Time and time again, the media’s relationship to surfers dances a fine line. Even the purest of souls often have some sort of documentation of themselves surfing: whether it’s an underground, talented friend with a VHS camcorder, a personal travel journal, a profile in a community zine, or even a cartoon of themselves getting tubed, surfing and art are forever intertwined. But the complexity arises when one begins to see patterns emerge between the surfers who appear to “avoid,” or at least don’t seek out, media coverage, and the surfers people flock to. Why is there a connection?
Mystery, accompanied by the idea that there’s more beneath the surface of a person than may initially appear, has the power to draw us in. We see this with the popularity of surfers such as Gerry Lopez, Wayne Lynch, Tom Curren, Miki Dora, and even more modern personas like Torren Martyn. At first glance, it may appear that what they share is a love for chasing waves, a dedication to style while riding, a common interest in escaping crowds and charting their own paths.
But upon further investigation, it seems they also share another trait in common: they make their ambivalence for mainstream media coverage of themselves well known. They have plenty of time in the spotlight, but their reserved attitude in front of a mic makes it appear that they didn’t plan to be there, even if this may not be the case. Wayne Lynch said about being in a film about his own life, “I am not comfortable with celebrity and all that sort of thing. I never have been and that is why I have led such a reclusive life.”
Tom Curren’s recent “Soundings” interview was chock full of wisdom, but not in the same way Mason Ho or Mike D’s interviews were. Curren was quiet, thoughtful, pausing before murmuring something about yard work. If you didn’t know his status in the surf community, an uninformed listener may mistake the conversation for two neighbors in a suburban town shooting the breeze at dusk.
Both Wayne Lynch and Tom Curren are, without a doubt, people you’d call “famous” in the surfing world. But they don’t appear to seek fame, and sometimes, it seems they don’t even really care for it.
In one of Matt Warshaw’s beloved “Sunday Joints” for the Encyclopedia of Surfing, he points to a similar question concerning the people of surfing, asking: is surfing hip? Decidedly, Warshaw wrote, it is not anymore. Referencing Sam George’s 1998 SURFER article “Is Surfing Hip?” George defines hipness for surfers as “something you do, someone you are. And it’s got to make someone else want to be like you, to wonder about what you know, and why they don’t know.”
What originally made surfing hip was the mystique that came with it: the “secret thrill,” as SURFER mag’s cover read in 1977, along with a photo of an unnamed surfer riding an unknown break. Secrets are sexy. Secrets are compelling. What is not compelling is overly-manicured and manufactured images of surfers, advertised by surfers, telling people to come surf where they’re surfing, to join in, to end the mystery once and for all.
And personal image is, and has always been, a core aspect of surfing, whether you admit it or not. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have had neon wetsuits, beaver tails, or the unspoken rule to wear all black and not talk in the lineup. We also wouldn’t have Instagram accounts mocking people who drive into parking lots with Teslas and WaveStorms sticking out of the roof. I think it’s funny too, but is it any worse than following every unspoken commandment of Surfing Cool to a T so you don’t get loked out by a grom half your age?
It’s cool to care about things, and even the most mysto of surfers certainly do: style, fashion, music… the juxtaposition here only lies in the fact that it’s cool to seem like one doesn’t care about what’s cool. And not only that, but they must actively avoid even the appearance of any self-promotion at all costs.
But if a photographer happened to shoot a wave that the surfer very clearly didn’t claim, can they please have it? And then, can they post it if they don’t tag the spot or show landmarks? And that, right there, is the recipe for an interesting media phenomenon.
Perhaps most interestingly, it isn’t really the presence of imagery, or lack thereof, that makes a surfer “mysto.” If that were the case, surfers like Gerry Lopez and Tom Curren couldn’t hold the title. Both Lopez and Curren have entire films dedicated to celebrating their wave riding, and yet, the masses see these surfers as purists, soul surfers, with allure and mystique trailing them like a perfumy, smoky cloud.
Just as surf travel is often deemed exotic even when the destination is well known by not only those who live there, but plenty of adventures who have made the journey before, perhaps there is a certain level of fun around exercising one’s imagination. Surfing isn’t an industry like Hollywood (though the two have been known to collide!), and it’s not really a sport like soccer or football. Perhaps by mystifying people we know a good amount about, we keep surfing different than other pursuits. And that’s not a bad thing.
Let Gerry Lopez and Tom Curren keep the mystery alive. Without it, why would we care to watch films about places we might never go and people we may never meet? Because the potential is there. The possibilities are endless, as long as we let our minds wander and stay curious about what our favorite surfers are up to in the world. Because at the end of the day, we’ll never know for sure, and that’s precisely the beauty of it all.