What is the best display of surfing you’ve ever seen? Got the picture in your mind? Ok, now, how did decide? What measurement did you use to judge ‘best’? Was it WSL criteria, power, tubes, wave quality or size or something else that you can’t quite put your finger on?

How do you decide what is good surfing? Can it be measured? Should it be measured? Does the act of measuring change the nature of good surfing altogether?

Physicists speak of the observer effect, which describes the changes that the act of observation has on a subject or phenomenon being observed. If we lay a ruler out next to surfing, do we influence the future/present of the sport/art?

Before we even begin to measure, there must be a scale, a unit, something to measure surfing with. And who gets to decide what constitutes good surfing? We all know what we like to see, what we consider good style, good technique. But is that a learned bias? Do we only know ‘good’ when we see it because someone came before us and defined it?

If the first surfing you ever experienced in your life was watching someone struggle down the line, out of trim, in an awkward poo-stance while forcing mistimed snaps, it would be the most beautiful and amazing thing you had ever seen, no? With nothing to measure it against it is, by default, the best. Surely?

All this has been on my mind since I listened to a Radiolab podcast which tells the story of Surya Bonaly; a French figure skater who never quite reached the competitive heights that she aimed for. She was a powerful, explosive, raw, unrefined talent. Not an elegant or particularly graceful skater like tradition favours. Because her approach to the sport was different to her competitors and despite the fact she could perform all the same moves and more, she never had the success in competitions that many believe she deserved.

As I listened to the tale, heartbroken for the heroine, I fumed quietly. How dare they judge her style as less-good, when it is just different? Why should it matter, a unique approach, just as functional with extra flare, more power than finesse? It was easy to draw comparisons to surfing; where style can decide whether a surfer is good or bad. Why should something so difficult to measure be the deciding factor when weighing-up who’s best?

And then, this, from figure skating guru Sandra Bezic. “Everything about skating is built on circles… carving massive circles in the ice.” And Surya? All her jumps were in straight lines. It sounds like utter bullshit. Why should it matter if she skates straight or in a circle. But then “…if a jump is on a straight line then it can’t land with flow. The idea is to land your jump with as much speed and flow as you had going into it.”

Well, I must admit, that makes some sense to me, although I know nothing about figure skating. When you apply the same to surfing; a surfer without flow, who comes out of turns without speed, who has a three-stage bottom turn and fights against the wave instead of working with it is not a stylish surfer. Regardless; to complete the best manoeuvrers without style It is still outstanding surfing.

And then, Bezic said this. “The other thing about skating… is the sound of the edge. The sound of a beautiful skater going from edge to edge, from lean to lean… it’s a beautiful sound. It’s a sound that we all love. It’s a gentle carving, it’s a clean sound… there are no scratches, it’s a glide. It’s a hum.” And as I listened to her struggle to find a good word to describe the sound; the feeling you get when you hear a sharp skate glide over ice, that feeling resonated with me.

Even though I knew it was unfair and pretentious and somewhat ridiculous to focus on such a small and seemingly silly detail. I knew exactly what she meant. There’s something in the seamless flow which separates the good surfer (or skater, apparently) from the exceptional. The almost indefinable subtleties of style. We don’t have the sound of skates on ice in surfing, but you can picture it. You can almost hear it when you watch the best of the best. Effortless swoops and razor-sharp carves that just… hum.

Does it really matter? Of course not. But I now know that the non-existent hum is how I measure great surfing. The hum I hear might not be audible to others, and I might be deaf to the hum others crave. I’m sure my own surfing has never even quietly hummed, but I have a great time trying to make it.

The Radiolab podcast On the Edge can be found at http://www.radiolab.org/story/edge/