Surfin’ TCI

It’s all about the “Stoke.”

By Ben Stubenberg

“For a surfer, it’s never ending. There’s always some wave you want to surf.”
Kelly Slater, Eleven-time World Champion Surfer

The Turks & Caicos Islands seem such an unlikely place for surfing. Grace Bay’s dazzling turquoise lagoon more often than not sparkles in the sun like a flat, glassy tropical lake better suited for blissful swimming and snorkeling. Indeed, the endless tranquil beaches from which to watch one gorgeous sunset after another brings not a single surfboard or surfer into view.

A local TCI athlete enjoys the swells that rise up on occasion.

But every so often a storm gathers strength far out in the North Atlantic. The swirling winds, perhaps 600 miles away, push on the sea creating surface waves that organize into ground swells of turbulent kinetic energy heading in all directions.
Moving swiftly across the open ocean as fast as 40 MPH (64 km/h), these swells arrive in less than a day to the shores of two carbonite sea mounts rising 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) from the ocean floor. Created over eons by layers of coral, sand and limestone, the Caicos Bank and the Turks Bank protrude just above the water and make up the islands and cays that we call home. The mass of liquid energy from the distant storm slams hard into the long protective barrier reef that meanders a mile or so offshore from Providenciales northeast to North Caicos before wrapping around Middle and East Caicos.
As the swell hits the coral, the lower section quickly slows down from the friction of the shallow bottom and pushes upward. Meanwhile, the top part of the swell continues forward unimpeded, outrunning the lower part, creating a breaking wave. The wave rises until the water can no longer support it, and collapses in a roiling torrent on the reef. Some of these swells, however, advance up the reef gradually from an angle rather than head-on all at once, forming what is called a “peel.” When this happens, the waves break progressively to the right or left. And that sets up the kind of waves surfers yearn for.
From the beach, the pounding surf in the distance makes not a sound and only appears as a long white fringe of silent foam—lovely to gaze at while relaxing on
the sandy shore or from an oceanview hotel room. But to the small band of surfers who live here on the tail end of the Bahamas Archipelago, that same twitching, ivory ribbon on the horizon quickens the pulse and puts in motion a venerable ritual—cancel appointments, wax boards, ready the boat. It’s time to surf!
These are grown men and women, most with serious work responsibilities, not teens skipping school. Many are approaching or well into middle age and simply can’t help themselves. There is no time to waste. They have to get it together at the first indication of favorable conditions because they don’t know when surfable waves will come again or how long they will be there.
Good swells are maybe not quite as rare as the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon that appears to outsiders every 100 years for one enchanting day of joy and celebration before suddenly disappearing for another century. But “routine” is hardly the word for the waves that suddenly erupt from the deep in breathtaking glory to those lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time—only to vanish back into a ripple as if they never existed.

The surf stoke

Surf’s up in Middle Caicos; time to grab a board!

Filled with anticipation, the surfers gently place their long or short boards into a boat so as not to scratch them and motor out to where the sets roll in. For a few moments they just watch. The mind concentrates to study where and how the waves are breaking. Then no one wants to hang back any longer. They throw their surfboards in and paddle off to the “sweet spot” where they wait for their wave just beyond the break, as excited as if they were 15 years old all over again.
When the swell steepens rapidly to a sleek, shimmering incline just before cresting, the surfer first in the line-up paddles as fast as he can. The idea is to gather enough speed so that the surfboard accelerates down the wave under its own force using gravity, matching or exceeding the speed of the wave. The surfer quickly leaps to his feet in a crouch, and leans and twists his body to angle the board across the increasingly precipitous liquid slope to keep ahead of the breaking peel. Done right, he’ll be in the zone and feel the mesmerizing exhilaration of the “Surf Stoke.” Get it wrong, and the wave crashes over, knocking him off the board into roiling white water—a wipeout.
Is TCI surfing dangerous? In a word, “Yes.” The coral barrier that creates the surfable waves barreling in from the deep is just a few feet below the surface. Sometimes, if the tide is low, the coral heads actually pop up above the surface. So the surfer must kick out of the wave before it breaks to avoid getting pushed by the white water against the coral.
Also, if the waves are big with maybe a 9-foot face and a surfer wipes out, he may be held down while bouncing on the bottom. Even after making it back to the surface, he sometimes has to gasp for air through thick foam as another wave cascades over. If that’s not enough, there’s the prospect of flying boards kicked up by a crashing wave banging down on his head.
But everyone knows the risk, and everyone has the scars to prove it. But they take the chance anyhow. The lure is that strong.
What is it exactly about surfing that generates this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour that puts the rest of the world on hold — jobs, relationships, safety — to feel this elusive Surf Stoke? Certainly other sports produce highs. But surfing appears to be different because the compulsion creates an especially acute chemical dependence in the brain—at once euphoric and seductive. In other words—totally addictive. And it’s not new.
It is worth stepping back in time to see how this rather unique activity, confined almost exclusively to some small islands in the Pacific less than a century ago, became a universal phenomena known to just about every human on the planet.

