Monday, December 5, 2016

A Warm Winter Day

If you're like most people, you associate Warren Miller with skiing and film making (about skiing). But he actually started his having fun in the outdoors career with surfing. In honor of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the day which will live in infamy, I'm reprinting this piece from Warren with(out) permission from The Surfer’s Journal, Vol. 24 #1, August-September 2012.

Warren Miller, sliding right at Malibu, 1940.

It was an unusually warm day for December. Knee-high waves were snapping crisply across the point at Malibu, and I was the only person there. IT was my third year of surfing in what has since become a long-ago time frame; an era when if a second care of surfers showed up, I would think it was crowded. I had spent the previous three hours paddling my 11-foot, 106-pound solid redwood back out for yet another small wave. I was a 17-year old senior in high school, and I had a lot of things on my mind: my morning paper route, learning to ride my $7 surfboard, getting a date for the senior prom, and where would I get $6 for a pair or racing tights to race in the next Herald Express speed skating championship? Important things like that. I decided to go stag to the prom so I could dance with all the other dates, and the eight bucks I would save on the corsage and dinner for two would cover the racing tights plus enough gas for a surf trip. Gas had already gone sky high, up to as much as 11 cents a gallon. I idly wondered when the wind would come up and the freeze me out of the glassy, crystal-clear water (it was a decade before wetsuits came on the scene). The wind never did blow, but when exhaustion set in about 1:00 p.m., I dragged my body and plank out of the water to a warm dune where I had hidden my lunch. While watching a trio of brown pelicans do wing dips, I ate the three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and finished a quart of milk, after which I fell asleep in front of the Adamson’s.

I awoke with a start, shivering in the long shadows of the late afternoon winter sun. A slight wind was gently moving the dune grass. Standing rather stiffly, I stretched, brushed the sand off, then lifted the plank onto my shoulder and trudged up to the point for a few more waves before braving Sunday traffic. The slight winter sunburn I had felt great.

Half a dozen waves later I called it quits, pulling out near shore and paddling on down to the same small hole in the fence that I had cut to get it. I climbed up the beach to the hole, slid my board through, then wiggled through myself, lugged the board over to my old convertible Buick, and slid it down the through the back window. Then began the ritual of rinsing off with the gallon jug of water I leave on the hood to heat up. I had already realized I was one of the luckiest people in the world. I had discovered surfing (in 1939), I had use of my sister’s car one day a week, enough money to buy gas from my morning paper route, and I owned my own redwood board. What else could a teenager want? The board sticking out the back window of my sister’s car always looked like the world’s largest tongue depressor. I climbed into the front seat and fired up the gas-guzzling eight-cylinder engine. Glancing south, I couldn’t see a single car headed north on Coast Highway. Glancing over my left shoulder, not a single southbound car was visible. Switching on my car radio, I was listening to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” when an announcer cut in, “We interrupt the music to bring you this news bulletin. This morning at 8:05, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. Many ships have been sunk and casualties are reported to be very high. We are standing by for further word from President Roosevelt at the White House.”

What were you doing December 7, 1941? I was surfing the point at Malibu all by myself.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reunion Island: Paradise Lost

Elio Canestri doing what he loved - surfing with his friends

Tragedy struck Reunion Island again last weekend when 13 year old surfer Elio Canestri was attacked by a shark and died from his wounds.

This news is devastating on several levels. First, the attack resulted in a fatality and any loss of life is devastating. Second, the victim was a child. Third, the attack was extremely violent and prolonged; more a mauling than the typical one bite attack stemming from a case of mistaken identity.

Fourth and finally, the attack occurred within weeks of the government loosening the reigns on a nearly two year surfing ban after a series of attacks (many of them fatal) in the last few years. Ahead of lifting the ban permanently early next year, the government has taken significant steps to mitigate the risk of another attack including the installation of towers, drum lines and underwater cameras among other measures.

