Water people: the mindfulness of surfing

From creating feelings of joy and happiness to cultivating awe and wonder, surfing is shaping the lives of water people for the better.

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” — Jacques Cousteau 

 Dawn days 

 It’s a Wednesday morning at dawn in the middle of June. It’s 2 degrees outside and the frosty sea air I’m breathing deep into my lungs feels almost as invigorating as a fresh coffee. My mermaid-esque neighbour Eve and I start walking down to the beach and, as we chat, our exhalations make misty clouds in front of our faces. The wintery weather and small, clean swell has made the often-crowded Ocean Grove beach break ours for the taking and we couldn’t be more stoked. A light offshore wind greets us at the shore as morning light starts to blanket across parts of the sky. At this point of the day, and this time of the year, being in the ocean is actually warmer than being out of it. 

It’s a cruisey paddle out and there’s enough space between sets for us to witness the enchanting, everyday magic of the ascending sun. Morning mist drapes across the coastline in an ethereal state. There’s a soft-pink glow to the sky where the waning crescent moon is shimmering with yin-like, breathtaking beauty. The rising sun acts as a yang-like contrast to the moon, creating its light show from the east. Bright-orange hues melt into the pale-blue sky as warming, yellow light shines across the sea and illuminates Eve’s face. From the rippling flow of the current to the dance of light from the sun, there’s so much movement from Mother Nature present in each moment. And in between it all, there’s an alluring stillness cast from simply soaking in the sensation of being in the sea. 

We have the luxury of time up our sleeves to simply be in each moment. I notice the rise and fall of my belly as I breathe; the snug feeling of my wetsuit on my skin; the crisp coolness of my wet hair; the soothing sense of calm in the air; the feeling of wispy sea spray on my face; the undulating force of the swell. Despite how cold my hands feel as I watch an incoming wave, once I start paddling to catch it, I’m taken away from the sensation in my fingertips and into the embodied experience that is catching, and then riding, a wave. The feeling of moving with a wave as it journeys towards the shore is so enthralling and mesmerising. And dancing between the moving and still elements of surfing is what makes this experience such a connected way of being with yourself and with nature. 

A paddle-boarder starts riding the left-handers, cruising around us with effortless ease. The scenic Bluff Point in the distance begins to radiate with sunlight. A couple is now even braving the water beside us in nothing but bathers. We’re all individual droplets floating in the same sea and this means of gathering in the ocean together fosters such a deep sense of community and connection as water people. We’re enveloped in a dreamlike state while paradoxically feeling awake and alive, feeding off the mystical pull of the rising sun and setting moon as we surf. Rise and shine takes on a whole new meaning. 

Blue mind 

“I could never stay long enough on the shore; the tang of the untainted, fresh and free sea air was like a cool, quieting thought,” the late Helen Keller once said. From creating feelings of deep joy and happiness to cultivating a sense of awe and wonder for the beauty in nature, the evidence linked to being in the ocean cannot be disputed. 

The joy radiating out of anyone you greet post-surf is so infectious that you can’t help but grin yourself. Once a wave breaks, the ions released from the water inject you with a sea of vitamins, one breath at a time. The air literally charges you with good vibes: the negative ions absorbed by your bloodstream elicit a biochemical response that increases serotonin — the “happy hormone” — which helps to reduce stress and enhance your mood. Negative ions also increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which is why surfers often attest to feeling more clarity, alertness, and aliveness post-paddle. 

“Blue exercise”, which Dr. Deborah Cracknell describes in By the Sea as exercising in, on, under, or by the sea, has been commonplace for thousands of years. Surfing is a full-body immersion that awakens your senses, tapping into a state of being commonly known as “flow”. “They [a surfer] can create a real sense of ‘getting away from it all’ into another world, both when coping with the waves and currents and physical immersion in the sea itself,” reveals Deborah. 

If there’s one surfer who can attest to its ability to awaken your senses, it’s Ocean Grove local Lachie Nolan. He felt pulled like the tide to surfing as a teenager and has spent the past 13 years cultivating his relationship with the sea. “At one point, it was like my second girlfriend,” he says through a laugh as we meander along the scenic Bluff Circuit Walk in Victoria’s Barwon Heads. The sun is beginning its dreamy descent behind the sand dunes of Thirteenth Beach as we spot a few surfers at the hollow reef break Suck Rock. 

A smile creeps across Lachie’s face as he reflects on the moment, when he was aged 13, that surfing changed his life. “I was out with my cousin at Bancoora Beach, which is where I learned to surf, and I remember vividly the first wave I caught; I was on an old second-hand surfboard I was using for the first time. The wave had already broken, but I remember standing up, looking down and seeing the water. I remember the feeling of flying across the water. I just felt alive,” he says, with a sparkle in his blue eyes that’s reminiscent of the sea. “It was like walking on water.” 

“When all the elements come together — the wind and the waves and the weather — it’s a really special feeling,” Lachie continues. From being at arm’s length from dolphins at dusk just a few weeks ago in a line-up at Cylinders along Thirteenth Beach to having the Twelve Apostles as a backdrop while surfing at Gibson Steps last year, Lachie is no stranger to the awe that washes over you from a captivating surf. “It’s really magical,” he says, smiling. “I’m taken back to that feeling I had when I first started surfing — that rush. Time just sort of stops and that’s all you’re thinking about,” he says, as he elicits that same childlike sense of wonder for surfing that stole his heart as a grommet. 

“It just feels like a better day when I’ve been surfing,” Lachie continues. “There’s something about the ocean that leaves you feeling brighter. And people have mentioned it to me; they can tell when I’ve been surfing,” he says. “The feeling of surfing, or being in the ocean, it does something to your wellbeing.” There’s no denying that surfing is shaping the lives of water people for the better across our oceans. 


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