In Philosophy, Travel on
May 8, 2017

The Bohemian Beach Bum

Sliding a wave removes our brains out of the ordinary and slips us into the extra ordinary of being there now. No more worries about mortgages or strife of being poor or rich. When you enter the domain of an ocean cylinder, that moment, those split seconds belong to the Zen part of just being. Period.”
~Bill Hamilton

It’s 6:30AM. The moon has just set and the sun is rising in the sky above, its golden rays dancing on the dark water lapping at the shore. In a trance I get out of bed and make my way toward the gurgle of the coffee maker. Pulling a mug from the cupboard and taking the coconut creamer out of the fridge, I pour myself a very necessary cup of jo, and pull on my swimsuit and rash guard. Reaching for my phone I dial 596-SURF. “Holding on the small 11 sec SSW. Surf is 3-4′ and fairly clean with light-moderate offshores. Top sets are slow rolling and inconsistent but showing decent form.” With my long board in the back, I head for Ho’okipa my whole body anticipating the adrenaline and one of a kind one with nature feeling shared by bohemian beach bums everywhere.

Duke Kahanamoku, one of the original bohemian beach bums, once condensed the surfer philosophy down to six short words: “Out of water, I am nothing.” In a very meta way, Duke is right. They say the world is 70% covered with water, and human beings are made up of something like a whopping 80% water. Surfing is the sport that drives its participants out of bed at early hours each and every day because we all have water coursing through our veins, and it feels like coming home to be in a large body of water. It’s somehow like an extension of ourselves; and without water we cannot survive.

The modern-day bohemian beach bum has ancient roots. It is connected to the Hawaiian tradition of “he’e nalu”, which translated to English means “wave-sliding”. In the Hawaiian traditions of the past, the sea was anthropomorphic and had human traits, which could reflect emotions. A good day of surfing required the proper waves, and in order to convince the sea to provide these waves, Ancient Hawaiians relied on Kahunas to pray for good surf. Kahunas would engage in ritual chants and dances, with the intention of pleasing the sea to provide the people with surfable waves. Beyond spiritualism, surfing also served as a mediation practice of conflict resolution. Disagreements were resolved on the waves.

All this tradition changed though upon the arrival of the white man, or what the Hawaiian’s would call ‘haole’. With their arrival came all of the complexities and cultural conquests associated with colonialism. The ancient Hawaiian culture in its unadulterated form would soon be sullied by the arrival of Captain Cook in the late Eighteenth Century. Increasing numbers of foreigners visited Hawaii after hearing accounts of Cook’s adventures. Initially these intruders were explorers and traders seeking wealth, yet soon missionaries and settlers came, looking to convert the native Hawaiian’s to Christianity, impose their beliefs and political structure onto their culture and take the land for themselves.

“These people brought no respect for the ancient traditions of the culture they invaded, and soon it would be nearly lost. The introduction of western religion stripped the supernatural elements from surfing. Forced to adapt to a new lifestyle, the natives lost touch with their ancient ways, and surfing soon went into a major decline.”

For close to one hundred years surfing was nearly an extinct pastime. However, the dawning of a new century brought with it a new era of surfing. The ‘Beach Boys of Waikiki brought popularity to the sport once more and the surfing bug would soon spread like influenza.

The surfboard became emblematic of the counterculture movement of the ‘roaring twenties’, and the technological and commercial progress in surfboard design made the sport more accessible to the public. The first ever major surf competition was in 1928. With the invention of the automobile, surfers were able to easily venture along the Californian coast in search of the best waves. “This led to the days of Surf Safaris (or Surfari’s), during which the dedicated surfers of California would spend entire weekends travelling up and down the coast, partying as hard as they surfed.” This was the beginning of the bohemian beach bum era. Beach bums were nomads; they travelled with the seasons and followed the waves. This was a time where seeking emotional highs, and living for human experience more than mere existence were prized.

The media caught onto the craze, and sought to profit from it. Advertising would be the next major boost for surfing. Dale Velzy was the business executive credited for the popularization of surfing. He was the sport’s first sponsor, giving boards to local surfers in exchange for endorsements. Velzy was also the first major surfboard manufacturer to utilize a wide-scale advertising campaign. Velzy made surfing visible to the American public.

But what really popularized and, some would argue, commodified the sport were the surf movies. From Gidget to The Endless Summer. These surf movies ignited an explosion of interest. Who could resist the sport when an adorably sporty and spunky blonde actress says the following line on screen about her first experience: “Surfing is out of this world. You can’t imagine the thrill of shooting the curl. It positively surpasses every living emotion I’ve ever had.”

These films not only attracted athletes and sports industry folks, music, fashion, language and literature were all impacted. The culture caught on and many young people moved to where the surf was best. Without high paying jobs, these nomadic wave-riders became known as beach bums. Camping on the sand, or renting whatever cheap housing they could find, they would surf by day, and waitress and tend bar by night. Surfing became their religion. It was the sense of freedom it provided that attracted young and old to the sport. It is what makes it the bohemian sport of choice.

Ultimately, the difference between the casual surf sport enthusiast and bohemian beach bum is made clear by Cliff Robertson’s character The Big Kahuna from the film Gidget: “Ride the waves, eat, sleep not a care in the world. […] For them it’s a summer romance; for me it’s a full-time passion.” The key take-away from all of this is that if you really want to become bohemian, you should try surfing this summer, and then…forever.


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