Talks about the ocean, with Fede

This is another interview of a series of talks, in this case with people who have decided to live their lives not only near the shore but literally in the water. The idea behind these talks is not to share polished answers, but the real conversation, so come in and join. In this entry Federico Scalise, surf instructor, lifeguard, musician and full-time aqua man, tells us about his vocation for the ocean:

Imagine you had to write an entry in a dictionary with a definition of the word ocean or sea, what would you write?

It is the womb of life, full stop. 

That 's it?

Yes. The ocean is absolutely everything. Everything in a closed system like the planet and decisive like anything in the universe or the cosmos. Without the ocean, you wouldn't be doing this interview with me, for instance. So evidently it has been a decisive factor in generating this kind of existence. 

Speaking of existence, in what way does yours revolve around the ocean?

Well, it always has, in different ways, at different stages. For example through music, through films, through series, at times when I was forced to live outside my own ecosystem, which is the beach or the sea. And then obviously when I became an adult and was able to make my own decisions, I chose the presence of the ocean to be constant in my life, so again, it became a decisive factor.

Have you ever met other people who experience the ocean in the same way? 

No. I mean, I never recognized the need to live in front of the sea or to breathe the sea in somebody else. I think I did even try to feel the ocean, even in those moments when it was impossible to be close. When I was a boy, part of a family, and the circumstances didn’t allow it. Or at some other stage when I myself decided that the possibilities that a coastal city gave me were not what I needed at that time. I think we have the ocean inside us and I understand that there are people who love the ocean and live far away, but I believe you can do that only for a little while. 

So there is an existential difference between people who feel a particular connection to the sea and people who just enjoy it?

Sure. Same as with music or the mountains or anything really. All beings ultimately share the planet, but that doesn't mean that we all vibrate with the same thing. In my case it was very clear, because as I was saying before, whether I lived near the ocean or the sea, I always felt that need. My family, for example, at one stage lived by the sea and in summer we always spent as much time as possible at the beach. But my father didn't go into the water, my mother didn't either, and my brother never returned to the beach when he grew up because he loves the city. It just so happened that we lived near the sea back then. So there is no family influence that has influenced my love for the ocean. It is something I developed by myself.

In fact, it’s a necessity, which defines your mood, which defines your day to day, which defines the feeling when you wake up, which defines the conversations and the rhythm of existence. In the end, you live here for example, and maybe you greet people talking about when the goddamn northeast wind turns down. You know? If you live in a big city, people don't talk about the weather, I mean, maybe they complain about the rain, but that’s it. So all that shapes your daily existence, you listen, you pay attention and if you go out camping you’re listening to the sound of the sea, and you know if it's big or small. I suppose a fisherman knows if he can fish tomorrow or not, a surfer or a boogie boarder if he can have a ball that day or not.

Do you live or express that connection with the ocean through water sports?

Well, that’s one way of connecting with the sea. Let’s take music for example, most people love music, but there are some who love to dance to music and there are others who just love to listen to music. I think it depends on the way you roll. If you're connected to the music, you can go to a concert and experience it in one way, you can listen to it at home with your headphones, and you're buzzing because you can almost hear the breathing of the person who's playing. At a concert, you get closer to the people who are going to see the show. Other people like to just dance to the music, and other people like to write or compose music. But we are all connected with music. It's the same with the sea. A fisherman who lives inland is counting the euros to save up to come to the sea for 15 days, or us when we get up in the morning and just want to go to Entubadera to have a mate before going to give the class, a class, that I give in the sea and yet that connection is totally different. Same when reading a book and listening to the sea or just looking towards the ocean or rolling around in the sand or swimming. You don't always want to be in the water, but the presence of the ocean is constant, in and out of the water. There are times when you feel like playing with the ocean, with the waves, other times you feel more like swimming, which is when you hate waves. In any case, though, you love the sea. Other times, when it's windy, I love the feeling of grabbing the bar when windsurfing and feeling the sensation of the wind, which is completely different again. You feel the pressure and the force of the wind, but at the same time you feel yourself gliding over the water. In that case, your relationship with the ocean is different, because there’s a third player in the game, the wind. In other moments I'm having my mate on the beach, so there’s the mate, the sand, and the sea which is still present. You get my point?

Sure, and of all those forms to connect with the ocean, do you have a favorite one?

No. I like them all. Well, obviously surfing for me has been much more than just a way to connect with the ocean. It's been the big, I mean not the primary connection, because when we're kids I think we all have this connection to put on a swimming costume or just run around naked at the shore, but it seems like as we get older we have to cover ourselves up. When we're kids though we don't cover up anything, and we're just out playing with the waves, with the sea and the sand gets up your ass and that connection with the ocean is totally pure. And I think that, well, there are children who are afraid of the water, but most of them aren’t, so I think normally the primary connection with the ocean is like that, playing with the waves. Who didn’t play with the waves as a kid? Letting you push down, shouting at the big waves coming in and just being slapped by the water. Normally that turns into bodyboarding eventually.

