Ode to the Man Van

Mini-Van or Man Van? Semantics aside, these may be the best surf vehicles on earth. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

As the sting of his recent SURFER firing begins to fade, Rob Gilley now turns his blog attention towards memories and stories garnered from his long lackluster career.

I just couldn’t claim it. The title of this blog was supposed to be, “Ode to the Mini-Van,” but I couldn’t do it. I haired out.

There’s just too much stigma attached to the mini-van. Too much soccer mom baggage. Too much suburban conformist paranoia. Too much time-travel-fear that the 18-year old me would hunt down the forty-year old me, Terminator-style, if he found out I was driving one.

So that’s why I call mine a man van—to avoid all that.

But if you want the truth, here it is: Mini-vans are actually the most functional urban surf vehicles on the road.

And now that it’s out there, here’s what I would say to that zit-faced, 18-year old time traveler if he finds me: There’s not a more functional, comfortable, or efficient up-and-down-the-coast surf vehicle that can touch it.

The only autos that come close are full-size cargo vans, but those things get jack squat for gas mileage and, well, full-size vans are kind of creepy.

No, the mini-van is it. The proverbial shizzle: You can stack ten boards in it and sleep in it at the same time. You can hang dry a full suit from the lifted hatchback. You can slide open a side door and be in surf check/bucket seat /George Hamilton nirvana.

With a sleeping bag and some Bartles and Jaymes, you can boink in it.

Hell, with the right Tupperware and some newspaper, you can perch logs in it.

I know, I know. This is pretty shocking. This whole thing is making your head spin. Really throwing off your whole forest green Tacoma-centered universe.

But you better get use to it, because surfing mini-vans are here to stay. They’re all over Japan and coming to a surf town near you. In fact, they’re already here. A bunch of notable surfers already drive them but won’t go on the record to discuss it.

But eventually I did find one brave soul to claim the mini-van. One authoritative source.

Yes, the Brawny Towel Man himself: Grant Washburn.

Grant is the perfect patient zero. The perfect surfer to drive mini-vans out of the closet. As a six foot five Mavericks regular with a healthy appetite, Grant is taller than you, surfs bigger waves than you, and craps bigger than you. In fact, his actual craps are bigger than Victor Ribas.

So let’s hear what Grant has to say:

So you drive a mini-van, Grant. What do you own?

“I am a previous owner of two VW Vanagons, and converted to a Toyota Sienna for better mileage and airbags.”

What got you started on mini-vans?

“There was a singular, defining moment that led me to become a van convert. It was after a particularly cold evening session at Mavericks, back in the early 90s. Like many of life’s turning points, this “light bulb” epiphany shines like a beacon, a clear snapshot, rising from decades of foggy memories. A cruel wind grew during a slate gray afternoon, and the elements had stiffened my limbs and eroded my judgment. The fun had blown away, my energy was gone, and I bobbed for an eternity fantasizing about wool socks and a warm beer. I don’t recall anything more from that session, until I staggered into the lot and dropped my board in the dirt.

“It started to rain. I groped for my keys with a hand locked by hypothermic rigor mortis (an unusual sensation in Northern California, but all too familiar for surfers from New England). Three other vehicles remained. Each contained a cold-water warrior. Evan Slater’s Previa was closest, a permanent fixture in those days, providing a mobile bedroom/garage for the rabid Todos traveler. I noticed his windows were steamed up, as if he was taking a hot shower. Beyond were Doc Renneker’s metallic-blue Aerostar, and John “Three Piece” Raymond’s Dodge Caravan. My mind was tormented by the task of peeling off my 5-mil. My vehicle at the time was a two-door slot car, with eyebolts driven through the roof so I wouldn’t lose my 10’8”. It offered no shelter. Attempting to use Evan’s sauna as a windbreak, I clenched my teeth and unzipped. Naked to the elements, I bared my torso and groveled to pull the first foot free. The frigid, 20th Century rubber was as inflexible as my cramping muscles. I thrashed against the injustice, not caring if my $350 suit was ripped apart. I was beyond miserable, with any recollection of the day’s classic rides or shred of enjoyable experience forever banished by my suffering. It was then that a gust tore through the darkness, snatched my towel and sent it tumbling into a puddle. Thus the hideous memory was etched into my gray matter for all eternity.

“No doubt I had admired the versatility and spaciousness of the little vans for some time, but after that day I jealously coveted them. I was never huge on vehicular vanity (I had driven a station wagon in college, and beyond the rusted eyebolt roof-rack, this car was a wreck), but I liked to drive something with agility. After this session, I didn’t care if I had to pedal a covered wagon.”

What is the largest amount of surfboards that you have had in your vehicle?
And how long is the longest one?

“I can get a stack of 10-footers in there and still have room for passengers. I usually leave 2 or 3 in it all season—it’s a rolling quiver.”

Would you like to use this opportunity to narc on other surfers who drive mini-vans, and if so, who?

“More than half of the Mavericks regulars drive them, so we should just mock guys like Christy Davis who use bike chains and padlocks to keep their precious boards in their little pick-ups.”

Would you patronize a business that advertises mini-van to Man Van conversions?

“Whoa now! Are you talking about desecrating a Sienna? Is nothing sacred?”

Do you think that mini-van manufacturers are missing an opportunity by not marketing their product to surfers?

“I suspect they know who will buy what, and why, and that the guys looking for a solid surf rig will find it. Why waste ad dollars?”

What is your overall feeling toward mini-vans, and your mini-van in particular?

“I am a passionate devotee. These are great rigs, and work as an invisibility cloak around town.”

So there you have it: One of the most respected big wave riders in the world just let the entire surf world know that it’s OK to drive a mini-van.

Let the boinking begin.