Pro Surfing: THE SHARP END

In 1994 SURFER Magazine ran a splashy cover story entitled, “Searching For Kelly Slater” in which pro surfing’s current crop of teenaged heroes were profiled in relative comparison to the Cocoa Beach superstar. Slater, then 22, and having already won four consecutive U.S. Championships, the $100,000 Body Glove Surf Bout, the first of his six professional ASP world titles, a mega-buck Quiksilver sponsorship deal and his own page in People magazine’s 1991 “50 Most Beautiful People” issue, was already making the surf establishment antsy. Like, “OK, you made your point, enough already. Make room for somebody else.”

17- year-old Kalani Robb, for example, was touted in “Searching For Kelly Slater” as the next best thing. Or 16 year-old Andy Irons also got a mention, along with his brother Bruce, Tim Curran, Chris Ward, Conan Hayes, Cory Lopez and Taj Burrow. All of them were predicted to rise to the top of the class; pro surfing’s future.

So now pump down the line for almost a decade, until today when, with only two events left on the 2003 ASP World Championship Tour, and after a four-event winning season that would ordinarily have to be considered extraordinary, current world champ Andy Irons heads into the climactic Hawaiian Triple Crown and a possible showdown at Pipeline, 648 points behind the only other surfer apparently capable of both dominating the world championship circuit and capturing the imagination of both recreational and pro surfing fans alike in Slater-esque fashion. Facing, at long last, the first true “next Kelly Slater” to come along in over 10 years: Kelly Slater.

That’s right. The guy who’s got the pro surf scene all abuzz this season, winning four events outright and placing no worse than 9th, and seemingly alone in his ability to wrench the surf world’s collective interest from their next wave to his next wave, first appeared in the magazines back in the ‘ 80s as an ESA Boys Champ wearing Day-Glo Sundeks, taking us from Men Without Hats to Jack Johnson with no serious rival for our affections. Asserting himself yet again as the greatest and most popular pro competitor in the sport’s history.

So is this a good thing? Hard to say. What does it say about the current state of professional surfing, to be so dependent on a single individual to generate genuine drama and interest? Does the excitement that surrounds Slater’s return to the podium represent pro surfing’s future, or is our thrall with the last vestige of a past sporting era, savored nostalgically, Curren and Occhilupo standing in for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson while Kelly–well, the Michael Jordan comparisons are impossible to ignore. As has been an organization like the National Basketball Association’s inability to produce a star of Jordan’s transcendent brilliance, with the perceived quality of an entire institution hinging on his participation. But the comparisons stop there, basketball, after all, being solely a competitive sport. Professional competitive surfing’s role within the culture has always been a complex one. And having found the “Next Kelly Slater” in Slater provides the perfect context in which to examine where pro competition fits, exactly, in this new millennium, the most diverse period in surfing history

First, a little history. (No, first a disclaimer. This is not a critique of the Association of Surfing Professionals, or any other of pro surfing’s primary governing bodies. Neither is this intended to categorize the competitors who participate in organized professional competitions the world over in any other way than to say they sure must be stoked.) And right from the start it’s important to distinguish between professional surfing and professional competitive surfing. Pro surfing has been around for almost a century. George Freeth, the legendary Hawaiian-Irish surfrider from Waikiki credited with being the West Coast’s first stand-up surfer in 1907, was a pro, sponsored by various interests to give demonstrations of his “Hawaiian feats” up and down the California coast; surfing for his supper. Meanwhile back in Waikiki the colorful beachboy culture that sprung up in Freeth’s wake and flourished throughout the early 20th century was, in its essence, the purest form of professional surfing: being paid, however marginally, to spend your days on the beach, surfing, teaching surfing, and occasionally rubbing sun-tan lotion on some pretty wahine. Even in the light of today’s mega pro sponsorships, no surfers have ever had it any better than did those “brown Mercurys” of Waikiki.

Surfing competition, too, has been around since olo boards and surf chants. In “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport” University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney describes an 18th century surf contest whose drama the Pipe Masters would be hard-pressed to match.

