Outside magazine, June 1995
This year, in large part because of the momentous, contemplative event that was my 40th birthday, I was born again as a longboard surfer, reaching back to my childhood roots on a ten-foot tanker. On the morning of my conversion, on Oahu, a group of geezer Kahunas was luxuriously spaced on a no-name reef, meditatively awaiting the swells. It was the mellowest Hawaiian crew I'd ever intruded upon, a silver-bearded, bronzed aristocracy, longboarders all. Watching them was a revelation. These guys had been surfing all their lives, and each would be surfing until the day he died; they had nothing to prove, and proved it by doing nearly nothing on their boards--nothing, that is, except cruise with a whole lot of soul.
The crux move of their repertoire was the soul-arch bottom-turn. If you've never been on a board before, it's certainly not something you can expect to master in a day. But once you've paid your two or three months of humbling dues--learning to catch the wave, stand, and turn proficiently--this is the trick to start working on. Why? Because it's the shortcut to cool, the fastest, easiest way to fool a few nonsurfing spectators into thinking that you've been at it all your life.
The soul-arch is the traditional Hawaiian surf-riding pose, a proud puffing-out of the chest and a bending-back like the figurehead on a ship's prow, with reverent undertones of self-sacrifice to the sea and sun. The bottom-turn is the basic modern performance innovation in surfing, a deep delayed carve executed out in front of the wave and curving back toward the curl. It can either be frontside (facing the wave) or backside (back to the wave), though in the case of the soul-arch bottom-turn it's always frontside. Just attempting this turn, which spans the ancient and the state of the art, shows your heart's in an interesting place.
Start the maneuver with your knees slightly bent and comfortably balanced. Now let your arms dangle indifferently, an expression of your confidence and attitude: You're not going to attack the wave like a linebacker, but rather calmly negotiate it like a boulevardier. If you like, by rocking back subtly on your heels, you might initiate a slight fade toward the whitewater, just the hint of a backside turn. This creates more space for the frontside carve, space your body is about to claim. Now strike the pose: back bowed, chest and belly proffered to the gods, arched out over the water like Jesus about to take the Nestea plunge into the Sea of Galilee. Much of the soul in the soul-arch bottom-turn lies in that act of faith, trusting that your feet--doing the real work while your upper body expresses pure ecstasy--will make the miracle happen. As you lean forward over the water, you'll sink the inside rail, propelling the crescent bottom-turn. All you have to do is wait with faith and grace.
Like any big watercraft, the longboard takes its time coming about, but here this can only be viewed as a plus, since the longer the delay, the more enduring the arch, and hence the more soul displayed. Beautiful to behold, the soul-arch bottom-turn is above all a functional turn timed to the demands of the breaking wave. It should look absolutely effortless, like cornering in a Cadillac with just a thumb on the wheel and a big toe tapping the gas: plenty of g's, but no gee-whiz. Having made yourself weightless through the arc, you'll find the board levitating beneath your feet at the conclusion of the turn, headed instinctively for the heart of the high, steep wave: the perfect setup for a leisurely stroll to the nose.
Maybe the best thing about the soul-arch bottom-turn is that, unlike just about everything else in surfing, you only get better at it as you age. Perhaps you're more appreciative, perhaps more aesthetically moved, perhaps simply more attuned to the desire embodied in the yearning dissolution of the wave. Whatever it may be, the result is a purposeful patience. Just let it flow.
Bucky McMahon is a lifelong surfer. He wrote about teenage snowboard culture in the November 1994 issue.