"Welcome to your New Religion."
That's Derek Hynd speaking, shaking my hand after I careened semi-successfully across a glittering waist-high pointbreak on my first finless ride.
Free Friction, Hynd calls it. To be honest I was pretty damn happy with my existing religion, which was surfing of the finned, Tom Blake-church-of-the-Open-Sky-variety.
But that opening ride, which left me grinning and hooting like a drunk gibbon put all the rest of Hynd's justifications and deliberations on free friction into sharp, visceral focus. Finless surfing feels damn good, like the first time you slid across a wave, or kissed a girl.
Let's stop here to draw a quick sketch of the man. He's small and wiry, with sharp, bird-like features dominated by a hooked nose and brown eyes that can droop at the corners, making him look sad and world-weary at times. Picture Bob Dylan in 1975 minus the eye makeup, and you're in the ballpark. On a wave he looks younger, like a young girl, as his chief disciple, Richard Tognetti, describes him. Youth is a central tenet of the Hynd religious doctrine. "Outlasting the bastards," Terry Fitzgerald calls it. Hynd is 54 and he claims finless surfing is making him age in reverse—a reverse-aging, finless religion. Stranger cults have caught on. But not many.
This Hyndian religion sure is a strange old beast to classify. It's far more than Free Friction…and it's no religion of mercy, I'll tell you that for free. It's an unrelenting and prolonged derangement of the senses catalyzed by long-distance night drives between surf spots, anti-corporate rants, stream-of-consciousness historical analyses that intersect with current events, minimalism with respect to food, sleep, and stimulants, sharp and angular criticism of our dystopian realities, brutally unambiguous judgments about everything and everyone in the surf culture (he's doing it right now, as he reads this!), and surfing. Relentless driving and hunting for surf. Hynd's spartan surf program would leave a 20-year-old hipster in the dust, gasping for a soy macchiato.
We left Byron Bay at 2:30 a.m. deep in the warm, black throat of night to pounce on the dawn patrol at Noosa. We're in Hynd's car with the wipers working hard through rain squalls, smudging the unending lights of the Gold Coast's line of late-night gas stations and strip malls into a garbled blur. Conformity and commodification are at their zenith here; this is the logical end result of the kind of herd thinking Hynd instinctively despises. As if in revolt to this mind-numbing vista, Hynd leans over to me and in a conspiratorial whisper and says, "Imagine Steve, it's, say, 1954 and surfing's growing. The cities and counties are aware of this growing bohemia. Just imagine if one of these bohemians had convinced someone in a city or county to build a club on the beachfront so that these bohemians could continue to live off the coast and create a really nice vibe for the city or county. Imagine if just one county had done that: at Malibu or Windansea or somewhere like that. If that had started and grown from county to county, this whole surf culture coulda been, to this day…cool. Where it's purely communal. Can you flash on that?"
For a moment I did flash on it. I saw Tommy Zahn and Pete Peterson, Simmons (with a constant trail of orange peel around him), Joe Quigg, Kivlin. Board design advancing at breakneck speed. Later, Pat Curren bringing fresh lobster and beer. Then a drunk Butch Van Artsdalen stumbling all over the joint, picking a fight. Dora, burning the building down in a fit of self-righteous rage. This is the reality Hynd dreams of, and believes can still be possible.
Have you got a thought picture about this guy now? Do you still think he's some grumpy irrelevant throwback, some terminally bored aging iconoclast who should shuffle off stage left and accept reality? Or one of surfing's few free-thinkers—a modern-day savant? Do you see this finless surfing thing and think, like I once did, "What a f–king waste of time!" To put it in the words of new iconoclast Lewis Samuels: "What we're left with, once you remove the novelty, is the obvious: good surfers handicapping themselves via the use of dysfunctional equipment." Which was exactly my position right up to the moment of catching that first wave at Noosa. But that is no more the case. Not even close.
