The surf mags have been hugely influential. They not only helped define the surf culture, they helped sustain it.
I grew up on the East Coast at a time when wetsuits were still primitive, like 1/4" neoprene Michelin Man costumes. It was just too uncomfortable to surf in the winter, which, of course, was when the surf was best. The magazines were my fall back. I would devour them from cover to cover. They really helped maintain the stoke through the harsh months.
What will happen to the tons of glassy mags stacked in your basement? Would you sell them?
They are actually in my garage, boxes and boxes of them, and it has become rather overwhelming. This is the bane of the collector, you end up with too much stuff! So yes, I am looking to downsize by selling them or swapping them for something. I have already donated a heap to University of California San Diego (UCSD), but I would prefer to find them a home with someone who is a surf enthusiast. I plan to keep some issues for sentimental reasons, like the well-thumbed SURFER Bi-Monthlies that I still have from my original subscription back in the early 60s.
I have scores of books as well, but several years ago I determined to focus my collection on the real early stuff, before the 1950s. I do not think there is a great deal of popular interest in this material, but I enjoy it.
You are known all over the world for your documentaries and movies. What is the difference between reading about surfing in a magazine and seeing a clip on the web? Is one better than the other?
I am not so sure about being "well-known," but I have been able to support myself writing, producing and executing film and TV projects. In my experience the nature of the content is the best determinant of the medium. Some things are just better or more appropriate in print. For example, I am a big fan of quality surf photography. I prefer this in a magazine or book, though I must admit I have seen some high-definition images on line that are stunning.
I personally like the convenience of printed matter. You can carry it around, leave it in the bathroom, take it outside, look at it over a camp fire, or toss it in the back of your car. I guess this is less a factor now with smartphones, tablets and other portable devices, but I am old school and I appreciate the tactile sense you get with books and mags.
That being said, I don't think it is a question of one being better than the other. It is just different and I certainly enjoy watching video clips online.
Who would be the most photogenic surfer (man & woman) then and now. I am talking about the ones assuring you to draw the crowds?
For "then " the answer is easy. He is Duke Kahanamoku. Back in the 1920s a lady said Duke was: "The most magnificent human male God ever put on the earth." He was an incredible physical specimen and the cameras loved him. I think part of the reason for this was that he was so gracious and unassuming. He did not impose himself on people. Quite the opposite. He was the essence of aloha.
For "Today" it would probably be Laird Hamilton, whom I have never met but clearly has a remarkable physical presence. Or perhaps Kelly Slater, who has a winning charisma about him.
Cover of Police Gazette MagazineAs to the ladies, now it really gets tough and I am not sure I am the best judge. For the "Then" I yield to the Police Gazette Surfing Girl. According to reports (which may or may not be true), she drew the crowds.
For ladies "Today" there are just too many lovely women riding waves, including many that I have surfed with over the years. I think my favorites (neither of whom I know personally) would be Margo Godfrey-Oberg and Rell Sunn. I am not sure "photogenic" is the right word here, but I loved watching both of them surf.
If you had one single thing to change in your surfing life, what would it be?
It would be contact lenses. I am terribly near-sighted. For years, I would leave my spectacles on shore and paddle out squinting. I tried to convince myself that the other senses could make up for fuzzy vision, but I ate it. I had late take offs too many times for that to be true. I waited far too long to get contact lenses.
Contacts were a revelation for me and I definitely improved my wave catching, if not so much my wave riding. Of course, they have a down side as well, like the time a wave peeled the soft contact off one of my eyes on a sizeable day at Laniakea.
Surfing will be Olympic in 2020. Don’t you think that there would be a good documentary to be made on that decision and its ramifications?
First off, I am delighted by this news. It has been a long time coming and has taken a tremendous amount of work. Hats off to Fernando Aguerre, who has been a lion of persistence, for making this happen.
As to a documentary about it, I think it might be a bit premature. Getting approval for the Olympics has mostly involved fact finding, politicking, organizing, administration, advocacy, negotiations, and down right pleading. This has all been critical, but it is not exactly visually compelling material for a video presentation.
Some things are better dealt with in print, or in a short: news feature. However, in a few years, as more and more countries ramp up to compete, I think a fun show could be produced.
You have seen the evolution of surfing along six decades. What are your predictions for the future?
Surfing has gone through so many ups and downs over the years, that it is tricky to make any predictions. But I see wave pool technology as poised to have a tremendous impact.
I can envision the water parks around the nation adding wave riding to their water slides. In countries like Germany, where surfing river waves has become popular, they already have a year-round indoor beach resort just outside of Berlin. Wave pools are a natural progression for venues like this, especially now that it has become an Olympic sport. There is even a new surf resort being developed for the West side of O'ahu that will have high quality wave pools.
I simply do not know how this will develop. Some are thinking that the high end wave pools will be mostly for the elite or wealthy, like private country clubs for golfing. You call in and book a wave session like you would a tee time. My only experience with a wave pool was at the Sun City Resort in South Africa about twenty years ago. It was refreshing but nothing much. The new technology is a far cut above.
