Split Peak: What Makes a Surfer “Core”?

SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman debate

In this year’s big issue, features editor Justin Housman’s culture column, “More (or Less) Core Division,” delved into the topic of whether or not charging heavy waves is a requirement to be considered a hardcore surfer. We all know a hardcore surfer when we see one, but what their common defining characteristic is can be hard to pinpoint. Unfortunately, there’s no ancient Polynesian scrawl with a clear definition of core that we can turn to to settle this. So editor Todd Prodanovich and Housman decided to have a good ol’ fashioned internet rant about it.

TP: Reading that you have no interest in surfing waves over 10 feet was pretty surprising. I mean, there’s no way we would have hired you had we known that [laughs.] That was supposed to be on the first page of the application. But in all seriousness, I’m inclined to agree that being considered a core surfer should be based more upon your commitment to surfing—spending as much time as possible in the water, and making whatever sacrifices necessary to maintain that lifestyle—and not on how hard you charge. But at the same time, in our culture it feels like pushing your surfing is necessary to be considered a hardcore surfer, and there’s no greater test than stepping up in heavier waves than you are accustomed to.

JH: Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? The whole thing is relative. Stepping up can mean different things to different people. For me, at a certain point, which just happens to be right about 10 feet, depending on conditions, of course, surfing stops being fun and becomes something else entirely. I have no doubt at all that I have the ability to surf big waves, I just don’t have the interest. I’ve never surfed to conquer anything, or to prove myself to anyone. I taught myself to surf ’cause I thought it looked like the most fun thing in the world. Soon as the fun leaves the equation, I lose interest altogether.

TP: Yeah, I think most surfers gravitate toward, and stick with surfing because it’s fun, and I agree that the word “fun” is very relative in that context. If you ask Albee Layer what the most fun wave to surf is, he’ll say 25-foot Jaws, for sure. And it wouldn't be chest puffing; it’s pretty clear when you talk to surfers at that level that surfing big waves is the thing they enjoy most in life. I think a lot of that gratification—the "fun" that they get—comes from edging closer to a goal over a lifetime, and that kind of longtime, committed pursuit is what our culture deems core. I’m not saying you can’t get coreness elsewhere, but I’m just wondering what you think the small-wave equivalent would be.

JH: If you’re committed lifelong to surfing, that’s about as core as it gets. Regardless of the size of waves you like to ride. Mastering different kinds of surfboards, different kinds of waves, different kinds of conditions, different styles of surfing—all that can build a foundation for coreness. Although, I shudder at the concept of a “goal” in surfing.The big-wave surfers I’ve talked to have a single-mindedness about riding big waves that I don’t have about ANYTHING in this world, other than drinking really good beer. That level of focus on achieving a particular thing in surfing simply doesn’t resonate with me. I’ve never had a goal in surfing, other than to have fun. Actually, that’s not true. When I rode shortboards exclusively, different maneuvers became my goal and I focused on getting better, but a lot of times I wasn’t really enjoying myself. But once I expanded my quiver horizons, simply surfing for the sake of fun took over again.

TP: That’s really interesting. I think on a subconscious level I’ve always had a goal in surfing, but that goal is constantly changing. When I was a kid I just wanted to figure out new maneuvers, with the specific aim of eventually surfing like Taj Burrow (missed the mark by a mile on that one). When I got older I wanted to become comfortable in bigger waves, so got a gunny 8’0″ made for Blacks and started going down there on big winter days, just getting the shit scared out of me but having a ton of fun figuring it out. My newest “goal,” I guess, is getting better at logging so I can feel like I’m still progressing as a surfer when I paddle out on these micro summer swells. It’s weird, because this is the first time I’ve really acknowledged that I’ve always had a goal in surfing, but in hindsight surfing has always been the most fulfilling when I was working toward something. My guess is a lot of surfers have similar experiences, and maybe that’s where our shared concept of coreness comes from: the idea that a surfer is at their best when surfing in a dedicated way. Does that make sense?

JH: I think it’s awesome that I have the exact opposite experience, that the more layers of expectations I strip away from surfing, the more pure and fun it becomes. That’s the cool thing with surfing — it’s whatever you want it to be. Which, I suppose, means everyone’s definition of “core” might be different.

TP: Totally. But even with a subjective scale, I bet most surfers would still call Shane Dorian the most core surfer alive. Just sayin…

JH: Agreed. Bear in mind, this whole time I’ve been about talking 10-foot Ocean Beach though. That’s like 20-foot on the SoCal scale.

[Top image: Shane Dorian, as core as they come.]