Given Reunion is a small island, it's safe to assume it's a tight knit community and therefore family, friends, surfers and non-surfers alike are surely reeling from this tragedy. Next steps are surely being considered and run the gamut from proceeding as planned with lifting the ban to resuming the ban to another shark cull. All have their supporters and detractors as well as their pros and cons.

What are your thoughts? What would you do?

Vaya con dios, Elio

Until next time, may your waves be six feet and glassy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Problem with Surfing

I'm ashamed by how long it's been since my last post. My apologies to the millions who follow me, who wait with bated breath for each post and who are overcome with emotion and inspiration with each word I write. Thank you for your patience. Allow me to offer an explanation.

John Severson, the founder of Surfer Magazine famously stated in 1960, "In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts." Well, in the last 12 months, I have learned that there is a paradox to this statement. 

In late 2013, I was laid off from my job. I was relieved because I had been unhappy but stressed because I didn't know when or how I was going to get my next job. While searching the job boards was fruitless, it only took about 30 minutes. The rest of the day was mine. You'd think - and many of my friends expected - that I would surf every day. The assumption made perfect sense: I had the time and surfing offered me a chance to clear my mind. Severson's mantra reinforced this.

The problem was being alone with the surf and my thoughts created feelings of angst and guilt, not clarity and serenity. Rather than forgetting my problems for awhile while I played in the ocean, my mind swirled with questions like "what am I going to do," "why is this happening to me again," "am I on the right path with my career, with my life" and so on. Deep stuff. Surfing wasn't an escape from but rather a magnet for these questions. In addition, I felt guilty for surfing. I should be spending this time looking for work, networking, brainstorming, taking courses, and more. What was the matter with me? Had surfing failed me? Or had I failed surfing? It was a difficult time.

Of course, I did eventually find a job, which I always knew I would. Now gamefully employed, the pendulum swung the opposite direction. The weekends were now my only time to surf and I was either too tired or too busy with errands and chores. This is a problem for any weekend warrior but considering the fact that I had taken a job that paid half of what I was making previously, I was still driven by guilt. I should be helping around the house rather than taking time out for myself. I surfed once the entire month of February. 

If I couldn't bring myself to surf, I sure as hell couldn't bring myself to write about surfing. Hence the hiatus from this blog, which has always been a cathartic practice for me. 

I have since renewed my commitment to surfing. I surfed a lot in March. I also picked up the planer again and am finishing my second board of the year and fourth overall. I also launched a surfing apparel company that I had started over two years ago. It's good to be back.    

I am going surfing today and while I don't expect to find the perfect day or wave, I look forward to being alone with my thoughts. Thoughts of gratitude and hope. Again, it's a good to be back.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Endless Summer Reflections

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the The Endless Summer documentary. The Surfing Heritage & Culture Center sponsored a gala event and charity auction in celebration of the landmark film earlier this month and I thought I would share my reflections of this film and what it meant for me.

I remember vividly the first time I saw The Endless Summer. It was 1983. I was 13 years old, in seventh grade, and was spending the night at a friend's house in Menlo Park, a sleepy little town not quite half way between San Francisco and San Jose. I had already caught the surfing bug a year earlier, thanks to a girl I had a crush on. My exposure to surfing thus far however had been limited to T&C's Thrilla Gorilla-themed tee shirts and a couple issues of Surfing magazine (think Martin Potter airs, Cheyne Horan keel fins, and Tom Curren carves). I don't remember if we stumbled upon the movie or if the TV was already on that channel (KQED, our local PBS channel), but that's immaterial. What does matter is that time stopped for me. I had never seen people actually surf before. Up until then, surfing had been defined by Beach Boys songs, cartoon characters and snapshots in magazines. The Endless Summer was video, sights, sounds, and narration - all about surfing. Needless to say, I was completely hypnotized. 

