The revolution might not be televised… but it will probably be webcast.
What was once surfing’s ultimate proving ground for chiselled, Spartan he-men has become something else altogether… Big Brother-style reality theatre of the absurd meets the Action Sports Retailer tradeshow on waves.
Words by: Tim Baker.
Principle photography by: Sean Davey.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, surfers scrimped, saved and scammed their way to Hawaii by any means they could muster, legal or
otherwise, to test themselves in the world’s biggest waves.
They crammed into derelict share houses, 10 or 12 to a room in rough, makeshift bunks, living on bags of rice and oats and the odd stolen papaya, hurling themselves into whatever aquatic monstrosities the North Pacific Ocean threw at them on crude equipment for months on end.
No one back home knew anything about what happened over in the Islands until you got back and told them about it, or fired off a postcard, until some magazine article or movie came out months later. There were no leg-ropes or jet-skis or lifeguards, almost no surf media or industry to speak of. In short, there was no reason to do any of it, other than simple enjoyment and perhaps peer respect.
Today, wealthy pro surfers recline in beachfront mansions, with cable TV and wireless Internet, enormous quivers of freshly stickered boards neatly arranged in garages; team managers, masseurs and hired heavy locals attending to their every need and whim. Every notable wave ridden is videoed and photographed and posted on any one of innumerable websites within a couple of hours. Young pros have to be coaxed and cajoled out of their well-appointed bunkers by desperate cameramen trying to persuade them to undertake the ghastly work of actually going for a surf. If the waves are deemed too imperfect or too crowded, or the weather too inclement, fuggedaboudit! The young pros would rather be on Facebook or MySpace communing with their vast empires of “friends,” or flicking endlessly through 80 channels of reality-TV dross.
In the space of just 40 years the North Shore of Oahu has been transformed from Wild West frontier town to a kind of surf industry marketing facility, in which the locals are tolerated as a mildly troublesome nuisance, and the merits of the surf season are judged by the number of photo-friendly days of sunshine in December. Californian industry dudes engage in their own jolly SoCal bro’down, as if the North Shore were merely an outlying suburb of Orange County. Those who actually live here year-round are made to feel like strangers in their own
neighbourhood, while the exorbitant rents the surf industry pays for prime beachfront accommodation all but price the locals out of the rental market. Many are forced to move to distant suburbs and commute to the North Shore to surf or work in service industries catering to visitors.
At times, you’d be lucky to even spot a native Hawaiian in the queues at Starbucks or Ted’s Bakery or in the crowded lineups. The locals are cast as heavy-handed and territorial for the occasional act of aggression in the water, but you can’t help wondering how other surf communities around the world would handle such an unremitting annual invasion during their surf season, such an emphatic takeover of their neighbourhoods, and such disregard for their interests. Under the circumstances, it’s amazing there isn’t outright revolution.
It seems to occur to few of the surf industry visitors – as they snap up prime beachfront houses, clog the supermarkets, restaurants, roads and car parks, line the beach with cameramen, flood the lineups with photo-hungry young surf stars – that this is actually someone else’s homeland, that a permanent community exists here and receives little benefit from this annual invasion (except for the real estate agents, car rental companies, and a few tourist traps and eateries). Wall-to-wall contests monopolise prime surf breaks throughout the few months the local die-hard surfers wait for all year, only to see their beaches effectively become a kind of open-air surf media studio for photo, film, web, TV, and whatever other kind of new media the tech-heads have dreamed up. Notices are pinned to trees warning passersby that some film production is underway and they give away all rights to the use of their image if they so much as step foot on the beach.
The tone of this new youth/active lifestyle multimedia marketing contrivance called “the North Shore surf season” is captured nowhere better than in a strange web-based phenomenon calling itself the “Freewave Challenge”. Think YouTube meets Australian Idol for surfers. Or, as it bills itself, “surfing’s first virtual event”. Video cameramen post clips of the best rides of the season, an imagined community of users is supposed to view and discuss said rides, and then a panel of alleged experts votes and anoints someone the winner. This seems like the final logical step in the “mediafication” of the North Shore, making us all participants in a viral web event, whether we like it or not.
Out of a world-wide surfing population of at least 10 million, the vigorously marketed Freewave Challenge, at last count, had attracted 103 members, and out of the tens of thousands of waves ridden over a North Shore season, 121 video clips had been posted. Does this mean the concept is wildly progressive, edgy and ahead of its time? Or that we have better things to do with our time?
