Mind Control

Dane Reynolds’ raw surfing, auteuristic filmmaking, and contrarian
 voice broke down barriers and redefined professional surfing. But perhaps his greatest challenge is getting out of his own head

It was about 9 p.m., two hours after Dane Reynolds’ flight had landed at Lisbon Airport, when the immigration officials he’d been speaking with gave him the bad news: He was going to be detained for an indeterminate amount of time.

Reynolds had managed to misplace his passport between boarding his connecting flight from London and arriving at the Portuguese customs counter. Without that small, thoroughly stamped booklet, immigration wouldn’t let him into Portugal. For the same reason, he also couldn’t be sent back to London. The gears of immigration bureaucracy were at a standstill; therefore, so was Reynolds.

“Ummm…so where are we going?” Reynolds asked one of the men in a pressed navy-blue uniform. “Is there, like, a hotel or something here in the airport?”

The man burst into laughter. “Not exactly,” he said.

He led Reynolds through a series of sterile, halogen-lit hallways to a group of holding cells. They allowed him to call his wife, Courtney, to let her know what was happening. Then the officials took Reynolds’ backpack, phone, and shoelaces and put him in a cell.

Up until that point, Reynolds hadn’t been overly concerned about his predicament. He figured he’d either be released to the U.S. embassy
in Lisbon or sent back to the United States, and either way it would be little more than an inconvenience. But the shoelace confiscation seemed ominous. Reynolds knew it was common practice for guards to take your shoelaces in jail so that you can’t try to hang yourself or strangle your cellmates, and he started wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into. Should he be concerned with how tightly he could grip a bar of soap? Did he need to be initiated into an airport jail gang for protection? Would that require him to get some sort of facial tattoo, perhaps of the teardrop or spider-web variety?

Reynolds had a lot on his mind as he was led into the small cell, which quickly filled with roughly 30 other people despite the mere eight bunks lining the walls. But then again, he had a lot on his mind long before the immigration guards began unlacing his shoes. He’d recently opened up about his struggles with paralyzing anxiety, as well as his public departure from longtime sponsor Quiksilver, in his film Chapter 11. He’d turned down a substantial head-to-toe sponsorship with footwear company Vans in favor of sinking much of his own savings into a clothing brand, called Former, which he and his friends were learning how to run on the fly. And he’d just found out that Courtney was pregnant again. With twins.

At 31 years old, Reynolds’ life had become a whirlwind, and it seemed that things were starting to spin out of control. He had a lot to think about, but, on the bright side, he had plenty of time for reflection in the cell. So he grabbed a bunk, kicked up his feet, and felt his eyes getting heavy as he stared at the ceiling. He’d made his bed. Now, it seemed, there was nothing left to do but sleep in it.

From a young age, Reynolds always stood apart due to his go-for-broke approach, which has seen him land some of the loftiest airs and most dynamic turns of the last decade. “Everyone wants to watch him surf because everything he does on a wave is exciting,” says Craig Anderson. “That’s why he’s one of the best surfers of all time.” Photo: Ellis

A month before Reynolds reached the Portuguese customs counter, I met him at California’s Ventura Harbor on a gray winter morning. He pulled up in an all-black Ford Expedition, which still had that fresh showroom-floor sheen. It seemed like an odd set of wheels for a man who has spent the last decade cultivating a surfer-meets-’90s-record-store-employee image. After all, this was the same Dane Reynolds who famously drove a beater 1990 Volvo station wagon while banking millions in sponsorship dollars in the early 2010s.

“Kids, man,” Reynolds said with some resignation. “It’s purely utilitarian. You just need the space.”

Reynolds took a sip of coffee and stood on his toes to get a better look at the lineup. He looked tastefully disheveled, wearing a black sweater with a striped collar popping out of the top, a shock of light-brown hair comically askew, and a five-day shadow covering his jawline.

We walked through the lot onto a stretch of sand connecting two jetties. The wind was light and the swell was filling in, but the tide seemed all wrong. A shifty peak would hit a particular sandbar and open into a yawning barrel, but then the next wave breaking in the same place would go soft and turn into a crumbly reform.

I tried to remain optimistic, pointing out an open-faced section that had an inkling of potential. “Oh yeah?” Reynolds asked with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not gonna lie, this looks like total shit to me,” he concluded with a laugh.

Reynolds has an interesting classification system he employs to describe waves. The upper end of the quality spectrum seems to consist of one word, “fun,” while the lower end features a vast and colorful vocabulary to assess the nuances of lackluster surf, including “pretty average,” “really bad,” “just awful,” “total shit,” “heinous,” and “absolutely horrendous.”

