Adam Sandler is bad at surfing. At least that’s what he told Conan O’Brien in a recent interview. “My body is just not meant for it,” he said. “I have, like, a stiff body.” Sandler was on the Conan show to promote a stand-up tour with David Spade and Rob Schneider. They’re heading to Hawaii as part of the tour, which led to the question of surfing. Sandler used to surf regularly, he says, and he had a predictably humorous anecdote from his last session.
As Sandler tells it, he was surfing Malibu, California’s famous right-hand point, when he “dropped in” on, or cut-off, another surfer he described as a truck driver. As they were both riding the wave, the trucker caught up to Sandler and threw him off the wave. Then he continued surfing down the point, as Sandler flailed in the white water.
When he paddled out at Malibu, Sandler set out to surf one of California’s most famous waves. It sits on Highway 1 within easy driving distance of Los Angeles and it’s a near-perfect example of a right-hand point break. As surf historian Matt Warshaw explains, it isn’t the size of the waves at Malibu. “Shape and form and elegance — these were the qualities that made it surfing’s first truly revered break,” he wrote in History of Surfing.
The wave at Malibu rolls down the point in long, curving lines, bounded by a white sand beach and the landmark pier. Tawny dry hills rise up behind it. The best swells hit Malibu in the summer, so it’s warm, postcard California. When Mike Hynson and Robert August set out to find the perfect wave in the 1966 surf film Endless Summer, Malibu was the wave they sought to emulate. But they wanted Malibu without the crowds. As much as Malibu is known for its perfection, it’s also famously, intensely crowded. Already in the 1950s, Mickey Dora had to navigate a dense line-up — and in fact, was caught on video pulling a move much like Sandler describes. Now it can feel like winning the lottery to score a wave at Malibu, and some surfers go home frustrated.
When Sandler “dropped in” on the trucker, he was breaking one of surfing’s unwritten rules. In most line-ups, the surfer who is “deepest” on the wave — or closest to the curl — has the right-of-way. “Dropping in” means cutting off a surfer who is already up and riding. Sometimes friends will share a wave, but sharing isn’t the default. Getting bodily thrown off a wave, like Sandler describes, is not especially common, but it’s one form of the line-up’s rough justice. Breaking the rules typically leads to more subtle retribution, if any. Surfers don’t generally want to start a fight, though it can happen. Mostly, they’d rather keep surfing.
The punishments are as unwritten and indecipherable to outsiders as the rules. Maybe surfers will mysteriously appear in your way when you try to paddle for your next wave. Or when the next set wave comes, you might find yourself forced by another surfer into the white water, where you’ll have to duck dive, rather than being able to paddle smoothly over the unbroken section of the wave. Dropping in is itself sometimes a form of line-up justice. If a surfer is taking too many waves, they may get cut off repeatedly.
And sometimes, the rules get thrown out the window. The break is too crowded or a surfer decides any retribution the line-up metes out is worth getting that one perfect ride. During a magical evening session at Rincon in 2008, a clean green wall slid down the point. Kelly Slater saw it coming and decided he wanted it, never mind that another surfer was already up and riding.
Sometimes, breaking the rules is worth it. Just watch out behind you, as Adam Sandler found out.
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