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.