Even hardcore devotees disagree, though many acknowledge there’s something profoundly spiritual about catching waves—a feeling scientists attribute to the power of being in the water.
A decade ago, working my first journalism job while also pretending I surfed for a living, I rented a cheap loft in a three-story Victorian across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The home is still there as it was. Seahorses are still engraved in the blue window shutters, and the same landlord, Carol Schuldt, can still be found feeding her chickens in the backyard. If she’s not out surfing.
Schuldt—who I also write about in my new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water—is something of San Francisco’s patron surf saint, her home a pelagic shrine where local surfers have long left firewood offerings. At 83, after a lifetime of wave riding, helping beach bums find cheap rent, and sometimes helping them get off drugs, too, Schuldt still rides her rusted beach cruiser to the dunes and bodysurfs these frigid waves without a wetsuit. “It’s where I can still connect to the Universal Mind,” she told me while we hiked the ice-planted dunes a few years ago, “to God, Jaimal—you know.”
Schuldt is one-of-a-kind. But surf culture is full of people who have made their daily plunge a spiritual practice. Though Calvinist missionaries outlawed surfing when they first came to Hawai’i in the 1820s—they viewed it as frivolous and wanton—the last 50 years have seen single-fin riding rabbis, short boarding priests, and bodysurfing Buddhist monks. Surf-related yoga and meditation retreats are common, too, led by the likes of the Pipeline master Gerry Lopez. Bethany Hamilton, the professional who lost an arm to a tiger shark when she was 13, looks to her faith in God to compete on the same level as pros with two arms (which she does mind-bendingly well). The big-wave champ Greg Long sits in lotus to prepare for confronting apartment building-sized walls of ocean.
For Schuldt, and many others like her, surfing doesn’t need a specific religious structure to give it power. Nature is God, she says, the sea holy water, and surfing a meditation—a comparison that would have likely resonated with the poet Philip Larkin, who wrote, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water.” While pop culture and the subculture of surfing have both contributed to the mystical reputation of wave-riding, psychology and neuroscience may play an even bigger role, with researchers finding that water is a key ingredient—if not the key ingredient—in experiences people often call holy.