraging: write about the sea, she said.
Despite knowing the ocean intimately, I struggled to write about it. I could not think of anything interesting to say about waves or the ocean. I was too close to them and could not get any perspective. The poems I did write were strange and too microscopic—noticing the distorted colors and sounds one hears underwater as related to the Hawaiian language. I did not enjoy writing these poems, and I enjoyed reading them even less.
After graduating from Princeton, my writing turned to other things: drama, essays. I started competing full time on the world tour, trying to fulfill the dreams of my youth. Competitions are full of dead time. Hurry up and wait. A windsurfing world cup is normally a week long, but the competition only happens when the wind and waves are good enough—as determined by the head judge—to compete. The first day is busy with registration and rigging sails to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice. And then you wait. You can’t wander very far from the beach because the event could be called on at any time. I thought that I could use this time for something productive, but the mind, ready to suit up and compete at the blow of a horn, struggles to concentrate on much. The week of waiting and at the end you are completely exhausted—mentally and physically.
Poetry can provide a certain therapeutic calm—more than other kinds of writing, at least for me—and I felt the itch to write some poems. Brenda Shaughnessy’s advice came back to me, and I focused on the sea.
My method for writing poetry is to take a lot of notes, let those notes ferment over some weeks, and return to the notes to see what I still find interesting. Most of the notes and half-poems are discarded. One of the discarded poems from that time was the following:
Waves: a better mark than stars
for the dead.
The infinite dead.
Some say that there are more people
alive now than ever before.
the dead greatly outnumber us.
Like the waves beating the shore,
our eyes wander, lost in their endless crashing:
an uncountable infinity of an army.
An army general’s nightmare.
Until you realize that each wave is the same
water rising and falling.
The discarded fragments—ideas, metaphors, half-poems like the one above—live in a notebook or a text file never to be seen again.
Fast forward to 2017 when I was writing an essay for a British magazine about a recent surf trip to Cabo Verde, an island in an archipelago nation off of western Africa. I wrote: “windsurfing is a strange sport. We go around and a round in circles, riding the same water that keeps rising and falling.”
I had completely forgotten the old half-poem with this idea, but the phrase felt familiar enough that I went back through my old notes to see if I had used it before. I found “Cardinal.” I did not feel bad about stealing the idea from my discarded poem.
But after the essay was published, that line kept coming back to me—“the same water that keeps rising and falling”—and I had a nagging feeling that something was not right.
I turned to Google, and to my surprise, I found a hit: “…not wave after wave, as it appears from the shore, but of the very same water rising and falling…But it is when we perceive that it is no succession of waves, but the same water, constantly rising, and crashing, and recoiling, and rolling in again in new forms and with fresh fury, that we perceive the perturbed spirit, and feel the intensity of its unwearied rage.” The source is John Ruskin’s “Modern Painters,” discussing Turner’s paintings of the sea.
I was mortified. Not only had I inadvertently plagiarized the idea, but the original was much better than my homage.
I guess I had come across Ruskin at Princeton—storing his ideas in my sleep-deprived mind without care to properly catalog and credit.
I went on to read the entire essay “Of Truth of Water,” and I was awed by Ruskin’s surf writing. Yes, he is writing about painting, but make no mistake, this is top tier surf writing.
What is the point of good surf writing? On the surface, there is value in using surf writing to communicate surfing to non-surfers. See! This is why I’m never around when the waves are good.
The best surf writing though—which is very rare—does something more. The best surf writing shows surfers something we knew but did not realize about surfing. Ruskin does this.
Another example is Tim Winton in his novel “Breath.” The novel is full of great surf writing, and one of the best examples does not even talk about the ocean or surfers. The protagonist reacts to seeing surfing for the first time:
“I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank beside the BP, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands. Perhaps a baker might have had a chance to make something as pretty as it was tasty, but our baker was a woman anyway, a person as dour and blunt as any boy’s father and she baked loaves like housebricks. For style we had a couple of local footballers with a nice leap and a tidy torpedo punt, and I would concede that my father rowed a wooden boat as sweetly as I’d seen it done, in a manner that disguised and discounted all effort, but apart from that and those old coves with plastic teeth and necks like turtles who got pissed on Anzac Day and sang sad songs on the verandah of the Riverside before they passed out, there wasn’t much room for beauty in the lives of our men. The only exception was the strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-world toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But he didn’t like to show his work. He was shy or careful and people said he was half mad anyway. When it came to blokes, his was all the useless beauty the town could manage.”
Just before the global quarantines began in the spring of 2020, my friend Paul Reis filmed my windsurfing with his drone. I loved the footage. Similar to the best kinds of surf writing, the footage revealed an essence of windsurfing at Ho’okipa Beach Park on the north shore of Maui.
Most windsurfing and surfing videos that are released online are quick-cut montages of best-moments. We call it surf porn, and it feels good to watch but does not at all transpose the feeling of riding waves—or even of sitting on the beach and watching people ride waves.
Paul’s footage, following me like a bird from above, captures the uncut reality. Flying a drone in gusty winds and rain is not easy. I’ve released many surf porn clips online—full of action. But I’m more proud of what this clip shows about my windsurfing skills: four uncut minutes, two good waves, a subtle dance with the ocean.
Reflecting on what narration could possibly live up to the footage, I found myself revisiting Ruskin and the idea of the same water rising and falling. I wrote the narration as an homage to Ruskin’s surf writing—some of the best.
After recording the audio and editing the first draft of the video, I sent it to some friends for feedback. A Princeton friend, also a surfer, gave me a few notes. Number one: “Waves don’t enjoy or dislike anything.” Which is a reference to the question I ask: “Do waves enjoy being ridden?”
When he said that, I laughed because he was so obviously right yet so obviously missing the point. I really love that concept: do waves enjoy being ridden? But was it too silly and ill-fit for this serious clip?
Brenda Shaughnessy used to quote the famous Faulkner line in our poetry seminars: “kill your darlings.” At the time, I took it to mean that your favorite lines destroy the unity of the poem—and the whole is greater when a part is not trying to steal the spotlight. A poem, then, is each line while at the same time being the sum of all the words—just as the waves are many individuals but also the same water rising and falling. And if you continue the metaphor to its logical end: yes, the waves do enjoy being ridden because I am the waves.
You can see Gaham Ezzy's 'Art of Waves' @ https://youtu.be/NuLFvfVLQ5Q