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Catching waves, finding home: Surfing in the Philippines

Sandy blonde hair, a laid back accent, and a vocabulary consisting mostly of words like “totally”, “dude”, and “cool”; popular media has painted the stereotypical surfer in such a monochromatic light, leading many to believe that this is all that surfing entails. In reality, however, surfing culture transcends the stereotypes imprinted on us by media, and at times, even goes against what people have been led to believe about it.

Though some people may view the activity as a short-lived experience reserved for getting the best summer photos, the art of catching waves means so much more for the surfing community here in the Philippines,  giving the sport a unique and refreshing quality in a sea of different sports cultures.

Surfing misconceptions

The casual beach-goer looking to try out surfing might view the activity as a solitary one. Paddling alone on a board with nothing but crashing waves for company may give the impression that it is an activity that entails an “every man for himself” kind of attitude; on the contrary, real surfing is actually about fostering a sense of community. 

“When I paddle out on my own, I don’t exactly feel alone,” says Valerie “Val” Emmanuel, who has been surfing for almost seven years now.  Surfing is more than just a casual pastime; it’s a place where Val finds a connection—not only with the surfing community, but also with herself. She elaborates, “I come to a state where I’m fully self-aware—my thoughts, my next move…I even talk to myself or sing songs in my head.”

Many people also mistakenly believe that surfing is a sport reserved for the summer months—but this is far from the truth. The peak summer months in the Philippines are around April or May, but the best time to start surfing is actually during the “-ber” months. “The waves pick up in October [and they get] really big through April of the following year. If you’re a tiny wave surfer like me, Baler has a long coast you can explore to find calmer and friendlier waves,” Val explains.

Marilyn Arguenza, who has been managing a surf shop in Baler, Aurora, for six years now, knows firsthand that here in the Philippines, one can catch fantastic waves even during the Christmas season. She identifies the best months for surfing as “December or January, kasi malaki at maganda ang alon.”

(The waves are nice and large in December or January.)

Danger by the waves

For some people, the uncertainty and safety risks associated with surfing are more than enough to keep them from trying what they think is an all-too-dangerous activity reserved for thrill-seekers. 

Marilyn admits that there are some safety concerns, citing, “Aksidenteng tamaan ka ng fin or board at maputulan ng leash.” Val also adds that the strong currents make drowning and other accidents a possibility while surfing. 

(You could accidentally get hit by the fin or the board, and your leash might snap.)

However, the fact that surfing comes with its own set of risks does not make it significantly worse than the injuries and mishaps that can also arise from other sports. In contrast, a 2007 study from researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown Medical School reported a lower risk of injury among surfers than basketball or football players, though they also noted that the injury rate more than doubled for surfing in large waves or in areas with rough seafloor, such as those with rocks or reefs.

 Moreover, Val claims that having a good teacher is enough of a safety net in itself, “[A]ll of these [dangers] are avoidable if you hire a good or certified instructor who’ll provide you with proper training and assist you in and out of the water. There’s no real danger if you know your limits and apply what you learn from your surfing lessons.” 

Marilyn further suggests that the addicting feeling of catching a wave can overpower the qualms one might have regarding safety, hooking people into coming back to the sport and the experience time after time. “Nakaka-addict kasi ang pag-surf. Once na makatayo ka nang maganda, gusto mo nang ulit-ulitin,” she expresses.

(Surfing is addictive. Once you get the hang of standing well enough on the board, you’ll want to keep doing it again and again.)

A community together

While surfing culture has changed over the years, Val believes that “the stoke, the music, the ‘keep it real, keep it easy’ vibe will always remain the same.” And in the Philippine surfing culture, it’s the locals who are responsible for cultivating such an atmosphere, earning the respect of the Filipino surfing community.

Though many may not realize this, Val stresses that a big part of surfing culture is maintaining a good relationship with the locals. “They’re normally really nice people who’ll take care of you in and out of the water. [The] least we can do is respect them, their rules, and their hometowns,” Val discusses, expressing empathy for the locals who call these popular surfing spots home. 

The locals painstakingly devote themselves to keeping their beaches clean, and the passion they have for their surroundings has taught Val “the joys of living simply”, leaving a deep impression on her and the rest of the surfing community.

Along a similar line, Val shares that many who identify with the surfing community have become more and more committed to “self-imposed social responsibilities”, furthering environmental advocacies through participating in beach clean-ups and the “zero plastic” movement. 

Such actions may be indicative of the good that can come from bringing passionate people together, establishing a connection that makes the surfing experience all the more worthwhile and gratifying.

As Marilyn expresses, “Marami man hirap at pagod ang dama ko sa init ng tabing dagat…masaya naman ako dahil sa mga taong mababait na puso.”

(No matter how hard and tiring it may be to endure the heat of the coast, I’m happy anyway because of people showing their good hearts.)

Surf’s up 

On the great waves along local shores, the paradoxes attached to Philippine surfing have managed to make it such a special sport. It brings together opposites—danger and serenity, thrill and peace, abandon and responsibility—and goes beyond any preconceived notions people may have about it. Fostering a unique relationship between surfers and locals gives way to an exciting, passionate, yet socially responsible culture, warming the hearts of all those who are part of the local surfing community.

As Val puts it, “Surfing is like coming home. I always look forward to it.”

Nadine Macalalad

By Nadine Macalalad

Beatrice Del Rosario

By Beatrice Del Rosario

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