Drifting Then And Now, With Rob Machado

On Baja, Bali, and knowing when to bail for the road

With his enlightened air and tread-lightly approach, Rob Machado embodies the intelligent, deliberate traveling surfer, one who chooses his missions carefully, evades crowds, and always finds good waves. He’s also a master of the agonizing dilemma every surfer faces at the hint of swell: deciding when to stay local and when to hit the road.

Machado’s horizons were open wide for 2016, but some of his best trips were just a daytrip away, just south of his North County, San Diego home, in Baja. We called Machado on a rainy So-Cal afternoon last week, as images of Central California lineups filled our phones’ screens, and asked about his year, but also about his broader travel philosophy, whether it’s changed over time, and how he channels that Machado magic in ever-crowded zones.

What was a highlight for you among your trips last year?

Me and Taylor [Knox] had a trip down to Baja around the start of 2016. We took a ski out to a beachbreak that was pretty good size, before it was maxed out. We were the only people around – miles of beach, and there wasn’t another human near us. It’s always special to be reminded how that seclusion still exists. Then we had pumping swell and two days of Santa Anas in November. Every inch of coastline was as good as it gets. It was exciting just being in the water. Everywhere you looked, up and down the beach, you saw 6-8-foot spitting tubes. People standing in tubes, guys getting launched. The entertainment value of watching it happen was amazing, let alone the waves that we got to ride.

Has your idea of an ideal day at Baja changed as you’ve gotten older?

It’s evolved a little bit. I have a different appreciation for it, because good waves aren’t a guarantee. Going to Baja, there’s always that gamble, that uncertainty. I’ve had days where it’s supposed to be pumping and offshore winds, but when you drive down there, it’s howling south winds for no reason at all. When you do get those magical days, when it does come together, it makes you forget the days when you drove down there only to turn around and sit in line at the border and drive home. It makes you appreciate the good days even more.

Photo: Glaser

What’s changed for you in deciding when to stay local and when to pack up and travel somewhere?

Nowadays, with the forecasting power we have, I look at travel a little differently. A lot of trips I do now, I’ll look at a window of time. Instead of saying Let’s go on such and such date, let’s look at a period from the first of the month to the 30th, and we’re just going to be on-call, utilizing all the forecasting that’s at our fingertips. A whole different excitement for me is building boards to take on trips and then going to different places. I love taking an array of boards with me. There’s a lot that goes into trips these days. It’s finding the destination, picking the best window of time, blocking it out, building boards, and piecing together the variables. I don’t think it’s as easy as it used to be. It’s easier in a sense, but it’s not as easy to score good waves without people, because there are people everywhere.

How does the experience of testing self-shaped boards affect your travel?

Once you pick a destination, then you can research the type of waves. There’s always going to be the unknown factor. But if I know I’m going to surf pointbreaks, say, or if I’m going to surf slabs, building the boards is when the trip becomes more of a reality and more exciting for me. One of the key elements in surfing for me is having the right board on the right day. There’s nothing worse than wishing you had another board, or discovering that your board is too big or too small. My favorite kind of surf trip is when I go somewhere and take four or five boards and ride every single one. I feel like I got the most out of every surfboard, and I come home stoked, because I got all these different feelings on different surfcrafts.

Nowadays, how do you choose to spend your days when there are no waves?

I still get anxious. With social media, you see a photo of every single place from everywhere in the world that was good at that moment. And it drives you crazy. You think, If I could have been there, that would’ve been so fun. There was that moment last week when Central California flared up. I heard it was extremely crowded, but it was still such a rare wave that it would have been cool to be there. But at the same time, I enjoy staying at home when we get these big storms. This is what I remember winters being like when I was a kid. We used to get 8-10 inches of rain a winter, when we weren’t in a drought [Laughs]. It was wild and wooly. You only got these little windows to surf. Plus, it’s a good time to spend with family. Let the body rest, do yoga. There are plenty of things going on at home. I’ve also been up at the mountain snowboarding a bit.

Has your snowboarding informed any of your surfing?

It’s interesting: I compare snowboarding a lot to riding an alaia. It’s a lot of edge work – going edge to edge, holding that edge for long periods of time. Riding an alaia or other finless equipment is very similar. The whole being-strapped-in thing is different, but there’s something neat about it, too. I can see why Gerry [Lopez] relocated to the mountains. It could totally become addicting when you get good powder and you can stretch out long turns.

Some of the most widely-seen footage of you last year was from your trips to Bali. With Indonesia getting more crowded, how do you still manage to keep your own surf frontier with the masses of people?

That’s a good question. I was in Bali when Patagonia was doing their film with Gerry [Ed. Note: You can watch the film, “The More Things Change,” by clicking here]. It was his first trip to Bali in a long time, back to Uluwatu. I was super-impressed by his attitude. You can imagine how Gerry would have seen that place in the ’70s, how empty it was and how different it was back then. But Gerry said, “Change is inevitable. It’s going to happen. You can’t build fences around life. You have to keep rolling with the punches.” It was cool to watch him come back to Uluwatu and embrace it for what it had become. The people were still amazing, the waves are still amazing. The place is still incredible. It’s just different. There are more people in the water, but where isn’t there more people in the water? That’s a part of life. You learn how to navigate your way around and find little windows of time. If you’re smart about it and go about it the right way, there are still incredible waves out there, and you can find them.

[Title Photo: Stacy]