Santa Cruz doesn't breed people who feel like they must escape it in order to succeed. The air is clean. The waves are diverse and consistent. And it certainly isn't Southern California…all that traffic. Those who do depart are often faced with the same question from their Santa Cruz peers: "Why would you ever leave?"
But Nat Young, 21 years old and Santa Cruz's shining light, has always left.
Like when he was just a kid and on Friday afternoons his dad, Dennis, would pick him up from school and take him to the San Jose airport. He'd fly alone to LA or Orange County, where his mom, Rosie — who had driven down alone earlier in the day — would pick him up. They'd stay in hotels and Nat could compete in higher-tier NSSA contests than they had up north. Then on Sunday afternoons, Rosie would send him on a flight back to Santa Cruz so he could finish his homework before class on Monday. He graduated from the NSSA with an Open Mens National title, and then went to work on the ASP World Junior tour. Leaving Santa Cruz for Australia, Mexico and Bali. He finished the junior tour second in the world, and then hit the 'QS at stops the world over. This was his life. Always away from home. But when he came back to Santa Cruz this past December, he returned having made the Big Show.
I visit him the weekend before he leaves for the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast, his first event as a full-time world tour surfer (he won the trials of the Cold Water Classic this year, and beat Slater in his first heat). I walk through the back door of his house without knocking — it's one of those houses — and find Rosie, Nat and a couple of his friends inside. Rosie's making coffee for the boys. One of Nat's buddies is searching for his keys.
Another has his head in his hands.
"What's wrong with him?" I ask.
"He got arrested last night for spraying a fire extinguisher in the halls of an apartment complex," Nat says with a shitty grin. Nat was DD last night. "They took his phone because it has video of him doing it."
The kid laughs and shakes his head. "I don't know how you're so damn successful, Nat," he says. "Hanging around guys like us all the time."
"I like it 'cause you make me look good."
They banter like this all morning. They recap the night, heckle each other, talk about who hooked up with whom and who they probably could've hooked up with, if they really tried. There's no tour talk.
"Where we gonna surf?" Nat asks.
"I heard Ocean Beach is firing," I offer.
"I'm kinda over that place," Nat says. "Never had a good session there. We'll find some waves around here."
So we hit the town. And while Nat's best friends know that he's more than just a surfer, around Santa Cruz, it's a different story. Ordering a sandwich at New Leaf, it's, "When are you leaving for Snapper? You ready?" He leaves Thursday, and he is ready. In the parking lot at The Lane, it's, "I hear the Miramar is going to put all your heats up on the TVs. Who's in your first heat?" He thinks that's rad, and he's not sure. In the water at the Lane, it's, "How many boards you taking? What kinds?" He thinks 10, a lot of C.I. Rookies (no irony, just function). But on his way to work out, it's just a handshake, a smile and "good luck" from Adam Repogle, the last surfer from Santa Cruz to surf on the 'CT. Santa Cruz's love for Nat is unyielding. At the Cold Water Classic last November, local fans turned up in the thousands carrying Giants-orange signs saying "Go Nat!", wearing 49ers jerseys with his name stitched on the back and would erupt in applause as he ran up the point for each heat. "I've never seen anything like that. Anywhere. I love having that kind of support from my hometown."
It's support that reaches all the way to Australia's Gold Coast, where I have lunch with Nat a few hours before his first heat. He gets a chicken sandwich and a large juice. He's relaxed. His mom and godmother are here. He's getting a barrage of good luck texts and Instagrams directed @natyoung. A buddy from Santa Cruz, who was backpacking in West Oz, even came over for the occasion. You know, just in the neighborhood. And with this unconditional backing, he preps for his debut. He eats his sandwich. He drinks his juice. He stands on the top of the hill above Snapper and looks down on the scene, rap thumping in his headphones. He checks in, gets his jersey, and paddles out. And 7,000 miles away, a town holds its breath. —Taylor Paul