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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

This is Surfing, Old School Style

If reading's your bag, you probably have visited a used book store or two in your time. Well, in my limited experience, it doesn't get much better than Hein & Company in Jackson, CA. Two floors jammed packed with thousands upon thousands of books on every topic imaginable tucked into every nook and cranny. In brief: sensory overload for book lovers and knowledge seekers.

While visiting my mother-in-law over the holidays, I stopped into this eclectic shop in hopes of finding a good read to curl up with while I digested 2 metric tons of food and drink. Given Jackson is a few hundred miles away from the coast, I was curious to see whether the store had any books on surfing. Surprisingly, there were two. The first one was Daniel Duane's well known book Caught Inside. The other book was considerably older and, no disrespect to Daniel Duane, more unique. Decision made.

Originally published in 1960, Surf-RidingIts Thrills and Techniques, by O.B. Patterson, is a step back in time. Any images you may have of 1960s longboarding is probably tied to Bruce Brown films like The Endless Summer or the current stylemasters who give a nod to this era - cats like Joel Tudor and Kassia Meador. But this kind of longboard surfing is light years ahead of the images captured in this book. No tube rides, stalls, head dips or nose rides. Just trimming and riding in the curl. Post-war surfing was clearly a simpler time as it predates the emergence of scammers trying to get rich off the sport/lifestyle. Thus, Surf-Riding is a nostalgic read.

That said, the book is hopelessly and helplessly hokey. Patterson begins his ode to the Sport of Kings with step-by-step instructions for paddling a surfboard, catching a wave, popping up and, of course, riding a wave. While his intention is sincere, anyone who has ever tried surfing will agree that a "how to" manual doesn't remotely prepare you for the real thing. Surfing is not like baking a cake. 

Today this is just called a kook wiping out.

He then cajoles anyone who's still hesitant to give surfing a try:

Join us in this thrilling sport:
     When the sea is raising hell
     with breakers crashing high
     We will cheer for those brave lads
     who dared join us and try!

His discussion of surfing in Northern California is also comical:

For daring action and sheer foolhardiness we doubt if there is anything in the world that will compare to a bunch of wave-happy Northern California surfers in the act of riding the 'big ones' that roll in their rugged coast. In addition to shattering waves, they must brave bone-chilling water most of the year.

Unless you have tried the ocean water in Northern California, all this [neoprene] gear may sound strange, but, Brother - just take a dip for yourself and you will understand their problem!

Wetsuits have evolved ever so slightly since the '50s,
as has photoshopping

There are also several notable surfers mentioned in the book whose names are badly mis-spelled. Given their stature in surfing, you'd think this was avoidable. For example:

Dale Velsy (Velzy)
Mickey Minose (Muñoz)
Ricky Gregg (Grigg)
Jose Angle (Angel)

All that said, the book's naivete or high kook factor can be forgiven as it merely reflects the author's love of surfing. He is comprehensive in his overview, addressing all things surfing: design, construction, surfing in Hawaii vs. the mainland & other countries, and finally surfing in legend and history. This guy is clearly stoked on surfing. But let their be no mistake: Patterson didn't just talk the talk, admiring surfing from the beach. His career was primarily in PR but he was a proud member of the Outrigger Canoe Club and surfed for years along Oahu's South Shore and the California coast with his son Richard "Dick" Patterson.

O.B. "Pat" Patterson -
THIS guy is stoked on surfing!

Pat's alter ego: surf bum

Clearly, Surf-Riding is a period piece, a step back in time. Lord only knows what Patterson would think of today's surfing, characterized by giant waves and big airs. What hasn't changed is the stoke surfers have for surfing. You heard it here first, ladies and gents: stoke is timeless. You can take that to the bank.

Apparently dropping in is a timeless practice. Hope these guys are friends....

Who wouldn't want to be here?

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

Friday, January 24, 2014

What I've Learned From Watching The 2014 Mavericks Invitational

While still in progress, today's Mavericks Invitational so far has been epic. Conditions have varied but the waves have been monstrous. The quality of the waves and the skill level of the surfers riding them have done wonders for surfing. Here's what I've taken away from this event so far:

1. It's cliche but these surfers are truly men who ride mountains. Unassuming on land, total gladiators in the some of the scariest waves in the world.

No justification. Just shameful.
2. With the ASP's Dream Tour and the Big Wave World Tour (of which the Mavericks Invitational is a part), competitive surfing is at a pinnacle. Good riddance to the days of contests held in 2-3' slop. Who remembers the 1985 pro contest held in a wave pool in Allentown, PA?!

3. I don't know what's more impressive: these surfer's physical conditioning or their mental conditioning. I'm assuming that hucking yourself over a 40' ledge takes plenty of both. And I'd imagine surviving the beatings these guys have taken in waves this size takes even more of both. PWCs and CO2 cartridges are nice but getting rag dolled under a giant wave is a lonely place to be.

4. The circus of boats, PWCs, helicopters, groupies, cameras and prize money don't detract from the fact that, at its core, this is about some really brave men surfing some really big waves. I get a feeling that all that bullshit gets stripped away when the competitors are sitting alone / together in the peak, waiting for that next giant set to loom down on them from the horizon.

5. Surfing giant waves isn't about big balls, it's about commitment. These guys have accepted the fact that they will be absentee fathers, husbands and friends; they will hover just above or below the poverty line; they will make decisions and live their lives that virtually no one else will understand. Dropping everything to fly half way around the world at a moments notice but needing to drag boards through airports and customs, deal with connecting flights, layovers, time changes, rental cars and finding a place to stay, all in hopes that the forecast materializes. It's not a glorious lifestyle.

The finals have begun and I don't imagine the final result will change my perspective. These competitors and this wave have my utmost respect and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to watch them do something truly incredible.

Zach Wormhoudt, Mavericks 2011

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

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Song Remains the Same

Wow, it's been a long time since I last posted. Let's see if I can remember how this works. Push this button, pull this lever, add water here, okay, I think we're good to go.

Happy New Year faithful readers. And Happy New Year as well to all of you who stumbled upon this blog by accident. What's happened since my last posting in late October? Here's a quick summary:

  • Maya is surfing once again after breaking her leg in huge waves in Europe (see previous post)
  • There are huge waves in Europe.
  • Mick Fanning beat Kelly Slater to take the 2013 ASP crown following some questionable judging
  • Haleiwa was a snoozer but Sunset and Pipe delivered big time for an all around exciting Triple Crown
  • Nat Young, Santa Cruz's very own, was elected ASP Rookie of the Year

And just today it was learned that Gerard Butler, who admirably portrayed Frosty Hesson in Chasing Mavericks (see my review here), has signed on to play Bodhi in the remake of Point Break, which is arguably the worst (surf) movie ever. As I see it, Butler's involvement signals one of two things: 

1) After hanging out with big wave legends like Peter Mel, Grant Washburn and Greg Long, soaking up all of their philosophy and almost drowning at Mavs, he has an appreciation for big wave surfing and wants to right the wrongs, the oh so many wrongs, committed in the first Point Break. 

Or, 2) he's dismissed everything he learned from these big wave chargers, including Frosty himself, blocked out his two wave hold down in the boneyard, and is doing Point Break for the money. Let's hope it's #1.

Either way, this is the benchmark:

And now we're caught up. So let's raise a pint and make a toast to hope for 2014. Hope for good surf, hope for no injuries or drownings, hope for a another ASP crown for the ageless Kelly Slater, and hope I can surf more like Joel Tudor and Taylor Knox.

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