Illustration by Jean Jullien
Illustration by Jean Jullien

More (Or Less) Core Division

Can you still be considered a hardcore surfer if you don’t ride large waves?

I recently sat down at a bar in the San Diego airport while waiting for a flight to San Francisco, and the bartender and I got to talking about surfing. He asked me what my home break was, and when I told him Ocean Beach, his eyes widened. "Whoa, you surf OB?" he said. "You must be pretty hardcore. Every picture I've ever seen of that place, it's, like, at least 10-foot and heavy. You're gnarly."

I wasn't sure what to say. The thing is, I've been a surfer for over 20 years, ridden waves on four continents and have been barreled over tropical reefs and frigid sandbars alike, but I've never ridden a proper 10-foot wave. Oh, I've been steamrolled by a few during rapidly increasing swells in Northern California and Hawaii, but I've never intentionally paddled out in solid surf with the aim of scratching into a 10-footer. A hair over 8 feet or so is pretty much my limit, and I don't even remotely care what anybody thinks about that. Or so I thought.

Speaking with the bartender made me think about the concept of the hardcore surfer in our culture, and how your willingness to charge heavy waves seemingly sits at the heart of the core question. Can you still be a "core" surfer if you opt out of oversized sessions? Is there a "You Must Have Ridden Waves This Tall" sign you need to measure up to in order to earn core credit?

On one hand, I can certainly understand why somebody would suggest that riding well-overhead waves should be in the hardcore-surfer criteria. Drawing beautiful, swooping lines on a wave that's head high is impressive, but if you can draw those same lines on a wave that's double overhead, you've sprinkled fear into the equation, overcome it and ascended to a much higher plane of surfing existence. And on an even higher plane, the madmen who ride maxing Mavericks and Jaws have overcome the most terrifying challenge surfing can possibly offer, so it's no surprise that these surfers are often considered the core-est of the core.

On the other hand, I don't think core-ness should hinge upon overcoming a fear barrier or tackling a particular-sized wave, for a couple of reasons.

First, your willingness to charge doesn't necessarily say much about your skill as a surfer, or how much time you put in in the water — which should be at the core of the core question. There are plenty of people who surf bombing Ocean Beach who may have the constitution to endure the awful paddle out, the courage to take endless sets on the head and the tenacity to track down one of the demented, shifting peaks and throw themselves over the ledge, but when it's mortal-sized? Let's just say that there are plenty of hard-charging surfers who struggle to engage their rail when it's 3 feet.

On the other side of the spectrum, you'll find incredibly talented, dedicated surfers like Filipe Toledo, who nearly won the world title a couple of years back, but isn't exactly known for charging substantial surf. You'd be hard pressed finding somebody who eats, sleeps and breathes surfing more than Toledo. Because of that dedication (and a whole lot of freakish natural talent), there are only two, maybe three surfers on Earth who are as skilled on a surfboard as he is. But if we're using the big-wave yardstick, does that mean Toledo is less core than the unknown guy who surfs once a week, but waxes up his 8’0″ when Blacks gets 12-foot?

The thing is, core-ness should be a measurement of your dedication to surfing, and if you've made it to the WCT, odds are you've spent more time riding waves, thinking about riding waves and talking about riding waves than any civilian surfer who's ever lived. But even at that rarified level, everyone has a different threshold for what size surf they're comfortable riding. Remember the Fiji Pro debacle of 2012, when a 20-foot swell chewed up the Cloudbreak reef and the event was put on hold until the surf calmed down? Some surfers were stoked on the size, some were on edge but cautiously ready to paddle out and a few ashen-faced rippers straight-up said, "No way." Were the guys waxing up their 9’0″s more core than those who were frantically making up excuses about not having flotation vests or surfboards bigger than a 6’8″? I don't think so.

Besides, if you tried to establish a minimum-size wave you had to surf before you could officially be considered hardcore, that line would be both arbitrary and totally relative. Who decides which wave is big enough to sufficiently bestow core-ness? If I were to overcome my sketchiness limit and paddle out on a bombing 10- to 12-foot day at Ocean Beach, I'd feel like the bravest surfer who ever lived —    as core as humanly possible. Meanwhile, that same day there might be a whole crew taking on 20-foot Mavericks who would consider double-overhead beachbreak surf to be "fun-sized." If you jump across the pond to 40-foot Nazaré or Jaws, the scale can slide even farther, and eventually the only core surfers left are Garrett McNamara and Aaron Gold.

Miki Dora once called himself a "4-foot-and-under man," and I have no idea whether he was referring to comfort or ability, but either way, the guy clearly didn't consider riding larger waves a requirement to be a dedicated surfer (though he did enjoy brief successes on the North Shore). Yet Dora, Mr. 4 Foot and Under, just might be the core-est surfer who ever rode a wave. He earned that title by turning his back on society and foregoing a conventional lifestyle to live a life devoted to surf, by any means necessary. If there actually was a sign somewhere that read "You Must Have Ridden Waves This Tall" to determine whether or not you were core, Dora would have probably sharpened the fin on his small-wave Malibu log and used it to chop that sign down.

[Illustration by Jean Jullien]

[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.4, “Life & Death of Waves,” on newsstands and available for download now.]