A beautiful site for generations of surfers. Photos: Jenya Ivkov

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: You Tell Us: Who’s tired of the surf media, brands, and now social media users, showing perfect empty waves and not telling you where? This is the first in a two-part series.

Back in 2003 I got the call that just about every other surfer in the world dreamed of: an invitation to join the Quiksilver Crossing, and a berth on the Indies Trader as it made its way down the largely unknown coast of Nicaragua. Granted, I was editor of SURFER magazine at the time, yet it was still to be like no other surf trip I’d ever experienced. Not exploring a remote coast by boat — I’d been fortunate enough to do that a number of times before — but for being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement before joining the ship.

“While the basic route is outlined,” read the project’s official website. “no specific references are given in regards to surf spots. Everyone connected with the project respects keeping known and unknown surf spots a mystery.” 

Everyone but me. Seeing as how on my watch at the top of SURFER’s masthead, my editorial policy concerning exotic travel stories was to place the trip on a map without necessarily drawing a map, I took exception to this particular ethic.

“That sounds great,” I said, in discussion with Martin Daly, the eminently colorful and opinionated skipper of the Indies Trader. “You want us to reveal the place, promote the place to the benefit of Quiksilver’s brand, but not say where it is. I think you’d better know that my current motto here at the mag is, ‘Death To Secret Spots.’”

“And my personal motto is death to anyone who would say death to secret spots,” replied Martin.

“So where does that leave us?” I said.

“I guess I’ll see you down there,” Martin said. “What better place to continue this discussion than on the deck of the Indies Trader.”

Oh, I went. Of course I did. But I didn’t sign the NDA, and eventually ran a story about surfing in Nicaragua without drawing any surf spot maps…and I hear that Martin is still really mad at me.

I’ll admit that the few intrepid surf adventurers, not to mention locals, who had surfed Nicaragua’s coastline by the time that Quik’s painted “Love Boat” had arrived probably weren’t surprised by any of this. By the cusp of the 21st century, the surfing magazines had for decades been ‘exposing’ remote, exotic surf spots, assuaging their conscience by using silly pseudonyms in place of actual place names, Scorpion Bay, Sian, Ulè and Cinnamon Rainbows to name just a few. This custom of “show but don’t tell” actually began much earlier, when in 1972 a SURFER magazine feature called “El Dorado: A True Life Adventure” ran photos of certain West Indian surf spots without revealing their location.  “I could go on about the place, but there’s really no point,” wrote John Amsterdam. “Besides, I’ve told you too much already. Just figure that whatever you desire is out there at the end of some rainbow. All you have to do is find it.”

This “we don’t want to spoil the thrill of discovery” cliché became the surf media’s policy (read: rationalization) for running travel features and photos of spots invariably more perfect and less crowded than what their readers experienced at home, but without telling them where.  And it really took hold. Long gone were the days when Bruce Brown very specifically intoned surfing’s first fantasy wave edict in in 1965’s “The Endless Summer.” (“Think of all the perfect waves that have gone to waste, and of all the perfect waves that are going to waste right now at Cape St. Francis.”) Or when, in 1970, Bernie Baker’s SURFER story “Peril of The Tropics” freely named spots from Panama’s Santa Catalina to Punta Roca in La Libertad, El Salvador. As the years passed surf content increasingly leaned more heavily on titillation; like so many Playboy centerfolds, these impossibly beautiful waves weren’t meant to be experienced, but simply ogled, and the men whose arms they graced, envied. Still, although “X marks the spot” was summarily erased from published surf maps, throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, curious surfers were at least provided general locations; Nias’ Lagundri Bay, for example, was never mentioned by name, but at a bare minimum we were told it was somewhere in Indonesia. 

Nias and the wave that breaks at Lagundri Bay

“We’re not telling but you probably know.”

The protocol began to change as we slid into the 1990s.  No longer did actual surf travelers bring cameras along with them to document their trip and then send photos off to the surf mags for publication; the era of those magazines dispatching tipped-off photographers and their sponsored “trained seals” to produce “New Discovery!” stories was nearing its end. Ushered in was the ‘surf exploration-as-marketing-asset’ epoch, this time around seeing the surf wear companies, not the magazines, bankrolling projects that commodified the dream with a new version of “look what we found.” Beginning in 1992, Rip Curl’s “The Search” campaign ate up a good portion of its advertising budget, flying various team riders around the world and posing them in front of, and inside of, perfect, empty waves. Seven years later the aforementioned “Quiksilver Crossing “ campaign upped the ante of the commercialized adventure ethic, circumnavigating the globe in a garishly-painted and fully logo-ed surf exploration vessel, the Indies Trader, with surfer/models being flown in to shoot photos and videos at a reported 115 new surf breaks. None of which were revealed to potential Quiksilver customers. In both cases, by not even revealing the country in which the marketing content was produced, the previous message of “Look at these perfect waves we found!” had transformed in tone to a very proprietary, “Look at these perfect waves we got to surf, and you didn’t.” 

Twenty plus years on, the digital age, with its myriad streaming videos, clips and vlogs, has taken the old “show but don’t tell” ethic, already inherently hypocritical, to new extremes. We see videos of enlightened surf travelers enjoying West African waves and hospitality, supposedly revering local culture, but without ever revealing what country they’re in. A recent marketing campaign touts a new series of empty wave discoveries, enjoyed by the obligatory team of sponsored pros, yet carefully edits out any shots revealing the faces of their generous local hosts, apparently as to not reveal their ethnicity, as if the worst possible thing would be for a surfer like you to show up there someday and ruin the vibe. On another surf site there’s a video feature of well-documented surf in Southern Chile, yet presented with the headline, “We’re not going to tell you where this is, although you probably already know.” There’s even one wildly popular vlog that features super-famous surfers surfing super-famous waves on Oahu’s North Shore — there’s only so many and we know where they all are — without revealing the spots’ names. A new ideal: Secret In Plain Sight. But a tired old rationalization: Inspire surfers to get out there and find their own secret spots. 

Which is, in my mind, a load of bullsh-t. I personally believe that the past 50 years of the surf media running “new wave discoveries” without letting you know at least what frickin’ country they’re in has been completely exploitative, aimed primarily at selling magazines, marketing surf trunks and now racking up online clicks. But you tell me. Hit the comment section and let us know how you feel about constantly being shown sponsored surfers riding perfect, empty waves and not being told where they are. Are you inspired? Irritated? Indifferent? Here’s your chance to speak your mind, with your opinion perhaps being one of those featured in the upcoming ”Death To Secret Spots: Part 2”. So stay tuned.


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