Nathan Fletcher's life was at a crossroads. It was the spring of 1998 and with no sponsors, less than $300 to his name, and his two-year marriage to a woman named Roxanne Hammer unraveling at home, the 23-year-old entered the Gotcha Pro Tahiti at an offshore reef pass called Teahupoo—a name most surfers couldn't yet pronounce. He'd promised himself that if he could make an impact and win some heats, he would end the marriage and make a serious attempt at being a profession surfer.
As if on cue, a monster swell collided with Teahupoo's treacherously shallow reef during the final rounds of the event, giving the surf community its first up-close and uncomfortable look down the throat of the world's most captivating and frightening wave. As the swell pulsed, and many seasoned competitors looked over the ledge and pulled back out of an innate sense of self-preservation, Fletcher put on a display of purely instinctive, balls-out charging that happens only a handful of times per generation. As the crowd whistled and screamed from the channel, Fletcher cleared his mind and followed his heart. In a span of three minutes during his Round of 32 heat, he earned two perfect 10s and the respect of a community who'd all but forgotten about him.
The performance was a revelation. As a prodigious pre-teen, with a 2-to-20-foot surf-anything approach and a pedigree that linked to some of California's early surf pioneers, Fletcher seemed destined to eclipse the accomplishments of his older brother Christian—the bad-boy forefather of modern aerial surfing. But by s16 he'd burned out, turning his attention to motocross, snowboarding, and skateboarding…anything but surfing. "I wasn't bored with surfing, I was just sick of the pressure," he remembers. "I was just ready to be not good at something, which is more fun."
Over the following four years—a formidable period in the arc of a professional surf career—Fletcher surfed less than a dozen times. But to everyone watching from the channel that day, it was obvious that the demons which had driven him away surfing were gone, at least for the moment.
"He continued to elevate his surfing as it got bigger," remembers Conan Hayes, who ultimately finished second in the event. "A lot of people hadn't seen Nathan for a long time. It was a turning point for him, and he came through on what he'd set out to do. I'm sure that performance and the momentum it generated gave him a whole new perspective on what he could accomplish. That was the reemergence of Nathan back into the forefront of surfing."
"I knew my whole life had changed," says Fletcher. "After that heat, I was a pro surfer." Two weeks later, he returned from Tahiti. Roxanne was gone; only surfing remained.
When Fletcher opens the door to his San Juan Capistrano home, I'm surprised by how big he is. I always am, no matter how often I see him. Somewhere in the back of my brain, he'll never outgrow being Christian's Fletcher's blond, 4-foot-tall brother from'80s surf mags—the half-pint prodigy who first surfed adult-sized Pipeline and Waimea Bay the winter of his 12th year. But here in front of me is Nathan at 36—now 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders, muscular and lean, wearing a black T-shirt and pants that he's crudely cut into shorts, eyelids at half mast, dark hair akimbo, miscellaneous tattoos, and a permanent facial expression that seems to say, very non-ironically, "Whatever." He extends a carpenter-like hand and mumbles something that I interpret as an invitation inside.
His abode isn't what I imagined when he told me he lives in a mobile home down by the river. Situated on a multi-acre tract of land on the south side of San Juan Creek, Fletcher shares this 1,000-square-foot semi-permanent dwelling with Adela, his girlfriend of three years, and their two lap-size dogs, Mr. Buzz and Boopers. Nathan's grandmother owns the land and the labyrinth of horse stables, corrals, and equine-related equipment, which is managed by his aunt, Joyce Hoffman—the 1965 and '66 World Surfing Champion. The air smells of fresh hay and dry earth, and though the compound is flanked on all sides by never-ending Orange County sprawl, it feels like the old California that, for the most part, lies buried beneath countless tile-roofed communities with Spanish-sounding names.
The homes of most professional surfers are filled with trophies commemorating career milestones—contests won, contracts signed, tubes threaded—but those kinds of mementos are conspicuously absent in Fletcher's house. Maybe that's because the rewards he's looking for can't just be stuck in a frame and nailed to the wall. Maybe he just needs a publicist. Whatever the reason, Fletcher has become so good at avoiding the limelight, it's easiest to review his career highlights by making a list of some of the things he's not synonymous with.