My worry is that while there is much to be gained from these new wave machines, there is also much that will be lost: wave knowledge, engagement with nature, and mostly the meditative aspect of the sport - that deeply personal experience of rising and falling with the swells, staring at a limitless horizon, and feeling that elemental connection with natural energy. I just cannot see that happening in chlorinated water, no matter how well appointed.
But surfing has prevailed through some rough times and it will continue to prevail. It is all good.
You are the author of a fantastic book that will soon be on the shelves. You wrote the Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History. The illustrations are by Ron Croci. What were you thinking?
I was thinking, "what have I got myself into?" Ron and I had begun with a completely different concept that was targeting just the surf market, but our publisher wanted something for a broader audience - non surfers as well as surfers. He wanted a history, and he wanted it in an atlas format to match some of his other titles. Well, this was not only a lot more work for me, but I knew that there were already some truly excellent histories of surfing available, and many of them were written by guys I consider friends and colleagues. I had no desire to replicate their work, so I determined to come up with a different approach.
I make no pretense of being comprehensive or definitive. My goal was rather to simplify - to distill the story of wave-riding into a fun, positive and colorful presentation. There is not a lot of prose. Instead I use contemporary quotes and observations to track what I consider the salient events, developments and characters that make surfing special. Then I add notations to place things into perspective.
Front cover of the Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History
My concentration is on the early years - how wave riding developed and how it evolved into an international tribe. There was a real advantage here in working with an artist like Ron. I could go back to antiquity and still have vibrant illustrations to help bring the story to life.
I tried to highlight things that I thought would be of most interest and relevance for today's readers. Of course, I wanted it to be an accurate narrative, but I also wanted it accessible to the general audience, while still having enough surprises and points of interest to please informed surfers.
I find the story of surfing quite fascinating, and I see in it a pleasing continuum. There are aspects of the sport, both physical and cultural, that were as true in ancient Hawaii as they are today. If readers just take this thought away from the book, I will be happy. So give it a read and let me know what you think.
A few images from "The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History"
I always wondered how a regular family copes living with someone as passionate as yourself? How about your family? Do they invite friends in the house?
We have visitors all the time, including those freeloading surfer types who raid my refrigerator while pawing through a tapa bound copy of Blake's Hawaiian Surfboard.
As to family, my son has surfed with me in Hawaii, Costa Rica and in just about every state along Mexico's Pacific coast. And I have been blessed to have three exceptional women in my life. My mother was a perfect surf mom. She would drop me and my surfboard off at the beach in the early morning and then drive back to pick me up in the late afternoon. She encouraged my surfing. My wife of forty years has been equally supportive and tolerant. She does not surf and does not even like to go in the water, but she has been game to travel with me on numerous wave hunting jaunts, even to some rather sketchy places. And one of my favorite memories is tandem surfing with my ten year old daughter at Waikiki, riding alongside an outrigger canoe while tourists snapped photos of us. Then a rain squall blew in, big heavy drops glistening with sunlight shining in from the side. My beaming girl said the ocean looked like it was being pelted with silver wrapped chocolate kisses. A great moment.
Virtually all of our holidays somehow wound up at surf destinations, but I always made an effort to take the family into account. I would get up at dawn, surf for two hours, then join the family for breakfast and spend the day doing things with them. Then I would surf for two hours more before dinner. It worked out fine.
Can we ever stop being surfers?
I could not, but people have. Years back surfing was so indelibly linked with the youth culture that many gave it up as they got older, thinking it unseemly for an adult. Sometimes, work and assorted responsibilities let it fade out of their existence. That seems to be changing now. More and more people are continuing to surf as they mature. It may crowd the waves a bit, but I see this as a good thing.
There is so many surfboards around, with all kind of shapes and lengths. Do you have a favorite board? What would be your dream board?
I have always ridden longer boards, though not necessarily longboards. I think the shortest stick I have owned was a 6'8". Most of my boards ranged from 7'6" to 9'. Hey! I am lazy and I enjoy an easy paddle. I like getting into the waves early too. My favorite board was probably an 8'11" round pin that Phil Becker shaped for me around 1990. It was my travel board. I wanted something that would work in all kinds of conditions, and it did. It was akin to the "Desert Island" model boards that showed up some years later. Sadly, I snapped it in half on a rather piddly day at El Porto. I had it fixed, but it was never the same.
We spoke before and I know you will understand this last question. Could surfing be considered a philosophy? Could it be a philosophy for some of us? There is a French philosopher who wrote ‘’ Petite Philosophie du Surf ’’ ( Frédéric Schiffter)… could he be right ?
I have not read Schiffter's piece so I really cannot comment on it, but I have never thought of surfing as a philosophy. I have always seen it as more of a lifestyle, and sometimes perhaps an addiction or obsession. Lord knows there have been periods when I have been obsessed with the sport. Here is where I see some of the continuum that I referred to earlier. The early Hawaiians became obsessed with surfing.So did the surfers in the 1930s and 1930s. There is something about this elemental engagement with nature that just hooks us. Maybe it is the negative ions. Maybe the vortex of particle wave energy. I will leave that to the philosophers.
Suppose one of our readers is interested in your books and magazine. How can he contact you?
The Surf Blurb would be a fine way to contact me about this.