The Purist
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and Conner Coffin is sitting in a little Carpinteria, California, café, one of his local haunts, talking about rock ‘n’ roll. Coffin and his old friend, fellow Santa Barbara surfer Travers Adler, play music here when they’re both around. For a while, they had a band going. They’d set up and jam for hours.

“The Dead, The Stones, Allman Brothers—those guys are my heroes,” Coffin says. “Duane Allman is a god. Old blues, old country. Travers got me into a lot of amazing old-country stuff—Hank Williams, Gillian Welch, John Prine. I really like Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers. But I grew up on a lot of that stuff. My dad played all that for me when I was a kid. That’s just what I connect with. Music, either you connect with it or you don’t. You relate to it and it makes you feel a certain way. I feel like a lot of current music is more or less pop music. It doesn’t have that substance. You can tell when art’s authentic.”

Coffin, a blur of power and speed at Teahupoo. Photo: Glaser

I ask him if he feels the same way about professional mainstream surfing, if it all feels a little too pop, a little too overproduced.

“I’m a purist,” Coffin says. “In everything. I’ve always just wanted to create a sense of flow in my surfing. I get off on breaking down the smallest movements in between turns. I’ve always just wanted to go really fast and do the biggest turns I can. That’s what felt right to me.”

At 22, the stocky regularfoot is the first classically stylish California power surfer to make the big leagues since Bobby Martinez made his rookie World Tour debut in 2006. In the decade since, the top of the Tour has been taken over slowly by surfers more concerned with acrobatics than any semblance of style.

“He’s gotta be a breath of fresh air to people,” says Chris Malloy, who’s known the Coffin family for nearly a decade. “Not knocking the guys that are doing multiple airs on one wave with these wide stances, but people must see Conner and go, ‘Oh, shit. We forgot about how good really beautiful surfing could be, linking turns smoothly. We forgot about power. We forgot about flow.’”

Legendary California leadfoot Taylor Knox feels much the same way. Knox joined the Coffin brothers on a strike mission to Jeffreys Bay in 2014 for the brothers’ short film Highline, in which Conner channeled fellow Santa Barbara stylist Tom Curren’s iconic J-Bay lines, even going so far as riding a modernized take on Curren’s famous Black Beauty.

“These days, any 12-year-old can go down the line and do a full rotation,” Knox says. “But there’s more to Conner. He’s got a bag of tricks, but he’s got that carve down. It’s so rad and refreshing. It’s easy to root for someone like Conner. He’s got style, he’s got substance.”

Les Morales

the Chumash Indians called Montecito home, cherishing the area’s remarkable microclimate, tucked along the coast just south of the Santa Ynez Mountains. In the 1860s, a wave of Italian settlers arrived, thrilled to have found the closest thing to their beloved Mediterranean’s temperate climate. Today Montecito boasts some of the most valuable real estate in the country. Oprah, Tom Cruise—hell, even The Dude, Jeff Bridges, has called the area home.

Coffin’s grandparents very smartly purchased a 50-acre plot here 20 years ago. His parents moved up from Pasadena when Conner and his brother, Parker, were 3 and 1, respectively, hoping to give their boys a better quality of life, with more space to frolic.

“It was my parent’s lifelong dream to buy a chunk of land, split it up, build homes, and have their family close by,” Conner’s father, Rich, says. “It was really a special thing when the boys were young. They had a lot of freedom. Their backyard was 50 acres for them to run around and just be kids. It was a dream come true for us. When we moved here, I didn’t have a job; I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I figured I’d pump gas before I’d leave.”

A formative trip to Tavarua as a boy led to a prescient intuition of the islands' waters, and an early dream to become a boatman, though he can't be disappointed with his current job title on Tour. Coffin, with lifeguard Jarrod White at the 2016 Fiji Pro. Photo: Joli

Rich drew upon his talents working with his hands and began what would be a tremendously successful construction career, building contemporary homes with a touch of Asian, Italian, and mid-century American flair. With his star on the rise, he marked off a plot of land on the family’s acreage and built his wife and two soft-cheeked boys their dream home, an Italian farmhouse in the green California hills, fortuitously just a few miles from Rincon.

