Catching Waves for a Living. SPORTS: WORLD'S No. 1 PRO SURFER

DISCARD your business suit. Kick off your shoes. And imagine getting paid to play in the turquoise surf of the world's most idyllic beaches: Sunset Beach, Hawaii; Surfers Paradise, Australia; Biarritz, France.... ``It doesn't sound very hard, does it?'' says Australian Barton Lynch with a laugh. Mr. Lynch is the reigning men's world professional surfing champion. As recreation, he says, ``Surfing is escapist and incredibly therapeutic. There is something special about sitting out there floating in the ocean, riding waves and being so close to nature.''

But as a profession - no matter the setting - surfing can be as intense and grueling as any sporting event. Perhaps the closest comparison is skiing. Except that skiers have lifts, bindings, and a surface that isn't constantly changing shape beneath you. The tour itself, which has just begun, can be a grind, says Lynch.

This year, the Association of Surfing Professionals' 10-month tour includes 28 events spanning the globe. ``The glamour's gone after the fifth or sixth crummy hotel room or 10-hour plane ride. And a man can only eat so much take-away before he goes mad,'' he jokes.

But lately, professional male surfers are starting to receive tidy sums for their efforts. This year's ASP total prize purse will be the biggest ever: $2.3 million, up from $1.3 million last year.

``In just the last two or three years, we're getting to a stage where you can make a decent living out of it,'' says Lynch, who pocketed $57,000 in prize winnings in 1988, plus about twice that much again from product endorsements. (Women are relative newcomers to the sport and are still struggling to attract funds. The 1988 world champion, American Frieda Zamba, took home $15,000 in winnings.)

The rise in financial rewards coincides with a change in the sport's image. Surfing used to be viewed as a counterculture beach scene. A place where hippies, Greenies, Vietnam draft-dodgers, and returning vets chose to escape from society.

``Surfers used to regard themselves, and some still do, as rebellious figures,'' says Tim Baker, editor of Tracks, an Australian surfing newspaper. ``Now, in Australia, the schools hold surfing classes each week. Top surfers have fairly clean-cut images and are seen as role models. Tom Carroll [two-time world champion] gets involved in antismoking campaigns. It's quite socially acceptable to be seen as a surfer.''

Broad public acceptance of the surfing image, nurtured by articulate spokesmen such as Lynch, has bolstered the sales of surf-type clothing to surfing and non-surfing customers. These clothing companies have in turn pumped more money into the sport. Mainstream advertisers, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and BHP Steel, have also become active sponsors. INEVITABLY, the ``soul surfers'' are questioning the commercialization of the sport. ``Surfing has always been viewed as a `soul' activity,'' Mr. Baker says. ``The sheer pleasure of the sport was supposed to be enough to sustain you. There are surfers who see pro surfing as a form of prostitution: traveling around the world and putting on a display for whoever will put up the money.''

Every so often a pro surfer drops out, as did Californian Dave Parmenter. In a Surfer magazine interview, he called the pro tour a ``freak show,'' ``sold as an aerosol cheese spread,'' and lacking ``moral substance.''

That's absolute nonsense, responds Lynch. ``Surfing is different for every individual. Lots of guys drop out and become incredibly self-righteous. The day I won the [world title] contest in Hawaii was as good and as epic and as exciting as any day of surfing for me.'' He adds that in or out of competition ``a spiritual experience is when you click - when you get a perfect wave and everything falls together.''

One thing surfers do agree on is the need to stop the degradation of the world's beaches. Sydney beaches - sullied by sewage pumped offshore - in particular draw the wrath of Australian surfers. Last month, a POOO (People Opposed to Ocean Outfalls) rally in Lynch's hometown of Manly drew about 3,000 people despite pouring rain. ``With all the technology in the world, there's got to be some way some genius can come up with a better way of getting rid of human waste than dumping it into the ocean, which doesn't serve or help anyone,'' Lynch says.

As the sport grows in popularity, Australian politicians may do well to listen to surfers' complaints about beach pollution. Due to its long coastline, dense coastal population, and superb year-round surfing conditions, Australia is estimated to have more surfers per capita than any other country in the world. Not surprisingly, Australian ``goofy footers'' have dominated the international sport of slicing through emerald ocean curls. Fifteen of the past 20 world surfing champions have been Aussies.

And the wiry Lynch intends to continue that record by holding on to his crown for at least another year. He's off to a quick start. In early March, Lynch took home first place and about $8,000 in prize money from the Cronulla Beach contest. ``Barton's always been called consistent,'' says Baker. ``But now he's more relaxed and seems to have put a bit of radical edge to his surfing. He's surfing better than I've ever seen him surf before.''

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