Tonight it’s the jet skis. There’s a saying that relates: On a boat, anything that can break will break. Which means there are still a hundred things that can break on a jet ski on any given day, at any given second. That’s why Brian Conley is at Neptune’s, a small boatyard on the outskirts of the farming/fishing town in Mainland Mexico he’s called home since expatriating from San Diego in 2006. It’s mosquito hour when we pull up. In the dusk, the workers are hunched over a pair of watercraft, coconut husks burning on the ground to drive off the insects. The yard stinks of fuel and resin and wood smoke.
One team is changing fluids. Another is glassing the second ski’s hull—smoothing, sanding, and painting a gash that’s been worn there from repeated beachings. As we watch them work, Conley tells me the swell isn’t supposed to hit for another day or so, but then says he promised the yard guys pizza if they can finish the job tonight. He wants to get out of town and back to the coast, and when the workers hear this they rag him for not having the food in-hand already. Then they bend back to their tasks.
Conley, now 30, speaks fluent Spanish after four years in Mexico. He smiles and gives them some shit right back, and then there’s laughing and a few cigarettes and few more mosquito bites. In addition to picking up the language, he’s also acquired all the attendant trappings of an expat surfer his age: a local girlfriend, Edith, who he lives with; a 16-month-old son, James, who was born in the hospital up the road; a piece of land at the beach where he plans to build a house; a condo he’s rented in the meantime; an eight-week-old pit bull puppy named Toro.
At the moment, James, who came along for the ride, is trying to climb into a boat mold, a huge template the yard workers use to build pangas. When Conley sees this, he grabs his son and straps him into his car seat. “I guess there’s a lot of shit a kid can get into in a place like this,” he says, eying the resin buckets and dirt patches and drums of fuel scattered around the yard before he washes his son’s hands off and gives him a bottle.
Then the skis are ready, the guys suddenly closing hatches and cranking the winch on the trailer. Conley backs his truck up and attaches the skis to the hitch. He shuts down the engine when they’re secure, and then climbs out to pay the foreman. He realizes he forgot to bring cash, so the yard workers unhitch the trailer again and we drive into town to the bank.
Traffic is brutal on the cobblestone streets outside of Neptune’s gate. And when we get back we still don’t have the pizza. I mention this to Conley but he ignores me. It’s almost like his mind is somewhere else, or on something else, or on many things else—or maybe he just didn’t hear me—and he looks at the sky for a minute before he walks away. Then he pays the foreman for the repairs and tells him he owes them for rushing.
The guys give him some more shit in Spanish. It’s all good-natured, especially after they see the cash, and soon we’re back in the truck headed for his place on the coast. The entire excursion has taken about four hours, maybe eight, if you start counting from the moment Conley dropped into Neptune’s that morning, which means he’s devoted an entire work day—if a pro surfer were to consider such a thing—to his skis. And when we get back he still has his housings, his lenses, his board-mounts, his high-definition cameras, all piled in various corners in various rooms of his condo, each waiting to be prepped for the swell. The pizza can wait—but at this point it might be the only obligation Conley has without an expiration date.
This morning there are questions. Conley is speaking a third language as the sun comes up. He’s trilingual today: English. Spanish. Photog. He’s on the couch in his living room with SURFER Staff Photographer Zak Noyle. Conley has a new housing in his lap and is busy screwing the pistol grip onto its frame with a Phillips-head while he gatherers information.
“At eight-hundred,” he asks. “Or no?”
He’s still learning this language.
There’s always something to learn about cameras.
“You kind of have to see,” Noyle says. “Shooting Manual is hard, especially if you’re holding it behind you. You have to make sure you have the correct metering. Maybe set it on Hold. Well not Hold, but something like that, so you can see your last shot. Just to see a sample, and whether you have to go with a faster shutter speed because you’re too blurry or a slower shutter speed because everything else is too sharp.”
“What aperture should I use?”
“Let the camera pick its aperture.”
“What kind of range?”
“I think it’s going to go, like, eighteen or something.
“So really high?”
“This is low light we’re talking about.”
“Yeah, so it’ll go high, I think. Maybe do it the other way and do eighty and go high. It’ll go high aperture, because the faster your speed, and the more light, the lower your aperture. If you get waves here that are perfect and strong offshore and you want that offshore kind of glow, then go f/22. That’ll make it sick.”
