“There’s a lot more to it than looking good.” That this is how Devon Howard began our conversation examining the role that style plays in optimum surfing performance, which assured me that I was talking to the right guy about the subject. Not only is Howard widely acknowledged as one of the most stylish surfers of his generation (Gen X, if you’re looking for a reference), in his role of surfboard designer at Channel Islands Surfboards, an equipment entity synonymous with high-performance surfing, he’s uniquely positioned at the interface of the style/performance arc.
Which is why, rather than simply, and ultimately vainly, attempting to have him define style as it pertains to surfing, I was more interested in hearing how he felt about the sport’s collective perspective that “style” and “performance” are somehow mutually exclusive. He didn’t disappoint, having apparently given the topic much thought as of late.
First, a bit on style. As no photographs of truly ancient Hawaiian surfing exist, we can only imagine how those early men and women rode their waves. While actual style had begun to be applied to wave riding in the early 20th century at places like Waikiki and various West Coast breaks, there were really only two styles of…style: relaxed, and not relaxed. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s, that individual surfing styles began to emerge, the elegant lines being drawn on waves like Malibu, by surfers like Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg, being prime examples.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, surfing “style” was still a highly esteemed component of the act, with “making the difficult look easy” being the gold standard of good surfing [think: Gerry Lopez at Pipeline.] With the introduction of the three-fin thruster in 1981, however, an innovation that virtually standardized surfboard design, individual surfing styles followed suit, the design’s distinctive performance qualities demanding a fairly uniform approach. With emphasis on individual maneuvers pervading – and not just in the competitive arena – “style” and “performance” parted ways, the latter seen as progressive, the former as merely nostalgic. This has been so for the past 40-something years.
Devon Howard would like to change that perception. At least he’ll say so if you ask him. But only then; Devon Howard is no proselytizer. It figures that his surfing says everything he needs to about the intersection of style and performance, and has enough YouTube views to quantify that assertion; clips of Howard, along with fellow CI riders like Mikey February, surfing the Howard-designed “CI-Mid” and “Mid-Twin,” regularly eclipse those of their “progressive” stable mates. Taking that level of interest in mind it seemed like a good time to ask one of the sport’s most stylish performers how those two terms relate to each other.
On the attention his surfing and choice of surfboards have been getting lately:
“I have seen the Instagram and YouTube comments increase over the past couple of years. Like, “Nice style, nice style.”” But underneath those ‘nice style’ kudos there’s some really technical stuff going on. Sure, the style comments are nice, but there really is a performance element tied to it.”
On the function of style:
“In almost every sport, form follows the function. Surfing’s no different. So the ability to achieve a posture necessary to properly position yourself in the right part of the wave, and then execute a maneuver successfully, meaning no over-rotation with the upper body with arms going in every direction, setting up a turn, applying weight effectively to the rail, no bogging out on the shoulder, and being able to hold your composure throughout, …that’s how form follows function.”
On the difference between style and posing:
“The difference is performance. It’s not just about looking good – it’s about making the difficult look easy. A lot of people think that smooth isn’t radical, but it can be. Take riding a mid-length, for example. Turning a board with that much rail takes knowledge and commitment. You try doing a full-rail bottom turn with no loss of speed – it’s not easy. So like I said, there’s more to it than just looking good. Smooth, powerful surfing is technically difficult.”
On the sport’s current style leaders:
“Take someone like Michael February. His sense of style really belies his level of performance. You look at some of the stuff he’s doing, the combination of modern flair and traditional style, and it’s just beautiful to watch. But then you look at someone like Ethan Ewing. The stuff he was doing at the Trestles contest just blew my mind. Doing the most radical stuff, seamless bottom turns leading to these wild, full wraparound top turns but making it look so effortless. What a breath of fresh air he is. Though in different ways, both those guys take difficult moments and make them look easy.”
On the left-handed compliment of being called a “stylish” surfer:
“Yeah, I feel that all the time. As if being smooth and precise somehow means there’s a lack of effort. That it’s lazy surfing, and isn’t radical. But when you can appreciate how hard it is to really use the rail properly, and connect all your maneuvers with no loss of speed in the right part of the wave…well, I look at being called stylish as a badge of honor.”
On what could be called today’s style renaissance:
“Surfers have always been drawn to stylish surfing. It’s a visceral part of surfing, even if they don’t know it. But why do you think clips of surfers like Torren Martyn and Mikey February get hundreds of thousands of views? Because lot of today’s surfers are voting with their eyeballs. They may not be able to articulate why, but they know something beautiful when they see it.”