Did you start with bodyboarding?

Everybody did. I think everybody, didn’t you? Anyway, I don't remember what the question was. 

If you had a favorite way to connect with the sea.

Well, surfing has been a constant companion since the first time I heard the song Surfin USA in the movie Team Wolf with Michael Fox in the 80ies. He was surfing on top of a van with the music of the Beach Boys and when I saw those movements I said "Wow! What is this?” In fact, the Beach Boys have been a brutal influence for me, with their music, but also culturewise. They have opened a door. 

Well there were other bands too, Jan & Dean, The Surfaris, Surfer Joe's, The Deltons, a lot of surf music that wasn't even surf music yet. It was mostly the music that surfers listened to and felt identified with. Then, of course, they said to sell a record like that, you had to put a surfer on it, and that's when they started to connect this kind of music with surfing.

In fact, the Beach Boys were all Americans, they all lived by the beach, but the only one who surfed was Wilson, the one who played the drums. Brian Wilson, he was the songwriter, too, a genius composer. But that's why I say, sometimes surfing is connected to other things. Which is what's happening a lot now. Surfing is not so much connected to the ocean anymore, it's more like fashion or like a culture, but not a counterculture anymore, like it was in my time. Back then it was very difficult to find someone you could call to go surfing, impossible. 

And the same goes for bodyboarders and windsurfers?

Yes, because in the end they are people who decide to leave the city and dedicate themselves fully to an activity that can only exist in a certain place and with certain circumstances. That's why not all surfers are the same. Not all buggy surfers are the same. You can't compare an Alaskan bodyboarder with a California bodyboarder, let's say. The type of wave is different, the type of surf is different, the type of landscape is different, totally different. It gets into you, a lot, the weather I mean. That's why I always say that the cold surfing culture is the one I've enjoyed the most.

In other words, within the same discipline, there are different ways of experiencing it?

Sure, there are. But that happens in everything. Absolutely everything and surfing or nautical activities, if you like, are not exempt. That's why it's very difficult to find a group, one of them bodyboarding, one of them surfing, one of them kayaking and one of them windsurfing. Because of course, when there are optimal conditions for windsurfing, the kayaker wants to kill himself because you have a horrible situation for kayaking. And at the same time there is the surfer who wants to surf big waves or the bodyboarder who wants to get into hollower waves that the surfer, the longboarder, doesn't need. That's why it also determines your way to connect or, well, your identity based on the activity.

From that point of view, people who really enjoy the sea in all disciplines are in the minority, because usually we tend to specialize in one discipline. 

Yes, that’s why they invented that name, watersportsmen or watermen, which is the person who enjoys with the same intensity different ways of interacting with the ocean. So when there is wind you feel like grabbing the boom and feel how the wind takes you; other days you feel like grabbing a hollow wave, with no water, that it is so, so, so hollow, that you go down vertical and with any board, not even with the maximum roquer, you can't get it down so it’s time for the bodyboard. When you see a tiny little wave, it's perfect to grab the kayak, because with a couple of paddles in the kayak you're already there, and on a day when the sea is flat, the only feeling you get is from the stand-up paddle. You are paddling with the stand-up paddle, and you enjoy watching the bottom of the sea. Because in the end when we are in the sea we are more focused on windsurfing or seeing when the series is coming, but you are not looking at the town, or the forest if you have one, from the sea perspective, you are not looking at the sky. On the other hand with stand-up paddle, for example on a flat day, you're paddling around, and you see the turtles and the manta rays, things that with surfing and with other disciplines, unless a ninja turtle attacks your jugular vein, you're not going to see them. Luckily, that has never happened to me. Once a killer whale passed very close to me when I was surfing and a shark in the south of Argentina when I was kayaking.

And what did you do? What's your reflex when an animal like that passes by you?

I shit my pants. What is your reflex? Diarrhea! Have you ever seen a shark in the sea? Well, when you see it stick out its fin and cut through the water, you say ciao, you do a little death and that's it. Or the same when the orca passed so close that this huge back came out meters away from me, because a shark's back is not so big, but the orca's back is gigantic, and this huge thing comes out of the sea, and you say, ok. That's it.

So it’s not all about connection, there still are moments that get you scary.

Well, I never had a bad feeling, but that all depends on your personality. Obviously, if that shark had tried a little of my foot or whatever, I wouldn't have liked that so much. Let's say I was lucky. And then the sea lions are very funny, the way they tease you. When you're in the peak, and they come, and they tease you more than any other local. They pull you out, they make beeeh, beeeh, they make bicultural sounds, and they don't want you there. You get it, I mean I never studied sea lions, but you get the message. They come in with a mean look on their face, with their teeth like this, very badly brushed, and they say, "No!" So it's clear, this one is not saying "Welcome to the peak" or "Come on, let's do the crisscross surfing in the waves.", no. You get kicked out. So you move a little bit, and you say ok, here's the elbow in the wave, the arm of the wave. And noooo beh beh. They throw you out.

But has nothing ever happened to you in the water that made you hesitate or that made you change your mind, like, ok, I shouldn't be there because it's not my environment?

Do you never go to the supermarket, and you see all these human beings shouting, surrounding you, and they want to sneak in the line and others don't even say hello, and you feel like saying, "What am I doing in this world?” Well, that's never happened to me in the ocean. I never ever felt that I wasn't welcome.

Not even with the shark?

No, the other way around when you face those things, or like when I was stuck on the cliffs and I had to wait for low tide and I had no way to get out. There obviously the feeling is fear, a lot of fear, it's not respect, as people say. No, it's, I'm shitting my pants, I'm scared to death, in other words, very scared. Because there is no greater force than in nature, and in these moments you feel it. But what I'm saying is that you still feel part of it. That's why fishermen, even when there are giant storms or people who sail or people who cross the Atlantic or people who explore, that's why I think they keep doing it. Because yes, you can get very, very, very scared. But it's not that feeling of I don't belong here. On the contrary, it's that feeling of "Wooow, I'm an intense part of it".

Talking about people, you work in the sea, and you bring people closer to the water. Do you notice, who does, and who doesn't have a connection with the sea?

Yes, of course you can tell, from the very beginning, from the moment you get into the water to the moment you catch the wave, of course you do. Exaggeratedly, you see it. Well I work almost every day in the water, so from the moment a person grabs the board and puts it on the water surface, yes, you realize who is going to surf that day, who you are going to have to rescue. At the beginning of the class I always ask them what kind of activities they do, if they swim, if they live on the coast, if they do this and that. And that's already when I notice. It makes a huge difference, when a person has played on the beach since little, to a person from the city who doesn't understand the way the ocean works. They don't understand the language of the waves, the weather, all that, which anyone who has grown up with the sea as a child has innate, maybe not innate, we have acquired it, but in a natural way.

So it's not just a sensation or something you carry inside you. It is also practice.

I think that it’s both, like in anything. The classic almost philosophical question: a great sportsman is born or made? Well, both. If Messi hadn't wanted to play ball, he wouldn't have been Messi. If Kelly Slater had preferred to dedicate himself to alcohol and drugs, he wouldn't have been Kelly Slater, who at the age of 50 is still competing. That's why I think we have the connection, and then it's up to each person whether they develop it or not. Like people who have the ability to dance, but for example are shy, so they don't develop it because of their shyness. However, they could. The famous one could be... in sports, we see those cases a lot when training. "If she can do more." "If I could get to...". I was always mediocre, I was always the second or sometimes the first one chosen in the sports teams. But I was never Messi, because I loved to experience basketball, then I loved to experience canoeing, then I loved to experience surfing in the summer, then swimming, so of course you never get technically perfect enough. That's why I was also a "could have been", that is, if I had only dedicated myself to one thing.

But many of the things you do, the one thing that connects them is the ocean. It doesn't matter which ocean toy I give you, you defend yourself precisely because you want to experiment. It's a form of specialization, isn't it?

Sure, well, that's the virtue of a multidisciplinary person, who doesn't want to be the best at surfing, but simply wants to experiment, and that's the big, big, big difference between a person who wants to connect with the sea in different ways. There are people who connect with the sea a lot by surfing, and there are many, many other people who surf and don't connect with the sea. So, just because you surf doesn't mean you have a connection with the sea. No, maybe the lady in front of you is much more connected to the sea than a person who often surfs and who does re-entries, and who does aerials, and who does snaps, and has a higher level than many other people. That's where the eternal question “who is the best surfer?” comes from. Well, a lot of people will say the one you see laughing at 70, 90 years old and still surfing. Then there are people who will tell you the best surfer is the most radical, other people will tell you the best surfer is the one who plays the most with the waves, other people will tell you Kelly Salter, other people will tell you, well, that's it. It depends on the reason why you are there, which of course is super individual.

Thank you very much, Fede!



Header, Photo 1, 3, 5, 7 by Giulia Parise

Photo 2, 4, 6 by Fede's Family