In conversation, Reynolds often uses similarly rich phrasing to describe anything from board designs to bands to famous surfers to books—topics about which he’s both highly informed and extremely opinionated. But the worst judgment that he levies against a thing or person is “phony.”

You could say that Reynolds is obsessed with the idea of authenticity, and that obsession has been the driving force that’s elevated him from your typical aquatic athlete to a kind of surf-culture revolutionary, one with a fan base devoted enough to make Kool-Aid-serving cult leaders green with envy.

While Reynolds is a world-class aerialist, no one would ever accuse him of being just an “air guy.” Beastly hacks like this provide his power-surfing bona fides. Photo: Russo

In an era when most professional surfers were happy to collect a paycheck and let their sponsors market them as they saw fit, Reynolds demanded to have a voice. In 2008 he started his own blog, Marine Layer Productions, with longtime friend and videographer Jason “Mini” Blanchard, and they put out raw edits that felt like the surf-video equivalent of Beat poems, with obscure titles like “sagres 4 ever,” “somniliquy,” and “sweet and tender hooligan.” Reynolds also used the platform to rant against journalists who had misconstrued his words, or to clarify his perspective, like he did with his “Declaration of Independence,” in which he explained his reasons for walking away from the World Tour in 2011 at the arguable peak of his powers. Any time he appeared on stage to accept a SURFER Poll award—his highest finish was No. 2 in 2010 and 2011—he’d speak candidly about his perceived shortcomings as a surfer and the grim inner workings of surf brands mid-recession, all with a cynical wit. Reynolds rarely missed an opportunity to poke fun at professional surfing, at himself, and even at the sponsors that paid him handsomely. And while his proclivity for direct, honest dialogue occasionally got him in hot water within the surf industry, that same candor endeared him to surf fans and fellow pros around the world.

“I think all freesurfers look up to Dane and what he’s done,” says close friend Craig Anderson. “Professional surfing was pretty conservative, but he paved the way for freesurfers to be themselves and not be afraid to have a personality within the sport. He was one of the first guys in our generation to try to get his sponsors to do things differently, in a more real way. He was always an amazing surfer, but he also had strong opinions and stuck by them.”

According to Reynolds, it’s not that he went looking to start trouble in the industry or rock the boat with his sponsors. It’s just that whenever he was at a microphone or editing a film or writing a blog entry, he felt that he had to be himself, even if he knew it was likely to cause problems for him down the line.

“It’s always a struggle when your identity is representing a brand,” says Reynolds. “Because your identity may not fit perfectly with their vibe. But, then again, they picked you for your identity, so they should want you to be yourself. That’s the weird thing about being a professional surfer: your working life and your personal life are one and the same. You are a commercial, you know?”

Once Reynolds had given his honest assessment of the surf at Ventura Harbor, we climbed into his oversized SUV and pointed south, following a rumor that Zuma was holding a few sizeable barrels and offshore winds.

Reynolds, post-surf at his Carpinteria home. Photo: Ellis

The radio was tuned to NPR and the news anchor was talking about President Trump’s first attempt at the travel ban for citizens of certain
majority Muslim nations. “I didn’t used to listen to the news very much,” Reynolds said as we snaked down the Pacific Coast Highway. “But now I can’t stop even when I want to. It’s just seems like the craziest shit is happening on a daily basis.”

I asked Reynolds about his own seemingly crazy shit—namely turning down a Vans contract rumored to be north of $1 million in favor of starting his own brand. He told me that it was a long road that got him to this point, and there wasn’t necessarily one defining moment when he knew he wanted to take that leap. But he’d been thinking about starting his own company for years.

“I mean, I’m a surfer, I wear clothing, I wear boardshorts, and yet when I see a surf-company ad or whatever, it all feels unrelatable to me,” he explained. “I feel like surf companies are trying to win back customers they’ve lost to brands like Hollister over the past decade. They’re trying to appeal to Midwesterners with their version of beach culture. I wouldn’t wear that stuff, and a lot of kids can see through that too. For a long time, I’ve just wanted to do something that’s more authentic, something that I could relate to if I was on the other side.

Before Reynolds’ new brand Former was Former, it was a conversation between Reynolds, Campbell Milligan (the creative director of Australia-based magazine Monster Children), and the late professional skater Dylan Rieder. They wanted to start a rider-owned brand where they would have complete creative control over what they made and how they’d present it to the world. Rieder’s close friend and fellow professional skater Austyn Gillette came onboard shortly thereafter, as did Anderson. They recruited Los Angeles–based photographer and former pro surfer Warren Smith as well as photographer and creative guru Grady Archbold to help with the overall direction, and they were off and running. Well, sort of.