Robert August and Mike Hynson: On Surfari to Stay
It wasn't just the surfing that I found mesmerizing. It was the whole package: two friends on an around-the-world adventure, making friends everywhere they went, playing in the ocean without a care in the world. The biggest challenge other than finding waves (they always found waves) was whether they were going to have more fun that day than the previous day, which is a pretty good formula for a movie or lifestyle. If that wasn't enough, the story was complemented with great music, namely the beautiful theme song by The Sandals, incredible cinematography and director Bruce Brown's infectious aw-shucks narration. The film - its imagery and vibe - had a profound affect on me at a very impressionable age. Not surprisingly, I aligned my identity right then and there with Robert August and Mike Hynson. I knew who I wanted to be. I was going to be a surfer. Over 30 years later, I'm still high from the fumes.

I suspect I'm not the only one affected this way by The Endless Summer. Surfing has always involved traveling, pioneering, and being in the moment. Bruce just documented Robert and Mike doing it (I don't know any of these guys personally but after watching the film more than a dozen times, I feel like I've known them my whole life; calling them by their first names just feels natural and right). Spanish surfer Kepa Acero and central coast photographer Chris Burkhard are two modern day examples of surfers living and documenting these themes. There are countless others. 

The Boys Discovering Adventure and Perfection at Cape St. Francis, South Africa
The Endless Summer's impact reaches far beyond surfers and fans of surfing because the film is so much more than a documentary about surfing. It is a portrayal of young men coming into adulthood (Mike for example clawed his way into the project to avoid the draft), leaving the comforts of home, placing themselves at the mercy of chance, mother nature, and other cultures and gaining truth and understanding in the process. I have learned first hand that travel is the best form of education and you see the changes occurring in Mike and Robert from their travels. They are humble and modest, absorbing not judging, practicing the golden rule, never questioning locals or their customs and are therefore welcomed wherever they go. 

With a lifetime of experiences squeezed into one year of traveling around the world, can you imagine the difficulties Robert and Mike must have had coming back to Southern California? How do you re-acclimate with an insulated, local beach culture after having visited faraway places like West Africa, New Zealand, and Fiji? It would be difficult by today's standards. Imagine how much more difficult it would have been in the early 1960s. I suspect they must have at least considered, let alone struggled with, the new found realization that there was a much larger world out there and that their privileged lives and priorities - namely surfing and having a good time - were pretty insignificant in the larger scheme. Pretty heady stuff.

Nevertheless, the intent of Bruce Brown's wonderful film was to entertain and he did so in spades. Surfing is part sport, part art, and part magic. All of these are masterfully portrayed in The Endless Summer. As a result, it's inevitable that it would have a profound impact on millions of people: surfers, non-surfers and soon-to-be surfers. The Endless Summer, as a film and an analysis on a unique and wonderful subculture, is time capsule worthy.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Surfers, Branding and the Long View

In my last post I explored Kelly Slater's decision to leave Quiksilver to sign with Kering, a non-endemic brand (I elaborated on this topic in an article for The Inertia). In brief, Slater's decision wasn't financially motivated but rather an opportunity to further build his brand and forge his legacy. While Slater's decision made big news, he isn't the first surfer to look beyond surfing in building a brand. There are other surfers doing this today and they're doing it quite successfully.  

Big Wave Laird
I mentioned in my previous post Laird Hamilton and the fact that he seems to be doing just fine after leaving his long-time sponsor Oxbow. Laird of course needs no introduction. He is revered the world over for his bravado and age-defying physical prowess. He's probably best known for his big wave exploits and personality - both of which were displayed masterfully in Stacy Peralta's 2004 Riding Giants documentary - however Laird is not easily categorized. His surfing career has evolved over time but has always been characterized by innovation and non-conformity. For example, he is an accomplished all-around waterman, excelling at shortboarding, longboarding, windsurfing, prone and stand up paddle boarding and kitesurfing. Keep in mind he did all of these at a time when most riders typically focused on one and dismissed all others. Along with Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, Laird also pioneered tow-in surfing, and in doing so revolutionized the jet ski, surf exploration and big wave surfing. To that end, he introduced the giant wave Peahi, or Jaws, to the surfing world. He also re-introduced stand-up paddle board surfing, aka SUPing, to the world, which essentially hadn't seen the light of day since Waikiki beach boys ruled the South shore of Oahu. And now he's blazing his own trail once again with foil boarding. 