Of course, the success of such an exercise is largely dependent on the ability of middle-aged marketing men to speak in a language that is hip and cool and down with the kids, and in this regard the Freewave Challenge blog is exemplary. Use this little sample as your guide and you will soon be communing with the teenagers in your life like a trusted friend.
“And the floodgates of frantic action fling open in urgent fashion, straining under the weighty importance of the sickly moves thrown down over the last few days. It’s been POPPIN, dude. Well, actually, no one we know would dare say anything THAT lame, but the point is that the big Caterpillar Bulldozer of progressive surfing (which stamps its mighty tank-treads along the coarse sand of the North Shore) has been trundling back and forth from Rocky Point to Off-the-Wall with the rare side trip to the spiky shoreline of Log Cabins. And so for those surfers ready to nut up and put on a show, the game is on.”
Nut up? Genius! For all those old sticks in the mud and naysayers claiming kids today aren’t interested in reading, let this be a lesson to you. It is simply a matter of striking the right tone, speaking the language of the demographic and showing the kids you know precisely what time it is out there on the street. As the new electronic media threatens the survival of traditional old boring print, the challenge before us is clearly to learn to speak this new youth language, evolving from texts and blogs and the consumption of far too many heavily-promoted energy drinks. As we tired old magazine writers grow ever older and closer to redundancy, we clearly need to learn to think, speak and write younger, in shorter words, with the vowels and punctuation missing, if we are to hold our audience’s attention. Bt srsly wh the fck cn b bthrd & whs gng t ndstd t nywy?
This correspondent, on the other hand, has been gloriously out of touch with this whole communication and technological revolution. I have no presence on MySpace or Facebook or YouTube. It is 10 years since I have been on the North Shore in contest season, a decade I have spent mainly having children and writing books – activities that could not be further removed from this brave new world of techno hipdom. I feel like Austin Powers awakening from my cryogenic slumber to a vastly altered cultural landscape.
It’s all about the ’net now, dude, I am assured. I feel like I’ve missed something, so I check out the Surfermag.com bulletin board to see what all the fuss is about. A parade of semiliterate psychotics trade insults over the most inane trivia. People are already reminiscing nostalgically about the early days of bulletin boards.
“Didn’t come to the Surfermag BB until 2000. Good times,” wrote someone calling themselves, “Who’s your daddy.” The fact that someone is already nostalgic for the year 2000, and describes typing messages on an internet bulletin board as “good times,” I find slightly disturbing. I’m still getting used to the fact that it is no longer the 20th century.
To be honest, it has all come as something of a shock to realise I am now some kind of wizened old artisan peddling the archaic craft or the written word according to outdated rules of correct spelling and grammar, about as edgy as a bowling ball and as up with the latest trends as a meditating monk in a Himalayan cave. So expect no snappy labelling of the latest social shifts in surfing’s culture from me. I do what I do – take it or leave it.
And what I do is find a glib line on a subject and stick to it, flog it mercilessly, find a recurring comic device, and reference it so often and so frequently that if it wasn’t funny the first time, hopefully through endless repetition it will somehow magically become imbibed with humour, or at least pathos.
My problem in this instance, however, is that I was only able to come up with one comic device from this Hawaiian season, and close readers of the world’s ailing, old-fashioned, printed surf media may be aware that I have already used that comic device elsewhere – the admittedly hilarious rental-car upgrade I was granted at Honolulu Airport upon my arrival on a grey and drizzly December morn.
I had booked a cheap compact, but as my good friends at the Dollar Rent-a-car company were all out of compacts, I was very generously offered … wait for it … a white … Mustang … convertible. Pfffffffffffffff! The clear comic potential of this happy accident was so overwhelming, I figured, it was my ticket out of having to actually observe and report anything of substance during my Hawaiian visit. I would only have to tap out the words “white Mustang convertible,” and my readers would be convulsed in fits of hysterical laughter, powerless to resist my comic genius, even with vowels and punctuation. The possibilities seemed endless. You know, “Kalai Alexander pulled up at the Volcom house in his monster next to my White Mustang Convertible. ‘Mind the duco,’ I warned him ……..” Hahahaaaaaaaaaa. That kind of gear. Absolute Gold.
