FLOWMOTION – The Zen Art of Surfing

I am absolutely convinced that surfing brings you much closer to your inner self, to your soul.


There are many elements that induce a peaceful content state: the fresh salt air, the sound of the waves, the energy of the moving ocean, the beauty of the landscape around you, the rhythm of paddling through the waves, the dolphins sharing the waves with you, the awakening after being washed in the impact zone by a large set, the rush of the takeoff when your board starts to ride ahead of the water mass of the crashing wave, the playful turns on the wave face. No two waves are the same, every wave offers new surprises and has its own character and that surely is one reason that surfing never gets boring. No two rides will ever be exactly the same, and have new sensations and learn something new every time you ride a wave. The experience of a wave ride is completely focused and measured by your own set of experiences. This relates in particular to the size and “heaviness” of waves. Some waves seemed like massive mountains of water to me, much like a real Waimea wave, but to others, more experienced surfers these are just little play things they have seen hundreds of times. To beginners, they just seem like unrideable monsters.

a very mellow crowd

a very mellow crowd

The spirit of the crowd around you can range from hostile to peaceful, and depends heavily on the intention of the crowd. It can be a compassionate mixed bag of young all ages from young groms on 5 foot boards to 70 year olds on longboards, or a very homogenous group of testosterone-driven 20 something men, each and every one of them eager to claim and enforce their right for the next wave. This crowd factor deeply impacts your experience. In the few hundred surf sessions we have experienced on this trip we have predominantly had a mellow and compassionate crowd, guys and girls with deep smiles on their faces, thankful to be at this specific place at this very moment in time, cheering others on when they catch another beautiful wave. We have also had quite a few surf sessions where we have been alone or in the company of just a few souls, which typically makes a session that much more special. Just you and the sea, being so close to nature, surrounded by the very element where we came from and what we are made of. Surfing also makes you fit and strong like no other sport. Just look at anyone from the ASP tour, the world championship tour of the surfers: every single one of those guys would make the cover of Playgirl or the men’s version of the Pirelli calendar – and the girls are no different, surfing chicks are typically babes. You can feel this, your body feels strong and healthy. There is a sensation which really kicks in after the shower, it is what I call blissful exhaustion. It is the same feeling I remember from windsurf, ski and snowboard session in my twenties. The surfing community also has been able to preserve a certain lifestyle, which is outside of the ordinary, unconventional, a bit edgy, relaxed, chilled, peaceful, caring about others and the planet. Surely, with the advent of surf fashion this is not embraced by all, and there are posers and radicals and druggies and aggressors. Lewis Samuels, an honest blogger and surfer from Northern California (see has done an amazing job in highlighting the dark side of the sport, and publishing controversial statements about the current state of surfing to inspire debate, and ultimately to save the spirit of the sport. Clearly, bringing surfing to the masses, which is often the single mission of the major surf companies, will make surfing less desirable and the energy in the water much more aggressive and negative. Anyone who has been at a pumping break with 20, 30 or 50 guys knows that this is not fun, but more a battle of egos and testosterone. However, I feel that there are still today many places on this planet where the original spirit of surfing expressed in legendary movies such as Endless Summer lives on, and remains at the core of everything that is surfing: people love to surf because they love the feeling of surfing and everything that comes with it, it gives them a high, it produces copious amounts of dopamine, and it acts as a counterpoint to our performance and speed-driven capitalist material world.

The true spirit of surfing, exemplified in style by one of surfing's Zen masters, Dave Rastovich

The true spirit of surfing, exemplified in style by one of surfing\’s Zen masters, Dave Rastovich

But the most important effect of surfing surely is what happens to you inside, the effect I call Flowmotion. When you surf, you experience moments of true FLOW, the concept first documented by Csikszentmihalyi in the psychology literature published in 1964. When you catch the wave, when you ride down the wave, when you glide and turn along the face, you experience moments of joy which are completely focused on the moment. You forget the world around you, you do it purely for the joy resulting from it, and you have no external forces or rewards that influence or motivate you to do it. When you look down that face and feel the wave pushing you ahead, you are in that Zen moment of surfing: you get a big rush, but at the same time you feel inner peace, and a sense of becoming one with the ocean, with the Earth and for some with the Great Spirit. Gerry Lopez manifested this impressively with his relaxed stand-up style in Pipeline at the North Shore of Hawaii, and many other surfing legends have been manifestations of Flowmotion.

