The Roles of Enskilment in Surf Places
How do we learn to surf?
Indeed, many of the technical stepping stones are outlined in Surf Simply’s Tree of Knowledge. But what about the intangible minutiae, the pedagogical aspects involved in acquiring the practical know-how required to ride waves? How do we gain an understanding of how to read the sea, tides, currents, weather patterns and other location-specific environmental conditions and assess the impacts these have on our experience?
Alex Prins, a Lecturer of sport, outdoor and physical education at Federation University, Australia, is someone who has tried to answer these questions. In his latest paper, Prins and his colleague, Brian Wattchow, drew on the concept of enskilment – a worldview proposing that learning is not mere passive assimilation of knowledge, but a progressive, self-regulated development of attentiveness to people and environmental features by ‘looking, listening and feeling’ – to investigatewhat transpires during pedagogic events when young people are learning to surf.
The findings, based on in-situ interviews, were presented in the form of five short stories reflecting upon different elements of a young boy’s learning journey of becoming enskiled in a particular surf place. They are featured here with the author’s permission, along with a Q&A discussing the process of enskilment and its subtle yet pertinent presence in our wave-riding experience.
Zee and Mark sat on the cliff top behind the old black and white house. The storm rumbled closer. Although, the sky in the far distance was as black as a night without stars or a hanging moon, where they sat was bathed in sunshine and the ocean below as calm and as flat as a millpond. Mark and Zee were sitting above Gary’s, a surf break only frequented by experienced local surfers.
‘We have about half an hour of sun left Zee’, said Mark. But the boy was busy throwing rocks off the cliff. Mark took a new tact. ‘Make sure you watch what you’re doing near there man.’
Sure enough, Zee looked up and became aware of two things. He was too close to the edge of the cliff and noticed the colossal black wall in the sky creeping towards him.
‘What’s that Dad?’ asked Zee, but his Dad seemed to gaze intently and knowingly into the distance.
The boy edged carefully away from the edge of the cliff and held his Dad’s hand. ‘Do you feel that Zee? The wind’s turned, here she comes’. Zee concentrated and felt a light cool breeze gently brush his face.
As he stood noticing this light breeze brush his face, he felt the sky darken slightly and the temperature cool. His Dad pointed, ‘Notice anything out on the water mate?’ Zee looked. Straight down the ocean lay still and flat. He looked up at his Dad who stared into the distance. Zee had a second go moving his focus towards the horizon. What had been still and calm before was now beginning to move. He saw sploshes of white and wisps of spray.
‘Do you want to stay to see what happens when the storm hits Zee?’ ‘We might get a bit wet but we can run to the car when it hits’.
Zee nodded quietly but was a little unsure. He could feel the darkness beginning to take over the sky and his loose clothing was beginning to flap. The brush of the sea breeze was becoming pushy. The sea below was reacting angrily, becoming rash and dark. Waves, or wind chop as his Dad called them, crashed in Zee's eyes. It was starting to become rough. Then it began as a faint, faint rumble ending in a gigantic clap and bright flash. ‘Wow’ exclaimed Mark. ‘See that?!’ ‘Hmmm, Tiki is getting a little worked up, we better start moving to the car’.
Zee was cold and it now hurt to stare out to sea as the wind whipped at his face. It was dark too. His Dad walked quickly, and Zee had to run to keep up. A few drops fell and another gigantic clap and flash. The heavens opened and Zee felt himself being swept up on to his Dad’s back and the gallop to the car began. Fifteen minutes later parked at the back beach warm inside the car Zee and Mark watched the sea respond furiously to the storm.
Can you please start by telling us a bit about your relationship with surfing and how it has informed your research?
Surfing has always fascinated me - I’ve always loved the coast, the beach and catching waves. However, it wasn’t until I started teaching formal outdoor education classes in secondary schools that surfing started to interest me professionally. When I started working with multiple classes of teenagers, it really began to dawn on me just how rich and complex the activity of surfing is. My aim as a teacher was to provide students with the best possible opportunity to learn how to surf, not just to pop up, but to understand their local surf breaks in-depth. The romantic in me hoped that by helping students to learn how to know their local coastline intimately through surfing, they’d be able to enjoy meaningful lifelong coastal experiences long after leaving school. Consequently, my research has focused much more on learning the specific local surf break places and conditions than technique.
