It’s hard to describe to non-surfers how it feels to carve across a wave, to push the limits of your surfing ability and to surf even better than you thought you could. One surfs with the wave, drawing on experience to manoeuvre the surfboard in synchrony with the wave, all the while anticipating how it will change shape.[i] As a nexus of past, present and future experience, surfing corresponds to Kant’s model of the intellect, which portrays information as the product of three types of synthesis: the apprehension of raw perceptual input, the recognition of concepts and the reproduction of each in imagination.[ii] Viewed in these terms, the principles of surfboard design show how the spatio-temporal structure of surfing can represent the spatio-temporal structure of experience.

To analyse how a surfboard responds to a surfer’s movements, the designer reduces the surfer’s influence to a set of rotational axes. Focusing on the surfboard, he ignores the shape and motion of the wave, which is subsequently reduced to a flat plane. At this level of abstraction, the surfer’s influence can be represented diagrammatically, enabling the designer to more easily visualise the different phases of a manoeuvre, as well as the transitions between them. By visualising each phase in terms of its rotational axis, or sequence of axes, the designer can identify which portions of the surfboard come into play for a given manoeuvre.

We can visualise rotational axes in terms of lines of latitude and longitude encircling the globe:

  1. The first rotational axis traces a circle on the horizontal plane, which can be thought of as the Equator.
  2. The second rotational axis traces a circle on any vertical plane; which can be visualised as the lines of longitude encircling the globe from north to south.
  3. The third rotational axis traces a circle at right angles to each of the other two.

So long as the surfboard rotates on the first axis, its interaction with the wave has no effect. This is a monadic relation, defined solely by the wave, which represents perception. Rotating on the second axis causes the surfboard to penetrate the wave, which produces a dyadic relation between the surfboard and the wave, with their intersection representing the recognition of concepts. When all three rotational axes combine, monadic and dyadic relations are absorbed into triadic relations–representing their synthesis in imagination–expressed as the variable of direction, in the sense of the surfboard traversing the surface of the wave.

The surfboard shaper is the Sufi of naval architects; adjusting the shape of the surfboard while simultaneously invoking the sensation of its movement through the water. This connection between shape and motion is key to the surfboard being absorbed into the surfer’s movements. A poorly designed surfboard makes it hard to read the wave, which is akin to the failure of mirror neurons to read the intention behind an action, as occurs in autism.[iii] Unable to engage meaningfully with other people, autistic individuals struggle to make sense of the world. And yet, autistic savants seem to perceive the very fabric of the universe! So, in terms of the surfing analogy, the autistic savant surfs within the wave, like a dolphin, experiencing ‘reality’ directly, instead of through the medium of a surfboard. By contrast, the non-autistic mind adopts a detached perspective, which the surfing analogy equates with riding on the surface of the wave. Moreover, we are able to detect the intention behind an action, because it is encoded by mirror neurons, like the various trajectories of surfing manoeuvres encoded into the design of a surfboard.

Next chapter: Articulation.


[i] Flynn, P.J. (1987). Waves of Semiosis: Surfing’s Iconic Progression. The American Journal of Semiotics. 5 (3), 398-418.

“[The surfer] employs perceptive prolepsis and analepsis to unify past surfing experience, present immediate interpretation, and projections of possible future unfoldings of the wave based on a reading of natural signs, such as the wave’s speed, shape, degree of breaking angle, steepness, and local contingencies, like other surfers on the wave or in the wave path. The surfer dances with the wave in a state of what Heidegger (1962:324) calls “anticipatory resoluteness” (past, present, future are unified). Manoeuvers and stylistic improvisations are accomplished in synchrony with the wave’s movements, linked together artfully to create a completed narrative or a spatio-temporally synchronized “radical ride”, e.g. a skilled cut-back is executed at the precise moment when the wave’s speed begins to slacken. A tube ride is achieved by riding as far back as possible in the breaking wave. An off the lip manoeuver is carried out just as the breaking lip comes down. Contemporary “radical” surfing is the result of the surfer “pushing the limits” of performance while achieving semiotic synchrony with the wave’s flow as it is perceived and interpreted by the wave rider.”

[ii] Kant, I. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. (A97).

“If each representation were completely foreign to every other, as it were standing apart in isolation, there would be no such thing as knowledge; because knowledge is ·essentially· a whole in which representations stand compared and connected. what Kant wrote next, conservatively translated: When I ascribe to sense a synopsis [from Greek meaning ‘view together’], because sense contains a manifold in its intuition, then there is always, corresponding to this synopsis, a synthesis [from Greek meaning ‘put together’]. Thus, receptivity can make knowledge possible only when combined with spontaneity. what he meant, more plainly put: Every sensory state contains a variety of different elements, which leads me to say that each such state involves a seeing-together. And corresponding to every seeing-together there is a putting-together. Thus, passive intake can make knowledge possible only when it is combined with something active. This activeness is exercised in three acts of synthesis that must occur in all knowledge:

  1. apprehending representations as states of the mind in intuition,
  2. reproducing them in imagination, and
  3. recognizing them in a concept.

These three syntheses point to three subjective sources of knowledge which make possible the understanding itself—and consequently all experience as its empirical product.”

[iii] Gallese, V., Rochat, M. Cossu, G. & Sinigaglia, C. (2009). Motor Cognition and Its Role in the Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Action Understanding, Developmental Psychology, 45 (1), p.109.

“These results indicate that children with autism are impaired in smoothly chaining sequential motor acts within a reaching-to-grasp-to-eat intentional action sequence. This impairment is then mirrored in the action observation condition and most likely accounts for their difficulty in directly understanding the intention of the observed action when executed by others.”