down the ethereal line - by malcolm johnson

Down the Ethereal Line

by Malcolm Johnson, Tofino

ethereal: lacking material substance;
intangible; immaterial; dreamlike;
relating to regions beyond



In systems theory, it’s taught that even the most complex and chaotic of events can be traced back to one solitary moment: a typhoon begun with the beating of a butterfly’s wings, a world war with one whispered lie in an emperor’s ear, a Big Bang with one nuclear spark in a disc of matter spinning somewhere off in infinite space. And it’s the same with us, all of our surf-obsessed little lives starting at one point. The stories change, but we’re all pretty much automatic. We all have the same thing to say; it was that first wave that got us hooked. That first rush of whitewater that picked us up like God pushing us from behind; that first time our boards locked into the pocket and it felt like cranking the throttle on a café racer; that first drawn-out arcing cutback on blue water; that first time we were in deep on a Real Wave and it threw out over us and we were in that space – to steal from Prospero – that dreams are made on and we shot out onto the shoulder thinking ‘holy shit, holy shit, oh sweet mother so that’s what it’s all about.’ It’s all the same, from Tom Blake to Tom Carroll to some red-hot wqs ripper busting the fins out the back at Lowers to the worst kook struggling on the inside at some crap Canadian beachbreak. It’s all the same; we all got hooked.

Entering the surfing life is what academics tend to call a ‘conversion experience,’ all of us as Constantines with breaking waves in the place of fiery crosses. It’s that first flash that gets you and then gets more and more into you until all your waking thoughts are revolving around it, whether you’re out there getting barreled at some remote reefbreak or sitting there distracted and daydreaming, checking the Pipe and Kirra webcams from your fourth-floor cubicle. And that progression is all good and fine; but when you start having the dreams, that’s when it’s over. You’re f’ed, you’re ruined, you’re finito, you’re condemned to a life where everything except your family is subjugated to the surf, a life where you can live only on exposed coastlines or in miserable, suffering exile inland from the ocean. When you start having the dreams, you know you’re f’ed for real.

It started for me as a one-year-old kid bouncing around with my mom in the summer shorebreak at a place called Sandbanks Park. Somehow in the next fifteen years, the predictable childhood aspirations took over – fireman, fighter pilot, big-game hunter, mystery writer, starting shortstop for the Triple-A Vancouver Canadians of the Pacific Coast Leage – but it hit me again in ’94, with a black-and-white photo of huge, empty Mavericks that took hold in my imagination like nothing else before or since. That shot found its way onto my high school locker, and it was everything – wild, otherworldly, fear-inducing, scornful of and entirely separate from the standard world – that surfing is supposed to be. That photo was the first flash, but it wasn’t until I ditched a somewhat promising writing career in the city to surf full time that I started having the dreams.


Surfing seems to translate especially well to the subconscious; like dreaming, surfing is fluid, expansive and unregulated by the normal passage of time. They’re both full immersions, and whether you’re surfing or dreaming, when you’re in it you’re completely unaware of anything else. The first one I had was the night after a small-day surf at Cox Corner with Peter Devries, one of those surfers who can make average waves look incredible; racing off the peak, beating sections, high-speed gouges, launching and landing projected alley-oops and functional straight airs. That night, I had dreams that were all down-the-line: the view of grey sky and grey waves and the green slash of temperate jungle on the point, the feeling of water moving up the face and flowing into the sweet spot of the board, pumping hard in the pocket and then going off the top and airborne, hanging there for seconds, the board magic-carpeting before dropping back onto the water and back into the pocket, then doing it again and again, dozens of airs in a row on a waist-high wave that lasted for minutes. Those were the first real airs I’d ever done, and probably the best ones I’ll ever manage to do.

As the Bible says, and then came the flood. Not every night, but a few a week. There’ve been hundreds of them, and a few have been absolutely unforgettable. After watching Slater’s perfect 10 at J-Bay in 2003, I stood straight up in a cavern of cascading green water that was best-ever Supertubes; just standing there, hardly believing that I was in a barrel that good, my right hand skimming the face, my left dragging in the roof of the wave above my head for ages on end, time standing still. And then the others – rippable reefs in bright blue aquarium water, jumping off sailboats in Sumatra, winter waves at Rincon in 1953, starlit solstice surfs, Pipe dreams of serious North Shore with no-one out, countless Canadian raincoast breaks where I couldn’t even feel the cold, and once, moving waves of grey earth on a weird, moon-type landscape. I’ve never once fallen down in a surf dream, and one night after the best girl I’ve ever met flew back to England, I had one about being on a plane with her all gorgeous and asleep on my shoulder in Economy Class after two weeks of surfing empty, rolling waves in the Outer Hebrides. Radiohead’s “There There” on the headphones, me not knowing quite where we were going but having a vague, tired idea that we were on the late-night B.A. direct from Heathrow back to my beloved Vancouver.

Those dream-world surf sessions are nothing short of transcendental, and they’re as good as surf sessions can get. They’re all possibility; it’s like being Slater or Tudor or one of the Irons brothers, no thought of falling or blowing it, just imagination and the pure ability to do whatever you want on that blue and bending mindscape. When we were groms, we went to bed hoping for dreams where we did impossible things with impossibly attractive women; but now, those of us who have the surf dreams go to bed hoping that those ethereal waves will come. And when they do, we’re set mercifully free from our lives of kookdom and awkward cutbacks. We get to be the surfers we always wanted to be, getting barreled off our arses in that space that dreams are made on.

Malcolm Johnson is a Tofino-based journalist.

Tofino Surfing Articles 

Tofino Time Magazine September 2004

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Tofino surf article by Tofino journalist Malcolm Johnson, written in September 2004 for Tofino Time Magazine.

tofino time september 2004

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