As the sun rises over the Santa Cruz Mountains, I sit on my surfboard alone, the first person in the water, thinking about the insights that will surely come from a day committed to silence. No speaking, no phone, 24 hours. When the second surfer paddles out, a local I’ve known since childhood, I greet him, and we promptly launch into a full-scale assault on our friends. Shit-talking is part of a surfer’s milieu; through negativity, we bond. It’s rarely nefarious, we just can’t think of anything better to talk about. Of course, shit-talking has its corrosive effects, such as regret and spinelessness, but in the moment, it can provide an intoxicating sense of superiority.
At the time I wrote this surfing was still permitted, but for the most part, humanity is being forced to stay home. We are part of the largest social experiment ever conducted on our species. This being the case, my housemates and I have been conducting our own experiments including a day of only speaking Spanish, and a day of silence. Our female housemate pitched us on a day of nudity, but I vetoed it, because the weather has been cold and I don’t want them to get the wrong impression.
As the tide gets too high and my insults are exhausted, I recommit to my vow of silence. Driving home, listening to the wind whip through my partially cracked windows, it occurs to me that there are really only two conversations in Santa Cruz lineups. Talking shit is one. The other is meteorology. Paddle out to any spot in town, and you will find a weatherman— some guy (it's almost always a guy) who has taken it upon himself to educate the rest of the lineup about waves and their whereabouts. “This swell's coming from New Zealand, and the angle's too steep to hit this reef, plus it's crossed up with south wind, and this spot likes a lower tide, I checked with Surfline, Stormsurf, and Windy.” These sermons are rarely delivered upon request. A third conversation about death tolls has arisen lately, but this topic is met with as much appreciation as talk of white sharks.
There are benefits to being loquacious in the lineup. Like a homeowner who dominates the conversation at his own barbecue, a loud surfer signals to the rest of the lineup that this is his house, and everyone else is just a guest. On an existential level, blathering on helps convince us that we matter. When I make a statement and it gets a reaction, I feel that I’ve willed the universe a millimeter more in my direction. Practicing silence, on the other hand, forces me to grapple with the conversation in my head… terrifying.
When I arrive home, rather than talking to my housemate for 15 minutes about our plans for the day, I just nod and get to work. We both work in the living room, and I usually regale him with play-by-play recaps of the work that I'm "crushing." With silence as my only option, though, I can see that my reflexive banter is really just a form of procrastination.
Midday, I take a writing break and sit down in my backyard with Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, and Greg Long, my three favorite big wave surfers, who also happen to be the names of my pet ducks. My roommate and I have constructed a small utopia for the creatures, complete with a garden, hay bedding, and horse trough, which we converted into a small pond. The big-wave hellmen lay eggs daily, and sometimes they duck-dive in their pond, which amuses me. Before my day of silence I had never noticed that Greg Long, the brown one, is the most aggressive of the three. When a songbird tries to eat from the hellmen’s food bowl, Greg puts his head down and charges the thief with vengeance.
Healey, the white one, is bathing in the pond, when Greg rushes in, flapping his wings, and mounts him. Greg bites the back of Healey’s neck and forces his head underwater. I’m not sure if I should intervene, but I decide to let nature take its course. Healey, of course, has an impressive breath-hold. When he finally resurfaces, he calmly waddles out of the pond and begins to eat grass.
Shutting up is less about doing something, and more about going somewhere. This somewhere is an observatory with a telescope that allows you to notice details typically obfuscated by the clutter of speech. As I watch Dorian hunt worms on the opposite side of the yard, I wonder what it would be like if surfers everywhere were to take a vow of silence for one whole day. Imagine 50 surfers sitting silently shoulder-to-shoulder at Steamer Lane, the weatherman’s ranting supplanted by the sound of crashing waves, and the only shit-talking to be heard would be between seagulls fighting over a starfish.
I was once eating a burrito on the patio of a restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz, when I noticed a blind man walking confidently down the street, making clicking sounds with his tongue. I had recently learned that some blind people can echolocate. They send out a signal and map their environment by the audible reverberation of their clicks. The blind man who pioneered echolocation became so confident in his ability that he used it to ride a bicycle.
Midway through my day of silence, I thought about that blind man on his bike, and about how losing one thing often enables us to gain another. For me, of course, neither the loss nor the benefit were nearly so profound. Keeping quiet for a day merely heightened, ever so slightly, my powers of observation—as well as my joy in witnessing small miracles. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever been as happy as I was that afternoon, sitting alone in my little duck utopia, watching Shane Dorian catch and eat a worm.
By Kyle Thiermann
Listen to his podcast: https://www.kyle.surf/