Culture of Cool

Surfers are sheep. Here are the details.

This photo checks every box for unimpeachable coolness: massive barrel. no sponsors. perfect positioning. Namotu lifeguard Shaun Woolnough. Photo: Glaser
Hypothetically, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Compared to other points in surfing history, the things that are cool now are for the most part, pretty cool. I’d like to think this explains why I’m sorta on-trend. Creativity is good. How can you argue with bodysurfing? Music is subjective, but The Velvet Underground’s cooler than the Backstreet Boys, unequivocally. And Bob Simmons was cooler than just about anyone, ever, so it’s pretty fucking cool that we’re riding miniaturized versions of his half-a-century-old designs. But if Simmons were alive today, how would he be received?

He’d probably be doing just what he did in the 1950s—leveraging military technology to create the most progressive, cutting-edge surfboards imaginable. But it’s extremely unlikely he’d be interested in riding decaying relics, or concerned with how trendy his airbrush was. As Simmons’ friend and disciple John Elwell wrote in The Surfer’s Journal, the Simmons Surfboard was “a radical departure, far ahead of its time, like the designer, and misunderstandings hindered its full acceptance. Bob Simmons disregarded criticism and just went surfing…”

If Simmons walked the Earth again, and he showed up at Windansea with some carbon-fiber, computer-shaped board that was as innovative as his boards were in the 1940s, he’d be ridiculed by surf hipsters for not being cool enough. The jury would pass their verdict with the certainty of those who are on-trend, with their Japanese wetsuits and hand-shaped Mini-Simmons. As for the real Simmons? His pants wouldn’t be skinny enough. He might wear booties, or God forbid even a helmet. In fact, a helmet might have saved Simmons’ life—he drowned in 1954 after getting hit in the head by his board in 8-foot surf at Windansea. There is rich irony in Simmons’ current popularity. Simmons was not particularly well-liked during his lifetime. “He was dunked and beaten up at Malibu,” Elwell recalls in The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “He was punched down at San Onofre, and stoned on the trail to Palos Verdes.” If there’s a modern equivalent, I’m not aware of him.

The Internet brings us global surf culture homogeny, and budding innovators, true Mini-Simmons, are bullied on Facebook long before they’re beaten down on the trail to Palos Verdes. Step out of line, and you’re gonna hear about it in the comments section. Perhaps this is why the surf world seems increasingly populated by people who look like innovators, instead of people who innovate. Most people who look cool do not look that way by mistake. Their image is the result of countless hours spent worrying about their appearance—they focus on the surface at the expense of substance. Cool people like cool things. Their credibility hinges on an endless stream of purchases—each one a test. You must buy the right boards. Like the right music. Eat the right artisan foods, and buy and wear the right clothes to define your unique personality—even if they’re the same clothes everyone else is wearing. For surfers, cool is increasingly defined by purchases instead of performance. That’s because some of today’s trendy surfboards are literally designed to hinder performance. If you cared about how well you surfed, you wouldn’t be riding an alaia or using a handplane. Perhaps some surfers are simply looking to capture a new (or old) feeling. But perhaps an increasing number are hiding their lack of skill behind hip wooden crutches.

Consider the case of George Greenough. Like Simmons, the enigmatic Santa Barbara shaper/designer/kneeboarder is one of surfing’s true innovators. He’s consistently cared about function while ignoring fashion. His design innovations helped spark the shortboard revolution. But it’s only now that some of his other creations—such as sub-5-foot flex spoons—are being truly appreciated. A quick review of the hipster surfing blogosphere reveals a fetishistic appreciation of Greenough’s 1970s ethos. But what many devotees fail to realize is that unlike Simmons, Greenough is still alive. And he’s not interested in rehashing the past. Instead, he’s interested in making surfing safer. What could be more uncool than that?

Ever pragmatic, Greenough, now living in Byron Bay, Australia, recently weighed in on one of the most egregious examples of surfing’s obsession with fashion over function: the pointed nose. Because he was instrumental in the shortboard revolution, Greenough remembers that the pointed nose was a completely cosmetic innovation. This vestigial weapon has injured countless surfers of varying skill levels. In the ’80s, nose guards were popularized as a reasonable safety measure. But like Gath helmets, nose guards were subsequently stigmatized as surfing returned to its minimalistic roots. Irrational? Yes. But surfers answer to trends, and nose guards fell out of style. More recently, after a young surfer was hurt at his local beach, Greenough wrote a letter to the Byron Bay newspaper, Echo, calling pointed noses a “fashion statement.” Greenough advocated a simple solution—he asked surfers to take a jam jar, trace its outline on the nose of their boards, saw off the excess point, and glass it over. But hipster devotees who are willing to earnestly rock Greenough’s signature bowl cut are likely not willing to go for the jam jar cut. Some of those boards are collector’s items, after all.