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Conversation with a Surfer

Off Campus | November 27, 2012

Brett Plugis is at ease talking about the unwavering power of the sea. “The ocean’s going to do what it wants to do,” he explained soberly. “If it wants to keep you down there for another 30 seconds, it will,” he said as he described the common and uncomfortable experience of getting caught in the turbulence of a wave gone wrong. “Even when you open your eyes, you can’t see which way is up or down, and sometimes if it slams you down to the ground everything is completely black.” He seemed relatively unfazed by this less than pleasant aspect of his favorite pastime, though. “It doesn’t bother me too much. You just have to keep trying.”

Brett, a senior, is one of a few dedicated surfers on Tufts’ campus. Originally from Bedford, MA, he learned to surf the way many do—at a young age and from his dad. “My brother is two years older than me so it was great to go out with them and just learn. I didn’t get really serious until I was older and got my license,” he said. He now teaches surfing during summers at Cape Cod and recently made a five-week trip to Costa Rica where he “made a lot of friends with the hippie ex-pats living there,” and, aside from a close run-in with some eight-foot crocodiles, he experienced “the best surfing” of his life.

These days, Brett wakes up at 4:00 a.m. to make the drive to nearby surf spots with the most reliable waves—usually in New Hampshire or Rhode Island. Rising early reaps benefits beyond making it back to class in time. “If you get out early as the sun is rising, the winds are calmer and there’s no one out there,” he explained. When the swells are good, Brett catches waves five days a week.

Like many surfers, Brett saw opportunity in the mayhem of Hurricane Sandy and, despite safety warnings, made his way to the beach as the storm barreled toward the shore. “These storms come through, and I just stop doing school for a little bit,” he said, laughing.

The hurricane showed up the day after his birthday—”Hell of a present!”— and he headed straight to Rhode Island to camp out with friends in anticipation of unusually large waves. “We built a bonfire and would surf for a couple hours, then hang out on the beach for a little from 8:00 a.m. until it got dark. It was the best swell the Northeast has seen since last winter, so we were all pretty excited. While the Northeast has some of the best point breaks and rock-reefs on the eastern seaboard, we don’t get large swells very often, except in the winter. It’s especially rare to get a swell that has such a perfect combination of swell, wind direction, weather, and water temperature. Sandy was quite a treat in that respect.”

In spite of his satisfaction with the swells, Brett noted the tragedy of the storm. “While that Sunday was unquestionably the best day of my entire year,” he said, “I felt awful on Monday when I saw all the destruction that the storm brought to the Mid-Atlantic, almost to the point of feeling guilty. Regardless, I don’t think I stopped smiling for a solid week after that storm rolled through.”

Topping the list of reasons Brett loves to surf are the guarantee of a clear mind and the opportunity for true self-expression and solitude. “The best thing about surfing is that no one can tell you what to do when you’re out there. You’re doing it for you and no one else.” He also stressed that while kids are the fastest learners, one can get started at any age.

“I taught a 68-year-old woman how to surf this summer, and she got up on the board three or four times during the lesson. So it’s really never too late, as long as you’re in good shape and willing to go through the trial and error of it.” He recommended that beginners take just one lesson and beyond that—watch and repeat. His only surf idols are his friends; according to Brett, there is no greater way to improve than to surf with people who are better than you and can provide new inspiration and energy.

He hasn’t had much trouble with the localism and territoriality often associated with hardcore surfers. “It’s all about respect,” he explained. He described an incident with a local who was giving him a hard time for dropping in on waves that he considered his. “I’m awesome, so I just surfed the shit out of it. Afterward he approached me and said he was a local surf shop owner and told me to come by and get a free shirt because he liked my style. If you go out there and obviously know what you’re doing—people give you respect. [But] you’ve also got to give respect to get respect.”

Brett has found a small group of Tufts students who share his passion for surfing, but said, “There isn’t enough surf culture at Tufts. We thought about starting a club because then we could get funding for a van and trips to the beach and also meet other people that want to surf. I think there are a lot of people at Tufts that surf back home but don’t have equipment here and don’t think it’s possible.” He explained that if there were a surf club at Tufts, students could overcome this obstacle by pooling resources and sharing equipment.

For the future, Brett has a dream that he’ll work until he’s in his thirties and then buy some land by the ocean and have his own surfing community. “I think a lot of surfers have that dream,” he admitted, and then added that he hopes that the surfing community at Tufts will strengthen in the coming years. His final advice to Tufts students? “Contact me if you want to get in the water!”