Derek Hynd and the Philosophy of Free Friction

A profile from our October 2011 issue

Photo: Van Gysen

Hynd has done more than run his mouth off and wield his poison pen over the lack of artistry in pro surfing and surf culture in general. Where his Hyndian utopian visions have intersected with reality and budgets some extraordinarily productive nodes have been created along surfing’s historical timeline. He’s organized and run alternative surf competitions in South Africa, the Outer Hebrides, and in Bass Strait. He’s also come within a bees dick of getting up his own rebel Pro Tour, known as the IS Tour. Perhaps the most far-reaching effect he had on the mainstream culture was as Rip Curl’s marketing director in the early ’90s. Hynd came up with the Search concept, which, along with Jack McCoy’s Billabong Challenge series, was the progenitor of the Dream Tour.

The impact of capturing Tom Curren on film in dream waves in remote locations can’t be overestimated. It—along with Litmus—spawned the Fish Revolution, as well as established a high-water mark for where surfing could be taken as an artistic endeavor. Curren’s pure carving lines at maxed out J-Bay and fireball fish tuberiding at Bawa defined the state of the art even in the early-Slater period. Any company execs wondering about the current level of grassroots rancor and disrespect toward the companies and the Tour need to comprehend massive public disappointment and disillusionment at the gradual and unceasing retreat from the Search ideal formulated by Hynd.

The best surfers in the best waves achieves something approaching performance art and sport mixed together and has a visual power that can’t be denied, even allowing for the deep residuum of ambiguity about pro surfing harbored in the hearts of many recreational surfers. Industrial surfing in cityscapes, by contrast, seems like a faded circus sideshow act run by desperate hucksters. A bearded lady covered in garish makeup that appears ugly and irrelevant to all. In this day and age, it fools nobody.

One person who understands this concept better than anyone is legendary independent filmmaker Jack McCoy. McCoy has collaborated on projects with Hynd over the years, most recently showcasing Hynd’s finless boogie at J-Bay and Bells Beach in his new movie, A deeper Shade of Blue. But it is their unsuccessful attempt to create a rebel tour in the early 2000s to which we turn our attention.

I spoke to Jack McCoy at his Sydney home. He’d just pulled a nerve in his back and was groaning in pain. Talk of Derek and the IS Tour restored his spirits quickly.

“We wanted to create an event which encouraged creative surfing, that was based more upon art than sport,” he said.

It was 1999. McCoy’s Billabong Challenges and the brief existence of the Quiksilver Pro at G-Land had inspired a different vision for the pro tour. Slater had retired from the Tour after six world titles, citing the “repetition of the Tour and the lack of interest it was creating over a long period of time.” The Dot-com boom was in full speculative frenzy, providing an economic backdrop of easy money and faith in a new future where information and content assumed an aura of invincibility. Despite its reliance on the venture capital cowboys, the IS Tour was a strange beast.

Hynd and McCoy envisaged an eight-stop tour with contests in Australia, Chile, the South Pacific, South Africa, Ireland, France, the USA, and Hawaii. There were to be 12 seeds and four wildcards at each event. More unique, however, was Hynd’s vision to make Tour locations self-sustaining retreats where fallen heroes down on their luck could be bought back into the fold. Shane Herring, Nicky Wood, and Joe Engel were the names that rolled off Derek’s tongue. What? Professional surfing offering a model for ecological sustainability, social justice, and a beacon for progressive surfing: a foil against the Future Shock of a hyper-industrialized world. What a revolutionary concept. What a poetic response to the continuing problem of the most creative, left-field surfers being chewed up or disinterested in the pro-surfing machine. Hynd called this concept “philosophical timeshare.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see the future of progressive surfing with Dane Reynolds, Jordy, John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Slater, and Jamie O’Brien in this kind of environment.

I asked Jack who was signed up. “Oh, we had all the hotties. Machado, Robb, Andy, Beschen, Taj. And Kelly. Kelly was our Trump Card.”

“Kelly!” I said. “You think he was using the IS Tour as a template for his ESPN Rebel Tour idea?”

“We don’t know, man. We never heard from Kelly. It was really disappointing not to hear from Kelly.”

What stopped this revolutionary vision from becoming reality? Money.

Between March 10 and 15, 2000, the NASDAQ index crashed as billions were wiped off the value of the dot-coms and the scent of easy cash evaporated from the world economy. A year later, history lurched forward with a further sickening thud as it collided with the murderous plan of Osama Bin Laden and the twin towers. One of surfing’s most utopian visions was buried in the ashes. An insignificant loss when compared to the thousands of innocent people who perished that black day but a loss nonetheless.   With the ASP seemingly headed into another period of industrial surfing and surf fans in open revolt, I asked Kelly Slater what he thought about the current prospects of a Rebel Tour getting up.

“You know what?” Slater reasons. “There’s too much fear in the surfers for that to happen. It’s their livelihood, and they’re not gonna risk it.”

Well, there we go. Money talks and bullshit walks. And it looks like apart from the Great Bald One and a few chosen others, pro surfing is on an unstoppable collision course with commercially driven mediocrity again.

But not Hynd. Not ever.

Let’s bring this narrative back to the very near past. Hynd’s last dalliance with the public on board design saw the rebirth of the fish and a complete overhaul of equipment for the masses.

Hynd saw the “retro revolution” as a “complete multi-million dollar bastardization of pure form” where “no-one wanted to invest the time into a true San Diego fish and they just wanted to dump four fins on it and turn it into an ’80s thruster.”

Tognetti sees this drive of Hynd’s to avoid the “free jazz of finless surfing” being turned into another commodity as key to understanding the man. “To me finless surfing is nothing,” says Tognetti. “You can’t sell it. It’s like trying to sell a bag of nothing. It’s anti-commodity and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

But of course, nothing of value escapes the lure of mass production. A finless pop-out has been put on the market by former wood puritan Tom Wegener, and Hynd is seething. He sees it as a mass-produced pop song intruding into a wildly inventive free jazz space. A full-stop on design that will hinder R&D, and a commercial betrayal of the finless ethos.