The Kong Abides

A look back at the ultimate power-broker, Gary Elkerton

Gary Elkerton took 5th place in the 1984 World Amateur Championships, held in mostly crap surf at Huntington and Oceanside. The result didn’t matter. He was the star. By comparison, everyone else was small, pale, boring. Every time Gary set foot on the beach, the whole event simply tilted in his direction. It was the heyday of Kong, and while his best surfing was still ahead of him, in 1984 Elkerton was at his absolute peak in terms of being ominous and mystifying. Fucker wore a right-hand-only black leather glove that year, and such was his power that it came off as cool.

Elkerton would have done better in the contest, but in the early rounds he picked up an interference against future Volcom founder Richard Woolcott and knocked himself out of contention. Elkerton was outraged. He actually charged Woolcott, who fell back, petrified. Neck-wringing and ass-kicking were threatened. In a huge upset, and in no small part due to Elkerton’s early exit, America beat Australia for the team title. I was a cub reporter for Breakout magazine, and at the awards banquet I realized there was a scoop in the offing if I could bring Elkerton and Woolcott for a bit of hatchet-burying. I introduced myself to Elkerton, who was half-drunk and agreeable, and we walked over to where Woolcott’s was sitting with a few other Team USA members.

Kong had so much power that he busted this board just putting his leash on. Photo: Dan Merkel.

Kong had so much power that he busted this board just putting his leash on. Photo: Dan Merkel

Warshaw [to Elkerton]: Well, here’s Richard Woolcott, the man you had words with. What happened with that?

Elkerton [to me]: Well, yeah, there was a bit of a disagreement. But like, ahh [turning to Woodcott], you’ve got to paddle out the back at Sunset, bro, before you prove that you’ve beaten me.

[Two or three second of silence.]

Woolcott: All I can say, man…

Elkerton: Prove it to me.

Woolcott: Hey man, I don’t want any bad vibes. I was so bummed about the interference.

Elkerton: Prove it.

Woolcott [gibbering a bit]: I’ve got pictures on my wall of you; I love the way you surf! I was going down the line, you accidentally dropped in…

Elkerton [tone lightens up]: Nah, I’m only saying, I’ll help you out, man. I’ll help you paddle out the back there.

Woolcott: You’ll help?

Elkerton: Let’s paddle out together. I’ll take you out there as far as you want to go, man.

Woolcott: Is that good or bad?

Everybody [loud voices]: That’s good!

At some level, this was a put-on. There was a lot of marketing involved. (“Kong” was Quiksilver’s idea; two years earlier, Elkerton’s nickname was “Fat Boy.”) Then again, the reality of Gary’s life and times up to that point was more over the top than the hype. Pretty much zero formal schooling. No fixed address as a kid—the family lived in a trailer, or with inlaws, and a good part of Elkerton’s preteen years was spent floating atop the Coral Sea with his chain-smoking shrimp-trawling father, Keith “Bullfrog” Elkerton. Gary kept a board on deck, and for the most part learned to surf by himself. You could actually see this upbringing in the way Elkerton surfed, which had hints of MP and Bugs, but really was like nothing else in sport. Raw and powerful, with a redlining fuck-off Aussie attitude. Loved the early. Scanned the dawn patrol lineup with bloodshot eyes, and blood-alcohol levels that would have had the average punter comatose or jailed.

Elkerton went on to become a three-time runner-up to the ASP world title, which argues some level of versatility, but I always regarded him as a specialist. Rival Tom Carroll thrived on power, but Gary depended on it. Looked hamstrung without it. Yes, he won major pro tour events at Huntington and Chiba, but he did so with the style and artistry of a tank grinding its way into a mini-mall parking space.

Gary Elkerton turns 50 today. I skimmed his autobiography from a couple years back, and it sounds as if he’s made peace with past, his id, his compulsiveness, his aggression. Over the past 30 or so years, he has divorced his Kongness, re-embraced it, wrestled it, hid it, survived it, and finally, according to his 2012 memoir, made peace with it. A bit of Kong flair abides still, but Gary’s a grown hope. Happy birthday.