“Before he became high chief Umi attended a surfing match at Laupahoehoe, Hawaii. While there he was challenged to a contest by Paiea. Because of the small wager Paiea proposed, Umi refused the offer. When Paiea upped his bet to four double-hulled canoes, Umi accepted. He then defeated Paiea and won the four canoes, but during the match Paiea’s surfboard had clipped Umi on the shoulder, scratching off some skin. Umi said nothing at the time, but when he later came to power as high chief he had Paiea killed and sacrificed to his god at the heiau at Waipunalei.”

There was obviously a lot more riding on those early Hawaiian waves than ratings points.

“It shows how serious the Hawaiians were about competition,” says Dr. Finney. “It’s also history’s first documented case of surf rage.”

While in more modern times surf competition tends to be regarded as a recent development, the fact is that as long as there’s been surfing there have been surf contests. And great competitive surfers. We’ve read about Chief Umi, but what about Long Beach’s Cliff Tucker, winner of the 1940 Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship, who topped legendary watermen like Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison at the annual San Onofre event with a radically innovative approach that saw the ultra-competitive Tucker utilizing a quiver of wooden boards, riding a lightweight, hollow plywood design in the glassy morning heats and a heavier, solid model in the afternoon chop.

Then there was Peterson himself, one of the greatest surfer/designer/innovators of all time, who dominated California competition, taking out the PCSC in 1932, 1936, 1938 and 1941, and who continued to compete into his later years, winning the tandem event with partner Barrie Aglaw at the 1966 World Championships at age 53.

During the post-Gidget surf boom of the mid-1960s a new breed of professional emerged, “sponsored” surfers who, aside from their other promotional duties shilling, say, Hang 10 trunks or Hobie surfboards, gained renown by competing in contests like the Makaha International and the United States Surfing Federation championships at Huntington Beach.

Mickey Munoz knows a thing or two about this era. One of the 1960s top competitors, Munoz, began picking up paychecks as far back as 1959, donning a bikini and doubling for Sandra Dee in the original Gidget, and in 1965 won the sport’s first professional cash prize at the Tom Morey Invitational nose-riding contest. Mickey’s recollections paint a different picture than the nostalgic image of the period known as “the longboard era,” during which, revisionists claim, everyone posed on their noses in a “soulfully” aesthetic stance.

“It was an extremely competitive period,” says Munoz, 66. “There were guys who were team riders and that’s all they did. Mike Doyle was certainly one of the first. David Nuuhiwa, Nat Young. And I considered myself a professional surfer, whether that meant making money actually riding a wave or not. Not that anybody made enough money to support themselves completely by just riding waves. But the name of the game was doing it all, competing and shaping and doing promos. It was no different than what pros like Kelly are doing today. He’s out there whoring, you know, just like we were [laughing].”

Whoring isn’t what the surfers who reinvented professional competitive surfing in the late-1970s liked to call it. This new era, ushered in with the inception of the International Professional Surfing Tour in 1976, took on the tone of a crusade with knight errants like Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, Mark Warren, Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards and Shaun Tomson girding their loins in Quiksilver, Gotcha, Billabong and Instinct and going forth to do battle with both the evil Day Job and the all-black wetsuit.

Gauging how successful this zealous mission has been depends on which side of the priority buoy you sit. The “Free Ride” generation did help establish what would develop into a legitimate world professional tour while at the same time strike the endorsement mold from which the following generation of pros would be cast. And the lucky pros who have stood on the shoulders of those early giants have realized the dream of making a living–a damn good living, in many cases–simply riding their boards. On the other hand, while elements like travel surfing, the use of modern longboards and women’s surfing–in short, recreational surfing–have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, the World Championship Tour, despite offering more total prize money, has shrunk from 1988’s 24-event, 21-sponsor season, to today’s 12-event tour supported by only five sponsors. And although surfing has never been hotter in the mainstream, from the box office and ratings success of projects like Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid and MTV’s Surf Girls, to the projected release of two major studio big-wave documentaries, the professional surfing circuit has, after 24 years of trying, yet to gain any presence on the screen at all, big or small. And if the return of not only the greatest competitor ever but one of People magazine’s 50 sexiest to the fold hasn’t tipped the scale, what will?

