A Very Good Reason To Get 365 Barrels In 2017
COASTALWATCH | FEATURE BY JAKE DEAN
A barrel a day keeps the doctor away Seriously, it’s science
The idea came to me, naturally, upon exiting the tube.
It was the first week of 2015 and on my last wave of a typically onshore South Australian summer day, I was gifted a quick cover-up to add an exclamation mark to an otherwise crummy surf.
Well, there’s pit #1 for 2015, I thought as I bus-drove to the beach. It was a light-bulb moment – how many pits could I tally in a year?
Out of pure laziness I didn’t start the count until 2016 (documented on my blog). The rules are hazy. I’d originally planned to count only made tubes, but quickly realised my target wasn’t feasible for an Adelaide weekend warrior. Closeouts and all manner of cover-ups were quickly added to the tally.
365 pits – a-barrel-a-day on average – was the goal, but the quest became more than a numbers game. I wanted to prove that the more time I spent in the salt, the better my mental and physical health. I’ve watched plenty of folks gradually give up waveriding – for partying, girls, jobs, etc. – and that’s perfectly fine. But I often wonder how they might’ve turned out different had they stuck with the thing that once pervaded their almost every thought.
Indeed, there are already a ton of words written on how surfing may affect the brain. Surfer magazine’s Brad Melekian grapples with the same questions as I (a lot more eloquently) in his 1987 piece, “The Science of Stoke”. In it he leans heavily on a paper (and interview) from two US scientists, Levin and Taylor, hypothesising that surfers might exhibit fewer symptoms of mental states like anxiety and depression.
Their findings are echoed by University of Southern California’s Carly Rogers, whose 2015 paper describes how war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder reported significantly decreased PTSD symptoms just five weeks after joining a surfing therapy program.
The reasons for these findings don’t seem fully understood due to the logistics of measuring what’s going on in someone’s brain while getting tubed (although Red Bull have been trying). Both Melekian’s story and an Outside magazine piece by Matt Skenazy (on the surfing program’s PTSD success) cite the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who theorises that humans can find an optimal psychological “flow” state when we match our abilities to our challenges. Skenazy notes that these flow states, “flood the brain with neurochemicals like anandamide and serotonin, the same substances found in antidepressants”. See Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk, where he describes this process of your body and sense of time disappearing.
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Both stories also explain how surfers may achieve meditative-like states, with some scientists believing it’s the environment itself, rather than the act of riding a wave, that creates these positive effects on the brain. “… it’s believed that when people are submerged in water their bodies alter the balance of epinephrine and dopamine to the levels achieved during meditation,” writes Skenazy. I’m currently diving through Blue Mind, a 2014 book by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, for more science on how being in water, “can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety and increase professional success”. But part of me thinks I should stop reading. Don’t I already know surfing brings me joy and enhances life in myriad ways? My 2016 tube quest has provided ample anecdotal evidence to back up the research of these much smarter people.
However you label it (flow, meditation, etc.) it’s clear to me that riding a wave can make time stand still and your mind go blank to the world. Without fail this year – whether after a fight with the missus or finding a wad of bills in the letterbox – I could always rely on waves to take me to another place where my troubles ceased to exist. After some surfs, I came in having totally forgotten what I’d been stressing about. Literary icon and surfer Tim Winton described this process perfectly during a recent ABC podcast, “The sea was like a poultice. I’d go to the sea and it’d suck the poison out of me.”
This transformative power became apparent during crises-filled weeks at work. I found the best thing to have in the memory bank to achieve inter-office zen was a solid handful of pits from the weekend before. Conversely, the most stressed I felt all year was when an ear infection kept me land-bound for seven weeks (I see the irony of my theory barrels keep the doctor away). Frustration bubbled just under the surface. I was much quicker to start arguments or swear profusely when someone cut me off in traffic. I was more frantic at work when shit hit the fan.
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My fitness also suffered during this torrid surf hiatus. And herein lies another huge reason surf enriches your life – you can keep your rig intact without feeling like you’re doing real exercise. For someone who likes to stay in OK shape, I basically detest running/crossfit/weights. So the more surfs I piled on (one of the best full-body workouts around), the less I had to resort to these other dreary avenues. My general happiness soared when I was getting pitted often, and I think this was partly due to the knowledge I wouldn’t have to pound the pavement for a while. You don’t have to look for studies on how physical exercise benefits your mental health, and I dare you to find a better feeling than munching a post-surf pastie, where your lungs are filled with fresh air and your muscles ache. My quest coincided with two life changes. The first was cutting back on booze. Having entered my third decade on Earth, I’ve started valuing my weekend hours too much to be curled up in the foetal position regularly. Less booze in 2016 resulted in less wasted hours on the couch and more pits, which – if you’re noticing a theme here – equalled a happier human. Clearly, committing to the early in the hopes of getting tubes is a bonzer way of keeping out of trouble, physically and mentally.
The second life change involved moving 40 minutes away from family, mates and my job, to a surfable coast a minute’s walk from the beach. My love of waves forced the move, and it has resulted in an extra surf per week compared to 2015, when I lived a 10-minute drive inland from a flat metro beach. And wouldn’t you know it – I’ve been much happier this year (bucking the rest of the world’s 2016). Last year I felt trapped being so far, relatively, from the beach, and I’d go most of the week without seeing water. Maybe there’s something in the theory that being around water is good for our brains, as another psychologist quoted in Melekian’s story theorises, “… the vastness of the ocean may have a naturally soothing psychological effect. When [one’s environment] is landmark-free, it’s naturally calming to us, much like closing your eyes is calming.” I now drive past the coast daily on my way to and from work.
By now you’re probably wondering, did I reach my target? Unfortunately, the ear infection put me on the back foot, and after missing most of a bountiful winter I’ve struggled to catch up. With just 11 days to go I’m still languishing at 296 barrels, so unless a 100-year storm stirs a week of pits at Adelaide’s metro beaches I’ll fail my mission. But clearly the chase has provided me with some interesting (if predictable) insights.
If anything, it was a reminder that when you make time for waves – even when you’re swirling in a ton of other shit – it can benefit your life. My very un-scientific recommendations? Everyone’s different, but I reckon if you once frothed on getting pitted but have started letting time between sessions get further and further apart (or given it away completely), that love’s gotta still be there inside somewhere. Dust off your board the next offshore day, head down the coast and get reacquainted with the feels. You can’t argue with science.
Jake Dean is a journalist, bodyboarder and the former editor of Riptide Magazine who left the sunshine, warm water and crowded breaks of Queensland for a quieter life in South Australia.
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