Reynolds, free to roam in Portugal. Photo: Ellis

Reynolds and co. set overly optimistic goals at first, and deadlines were consistently shoved back as the logistics of the situation became more apparent to the starry-eyed group of surfers and creatives who had little experience with the nuts and bolts of brand building.

“It’s funny how much more complicated literally every aspect of starting a brand is than we thought,” says Reynolds. “We got so excited with the creative end of it, but then we realized how much goes into the back end and we’ve just been figuring it out as it goes. It’s been pretty cool to learn adult shit, though.”

As we pulled up to the beach at Zuma, it became clear that we were chasing our tails. Wonky overhead closeouts sucked milky slicks of 
sand into the wave faces before detonating a few yards from shore. “This is why I only check this spot, like, once a decade,” Reynolds laughed.

“Even when it looks makeable, it’s usually too fast. And this doesn’t look makeable.”

We eventually paddled out for a desperation session at nearby County Line, which offered mostly gutless rights with little opportunity. Still, Reynolds managed to conjure a ramp on a shoulder-high set and throw himself into a wild forehand rotation.

Reynolds would later tell me that he enjoys the act of riding waves as much as he ever did, and he still gets the same rapturous feeling from decimating a lip line as when he first started turning heads around Ventura in his early teens. But every other aspect of his surfing life has changed drastically since those days. Reynolds ascended to surfing megastardom at a time when the industry was practically printing money, and then he witnessed what he once called “the massacre,” when his main sponsor, Quiksilver, laid off many of their employees and cut huge swaths of their team roster. At that time, in 2012, he had recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal to renew his contract for five years and was feeling intense pressure to use wildcard entries to try to get back on the World Tour, which he had left the year prior.

“I didn’t mind doing the events as a wildcard at first, but further down the line I just started feeling like some kind of weird pawn,” 
Reynolds explains. “The upper management changed at Quik and the guys that came in didn’t really understand what I was doing as a freesurfer and didn’t see it as beneficial to the brand. They started leveraging wildcards for me to get me back into competitive surfing, and, of course, I did it just because I wanted to stoke them out and make the relationship work. But at one point, someone from upper management literally told me, ‘Pull it together or we’re all f–ked.’ That was their advice to me heading into these contests.”

Since his feature film debut, First Chapter, Reynolds has set the performance standard for linking powerful turns with hi-fi airs and tail drifts. Today, at 31 years old, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Photo: Ellis

Over time, the pressure to perform, not only for the sake of his career, but for the perceived sake of everyone working at Quiksilver, became too much for Reynolds. In his 2016 film, Chapter 11, Reynolds opened up about his eventual split with Quiksilver following their bankruptcy, his years-long battle with anxiety and panic attacks, and his insecurities about being an aging athlete in a sport where the next superstar is always right on your heels. It was the film equivalent of standing at a podium and delivering a speech while naked, and, unsurprisingly, Reynolds says it was the hardest film project he’s ever worked on.

“I think it’s kind of ironic that professional surfing led to anxiety, and I wanted to tell my story from a super-honest perspective and not have any angle on it,” Reynolds explains. “I definitely wasn’t looking for sympathy or anything like that. But from navigating my surf career, it seems like everybody has weird issues and some people can turn that into art or let it take them down. I wanted to tell my story from a neutral sort of stance, and hopefully people could connect to it or pull something from it. Or even just have a better perspective on the fact that everybody has different shit going on and you’ve got to empathize.”

After our session at County Line, we headed to Carpinteria, where we turned up a long, tree-lined road into a quiet neighborhood. We pulled into the driveway fronting a quaint teal house and parked next to a pigeon coop. The inside of the Reynolds’ home feels like a shrine to obscure art and fringe culture. In the entryway sits a mid-century TV topped with what appears to be a sculpture of a sandworm from the 1988 movie Beetlejuice. A huge canvas covered with colorful, abstract shapes adorns the living-room wall, and a framed photo of a small child hugging a chimpanzee hangs over a staircase to the second story.

As we sank into the large living-room couches and cracked two cold beers, I asked Reynolds about Chapter 11 and whether or not the debilitating anxiety that defined his last five years was behind him.

“You never really completely eradicate it,” he explained. “You just do lots of therapy and read self-help books and try to figure it out and gain perspective. As I went through it, I found out a lot of other professional surfers go through similar things, but nobody talks about it. Knowing that would have helped me at the time, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to put the film out. It was trippy because everything felt fine until it wasn’t.”

