Illusions: Surfing Was Better 40 Years Ago*


Of all today’s great surfing Illusions, this may be the most complete, and the most entirely human. It relies on a classic fallacy — mistaking one’s internal perceptions for an external reality. It also relies on the great unreliable narrator: human memory.

Because I am of an age, I hear a lot of stuff about the Good Old Days. Maybe you do too. There is a constant refrain of it across social media, surf comments sections, and the carpark grapevine that still seems to out-do both the former. You know how it goes. “It was soooo much better.” “I feel sorry for the kids who will never know what we had.” “That’s why I don’t surf any more, too many entitled fuckin’ kooks.”

On another level, it involves the grown-up surf magazine scene, full of glorious and by now quite rare images of days gone by, ironically being sold to many of the people being so cruelly written-off in the carparks of the world as “entitled fuckin’ kooks.”

I am not writing here about the great older surfers whose stories and wealth of experience we should all cherish and hope to learn from. I am writing about a mindset trapped in a past that may not in fact have ever existed.

For instance: 40 years ago, in 1978, surfing was in a real hole. In Australia, inflation was running at over 10%, in tandem with unemployment. Youth unemployment was running well ahead of that. A housing loan would have cost you an annual rate of 13%, if you coulda got one. Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s grip on the Queensland police force was beginning to tighten, to the serious detriment of anyone in that State under the age of 30. Surfboard manufacturers were going to the wall all over the country as that unemployment statistic bit deep into their reservoir of customers.

Not only that, the surf was shit. A major phase of cyclonic surf action through the early 1970s had passed, and long periods of little surf commenced. In 1978, even Hawaii sucked.

The thing is, if you were a teenager in 1978, you won’t remember all that. You’ll remember the things you liked: the goofy trips up the coast, the Midnight Oil concerts, the first trip to Bali, sex, bad drugs, your mates. All the rest of it will be locked away in a place your memory never bothers to visit. It just goes back to the good stuff, embroidering it and adding little details every time.

This is part of the process by which ageing people grow slowly more conservative. They don’t mean to. It just happens. They begin to see their own pasts as more important than the present, even though there is absolutely no way of comparing the two.

Surfing wasn’t better 40 years ago. It was just better for YOU. When you were 18 years old and a God. Maybe. If you’re remembering it right.

*(Or 20 years ago. Or 10. Whenever you were who you wish you were now.)

Nick Carroll