Sean Doherty On: Is The Death of Big Wave Mythology Upon Us?

22 Jun 2015 4 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Taz Knight gets his 15 seconds during the recent Puerto swells. Photo: Morales / SW

Taz Knight gets his 15 seconds during the recent Puerto swells. Photo: Morales / SW

How Computers Are Disposing Your Heroes
From the current issue of Surfing World, July 2015

Last month Mark Healey caught a wave in Mexico, a big one. You might have seen it. Before Healey had even been washed ashore by the Puerto beast, stills and footage of the wave had become digital Ebola, spreading on contact and melting the vital organs of the Internet. That wave went everywhere. It was the most hyped online surfing clip since, ya know, that last one. Healey’s wave was poached, posted, hashtagged, hailed, dissected, measured, hyperbolised, hypothesised and became instant folklore within the hour. And then, just like that, it was gone, scrolled off the screen and replaced by Matt Meola’s spindle 540, which in turn will be replaced by a Teahupoo wipeout or a surfing dog.

MORE FEATURES BY SEAN DOHERTY

It makes you think. A story that not long ago would have taken months to work its way out through the coconut wireless, passed on by word of mouth or maybe a grainy still image, was being told cold in a digital heartbeat. But more than that, instead of Healey’s wave being subject to the standard practice of surf mythologising, where the story is told in Chinese Whispers and the facts are rubbery and the story naturally embellishes and romanticises and coats itself in a fine crumb of bullshit as time rolls on, the facts of Healey’s wave were hardly in dispute. It’s hard to argue with four camera phone angles.

However, if Healey had caught that wave 20 years ago, while a fraction of the people would have seen it, the wave would have had far greater power and done far more to cement his personal legend.

I’ve been working lately on a book of short stories about the life and misadventures of Michael Peterson. In contrast to Healey’s wave, MP stories proved a little harder to find. They don’t Google well. Michael liked hanging out with cats who didn’t tell stories, Michael wasn’t real hot on self-promotion, and photographers had an easier time shooting Sasquatch than they did Michael. But while they were a little harder to find, these MP stories were still out there, and when they were told the facts often clashed and they’d often break free from reality, but they were all told with heart and essence. Even now, 40 years after the fact, recounting those stories brought several storytellers to tears.

AND THEN, JUST LIKE THAT, IT WAS GONE, SCROLLED OFF THE SCREEN AND REPLACED BY MATT MEOLA’S SPINDLE 540, WHICH IN TURN WILL BE REPLACED BY A TEAHUPOO WIPEOUT OR A SURFING DOG

Now, this might seem a predictable the-Internet’s-killing-surfing piece filling the pages of a papery surf magazine (this story was originally published in SW, oh the irony – Ed), or an equally predictable polemic on the fragmentation and death of meaning generally in our lives today, but it can’t be argued that the very nature of storytelling everywhere is changing.

We see surfing very differently now to how we did before the Internet. On the upside we don’t miss much, as anything half-remarkable – and wheelbarrows of horseshit that ain’t even that – finds its way onto the giant attention- seeking device that is the Internet. The cop? Short form is losing out to long form, a thousand pictures are telling one word, and the beating heart of any matter and any sort of cultural enrichment rarely gets due airtime because nobody can sit still long enough to hear it. Man, I’m feeling old just writing this.

But surfing is a smoky story to tell. There are few absolutes with it, few metrics that can be applied to it, and little of it ever really makes any sense. Surfing is in the eye of the beholder, very much open to interpretation, and that being the case it’s been the perfect refuge for the campfire raconteur carrying on a tradition of oral history that dates back to the spearing of the first mammoth and the nightly retelling of the tale by the man-monkey who did it, the mammoth slowly turning into a T-Rex each time he flapped his gums about it.

While the big Cloudbreak day of 2012 was filleted, sliced, and served up online in real time to a disbelieving world, it wasn’t till all those Youtube clips were put back together into a feature length film a year later – Talon Clemow’s Thundercloud – that you got the true, lasting, collective sense of what that day really meant. Listening to Healey sit there and tell the story of paddling up the face of that wave, knowing he had only one chance to swipe off his leash and save his bacon, but having the balls to sneak a quick look down into the eye of God before doing so, man, you felt that was surfing right there. That was mammoth hunting. The Internet hasn’t killed surfing. There are plenty of online souls dedicated to applying millennia of storytelling tradition alive in a new medium. Meaningful stories are being told in new ways.

MP, if he’d been born out of time and was the best surfer in the world today, would have been royally screwed. Can you imagine him quietly trying to toke a joint in his car at D-Bah only for someone to snap a photo of him and boost it onto their Insty account with the hashtags #worldchamp #huffing. It was what you didn’t see and hear of MP that cemented his legend, and were he in his prime today we would have seen too much of him for him to have ever become that same mythical figure. It’s a different world out there today. As Frank Zappa once explained, “The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.”

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Mikey Wright on Page 1 of SW363, shot by Luke Shadbolt

Mikey Wright on Page 1 of SW363, shot by Luke Shadbolt

READ: MIKEY WRIGHT'S AUS SLAB SURFING WORLD COVER

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