The boys got started surfing young. In kindergarten, Conner would wake his parents up as early as 4 a.m. if there was swell, begging them to take him surfing before school. Conner’s lifelong love affair with Rincon started with Rich pushing him into inside runners on small days, but soon he was paddling up the point, making his way to the top.

When Conner was 8, his father had had a few margaritas at a fundraiser where Jack Johnson was playing. There was a raffle, and Rich went big on tickets. He bought 100, maybe more.

“He was on the f--king news,” Conner says. “I swear he won every prize. He won a surfboard. Then another surfboard. Then another. So he gives back two, keeps one, and, boom, he wins the grand prize, which was a trip to Tavarua.”

At the time, the resort was still running family specials, so young kids could accompany parents at a discount. “My mom called them and said, ‘Listen, my kids both eat more than any grown adult, and they’re going to be on every single boat going out for a surf,’” Conner says.

With an understanding that he’d wear a helmet and booties, Conner found himself on a boat headed for Cloudbreak alongside visiting boatmen John Maher and Derek Dunfee.

“He was so young,” Dunfee says. “Definitely the youngest kid I’ve ever brought out there. Cloudbreak’s a dangerous wave no matter what age. It was like 6-, 8- foot, and he was just going for it. And he’s tiny. He’s 8 years old! He was like a baby!”

“I’d catch waves and they’d basically have to come in and pull me off the reef and drag me back because I couldn’t get back out,” Conner says. “From that trip on, all I wanted to do was be a Tavarua boatman.”

Whenever Conner had time, he’d stay on the island. And last year, finally, he got to go down twice and do boatman stints for three weeks at a time.

“The people there, the waves, everything—I think that’s my favorite place to travel to in the whole world,” Conner says. “It’s a great place to practice for heavy waves.”

Hawaii got its hooks in Conner as well. As it became obvious that their children had futures as pro surfers, Rich and his wife, Krista, began taking them to the North Shore as often as possible, eventually investing in a North Shore home. As a grom groomed in forgiving California points, Conner was determined to prove himself in heavier surf. He’d paddle out alone at big Pipe or Off the Wall and just sit there, taking it all in.

While Curren’s influence on Conner’s style is often mentioned, he and his family share more in common with—and drew much influence from—another prolific surfing family from the area: the Malloys.

“In Hawaii, Chris used to always tell my brother and me, ‘Just go out there and pull into the biggest closeout you can find!’” Conner says. “Chris has such a good sense of humor. Super dry, and so witty. I’m a huge Malloys fan. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met. And what I respect about those guys is they thought, ‘How do we want to set up our lives? We want to live on a ranch, we want to have a family, and surf, and be outside.’ And they’ve done it.”

Coffin began getting comfortable in Hawaii at a young age, often paddling out at big Pipe or Off The Wall to study the lineup. Judging by this wave at Backdoor, Coffin's early efforts are paying dividends. Photo: Noyle

of Conner’s prolific amateur career, the early signs of his prodigious talent, the style polished well beyond his years. At 12, he took home an NSSA Nationals title, beating Kolohe Andino, Zeke Lau, and Luke Davis with a buzzer-beater nine-point ride. The four would do battle for the next several years, trading titles until Conner’s coveted Open Men’s win in 2010. But Conner’s competitiveness seems to come from a different place than his peers.

“As a dad, I struggled with his attitude toward competitive surfing,” Rich says. “I was a football player and a wrestler, where if you get pissed off and grit your teeth, grunt and groan a little bit, it always helps. Conner figured out really early on that you aren’t really competing against anyone. You’re just trying to bring out the best in your surfing. And so much of that requires the ability to not focus on your opponent, but focus on the waves at hand, and light them up. It took me a long time to get that.”