We all know the Hawaiian fin-free equipment: the olo and the alaia of semi-antiquity, the solid redwoods of the Duke era and the cut-down semi-hollow hot curls, which for a time jousted for supremacy with Tom Blake's new finned surfboards. But what would make a talented surfer past his prime go back and apply any of those arcane principles to modern fiberglass equipment? There are two complementary reasons. One offered from the outside by Hynd's contemporary (and finless cynic) Nick Carroll, and the other by the man himself. Carroll asserts a Freudian reason, saying that Hynd was using this bizarre dance to impress a certain lady friend whom Hynd was courting at the time. Finless surfing as sexual foreplay? Hynd does not refute it but offers an alternate version: "The problem with that comment is that the lady in question couldn't see. She was blind. And I was trying to teach her to surf and I realized she couldn't get to the beach because she couldn't see the chops in the water. I had to try and relate to her difficulties so I grabbed an old finless Coolite board. During that surf I felt movement and that was it."
There is something that electrifies the crowd when Hynd surfs. Faces turn and women, in particular, are compelled to watch this strange sliding dance form. I saw it numerous times at pointbreaks near and far. Girls light up when the finless boogie is displayed in their visual arena. Hynd offers this insight into why: "It's like a gannet gliding. It's quite arousing. The economy of movement at speed does have a rhythm to it. It might be a new form of dance. Maybe it's just the pursuit of art and not sport."
One person who became enamored of the Free Friction Hynd was 24-year-old Taylor Miller. She's Hynd's current girlfriend and an accomplished finless surfer in her own right. Taylor is the daughter of Rusty Miller, who's been everywhere and seen everything in modern surfing. Rusty can look you straight in the eye and tell you about running into a fur-coated Bunker Spreckles in some dive bar in Kauai after he just did a line of coke off Bridget Bardot's tits in the restroom. Well, maybe not Bridget Bardot, but some other '60s mega-babe. Or what kind of wax Rolf Aurness used when he won the world title in 1970 right from under the Aussie shortboard supremacist noses.
Still, how the hell did a 54-year-old man get tight with a 24-year-old babe? That's what you're thinking, right? Who can say? But the lack of convention seems perfectly natural when you see the two surfing, forming a mirroring montage of finless fun, free of all judgment.
Cutback readers—on whatever craft you favor—to the previous evening at the Pass. A violent lightning storm is in progress. The sky is almost black, blazingly illumined by jagged shafts of lightning that seem far too close for comfort. The surf is overhead and close to perfect, racing along a shallow sandbar in a series of barreling sections with 50-yard feathering lip lines. I had caught a wave and was running back around for a last one before night engulfed the lineup. Hynd came rushing out of the twilight, at full chattering speed in complete control (in many days of observing him he barely fell off). Bottom-turning, he put the board into a full-speed slide across the lip line, with the tail-half of the board fully exposed (a sudden flash of lightning like God's own photographic studio froze the moment in my brain). A full board slide finner, as if performed by Fanning or Reynolds. But as he came back down, backward, the triangular foamball picked him up (a white knuckle against thundering black storm clouds) and rocketed him into the next tube section, where he regained his rail control and got a deep barrel. It perfectly framed the following thought on Free Friction by Hynd into a physical reality: "Speed tended to displace the function of conformist turns, for the hell of it. And the hell of it is an amazing thrill. Just being completely abandoned and free."
There's a more modern antecedent in Hawaiian culture that Hynd riffed on at length, in obvious homage: "The stoke factor gets me right back to my teenage years when Bertlemann, then Buttons, then Liddell used to be on screen at the movies. Getting to see them in the flesh, particularly Liddell, and seeing how far ahead he was of every surfer there…well, I wanted to do that. I wanted to be like that. The respect I had for his smile, and just his grace on a wave while doing bizarre shit—it never left me. A lot of this is dedicated to him: to his spirit of adventure at speed."
But we're outrunning section after section here, fellow surf fans. We need to get somewhere back in time, closer to the take-off point, where this bizarre, reverse-aging icon first stumbled upon the fountain of eternal youth. The young Hynd moved to Sydney's northern beaches from Avalon to Palm Beach. The Morning of the Earth country soul and design innovation era was at its zenith. To the south—from Narrabeen to Dee Why—AC/DC and hard rock bought in a darker and less conservative mood to the Aussie suburbs. Newport beach was smack in the middle of these competing influences. It was the beginning of the end of the age of innocence for Australian surfing. Twin demons in the shape of drugs and motorcycles ripped a swathe through the Australian suburban landscape and surfing was on the frontlines of the cultural battleground. Overnight, most of Hynd's small circle of friends disappeared into a drug vortex.
