Unconventional Wisdom: Derek Dunfee

The La Jolla charger on surfing and living since his injury

Derek Dunfee stands overlooking the La Jolla coastline which he calls home. Photo: Glaser

At the 2010 SURFER Poll, Derek Dunfee received the Worst Wipeout award, a double-edged validation for his relentless charging. After the last few tumultuous years—which included a horrific wipeout in Tavarua that left him with a broken leg and months of painful rehabilitation, a win at the Billabong XXL Awards, the firsthand loss of close friend and fellow big-wave surfer Noel Robinson at Puerto Escondido, and finally the success of his film, Down with the Ship—it’s fair to say the under-the-radar La Jolla charger has some experiential wisdom to impart.

I didn’t go left at all for 10 months after I broke my leg. I was over it. It’s been almost three years since I broke my leg and I’m like still really nervous backside.

When Noel drowned, he was grabbing rail going backside—just like how I broke my leg. And he broke his board in three or four places—just like how I broke my board. The way it happened looked exactly like when I broke my leg, so it’s really hard you know, just dealing with it all. I still get real upset. I think about him every single day.

I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual reading, trying to deal with death and just living in the now and the present. And I’ve been doing a lot of writing too, just for my emotions, because for me, as a big-wave surfer, Noel’s was one of the first real deaths of our generation.

I’m used to riding bigger, thicker boards, so that’s kind of how my surfing has kind of gone for the last few years. When I was in Hawaii, on a big day at Backdoor, I was out on this big, thick 7’6″ and everybody is riding 7’2″s and 7’4″s—Josh Kerr was even on a 6’3″ round-nose board. I remember Reef McIntosh and a couple guys were like, “Oh, are you on your Mavericks gun or something?”

Derek Dunfee has made a name for himself over the past few years in the most intimidating conditions at Mavericks. Photo: Glaser

I try not to get super emotional when I see a swell. I try to wait until three days before to see what it looks like. Otherwise I’d be an emotional wreck, because I’d get so pumped and then bummed.

I’ve never been too critical of my technique for aerial surfing. My job is to surf big waves. I don’t get paid to do airs or anything like that. That’s never been my thing. Before I could really even do floaters and tail slides I was pulling into big tubes.

It used to be, however I did on the last session was how I gauge my life, which for a while was ruining my life. I was either really happy because I got a good one or really bummed because I didn’t get one. Now I’m just trying to stay more level.

Even if I stopped getting paid to surf right now and had to work a nine-to-five job, I would still be tracking every swell and trying to get that day off if the swell was coming.

I’m super in-tuned with how I feel, like my energies and everything. That sounds weird, but some days I’ll accept that I don’t feel right, and I won’t even paddle out into the lineup.

Accepting death is part of what I do.

After an injury that would have given most second thoughts about big-wave riding, Derek Dunfee is back on the horse and charging harder than ever. Photo: Glaser