The outburst of COVID-19 on the scene hasn’t exactly made anything easy these past two years.
But for some corners of culture, the waters have been especially choppy.
The surfing industry has taken a wild ride since the virus first started spreading around the globe.
And while the number of human lives lost to this insidious bug is incalculably tragic, some wave riders worry that COVID may have even more casualties in its crosshairs—namely, their favorite sport.
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Sharing the Stoke
Though it didn’t start out that way.
In fact, when the coronavirus first started gaining traction around the world, it acted as a booster shot for surfing culture.
At play was the wide range of shutdowns and closings in the early days of the pandemic.
With many people newly out of work or else stuck at home, and the prevailing perception that outdoor activities were safer, beaches everywhere saw a boon, flooded by those lucky enough to live near the shore and desperate to do anything other than stay inside their home.
The unexpected time off also lent itself perfectly to learning a new hobby—one which many people often daydream about trying but just somehow never get around to.
And, in America, fresh rounds of stimulus checks were otherwise burning holes in many pockets.
In famously surf-averse China, the trend really took hold on the island of Hainan, where surf shops and surf schools proliferated along the pristine coastline ringing the South China Sea.
Indeed, the rising tide of interest led to a major swell in business.
While the initial shock of the coronavirus, coupled with the crippling shutdowns that soon followed, led to an initial dip in U.S. sales—bottoming out around 80% in April 2020, according to some estimates—the surfing surge that followed made up for that lost ground and then some, with those same calculations showing an overall uptick of 113% year over year by June 2020.
In Australia, where the pandemic shutdowns correlated with the end of summer, the surge was even sharper, with sales of surfboards between 7 to 9 feet skyrocketing 3,665% year over year in May 2020 alone.
And globally, manufacturing was predicted to rise further still, with one financial forecast predicting that the surf board industry, worth $7.45 billion in 2019, would come in closer to $10.2 billion by 2024.
Still, every action is not without its reaction, and every peak is not without its trough.
Ebbs and Flows
Surfing wasn’t the only water-bound form of transportation transformed by COVID-19.
As the pandemic wended on and humans spent less and less time outside of their homes, online shopping saw a shocking rise.
For many, the thought was a life-saver: Information on COVID was still as novel as the virus itself, and big buildings with questionable ventilation were eyed at warily by many consumers.
But the trend sent shockwaves through the supply chain, delivering a particularly difficult hand to the shipping industry.
Surfboards were hardly the only hot item in Spring 2020, and the massive freighters circling the globe were more weighed down with consumer cargo than ever.
And to help sort special competition—or at least capitalize on it—shipping companies began hiking up prices, with the cost of an average shipping container ballooning from $2,000 in January 2020 to as much as $20,000 by summer 2021.
At the same time, the industry was contending with how to help stymie the viral spread as its workers traipsed the globe.
The result was extra precautions at port that resulted in extra-long delays.
The damning domino effect left some ships stranded offshore for as many as 8 days – delaying the ships behind them, and the ships behind them, ad nauseam.
And this was even before the wreckage wreaked by the weeklong lodging of the superfreighter Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March 2021.
Meanwhile onshore, shop owners were flying through their merchandise, dealing with hordes of angry new customers and flocks of frustrated veteran surfers all itching to get the gear that was now stuck on a ship.
And even the venerated custom board industry took a hit in the midst of the chaos.
That’s because the blanks, fiberglass, and other materials used in the shaping and glassing processes were, for the most part, also on those ships now stranded in the middle of the ocean.
In another sign of the sport’s rising popularity, the soft material used to make foamies—the ultra-buoyant boards often recommended for beginners—was particularly short supplied.
Custom surfboard shapers around the world were now telling surfboard buyers they’d have to spend months in the pipeline before they could get their hands on some new boards.
Indeed, not since 2005’s Blank Monday—the dark day in surfing history when the world’s largest blank manufacturer suddenly shut down, sending ripples of surfboard shortages across the world—has demand so far outstripped supply in the surfboard sector.
The lopsided market and skyrocketing shipping costs unfortunately began to factor into average price points, with the cost of a board—especially a custom work—buoying well above expected rates, creating even more frustration with an already-annoyed customer base.
But the ironic timing wasn’t the only bad news for shapers, sellers, and surfing enthusiasts.
The same lockdown effort that led to the 2020 surf board boom was simultaneously taking its toll on the sport’s wider travel-based industry – estimated at a value of $130 billion globally in 2019.
And once-quiet local spots were now choked up by Bennys, making the suffocation factor all too real.
Even the pros couldn’t get away in 2020. Among events cancelled by COVID that year were every stop of the Surfing World Championship Tour, the World Surf League season, and the famous Pipeline Masters, which was reluctantly scrapped in December 2020 of that year after some staff members and surfers tested positive for the virus.
Perhaps the biggest blow for many surfers was the scuttling of the 2020 Olympics, where surfing was expected to make its big debut, showcasing the athleticism, bravery, and art of the sport on the world stage.
Yet even after the wild ride surfing took in 2020, it seems the sport may be headed for calmer seas.
The World Surfing League returned in 2021 to much fanfare; and a successful run at the rescheduled Olympics left the world stunned by the beauty surfers have always known.
Global travel restrictions, too, have seen some easing, particularly as the vaccination against the coronavirus continues to propagate.
Unfortunately, for shapers and shop owners, a clogged supply line continuous to haunt further progress.
But optimists may hope that the professional events, increasing travel, and wider embrace of surfing at large may be enough to help them stay afloat.