In the search for new ways to keep up this theme of introducing the subject of the White Mustang Convertible at every opportunity, I did what all modern writers do when they are stuck for ideas or too lazy to do real-life research. I Googled, “white mustang convertible, ” in search of some quirky pop-culture references I could fall back on. Instead, I came across a disturbing link to something called craigslist and an inquiry after a man recently spotted pumping petrol into a White Mustang Convertible. It read:
“This is for the very sexy guy with the shaved head who was filling his tank at the Mobil on Kendall Drive tonight around 8:00. I was paying for my items when you came out of the restroom. You locked eyes with me for what felt like half a minute.
“I was the very tired Dominican guy who was too lazy to walk over and talk to you but regrets it now. My car was in the other direction but I did see you pumping gas into a white convertible Mustang.
“If you are interested let me know. I am a 34 year old Black Dominican guy. 5’ 11” 220 nicely built well hung and versatile.”
Below this was a photo of a pair of admittedly taut and round black buttocks, presumably belonging to the versatile Dominican guy.
Horrified, I switched off my computer and hurled it out the window, determined to distance myself from this instrument of evil and abomination. If that’s the kind of thing all those kids were up to on MySpace and Facebook, God help us all. I would have no part in it. My Hawaii story would be scrawled with my thumbnail in black ink on butcher’s paper, stuffed in a bottle and tossed in the Ke Iki shorebreak, delivered to the editor or not at the ocean’s whim. Only in this way, I decided, could I ensure the integrity of my work in an age of media overkill and moral decay. If you are reading this, you may assume the Pacific currents have viewed my work favorably.
Of course, the contest season unfolded in generally mediocre waves and miserable weather. Oddly, this seemed to surprise and demoralise the assembled world’s surf media, despite the fact that it has happened more often than not over the last 30 years. Back about 1975/76 the North Shore surf season was blessed with glorious sunshine and back-to-back swells from November to March, and for some inexplicable reason the surfing world continues to expect it to follow suit and play ball every year. It has not apparently occurred to them that it is called winter because, as in many parts of the world, it is characterised by high rainfall, often squally and shifting winds and regular storms. Yet every year, the world’s surf media produce their Hawaii coverage from a literal handful of idyllic days that perpetuates the illusion that it is always 6-10ft, offshore and sunny on the North Shore. So powerful is this illusion that the perpetrators of it fall for it themselves and return the following year aghast to find that it does not match with reality. And every year, the surf gets good as soon as they all leave.
Yet even in the midst of a particularly abysmal Hawaiian winter, within a short drive of the North Shore, I am able to find empty, offshore, 6ft lefts all to myself and a friend, without a camera or surf star to be seen. This is the magic of the Hawaiian winter that lurks behind the Hollywood facade of mainstream North Shore surfing.
I step outside one day, after what feels like weeks of rain, and look up into the sky, blinking. What is that bright glowing object up there shimmering down on us? Photographers are in raptures, racing to Off The Wall with long lenses and tripods to await the emergence of wellknown surf stars from their lairs. “This place is Hollywood,” local photographer Peter Hodgson tells me, “and that’s Angelina and Brad,” he adds, pointing to the ocean. “Until they turn up we’re all just spinning our wheels.” It reminds me of being at the zoo as a kid, waiting for some rare and exotic animal to pop its head out of its burrow. And when it does, the crowds ooh and aah in amazement, sending the startled creature back into its hole. Most modern surf stars are rather less easily spooked than, say, your average lemur and less inclined to hurl faeces at their audience than most chimpanzees, but it still must be odd to have your every move tracked and documented by an army of lenses.
What would normally be a passable but forgettable day at Backdoor and Off The Wall is cherished like a shiny gem by the desperate lensmen. It is four to six foot, a little crosshore, with a good smattering of well-known pros and sunshine. Occy is in vintage form, surfing with energy and enthusiasm and pulling some of the biggest backhand gaffs of the session. Rasta, sporting a fine Mohawk and adopting Zen-like mantis poses through casual speed trims, also unleashes the most phenomenal two-hands-inthe-water-behind-him cutback – a burst of aggression that belies his Dalai Lama-esque demeanor. Those couple of turns in rare moments of sunshine seem destined to fill surf mags the world over.