Another Gerry, a bit older and much wiser and more famous: Gerry Lopez in full style, embracing FLOWMOTION

Another Gerry, a bit older and much wiser and more famous: Gerry Lopez in full style, embracing FLOWMOTION

On our trip I have had these moments almost daily and I am extremely thankful for this, I am truly blessed to be able to surf different waves around the globe, most on our 7’6’’ Santa Cruz minimalibu which we have come to love. Each session has been engrained in my soul and has given me more inner peace. But there are a few Flowmotion moments which truly stand out as moments that go even one step further. They are the ones I will never forget. They typically started with quite a bit of respect and elements of fear, and quickly transformed my soul into that blissful Flow state when the drop starts. I have a very clear picture of these moments which in some cases only lasted a few seconds but seemed like eternity at the time and even in hindsight. Words cannot do the images of these moments justice, but here is a short description of a few examples. Please remember that when I refer to sizes of waves, I am just describing the image in my mind, which is likely much larger than it would seem to others ;)

  1. Puena Point, North Shore, Oahu Nov 2009, on a small day: ok this was my first day surfing the Hawaiian North Shore, and it has had a big impact on the state of my soul. The big sets were breaking half way across the harbor entrance, with a powerful lip smashing down, but then mellowing out for a long Malibu ride on the shoulder. The key to bliss was like so often the timing of the take-off. The girls in their tiny bikinis and their long boards made it look so easy, 2 or 3 paddles, a quick jump to their feet and off they were, dancing along the face of the wave. For me, there was not much dancing for quite some time. I was mainly paddling around, getting tired, and getting beaten on the head in the impact zone, worrying about hitting some type of reef on the dark sea below me. After half an hour my moment had come: I just happened to be in the perfect spot for takeoff (most likely pure luck) and was actually amazed that I could chose whether to go left or right once I was racing down the face of the wave. I made the drop and chose the left. That is when playtime began. The wave carried me almost all the way back to the beach, I carved along the wall, always being chased by white water from the peeling wave crashing down into the channel. I forgot the world around me and was gliding across the water in this wonderful state of bliss.
  2. Wraparounds, Mokoluas, Windward Oahu, tail end of the 2009 Eddie Swell, Dec 8 2009: There were 7 guys at the point, all hungry for the next wave. I was too much in awe and respectful and just let everyone have their go and waited. No one expected a seventh wave to hit, and this one surely was the biggest of the set. I saw it build way on the outside, and paddled out as quickly as I could. I was the only one there within 30 meters or so. Fear started to set in. Then there was this split second where I made that important decision to go for it. I paddled over to the rocks, saw the wave starting to break on the inside, turned my board and angled it slightly away from the island. The wall was building higher than anything I had seen there before, and deeper fear crept in rapidly. But it was too late to pull out, and I started to paddle. When I felt my board being lifted off the sea for what seemed like a few meters and when I heard a large roar at my left ear, for a split second I felt like I was too late and would end up being thrown over the falls by the crashing wave, into the sea and down to the reef. But I was still focused on riding the wave, and when I rose to my feet I realized that even though I had a massive wall of white water in my neck, there was a large glassy wall on my left. I focused like never before on my long bottom turn to get to that face. I gained speed very rapidly and quickly edged my board to make a long sweeping turn to get back onto the face. By the time I reached it I realized that I was surfing back up the wave. From that moment everything became playful. I had that big rush of having mastered the big drop and the first turn and realized that I now had this beautiful wave to play with. I made seven long round bottom turns and cutbacks near the crashing lip, while the wave wrapped around the island. The ride seemed like an eternity and with every turn my eyes lit up more, my soul filled with joy. It was my first wave ever with large overhead clean faces which allowed me to playfully carve turns and glide on for what seemed like an endless stretch.
  3. Crescent Head, NSW, Australia, 2 Mar 2010: The place is full of rocks, and the point where you hit the water is intimidating. Again, I was confronted with a crowd of 10 guys and girls of all ages on everything from a 5’ fish to a 10’ longboard. This wave is mellow, and it shows on the crowd as well. This time I just happened to be in the right spot: three guys paddeling for the second wave of a large set missed it, I thought I would be too late but went anyways and was lucky that the wave was just holding up for a little bit longer. I made the drop and once I had made my first turn, it was play time, on the longest ride I had ever had. The wave peeled and peeled and peeled, and I was doing one turn after the other, it just would not stop. It would reform, I would speed up to the right, then have a mellow head-high wall again, and ride for what seemed like ages. When the wave finally died on me, I was so far down from where I started, I could hardly spot the take-off point. Now I understood why I saw people walking along the rocks back to the point all the time, and I went to shore and did exactly the same to enjoy more of these rides.
