30 Years On The North Shore, With Taylor Knox

Lessons of respect from a class-act talent

Photo: Frieden
That unmistakable handlebar stash could be seen racing through North Shore barrels again this winter, just like when he first traveled to Oahu as a teenager. Photo: Frieden

There are qualities of Taylor Knox’s surfing that have afforded the San Diego leadfoot one of the most active freesurfing careers of anyone you’ll see online, but not all of it involves his powerful style or his focus on proper diet and fitness. Knox has an equal reputation as a pro of class and character, one who always prioritizes respect over hustling for the most waves. He’s learned this discipline on more than a few trips to the North Shore – 30 years this December, to be exact – so we called him and asked about his evolved notion of what a career built on respect looks like.

What thoughts ran through your head as your boarded your plane from the North Shore back to California a few weeks ago?

Man, the North Shore now is so much different from when I started going there. The first year I ever went to Hawaii when I was 15 or 16 seems so long ago, when I was staying with Ben Aipa for my first few trips to Oahu.

Was there a distinct memory you had of watching a man like Ben handle himself in the water that affected you?

I was equally excited and intimidated by all the people he was introducing me to. He took me to the west side, into Makaha, where I had heard all those stories about tough locals before I even got over there. I remember when Ben introduced me to Buffalo [Keaulana], and being so nervous around the two of them. And I’m sure they sensed that from me, too [Laughs]. But both of them were incredibly kind to me. They called me into a couple waves, and I wasn’t out there trying to paddle around them at any point for sets. There was quickly a mutual respect. I began to understand that when you paddle out and you show respect, it’s immediately obvious you’re not there to challenge anyone.

Who were other surfers whose attitude you modeled yours after?

My hero growing up was always Tom Curren. Even apart from his talent, I noticed how quiet and humble he was in the lineup, which made a lasting impression on me. Watching him reminded me that being humble in the best way to be. That’s going to get you through most situations in life without there being friction. It’s not often about the skill you have, and of all people, he had it; it’s if you’re a cool guy or not. And I’ve never seen anyone mad at Tom Curren.

Your uncle was a police officer. How did your concept of respect take shape in your early life?

The places we visit are extensions of ourselves. Honoring that was always important for my family. For San Diegans, trips to Baja are naturally part of our lives, but we can forget that we’re visiting another country, and there are locals there who are frothing just as much for good waves as we are. My uncle reminded me how important it us to not turn trips into one-way transactions. I’m not one of those people who goes down there for the beer and the beaches, and then leaves without communicating with the local people. Talk about the surf. Use your ski to give others a ride out the back. Just don’t be that arrogant guy who thinks you can come down and wave your privilege over everyone else, no matter if you’re in Baja or Hawaii.

Photo: Ginsberg
With Baja just a short drive across the border, few surfers know its ins and outs as well as Knox. Here, T-Knox digs into a trademark top turn. Photo: Ginsberg

Respect can’t start if you don’t genuinely encounter people.

It’s not a secret formula, even though it’s difficult for a lot of surfers who feel like they have something to prove. Seeing people and meeting people are one in the same, and that translates in the water to waiting your turn in the lineup, and being kind to others. Sure, you can get caught up with emotion sometimes, especially if you’ve been out there for a while and the waves are good and you’re dying to get one. And sometimes it’s near unbearable when you have to give up a wave that you really didn’t want to give up. But it’s possible for that wave to go a long way. Some of the best memories as surfers happen when another guy sees how hungry you are for a good wave, and they give it to you.

It’s not about kissing ass either. Let’s coexist here. We’re all out here for the same reason. Maybe it’s your day, or maybe it’s my day. But good karma is almost always created by sincere relationships.

After going back to the North Shore again, what was new for you this time around?

I’m not sure it was totally new, but now that I’ve been off Tour for a while, I feel like I surf a lot freer, both in Hawaii and around the world. What I realized in looking back was how much pressure I put on myself when I competed. When I was younger, I would frame the situation to myself like I was required to surf out in all the important breaks, and that mindset led to hours of frustrating battles for waves among crowds. But now, I’m just fine with sitting on the beach, waiting for the crowd to thin out, and picking my spots. I surf the places on the North Shore that I want to surf. It’s funny, but I seem to get just as many good waves as before.

Knox, patience rewarded on a glassy North Shore section
Knox, patience rewarded on a glassy North Shore section. Photo: Frieden

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