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A few years back I sat down at a bar in the San Diego airport while waiting for a flight to San Francisco, and the bartender and I got to talking about surfing. He asked me what my home break was, and when I told him Ocean Beach San Francisco, one of the most punishing surf breaks in the world, his eyes widened. “Whoa, you surf OB?” he said. “You’re gnarly. Every picture I’ve ever seen of that place, it’s, like, at least 12-foot and heavy.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. The thing is, I’ve been a surfer for over 25 years, ridden waves on four continents and have been barreled over tropical reefs and frigid sandbars alike, but I’ve never ridden a proper 12-foot wave, or roughly what a surfer would call “double overhead.” Oh, I’ve been steamrolled by a few during rapidly increasing swells in Northern California and Hawaii, but I’ve never intentionally paddled out in solid surf with the aim of scratching into a 12-footer. A hair over 8 feet or so is pretty much my limit, and I don’t even remotely care what anybody thinks about that.

Or so I thought.

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Speaking with the bartender made me think about the concept of the hardcore participant in outdoor culture. How your willingness to charge heavy waves, or bomb big mountain lines, or ascend the highest peaks, or thru-hike the longest trails seemingly sit at the heart of the hardcore question. Can you still be a “core” surfer if you opt out of big-wave sessions? Is there a “You Must Have Ridden Waves This Tall” sign you need to measure up to in order to earn core credit?

On one hand, I can certainly understand why somebody would suggest that riding well-overhead waves should be in the hardcore-surfer criteria. Drawing beautiful, swooping lines on a wave that’s head high is impressive, but if you can draw those same lines on a wave that’s double overhead, you’ve sprinkled fear into the equation, overcome it and ascended to a much higher plane of surfing existence. And on an even higher plane, the madmen who ride maxing Mavericks and Jaws have overcome the most terrifying challenge surfing can possibly offer, so it’s no surprise that these surfers are often considered the core-est of the core.

Must you have hucked alpine jumps to be a hardcore rider? Photo: Nathanaël Desmeules

On the other hand, should core-ness actually hinge upon overcoming a fear barrier or tackling a particular-sized wave? Think about it long enough and the answer is probably “no.”

If you tried to establish a minimum-size wave you had to surf before you could officially be considered hardcore, that line would be both arbitrary and totally relative. Who decides which wave is big enough to sufficiently bestow core-ness? If I were to overcome my sketchiness limit and paddle out on a bombing 12-15 foot day at Ocean Beach, I’d feel like the bravest surfer who ever lived. As core as humanly possible. Meanwhile, that same day there might be a whole crew taking on 25-foot Mavericks who would consider double-overhead beachbreak surf to be “fun-sized.” Then If you jump across the pond to 40-foot Nazaré or Jaws, the scale can slide even farther, and eventually the only core surfers left are the madmen who don’t even bother getting in the water unless they’re chasing down the mythical 100-foot wave.

Miki Dora, the rebel king of surfing, once called himself a “4-foot-and-under man,” and I have no idea whether he was referring to comfort or ability, but either way, the guy clearly didn’t consider riding larger waves a requirement to be a dedicated surfer (though he did enjoy brief successes on the North Shore). Yet Dora, Mr. 4 Foot and Under, just might be the core-est surfer who ever rode a wave. He earned that title by turning his back on society and foregoing a conventional lifestyle to live a life devoted to surf, by any means necessary. If there actually was a sign somewhere that read “You Must Have Ridden Waves This Tall” to determine whether or not you were core, Dora would have probably sharpened the fin on his small-wave Malibu log and used it to chop that sign down.\

This essay originally appeared at Surfer Magazine.

Photo: Brent Storm/Unsplash

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