Hope LeVin sizes up the waves on a rare day in the TCI.

How it all got started
The concept of standing on a board as a wave pushed you forward likely originated in Tahiti some 2,000 years ago, mostly as a recreational activity. Following the epic Polynesian voyages 800 years ago north across 3,000 miles of empty Pacific ocean to the Hawaiian Islands (which happens to be my birthplace), the art of “wave sliding,” or he’e nalu, took on a very different character.
In its new home, surfing became far more integrated into everyday life as a mass activity, even taking on religious overtones. Kahunas (priests) were often called upon to offer chants to the gods and slap the waters with stands of seaweed to summon the waves. The Ali’i (royalty) implemented strict laws designating favoured surf spots off-limits to commoners (presumably to prevent too many surfers competing for good waves—a serious point of contention that exists to this day). Regardless, everyone surfed, and almost always naked. Over the centuries, the Hawaiians shaped boards with new designs using a variety of quality woods and perfected riding techniques, all of which properly mark Hawaii as the birthplace of surfing and one its great gifts to the world.
In the 1770s, officers of Captain Cook’s first and third voyage to the Pacific recorded the first European sightings of what they called “wave sliding” in Tahiti and Hawaii. The astonished observers noted in particular the supreme pleasure the “Indians” took in being pushed by the sea and the desire to do it over and over. Even after Captain Cook was killed by Hawaiians in a violent confrontation, his First Lieutenant James King took time to write a lengthy description of Hawaiian surfing, including the risks surfers took of being slammed on the rocks.
This all-consuming passion for surfing among Hawaiians is brought out in The History of Surfing, by Matt Warshaw. The author quotes the observations of an
unnamed 19th century Hawaiian scholar, “The wife may go hungry . . . and the children . . . but the head of the house does not care. All day there is nothing but surfing.” This particular claim seems to me to be a bit over the top, but it does reflect surfing’s priority in Hawaiian society and pervasive cultural and psychological grip.
Sadly, surfing went into steep decline in the 19th century, in large part because disease had killed off most of the Hawaiian population as they had little defense against viruses brought from the West. Meanwhile, dour, straight-laced Calvinist missionaries from Boston who first arrived in the 1830s made their own contribution to surfing’s demise by frowning disapprovingly on the frivolousness of it all, the time taken from work, and, above all, the absence of clothes.
But some Hawaiians held on to the sacred and joyful cultural achievement, and in the early 1900s taught a few fascinated Americans and Australians how to do it. Some caught on, but others like author Mark Twain did not: “I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”
Soon enough, the newcomers brought surfing back home with them and showed others. The celebrity fame of Hawaiian surfer and multiple Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku raised the international profile of surfing in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as an exotic and demanding physical activity. But it remained almost exclusively in the realm of a few adventure athletes.