Though he was at the forefront of the aerial generation, his name doesn't usually come to mind when you think about section-clearing leaps of faith and mind-bending rotations. You can count the number of people to ever intentionally go left at Mavericks on one hand (Fletcher has done this both in freesurfs and competitive situations alike), yet you'd probably say 20 names before his if asked for the best surfers at California's deadliest wave. He reintroduced the surf population to the quad (which until then had been banished to the realm of bygone, gimmicky designs), but when Kelly Slater wins another world title on a four-fin, it's unlikely that Fletcher will be thanked. He's played a pioneering role in the rediscovery of outer-reef paddle-surfing on the North Shore, but often others get the credit. He's among an elite group of people who could have easily had professional careers as either surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders, or motocross riders, but when you think of multi-disciplinarians, you're way more likely to offer Danny Way's name than his. And in the lineup at Pipeline, where Fletcher has been a standout since he was a child, he takes a backseat in our collective memory to the swarm of one-note Pipeline specialists who make careers out of catching a single memorable wave per winter…if they're lucky.
As Boopers and Buzz run wild around the living room, Fletcher's scrolls through photos from Cloudbreak on his laptop. Just a week prior, he, Bruce Irons, Kohl Cristenson, and a handful of others paddled into some of the biggest, cleanest waves ever recorded at Tavarua's iconic left-hand reef pass.
"Fiji was the culmination of a long road," he says in a gravely voice. "The sun was out, I had the right board for the swell size, I was with like-minded people, the media was there to record it, and to get barreled like that and come out was emotionally overwhelming. It was like winning a lifetime achievement award. When you throw your morals out the window and put everything on the line and make it, it's an incredible feeling."
Since Fletcher's return to the surf spotlight more than a decade ago, that feeling has become his guiding light. His location at any given moment has been dictated by the swell patterns of the Pacific, traveling on a moment's notice to Mavericks and the North Shore in the winter, Mexico and the South Pacific in the summer—the bigger the wave, the better.
"Nathan's an integral part of the evolution of big-wave surfing," says Greg Long, who has emerged as the spokesman for a generation of chargers who have largely turned their backs on tow-in surfing and its reliance on technology. In fact, the genesis of the anti-tow movement can be tracked back to the morning of December 6, 2008, when Fletcher and Kohl Christenson showed up at Mavericks on a cold and foggy morning without any tow-in equipment on a day that was considered "too big to paddle." The two considered packing up and going home, but Nathan remembers Kohl turning to him and saying with a smile, "I may never come to Mavericks again, we gotta go out there an at least get pounded on one." As the tow-in circus swirled around them, the two battled current and dodged sets for hours, until, in close succession, each caught a bomb.
Their groundbreaking session was largely ignored by the surf media, which was focused on the death of big-wave legend Peter Davi, who drowned that same day while surfing Ghost Tree, but the inner circle of the big-wave community was watching. The session became a call to return to big-wave surfing's roots.
"Nathan and Kohl's foggy day session was definitely one of the pivotal moments in the paddle-in movement," says Greg Long. "When I saw those photos, I thought, 'If those guys are catching waves like that in those conditions, what else is possible?'"
"We weren't trying to bum anyone out or make a statement," Fletcher says about the session. "We were just trying to surf." But when it comes to defining moments, actions speak louder than words.
At about noon, Fletcher and I get in his windowless Ford Transit van, and drive 20 minutes to the offices of Hoffmann California Fabrics, where we find his grandfather, Walter Hoffmann at an oversized desk in a massive office that doubles as a showroom for the company's product—printed fabric. There are so many layers of Hawaiian-print shirts and other aloha kitsch hanging on the walls, it's impossible to tell what color the room is painted. While the business has the family-run feeling of a mom-and-pop shop (just about every employee says "Nathan!" as we tour the office), it's played a crucial role in the building of the multi-billion-dollar surf industry, supplying Quiksilver, Billabong, and countless others with hundreds of millions of yards of fabric since Walter and his late brother Philip ("Flippy," as most called him, passed away in 2010) took over the family business from their father in 1959.
Big and barrel-chested with slicked-back silver hair and metal-framed glasses, at nearly 80, Hoffmann looks like he could take a man half his age in a fight. But he flashes a welcoming smile when his grandson enters the room, and the two fall straight into a friendly chat about the waves Fletcher got at Cloudbreak, a spot Hoffmann traveled to shortly after it's discovery in the early 1980s and visited several times subsequently. "Great fishing," he says with a wink.