In the introduction to the paper, you mention how other researchers have identified a series of factors that influence the process of learning to surf – from family and observing other surfers to sensory-derived experience. Did any of the factors stand out as the most important or fundamental? If yes, why was that so?
When listening to the stories of proficient and novice surfers, one response stood out above all others when discussing how they learned or were learning to surf – ‘by going surfing’. In educators speak we’d call this direct firsthand embodied experience. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most surfers or outdoor educators. However, it is an important message for those new to surfing – you just have to get in the water and surf as much as you can. This finding was also beneficial for outdoor educators in the sense that it provided empirical research justifying the critical need for fieldwork and direct firsthand embodied learning experiences on the coast as part of formal education.
Similarly, in your opinion, what were some of the most interesting observations and/or findings of the research?
Just how social learning to surf was for the crew who contributed to the study! On the surface, when chatting to people about how they learned to surf, I would constantly hear about how people self-taught through trial and error – it was as if surfing was the loneliest activity in the world to learn. However, once the crew were asked to share stories, and describe specific events or experiences in detail, it was amazing how often other surfers appeared in their learning journey – family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers. Most of this help was subtle or disguised – as if the grom had to earn it.
I heard another good example of this recently: A surfer was telling me a story about when he was learning to surf, he used to have to walk or ride 15km to get to his closest break. An older neighbour who he knew surfed regularly, used to drive straight past him every time, twice – once on the down and then again on the way back to town, without even a toot or a wave! Six months of this went by before the neighbour eventually stopped and told him to jump in. Interestingly, the neighbour didn’t just drop him at his usual break – they continued driving, a couple kilometres further down the coast to a much better and more consistent break. His story continues, explaining that this same neighbour introduced him to several new breaks along the coastline which improved his knowledge of the local coastline and his surfing.
Zee lay across the floor staring at his very boring little bro. He just lies there, thought Zee. Lies there, cries, eats, poos, and lies there again. The TV flickered in the background and Zee noticed his Dad had stopped tinkering around with the IKEA draws. He always stopped what he was doing at this time of night. Zee looked at his Dad, who stared intently at the screen.
‘I told you babe’, exclaimed Mark.
‘Told me what hun?’ came the reply from the kitchen.
‘That those boffins at the bureau had it wrong!’ ‘They’ve altered the forecast just like I said . . . Here she comes!’ Mark laughed and hooted. Zee could see he was excited.
‘I guess that means you’ll be having the morning off then?’ came his mothers voice again.
‘I sure will be babe’.
‘Righto, come on get the barbie going, everything else is ready to go’. Zee stared at the screen and wondered what the hell all the pointy triangles and sweeping lines covering the map of Australia meant.
Why did you choose a narrative methodology? And what were the main challenges and benefits of this approach?
In our experience, even the most gifted and aware surfers often struggle to articulate what, exactly, it is they are observing, doing, feeling, hearing, and sensing, while surfing. All these facets work together, and all at once, to create what we see on the beach as someone skilfully navigating a break and then catching and dancing across the face of a wave. So, we needed a methodology that would both capture – as much as possible – the complex, rich nature of surfing that is so alluring, but also enable each surfer the greatest opportunity to be able to share and convey their learning experiences. And in our opinion, it did – the stories we collected were terrific and brim full of insightful learning events!
On the flip side, narrative methodology was challenging in the sense that I needed to be very patient and at times, be very mindful that the stories being told may not provide insight into the learning experiences of young surfers. This meant we often heard great stories that provided insight into the culture or some other aspect of surfing, but didn’t align to my pedagogical interest. Another challenge I found difficult at first was the trust we needed to place in the surfers themselves to tell a good story and also the listener or reader of the research to ‘listen’ empathetically and carefully in order to be open to ‘see and hear’ the insight the story is portraying.