Foil Board Laird
Laird designs SUPs, is a fitness and nutrition expert, markets exercise and nutrition plans online, and counts movie actor, model, and author to his credentials. He even has his own tag line: "Blame Laird," which means he has basically ruined surfing for surfers all over the world. How? For starters, he upped the big wave game (including safety, training and preparation), re-defined what it means to be a modern day waterman, showed surfers, their wives and girlfriends what a surfer should look like (read: ripped) and is essentially the Duke Kahanamoku of SUP'ing, igniting a world wide craze. In total, he has a strong, marketable and successful brand.

Another surfer who isn't quite as far along as Laird in building a brand but is surely built to last is Bethany Hamilton. Like Laird, Bethany is known the world over and is a source of inspiration to millions. Unlike Laird, her emergence was sparked by a tragic accident. Incredibly, she has taken back what a 14 foot tiger shark tried to take away: love, hope, vitality and courage. Her competitive spirit and unshakable faith led her to paddle back out and start surfing again less than one month after losing her arm. Keep in mind, she had to re-learn how to paddle, duck dive, pop up, turn, etc. As you can see by the pictures below, Bethany and her surfing isn't a novelty act. She surfs better than most surfers with four limbs and in fact just won an ASP 1-star event, the Surf n Sea Pipeline Women's Pro.

Boosting airs and cranking turns is hard enough with two arms...
An amazing role model

In addition to being a professional surfer, she heads a non-profit organization, is an active advocate for faith, endorses several products and non-profit ventures (what organization wouldn't want to be affiliated with an inspirational story like Bethany Hamilton?), has a signature sandal line, cell phone accessory (enabling single hand use), is a public speaker and humanitarian. Only 23 years old, she has written several books, including her autobiography which led to both a documentary and cinematic depiction of her life. Lastly, she is active on social media and has an extensive, media rich website

Bethany's brand is characterized by the term "soul surfer," using it for the title of her autobiography and the subsequent movie. As evidence to the strength of Bethany's brand, she re-defined this long-established term and made it her own. In her words, "soul surfer" wasn't about eschewing competition but rather "just being passionate about the ocean and surfing." This defines most surfers however Bethany has built a successful brand around her philosophy. 

Throw Kelly into this mix and you have three accomplished surfers who, despite having very different paths and profiles, have built extremely successful brands that are built to last. There will undoubtedly be others and it will be interesting to see who they are but also how far they can take their personal brand.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Kelly Slater and Building a Brand

Kelly Slater Inc.
Kelly Slater's announcement that he was parting ways with Quiksilver after 23 years was big news this week. Naturally, Kelly showed lots of class and humility in announcing the amicable split. Ultimately, Kelly wants to do something different, namely develop a brand that combines his love of "clean living, responsibility and style." Whether Quiksilver didn't share or support his vision is unclear. What is clear however is that his new partner, Kering, does support his vision. In Kelly's words, "they share my values and have the ability to support me in all of my endeavors." Motivations aside, Quiksilver's handling of the departure was somewhat mixed, part "thank you," part "good luck," and part "you can still buy Kelly's boardshorts here." Regardless, Quiksilver will survive, as it pivots and promotes its other -- and some would argue younger and more marketable -- sponsored riders, namely Dane Reynolds, Jeremy Flores and Craig Anderson.

All that said, the big news here isn't so much the split but what the split represents. And that's brand. Kelly was a Quik product and part of the Quik brand. But Kelly is a brand too. The World English Dictionary defines brand as "a particular product or characteristic that serves to identify a particular product." Everything Kelly does impacts his brand. Surfing, competitive success, eternal youth, wholesomeness; these are all attributes of Kelly's brand. It's reflected and reinforced in his public appearances, interviews, facebook page and Instagram account. Kelly in this regard is not unique. Like it or not, we all have a brand and everything we do strengthens or weakens that brand. 