Global lifestyle
Surfing really boomed after the 1959 hit movie “Gidget,” a romantic comedy that introduces a 17 year-old girl (played by Sandra Dee) to the California surf culture of hunky guys, beach parties and, of course, surfing. Gidget (the nickname surf dudes gave to her by combining “girl” and “midget”) is determined to learn how to surf despite exclusive dominance by men. Her endearing success in standing up on a board opened the door to the prospect that anyone could learn to surf and be a part of the culture.
The surf-themed music of the Beach Boys in the early 1960s further boosted the cool factor and mass popularity. The 1966 cult classic movie “Endless Summer,” created and filmed by Bruce Brown, about two surfers traveling the world in search of perfect waves, sealed forever the image of surfing as the ultimate outdoor exotic
adventure fantasy that was actually attainable.
This was also the time when big wave surfing off the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu got started. Back then, before celebrity status emerged, the joke among big wave surfers was that if you took a date to watch you surf, you almost never got a second date with her. That changed with professional surf competitions in the 1970s and top surfers became recognized and, more importantly, paid stars.
From there an entirely new industry evolved celebrating surfing and beach culture that spread around the globe. Today 23 million people surf worldwide, and the stoke generates some $13 billion in global commerce. Of course, surfboards and surf lessons make up a fraction of the commercial value; rather it’s all about lifestyle—looking the part with cool board shorts, catchy tank tops and hip sandals.
Although the global fascination with surfing continues unabated, the obsession by those who do it today would be quite recognisable to ancient Hawaiians. They, like their modern counterparts around the world, including TCI, understood what happens when good waves are breaking. It starts with excitement and trepidation as you first feel the massive mountain of fast-moving water beneath you. Suddenly, there is mental clarity and focus. You lose yourself and enter a new state of consciousness. Nothing matters. It’s just you, a finely honed plank, and a curling wall of aqua-blue ocean.The glide keeps going. Time disappears. Instinct takes over. And you know the pure, primal thrill of being alive.

Surf addiction
That riveting sensation, the “Surf Stoke,” has been the focus of studies that seek to determine what happens to the brain when riding a wave. Essentially, neuroscience research shows that the primitive pleasure experience part of our brain, called the limbic emotional center, runs on the neurotransmitter dopamine.
When we feel pleasure, dopamine is released as a reward. Risk, novelty, desire and effortful creativity in particular stimulate dopamine release, all of which also happen to be prime factors at play in surfing.
The vivid excitement generated by surfing is further enhanced by endorphin opioids released during aerobic activity, similar to “runner’s high.” On top of that, the rush of adrenaline stimulates the brain to mimic the primitive “flight or fight” impulse early humans developed as a critical element in survival when facing danger. All of these combine into a serious dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline cocktail that explodes over the brain, according to Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind. That super-intense feeling in the limbic pleasure section is remembered and, over time, wires the brain in a manner that creates a craving for more. Interestingly, recent research suggests that the brains of the biggest risk takers may be more numb to excitement, i.e. fewer dopamine receptors, and thus take bigger chances to get the same rush.
The desire to do it over and over can become an addiction that, unsurprisingly, has parallels with substance abuse. Drugs produce that same dopamine-release kick in the pleasure zone of the brain. Dr. David Zald, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University Brain Institute, studies the neurochemical mechanisms of addiction and substance abuse and applies them to surfing. Quoted in Blue Mind, Dr. Zald states, “As surfers are first learning, there’s an amazing burst of dopamine simply when they stand on the board—‘I didn’t think I could do that!’ And then surfing is never going to be the same.” It’s all about the next wave you are going to catch.
Surfers apparently benefit from yet another phenomena—this one from the proximity to crashing waves that break molecules and liberate “negative ions.” The negative ions are made up of microns of sodium and chloride (salt) along with magnesium. After inhalation, these negative ions attach to the tissue inside the body and improve oxygenation that in turn enhances mood, concentration, blood flow and quality of sleep. Some researchers now believe that it’s these negative ions that actually keep the “Surf Stoke” going after the adrenaline rush has worn off. If surfers aren’t surfing, they are thinking about surfing.
The health benefits of surfing extend to exposure to the sun, which helps to create large quantities of vitamin D and has been shown to regulate blood pressure and ward off diabetes. According to Dr. Sam Slattery, founder/CEO of the Grace Bay Medical Clinic, “We need 2,000–4,000 units of vitamin D every day, most of which can best be absorbed through bare shoulders. Here in the TCI tropical beach environment, we can easily get plenty of vitamin D if we spend a half hour in the sun with no sunblocks.”

