If you asked a group of Americans to describe an Australian surfer, you’d be hard pressed to find an accurate description. Mostly likely you would hear the same thing over and over again: long hair, shell necklace, cargo shorts, reckless, and going nowhere fast. It would have never occurred to most Americans that there could be different types of surfers, or more specifically, different subcultures of surfers.
The Soul Surfers came to the scene when surfing was predominantly competitive and often involved gambling, but Soul Surfers rode waves simply because “it was good for the soul.” Avoiding materialism, mass consumption, and competition, they thrived off of creativity, self-expression, and the hunt for the perfect wave. Surfing was seen not as a means to an end, but an end in itself. Riding the waves was a transcendental experience that took the surfer away from the overwhelming structures and norms of a society back on shore.
The shared moral code of a Soul Surfer is first and foremost the beach. They feel a deep and personal connection with the ocean and nature, spending the majority of their life near a coast or traveling to different beaches. The inland can feel constricting to them, almost like their air supply is being cut off because they are not close to the ocean. Surfing is less about material gain, such as fame or money, and more about personal gain such as happiness and tranquility. No amount of money could ever outweigh the Zen-like feeling of being on the ocean. The Soul Surfer’s life is simple, running from one wave to the next with nothing but their surfboard. Moral codes that are not shared among Soul Surfers are work, property, or violence. All of these simply distract them from enjoying surfing. If you are not enjoying surfing or are surfing for material gain you cannot truly enjoy surfing as an activity in it of itself.
Of course, there are other surfing subcultures such that of as the Bra Boys, who emerged in 1990s Australia. In 1987 the Australian stock market crashed, plunging the country into a recession. Although the removal of tariff protection and freeing up of trade helped ease the blow, many people financially struggled, especially those working labor jobs. Factories either completely shut down or issued massive layoffs, leaving many Australians unemployed. With employment comes desperation, and with desperation come crime. The Bra Boys’ moral code consisted of troubled backgrounds, drugs, and violence. Today, many of them come from poverty stricken households run by drug-addicted parents. Bra Boys are known to be tough and fearless, throwing a punch or two if need be, but also being the first to ride the biggest and most dangerous waves. Bra Boys are competitive. They feel territorial towards the beaches or will enter a career as a professional surfer. This competitive nature provides both the thrill of surfing along with material gain.
Interestingly, the Bra Boys do not consider themselves a gang despite their gang-like behavior. Many of them come from homes that could not provide for them physically or emotionally, and as a result they see their subculture as an alternative family. They protect their subculture out of pride and love because they see their fellow surfers as blood related brothers.
While the Soul Surfers see surfing not a means to an end but an end itself while the Bra Boys see surfing as both a means to an end and an end itself, both the Soul Surfers and Bra Boys have a passion for surfing because it provides both groups with a sense of community and personal meaning that their dominant culture could not provide.