Kelly is a smart guy. You don't build a successful, sustainable brand by being stupid. He is very aware of his celebritydom and the clout that comes with it. He has a publicity and marketing team that represents and counsels him and ensures he maintains his unique brand. Why? Rather than parading around like a Kardashian or some other vacuous narcissist, he's choosing to leave a more indelible mark, to have more than 15 minutes of fame. Consider some of his work outside of surfing. While he took an enormous amount of heat for it, his small role on Baywatch, a global phenomenon in the 1990s, was an early effort in his broadening his reach beyond surfing. Since then, he's written two books, recorded an album, and earned a Master's degree. He is an entrepreneur, investor, environmentalist and social activist. Given his stature in surfing and, more broadly, action sports and popular culture, it can be argued that Quik was part of Kelly's brand rather than vice versa. 

It's evident Kelly did more at Quiksilver than show up for photo shoots and cash paychecks. He saw first hand what goes into marketing a product and building a brand. Now, the haters will point to his VSTR brand that he launched under Quik's tutelage that met an untimely demise amid strategic changes at Quik and a $3.5 million trademark infringement violation, however VSTR's failure wasn't the result of any decision Kelly made or didn't make. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that Kelly learned from this experience. He started the Komunity Project shortly thereafter where it can be assumed he has more business and creative control. Signing with Kering seems to be an evolutionary step in which he can further develop the Kelly Slater brand. 

Kelly's decision isn't an isolated event. World class surfers on and off the tour surely took notice and wondered, "if Kelly can do it, why can't I?" So, who's next? Will it be Dane? Rob? John John? These guys have unique brands and the opportunity to grow them and monetize them. Whether they have the inclination or motivation remains to be seen. Whoever follows Kelly's path, they too will have endless possibilities. Signature surfboard models and fins are just the tip of the iceberg. What's next? Cologne? Sports drinks? Golf clubs? What about non-profits? Venture capital firms? Technology companies? Surfing has a rich history of artists and dreamers who have passions outside of surfing. Kelly is one of the most prolific which reinforces his brand. There are many others. Kelly's pivotal, precedent setting decision is just the beginning. It may take a few years however we will feel the ramifications of his decision for years to come.

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Santa Barbara Surfari: A Travelogue

I haven't had the greatest success with surf trips. Even if it's a one day trip, say to Moss Landing or Stinson Beach. I've tried timing swells and I've tried blind luck. Usually I just strike out. It can be a very frustrating experience.

Recently, I joined my fellow club members from the Pedro Point Surf Club on an annual trip to Santa Barbara. The club scored great surf last year and I figured it couldn't happen two years in a row. In fact, I was just looking to get away for a few days. An excuse to camp, drink beer and hang out at the beach with some friends, all under the premise of a surf trip, seemed like a pretty good idea. My expectations for (good) surf were low, particularly because surf is hard to come by in Santa Barbara as the Channel Islands seems to block all but the steepest angled swells. Nevertheless, the California coast had enjoyed a surf-rich winter up to this point and there were rumors of an incoming swell that would light up the Ventura / Santa Barbara region. Let's just say I was cautiously optimistic.

I wasn't disappointed. The surf, ranging from chest high to head high, only improved as the long weekend progressed. I surfed several days in a row and for hours at a time, both firsts for me in a very long time. To round out the experience, the weather was unseasonably fantastic, the beer was splendidly delicious, and the campfire was peacefully delightful.

I suppose the lesson I learned is to plan for the worst, hope for the best, keep an open mind and enjoy yourself regardless. And maybe say a prayer, bring a rabbit's foot, or cash in a couple of karma chips.

I don't own a GoPro so most of the photos I took (on my new camera phone) were coastal- rather than surf-focused. Regardless, I hope you enjoy them.

Sunset at Carpinteria State Beach
C Street, Ventura peeler
Oil, Santa Barbara's other industry
Seepage Art
Black Gold
To Roger Dean: need inspiration for your next Yes album cover?
Another Yes album concept for Roger Dean
For the Geology Dorks
Te Quiero Santa Barbara

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.