Rasta had taken to riding a Tom Wegenershaped replica of a traditional Hawaiian alai’a board, the kind of short, thin, flat, round-nosed slabs of timber that were common in pre-European Hawaii. Six to eight feet in length, these were the original shortboards. The enormous olos we more commonly associate with ancient Hawaiian surfing were reserved for royalty. But the alai’a was the board of the common folk and much more prevalent on the North Shore, where the wild surf was unsuited to the huge, heavy olos. Sadly, the local population and surfing itself all but died out on the North Shore after the European introduction of disease and a Protestant plantation economy, along with missionary condemnation of the evil act of wave-riding. The olos survived in the gentle crumbling waves of Waikiki, where surfing was eventually revived in the early 1900s. Rasta reckoned Tom Wegener had an interesting thought: if not for this quirk of history, we all might have gone straight to the shortboard, based on the alai’a, but instead modern surfing began on longboards fashioned after the few surviving olos in Waikiki, and it took us another 60-odd years to cotton on to the idea of whittling boards down from more than 10 feet to six or so.
Rasta was being very discrete about the alai’a, pulling it out only occasionally, not wanting to offend any locals lest they felt he was co-opting one more
vestige of their culture. He rarely rode the thing in front of the camera or crowds, but those who witnessed it were gobsmacked by the speed he was
getting on what ostensibly looked like an ironing board. Occy was one observer who was more than impressed. He raved about Rasta’s tube rides and full-rail cutbacks on a design that is literally hundreds of years old. “It was amazing. I could habe watched him all day,” Occy quietly marvelled.
The Pipe contest, meanwhile, laboured along in dreary waves and under a bewildering system that accommodated both the demands of local surfers for more spots in the draw and Kelly Slater’s frankly ludicrous overlapping-heat system. If pro surfing needed to make itself even more incomprehensible to the average punter, then Slater nailed it. The poor waves were no one’s fault, but the bloated and confusing format rendered the once mighty Pipe Masters farcical.
When the whole sorry business was finally, mercifully, over with, I decided to head into Ala Moana for a spot of Christmas shopping. And it was here, in a crowded pre-Christmas shopping mall, that the whole pro surfing world was suddenly and quite unexpectedly redeemed for me. On a whim I wandered into a Hollister store, a kind of faux-surf label that represents the most cheesy, cynical exploitation of the surfing lifestyle yet conceived. Hollister describes itself as, “Flirty, casual clothing designed for the adventurous Cali lifestyle.” Men’s and women’s fashions are labelled for “dudes” or “bettys”. A young fresh-faced poseur at the door handed me a small square of cardboard, and insisted, “Here, try our new fragrance, SoCal.”
Why would anyone want to wear the aroma of car exhausts, fast food and sewage, I wondered? A few high gloss mini-mals hung on the walls. The place was cramped and dimly lit, music blaring like a nightclub. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Oddly intrigued by this new take on surf retailing, I ventured into another of the faux-surf outlets, Abercrombie & Fitch, “All-American lifestyle clothing for aspirational men and women.”
Abercrombie is probably best-known among surfers for being sued by a bunch of surf legends – including George Downing and Buffalo Keaulana – for using a shot of them from the 1965 Makaha International in an A & F catalogue without their consent. It has also faced lawsuits for allegedly discriminating against minorities and forcing staff to buy and wear their clothes.
Here, a young man at the door was dressed in tight jeans, naked from the waist up, apart from a large fur coat, in the balmy tropical humidity. I thought he was kidding, but he was apparently paid staff, standing there as some kind of adornment aimed at luring people inside, a sort of ludicrous human parsley. It had the opposite effect on me and I fled, puzzled by what I’d just seen. If this is the alternative, I pondered, it makes the big surf labels look like purists, Zen monks tending to the spiritual health of waveriding. The Pipe Masters suddenly seemed like a form of prayer, the Freewave Challenge a
flowering of global consciousness, the whole North Shore contest season a Woodstock love-in.
I boarded my White Mustang Convertible and headed back out to the North Shore – being careful not to stop for petrol and on the lookout for any well-built Dominican men. I didn’t slow down until just past Haleiwa, where the Kam Highway again hugged the coastal strip towards Waimea Bay, where the Pacific Ocean still lapped the beaches as it had for millennia.
It is a truly curious thing, what we do to surfing, in the name of commerce and media entertainment. The only thing about it all that remains real is what happens when you enter the ocean and begin to paddle, feel the passage of air in and out of your lungs, the quickening of your heartbeat as a set approaches, the internal tension of primal flight-or-fight instincts, the strain of muscles as you scratch into or over a peak, the hit of adrenaline from a sweet ride. In an age of media and marketing bombardment, when all the chatter and static becomes overwhelming, the challenge remains to
remember this and forget all the rest.
Tim Baker lives with his wife and 123 kids in Mularooboo, Australia where he does what he does – take it or leave it.