Professional Surfer

Editor’s Note: We asked The Inertia’s most talented contributors to share moments that caused significant personal growth and transformation in their lives – ideally with some relation to surfing, but also to life in general. Rob Machado shared the following story about his abrupt transition from the World Tour with us in a conversation one March afternoon. 

Rob Machado. Photo: Ghiglia

“It wasn’t necessarily that everything was stripped from me,” said Rob Machado. “Not being on Tour anymore. It’s more that a room full of people blatantly voted me off Tour. That’s what I felt like.” Photo: Anthony Ghiglia

I don’t think a lot of people know how that whole system used to work. It’s pretty interesting. And it was pretty defining for me. You’ve gotta remember that when I started competing on the World Tour, that’s all there was. There wasn’t a freesurfer. You’re basically groomed through the NSSA and then you come out of that and go on Tour. And if you didn’t make it, you’re pretty much toast.

So after doing that for ten years, to all of a sudden have it stripped from me – and it wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t get the wildcard – it was more how I didn’t get the wildcard, which I thought was kind of interesting.

I don’t know how they do it now, but back then, they had two wildcard spots to give away every year, and they weren’t even deemed injury wildcards necessarily.

But the way they vote works is that they basically have a surfer’s meeting, and I’d say maybe three quarters of them show up. Maybe. Everyone went to the Haleiwa Rec Center and basically you had to go in there and plead your case. You’d walk in on crutches, in wheelchairs, explain that your back’s messed up. Blah blah blah. Then all the surfers vote on it. They listen to everyone’s case, and then the surfers decide. There weren’t any doctors involved, or medical folks. No need for proof of your injury or anything. Not at that time. I think it’s evolved now, but at that time it was just a room full of dudes going, “Alright, cool.”

I actually couldn’t attend the meeting because my wife had just given birth to my daughter. My daughter was born November 14th, and that meeting went down right around Haleiwa or Sunset, and my daughter was about two weeks old. I wasn’t really in the state of mind to leave, so I wrote a letter. I wrote my whole plea out in a letter saying, “Okay, this is what happened to me.” I broke my hand. We had complications with the pregnancy, because we had to do all these tests, and it was a pretty heavy moment. I think I ended up surfing two contests out of five that they had that year. I just wrote everything out, and supposedly somebody got up and read it, and that was kind of it.

“Alright. That’s Rob. Put him on the board.”

You can just imagine some old shitty chalkboard. And it’s like, “Alright, Rob pleaded his case. Broken hand. Pregnancy. Blah blah blah.”  (Laughs)

And then all these guys vote on it. Well, I find it interesting that it’s all the guys you compete against that vote on whether or not you get to stay on Tour. So then it becomes kind of a popularity contest, you know? If guys want you to be there and they’re stoked and they like you, then rad, but if you’re the guy that maybe doesn’t get along with all the guys there… from what I heard, guys started asking questions like, “Well how come he didn’t go on the QS?” And if you’re not there to answer for yourself, then it almost becomes like a lynch mob, you know? Everyone kind of gangs up on you. “How come you didn’t do that? What’s up with that?” Then guys start making stuff up, like, “He doesn’t care…”

And it’s like, “No. You’ve got it all wrong.”

I interject. “Well, do you think there might be an element of self interest there? If you’re beating your competition, they might not want you back on Tour.

Exactly. That’s what I mean. I totally agree. I think that’s totally the case. It’s like, dude, “That guy beat me a bunch of times last year.” I can totally see that.

So I wasn’t there. I didn’t get the wildcard, and that was kind of that. It was pretty weird.

If I'm not shooting surf, I'm shooting rock stars and actors, and I truly believe that there is something interesting in everything… you just have to be open to it. Lessons from the road: Photography is expensive
 and surf photographers are broke-ass motherf*ckers.

Luckily, Rob was able to find a handful of things to do after the World Tour. Photo: Jason Reposar

It was all of a sudden. It wasn’t necessarily that everything was stripped from me. Not being on Tour anymore.

A room full of surfers determined my fate on whether or not I was going to be on Tour or not, which was pretty strange. It’d be interesting to see how they do it now. I think they’re a little more professional.

Well, things are totally different this year. So how did that moment change you? Clearly, you were resilient and resourceful after that blow, and you could make the case that it might have been the best thing to happen to you. That it allowed you to create a profession as a free surfer, which didn’t exactly exist before and you made a viable option.

At the time, it was a pretty harsh blow, because like I said, I was brought up in the surf world and that’s what you did: you go on Tour. When you finished the Tour, you disappeared. You’re done. You maybe got a job in the industry, but for the most part, if you weren’t on Tour, you were gone. So that was the mindset at the time. It was like, “Gosh, you fell off Tour. End of the world.”

So at that time it was a pretty harsh blow, like, “Holy crap, what am I going to do?” What’s interesting, too, is there was a kind of a chain of events, that happened. Gotcha basically filed bankruptcy and ceased to exist anymore around the same time. So I went from being on Tour and having a major sponsor, to not having a sponsor and not being on Tour. I had a brand new family, and I was kinda scratching my head, like, “Okay. What am I going to do now?”