Conner benefited from the sage advice of countless older figures. Rich and Krista left their kids, at a very young age, with guys like Davey Smith, Al Merrick, and Dave Letinsky, among others, for surf missions up and down the coast.

“The people whom we’ve entrusted with the boys have taken a real special interest in them, and at this point it’s like an extended family,” says Rich. “They’ve been exposed to a lot of truly great people. I don’t know that you have that in any other sport—this community of people who have mentored our kids and helped launch their careers, and who continue to be there in any number of supportive ways. As a parent, it’s almost hard to describe.”

Perhaps none have been as influential on Conner, both in and out of a singlet, than his coach, Brad Gerlach. Following a successful if unfocused professional career (in 1991, he finished second in the world), Gerlach spent two decades navigating rabbit holes of experimental board design and alternative competition formats.

Like Gerlach, Conner’s a natural stylist—his surfing possesses an innate rhythm and pace—and as the two got to know each other, the parallels were too obvious for him to ignore.

In 2014, Coffin took a remake of Curren’s famed Black Beauty for a ride at J-Bay. The result was a technically perfect carve, and a SURFER cover shot. Photo: Ellis

“I saw Conner going through so much of what I went through at his age,” Gerlach says. “The Tour is so much work, and I was so hungry for information, just asking anyone I could, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ Conner had such a great foundation, and he’s so intelligent. We could get really specific.”

Gerlach’s father was an Olympic diver who imparted a love and understanding of graceful athleticism to his son. “In a way it’s like my dad’s given me these eyes to see fluidity and movement,” Gerlach says. “I can’t always define what it is, but I can see it.”

With Conner, Gerlach hoped to get the stylish pupil to a place of total comfort. “At one point we were on the beach after a session and Conner said to me,, “You know, this is getting easier,’” Gerlach says. “That’s what I’m working toward. I said, ‘Imagine it being 10 times easier.’ Because that’s who’s going to be the best surfer in the world.”

Qualifying Series run in 2013, finishing just shy of making the World Tour. Then, in 2014, things went off the rail.

“So much of being a young pro surfer is learning to lose,” Conner says. “I don’t think I made a heat that entire year. I had to get to this point where that didn’t get to me. It was the only way I could move on and feel good again. When I let losses make me feel bad about myself, or second guess that I’m a good surfer, it’s bullshit. Because it has nothing to do with who I am, or my self-worth. Now I can just put those things behind me and catch a rhythm, and just have fun and enjoy surfing.”

This shift in attitude proved monumental in 2015. While he didn’t win any events (his best results being fifth in Portugal, followed by third in Brazil), he was surfing with newfound consistency and suddenly found himself within striking distance of qualifying.

With a third-place finish in his semifinal heat at Sunset Beach, Coffin was headed to the 'CT for 2016. Conner and Parker, and a bond only brothers share. Photo: Joli

Late in the year, as he headed into the Brazil Open in São Paulo, a quarterfinal finish or better would put him firmly in the top 10 going into Hawaii, making a berth on the 2016 Championship Tour a near certainty. In the Round of 16, with conditions bordering on unrideable, Conner paddled out in the first heat, against Hawaiian Keanu Asing. Threatening clouds hung heavy in the sky, and rainsqualls blew through the contest site. The surf was a mess. Conner opened the heat with a sloppy left, a three-point ride, then waited patiently, stoically, for the next 20 minutes while Asing got busy all around him, hunting down every semblance of an open face, slowly building a house on sixes and sevens. With eight minutes left, Conner whipped it on a chunky one, a closeout left, and belted the lip. But it wouldn’t be enough, not even close.

“I remember being really bummed for him just after his heat,” Parker wrote later on their shared blog. “Then a funny idea popped into my head and I whipped out my phone and sent him a text saying, ‘I know you wanted to make that heat…but you know what, you don’t want to qualify in Brazil while you are by yourself…You want to qualify at Sunset in front of all your friends and family.’”