How did you go about interviewing youth on themes that are so hard to put one's finger on?
Interviewing young people was the most enjoyable part of the study! To be honest I was assisted significantly by our choice of methodology – I just encouraged the young people to tell me a few yarns about what they were doing and what they thought or felt they were learning. As mentioned above, even the most gifted and aware surfers often struggle to articulate what it is they are doing and how they are doing it, let alone describing the learning process. So, I knew from the get-go that asking young groms specific questions about how they were learning specific break-place knowledge was unlikely to provide much insight into their experience. On the other hand, I have often found young people to be great storytellers and very willing to share their experiences, if you are generally interested in what they have to say. The stories they told were jam packed with what they were doing, who they were with – what these people did or didn’t do – and also what they were noticing (or learning) during the experiences and events they were describing in their stories.
In the conclusion, you write that the main themes identified were ‘embodied experience’, ‘others’, and ‘time’. Can you please flesh out the process of translating them into the narratives?
This was a super interesting process and ended up being much more of a ‘toing and froing’ exercise. Listening carefully to the stories we noted the common learning experiences of all our surf storytellers – young and old. Three appeared to be most critical to the enskilment process:
Embodied experience: direct surf experience – being in and with surf breaks amongst a variety of environmental conditions. However, it was also much more than this. It also included those other aspects of surfing; searching for waves, gazing – observing surf breaks from the look out, beach or car park –, chatting about surf conditions and using different surf hardware – all within a very localised context. In other words, embodied experience referred to the need to be a local surfer in the broadest sense.
Others: referred to other surfers (family, friends and strangers) and the role they played in key moments of learning environmental and specific break knowledge and skill. This could be explicit such as pushing young beginners onto waves or much more subtle like a facial expression, comment or over emphasising a particular movement.
Time: ‘time in water’ refers to the length of time it takes to learn about both general coastal conditions and also specific surf break-place knowledge. Most of the experienced surfers I spoke to made it very clear that coming to know specific surf breaks and coastlines intimately took decades. Indeed, they also made it clear that their learning journey continues.
Once the themes had appeared through the stories, rather than translate them into a narrative I literally went back through the stories and found the best experiences of each theme and wrote them into the story. The characters and surf experiences found within the narrative were a composite of all the surfers I interviewed. In other words, the narrative, the learning experiences and the overall enskilment journeys within the story are very real, albeit, happening to our fictional family, rather than identifying our participants.
Zee woke up and stumbled out into the lounge. His Mum was already in her walking gear.
‘Moring Zee, how’d you sleep? You want a slice of toast now or when we come back?’ Zee just nodded and pulled his shirt over his head. He noticed his Mum was staring at him.
‘Should I put some toast on or put bub in the pram?’
‘Let’s go check out the beach’, replied Zee.
His Mum jogged beside him with the pram as he rode his bicycle, just like every other morning. As he turned the corner into beach road though, he noticed something different. Zee could hear a low rumble. His skin prickled and he felt something that he couldn’t quiet put his finger on. He instinctively sped up. His Mum shouted after him, ‘Stay off the road! Every man and his dog are going to be out!’
