Today, Mark Richards is known as one of the godfathers of modern surf style. But that wasn't always the case.  Off The Wall, Hawaii, 1976. Photo: Wilkings

Today, Mark Richards is known as one of the godfathers of modern surf style. But that wasn’t always the case. Off The Wall, Hawaii, 1976. Photo: Wilkings

"Style is subjective." We say it, but most of the time we're just being polite. Everybody knows that the Style Fairy wasted precious little magic dust on Adriano de Souza, and none whatsoever on poor Glen Winton, while Tom Curren gets the stuff delivered weekly to his front door in a drum-size Sparkletts bottle. Pinpointing exactly why, and to what degree, de Souza is not Curren is a bit trickier. Style is like pornography in that sense: hard to define, but obvious nonetheless. You know it when you see it.

Most of the time, anyway. Occasionally, maybe once in a generation, a surfer will make a style claim so at odds with reigning flow lines and vortices that we actually don't know it when we see it. Mark Richards flummoxed style arbiters in the mid-'70s like nobody before or since. With good reason. Yes, he was covering more vertical ground than any surfer ever had, while ripping, tearing, and lacerating his way to the winner's podium every weekend. But those pinball-flipper wrists! The collapsed polio-survivor knees! The pumping and squatting and grimacing! "Not pretty, but plenty radical," read a Free Ride–era surf-mag cover featuring Richards: "The Wounded Gull," declared surf-writing eminence Phil Jarratt (Then again, between Shaun "The Prawn" Tomson, "Big Wally" Cairns, and Paul "Smelly" Neilsen, it was a rough age for nicknames).

By the early '80s, however, Richards' inimitable style was no longer considered a mark against him. Just the opposite. A four-pack of world titles didn't hurt. Neither did the fact that nearly everyone besides Richards who made the late-'70s jump to twin-fins looked like they were riding surfboard-shaped bars of soap. But it was an amazing transformation nonetheless. Mark Richards today is a halo-wearing surf-style icon. When his wrists snap to attention during the Honolua Bay sequence in Free Ride, there is nothing wounded about it. He is soaring. And we soar with him. Time has in fact turned that old surf-mag cover caption upside down. By today's standards, Richards is no longer radical. But he is pretty unto the sublime.