I SURF BECAUSE… A collection of surf portraits from Tom Wolff taken on his travels around the world.
Tom Wolff | AUSTRALIA
The leaf-litter was scattered across most of the path that weaved its way among the towering giants far above. I recognised the vast yet intricate detail of their trunks: hemlock, fir, cedar and spruce; they’d all sunk roots into this pocket of forest that straddled the sea. The muted thud of my feet on the naturally padded ground continued until suddenly the darkness of the forest was flooded with light. I ground to a halt and let my toes sink into the thousands of granules of sand below as I gazed towards the horizon. The only sound I could hear was of the kelp as it flopped up onto a rock shelf to my left. After two months of no surf, it was in this magical place where I first returned to my favourite activity in the world: riding waves. With a borrowed wetsuit and surfboard from some generous local Canadians, I plunged into the tepid waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait and surfed until my feet turned to ice.
A few days later and a few hundred kilometres further south, I sat in Deb’s beautiful house in the suburbs of Victoria – the capital of British Colombia. Deb had generously offered to host me after meeting me on another Canadian Island a few weeks earlier. With her daughter off to study at university, I slotted right in and was treated to some motherly care and home-cooked meals after lots of riding in Alaska and the Yukon.
During those two weeks, my “bike” trip down to Patagonia swiftly morphed into a surf trip using cycling as my main form of transport. With some help from Deb’s neighbour Dave I built myself a trailer to carry my new orange surfboard and asked mum to send my wetsuit, booties and neoprene hood to Port Angeles – located on the opposite side of the strait that separates Canada from the mainland United States. My internal monologue shifted from “how many kms today?” and “how many days of food do I need?” to “Where’s the next wave to the south?” shortly followed by “Reckon I can make it for a quick evening surf?”
Over the course of the next few months, as I pedalled and paddled my way down the West Coast of the US, I came to realise that the surfing community is overflowing with stories from people from all walks of life. Like the guy I met in a beach carpark in Westport, Washington who spoke to me of teaching war veterans to surf, who was using the ocean as an escape from the horrors and lasting effects of war; through the time spent in the surf with Jacqui and Matias, who fell in love with surfing in Mexico after growing up in the land-locked nation of Austria; or when Matt and I would sit back over a few Lagunitas IPA’s and discuss what I could only call ‘surf philosophy’ in his Encinitas backyard. I felt compelled to capture the abundance of surf story in some way, and I grappled with how I could best do that for a few months before I finally kicked into gear.
What’s that saying again: never an original thought? Well, I can’t claim to have made up the idea, even though it is quite simple. I think the beauty of the whole idea is in its simplicity. Around a decade ago Billabong came up with a marketing campaign based on interviews with their sponsored surfers’. The question was simple; Why do you surf? As someone who’s been subjected to a barrage of surf advertising for the last fifteen years, it is far and away the best surfing related advertising idea I have ever seen. Surfers like Andy Irons, Dave Rastovich, Taj Burrow and Joel Parkinson discussed their unique answers in three to four-minute videos. Here were my idols, answering one of the hardest questions a surfer can ever answer. Why do we surf? Whoever was sitting behind their desk (or out in the water) when that idea came to them, I give them credit for a simple stroke of genius.
In the nine months since I started this project, my favourite part of the project remains the initial response to my question – it’s surprised me how many people reply with “Man, I’ve never actually thought about that before.” It makes sense because to me surfing is so ingrained in my lifestyle – and ultimately my identity – that I can understand why people have never deeply questioned it before. In people’s responses as to why they surf, they’re indirectly answering profound questions about who they are and how they see the world. And I get to hear all the wonderful answers and that’s what keeps me asking that same question over and over.
I was quite averse to Instagram initially. I’d stopped using Facebook around four or five years ago. I found that while social media could be an incredibly useful tool, my personal experience with it tended to lean towards using the time I could spend doing more productive and engaging activities in my life. In the end, my mum and sisters started an Instagram for my bike journey and began uploading the photos I was sending them via WhatsApp so people I knew were able to follow along. I eventually decided to take over the usage of the Instagram account and could see the benefits of using that type of platform to share my photos and keep in touch with other surfers and people I’d met along the way.
Once I finally got my act together and starting asking strangers and friends one simple question, I couldn’t envision a better platform than Instagram. In my ideal world, all the photos would be on 35mm film but the reality was that I didn’t always have my film cameras with me at the beach (sand is a devilish thing, as any photographer knows). It was much simpler and more convenient to snap a quick shot on my phone. Most photos are taken quickly and without a lot of forethought yet this short undertaking usually gives people time to consider their response. To be honest, I haven’t been overly concerned with the quality of photos uploaded to the platform; it’s the story that counts. By chance or good fortune, some have turned out great. Others are fairly average. The key to the I surf because project is the diverse responses to a simple and infinitely complex question.
The project actually didn’t begin until I’d given the pedalling a rest and threw some roots down in southern Mexico. I found that familiar people and places stimulated my desire to finally transform the idea into action. I slowly chased up many of the surfers I’d come into contact with further north through email, SMS or Instagram for their responses. Many took their time and devoted plenty of thought while others simply responded with the first thing that popped into their head. There’s beauty in well-thought-out answers but I love the spontaneity when I spring the question on people in person and give them a couple of minutes to come back with something. I usually find that the best responses are those which communicate that first thought that comes into the person’s mind. Surfing is such an instinctual practice, so I’m attracted to the idea that answers should follow the same path. These photos are snapshots; an insight into that person’s perspective, inherently linked to where they’re at and how they’re feeling at a particular point in their lives. The response I get from you today could be completely different from tomorrow’s answer.
I’m interested to see where it goes and the evolution of the idea. I’d love to turn it into a book eventually and combine it with some of my personal reflection drawn both from journal entries during my bike journey and other ramblings about surfing and the ocean. For now, I get a lot of joy from the assortment of answers. And I think a lot of other people do too.
You can find more of the ‘I Surf Because Project’ on Instagram over here.
Feature image—Manuel Alejandro
Tom Wolff is a photographer and writer from Lennox Head on the Northern Rivers NSW, Australia. You can find some more of his words and images here.