“What about video?”
“That clip was shot at a thousand five-six, one hundred. What do you think?”
Conley points to his laptop where he’s pulled up several of his trademark inside-the-tube, point-of-view recordings. The clips are new, shot for his next film, My Eyes Won’t Dry 3, with a high-definition camera mounted inside a handheld housing. Like his previous films, the footage, which will be released this fall, features the board, the throwing lip, the exit of the wave, the refraction of light on the surface of the water, the rider. What’s different is the perspective. The whole handheld part.
Now, instead of showing only a spinning tube (like the helmet-cams Conley employed in the past), or a butt-level view of the surfer (like a board-rig provides), the footage has an over-the-shoulder feel. You get a third-person sense of the surfer and a sense of being in the tube itself, all shot from an angle that makes you feel, somehow, like you’re still looking through the rider’s eyes. It’s immediately elemental and compelling. Immersive. You have to stare.
Other surfers, like Ken Collins, Dave Wassel, and Manoa Drollet, have been experimenting with this type of shot since 2007, and Conley readily credits each as a source of inspiration before he goes on to mention some of the other surfer/photographers who have informed his work: from the likes of George Greenough, who obsessed over capturing point-of-view tube rides on film; to Warren Bolster; to Erik Hjermstad, who builds Conley’s housings; to Travis Potter and Timmy Turner and Brett Schwartz. What sets him apart from this list of influences and contemporaries, however, is the depth of his commitment to a single, particular shot. He’s two full-length films deep, with a third on the way, all of which essentially feature zero turns or airs, and instead obsessively focus on the barrel. He’s been shooting video for nearly six years and still frames for a year, and the result is the most extensive and detailed catalog of inside-the-tube-POV documentation on the planet. A former NSSA contest rat, who then dabbled in the WQS before becoming a successful travel and freesurf specialist, Conley’s professional career is now based entirely on a single act: standing on a board inside the barrel while holding a camera.
The only catch is this type of vocation isn’t as simple as it sounds. The job isn’t rough, necessarily. It isn’t coal mining, even if it is dangerous (check out the clip of Conley on YouTube getting his leg stitched in Tahiti). But aiming a housing—keep in mind, housings are heavy—while standing inside a Mexican double-up does require a specific skill set. And it’s certainly more labor-intensive than the end product would suggest. Because they’re so visceral, it’s easy to forget there’s actual work behind each clip: that someone had to not only figure how to ride such a wave, but also to get to it—and then bring an expensive piece of temperamental, water-allergic equipment along for the ride. Just the preparation is a bitch. Take the jet skis for example, which are necessary evils since paddling with a housing in large surf is practically impossible. Then there are the cameras, which have to be charged, their settings and operations mastered in and out of the water. The housings, which have to be custom-built. The lens-ports, which have to be polished. Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, which have to be understood. The swells, which have to be tracked to the ends of the Earth.
All this effort eventually adds up, and amounts to a huge buildup of front-end work—days, weeks, months—as well as a significant financial investment, most of which comes directly out of Conley’s pocket. It’s a lot to go through for a glimpse of an instantaneous event that could, or could not, happen in 20-foot-plus surf.
As Conley points out, however, it’s the intrinsic rarity of these moments, and the difficulty of capturing them, that’s at the root of all this preparation. He estimates it takes about 50 A-plus tube clips—which, in real time, only last from one to five seconds—to build the base of an hour-long film. So far, he’s been logging footage for two and a half years for My Eyes Won’t Dry 3, and plans to keep working until the day before he walks into the editing room. “There are only a few epic days a year,” he says, “and who knows when, or where, they’re going to be. You have to be ready or you’ll miss it. It’s that simple.”
Today there are waves.We’re up before the sun: “Dark and early,” as Conley likes to call it. The beachbreak across the road is still invisible in the gloom beyond the kitchen window, but judging from the noise coming in through the panes it’s definitely on. Conley flips through channels on his flat screen, settles on MTV’s Morning Hits, and calls his drivers: his ski partner Dave Smith, an American expat who he’s been working with since 2006, and a local fisherman named Margarro. After he hangs up, he loads his camera gear and boards into his truck and then hitches up the trailer. At the beach we pick up the crew. Then we drive to a river mouth about a mile up the road and launch the skis. By now, the sun has come up and it’s clear the swell is big and disorganized, maybe 8- to 10-foot Hawaiian. Conley insists there will be “moments.” He turns out to be right.