I remember I was with my dad. He was in Hawaii with me, and he said something to me that resonated, and it still does. He said, “You know what? Right now, you think this is the worst thing that has ever happened to you.”

And I was like, “Yep.”

He was like, “You’re going to look back at this moment some day and you’re going to see something positive in it. Something good is going to happen out of this.”

I was like, “There’s no fucking way. You’re tripping.” At that moment, I just didn’t see it. But I was listening to him, and I was like, “Shit, I hope so. That’s all I can do, right?”

There was definitely a shift in surfing at that time. I remember when I first stopped doing the Tour, I didn’t ride a normal thruster for almost two years. I would rarely ride one. It was really fun. There was a lot going on. That was the beginning of the retro movement, if you want to call it that. I started hanging out with Thomas Campbell and doing some trips with him. Then Hurley came along and basically said, “Hey, we just want you to go surfing. Just go. Get out there and surf and be you and that’s all we want.” And I was like, “Woah. This is weird. You’ve gotta remember that I came from riding for Gotcha, and you walk in the office at Gotcha and all they had is the ratings. They had the ASP Ratings posted up on the wall, and that’s all that matters. So to hear that from a sponsor you’re like, “Really? Are you kidding?” So it was kind of crazy shift.

It took me a little bit. It wasn’t an easy transition. When you’re on Tour, it’s pretty simple. You get a schedule at the beginning of the year. Here’s the contest that you’re going to be at. It’s ready to go. When you’re a free surfer doing your own thing, you’ve gotta make things happen yourself. You’ve gotta get creative. You’ve gotta plan trips. You’ve gotta figure out what you’re going to do, when, and how. That’s the side of it that I had to learn. I got to places I wanted to go with people I wanted to go with and work on projects that I wanted to be a part of. And that to me has way more meaning, and way more impact, and it’s pretty exciting in the end.

In the end, my dad was totally right. He said everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. And he was right. I went on to basically dictate what I want to do and be able to do what I want to do when and create my own life as a pro surfer.

You might say that you paved the way for others to have that as an option. It’s a select few, and it’s not an easy place to get to. But it exists.

It’s a viable option now.

And I think at the time what was happening is that people started realizing, “Hey, surfing’s not just a sport.” It’s not all about the ASP, and it’s not all about contests. Basically, the real reason why everybody started surfing is because it’s fun. You go out and enjoy yourself. It’s peaceful and relaxing and refreshing. It’s all these things. Professional surfing doesn’t really provide that. It doesn’t give you those same feelings.

Whereas, I think Thomas Campbell’s movies are genius in that sense. I think the Malloy movies. The Woodshed movies were genius. It was more about, “Hey, here’s a group of guys who go out and ride anything and everything, have fun, travel, and enjoy what it’s like to be a surfer,” you know? And give you visuals of what stokes you out in the first place. Why you really started surfing. I can’t imagine too many people watch the contests and think, “Wow, that’s what I wanna do.” Unless it’s the best day ever at a place and there’s only two guys out, and you want to surf that wave with only two guys out. When you see a session go down at an empty beach with four or five guys out and they’re all on different gear and they’re having fun and they’re just getting some great rides – that’s the kind of shit that you look at and you’re like, “Right on. That’s why I surf. That stokes me out. Those guys are having a blast.”

I’m in no way bagging on the contest thing. It has its place. It provides something that’s exciting. That part of surfing will probably never go away. It will always be there, and that’s cool. But I think deep, deep down inside ingrained in everyone, the real reason we started surfing is the fun, the stoke of walking down the beach with your three bros and you come down the stairs and there’s a killer little peak down the beach and there’s no one out and you’re coming down the beach like, “Dude we’re going to score!” You surf for two hours, getting little tubes and having the best session ever and come home all sunburned and don’t have a care in the world. That’s what it’s about. That stoke.

  • Jimmy the Saint

    Nice article, as a matter of interest who got the second wildcard? Seems like Glen hall got screwed this year, looks like tiago is out injured again at Margret River, I suppose he will be getting another free pass next year…

  • Julianus claudius

    Mr Machado was my favourite surfer back in the nineties, stylish goofy, both things I liked!
    That said (in cauda venenum!), I’d say that we were in fact plenty of “freesurfers” back in “the days”…Oh, I know that this term is a consecrated one, and means in fact “being paid to surf, without being in competition”, but I’ve never felt I had to comply to what marketing is telling me to say, and for me, a free surfer is a guy who surf for free, because he likes it. When you do it as a job, it’s not the same. A freesurfer is just like other professionals, having to deal with what his sponsors want, even if he tell us how he is free to do what he wants and all this. This is professionnal surfing. And somewhat hypocrite, I always found it funny to hear Mr Rastovitch showing me how free he was to save the whales while being paid by big corporations. That’s free market, not free surfing, and the same for Mr Reynolds, the new californian rebel, the best surfer in the world, currently burning wildcards after wildcards in a desperate attempt to come back in the “not free surfer” circuit ((Are they slavesurfers?)

