Making sense of surfing’s intangible ideals
A few years ago, surfing my backyard break, I struck up a conversation with a guy who used to live in the neighborhood. Due to some bygone consequences that he preferred not to discuss, he was now stuck somewhere inland.
He had grown doughy, and his skin was clammy white. His wetsuit stretched thin where it should have clung, bunched where it should have articulated. We chatted as he more dragged than carried a garage-sale special under his arm.
The waves were good, the sky blue—the first decent conditions we’d had in another foggy, toiling San Francisco summer. All the regulars were out—locals who surf twice a day, competently, and carry their status like a badge of honor.
My new soft-serve acquaintance stroked into a head-high wedge that was about to unload on the inside bar. He dropped in backside, awkwardly and off balance; it had pratfall written all over it. But suddenly he regained his composure, lowered his trailing arm to his toe-side rail, slowly rotated his heavy ballast over his back foot, and locked into a trimming, leaned-back crouch, with his front leg stretched way out in front of him. Sandwiched in the pocket and generating speed, his considerable weight became an ally. He accelerated through the inside section and onto the open face. He drew a high line, then dropped his back arm into the wave’s face, leaving a perfect palm print as he laid down one of the smoothest backside roundhouses I’ve ever seen.
Despite his clumsy appearance on land, in the water his movements became effortless. The only clue to the sheer power of the turn was the massive amount of water cleaved from the wave, which came showering down a beat later. It was a thing of intrinsic beauty, like watching a gorgeous woman whisk a fine-tooth comb through her thick mane.
I thought it was one of the most stylish things I’d ever seen—the kind of classic line that seems easy at a glance, but proves nearly impossible to imitate. Although this guy would never stomp anything as technically difficult as an air reverse, his surfing tapped into something that often eludes even the most talented pros. But would you agree if you’d witnessed it?
That’s the problem with style: finding consensus on what constitutes good style can feel like chasing a white whale. It’s a slippery subject, sometimes easier to define by what it isn’t than what it is. Yet we can all agree on one thing: we know it when we see it. So what is style, exactly? Where does it come from? And is it even possible to ask these questions without risking becoming definitively unstylish?
Style is a slippery subject, sometimes easier to define by what it isn’t than what it is. Yet we can all agree on one thing: we know it when we see it. So what is style, exactly? Where does it come from? And is it even possible to ask these questions without risking becoming definitively unstylish?
Most surfers would start their answer with the appendages: hands, arms, feet, knees, and shoulders all have a part to play in the theater of surf style. “Quiet” is a word you often hear used to describe the classically stylish surfer’s limbs. It signals poise, a sense of orientation, a mastery of weight and balance. Look at the hands, and you’ll find a microcosm of a surfer’s broader approach. Phil Edwards was alle-gedly so deliberate in his movements that he was even conscious of his fingertips.
Of course our individual physical habits and tics, the various duchies and fiefdoms of board design, and the world’s infinite variety of waves all have an influence on the way we surf. The one thing on which nearly every surfer will agree is that the organizing principles of good style are flow and speed. These are the common threads tying together the heavyweights of surf style: Australian Mark Richards, proprietor of the infamous “Wounded Seagull,” with head and chest charging forward, lanky arms cocked coyly behind him; Larry Bertlemann, the spitfire Hawaiian, whose crouched, splay-kneed stance allowed him to whip through some of the ’70s most mystifying turns; Tom Curren, who drew lines both composed and radical, all signal and no noise; and, of course, Gerry Lopez, surfing’s epitome of grace under pressure, whose relaxed, feline approach at Pipe belied a jewel thief’s timing.
The evolution of modern surfing has these guys’ fingerprints all over it. But each comprises only a single phylum of surfing’s style kingdom, which is sprawling, varied, and has more branches than a Catholic family tree. Antecedents are everywhere: Edwards begets Tudor, MP begets Ando, Pottz begets Archy. Even Lopez’s style didn’t emerge from a vacuum.
“I always looked to Paul Strauch,” Lopez explains. “He was smooth, elegant, and graceful. He took that Hawaiian style and, because he was so gifted, took it a step further.”
Lopez told me about one of the first times he surfed Sunset. It was a serious day, breaking at about 10 to 12 feet. Strauch paddled for a wave, caught it, and just kept paddling—all the way down to the very bottom of the wave. Then, nearly at the trough, he popped up into a soul-arching bottom turn that slingshot him right back up to the top just as the wave was starting to stand up.
“He’d always do something trippy that nobody else was doing,” Lopez says. “In surfing, there are very few original styles to begin with. A lot of surfers, like myself, see someone doing something we like and copy it. But to have real style, you have to take it a step further and make it your own.”
Which reminds me of something Bruce Springsteen said: we live in a “post-authentic world.” These days none of us lives in a vacuum free of influences, and those influences greatly, often unconsciously, shape who we are, whether it’s the way we surf or the way we hold a Telecaster.
