In the cold, calculated grip of the 2019 attention economy, stories can sometimes feel fleeting, disposable, cheap. Each just another open tab among many, the Almighty Algorithm funneling content into our brains as if trying to produce some kind of mental foie gras (anyone else just get hungry?). It’s hard to remember our favorite stories of the year, mainly because we can barely remember the Instagram caption we just read 5 seconds ago.
Perhaps that’s why the exercise of going through the last 10 years of SURFER Magazine and listing my favorite stories was so damn enjoyable. We seldom take the time to look back, but when you do, it’s satisfying to remember where we’ve been, to revisit the stories that were truly impactful and to see how their meaning has changed with the passing of time.
The stories listed below are snapshots of shifts in our culture, of unique places at pivotal times, of the defining events in the lives of surf icons. Each said something about surfing that mattered then and, if you can curb your 2019 techno-nihilism, still matters today. These stories helped us make sense of Andy Irons’ legacy, laugh at ourselves for falling into surf-hipster clichés, contextualize the sweeping changes to competitive surfing and feel genuinely awestruck at the kinds of off-grid adventure some surfers are still able to find in this ever-shrinking world. Each of these stories changed the way I looked at surfing over the past decade, which is a testament to the incredibly talented and dedicated writers behind these pieces.
For my list, I tried to pull not just the best stories, but those that would also best represent the decade as a whole. The stories aren’t ranked (although I will say “Being Mark Occhilupo” is my all-time favorite SURFER piece), but are instead listed chronologically. If you’re a longtime SURFER reader, many of these features will be familiar to you, but I hope that you’ll read them again and find new meaning in the text, just as I did. If you haven’t read them at all, well, I envy you, my friend. Make yourself comfortable, kick those feet up and enjoy the best surfy reading the 2010s had to offer.
“Surfing’s greatest rivalry comes to an end,” read the subhead of this beautifully-written piece, in which Encyclopedia of Surfing author Matt Warshaw put the decade-long Andy/Kelly clash into context. This was written just 3 weeks after Irons’ passing and many months before his toxicology report would be released. But Warshaw didn’t dwell too much on the surreal drama surrounding Andy’s death, instead looking at the entire scope of his rivalry with Kelly, from white wetsuits to shotgun claims to Andy saying that his “whole driving force right now is to just take [Slater’s] pretty picture and just crush it.” It would be a long time before anyone could really make sense of Andy’s tragic death, but it was as clear in early 2011 as it is today that the fire of the Andy/Kelly rivalry burned brighter than any other in surfing history. Click here to read.
In the evolutionary timeline of the term “hipster,” the year 2012 probably falls somewhere between the wearing-a-beanie-regardless-of-temperature and waxed-mustache-with-suspenders phases. This is when Lewis Samuels penned his sharply hilarious, self-deprecating critique of surfy hipsterdom, epitomized then by things like beards, retro surfboards and a fixation on personal brand. This was in the early days of social media, Instagram was only 2 years old, and everyone hadn’t yet fully embraced the commodification of their digital selves. Samuels’ piece was funny when it was written, but it’s funny now for different reasons—the types of behaviors that used to signify “hipsters” are now so widespread that they don’t signify much of anything except that you’re alive in 2019. I guess that’s why no one uses the word “hipster” anymore. Click here to read.
Before the World Surf League, there was the Association of Surfing Professionals, and compared to the oh-so-sleek look and feel of elite competitive surfing today, the ASP was a bit of a wild west of branding, messaging and commentary. But all that changed when something called ZoSea Media Holdings, Inc., backed by a mysterious Floridian billionaire, made a bid for the whole of professional competitive surfing. With the help of a former NFL executive, their plan was to turn surfing in an honest-to-god mainstream sport, something that even non-surfers would tune in to watch. In a rare look behind the curtain of pro surfing’s governing body, Sean Doherty told the story of one of the most pivotal periods in modern pro surfing history. Click here to read.
