Photo: Glaser
Photo: Glaser

Improvised Ethos

Deep in Baja, Dave Rastovich and Stephanie Gilmore discuss the relationship between style and spontaneity in surfing

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

For his 25th surf film, titled Proximity, Taylor Steele took four surfers who defined style, performance, and bravado for the past few decades and paired them with four surfers who carry those same torches today. Each pairing was based on a common thread, whether it was a free-flowing style, a penchant for futuristic maneuvers, or an insatiable appetite for deadly caverns, and they headed to locations that would perfectly suit their shared approach. Goofyfooted style masters Rob Machado and Craig Anderson drew gorgeous lines through frigid Chilean points. Australian freethinkers Dave Rastovich and Stephanie Gilmore shared an offbeat journey through a Central Baja dreamscape. Heavy-water heroes Shane Dorian and Albee Layer sought out the most hair-raising slabs they could find along Scotland's craggy coast. And fellow world champions Kelly Slater and John Florence went on a surgical strike mission to one of the world's most high-performance righthanders.

But Proximity isn't just about getting talented surfers into great waves; it's about getting into the headspace of the surfers who define our concept of great surfing. So along the road, on the boat ride out, during layovers, or while buzzing after a particularly electric session, the mics came out and the surfers got right into it. What follows are four freewheeling conversations offering glimpses into the minds of eight of modern surfing's most iconic characters.—Ashton Goggans

Stephanie Gilmore and Dave Rastovich, the competitor and the activist, have many commonalities despite occupying seemingly opposite ends of the pro surfing spectrum. Photo: Glaser

DR: When I was 18 or so, I was struggling with sponsors and cameras 
and judges and whatever. I remember hearing this line: "Dance like no one's watching." And I thought, "Yeah, that's what I'm going to do. I'll surf exactly the same no matter who's watching. If things come from that, awesome. If they don't, whatever. That's cool too."

SG: You must be a pretty good dancer.

DR: I'm terrible. We're all terrible when no one's watching, because we're just doing crazy, stupid shit. But I really don't mind.

SG: For an athlete, that kind of frame of mind is what almost every coach is trying to instill: "Don't think. Just make it an intuitive experience." So maybe you could be a really good coach.

DR: Yeah, I should give it a try.

SG: Do they have coaches for freesurfing?

DR: I hope not. For me, the problem with contest criteria is the lack of space. In music, the silence in between the notes is as crucial as the notes. The contest criteria don't seem to appreciate that idea. It's like electronic music—just this ceaseless attack. Some people like that style, but I personally like when there's space between things. If I was at an event and saw a beautiful section, I might want to admire it more than I want to smash it. That's why contests and I don't do well together; it's like saying, "Dance, but dance within these boundaries."

SG: When I'm in a contest, I feel like it all happens so quickly that 
I don't even think or feel anything except the burn in my muscles. When I freesurf, I'm pretty cruisey. I will definitely highline a section rather than attack it. I'm probably too relaxed. But the contest format pushes me into this assertive place, which feels really good. I get a kick out of watching myself perform well in heats and replaying those heats on the monitors. That sounds pretty arrogant, doesn't it?

DR: [Laughs.] I like watching myself.

SG: But there's something cool about trying to impress a panel of people. 
From a young age, I always felt this element of performance, like I'm on a stage and trying to impress.

The open face is the preferred canvas of Australia's premier aquatic performance artist. Photo: Glaser

DR: I've always wanted to know if there was something specific you think about when you're surfing, because you're smiling every moment you're riding a wave.

SG: I seriously don't know why. It just happens. Maybe I'm not trying hard enough.

DR: Maybe you've been shaped by your environment. Snapper and 
those places are generally not the smiley-est of places. But there's always going to be an opposing force in the world—a kind of light in the dark.

SG: You just seem to surf the way you feel. Your style is so fluid. Yesterday I watched you catch a wave on your mat and I was thinking, "Oh no, he's not even going to get into this thing." But you got in and you just did this big double stretch with your arms and just swanned right around the section. I just thought that was so rad. Why do you ride those things?

DR: I think they're really humbling because, as George [Greenough] says, you're just dragging your nuts around, lying down on this little pillow of air. There's nothing tough about it. You can't really puff up in a lineup, like, "Hey, next one's mine."

SG: You could, though.

DR: The great thing is how it brings smiles to people's faces when you're flying down the line. You start laughing at the silliness of it all and then other people you pass start laughing because you're laughing—and because you look so stupid. It's almost like a community service—lightening up a lineup. Where I live, near Byron Bay, you see the whole surfing catwalk with so much self-consciousness, focusing on how they look rather than how it feels. And you can see the lack of enjoyment in that approach. I love seeing people surf like no one's watching. To me, that's style. I don't have to really agree 
with the aesthetics of it, but you can just see that they're fully present and fully acknowledging the good fortune of riding a wave.

SG: Isn't that crazy, how you can actually see that? When you're watching someone from a distance on a wave and you're like, "Wow, that person has a completely different relationship with that wave than the guy on the next wave."

DR: But there are multiple layers with style. I appreciate people surfing naturally, but also if you combine that with physical grace and flow and balance—all of those things. Speed, but with little exertion. Strength, but with fluidity. I actually used to see that a lot with Andy [Irons]. You'd see him in some pretty bizarre positions on waves. He was just pushing through something and getting in these positions where you're like, "Oh, what is that?" Then he'd just fly out of it all of a sudden and do something else. Amazing style. Just authentic.

Rastovich, giving a local pelican a few flying tips. Photo: Glaser

SG: I've always thought it was funny how people compliment me by saying, "You surf like a guy." In my head, my most favorite male surfers—

DR: Surf like women?

SG: Well, yeah. You, Parko [Joel Parkinson], Tom Curren—you could say you all surf like women. You guys blend strength with grace. When you add in grace and the feminine touch, that's when guys are most beautiful to watch. Having that splash of femininity is exactly what makes it stylish.

DR: I'd love to hear what Joel would say about that.

SG: Yeah, Joel would really hate that. But he does have a feminine style. That's probably why people are drawn to him. It just looks magical. To me, that's what style is.

DR: I love that. Surfing started as this weird, puffed-up, chest-beating, mainstream culture. But that's not much fun to be around—surfing with each other when you're all just trying to outdo each other. It's nowhere near as much fun as when you're going, "Woo-hoo! Look at that! That last one was great!"

Gilmore, drawing a classic line on a classically perfect point. Photo: Glaser