And yet pro surfing still seems to occupy a major portion of our attention. It is almost universally agreed upon that the world’s top professional competitors are considered the world’s best surfers–period. What else could explain the fact that every top place-getter surfer in the 2003 SURFER Poll–male or female–competes fulltime on either the ASP’s WCT or WQS tour? Not a Laird Hamilton or Joel Tudor or Daize Shayne among them, despite those performers’ significant contributions and respective iconic reputations. And we apparently still crave the competitor’s endorsement, and not just for fashion. The validity implied by this proven, quantifiable skill level affects even the most recreational surfers, pro surfing fans or not.

“There is a trickle-down affect,” says Randy French, owner of Surftech, the world’s largest producer of epoxy-composite surfboards. “Like with auto racing. What does auto racing have to do with the average consumer buying and driving a car? It’s what’s learned at the sharp end of the sport. Innovation in things like automatic transmissions, suspension, brakes and tires. It’s the same with surfboards.”

But next time you paddle out to your local break, take a look at all those surfboards. An informal poll among surfing experts, from 1976 world professional champion Peter Townend to pro surfer/filmmaker Chris Malloy to The Encyclopedia of Surfing author Matt Warshaw, revealed the widespread opinion that surfboard design is the area most directly influenced by competitive surfing today–and has been since 1981. You remember 1981. Simon Anderson. And a little thing called the Thruster.

“The development of the Thruster, the single most widely accepted surfboard design of all time, came as a direct result of surfing competition,” says Townend, 50, former competitor, TV commentator, surfwear marketing director and currently an action sports consultant. “It was Simon Anderson trying to come up with a design to compete against all these smaller guys zipping around on twin-fins. But if Simon hadn’t proved that the designed worked, and proved it in competition, it would never have been totally accepted the way it was by the surfing public.”

Of course the surfboard market has changed vastly since the years immediately following the Thruster’s introduction, when virtually every surfer in the water rode some reasonable facsimile. Today’s lineups are filled with the broadest variety of equipment ever seen, from conventional Thrusters to ‘ 60s-style, single-fin longboards, from twin-keeled Fish to progressive tri-finned nine-footers, from accommodating hybrids to aerial discs. And with the exception of the most finely tuned blades, none of them even remotely resembling boards ridden by the top pro competitors. Do we really have to harken back over 20 years to point to any tangible contribution?

“Not at all,” says Surftech’s French. “From the consumer’s standpoint it’s still a credibility thing, regardless of what sort of board they ride. And we’re looking at it from the design, performance and manufacturing perspective. Our goal as a business is to see our technology used on the pro tour–we need it to be perceived as working for that upper one-percent. The credibility, that’s the value of competition. Just like with auto racing–if Goodyears are good enough to run at the Indy 500, they’re good enough for my car.”

Equipment-wise there are even some cases where civilian surfers have benefited inversely. Listen to Peter Johnson, formerly manager of Rusty Surfboards and currently owner of PSG/Kane Garden Surfboards. Johnson, 47, has been a longtime proponent of “alternative” surf craft (read: hybrids and modern Fish) and while he worked for years producing replicas of the boards favored by Rusty’s powerful pro team, he views trickle-down in a slightly different light.

“If you look at the extremely refined boards like Kelly Slater was riding in 1990-91, they didn’t so much lead surfers away from reasonable surfboards as drive them toward more reasonable boards,” says Johnson. “For about four or five years people were buying boards that didn’t work for them. Finally the need to develop more user-friendly boards grew until, at Rusty, at least, we began consciously addressing that market. Like with the Desert Island Series and bigger guy boards. Now at Kane Garden we offer boards that rip and are actually fun to ride and in a sense the whole movement toward this type of board came out of the competition scene.”