Surfers are still obsessed with authenticity, and style is often used as a yardstick to measure our true commitment to surfing. Any lifelong surfer knows that it’s a misconception that great style is something you’re born with; you have
to do your time.
Surfers are still obsessed with authenticity, and style is often used as a yardstick to measure our true commitment to surfing. Any lifelong surfer knows that it’s a misconception that great style is something you’re born with; you have to do your time. Even a style lodestone like Lopez told me “the first 20 years of surfing were only a test,” and only after that did style’s “lessons begin to make a little sense and reveal themselves.”
But we’re always looking for shortcuts, attempting to emulate our style idols. When I was a little twig carrying around a borrowed VHS of Searching for Tom Curren in my book bag, I wanted nothing more than to recreate those lines in my own surfing. Eventually, I came to terms with my shortcomings and realized there was just no way. Only after I let that realization marinate did the true complexity of Curren’s surfing become apparent. When we try to develop our style, we hope for miracles but get small, almost imperceptible victories. If we’re lucky, those incremental wins eventually add up to a beautiful cutback or a graceful bottom turn.
Lopez told me the longer you surf, the more the whole enterprise of style “becomes spontaneous.” That’s how we get the Strauch Crouch. That’s the Bertlemann slide, Curren’s double-pump bottom turn, and MR’s marvelous wingspan. These signatures weren’t imitations, but the result of trial and error, psychic detachment, and lots of elbow grease.
I decided to contact Strauch to see if I could draw out this lineage a little further. Strauch was recruited for The Duke’s first surf team, and had boards shaped for him by Tom Blake when he was 9 years old. He lives in San Clemente, California, now, but grew up near Waikiki. For him, the templates were the original beach boys, guys with names like Squirrely, Blackout, and Rabbit. And, of course, Phil Edwards. “Those guys were all about fluidity,” he said. “Very erect, very regal, but very smooth.”
Strauch started riding redwood planks at 4 years old, then moved to a hollow board with no fin. “Riding those boards was a really hard process,” he said. “You fall off a lot and you get tired of falling off. So you really learn to focus on just staying on. It’s all about weight displacement. Weight displacement is still the key to everything.”
About that wave at Sunset, Strauch remembered it exactly: “There was always a heavy trade wind there. Everyone would turn at the top and try to angle it, but on a big day like that they were falling because of that wind and the steep drop. I realized you could get less drag and more speed if you paddled down the face of the wave.”
Keep in mind he was on a 10’4″ balsa with a fat, square tail. What’s that saying about the mother of invention?
“Style is a natural extension of who you are as a person. We all look, walk, and talk in totally different ways. We all have individual mannerisms. These influence our style and are reflected in our stance and body position.”
According to Strauch, the key to unlocking good surf style doesn’t come from an eagerness for a certain aesthetic, but from patience. “You have to acknowledge that it takes time,” Strauch explains. “There’s a kind of refinement in accepting that. Eventually you understand how to flow in harmony.”
“Holo me ka lokahi ma ke kai,” Strauch says—always flow in harmony with the sea.
Good style always appears to happen naturally, when a surfer is simply matching the rhythm of a wave. But some of the greatest styles are incredibly deceptive; what appears simple is in fact the product of lots of technical sorcery.
According to California stylist Ryan Burch, the most interesting surf styles come from surfers who don’t just draw a minimalist line, but add their own playful touch. “It’s a total jive thing,” Burch says. “They carry a quality in the water from who they are in everyday life.” He points to the way Occy adds a little flourish of body English, throwing his head toward his back arm as he cranks through that classic backside bottom turn. Burch’s point is that our styles don’t spring out of some premeditated effort, but rather emerge spontaneously from some deeper psychological territory.
“Style is a natural extension of who you are as a person,” says Mark Richards. “We all look, walk, and talk in totally different ways. We all have individual mannerisms. These influence our style and are reflected in our stance and body position.”
The Greeks had a word for this: techne. On the surface, techne translates to “art” or “mastery of a craft.” But it more deeply refers to your know-how vs. your know-what. What you know is based on reason, logic, pretext, categories, the checks and balances of the working brain. But how you know it depends on your accumulated experience, intuition, imagination, and existential grit.
I think of my doughy friend back at my home beach. Plump and past his prime, his muscles still possessed the memory of a lifetime of surfing experience. Years of repeating those motions, pursuing their meaning, had served him well. Though he may as well have been living on Mars when it came to his knowledge of contemporary surfing, he was still a very stylish surfer. His approach to riding waves was hardwired, so even after all these years, he still held a place in the larger, collective tradition of style that’s evolved over generations, from the first Waikiki beach boys to today’s scabby eared groms struggling to find an approach that feels right to them.
They all illustrate the same point: style is earned, not learned. It’s hostile to our best-laid plans, it takes Sisyphean patience, it punishes small-mindedness, and its rewards come only sporadically. We might beg, borrow, and steal, but we can never outright copy. Pursuing good style is like trying to hit a target with a blindfold on. As hard as we try, we’re still likely to miss. We’ll all be better off when we learn to stop aiming and just let it fly.