The Hoffmann brothers are crucial links in surfing's evolution. As early as the mid-1940s they began to appear in surf lore, riding Malibu alongside legends like Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, Bob Simmons, and Buzzy Trent. In his teens, Walter traveled to Hawaii and surfed Diamond Head with the venerable George Downing—a session that would turn the family focus to Hawaii for generations to come—and, in subsequent trips to the islands, he and Flippy made pioneering forays to seldom-surfed breaks on the North Shore. There, they charged Sunset Beach, used a Boston Whaler to experiment with tow-in surfing at Kaena Point and outer reef breaks between Waimea Bay and Velzyland, and some have gone so far as to credit Flippy with being the original gruff voice of the North Shore's surf community. "Flippy didn't give most people the time of day, unless he was yelling at them," Nathan says. "So to get him and Walter to respect me and talk to me makes me feel good about myself."
One of the ways Fletcher has accomplished this is by spending vast swaths of time in the lineups of the North Shore—especially on second-reef days at Pipeline, at a massive and hard-to-master reef called Log Cabins, and at a left-hand cloudbreak locals call Himalayas. The whole Fletcher clan has given memorable performances on the North Shore, from Herbie's hot-dogging at Off The Wall to Christian's night-time Pipe sessions. Hawaii, it seems, is in the family's DNA.
But despite trying hard to live up to the Fletcher-Hoffmann legacy, Nathan's interactions with his own immediate family—whose contributions to surfing are too numerous to list here, but include the invention of the traction pad, the immeasurably influential Wave Warriors video series, the modernization of aerial surfing, the resurrection of longboarding, and enough inflammatory statements to fill a book—are less cut-and-dried.
"By 8, Nathan was surfing Haleiwa in 15-foot faces," Herbie remembers. "I made him wear a pink wetsuit and he had a fluorescent-pink-and-orange Lopez gun, so I could always see him out of the corner of my eye when we were out surfing. He always liked to ride bigger waves, because I guess he needed to prove himself to everyone. But he really enjoyed himself. When his older friends, like Dane Kealoha and Michael Ho, went out surfing, he'd just hang on to their leashes and get paddled out to V-Land or Pipeline. He was always one of the gang, but that was a lot to live up to because the gang was so heavy."
"It's not about pressure, it's about being judged," his mother Dibi corrects me over the phone when I suggest that living up to the family's expectations contributed to his quitting surfing for a while at 16. "He stopped surfing and raced motocross because he could put on a helmet. He liked the anonymity. He didn't have to be Nathan, or Christian's brother, or Herbie's son, or Walter's grandson, or anything else. And there was a frickin' finish line, so you just went out and did the thing, and you weren't judged. That was very liberating for him. Without a finish line, people don't just judge you on your talent and skill, but personal stuff gets involved, too, and it colors how people feel. And that's too bad. Both my kids like competing, but they don't want to be judged."
Fletcher has employed a similar approach to solving family drama—holding it at arm's length until his love for it blossoms again. In fact, this technique has been so effective that a feature in this September's issue of T Magazine (The New York Times monthly style glossy) titled "Family Values: Catching a wave with a royal clan of surfer outlaws" spotlights the family—even drilling down to the brand of cigarettes Christian smokes—but fails to mention Nathan except in a short caption underneath a small family photo. When I bring the piece up with Fletcher, he just shrugs and says, "Right now I like the family most from a distance."
"What Nathan maybe doesn't realize is that he's surpassed the family name," Herbie tells me. "Nathan is a f–kin' hero."
"I'm amazed at how well Nathan was able to maneuver his way out of that vast array of family shadows," says surf historian and author Matt Warshaw, who's Encyclopedia of Surfing is rightfully littered with Hoffman and Fletcher references. "He took the best elements from his brother, his dad, his mom, his aunt, his grandfather, and his great uncle, and here he is now, the family's latest and greatest; the head of his tribe."
Earning that distinction hasn't been easy, but leadership never is. A broken femur in a freak pipeline accident sidelined him less than a month after his Foggy Morning Session with Christenson. Months later, he emerged from the recovery process less flexible but infinitely hungrier to squeeze every drop from what was left of his career. Though he'd never been the type to train, Fletcher did his physical therapy and became a regular at a local gym. "It was nice to have a break from surfing for a minute," he says, "but pretty quickly I was ready to get stronger, both physically and mentally."
