During a morning surf, a young surfer-girl caught a big set wave. She scrambled to paddle as it reared up and hollowed. She made a late critical drop and disappeared from sight as the wave raced past. Everyone in the lineup looked to the back of the wave to see if she made it. The white sand ribbon of the Nicaraguan beach and dusty green mountain peaks framed the wave as it tore toward the shore. Moments later, a little figure emerged, arms overhead, and a joyful “Yeeeeeewwwwwwww!” was carried on the offshore wind.
Everyone in the lineup laughed and gave a yell.
In surfing, this celebration is called a “claim.” It might be an obvious physical display after a surfer gets a really good wave — usually one that breaks fast and hollow and barrels — and makes it through. It may be as subtle as a blissful glance to the sky, or as grand as a Hail Mary, arms raised to the heavens. Claims can venture into the obscene. There are a lot of opinions about claiming.
Whether a claim is acceptable or shameful seems to lie not in its style but in what motivates it in the first place. Is it an attention-grabbing look-at-me gesture? Or is it a celebration of a wild human experience that can only be described as magical? We humans are sensitive creatures. We feel the distinction.
There is a culture of stoicism in the surf world and, with it, a tendency toward quieter forms of appreciation. It’s a culture that says yes to being excited and alive but also to — you know — keep it cool. Experiences should be felt and acknowledged gratefully, but one should not be too loud about it. A surfer might come back from the best session of his life, and when somebody asks about it, say something like, “Yeah, mate, it was all right.”
Don’t be fooled, though. Surfers are also, like fishermen, liars, exaggerators, and storytellers. The coolest thing you can do is get a huge barrel and ride out as if nothing happened at all. That’s called “the no-claim claim,” where the lack of response is the biggest claim of all. Maybe even pretentious. Claiming is complicated.
When a dramatic, taunting claim is made in a surfing competition, that’s another story. These claims feel boastful and indulgent and are what give claiming its sullied reputation. “There’s a dirty side of claiming, for sure,” says Brandon Silva, a lifelong surfer and traveler, “when you’re using the claim to get more points or get a response.” Claims made in competitions are a celebration of the surfer and not the experience.
You might say a claim made in a competition is like when a football player scores a touchdown, spikes the ball, and then does the worm across the entire end zone. The NFL has termed this “excessive celebration.” It’s show business. In the surf world, this breaks the code.
We recoil. But maybe not entirely. Are we really above this sort of indulgence? Who doesn’t love some excessive celebration?
Then there is the claim made not for the individual but for the experience — what we might call the natural and pure claim. It’s a celebration of something bigger than us. It is nearly unconscious. It is an act of gratitude, an expression of uncontainable joy. It’s the same thing you do when you summit a mountain. It’s something everyone can comfortably love.
“There are no words to describe it — it’s something that needs expressing,” says Silva of the feeling one gets emerging from a big barrel. It’s a feeling he is quite familiar with. You’ve just ridden through the hollowed interior of a breaking wave. The potential for injury is great. A wave could even kill you. The energy and buzz and madness of that have built up inside you. It all has to go somewhere. As you emerge, it just bursts forth, like a child’s tantrum, but a happy one. Uncontainable. Un-self-conscious. Free.
“We spend all our lives chasing these waves,” says Albee Layer, a professional surfer. “All of our energy and resources trying to have this amazing experience. And when we finally get what we’re after, we’re supposed to be too cool to enjoy it?”