I was around 10 when I spied my non-smoking mother have a drag of a cigarette at a party.
I was livid. I stood in a dark corner giving her greasies until a party pie passed under my nose and all was forgotten. At the time, I took her drug use extremely seriously – Happy Harold the friendly giraffe had stopped by my school recently to educate us kids on the dangers of such behaviour.
Five years on, and I see Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction – that now infamous cover shot of Mia Wallace seductively lying on a bed holding a cigarette, sporting a killer bob, a book and a gun strewn on the ruffled sheets. Is that not the epitome of cool? At 14, with a bit of determination and peer mentoring, I managed to choke through a ciggie of my own. These days I’m fairly nicotine free, except on the odd night out in Bali where clove ciggies at 20,000 rupiah a pop entice even the most well behaved surfers.
The cigarette has had a long-standing history in pop culture. Many of our most beloved artists, musicians, writers and actors have been well rehearsed in the dance of smoking. What I find interesting is their enduring place in society and culture even as the dire health effects become apparent. We just don’t seem to be able to give them the boot. Their enormous appeal, it is thought, is linked to ideas of beauty. Not only can smoking seem beautiful, but also badass – until the emphysema sets in, that is.
Smoking is absolutely at odds with surfing. This is an environment wherein a strong and robust lung capacity is always a benefit, if not essential. Yet in the surfing world we’ve had a few ambassadors of the ol’ darts, and continue to find new ones. Sure, the sport has cleaned up in the last decade or two, at least for those on tour. But freesurfing is as grungy as ever.
The rise of the freesurfer has created a whole new category of professionals who find themselves in hazy territory – somewhere between athlete and cultural icon. We’ve heard a lot of hoo-ha about this topic in recent times, ever since Noah Dean made that grave (or great) error at the Surfer Poll awards last year. Are you, as a freesurfer, subject to the same expectations that are demanded of mainstream sportspeople to set a good example for the kiddies?
A couple of years ago I remember picking up a certain publication, which featured a cover shot of one young freesurfer of the moment – not surfing. It was Creed McTaggart, on the cusp of notoriety, looking rather James Dean-esque in his leather jacket, silhouetted in plumes of tobacco smoke. Us sheilas often get up in arms about the lack of surfing showcased in the marketing of women’s surfing. Similarly, this shot was all about projecting a certain look, one of beauty and cool rebellion.
And so the ciggie becomes the symbol of the freesurfing rebel, but is it really so clear-cut? Even if the underlying reasons behind having a fag in the first place are embedded in long standing ideas of beauty and sophistication, perhaps that’s not why people continue to smoke. Perhaps it’s got to do with a less pretentious occasional drag for no reason other than they feel like it.
Whatever the motive, there’s a degree of rigidity to tour surfing that freesurfing shuns, celebrating freedom of expression. It has given rise to some of the most iconic surfers of our time. Often we feel we know them better than we know the top dogs on tour. We find more common ground, perhaps in their follies as well as in their successes. After all, surf culture has never been squeaky clean, in fact, far from it. And that element of recklessness – the impulse to go against the tide – has always been part of its charm.
Whatever we humans choose to do, recent re- search suggests that our fellow sea-creatures aren’t smoking fans, with ciggie butts being a serious health hazard in the ocean. So hopefully our subversive smoking surfers are at least chucking their butts in the bin.