It was the event that shaped Hynd's character, the moment where he turned away from the herd and pursued the logic of his own observations: "Just about every family back then had an association with drugs and motorbikes. The two went hand in hand. It seemed to me then there was an art form in drugs. Seeing how guys approached drugs and seemed to be able to mull up 5-star joints laced with all sorts of things in the car park, it was like, 'Look at these guys, they're geniuses.' Of course, geniuses going nowhere. It was a complete letting go of any conservative remnants of the '60s. I saw the innocence of a lot of friends vanish in months, sometimes days, never to return. The bodysnatchers took away a lot of crew. I was left without much, except a dragster bike and a few faithful dogs."
A passionate anti-drugs stance has been part of the Hyndian religion ever since that day.
We were in the sun-dappled tea tree forest of the Noosa Points now, walking towards Tea Tree Bay and its perfect peelers. I was feeling like a burned-out car wreck after days of running the Hynd line. Three hours sleep a night, jump in the car and drive in the dark. Surf. Jump back in the car and drive in the opposite direction. Surf until dark. Fatigue and white-line fever. Hynd snatching remnants of sleep while I drove, twitching as the muscle memory of the finless rides seared deep into some sub-coetaneous neural pathway. One of Hynd's chief disciples, Richard Tognetti, is no stranger to caustic self-discipline himself, being a classically trained violinist. He describes Hynd's regime of self-discovery in protestant terms: "All our joy must be paid for by equal amounts of torment and struggle. That is a big part of Derek's makeup: the struggle."
The air was freshly scrubbed by the tropical storms and Hynd was taking me back to that time in the early '70s when the Dark Prince of surfing, Michael Peterson, absorbed the insidious energy of hard drugs and the tender sunshine of the new professional surfing dream like a black hole. The media was obliged to hero worship Peterson, and that was a bad mistake in Hynd's eyes.
"This whole drugs in pro surfing thing may go back to the idolization of MP," says Hynd. "The guy could do no wrong and yet was in a deep, dark hole. The media faces predominant blame for celebrating the drug lifestyle and not bearing witness to the total ill of the situation. It's just a pity that more people didn't come forth and try to do something about the amount of drugs on Tour. It possibly would've saved Andy Irons from the fate that befell him, if there were role models on Tour and corporations that were willing to help the bloke in public. It's a tragedy."
Hynd has born witness to other destructive drug binges in pro surfing. "It's no great secret that Occy completely f–ked up at the peak of his powers," he says. "And that really cut me to the quick because I was coaching him."
Hynd created a group named "On the Nod" as a result of the Occy meltdown, which required at least two years of being drug-free to join. It was a dismal failure. Derek is philosophical about his anti-drugs crusade: "It's amazed me that there's a drug factor in surfing that removes the natural high. Fame and influence in a sport full of supposed heroes just create so many dark corners that are hard to resist. I wanted to change things and I didn't change much. Maybe one day we will confront the phantom that has hovered around the tour since Day Ane."
All things considered, people become products of the landscape—not just the physical landscape, but the artistic and emotional ones. The physical reality of the Northern Beaches, with its series of almost hermetically sealed beaches and scenes, created unique tribal nodes of design and surfing style. Nothing created a bigger emotional and artistic impression on the young Hynd than the first Coke surfabout Contest in 1974, which roamed the Northern Beaches with it's cast of larger-than-life surf heroes who had only been seen on the big screen up until that moment. It planted the seed of a dream for Hynd that led to both a career as a pro surfer and later as the most perceptive writer/critic of the sport to this day.
"Make no mistake, the first Coke Surfabout for any Sydney surfer, for any kid surfer, was just huge," says Hynd. "It was bigger than any event today because people were so starved of seeing the people that they'd only ever seen on screen. And there they were. And none so great as Barry Kanaiaupuni, who in 2- to 3-foot Narrabeen Alley rights, was just tearing the bags off it. It was more art form than sport. It looked incredibly artistic and it spawned a lot of young minds to do some backyard hacking. Art form back then, plain sport now. Boxed, packaged as the industry wants it. Interesting now that they're going back to bleacher events in a reactionary stab against the success of the sports that have largely consumed surfing, which are skate and, to a degree, BMX. If they're regressing to the OP Pro of '85, '86 then I can't see that as being incredibly foresightful on their part."
