At home in the water
On 29 October 2020, Sebastian Steudtner would surf the largest wave on official record at 86 feet. Strange things happen when waves reach 86 feet.
The reality of all that water falling far and fast is just too strange, and our brain refuses to acknowledge the true size of the wave. Instead, the biggest waves in the world appear to us almost gentle and slow moving. Our mind tells us there are no 86 foot waves, just 8 foot waves taking their time. It is only when a human standing on a plank glides across the face of the wave that each of the 86 feet seem to stack up before us. Once you witness that, it is no surprise that surfers need to dedicate a lifetime to surfing these ocean conditions just to stand a chance of surviving them, or better still, enjoying them. That is why Sebastian Steudtner’s words a couple of years later were so unexpected: “I didn’t grow up by the ocean. I didn’t have rich parents to travel around with me as a kid, I didn’t start surfing until I was an adult.”
This quote stayed with me long after I’d stopped mind-surfing his record-breaking lump of saltwater in Nazare, Portugal. It didn’t seem possible for someone who had learnt to surf so late in life to reach such an elite level. Surely a lack of time and ocean instincts would leave the odds stacked hopelessly against them. To add to the mystery, multiple sources tell of Sebastian’s first time surfing French waters at the age of 9, and his subsequent trips to Hawaii at age 13. So it seems Sebastian’s claims about being an adult-learner are exaggerated. However what is true is that Sebastian initially grew up very far away from the ocean he would one day build a career in. In his younger years, many miles and months at a time separated Sebastian from what he loved to do the most. I think his words help to highlight this rare thing amongst surfers: a lack of an organic connection to the sea.
For many in the professional surfing world, their connection to the ocean does not come out of the blue. Instead, there are idyllic memoirs of the surfers whose parents would hold them up on a foam board before they could walk. Or tales of the ‘water babies’ come ‘water people’ who were reading waves before they could read books. If you were new to this world, you might be forgiven for thinking that a surfer is someone who never felt panicked in the ocean, but who simply met all of that water overhead with a comforting sense of unity. It is as though their connection to the ocean was handed to them ready made. Of course, this isn’t true. All of us, even those born with the sea close by, have to work hard to feel at home in the water. But much of this work feels automatic and natural at a young age. And nowadays, each time these surfers paddle out, they feel the saltwater surge in their veins, and they know that they couldn’t be anywhere else.
It isn’t just surfers who feel at home in the water. Ocean photographers, divers, conservationists, explorers, and a host of people who grew up in coastal towns all feel the same sense of belonging to the ocean. Some of the most striking examples of ocean connection emerge when we feel connected to others through the ocean. Some Polynesian cultures understand the ocean as animate – protecting, challenging, and encouraging those who live close by. The waters might provide resources one day, offer safe routes to travel the next day, or threaten to submerge the home islands entirely. For people with Polynesian heritage, their connection to the ocean is the common thread that links them to their ancestors and allows them to feel connected to those who came before them, metaphorically and spiritually.
But the ocean makes connections forwards as well as backwards. Ocean-based conservationists express a deep feeling of connection, through the ocean, to the future generations whose resources they are trying to protect. Proximity to the ocean makes the gravity of this responsibility much more tangible. Our waves are the inheritance of people who are yet to be born, and how we act today will determine whether we pass on a healthy and flourishing ocean ecosystem, or a carcass. For ocean activists, their connection to the ocean facilitates a shared reality, one where people living today can look through time and imagine eyes meeting.
This harmony with the ocean is a slightly rose-tinted view of coastal life. But despite the poetry, the ability to live close to our oceans in an increasingly rare privilege. Sebastian Steudtner was lucky enough to discover his love of surfing at a young age, and he built his life around that passion by moving closer to the sea. Those of us who are not in a position to move must settle with the commute. Many of the ‘inland surfers’ from my area travel further north upon news of a big swell. Like migrating birds, we travel across the country on the hope of favourable weather patterns. Up here in the north more reliable surf is found, along the beaches I remember from my childhood. It was here that my gramps would take us whenever we would come to visit, and it was here where that my gran would stand worried because we were going too deep. It’s the closest thing many of us have to a home break – and yet we are no locals.
We try to respect those who are lucky enough to live closest to these waves, while maybe harbouring a slight jealousy towards them at the same time. It can be hard to empathise with the very real struggle locals have to protect their home breaks when you are home-break-less. But we do not wish to be a nuisance, and while it’s not our home, it is where us inlander surfers forced our connection to the ocean. That is why Steudtner’s words were so refreshing. Although we are all equal in our connection to the ocean, we are not equal in how we came to acquire it. Some are born with it, a few of us inlanders are just too stubborn to go without.
But us inland surfers are lucky compared to the billions of landlocked people who can only dream of commuting to the sea. Yet to think of these people as hopelessly disconnected from the 71% of our planet that is covered by oceans is a failure of imagination that ultimately harms our ocean ecosystems. The truth is even when the lure of the ocean cannot reach you, your impact undoubtedly reaches our oceans.
Over 90% of global trade is carried by sea, the ocean generates 50% of the oxygen we breathe, and our world’s climates are regulated by our oceans. All of us our caught up in this human-ocean interconnectedness. Whether or not we feel at home in the water, the water is a part of our home. By changing our perspective on who can and can’t feel a connection to the ocean, we help to increase our global ocean literacy and our ability to protect the ocean ecosystem upon which we rely so dearly.
There is a lot written about the surfers, divers, and conservationists for whom the sea has been a constant from their earliest years. That is why Steudtner’s words are so refreshing. Although we are all equal in our connection to the ocean, we are not equal in how we came to acquire it. Some are born with it, a few of us inlanders are just too stubborn to go without.
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