Airshows: Remember When?

Airshows brought the punk to the 'CT

I defend the WCT just as quickly as I prick its haunches with my tiny arrows of Twitter fire. Why? Because I've been around long enough to witness just about every alternative surf competition format, and compared to what the ‘CT is now serving up, they all sucked. The venerable Expression Session, for example. Great branding, perfect name, the syllables leave your mouth like a five-note David Gilmour guitar riff, and yes, Gerry Lopez navigated all 36 Chambers of Shaolin during his masterful '71 Expression Session performance at Pipeline. But that ain't enough. What happened with that event, basically, was 20 hot surfers got Pipe to themselves for six hours, then went home for an early dinner. There's no there there. No jerseys, no trophies, no prizes, no commentary, no ceremony. No event, essentially. The invitees would have been in the water, Session or no Session, riding the same waves, and agreeing afterwards over Primos and bong rips that, yeah, Rory and David surfed righteously, but Lopez was God.

Another '70s dud was the objective judging format, also known as the point-per-maneuver system, with everything from the slightest check-turn to a carving 360 given a specific point value. The objective format hit competitive surfing like Agent Orange. Style and flow were airlifted, coughing blood, from the event site. Judges fell from the scaffold, pencil-hands curled up in full muscle-lock seizure from trying to keep up with Michael Peterson's wiggling.

Going back even further, to the mid-'60s, the Tom Morey Invitational actually made sense. Noseriding and nothing but noseriding. Clean and simple. Stopwatches instead of judges, clock each surfer's tip time and the guy with the most accumulated seconds at the end of the day wins. On the other hand, the Morey Invitational surfing looked kinda forced, and noseriding itself, in terms of progression, was about to become kindling for the shortboard revolution.

What else? Something called the "Funtest," long forgotten and just as well, total time on your feet, nose or tail, anywhere on the board, didn't matter—the Funtest was as fun as calisthenics. And the Game. I never fully understood the Game, but as there were non-ironic cheerleaders and team uniforms and referees involved, it doesn't feel risky calling it a dogfood sandwich with all the trimmings.

Best of all the alt-comp events were the Airshows, especially back in the '90s, when airs were still punk. Keep in mind, this is when World Tour comps were still best-three waves scored. Damien Hardman, in his 30s, safe as houses and just as exciting, was still holding down a Top-10 slot. Slater would launch one now and then, when he was far enough ahead—which, come to think of it, he was most of the time. But as a rule, the World Tour was not a welcoming place for above-the-lip business.

Airs, of course, were all that mattered at Airshows. Watch the 1996 Newport Airshow edit above and you may chuckle at the modest lift and amplitude, and flinch at all the various and sundry insults to good form. I agree, and fuck you. The Airshows were conceived and designed (points for aerial moves, nothing else; hats off to Skip Snead and Barney Barron) to push this promising but still-infantile area of performance along the evolutionary track as quickly as possible. It worked. The Airshow withered and died a few years later as pros began to incorporate the Airshow ethic into WCT contests. Filipe Toledo has no need for Airshows. The World Tour is his Airshow.

There was a band-of-brothers vibe to the early Airshows, a low-simmer altruism in getting together with your near and far air cousins to talk shit about Establishment surfing while punting for the greater good. But there was a limit. Fuckers wanted to win, too. That's what made it good. From my point of view, and no doubt from every Airshow contestant's point of view—at the end of the deal, point a finger at one surfer and declare a winner. It feels right. Necessary, even.

I would stake my pension that Gerry Lopez, after his '71 Expression Session, walking off the beach alone and trophyless, allowed himself a little Mona Lisa half-smile of triumph. But we never saw it. And if such a smile did indeed cross his beatified face, he would have quickly erased it. Bullshit soul-surfer hippy protocol being what it was.

The best part about this Airshow edit here comes at the end, when winner Christian Fletcher has his palm crossed with $750, and his face lights up as he no doubt converts the money to cartons of Marlboros and ounces of Purple Cannatonic, while also reveling in the knowledge that he just slayed, for the moment, all challengers to his aerial throne. He is the high priest of nihilistic surf-punk cool. Now tilt your head and he is a 10-year-old boy on Christmas morning.