    Back in the nineties, I lost my job, with two kids, and I had to find another one. It was tough, hard times, something I had to share with millions of people around the world. No injury wildcard, nothing, I just had to go back in the somewhat humiliating position of “begging” for a job to feed my family, like so many millions of people. That’s the real world, I understand stars, heirs and wealthy sportsmen don’t have such troubles, but I never thought surfers would be in this position. I thought surfers were more or less like I was, normal people. I was wrong.

    To end my message, just a few words from the ASP, 26/10/2001:
    “At the recent extraordinary meeting of the ASP
    Board of Directors in Coolangatta, QLD, Australia, it was agreed
    unanimously to allocate, for 2002 only, four (4) WCT wildcards to the
    surfers and two (2) to the WCT event sponsors.
    Part of the allocation equation approved was that if Slater applied
    for a Tour wildcard, he would be granted one due to his supreme standing
    in the sport. This decision falls under the ASP criteria for granting wildcards. Under the guidelines, consideration is given to injured surfers, former World Champions and applicants who are considered worthy of a Tour wildcard.
    In light of the shortened 2001 Tour, and after taking into account the lost opportunities for back-end competitors at the time of the European WCT leg cancellation, the Board agreed to commit at least two more slots, through the granting of wildcards, to WCT surfers. This means going down to at least #28 and
    #29 on the year-end WCT ratings, and if the surfers in these slots have
    already qualified, through the World Qualifying Series (WQS), then the
    surfers in #30 & #31 qualify, continuing down until the spots are
    On November 24th, at the ASP board meeting in Hawaii,
    consideration will be given to injury wildcard applications, and if an
    injury wildcard is not granted, then the 4th surfer wildcard will be
    granted to the next in line off the 2001 WCT ratings.”

    It is not exactly what I read in Mr Machado’s paper. Sorry for my poor english, mixed with a bit of anger.

  • RuDee Sade

    landlover question: What’s the QS?

    • nofway

      The ASP WQS is the World Qualifying Series (also affectionately known as “The Grind”). It is the second (or open-entry) tier in the ASP’s two-tier system. The WQS has both Men’s and Women’s Divisions, and the series of events determines which surfers qualify for the ASP World Tour. On average, there are approximately 45 WQS events per season. The events are rated on a star system with ratings from 1 to 6 stars. The star rating coincides with the prize money offered and also determines the amount of ratings points offered to surfers. More prize money will get you a higher star rating which will give the competitors more ratings points. ASP WQS surfers compete for both prize money and valuable ratings points in an attempt to qualify for the ASP World Tour.

      • RuDee Sade


  • Rodrigo Guerra

    just remind me why i surf!

  • trogPOUNDA

    oh boohoo you get paid to free surf shut up who cares

    • Jay Dee


    • digitalsupe

      you obviously cared enough to comment. Even though you didn’t comprehend the article.

      • Jay Dee

        Yes so no one is allowed to disagree, ever! Cause if you disagree and you mention it, it means you care so Im rubber and you’re glue. Fvkk off.

        • sharky101

          Come on Jay, calling someone a Jew isn’t disagreeing, it’s raciest . Educate yourself. It will be better for all of us. Try to be stoked for someone, and not a hater, it will be better for you.

          • Jay Dee

            Oh thanks man, for teaching me a lesson. Il be sure to remember it for my finals. Take care and enjoy your summer 🙂

          • sharky101

            Anytime! Thanks and enjoy your summer, Good luck on the finals!

          • Jay Dee

            Yeah I don’t have finals. None of what I wrote made sense. It was kind of a homage to you!

          • sharky101

            I know Jay, I just thought your comment was a good comeback, and just trying to lighten it up. Enjoy your day!

  • Jay Dee

    Fired for being too jewy?

  • rtcoastnj

    Thankfully it gave Rob time to do more important things. 10 years after this pic my daughter is still surfing.

    • Seabass120

      Awesome, thanks for sharing. Mad respect for Mr. Machado.

  • ichorousmedia .

    I’m in a similar situation in life, but I don’t have a bread and butter skill like Rob does. Rob is such a nice guy I am surprised he was treated the way he was, but then again, maybe that’s why. People often take advantage of others who aren’t expected to retaliate, which in my opinion show’s true envy on their parts to the maturity than Rob exercised throughout this tough period. I think Hurley was a reward in disguise for Rob’s great character and outlook, even if inside, like all of us, he was scared for a moment.

  • Chad Bonsack

    Its a bummer that happened to Rob but he got out at the right time. A few yrs after that the economy dropped and he was already on a new path .It seems he has more freedoms now and a good chunk of change flowing his way.Now we can all sit back and see how Kellys new Ventures go.Hopefully they go great.

  • Trogan Fan

    Like every man, family or career. He made his choice and, in retrospect, probably not the right choice. It’s really the curse of pro surfing though – any many who’s washed up in his 20’s or 30’s did it wrong.

  • Juan Cruz Bobillo

    If you really cared Mr. Machado, you should have requalified like every other human being: winning contests and getting the points needed.

  • All respect to Rob but The first real professional free surfer for many reasons was Archy.

Join The Inertia Family 

Only the best. We promise.