The Coleburning Question

Mitch Coleborn, on set in Mexico during the filming of Modern Collective. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

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

The first good swell of a relatively bad 2008/2009 winter appears on the forecast charts. I contact the magazine to see if they know of any significant talent that is looking to do a photo trip. I figure that this heavily advertised swell will be a complete zoo in California, and that one of the only chances of getting decent waves and photos is to travel south.

The magazine staff lets me know that Kai Neville is in California with a crew and is ready to go. He's working on a new film called Modern Collective, and has Yadin Nicol, Dusty Payne, and Mitch Coleborn with him. That's good news for me on a couple of different levels: Kai is a known entity--a good young bloke I have traveled with before--and I am also familiar with Yadin's photogenic acrobatics and nice guy ways.

I have very little idea who Dusty and Mitch are, but figure they must rip if they are with Kai. As an "older" surf photographer you begin to lose touch with exactly who the young up-and-comers are, and so I figure it would be good for me to part from my Dan Malloy/ Joe Curren/ Ben Bourgeois/ Peter Mendia/ Mike Todd comfort zone.

This Mexico trip encounters some interesting obstacles on Day 1: We pull up to a perfect right point--basically a truncated, warm-water J-Bay--and the boys are...over it. They explain that it's too down-the-line and racy, too clean and offshore (huh?), and the wave doesn't really offer any good sections for maneuvers. Wow.

Then, on one of his first waves of the trip, Yadin re-injures his back, and is on the next plane back to California.

Not a great start.

Almost as an afterthought, I take the crew to a beachbreak the next afternoon that's pretty much the only option when the wind comes up. This is a place my friends and I surfed in the eighties, a place that used to sit in the middle of a desert with nobody around. Now there's a luxury hotel being built on the headland, a beachside restaurant, a surf school, and dozens of sunburned Canadians on the beach.

This is an unusual spot that has a mushy sand point, steep, mostly walled rights in the middle of the beach, and some racy, well-shaped lefts in between--the kind of fast, rampy lefts that really favor a goofy foot.

The boys paddle out and the swell is throbbing. Because of the nature of the lefts, Dusty is having a shocker. The end section on the lefts is kind of dumpy, and he can't really tee-off like he wants to.

Mitch's session is a different story: Take off to speed turn to massive tail blow to huge air. Take off to deep barrel to massive air. Take off to tail blow to tail blow to massive air. Take off to double pump bottom turn to gigantic tail blow. Take off to deep barrel to speed check to huge air.

And the hits just keep on comin'.

As the light fades, Mitch finds a good right now: Take off to speed pump to speed pump to...backflip?


I've seen a lot of great surfing in my time, but this is just stupid. This guy is blowing the roof off and making everything. The further things go, the more impressed I am. Where the hell did this guy come from? I have seen peak performances from some of the greatest surfers in recent history, from Tom Curren to Kelly Slater to Matt Archbold to Andy Irons to Dane Reynolds, and this is up there with the best of them.

What's even more rare than Mitch's air success ratio is that he's surfing from start to finish with style, incredible power, and on a rail. The only comparison I can make is a cross between Tom Carroll and Clay Marzo.

Standing on the beach, I arrive at the conclusion that Mitch Coleborn is the best surfer I've never heard of, and would rank him just a touch behind Dane and Jordy as currently the third best surfer in the world.

It's this last thought that ends up bothering me.

Why do I find it necessary to "rank" him? Isn't it reward enough to be able to see surfing like this in person without having to quantify things?

Why should I worry about why one surfer is better than another? Isn't it my adopted credo that the best surfer in the water is the one who's having the most fun? Isn't surfing more of an art than a sport?

Which leads to a daydream: A line of equally spread apart easels. Monet, Van Gough, Matisse, Cezanne, Gaughin, and Picasso at the ready, paintbrushes in hand. The artists stand behind a pre-ordained starting line, poised at a moment's notice to sprint to their assigned canvases, coiffed in different colored berets. As Randy Rarick stands there with an air horn and shouts, "Artists...Ready...GO!" Rabbit Kekai simultaneously lifts a velvet cloth and uncovers a bowl of fruit. The impressionists sprint to their easels.

Twenty minutes, best still life wins.

The silliness of this scene reminds me of the questionable silliness of trying to compare surfers.

Like apples to oranges.

Coleborn puts up the alley-oop on a Mexican left that may have been made for him. Photo: Gilley