Riding the Unridable: Nathan Florence's Success Says a Lot About How We Consume Surf Media

Will he make it, or won’t he? That question has driven views for Nathan Florence. Photo: Nathan Florence//YouTube

The Inertia

I’ve been thinking about Nathan Florence a lot lately. The affable, imminently engaging middle Florence brother who, beating all conventional familial odds, has emerged from under the shadow cast by his famous, preternaturally talented and wildly successful older sibling John John. Nathan has built a considerable YouTube following who avidly click on every clip to watch him seek out and ride, or at least attempt to ride, borderline unrideable waves. Waves – or in many cases unruly, ill-defined hydrological anomalies that only approximate what could be considered an actual wave and not a bottomless storm surge. The vast, and I mean vast, majority of the world’s surfers could never even imagine themselves riding these types of ocean lumps.

 And not just riding – Florence has even dropped clips of horrible, downright dangerous paddle-outs in conditions ordinarily seen in Coast Guard training videos, punching under row after row of frigid whitewater, GoPro resolutely clenched between his teeth, where, like some rudderless ship swept onto a lee shore, he fights to keep himself off the waiting rocks. 

It’s a weird thing to watch, especially considering the long history of surfing footage which, for the most part, has always been presented in more aspirational tones. As in, if suitably motivated, you too could be doing this. Not so with most of the waves Nathan Florence has been hunting down lately and, to be fair, quite often successfully riding – John John’s little brother has developed into a talented, versatile, incredibly gutsy surfer who, aside from his prowess in sketchy slabs, is a XXL Award winner who’s proven himself in everything from Code Red Teahupo’o to massive Peahi. But it’s the concept of tuning in to watch him attempting to ride, not just the incredible but the patently unrideable, that has got me thinking about today’s surfing media and the role this sort of content plays in shaping our perception of the sport, and of ourselves as surfers.

In the beginning, virtually all existing surfing imagery was not only appealing but relatable to anyone inspired enough to pick up a heavy wooden board and get out there to slide a few waves. Waikiki, San Onofre, Corona del Mar, Paddleboard Cove; early photographs and later film footage of seminal breaks like these rarely depicted waves over head high. Even in the early 1950s, when serious surfers in both Hawaii and California had begun turning their boards and sliding across the open face, the resulting imagery was certainly intriguing, but hardly intimidating.

All that changed on November 27, 1953. Landing like a bomb on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s morning addition was what is widely acknowledged as the very first big-wave photo. Shot by photographer and part-time Waikiki beachboy “Scoop” Tsuzuki, it depicted three surfers – Woody Brown, Buzzy Trent and George Downing – streaking across a sparkling, glassy, apparently 15-foot wall at Makaha, the trio perfectly positioned as if deliberately composed on the biggest wave anyone had ever seen. I use the term “apparently,” because Tsuzuki’s photo was so severely tilted in order to make the wave appear larger that it’s hard to accurately judge its size. The affect it had on the wider surfing world, however, is easily quantifiable. Waves of previously unimaginable size were now shown to be rideable. Just like that, a new ceiling had been established, and surfing would never again be depicted as solely the pursuit of fun in the suds. 

Yet in 1953, there was still something at least relatable about that first image. The Makaha wall was big, sure, bigger than anything yet ridden on the Mainland, but the glassiness, the sunlight glinting off that smooth face; the wave, while intimidating enough, still looked inviting, looked doable, like maybe the biggest day ever at Killer Dana. It sparked the imagination, rather than maxing it out. Which is why, only four winter seasons later, Waimea Bay, a wave previously thought to be unrideable, was surfed for the first time; five years after that, Pipeline. 

Surf movies of that era leaned heavily on imagery of big Hawaiian waves, with flickering, 16-mm  footage of the late drops and bone-crunching wipeouts at spots like Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline guaranteed to get the high school auditorium crowds stomping their flip-flops. Still, in their mind’s eye, a good number of those surfers hooting at the screen dared to at least imagine themselves riding those outrageous waves, if given enough practice, the right boards, and a local like, say, Jose Angel, Eddie Aikau or later Gerry Lopez saying, “Go, brah” on a clean, outside set.

The famous photo that changed our view of big wave surfing. Photo: “Scoop” Tsuzuki

Fantasy? You bet. Then again, the key to all good fantasies is being able to place oneself into the picture, if only for fantasy’s sake. This is something that, until very recently, surfers were able to do.  Now, thanks to surfers like Nathan Florence (and a few others, like those crazy Aussies the Brown Brothers, who’ve been filming themselves towing into mutant, 30-foot sea level changes and riding up onto bare rock along the coast of West Oz), we’re no longer afforded even delusional projection, but as a culture have been reduced to simply observing, morbid fascination having supplanted fantasy.

Be honest now, which would you rather watch: the ubiquitous GoPro shot capturing Nathan’s POV while successfully completing a ride at one of those scary slabs, or a pulled-back drone shot of him seemingly cheating death (or at least destruction) by holding his line through that same one-in-ten barrel in front of the exposed reef or rocks? If you picked the latter, join the club. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of “vicarious” is to be “experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.”

That’s what you get with Nathan’s “Invisalign” GoPro perspective, but is it really what we want to see? Or is it the spectacle of this obviously highly motivated middle brother crisscrossing time zones and scouring continental shelfs in pursuit not of a collective fantasy but rather most surfer’s worst nightmares, his quest highlighted more by the fails than the makes, that we find so compelling? 

It’s my guess that, currently with 196,747,301 total YouTube views and 446,000 subscribers (more than double his big brother’s), it’s abundantly clear that Nathan Florence is at the crest of a totally new wave of surfing content, one on which we tune in on a very regular basis not to marvel at what’s rideable, as in years past, but to watch what isn’t. 

Don’t agree? Well, just consider that YouTube views for the opening rounds of the Shiseido Tahiti Pro, featuring clean, eight-foot-plus Teahupo’o, a heat-winning performance by Kelly Slater and more than a few “excellent” rides, topped out at around 21,000, while Florence’s early May vid-drop titled “We Probably Shouldn’t Have Tried To Surf This Wave,” garnered more than ten times that total (222.5k views,) which backs up my assertion rather handily, wouldn’t you say? 


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