Zee’s curiosity peaked further and he sped up again. The rumble grew the closer he got. As he skidded into their usual position on the hill looking out over The Gums he noticed all the cars. And all the long boards on the roof. And people sitting on the beach. The rumble and crashing noise was incredible. Zee looked out to see huge walls of water charging into the bay. He saw two surfers pop over the back of the first wave paddling their hearts out. He looked again, focused. One of them was his Dad! Mark’s long blonde hair gave him away even from a distance. Zee noticed a few more surfers begin to paddle out. All had short boards like his dad. He repositioned his gaze to the back of the break. He could see his Dad paddling towards him and a massive, massive wall of dark blue water charging at him. Zee felt sick, was his Dad going to die? He felt his Mum’s hand press his shoulder but he never
took his eyes off the water. All of a sudden the wave seemed to step up even higher as if it was about to fall over. And then it did. He saw his Dad leap to his feet just as it did so and fall what seemed like forever down the wave. At the bottom of this liquid wall Zee watched as his Dad made a huge smooth bottom turn. Back up the dark blue wall he went and when he got to the top, Zee saw that with an almighty whack and spray of water, his Dad headed back down the wave again. He watched intently as his Dad danced on the wave. Thirty seconds later Mark flipped off the back and began the paddle back out. Zee noticed that he paddled on the outside of the waves and he seemed to go under them as he closed in on his original starting position out the back. Zee’s concentration was broken by his Mum: ‘The only thing you can’t see kiddo is the huge grin on your Dad’s face right now. Wow wee, that was a good one wasn’t it?’
What Zee didn’t realise, is that he had just witnessed the biggest swell in ten years. What he did know, was that he loved it.
Discussing the relationship between sound and surfing in an interview with Professor Jon Anderson of Cardiff University, I mentioned how my strongest surf memory wasn’t any surf trip or session or barrel – but hearing the roar of the sea from my childhood bedroom during/after a big storm had hit the coast. This made me think of the snippets in the paper, particularly the section when Zee was walking with his mum and brother to the beach: "His skin prickled and he felt something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on." I was wondering if you have something to say about the role of memory in enskilment?
It’s super interesting work Professor Anderson is doing. I’m relatively new to his work but have been really interested in the role sound may play in the learning experience of young surfers. To be honest I don’t think I can comment on the role of memory in enskilment; I’ll leave that to a psychologist or anthropologist.
Pedagogically speaking though, it is possible that we learn to become aware of the sea roaring as a storm moves through. In other words, we become attuned to the changing sea state and conditions caused by storms through our experience of being on the coast. Some of these experiences will be learning events that are often very meaningful, especially to young people, because of the explosion to the senses – the roar and crash of the waves and/or the whip of wind and spray across the face. Often this is one of the first things we learn about the sea – the changing conditions during a storm. It is a big, dramatic change which is easy to observe and hard to ignore, especially if you are out on a cliff top or asleep in a quiet coastal town a few streets back from the beach. This learned awareness is re-experienced often throughout our life on the coast and so is constantly reflected upon, revised, and reaffirmed over many years. It is something that we have learned and know well. Perhaps this is why the roar of a sea during a storm is so easy to recall – not just in memory as you mention above, but also in the sense that storm ‘music’ or sound, is a cue that quickly conjures up past coastal lessons or learning.
You write that “a recent study inquiring into the local careers of surfers indicated that family may play a significant part in learning to surf; they concluded that many of their younger participants began surfing with the help of family and other, often older, local surfers.” The story excerpts featured in the paper also depict very well the influence family has in the make-up of a young surfer's knowledge, and I suppose many people would agree that surfing is hereditary. Based on your personal experience and observations, how would you say this dynamic has been changing over the last few years?
All of the surfers I interviewed were introduced to surfing either directly or indirectly through family. While Dads were the most common, the second was the boyfriend of an elder sister. Siblings were a close third, while extended family and close family friends were also mentioned. We should note here that our study was small and very localised to our part of the world [Australia], so this might differ depending on where you are from.
Where I live, family surf experiences have exploded during COVID. We experienced some of the harshest lock down conditions in the world over the last two years. Exercising outdoors – read surfing – was one of the very few things coastal families could do together without breaking the lock down rules. The local boardrider clubs are also becoming much more family friendly as well and often hold events or sessions for kids, families, mums, and so on.
Zee flippered nervously as his Dad swam next to him. He had been boogie boarding on the shore breakers since Christmas, usually with his Dad or cousins. Sometimes he even practiced on his Dad’s surfboard. But now was different. He was going out the back. ‘Remember what we said on the beach Zee’, came his Dad suddenly.