As forthright as Reynolds is, he’s still a skilled storyteller, and he understands that even when you try to tell the whole truth, real life is too big to fit onto a screen. Chapter 11 showed the end of one era and the beginning of another, with Reynolds shedding the baggage of the past five years and starting a new chapter with his new brand. But in reality, Reynolds feels that what comes next will be more complicated than that.

“My whole drive to progress in surfing started because I wanted to be recognized in the neighborhood for being the best kid, and that’s what made me so laser-focused,” Reynolds said. “That’s what it started as, but a few years down the line and all of a sudden I’m having panic attacks from this pressure I’m putting on myself, looking for validation. And now when you see other surfers coming up and getting better, and doing things where you’re like, ‘F–k, I can’t do that,’ you kind of feel your relevance slipping away. It’s hard to accept that.”

You’d think that now, as his own boss, free from the scrutiny of a monolithic corporate sponsor, Reynolds would no longer feel such an intense pressure to perform. The truth, however, may be exactly the opposite.

As it turns out, Reynolds didn’t need to get any facial tattoos to survive his detention at Lisbon Airport. He was unchallenged for his bunk, was allowed to read a book that he’d brought with him on the plane, and even made friends with an English-speaking cellmate from Ghana. Besides the meals, one of which consisted of a slimy, uncooked fish that he ended up giving to his new cohort, detention was a walk in the park for Reynolds. In fact, things were far more stressful for the folks waiting for him in nearby Ericeira, including Anderson, Blanchard, pro surfer Brendon Gibbens, videographer Dave Fox, SURFER photo editor Grant Ellis, and me.

We called the United States embassy in Lisbon, which referred us to the immigration office at the airport, where we left many unreturned messages. We created desperate call-to-action posts on social media with the hashtag “#FreeDane.” We talked to famed Portuguese surfers Tiago Pires and Nic Von Rupp, who called government officials and influential lawyers, and eventually the bureaucratic cogs clicked into motion. Reynolds was transferred from the airport to the embassy, where he was issued a temporary passport, and then he was returned to the airport, where he was released to us.

It was odd watching Reynolds emerge from the arrivals terminal after two days in detention, boards and luggage in hand as if he’d just 
stepped off a flight. We half expected him to walk straight to the departures terminal, buy a ticket back to LAX, and call our planned Portuguese surf trip a wash.

While Reynolds may posit that he’s no longer leading the pack in terms of performance, his surfing often begs to differ. Reynolds, getting technical in Portugal. Photo: Ellis

“It was minor,” he said with a chuckle as our group stood there feeling like we’d missed the joke completely. By the time we got to our rental car, Reynolds was holding court with stories about unsavory meals, a strange midnight visit from a lawyer friend of von Rupp’s, and a wall-mounted TV that played insufferable European dance-music videos on loop.

Back at the house in Ericeira, we celebrated the jailbreak with several rounds of Sagres, the best of Portugal’s native-brewed suds. At some point Reynolds and Anderson decided that this was as good a time as any to launch the Former website and jumped on an impromptu Skype call with Smith and Archbold back in Los Angeles.

Listening to this group of friends talk shit while trying to hash out the order of operations for the site launch, it occurred to me that technically
I was watching a board meeting unfold. But instead of talking about target demographics and stock prices, the board was talking about the videos they had cut, photos they needed to prep, and whether or not they had enough beer left in the fridge. For a brand that seemed destined to make a serious impact in the surf world, it all seemed very off the cuff. But for Reynolds and crew, I’m sure that was the whole point.

For the next week, the waves were “pretty average” on the Reynoldsian scale, despite a few windows of very rippable surf. At a rip bowl called Crazy Left, Reynolds hunted down the steepest, sketchiest ramps he could find and launched into lofty inverted rotations. A few days after that, he paddled out at a shallow, boil-stricken left called White Rock and threw himself nearly 8 feet above the lip line, landing perfectly at the crest before hitting a lump halfway down the face and coming undone. Reviewing the footage later, he guessed that it might have been the biggest air of his life had he landed it.

While Reynolds can be disarmingly honest about his fears, his insecurities, and his cynicism, he can’t seem to admit the truth about his own surfing abilities. He’ll try to say that his surfing no longer stacks up against the best in the world, that he’s past his prime, and that it’s all downhill from here. But to get to that particular truth, you need to ask anyone but Reynolds.

“He’s a talented motherf–ker,” Anderson says. “And his surfing still completely speaks for itself.”

[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]

[Featured Image: Dane Reynolds, Portugal, 2017. Photo by Ellis]

Photo: Ellis