"Yes," I countered, "but you must acknowledge the beauty of the performances of, say, Parko and Dane."
"I don't find enough beauty in these performances. I want an arena where these phenoms get to surf repeatedly against each other," he argued. "There is no room for 48, 32, or possibly even 20 surfers on Tour. The public deserves the stimulation of pinnacle performances. Not hackneyed, controlled, over-coached, counting turns, join the dots, repetitious heats day in day out, with sometimes the best surfer being knocked out early in the heat. There are a bunch of Blind Freddy's out there who can see it, but apparently not the ASP. The ASP is incapable of lateral thought."
Hynd has done more than run his mouth off and wield his poison pen over the lack of artistry in pro surfing and surf culture in general. Where his Hyndian utopian visions have intersected with reality and budgets some extraordinarily productive nodes have been created along surfing's historical timeline. He's organized and run alternative surf competitions in South Africa, the Outer Hebrides, and in Bass Strait. He's also come within a bees dick of getting up his own rebel Pro Tour, known as the IS Tour. Perhaps the most far-reaching effect he had on the mainstream culture was as Rip Curl's marketing director in the early '90s. Hynd came up with the Search concept, which, along with Jack McCoy's Billabong Challenge series, was the progenitor of the Dream Tour.
The impact of capturing Tom Curren on film in dream waves in remote locations can't be overestimated. It—along with Litmus—spawned the Fish Revolution, as well as established a high-water mark for where surfing could be taken as an artistic endeavor. Curren's pure carving lines at maxed out J-Bay and fireball fish tuberiding at Bawa defined the state of the art even in the early-Slater period. Any company execs wondering about the current level of grassroots rancor and disrespect toward the companies and the Tour need to comprehend massive public disappointment and disillusionment at the gradual and unceasing retreat from the Search ideal formulated by Hynd.
The best surfers in the best waves achieves something approaching performance art and sport mixed together and has a visual power that can't be denied, even allowing for the deep residuum of ambiguity about pro surfing harbored in the hearts of many recreational surfers. Industrial surfing in cityscapes, by contrast, seems like a faded circus sideshow act run by desperate hucksters. A bearded lady covered in garish makeup that appears ugly and irrelevant to all. In this day and age, it fools nobody.
One person who understands this concept better than anyone is legendary independent filmmaker Jack McCoy. McCoy has collaborated on projects with Hynd over the years, most recently showcasing Hynd's finless boogie at J-Bay and Bells Beach in his new movie, A deeper Shade of Blue. But it is their unsuccessful attempt to create a rebel tour in the early 2000s to which we turn our attention.
I spoke to Jack McCoy at his Sydney home. He'd just pulled a nerve in his back and was groaning in pain. Talk of Derek and the IS Tour restored his spirits quickly.
"We wanted to create an event which encouraged creative surfing, that was based more upon art than sport," he said.
It was 1999. McCoy's Billabong Challenges and the brief existence of the Quiksilver Pro at G-Land had inspired a different vision for the pro tour. Slater had retired from the Tour after six world titles, citing the "repetition of the Tour and the lack of interest it was creating over a long period of time." The Dot-com boom was in full speculative frenzy, providing an economic backdrop of easy money and faith in a new future where information and content assumed an aura of invincibility. Despite its reliance on the venture capital cowboys, the IS Tour was a strange beast.
Hynd and McCoy envisaged an eight-stop tour with contests in Australia, Chile, the South Pacific, South Africa, Ireland, France, the USA, and Hawaii. There were to be 12 seeds and four wildcards at each event. More unique, however, was Hynd's vision to make Tour locations self-sustaining retreats where fallen heroes down on their luck could be bought back into the fold. Shane Herring, Nicky Wood, and Joe Engel were the names that rolled off Derek's tongue. What? Professional surfing offering a model for ecological sustainability, social justice, and a beacon for progressive surfing: a foil against the Future Shock of a hyper-industrialized world. What a revolutionary concept. What a poetic response to the continuing problem of the most creative, left-field surfers being chewed up or disinterested in the pro-surfing machine. Hynd called this concept "philosophical timeshare." It doesn't take much imagination to see the future of progressive surfing with Dane Reynolds, Jordy, John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Slater, and Jamie O'Brien in this kind of environment.
