One can write a million words about surfing, about the ocean, about the myriad ways that waves break and the thousand and one ways that surfers wipe out, but in the end, what do you have? A bunch of words about a sport that transcends verbiage.
And yet . . . some of the greatest surfers of all time have occasionally put into words their own thoughts and feelings about the sport. Here, LIFE.com offers a series of surfing photos from back in the day, as well as some quotes from those intrepid, amphibious, lucky souls who spend more time in the ocean, half-naked and living life to the fullest, than on the hard, unyielding ground.
“Out of water, I am nothing.” — Duke Kahanamoku
“Surfing’s one of the few sports where you look ahead to see what’s behind.” — Laird Hamilton
“It’s like the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no getting out.” — Kelly Slater
“If in doubt, paddle out.” — Nat Young
“One of the greatest things about the sport of surfing is that you need only three things: your body, a surfboard, and a wave.” — Naima Green
“I surf to get tan.” — Shane Dorian
“It’s not tragic to die doing something you love.” — Mark Foo
“I’ve tried changing my surfing, which is the worst thing you can do. Everyone surfs their own way. If I try to surf like someone else, I look like a dork.” — Andy Irons
“Surfing is such an amazing concept. You’re taking on Nature with a little stick and saying, ‘I’m gonna ride you!’ And a lot of times Nature says, ‘No you’re not!’ and crashes you to the bottom.” — Jolene Blalock
“I could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” — Captain James Cook, on watching a Hawaiian surfer in the late 18th century
“Surfing is very much like making love. It always feels good, no matter how many times you’ve done it.” — Paul Strauch
“You’re sayin’ the FBI’s gonna pay me to learn to surf?” — Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), Point Break
“If it swells, ride it.” — Anonymous
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.