Over the last decade, perhaps because all the good warm-water waves are already so damn crowded, groups of surfers and photographers embarked on a kind of space race-esque mission to find better surf in more punishing, extreme latitudes. Enter Chris Burkard and Ben Weiland. Burkard was already an established surf and adventure photographer in 2014 with quite a bit of coldwater exploration under his belt, and Weiland was a blogger an up-and-coming filmmaker with an obsessive approach to searching for frigid waves. Together they reached the zenith of coldwater surf hunting on their trip to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, right smack dab in the middle of where the North Pacific’s most ferocious storms are generated. Surfing in extreme climates had already lost its novelty in 2014, but this was something different—meals of seal meat, snow-topped volcanoes and a right-hand barrel that rivaled Backdoor Pipe. If that’s not surf adventure at its best, I’m not sure what is. Click here to read.
In 2014, 3 years after the tragic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, writer Kimball Taylor went to the affected area to meet with the surfers who still call it home. Speaking with the locals, Taylor pieced together their accounts of the horrifying disaster, the aftermath and the longing for a return to something resembling normalcy. Despite the tragic loss of loved ones, the destruction of their communities and the ever-present anxiety about exposure to radiation, many surfers stayed in Fukushima and even paddled out at their favorite breaks once more. Their reasons for doing so were both cultural and deeply personal, and their story is one of incredible resilience. Click here to read.
Mark Occhilupo has lived many lives: Australian competitive prodigy, World Tour standout, drug-addled cautionary tale, fried-chicken-and-daytime-TV devotee, surfing world champion and probably a dozen others. Occy’s life story is one that swings from cartoonish comedy to black holes of despair and back again, and it’s unequivocally the greatest comeback story in the history of surfing. In this piece, easily my favorite SURFER feature of the decade, Sean Doherty perfectly captures the strange charisma of Mark Occhilupo and paints a picture of a life truly unlike any other in surfing or otherwise. Click here to read.
Duluth, Minnesota ain’t exactly Surf City, USA, and that’s what makes it such a compelling setting for Justin Houseman’s piece, “The Other North Shore”. Along the northern shores of Lake Superior, possibly the most hardcore group of surfers in the world come together, sometimes driving for days from various corners of the midwest to ride the natural wonder that is a freshwater barrel. Housman embeds himself with this unique crew on snow-covered shores and in Minnesota breweries to get the unique story of a very special coastline and the band of misfits who regularly emerge from sessions with beards made of icicles. Click here to read.
Depending on who you ask, Andy Irons was a ruthless competitor, a friend who would give you the shirt off his back, a rockstar who wanted a rockstar ending, an expectant father ready to start a new chapter, or all of the above. Five years after Andy Irons’ passing, Sean Doherty tried to parse the man from his myth, examining the 2-year stretch before his tragic death that saw him rekindling his love for surfing, trying to mount a competitive comeback and eventually falling into old habits with tragic results. Doherty paints a bittersweet portrait of a surfing icon who was much more vulnerable, much more human, than his legend would have you believe. Click here to read.
When the Lunada Bay Boys were named in multiple lawsuits in 2016, it was no surprise that outlets beyond the normal surf media sphere took notice. After all, a bunch of grown men in one of the most affluent areas of Southern California throwing rocks and calling people names for surfing their wave was bound to set LA Times and Newsweek comment sections ablaze. But for longtime surfers following the story, it was about more than entitled rich dudes behaving childishly, it was about the future of localism itself. In her excellent piece about the implications of the Bay Boys legal problems, Ashtyn Douglas-Rosa tells the strange story of the downfall of one of California’s most notorious groups of local surfers, and what it could mean for the practice of localism as a whole. Click here to read.
It’s going to be a long time before we fully understand the impact that wave pools will have on surfing, professional or otherwise, but on the eve of their official World Tour debut, artificial waves seemed poised to change just about everything. The WSL had just undergone a change of leadership, they had acquired Slater’s wave pool tech and the word around the campfire was that surfing’s Olympic debut would go down in a wave pool. Nearly 2 years later, it’s become clear that artificial waves won’t figure into the Olympics, and they haven’t turned the world of competitive surfing on its head—not yet, anyway. But it’s still early days for this technology, and re-reading Sean Doherty’s piece is a highly-entertaining trip back to a time before we were all so cynical about wave pools, back when the freshwater was percolating with potential. It still is, of course. Click here to read.