I asked Jack who was signed up. "Oh, we had all the hotties. Machado, Robb, Andy, Beschen, Taj. And Kelly. Kelly was our Trump Card."
"Kelly!" I said. "You think he was using the IS Tour as a template for his ESPN Rebel Tour idea?"
"We don't know, man. We never heard from Kelly. It was really disappointing not to hear from Kelly."
What stopped this revolutionary vision from becoming reality? Money.
Between March 10 and 15, 2000, the NASDAQ index crashed as billions were wiped off the value of the dot-coms and the scent of easy cash evaporated from the world economy. A year later, history lurched forward with a further sickening thud as it collided with the murderous plan of Osama Bin Laden and the twin towers. One of surfing's most utopian visions was buried in the ashes. An insignificant loss when compared to the thousands of innocent people who perished that black day but a loss nonetheless. With the ASP seemingly headed into another period of industrial surfing and surf fans in open revolt, I asked Kelly Slater what he thought about the current prospects of a Rebel Tour getting up.
"You know what?" Slater reasons. "There's too much fear in the surfers for that to happen. It's their livelihood, and they're not gonna risk it."
Well, there we go. Money talks and bullshit walks. And it looks like apart from the Great Bald One and a few chosen others, pro surfing is on an unstoppable collision course with commercially driven mediocrity again.
But not Hynd. Not ever.
Let's bring this narrative back to the very near past. Hynd's last dalliance with the public on board design saw the rebirth of the fish and a complete overhaul of equipment for the masses.
Hynd saw the "retro revolution" as a "complete multi-million dollar bastardization of pure form" where "no-one wanted to invest the time into a true San Diego fish and they just wanted to dump four fins on it and turn it into an '80s thruster."
Tognetti sees this drive of Hynd's to avoid the "free jazz of finless surfing" being turned into another commodity as key to understanding the man. "To me finless surfing is nothing," says Tognetti. "You can't sell it. It's like trying to sell a bag of nothing. It's anti-commodity and I think that's the beauty of it."
But of course, nothing of value escapes the lure of mass production. A finless pop-out has been put on the market by former wood puritan Tom Wegener, and Hynd is seething. He sees it as a mass-produced pop song intruding into a wildly inventive free jazz space. A full-stop on design that will hinder R&D, and a commercial betrayal of the finless ethos.
The surf is building. We're at an A-grade pointbreak—a kind of warm-water Jeffrey's Bay. Paddling into the lineup, I immediately recognize the atmosphere. It's the aggressive mediocrity that characterizes most good lineups in the developed world. The kind of hysterical devotion of the nine-to-fiver getting their recreational fix in a kind of bland denial of the ever-decreasing crumbs available to them. In among this chaos Hynd glides and hunts like a wily leopard seal; now, pouncing on a stray penguin who has slipped off the ice, now darting wide to snaffle an unclaimed morsel. His surfing among this mostly hunched and desperate masturbatory frenzy seems almost bizarrely baroque and graceful and attracts curious, uncomprehending stares from the kinds of unsmiling monkeys who will flap and butt wiggle their way across the next oceanic scrap they can get their hands on.
Surfing's most lateral thinker is laying down an improvised track. Relentless progression as the body ages and eventually fails the commands of the mind. Even outlasting the bastards has a time limit. In the moment he is driving down the line, on the edge of control—an apparition of acceleration—flying toward surfing's future. The whole crushing meat market of mass consumer culture surrounds him, moving inexorably in like a slow-motion scream, while his exploration of nothingness continues and infinity beckons. The voices in the wilderness are becoming fewer as conservative elements become dominant.
In the car after the session, we hear that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. I ask Derek for his thoughts. With touching innocence he tells me: "Retaining composure in whatever crap lands around you is worth its weight in gold." He then pauses and glances at me, his world-weary eyes now full of fire: "Hold your line and don't bend over."
Thus endeth the sermon.