[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
SD: After getting skunked the first day here, my morale went from a 10 to a 1 in about a 10-minute period. I had the highest hopes ever for this trip, and then next thing I know, I was like, “It’s all a bust. This trip’s going to be a complete wash.”
AL: The best part was when we paddled out at Blood Eagle for the first time and realized that it was actually a wave. Before, we were just like, “Oh well, let’s just try it and see if it’s rideable.”
SD: We just thought it was going to be OK, but then that first wave was a slabbing pit that just blew its guts out. I was so baffled. I got one where I don’t even remember anything but getting barfed out of the end. Paddling back out, I saw you dropped in on the very next wave, took a super-technical drop, almost ate shit, and made it.
AL: [Laughs.] If we kept surfing that wave, would one of us eventually end up injured?
SD: One hundred percent. Your chances of getting hurt go up with every single wave you catch. But when you stop hesitating, it probably gets safer. What’s the scariest situation you’ve ever found yourself in?
AL: The first time I surfed big Jaws, I was sitting out on the north part of it, where I don’t sit anymore, and I paddled for a wave and missed it. Then there was a 30-footer behind it that no one caught. It was so big that everyone was too far in to catch it. [Laughs.] I paddled up the face of it and, at the very top, had to dive off my board and just punch through the lip. I thought I was going over the falls. It straight up made my heart stop, but I made it under. What was your worst wipeout ever?
SD: I hate talking about that. My worst wipeout? Or my scariest Jaws moment?
AL: I thought you’ve never been scared at Jaws. Let’s go with scariest Jaws moment. I have a feeling you don’t want to talk about your worst wipeout.
SD: Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it.
SD: I’ve had a few scary Jaws moments. There was a wave that Dave Wassel caught, and I bailed my board because I couldn’t do anything else, and then my board went over the falls with him. I pulled it back as quick as I could, but it dragged me way in. And the next wave was, like, a 30-footer. I have a picture of it. It’s a 30-foot wave and at the bottom I’m diving through this giant barrel. Somehow, my leash didn’t break and I pulled it through, turned around, and there’s another one, same size, top to bottom. I was buried inside.
AL: You got smoked?
SD: I got completely pounded. That was probably my scariest moment, though. I got so obliterated on that wave. I’ve had quite a few horrible ones, though.
AL: How old are you? If you don’t mind me—
SD: I’m 19 years older than you. You’re 24 and I’m 43.
AL: Really? I think besides you and Kelly, no one past their 30s can even surf Jaws. But that wave is barely surfable for anyone.
SD: When I was 20, I thought 30 was a dinosaur. I thought I’d have a normal job at 30. I remember going on trips with younger guys and starting to realize that I was the old guy on the trip. But now a lot of those same guys have totally come and gone.
AL: There have been two generations that have come and gone.
SD: And I’m still around. I’m so lucky. I honestly think it’s ’cause I just love it still. I love the test of seeing if I still have what it takes. You know what I mean? Even when I was a kid, I always wanted to know if I had what it took, whether it was head-high Banyans or Waimea or Jaws. You’re always pushing it to a limit, but at some point you lose your edge. Everybody does.
AL: Because they get scared?
SD: I think it’s more from maturity. Basically, maturity brings people to their senses. When you’re a kid, you’re just like, “F–k it, I’m 18, I have nothing to lose.” But then you get married and have kids; you start thinking in different terms. You start to feel like you have something to lose. I’m definitely more aware of all that stuff. But I think being in love with surfing keeps you young, you know? It’s probably hard to tell, but do you see yourself still being interested in big waves at 30 or 35?
AL: More than anything, I can’t imagine giving up surfing Jaws. It’s good seeing guys like you. It helps my approach to big waves. I feel like a lot of guys out there are antsy, like, “I’ve gotta get it done right now, this winter! This swell! This is the one!” But when you see guys that have had a long career with so many good waves over so many years, you realize you can kind of take your time.
SD: I think it all should come from feeling it in the moment.
AL: Yeah, ’cause you can tell. Some days you feel it. And then the other days you force it.
SD: But all your best waves were when you’re feeling in the zone, right?
AL: Yeah. None of my best waves are forced. I try to be relaxed and tell myself I have plenty of time. But still, when you miss a good one, you get a little fired up to get the next good one.
SD: Don’t you trip out on the fact that if you were a motocross guy and you wanted to do a triple backflip or whatever—
AL: It’s always right there.
SD: You could basically do it any day that you wanted. But with surfing, if you have this vision of the ultimate wave at Jaws, you could be waiting until you’re 30 just for the chance. And you always have to be ready for that. It’s such a trip. That’s the most unique thing about surfing: it could happen anytime. You always have to be ready for that moment. Because the best wave I ever caught at Jaws, I had been waiting for that wave since I was a little kid. And that wave could have never come to me, you know?
AL: I’m still waiting for that wave.
SD: And you might be for a while.
AL: Do you think you’ve already caught the best wave you’ll ever ride?
SD: That’s the question that I hope I never answer.
AL: Good call. You don’t want to know.
SD: That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since I was a little kid. And I just want to keep asking.
THE PROXIMITY TAPES: