Surfing a Science? This Man Has a Degree In It


Have you ever been so pitted you were certain you knew all there was to surfing?

Me neither. But have you ever thought the likes of John Florence, Dane Reynolds, and Kelly Slater had this senseless aquatic jive down to a fine art? Probably not. There is, however, one man who has Galilean hopes for surfing as something more than a way to be late to work. This man is Rory Jordan, and 20 years after completing a degree in ‘surf science’ from the University of Plymouth, his search (please don’t sue us Rip Curl) continued.

Rory was more realistic in his dreams for surfing glory than the rest of us as grommets. He knew he wouldn’t be a professional surfer and therefore never sought to reach it, however, he had the goal to forge a living from surfing.

Rory. Scientist.

At a glance, a scientific surfing degree might seem absurd, but Rory’s studies extend far beyond the number of Dane cameos you can count in @napkinapocalypse’s Instagram story or discovering the flawless combination of Fu and Sex-Wax. Broadly, Rory’s work can be split into two domains: the first focuses on sand formation, coastal erosion, and other coastal issues; and secondly, the more obvious surf-adjacent issues which have impacts well beyond the waves themselves.

‘Surf science is very similar to ocean science. Instead of deep oceans, the focus was on studying the shorelines where the waves break,’ Rory told the BBC in a recent interview. ‘The implications of this go beyond surfing and big wave formation. The science studies help towards gaining a better understanding of beach defences, coastal erosion, how beaches are formed, and how sediment is moved up and down a beach.’ It wasn’t all meteorological data though, Rory’s undergraduate studies back in 2001 had a workshop devoted entirely to board shaping.

The second domain of Rory’s work is less concerned with the waves and more intertwined with surfing culture.

‘The lifestyle associated with surfing is a huge industry now,’ Rory told the BBC. The Sheico Group, which controlled over 65% of wetsuit manufacturing in 2015, produced 4.5 million wetsuits that year according to SurferToday, a figure which has only increased in recent years. And despite some companies efforts to curb their environmental impact, wetsuit and surf industry manufacturing as a whole has had a negative impact on the environment.

Furthermore, there are other domains of the ‘industry’ which Rory and like-minded researchers investigate. ‘The lifestyle associated with surfing is a huge industry now,’ Rory continued. ‘Something like 90% of the people drawn to it may never get on a surfboard.’

Big wave surfing and ‘surf culture’ break into the mainstream constantly (see: this month’s Mavericks swell, Blue Crush, wave pools, and the billion backpackers in every city-proximal line-up) and analysing the growth of these phenomena is part of Rory’s work.

The good news is, if you suck at surfing but still want to forge a career from it, the University of Plymouth is still running their Surf Science and Technology degree. The bad news is that Plymouth is in the UK, and while there’s still waves, by every known scientific metric the surf there fucking sucks.

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