Sharing the Stoke: The Zen of Social Distancing in Surfing

By Craig Low ~ I once spent several hours about 20 feet or so of another person and had no conversation the whole time. Not that we didn’t communicate, we did, through nods, eye contact, smiles and the occasional spoken, “right on!”  It was one of the best days of surfing I had in a long time and even though I never spoke with my wave riding compatriot, I am sure he felt the same.

Surfing’s nature induces both social distancing and a togetherness among the tribe. Moving from land to ocean brings a sense of both peace and exhilaration. Millions and millions of years ago our ancestors most likely crawled out of the sea, and surfers are those among us that return to the salty waters and feel at home.

As an activity surfing is mostly done alone but usually most enjoyed when there’s others floating nearby and all looking to the horizon for that bump in the ocean that turns to a swell and creates the next rideable wave. Once in the lineup you are your own. Each break has its own rules and pecking order for catching waves, but usually its first one that gets the wave, rides the wave. The friendly fight for the wave creates a sense of competition and a level of distancing yourself from others. If one doesn’t catch a wave, or is waiting for the right set, having a front row seat to watching other surfers ride waves is the next best thing. Again, alone to catch your own waves, but share the stoke* for others when they get their own wave ride.

No matter how many are in the lineup there is usually little to no talk or chatter. There’s a common courtesy to let each be left to their own thoughts. A small gesture of greetings with a nod or quick “hey” is appreciated, but not expected or lack of considered rude. The vastness of the ocean, the rise and fall of the water, taste of the salt and the anticipation of the next wave creates a near meditative state. A little social distancing is needed to keep the personal vibe and connection to the sea.

When on land surfers usually stay several feet apart. Not for empeeding the stoke and vibe for another, but because you don’t want to bang your board against another. Nothing social about approaching with the friendly, “Hey there bro,” followed by the ding of the nose of one board into the deck of the other. When on land it’s socially acceptable, if not the norm, to chat with other surfers. There’s important information to be shared, but at a safe distance to not ding boards. 

We all know the current public health crisis with COVID-19 is very serious and can not be taken lightly. Public distancing is needed, it’s expected of us, for any solution to work. There is a balancing we do each day, fact vs. myth, personal liberty vs. public good, and it’s these daily decisions that could determine our health and those around us. Life today is a lot like surfing with a new set of social norms. Yes, there is distancing, yet we are all in it together.  We need to take personal space and distance seriously and proactively, but at the sametime, let’s share the stoke, no matter what it is for you, and keep our vibes positive and optimistic for our future.