Zee nodded. It came from nowhere, a dark blue wall of water. Zee thought he felt himself get sucked towards it ever so slightly. He was suddenly scared. Before he knew it though his Dad had grabbed the front of the boogie board and yelled, ‘Hold your breath!’
Zee felt himself propel forward at a greater pace as his Dad charged towards the wave. Swooosh!!! Zee felt himself lurch. It was like almost coming to a stop, the paddling version of a sudden stagger due to an invisible force. His head suddenly popped with pain and he felt water ooze over his body, like an encroaching ice shelf. He gave an involuntary shiver but then suddenly, warmth. The cuddle of the sun soothed his head. He shivered and his teeth chattered.
‘Wow’, his Dad said. ‘Where’d that come from? I didn’t realise it was that big’. ‘Hahaha, you right mate? Well Done’. ‘Bit fresh when you go under isn’t it?’
On they paddled, Zee following his swimming Dad. ‘Right, you do the next one by yourself Zee, it won’t be as big’, he heard his Dad say.
A moment later he saw his Dad’s head dip below the surface just in front of a wave in a slick dive. Zee thought it was like the dolphin chasing a squid that he had seen on the TV the night before. His Dad’s toes disappeared last of all. Zee kicked harder using his legs like an outboard, moved his body up the board and was about to push down when his world went upside down. Bubbles prickled and popped in his ears just above the light roar of the wave. All he could see was white foam like the top of his Dad’s beer all mixed up with dark blue water and bubbles everywhere. Round he went, cartwheeling in the direction of the shore and just when he thought he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, up he popped like a bobbing buoy in rough conditions. Hhhuuuppphhhhh! He gasped, sucking in a lung full of air and pulling his wrist towards him as he did so. Moments later as he climbed back on to his board his Dad arrived, body surfing the second wave in the set and stood next to him.
‘Remember, you can stand up here man’, he said. Zee nodded. ‘Bit late getting under, were you?’ He asked.
‘Yeah’, replied Zee. ‘Ah well. Happens’, said his Dad. Come on let’s get out there and catch a few waves”.
The concept of enskilment proposes that learning is inseparable from doing and place. I’m curious to hear your take on how the experience of enskilment differs for people who learn to surf elsewhere (who don't have a backyard, so to speak, e.g. a kid from the city travelling to the family’s beach house every weekend). And what about those who learn to surf later in life?
Good question. We found that as long as a beginner surfer has consistent opportunities to surf regularly at the same breaks, even if it is just on the weekends, they’ll be ok! The enskilment journey of someone who lives away from the coast or who begins later in life will, generally speaking, just have a slower enskilment journey than someone who has more opportunity to engage with, or has spent more time, within local breaks, conditions and interacting with local surfers.
Why would you say it's important to reflect on how you learn to learn?
Reflecting on how we learn helps us to identify what creates or hinders our learning. Being aware of how we learn allows us to create the richest possible opportunity to learn from our experiences. For example, all novices will experience those frustrating periods of learning – just like a lull – where nothing seems to happen. Reflecting on why our learning has become static can help us to identify whether we are creating enough learning opportunities – are we surfing enough? Or are we surfing in the right conditions, with the right people? Knowing how you learn or knowing what type of surfing experiences provide the greatest learning opportunities will not only improve your surfing fast but will also make for more enjoyable learning experiences.
How do you see technological advancements (such as the use of Virtual Reality) and environmental impacts (via oil exploration, deep sea mining, sewage and agricultural run-off, plastic pollution, and climate change) affecting our process of enskilment in the future?
I didn’t hear many stories about advancing technology however, I noticed young surfers were able to match the conditions they were observing at their local breaks with the improving accuracy of weather, swell and surf forecasts.
Not surprisingly I didn’t hear any stories about VR due to its limited availability, particularly in relation to everyday ordinary surfers. However, I believe VR is in the initial stages of helping surfers (limited to high end coaching programs and research studies) to improve their technique. I’m also aware that VR is providing insight into the visual cues that attract a surfer’s attention while riding a wave or gazing at the ocean. Although I'm unsure about how VR will address other sensory information a surfer relies upon and how it will help with the very specific and local surf break conditions and places of everyday surfers, I’m still excited to see where VR leads.