Another area where competitive surfing has had a quantifiable effect on the broader surf culture concerns the recent boom in women’s surfing–quantifiable, but not so obvious. Kneeboarders, bodyboarders, longboarders–hah! No single group has had a greater struggle for respect and acceptance than female pro competitors, whose course since the mid-1970s has been undermined by pitfalls: gender bias, industry apathy, indifferent media coverage, outright hostility from the male pros jostling at the same sponsorship trough. Women’s professional surfing has hardly flourished over the years, even in the face of a parallel women’s movement that has literally exploded in terms of participation and pleasure, a new wave of recreational surfers whose main aspiration is to have fun in the surf, not make money. The now-ubiquitous “Roxy chick”, preaching girl-power in hip-huggers and bikini tops, has proved to be a powerful role model. But just as powerful have been the performances of a handful of top female pros in surf contests held at some of surfing’s most high-risk breaks. The surfing of Layne Beachley, Keala Kennelly and Rochelle Ballard in events like the Billabong Pro at Teahupoo and the 2001 Op Boat Trip Challenge in Sumatra redefined the limits of women’s performance. Even more so than their male counterparts, these pros have infused the sport with a palpable inspiration, as this new generation of female surfers, most of whom will likely never enter a competition, nevertheless enjoy greater confidence to paddle out and take their place in the waves.

Professional surfing’s negative effects? We pretty much have to get subjective here. You could argue that inherently surfing is not a competitive sport and that professional competition encourages the worst sort of cut-throat, aggressive behavior, inappropriate in today’s crowded lineups. But then you can’t get more competitive than a crowded Saturday at Rincon, where not one of the 300 or so surfers out doing battle is in the Top 44.

You could rail against the elitism that pro rankings foster, and the rampant egotism of pro surfers who define their experience by how much better they are than another. But is this attitude any more marginalizing than localism, one of the sport’s most cherished ethics, which defines a surfer solely by how close to a given break he lives?

Pro surfers must be wave hogs–how do you think they got so good? But then ask yourself this: when did you last surf with one? And really, where would you rather have all those uber-surfers, out at your break or off surfing in Tahiti or South Africa or France?

You could make an argument on aesthetic grounds, claiming that some of pro surfing’s mercenary aspects are an effrontery to the sport’s imagined “Code of Non-Commercialism.” But then try selling that to proto-surf dog Tom Blake, who in the 1940s collected surfboard model royalties from the L.A. Ladder Company, or the great Duke Kahanamoku, who in the 1920s was featured in magazine ads hawking table varnish, or even George Freeth himself, who obviously saw no reason why a surfer shouldn’t be paid for his “feats.” Mostly because the one thing those sepia-toned pros had in common with those of today is that they’d be out there surfing regardless. In that sense they are us. They just happen to surf better.

Nobody knows this better than Graham Stapleberg, former head judge and director of the Association of Surfing Professionals, now Vice President of Marketing at Billabong U.S.A. Stapleberg, 42, grew up surfing in his native South Africa, steeped in Durban’s hyper-competitive scene. He began working as an ASP judge in 1987, becoming the sanctioning organization’s director and serving until 1999. The world of competitive surfing was his world. Now with the marketing role at Billabong, one of professional competitive surfing’s most committed sponsors, “G”‘s had the opportunity to regard the concept from yet another perspective. When it comes to chartered glamour, Stapleberg writes the book. But surprisingly the scenario he describes is inclusive, rather than exclusive, distilling, perhaps, professional competitive surfing’s enduring cache.

“When it comes to the marketing of the sport, pro surf competition is still very important,” he explains. “And as a brand we wouldn’t be so heavily invested in both the athletes and the events if that were not the case. But there’s another aspect of the pro tour that is almost contradictory to the marketing of it. Pro surfing really is a family, a nomadic tribe that travels around the world from one contest to the next, really no differently than the way other surfers travel. Except that along the way they’re breaking new ground, performance wise, and raising the bar for the next generation of surfers. But it is a family. I mean, I can still go to any event and see people who I haven’t seen in years and still relate on the same level to points of discussion and values. These are people to whom surfing is the most important thing in the world. They’ve dedicated their lives to it. And it doesn’t get any more inspirational than that.”