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Great Expectations

“Surfing happens best when it’s in the present; the past is behind and the future not yet. The only thing of interest is what’s here and now.” – Gerry Lopez, from Surf Is Where You Find It

Think back to your last great session for a moment.  Did you walk down to the beach knowing what you were getting into?  Did you know the waves would be one foot overhead and peeling perfectly?  Or did you go expecting mediocre waves, only to be greeted with something a bit more?

I have come to realize that the best surf sessions happen when I am expecting nothing.  Those days where all I want are a few waves, a couple turns.  When I paddle out well past the time the wind has supposed to switch, and the tide is all wrong.  No obsessive checking of the surf cameras, wind reports, or swell heights.  I just grab my board and go.

When you surf, what do you expect?

I have found that the rise of (mostly) accurate swell forecasting has given life to heightened expectations of our sessions.  We can pinpoint when we want to paddle out, what the swell height is going to be, and that the direction is going to be perfect for that spot just down the coast.  But so can hundreds of our closest friends.  It seems that every hyped swell here in Southern California over the past two years has resulted in frantic crowds, people who have taken the day off of work to catch the peak, and those who don’t surf until Surfline or Swell Info says the conditions will be good.

These heightened expectations can sometimes lead to frustration and anger.  The waves were supposed to be a certain way, but they weren’t.  Surfline called for head high, but it was only chest high and backed off.

There was a day this past September back home in New York where I caught the best waves of my life.  It was the most stoked I have ever been, and the waves from that day are etched into my mind with razor precision.  I’ll never forget it, and I still turn into a giddy six year old when I describe it to others.  It was the last day of swell from Hurricane Danielle, but what made it special was that, aside from the perfection of the waves, nobody had predicted it.  Apparently the way the storm stalled and changed direction out in the Atlantic sent another burst of swell our way that none of the computerized models had anticipated.  Danielle shook her booty on the way out, and sent us a surprise.

Surfline was reporting that it was 2 to 3 feet.  Most people slept in.  Thankfully I got a call from my friend telling me to get my ass down to the beach and bring my shortboard.  When I pulled into the dusty dirt lot everyone was running around frantically.  The waves were overhead and peeling perfectly, and the flag over the trailer park was hanging limp.  Nobody had expected it at all, and the lineup was nearly empty with only a handful out.  Everyone was like a kid on Christmas morning, and multiple calls of “all time Montauk” were being thrown around.

For four hours I traded waves down the beach at a cove with six or seven people, everyone cheering each other on as the 150 yard lefts marched in.  It was amazing to hear the hoots of pure joy from grown men as they kicked out down the beach.  I’ve never seen a lineup so charged up with such unadulterated stoke.  Genuine smiles, and genuine joy for their friends catching magnificent set waves.

I wonder what that day would have been like if it had been predicted by the swell forecasts.  The masses would have arrived early, game faces on, ready to charge. The lineup would have been packed before the sun rose, everyone jockeying for position and prepared to run over anyone who got in the way.  It’s a different mentality, full of expectations and entitlement.  Check out the mentality of your lineup during the next surprise swell, and you might find the general attitude to be more joyful and less aggro.

Despite its drawbacks, it’s almost impossible these days to completely ignore swell forecasting.  It saves time and gas money, and helps you pick the right board to bring to the beach.  But I sometimes long for a surprise; when I’m walking to the beach, board under arm, with no notion of what is going to greet me when my feet hit the sand.  There was one summer several years ago that I spent in Virginia Beach where I had no access to the internet.  I lived a block away from 56th street, and every morning I would walk down to check the surf.  Every morning was a surprise.  There were no expectations of how it was supposed to look; every good day was a blessing, every great day was heaven.

I challenge you to let a little more surprise into your surfing life.  It’s those surprise swells that let you forget expectations and put you in touch with the reasons you surf in the first place. Delete your bookmark to Swell Info, and try not to look at the forecasts.  Go down to the beach and check the waves in person.  Make it a ritual.  Let your inner grom come out and experience the stoke that you used to feel when you first started surfing, where everything was fresh and you didn’t expect perfection – all you wanted were waves.

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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