Environmental impacts – good and bad – will continue to affect the enskilment of young surfers. Negative impacts that prevent young surfers from getting into the water due to health reasons or that cause less consistent surfable waves, will hinder their learning and slow the enskilment process. On the other hand, on those coastlines where environment conditions are improved, or indeed, those that receive more consistent clean swell due to changing environmental conditions, are likely to improve a young surfer’s learning opportunities and aid their enskilment journey.
How can surfers tap into their enskilment – or help youth develop it more effectively – to improve their surfing experience?
All surfers are already in a process of enskilment by the very fact that they are engaging in the activity of surfing. However, in an educational sense we would suggest that we are able to enhance the process of enskilment through pedagogical means. Experienced surfers can help young surfers by sharing certain elements of knowledge such as encouraging them to pay attention to certain conditions while gazing at the ocean or to notice a certain feeling or sensation when duck diving a wave. Young surfers can help themselves by surfing as much as they can, engaging with local surfers and surf culture and by paying attention to more experienced surfers at particular breaks under differing and changing conditions.
Bruce grabbed hold of Zee’s leg rope as he paddled. Luke was already out with the other guys. Zee was stoked that his brother was coming out. A few years younger than Zee he had dabbled here and there in the surf but was only now starting to get keen. Zee was still learning himself but was ready to help his brother. He had lived here all his life. Luke and he hung out down the beach all the time surfing, swimming, kayaking, snorkelling. He knew it. The Gums was his home. He thought back to his own learning here. He knew what to do. He’d copy his Dad and cousin’s approach by putting Bruce right in the spot and letting him go. The sets rolled in and Zee called out to Bruce, ‘See where the waves are breaking?’ ‘We’re going to go sit next to Luke’.
As they approached Luke started hollering ‘There’s a horry out the back!! A horry wooohhoooo’.
Bruce flinched and went to paddle outside the break zone but Zee had already grabbed him ‘All good man, come on’.
They paddled out to meet the building wall of water and Zee realised they weren’t going to make it. He called quickly, ‘Remember, go under!’ Zee dipped skilfully under the wave.
Bruce on the other hand, got low on his board but not under the wave. It was like running into a steam train. The wave didn’t flinch and just ran Bruce over pushing him in a cartwheel fashion towards the beach. He felt dizzy and could only hear the hum of the wave in his ears and the voice in his head, “shit shit shit”. By the time he popped up Zee was next to him laughing ‘Bummer man’. ‘Never mind, it happens, come on’.
‘No way!’ came Bruce’s reply but Zee was already dragging him out towards the spot. ‘Zee, Zee’, Bruce nervously shouted, scared but also excited that he may catch a wave. He noticed Zee had lined him up with Atlas Rock just past the point and in line with the end of the car park and the pole. He looked out to sea and saw a battlefield. He saw high fortifications of water approaching. His little bit of excitement faded, and fear took over. ‘Nup! Nup! Zeeeee get me out here!’ he screamed. Bruce was now packing his daks because he already knew . . . He knew what response was coming.
‘Too late man!’ Zee shouted while he spun Bruce round. ‘Paddle! Paddle, Paddle’ Zee shouted, followed by ‘Have fuuuunnnn!!’ Swooosh . . . Bruce was off. He bounced down the face of the wave on his belly holding on for dear life, his knuckles white from the pressure of the squeeze.
‘Stand up’, Luke shouted, as Bruce bounced past. Like a foal standing for the first time Bruce wobbled his way up to the cheering and hooting of Zee and Luke behind him. He shouted himself ‘yyyeaaaahhh!’.
The author and Surf Simply would like to thank Alex Prins for his assistance with the article.
Reference: Alex Prins & Brian Wattchow (2022): Young surfers finding their wave: telling the tale of enskilment in surf places, Leisure Studies, DOI 10.1080/02614367.2022.2104914