His commitment to a meaningful role in surfing was again tested in the fall of 2010, when Andy Irons' tragic death hit Fletcher like a blow to the breadbasket. The Fletcher and Irons brothers had been friends since, as kids, the Kauaians would come to California to film for Herbie's Astrodeck videos. Just weeks before Andy's body was discovered in a Dallas hotel room, Nathan had run into the former three-time World Champ in Europe and convinced him to call his younger brother Bruce and smooth other a long-standing brotherly disagreement. "Nathan could explain my brother me to better than I ever could," Bruce says. He later called Fletcher to thank him for facilitating the reconnection, and in the year since, the two have travelled extensively together, forging a bond both friends value immensely. "Nathan's helped me get my stoke back after a long year," Irons recently told me. "I trust Nathan. I believe him."
In his own way, Fletcher has become surfing's emotional antihero. By design, the "Kill Me" tattoo on his shin sends a message to mainstream society to dismiss him as a misanthrope, but those with whom he's become close praise him for his principled approach and his desire to make lasting human connections. Sadly, friendships forged between members of the big-wave community are fragile things.
On March 16, 2011, toward the end of a marathon day of surfing 25-foot Mavericks, it was Fletcher who found his good friend Sion Milosky's lifeless body floating face down in a nearby lagoon shortly after the 35-year-old went missing from the lineup. The two had traveled extensively together, since, during Fletcher's long slog to recover from his broken femur, Sion became a regular visitor, keeping him positive and offering help with daily chores. They had forged the kind of partnership unique to big-wave surfers—a bond that is both professional and personal and can end in the blink of an eye.
"Sion was such a great person and just so rad," says Fletcher, who has been dealing with some effects of post-traumatic stress since that day. "I know it's my responsibility to not trip on it but to grow from what happened. I know that's how he would handle something like that, and I think it would be disrespectful to our relationship to take it any other way than to find the positive. But it's really hard to not be able to pick up the phone and call him to talk shit."
On a wild and wooly Saturday morning this past August, Makua Rothman towed Fletcher into what some consider the heaviest wave ever ridden at Teahupoo. Even experts have a hard time assigning numeric sizes to Tahiti's backless mutant, but most agree that the wave the 36-year-old caught could be called 15-feet-plus on the Hawaiian scale of measurement (about the equivalent of a five-storey apartment building, half of which was pure pitching lip). "When he let go of the rope, I thought, 'Oh my god,'" says Luke Egan, who was positioned perfectly to see Fletcher's ride from channel. "It was easily 30 feet on the face, and toward the end of his ride, the foam ball hit him and actually exploded him into the air. He nearly landed it, but his nose slowly pearled. It was one of the heaviest waves I've ever seen ridden. Maybe one of the gnarliest waves ridden in the history of the sport."
Just a few days prior, Fletcher had been standing over my shoulder at the SURFER offices. He'd come to do a follow-up interview I'd requested, and I showed him an email Sean Collins had just sent me hypothesizing that the swell headed to Teahupoo could be one of the biggest and cleanest in years. When I asked Fletcher what his plans were, his reply surprised me. "What swell?" he asked.
I showed him the part of Collins' email that said the forecasting models were "kinda freaking out on this swell," and as soon as Fletcher read that line, old habits kicked in. After our interview, he drove home, booked a ticket to Tahiti, packed two tow boards, and, despite being admittedly unprepared for what he was stepping into, boarded a plane to Tahiti.
Wracked with guilt that I may have encouraged him to do something that could result in his peril, I called him that night to ask him to reconsider, but my call went straight to his voicemail, which of course, he has yet to set up. He later assured me that he would have gone regardless, and that not paying close attention to the chatter is part of his process of eliminating pressure. "If you don't know," he theorized, "you don't worry about it."
"We are the worst travel partners there ever were—unprepared, unorganized, and dragging it out," Bruce Irons laughs when I ask him about Nathan's lack of preparation. "But somehow we get there and shit happens. It all just works out. When Nathan showed up out of the blue in Tahiti with two tow boards, I thought, 'Oh f–k, this is gonna be a big swell. Because it's almost impossible to get both of us to any destination."
The morning of the swell, Fletcher awoke panicked. Dawn had already broken, and he felt behind schedule. His ride out to the lineup was running late. The air at Teahupoo was so think with moisture and anticipation, you could cut it with a knife, so to kill some time and take his mind off things, Fletcher got in his rental car and drove around in search of a quiet spot to sit and watch the Teahupoo lineup a quarter-mile out to sea.
He ran across Kelly Slater parked on the side of the road. Slater, too, was trying to assess what was going down. Fletcher pulled over and the two chatted for a while.
"I think someone's going to ride the biggest wave ever at Teahupoo today," Kelly hypothesized.
"F–k, that's gnarly," Fletcher thought to himself. "I wonder who it will be?"