The skis work in tandem, one setting Conley up with waves and plucking him from the impact zone, the other moving Noyle into position in the water as he documents a single day in the creation of MEWD3. There’s a good amount of current running through the lineup, huge rips popping up and then disappearing just as fast, and Conley and Smith trawl for “runways”: smooth patches of water between the disturbances that are ideal windows for a clean, makeable, and shootable section. What’s remarkable is that even now the preparation process hasn’t stopped. In fact, there are almost as many factors for Conley to be cognizant of while he’s bouncing around on the back of a jet ski as when he’s on land. The difference is everything is accelerated. As I watch them work, it almost seems like Conley has more than two arms. In one hand he has the housing, which is cumbersome at best. In the other he has his board, a thin but heavy Xanadu quad. Somehow he manages to maintain possession of both, and hang onto the ski, and successfully step off into jacking bombs, and roll film, all while 12-foot walls of whitewater detonate around him.
I ask him to describe the process after three 12-hour days of shooting: “How many details do you have to remember, from start to finish, to get a single clip?”
Conley takes a deep breath. Then he answers. “The cameras get so hot sometimes,” he says, “they fog up inside the housing, so you have to make sure that isn’t happening. You have to keep it cool. And you’re always keeping the lens clean, so you’re always spitting on the lens, or licking it, so you can keep water spots off of the port when you’re riding the wave. That’s really important.”
“And that’s ongoing all session? Before and after waves? In between sets?” I ask.
“Always,” he says. “And you also have to make sure the settings are correct. You know, you have to hold onto a board, dip the camera to get a sheet of water onto the port, stay on the ski, all while a guy is chasing down a wave. Sometimes I’m literally holding on with my toes and we’ll be going after a wave and I’ll be looking at the camera and thinking about if it’s ready, if it’s recording. Then, sometimes I don’t even see the wave before I’m up. Sometimes there won’t be time. I’ll just be asking Dave, ‘Do you like it? Yeah? You like this one?’ And then I’m in and I’ll get up and I have to go straight to my feet. I can’t go to my belly and then get up because of the housing, so it can be a real critical step. You can’t hit a chop or dig a rail.”
“And at that point you’re already shooting.”
“Right. You have to think about your composition and what you’re capturing, what the wave is going to do, where you’re going to set your bottom turn, whether you should wait, so you can get deeper in the barrel. You never know what you’re going to get so you have to negotiate different lines, and then you have to try not to get hit by the wave or your board as you’re kicking out. Then, if I’m on the inside, waiting to get picked up, if there’s a good barrel coming, I’ll try to get a couple water shots of the empty wave too.”
“A little multitasking as you’re getting pounded?”
“Yeah,” he says. “You know. Hopefully it’s just a blow-out and my driver’s screaming and the camera is rolling and there’re no spots on the lens. Then we’re all happy. Those are the best.”
I ask whether having to do all that thinking and having all of these extra elements in play alters the experience of actually standing in the barrel.
Conley thinks about this question for a moment. In a way, I’ve asked him whether attempting to preserve and document the thing he loves most has tainted the experience of living it, and I can see the gears working in his head as he mentally projects himself into the pit. The room goes silent. Then he answers without a hint of doubt.
“No,” he says definitively. “Once you’re in there, you’re in that moment. Picking the right lines. It’s insane. And to capture it as well, it’s almost a little more gratifying. It happens so fast and it’s so hard to get sick waves, and when you finally get them, and get the shot, it’s all that much more rewarding. But yeah, when you’re in there. It’s instincts. There are a lot of instincts in surfing.”
That’s interesting, I say, because part of it is so cerebral. You have to be conscious of so many details. And then a second later: “It’s pure instinct,” he says. “Once I’m sure the camera is rolling, I’m pretty much just surfing the wave. And the camera—at that point it’s almost like the camera is gone.”