The Secret of the Sea

© Tony Butt 2016 - Please be decent enough to contact me before plagiarizing my stuff 

‘Wouldst thou’ – so the helmsman answered,

‘Learn the secret of the sea?

Only those who brave its dangers

Comprehend its mystery’

I first saw those words over 20 years ago. They were at the front of a PhD thesis belonging to Professor Paul Russell from the University of Plymouth. The quotation is from Longfellow’s poem, The Secret of the Sea, and it suggests that if you really want to understand the ocean you have to get out there and immerse yourself in it, not just go to university and read books.  Paul is one of the world’s leading experts on coastal oceanography, specializing in the mechanisms by which beaches erode during large storms. He is also more than just a ‘keen surfer’; he is one of the UK’s most successful competitive surfers of all time, becoming European champion three times and winning a multitude of other titles during the 1980s. A lifetime of surfing has given him an understanding of the ocean beyond which any amount of study alone would have achieved.

A few years later I was researching for my own PhD, under the guidance of Professor Russell. At the same time, I was on a parallel learning curve, building up my big-wave experience by trial and error at places like Guéthary and Meñakoz in the Basque Country.  I would sneak off down there whenever I could, sometimes carrying a pile of books with me. I didn’t really think about that Longfellow quote or any possibility that surfing would help me with my studies; I was just happy to get in the water. 

However, one day when I was sitting in the line-up at Meñakoz, an idea struck me that was to eventually become the cornerstone for my PhD research. The idea was something to do with infragravity waves – those ultra-long-period waves that invade the coast during large swells, like many of us saw much more recently during the winter of 2013-14. I almost certainly wouldn’t have had that idea if I hadn’t been surfing big waves or surrounded by them. I went back to Plymouth and developed the idea, which led to several peer-reviewed papers and a successfully-completed PhD.  Paradoxically, sneaking off to go surfing – something which would have normally been considered a distraction from my work – had made me more productive. It was then that I suddenly I remembered reading that quote in Paul Russell’s thesis. If you spend time immersed in the natural environment you will gain a much deeper understanding of the concepts you are studying, and the knowledge you gain will mean so much more to you.

Since then I have stuck to that philosophy, not just feeling unashamed about taking time off from my work or studies to go surfing, but also forcing myself to do so when I feel I’ve been sitting at the computer too long.  I’ve also been telling everybody else to do the same.  Maybe, one day, institutions and companies will openly encourage, or even oblige, oceanographers and scientists to get out there and immerse themselves in Nature for at least one day a week, instead of sitting behind a computer screen all day every day, simulating Nature but never experiencing it.

It can work the other way round too. Having some background knowledge can give you a richer experience of surfing, in and out of the water. This was something I had always been vaguely aware of, and was one of the reasons I enrolled at the University of Plymouth in the first place. I thought my surfing would be made more interesting if I found out a bit about where the waves came from and why they were never the same from one day to the next.

It worked. By understanding a little about how swells are generated, what happens to them as they propagate across the ocean and what happens to them as they approach the coast, my overall surfing experience has been enhanced tremendously. For example, the way I experience a big swell is not just confined to those few hours in the water; it starts days earlier when the storm first appears on the charts, and might continue for years afterwards if that swell was a particularly notable one. Just sitting looking at the ocean, even if it is not surfable, I can make all kinds of observations and share them with other people, about things that would never have occurred to me had I not studied a bit of oceanography.

But do most surfers really care?  Hopefully, yes.  Over the last few years, basic oceanography seems to be attracting a bit more interest among the general surfing public. A few years ago it was much cooler to say that you belonged to the ‘University of Life’ and that all that geeky science stuff was no use to anybody; but nowadays that seems to be changing. At least now people are a bit less afraid to ask questions.  Thanks to the internet and surf-forecasting websites, we all wonder why those forecasts are not always spot-on, and inevitably start talking about it to our friends. As a result, many people previously uninterested in simple concepts like wave period are now becoming aware of things like refraction and dispersion, and are beginning to analyse the workings of their own local spots.

In summary, a little theory behind what you are practicing enhances your experience; and a little practice adds meaning to all that theory.  It’s a viscous circle – a feedback loop – just like the cat chasing its tail, a snowball rolling down a hill or the very physical processes that generate waves on the ocean. Now that the science behind waves is much more accessible to all of us and we seem to be getting over our paranoia of being labelled as geeks, there is no reason we shouldn’t enrich our surfing experience with a bit of background reading. Likewise, now that surfing is becoming accepted by the general public, perhaps all government scientists should be taken out in 15-foot surf once a month just to remind them about Nature.