Portals to Elsewhere 

by Lukas WinklerPrins

[The ocean and the horizon line. The sky is cloudy and the water looks still.]

Surfing is a ritual practice of disconnecting from the land. It is also a reconnecting: with the ocean, the tides, the waves, your attention, your center of gravity, your aches. The surfer gets to vanish—often furtively—into the buoyant beyond for a short slice of time before lurching back onto terra firma. 

[A view of the ocean and a beach with palm trees.]

Being out in the surf is a brief rinse of the brain and the body both. You need the rinse: the activity demands clarity so you can attend to the subtle signals that support wave-riding. Venturing “outside” into the surf also, ostensibly, requires prior research into the geography, the winds, the tides, the swells, the local scene. All this and some small prayer that plans will work out and a good wave will arrive while you are there. 

[The ocean with bright blue water, crashing waves, and a grass-covered cliff jutting into the water.]

While the adrenaline of riding a wave lends itself to glamor, most of the surfer’s time is actually spent waiting, and watching. The water usually looks bluer elsewhere: the waves better down the beach. The report says one spot was pumping with surf but your local sandbar was dead. “You should have been here yesterday” (but you weren't). The sport is rife with plans gone sideways and the feeling of wishing you were somewhere else.

[A close-up view of the ocean populated with surfers.]

Always-on internet connectivity allows us to peek into that somewhere else in real time, providing a window to the surf. Surfline is a known entity to nearly anyone who owns a board, as the website provides surf condition information updated twice daily. Most crucially, it has provided live photo or webcam video feeds of many surf breaks around the world since 1995. With this, the anticipation inherent in tracking the surf conditions have been replaced with the ability to simply watch it in the palm of your hand. The need to study before you go has been turned inside-out. 

[An aerial view of the rooftops of a beachside city, with the ocean breaking behind it.]

The cognitive distance between where you are (parked behind a monitor in the office on a Tuesday) and where you’d like to be (on a perfect wave under a sunny sky) has vanished due to Surfline’s webcam wormholes. The immediacy of information has exacerbated both the number of people aware of any given surf break and the ache of wanting to be out there, a sense of missing out. Some surfers hate the cams for the access they provide and the crowds that they draw, but many surfers—me included—love them. 

[And aerial view of a wide beach with the ocean on one side and lush green landscape behind it.]

I have had Surfline cams playing noiselessly in the background while I attend meetings, while I type up documents, and while I half-assedly cook dinner. The ache of desire is present, sure, but the little blue portal is a joy as well. The cameras disclose beautiful scenes, punctuated by the possibility of seeing someone who is out there get a great ride. I am reminded not of a place I wish I was, but of a feeling I know, dripping with saltwater nostalgia.

[A beach and sand dunes leading up to a vibrant blue ocean on a clear day.]

Scrolling through surf hotspots around the world, it feels as though there is a camera at every break. If you pay for Surfline premium, hundreds of 24-hour-a-day video backlogs are available on replay (often with the hope of seeing a little lump of pixels—you—riding a wave). With this much footage of so much coast every day, the cameras capture a plethora of unexciting details, displaying both great surf and plenty of bare butts and flat days. The cams, fulfilling their mechanical duty, blend the routine and the rapture.

[Several waves breaking on the beach with a few surfers far out, as small as dots.]

Some surfers opt for surf breaks between the cameras, where scanter information leads to smaller crowds and where they can surf unbothered. For people hunting for the wilder corners of our coasts, this under-documenting maintains a sense of adventure. It also upholds the need for local knowledge, which can encourage negative localism. Stories float around about surfers destroying cameras, trying to keep their favorite spot unknown or unintelligible to outsiders. 

[A hazy still of the beach at either sunrise or sunset, with a fuzzy peach sky hanging above a still, muted ocean.]

I am thankful for the cams and their dutiful cataloguing. They connect us to surf breaks from afar, places we value for their feelings of disconnection. They are portals to elsewhere, stuffed with desire and anticipation, feelings built on memories of the water that are familiar to every surfer. Scrolling through Surfline is a combination of tactical research and a little hunt for the personal utopia that lies in every wave. The surf remains fixed in place, but the cams have given us a different path towards that feeling of being “outside.” 

This essay is from the Are.na Annual 2022, themed "portal."

Lukas WinklerPrins is a graduate student researcher in Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, working with the U.S. Geological Survey. He is interested in effective pedagogy and environmental philosophy. He watches the cams and surfs at Ocean Beach, San Francisco.