  4. Byron Bay, NSW, Australia, 8 Mar 2010: This wave peels forever as well but is a bit faster. However, Byron Bay is full of wave hungry crew. I was on a 9’6’’ Malibu and decided to hang about 20 meters left of the crew at the take-off spot near the rocks. I had watched the large set patterns from the viewing platform on the rock. And luckily, the pattern persisted. On the largest sets, the wave would form and break in two places, and the crew from the inside take-off spot near the rocks was faced with quick closeout whereas the spot further left gave you all the freedom to “ride the wave home”, once you had made the drop that is. And that again was the ultimate challenge. There was a very small corridor of where you needed to be. I spent the first half hour either paddling like crazy but being too far out, or being hit on the head badly in the impact zone. But then I got it right, and on one of the largest waves of the day I committed to the drop. I paddled hard and felt myself being lifted up, higher than I wanted to be, but there was no going back. I quickly got to my feet and then the Flowmotion moment, that Zen moment of surfing infused my entire body. The large board faced straight down and gained speed rapidly, I was completely focused on riding down to the bottom and initiating a long smooth bottom turn to the right, to avoid the truckloads of whitewater in my neck. I can still feel my body shiver from the rush of that drop down the face.
  5. Three Bears, Cape Naturaliste, Western Australia, 12 Mar 2010: a medium swell day, but my first time there and scary for me. Fortunately, my friend Jarrod has a 4WD to get us there and helps me get over my fears to get in the water. At each of the three breaks (Papa, Mama, and Baby Bears) ten serious surfers are lined up, hungry for the next one. Just getting to the wave is an adventure in itself. You need to step across reef, through holes, without being washed off your feet and then time your jump into a deep hole right, paddle like hell to avoid being washed back onto the reef. 15-20 knot offshore and a nice size swell make for perfect conditions, certainly some of the largest waves I have ridden, way over head high. Luck strikes when I paddle out. A very large sets rolls in, the guys at the take-off point scramble, but I am way off to the right in the channel on my paddle out, and suddenly realize that I am lined up perfectly for this one: I turn and paddle, slightly to the left, when I get to my feet I realize that I need to angle left sooner than later as this wave is not mellow, it crashes down with force. I make it down the face and then start playing with the wave, carving all the way back up to the lip, getting speed on the way down again, until I am awfully close to the reef where I entered the water and pull out. Scary, but real fun. Getting out of the water was even more tricky than getting in. Wait for a wave to lift you up in such a manner that you land feet first on the reef and can then quickly walk to the beach before the next one washes your feet out from underneath you and gives you a yard sale across the reef (which it did with me).
  6. Huzzas, Cowaramup Bay, Western Australia, 19 Mar 2010: This is arguably the only beginner wave on the Margaret River coast, and the place of my first ever wave caught on a 9’ Malibu in the 1990s. It is mellow and fun, but on big days it can get a bit more challenging. This was a big day with large sets. I was way outside sitting with one other guy, almost in line with the take-off point for the adjoining South Point break (I still have no idea what made me go there, but in retrospect it was a very fortunate impulse). A large set rolled in and the third wave proved to be what must have been one of the largest waves of the day at that spot. I paddled hard to get out far enough, turned around quickly, and heard the sound of whitewater behind me, and realized that I was too late to make a clean take-off. But at this stage I had little choice. When the wave picked me up rapidly, for a split second I prepared mentally for bracing myself against going over the falls. I looked down and just saw a deep black hole, very far below me. I had no idea if this was just water, or if I needed to prepare for getting to know the reef a bit better. I jumped to my feet as quickly as I could, and tried to get my balance. This is when I realized that my board was actually suspended in mid air, it was free-falling with no water contact. I had watched this in movies and in the lineup and knew there was a way to make the wave. When the board hit the water, I scrambled, and felt like I was going to fall backwards for a split second. But I had gained such speed by this time, that my forward motion was much more dominant and I somehow managed to get my weight above the center of the board again. About half way down the wave I realized that I could do it, and focused completely on a clean line down and into my bottom turn. I am sure that fear was replaced by a hint of a hopeful smile by that point. I rode the wave all the way in, and felt a huge sense of relief and bliss. I am certain that what I was doing did not look pretty or stylish or cool, but that did not matter to me. All I felt was the sense of joy to have mastered the free fall escape.
  7. Conspicuous Beach, Walpole, Western Australia, SW swell, 23 Mar 2010: the kind of scene you see in surf magazines. 20 knots Northerlies blowing offshore, a good size Southern swell, a white sand beach with turquoise water, two guys out. Without them I probably would have never gone, I would have been too worried about something that must be wrong with this place. As it turns out there was absolutely nothing wrong. This day gave me a breakthrough experience: my first stand-up barrel. I felt calm and playful and carved a clean bottom turn. When I was trying to go backup to the face I realized the lip was actually above me, covering my head and shoulders. I was in the tube, riding on the face of the wave. I made small turns up and down the face and had a clear view of the exit down the line. Then I emerged into sunlight and rode the wave all the way to the beach. To feel water above your head is a rush, another Flowmotion moment. This day produced large amounts of dopamine, but also centered my soul immensely.

In writing this list I realize that I could make it much longer, add Pongo in Vanuatu, South Point at Gracetown, Echo Point in Oregon, Sand Dollar Beach near Big Sur, Shipwrecks in New Zealand’s Northland, Ocean Beach at Denmark in Southwest Australia, … Surfing is a beautiful thing. Every time a ride a wave, no matter how small, I am like a little child with a big smile on my face…

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Categories: Australia Westcoast

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