Competitive surfing is a judged sport. Like some of the newer skiing disciplines (half-pipe, slopestyle, etc.), and like figure skating and gymnastics, it requires a panel of experts assigning scores. Those experts are going to have prejudices for certain tricks, for aggression, precision, fluidity, speed – for line or attitude or grace – for a certain performer’s style.
(This is one of the reasons the hoary old sport of ski racing continues to fascinate. It is so metaphysically (and metaphorically) clean: There’s a start wand and a finish beam. Period. Of course, there is no way you could replicate that on a wave.)
I was thinking about this the other afternoon as I surfed along to a couple of Fleetwood Mac songs on my Bongo board on the living room rug. I’d just watched clips of the Hurley Pro at Lower Trestles in southern California. It’s a venerable contest, a regular stop on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour. Ageless wonder Kelly Slater, who turns 40 soon, won it again this year on the way, most likely, to his eleventh season-long world title. He took his very first ASP event at Trestles in 1990, when he was 18.
Slater is a master of contest surfing. He’s good going either way, frontside or backside, right or left. He knows how to milk a wave for maximum points. And he’s obviously a ferocious competitor in the mano-a-mano, dual format the pros have adopted.
But here’s my beef. For all his genius, Kelly Slater makes it look hard. He’s a slasher and a grinder. He’s always hunched and driving, coiled, a little on the manic side. When he rips a cutback off the lip and breaks his fins free to sideslip down the foam (they all do this; I don’t know what the maneuver is called), Slater pumps with his feet and paddles the whitewater with his hands to catch back up to the curl. He looks like he’s always in a hurry – and maybe he is – to cram the maximum number of moves into the minimum amount of wave space.
Some of the surfers Slater defeated in California had styles I could more easily relate to: a couple of young Australians, Owen Wright and Julian Wilson, and a very young John Florence, an 18-year-old from Hawaii. They surfed more the way I tried to, or hoped to, as a kid living just up the coast.
My favorite wave, once I had my license and could drive to it, was Cotton’s Point, just north of Upper Trestles. It formed on the same river-mouth reef system that underlies the breaks at Uppers, Lowers, and Church. It was a left, my frontside, and therefore more natural for me as a goofyfoot. Plus, you could walk to it without having to sneak in through the Camp Pendleton Marine base, which is what you did if you wanted to access Trestles, particularly Lowers. (Trestles gets its name from the wooden railroad trestles spanning the creek deltas.) If the Marines caught you, they’d confiscate your board. And they were known to shoot at surfers in the lineup, not with “live” ammo, but with wax bullets that nevertheless could put a hole in fiberglass.
To get to Cotton’s, we’d park in San Clemente’s southernmost subdivision and walk, until President Nixon bought it, through an old, palm-lined estate on the point.
President’s Point we called it once the Secret Service took up positions in the cliff-top bushes.
In those days, my heroes were the guys who made surfing look ridiculously easy – Phil Edwards or Mickey Dora – guys who surfed with their hands at their sides, not nonchalant exactly but the opposite of desperate.
The waves at Lowers for this year’s contest were not particularly challenging. This is not Pipeline or Teahupoo, where speed and daring are required for simple survival. These were small, mushy, fun waves. And there was Slater slashing at them as if life depended on it.
By contrast Wright, a tall, lanky kid, used his leverage to carve big, slow cutbacks on the waves’ green faces. “Roundhouse wraparounds,” the Aussi announcers call them, and watching, even on the small screen, I got a carved-arc tingle up my spine. When a section closed out in front of him, Wright floated across the falling top of the wave (a “floater”) as if that were the obvious thing to do rather than wrench another vertical, lip-piercing move into the sequence.
Florence was a revelation, a kid so calm he looked as if he were sleepwalking. His hands stayed down, he just stood there making subtle, playful moves with his feet and lower body. Zipping around above and behind the lip. Making it look easy. Making it look fun.
The announcers said these guys were the future. I hope they are right. Nothing against Slater – he’s been a nearly indomitable force of energy and longevity. I’m just saying in a sport where style rules, we all get to pick our soul brothers.