With a cameo in Dear Suburbia and a starring role in Electric Wilderness, Conner Coffin continued to expand his freesurf presence in 2012. But he also struck a balance, finishing third at the World Junior Championships in Bali. Born and raised in Santa Barbara—where he spent his formative years surfing alongside the likes of Dane Reynolds and Nick Rozsa—Coffin is in no rush to qualify for the World Tour. A surfer’s late teens and early 20s, he says, is a golden period in their career—a time to smell the roses, or in his case sip spritzers on the Mediterranean. Just days after the finals in Bali, he was off to Italy to meet up with his uncle and revered surf filmmaker, Jason Baffa (Single Fin: Yellow, One California Day) to begin shooting a film about the surf culture there. —Jed Smith
So tell us about your trip to the south of Italy.
Half of my family is Italian, so my uncle is working with a wine maker and Chris Del Moro on the project. Basically, it’s an opportunity for Parker and I to go over there and work and hang with our family, and it’s different than anything I’ve ever done in the surfing world. It’s nice coming from the World Juniors to go over there and kick back and enjoy the culture, hang out, and make the film.
How important is it to you to maintain that balance between the pure fun of surfing and the professional side of things?
Fun is the whole reason I do what I do. For me, every aspect of surfing is fun. In Bali for the World Juniors, I enjoyed every minute of that—but it’s a completely different mindset. I’ve tried to keep a nice balance between fun and competition. Keeping that balance is important. If you don’t compete for a while, then when you’re in a contest and surfing against the top guys it gives you the motivation to find out how good you are. I think competing adds a bit of drive to your surfing. When you’re just freesurfing, you can become a bit lazy.
Is there going to come a point in your career when you’re going to have to sacrifice fun for professional obligations?
I think the balance will move back and forth. Throughout stages of my career I’ve done more events and at other times more freesurfing. In the next year the balance will be relaxed, but once I decide I’m gonna have a crack at the WQS, the balance will go the other way. I just want to keep the balance now and that will make it easier when I have to move more in the direction of doing contests in the future.
How has growing up in Santa Barbara shaped your appreciation of surfing?
There are more surfers up here who just surf because they love to surf. There’s less media and less hype around surfing up here. It’s a great place to live and there are great waves—well, not all the time, but when it gets good it gets really good. And I think people up here just never cared much about being a pro or being in the eye of the surf scene. There are a ton of good surfers who don’t ever travel or do events in Southern California. It’s changing a bit, but growing up here has kept my love of surfing pure and taught me to hold onto that throughout my career and not ever see it like a job. I think that’s going to help me stay grounded and not take it for granted.
Dane Reynolds, Tom Curren, Nick Rozsa, Bobby Martinez—these are all guys who call your region home and none of have shown any long-lasting affinity for the competitive jersey. Is it something in the water up there?
It goes back to what I was saying before. They all love to surf and they’re amazing surfers, but their real drive comes from surfing good waves and enjoying surfing for what it is. Curren had three titles, Dane made the Tour and could have won an event, but everyone up here just loves to surf and maybe they’d gotten into the competition scene and then surfing had become too much of a profession. You can’t be a pro without having competitive success at some point in your career. And to compete and surf the best waves with a couple of guys out is definitely really unique and a great thing. And those guys did it for a while, but maybe there’s also something about peoples’ personalities up here—there’s a culture, but no spotlight and once you get into it, if you’re not really used to it, it can be hard to deal with. Maybe there’s never been someone from here comfortable with the spotlight.
Are you one of them?
I’m pretty much the perfect stereotype from up here. I just try to have fun in all situations and lately it’s been more about having fun and surfing how I want to. Not being like, “I have to do three turns. I can’t fall off.” You catch yourself thinking about seeding points and expectations, and when that happens I find myself tightening up and not surfing the way I want to. My style gets kind of weird. I’ve had to learn to surf in heats almost how I freesurf, and just to keep my style and relaxed approach. The events where I’ve allowed myself to do that, I’ve done well.
How important is style to you?
Obviously, it’s great to win an event, but the biggest thing about competing is there are a lot of people watching you and people can see the way you surf. It’s great to move through heats, but I’d rather have people stoked on the way you’re surfing. Style is a huge part of surfing and it’s something I’m constantly focusing on.
What have you learned from sharing space at Rincon with the likes of Curren, Dane, Bobby, etc.?
We all live in this area and we each have our own little programs and spots that we surf. I haven’t surfed with those guys that much. Surfing with Tom at Rincon when I was young probably influenced my surfing the most. Aerials are a huge part of surfing now, but I think there’s a lost sense of linking moves together on a wave and putting together the whole package. There is a lot to be said about someone who can put a wave together with speed, balance, and flow. Watching guys like Tom surf points and Josh Crabtree, who surfs similar to Tom—that’s what I always saw and it looked good and that’s how I wanted to surf. Later, I’ve had to learn airs and try to string them in there with it somehow.
It seems you’ve got this intuitive ability to cut turns off just where they need to be to allow yourself to get into the next section with perfect flow. What specific steps forward have you taken in your surfing over the last couple of years?
Gerr [Brad Gerlach, Conner’s coach] has really helped me with stylish surfing. That’s what we talk about the most: doing big turns in critical parts of the wave where not everyone’s turning and having it look good. And I have that awareness ingrained in me from surfing Rincon and growing up with Curren. You need to have that in your surfing to surf a pointbreak, so I’m really blessed to have grown up where I did. It’s really hard to learn how to do that and it comes naturally for me, so I’m lucky with that one.
You’ve said in the past you can be “too nice” to your competitors. How’s that working for you in the WQS/World Junior Champs game?
Yeah, I probably haven’t improved much there. Four-man heats are the hardest part about the WQS. To get waves, being aggressive is the name of the game and it’s a constant work in progress. I really enjoy man-on-man heats and that they take a bit of the aggression out of it. In four-man heats, sometimes I feel more aggressive and more up for a paddle battle, but other times I don’t want to be that guy and I’ll sit off to the side and get my own peak and often that will bite me in the butt. You can’t teach someone to be aggressive. It’s gotta come from within, I guess.
After the way you surfed in Bali, you’d think you’d qualify for the World Tour in a heartbeat.
The last few years I’ve really focused on improving my surfing and if there is a Junior Series next year then I will probably compete on it again and try and get a World Junior Title. I’ve never been rushed to get on the Tour. With John John and Kolohe and Gabriel—it’s rad they’re on there so young, but you’re only young for a little while and it’s an opportunity now to do some really rad freesurf trips. This year, I want to make a movie with my brother [Parker] and some friends. Then, in the next couple of years, do the WQS and try to qualify. I’d love to be on the Tour in a few years. The level is so high and it would be really fun to be a part of that.