Dark side
We’ve already seen how since ancient times right up to today, surfers will stop whatever “productive” activities they are engaged in to ride waves. While this compulsion can lead a few hard-core surfers to seek to replicate the same highs through destructive drug use, it is the exception, as it is with other high intensity sports. The natural dopamine release from catching a wave provides so many benefits to overall mental and physical health.
Far more disturbing, in my opinion, is the sense of territoriality by many surfers worldwide who jealously protect their surf “turf” from outsiders. This so-called “localism” can manifest itself in various forms of intimidation and threats to, in some cases, violence. It got so bad in Luanda Bay (near the upscale town of Palos Verdes south of Los Angeles) that the sheriff planned a sting operation with undercover surfer cops to arrest the surfer gang members who had threatened and assaulted “outsider” surfers who dared to catch “their” waves.
The irony is not lost—how happy, dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline pumped-up surfers became bullies to keep waves all to themselves. Is it possible that some surfers deny wave access to others to maximize their surf rides and the high derived from that? Or is it, as Tetsuhiko Endo, surf editor for the on-line surf and mountaineering journal The Inertia, put it, “[T]his culture of fun has spawned an underclass of miscreants trapped in a terminal adolescence—individuals with such a deluded grasp on reality that they have fashioned themselves the guardians and secret police of a tidal Neverland.” As surfers proud of our sport, we cannot ignore this unfortunate reality. Luckily, TCI surfers have seen little of this.

Surfing for therapy
While the cool factor is forever locked into surfing’s DNA, the prospect is emerging that the very addictive but positive effects of surfing—dopamine, endorphins, adrenaline—can be applied to treat a variety of conditions and illnesses. Wallace in Blue Mind points out how some surfers like Van Curaza, founder of Operation Surf in Santa Cruz, California, are introducing surfing to so-called “at-risk” youth, people with terminal illnesses and physical limitations, and veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The results are impressive, as the new surfers get noticeably calmer, quieter and happier.
Equally compelling is the emerging evidence that suggests watersports such as swimming and surfing can have a transformative effect on autistic children. Don Ryan, a surfer in Deerfield Beach, Florida, started in 2007 “Surfers for Autism”, to bring together surfers and volunteers to work with autistic kids and their families. The kids typically exhibit classic autism traits like inability to focus, limited communication and social skills, anxiety around others, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and repetitive movement. At first they approach the water with apprehension. But once put on a surfboard (or paddleboard) and allowed to ride a small wave to shore, something amazing happens. They grin widely and start to relate to people around them to the point where, according to volunteer Dave Rossman, “You can’t tell a kid with autism from any other child.”
Similar reports of what happens when autistic kids surf have come out of Hawaii and Australia. Neurobiologist Peter Vanderklish explains in Blue Mind that the beauty of surfing “turns the focus of these kids inside out. They’re pulled out of themselves by having to live in the moment, and all their anxieties are pushed aside.”
The French have taken “surf treatment” to a new level by recognizing surfing as medically approved therapy. The Atlantic seaside town of Biarritz, which also happens to be the epicenter of surfing in Europe, started a pilot program where doctors can prescribe 12 weeks of surf lessons (as well as lessons in other selected sports) to treat a variety of ailments. These include heart disease, diabetes, chronic back pain and depression. After six months, the results were widely praised by medical professionals and patients alike. Some patients even stopped all medication. Almost everyone who started the program completed the full 12 weeks and almost all of them continued to surf.

Will TCI ever become a surf destination? In a word, “No.” Quality waves are way too intermittent and always will be. The breaks can be hard to reach and precarious for those not familiar with the local reefs. But for a few local surfers who know the waters, it will be a diversion to get an opioid fix from time to time when a storm churns up in the North Atlantic and brings in the swells.
In the meantime, much can be done to broaden the exposure to a variety of other watersports in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Already, a few clubs and camps here offer excellent stand-up paddleboard, prone paddling and open water swimming experiences that confer some of the sensations of surfing. People with physical and mental challenges should also be introduced to these relatively safe activities. Then, on the days when small waves roll over the local sandbars, they’ll be ready, with help from island surfers, to get on a board, catch a wave, and feel the rush of the first Surf Stoke.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands and an avid surfer and open water swimmer. He is the co-founder of the sports and adventure excursion company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim in July. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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