He paddled out into one of the event’s most anticipated draws: a rallying Ricardo Christie scratching to stay on Tour, a loose and limber Dane Reynolds, and a red-hot and hell-bent Mick Fanning. Conner dug in and went blow for blow, surfing smartly, picking off clean, open-faced mid-size sets, sticking to his strengths, matching Fanning with a 14.50 heat total, and moving on to the semifinals. But the champagne would be put on ice for just a little longer. Turns out, his entourage’s math had been wrong.

“We were losing it,” Conner’s mom, Krista, says. “We realized, ‘If he gets fourth in the semi he won’t make it, but if he gets third he will. Should we tell him?’ At some point we took this moment, and it was one of those beautiful Sunset Beach afternoons, with the sun falling low in the sky, and the waves were great. And I said to him, ‘Look at where you are. Your dreams are coming true.’”

Conner took to the swollen Sunset lineup alongside Florence, Fanning, and young Jack Robinson. Showing steely nerves, Conner scratched into the first wave of the heat, a mid-size clean one that would allow only two good carves before running fast and wobbly into the channel—a six-point ride. For the next 20 minutes Conner held the lead with that single wave while the other three struggled to put scores on the board. With six minutes left, Conner and Florence traded scores, Conner’s wave turning flat on him as Florence nabbed an inside bowl and took the lead. While Robinson failed to find scoring opportunities, Fanning sat out the back with priority, needing only a 4.94. With 30 seconds on the clock, Fanning swung on an average one, desperate for a clean face, and got the score, knocking Conner to third. As Conner made his way through the Sunset crowd, surely a loss had never tasted so sweet.

home in Montecito, and Conner’s standing over a beautiful slab of tri-tip, fresh off the grill, carving it with precision. The meat’s crust is a deep, smoky brown, the center a fleshy, tender pink—no small task, even for the most seasoned pit boss. Deep-red juices flood the plate. Not so much a question as a claim, Conner asks, “How’s everybody feel about medium rare?”

Tonight we’re joined by a few of Conner’s sprawling group of close friends, not an uncommon scene when he’s in town. He grabs people beers, fills glasses with good Californian and Italian reds. His filmmaker uncle, Jason Baffa (Singlefin: Yellow, One California Day), along with professional surfer Chris Del Moro, got him into wine while filming Baffa’s 2013 film Bella Vita, documenting the Italian surf culture. Conner’s a terrific host—chatty, quick-witted, calm under kitchen pressure, and a hell of a cook. Fresh potatoes from a local farm stand are roasting in the oven. There’s a simple salad waiting on the table. A slab of ahi is almost finished out back on his new wood-pellet-fired grill, about which Conner just can’t say enough.

The Queen of the Coast, and its next King. Coffin, Rincon. Photo: Ellis

“My grandpa’s a Weber guy,” Conner says. “I was a Weber dude forever. Since I was a kid. But this thing, it’s cheating. Everything you cook on it just melts.”

In a week, Conner will pack up a new quiver and head to Australia’s Gold Coast for the start of the 2016 World Tour, where he’ll be talked about like a novelty, a surprise throwback underdog. Which of course is true: there’s no doubt Conner’s an outlier on today’s World Tour. But his early success this year—at Snapper, and certainly at Bells—speaks volumes as to where professional surfing could be heading.

“You have these types through the ages—David Nuuhiwa, Wayne Lynch, Gerry Lopez—these guys that have that special thing, this beauty,” says Gerlach. “Their movements were as beautiful as the waves they were riding. Professional competition surfing has become so crude that Conner’s going to almost have to rewrite the judging criteria by surfing so fluid and so powerful that it uplifts everybody.”

 
Ashton Goggans is the Managing Editor for SURFER Magazine.
This feature is from "Hidden In Plain Sight," our October 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.