Surfing as Metaphor

Tom Curren, winging it. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

"You know who took this?"

The title of the e-mail was pretty self-explanatory. Dylan Slater of Rip Curl was looking for the still photographer who documented Tom Curren's famous first wave at J-Bay in 1992.

This e-mail was forwarded to me, and I responded that I was there that year, but arrived after that session went down. Although I had some good images of Tom at J-bay, I wrote back that I didn't have shots of that particular wave. While I was writing this response, I thought about that famous ride, and my first trip to South Africa exactly 20 years ago.

For obvious reasons, Tom's first ride at Jeffrey's is held in the highest esteem--for his approach, his line, his flow, his mastery--but also for another reason: his spontaneity. For Tom's free-minded ability to adapt, adjust, and execute on the fly.

It occurred to me that if we could all live our lives like Tom Curren surfed that first wave at Jeffrey's Bay, we'd be killing it. Kings of the universe. Held in the highest esteem.

Unfortunately for most of us, human nature gets in the way. Psychological baggage, pre-conceived notions, unfounded fears, lack of confidence, stubbornness, ego...the myriad things that prevent us from taking the perfect course in life.

It's too bad I wasn't there to witness Tom's famous ride because I could have used a lesson in spontaneity and adaptability that same trip:

As a regular foot, avid surf magazine reader, and surf photographer, it was an across-the-board dream of mine to go to Jeffrey's Bay and I could barely believe I had made it. Amped beyond words.

There was only one problem: a lack of surf.

Four weeks in to a five-week trip, I had only seen two two-day swells. For most of the time it was flat, devil-windy, rainy, onshore, or a combination thereof. Despite being peak season, the southern ocean was in one of those patterns where the Antarctic tempests would dive down and away from Jeffrey's before reaching the swell window.

It was during a small onshore day in my fourth week that Derek Hynd, then a Rip Curl field commander assigned to Mr. Curren, knocked on my door and said, "Collect your stuff. The south coast of Durban is going off. We're leaving tonight."

Taken aback, I searched my feelings for a moment and responded, "I'm here for Jeffrey's, not to chase Tom Curren around."

Bad call.

Although loyalty to my Jeffrey's mission was possibly admirable, my gut reaction was a bad call for a simple reason: the Durban area was going off, and the Port Elizabeth area was not. No matter how much I wanted it to be good for my last week at Jeffrey's, it wasn't going to happen. And it didn't.

Strike one.

Fast forward to Tahiti a few years later. The surf is absolutely going off. Just day after day of clean, sunny conditions and perfect barrels. In between sessions, Vetea David, the best surfer in French Polynesia at the time, said something to me almost in passing, "Some guys I know found a perfect pass at the end of the road. It's just like Taapuna, except it doesn't close out".

We talked about driving down there for a minute but then decided that the hour and half to get to this obscure village called Teahupoo probably wasn't worth it. Why leave waves to find waves?

Strike two.

Jump ahead to 2009. At the last minute, recession-fueled riots prevent Ben Bourgeois, Jesse Hines and myself from traveling to a fairly well-known Caribbean island. For visitor safety, government officials had temporarily restricted non-essential travel. Our trip is over before it starts. Logic dictates that we should shelf our travel plans and cancel the whole thing. In this era of recession-tight budgets, it was too much of a gamble to go somewhere unknown on the magazine’s dime.

But then I ponder the situation for a while, and realize that that's the exact problem. That there's too much thinking involved sometimes. Too much planning. Too much logic. Too much worry.

There's some swell headed to the Caribbean, so why don't we just adjust our plans, adapt to the situation, not worry about it too much, take a new line, and go somewhere we know nothing about?

As luck would have it, Ben and Jesse felt the same way. We all talked about it and said, "why not?"

A week later we're standing on a white sand beach staring at an offshore, cerulean blue, 200 yard-long sand point. One of the best waves in the world with not another soul around. Overhead freight trains all to ourselves.

Lesson learned.