Revolution doesn’t happen in increments. Revolution happens in head rolling lurches, and there is a revolution going on right now in professional surfing. It’s happening the air, and it’s ushering in a new era of radical and dangerous surfing.
It started innocently enough with twenty words. Four sentence fragments buried inside an 87-page rulebook on page 57. It was called article 144: ASP Judging Criteria. The ASP manages pro surfing the same way that the NBA and the NFL run basketball and football. Unlike mainstream sports, however, the business of surfing is practiced in a more egalitarian fashion, possibly a throwback to the relaxed attitude of the pro sport born out of the free wheeling ‘70s. Surfers and contest sponsors jointly own the ASP and also make up the board of directors with equal voting power. The sponsors are the biggest brands in the $13 billion dollar surfing industry – Quiksilver has two events, Billabong has four events, Rip Curl has three events and Hurley (owned by Nike) has one. With the sponsors paying the surfers who sit on the boards, you’d expect some sticky conflicts of interest. Actually, it all seems to work out decently, and for the most part the two groups get on quite well in a mutual stalemate. The surfers want bigger purses and the sponsors give pay increases under severe pressure.
Last year there was pressure. Surf god Kelly Slater conceived a rebel tour backed by TV channel ESPN. Kelly said pro surfing had become boring. His tour had bigger prize money, fewer surfers, a new judging system, and the Holy Grail: network television. Suddenly the ASP was staring down twin shot gun barrels of its own obliteration. The ASP has existed in various incarnations since 1976, and the current CEO Brodie Carr went into full survival mode. The Kelly Tour was subtly positioned as a takeover of pro surfing by Quiksilver and Kelly, and you can guess how Billabong, Rip Curl, Nike and the other surfers felt about it. So the ASP took Kelly’s complaints to heart and took action. Prize money was increased. The number of surfers at an event was reduced. And then there was the issue of making competitive surfing more exciting…attempting to rewrite the judging system to better emulate free surfing?
In direct response to Kelly’s Rebel Tour, Perry Hatchett, the ASP head judge developed new judging criteria that would reward radical, innovative, and explosive surfing and force surfers to push themselves to the absolute limit of their abilities. Excitement was the thrust, and it seemed the sport was air bound. The criteria were tabled as Article 144 and in part it read:
For surfers to maximize their scoring potential, judges analyze the following major elements:
– Commitment and degree of difficulty
– Innovative and progressive maneuvers
– Combination of major maneuvers
– Variety of maneuvers
– Speed, power and flow
It was a dramatic change. Commitment and degree of difficulty outscored everything. The safety strategy adopted by many surfers of racking up points with simple, well-executed, but predictable maneuvers was a thing of the past. It was the equivalent of awarding five runs for a home run in baseball and ten points for an outside shot in basketball. Surfers were expected to swing for the fence and go for the sky.
Aerials are the most difficult, risky and dangerous maneuver in surfing. While many surfers lay claim to being the first to spin off the maneuver from skateboarding, there is no argument as to which two surfers first popularized the maneuver. Outlaw San Clemente local Christian Fletcher had an ungainly style but definitely put his board way up in the air. For me, the first aerial surfer with style and power was wunderkind Martin Potter, originally from South Africa by way of England and Zimbabwe. With a powerful and explosive style, he invented the modern technique of power and release. Before Martin, surfing was all power, all the time. Martin developed a unique approach in which he would execute a maneuver with extreme power and then release the power at the top of the wave, launching the board off the wall and into the air. I saw him pull off a beautiful no hands air at Rocky Point in Hawaii in 1981 and right there, right then, I could see that the future had arrived.
Today, young surfers all over the world are pulling off amazing, high-flying acrobatic maneuvers. Modern Collective, a recent film by Kai Neville, showcases what’s happening in progressive aerial surfing – huge high-flying creative maneuvers with freaky names like the Superman, Rodeo Clown, and Sushi Roll. The entire movie focuses on the hottest surfers in the world doing the most radical maneuvers ever seen – absolutely committed surfing with a high degree of difficulty. But there has always been this chasm between free surfing and contest surfing where competitors have been forced to play the percentages and tend towards conservatism. The chances of falling on a big air attempt are so high that in contests surfers have naturally relaxed on the throttle and not pushed it to the max.
Two weeks before his new criteria were going to be implemented at the year’s first event, Perry Hatchett, Head Judge of the ASP for 10 years got the axe. He was the first casualty of the revolution he helped design. It was like the ASP wanted to clean house and start the new era with someone new – a new constitution and a new supreme justice to interpret it.
After watching the first half of the year, I see that Article 144 has fundamentally altered how waves are ridden in contests. It has actually become risky not to take risks. The conservatism that often characterized competition surfing is now the exception rather than the norm.
Five surfers are currently taking advantage of the new criteria and two of them are some of the last people I would have expected – veterans Kelly Slater and Taj Burrow.
With nine World Titles, $2 million in prize money, and approaching 40, Kelly Slater has nothing to prove. He has been on tour since 1991 – an incredible 19 years. On his first ride of the year, he connected with some good rail surfing, a tube, and then exploded off the bottom into a massive carving 360. Kelly went on to get beaten by Jordy smith in a lackluster heat, but you could see that his head was in the game. A few weeks later, he mounted a brilliant assault of high-flying ultra modern surfing to take the Rip Curl contest at Bells even with a broken foot. His alley oop maneuver, a variation on an aerial 360, in which his feet left the surface of the board was truly breathtaking. Kelly is still reinventing himself, and the new focus on radicalism on the tour is forcing him to up his game and he is drawing on some superhuman reserves to actually improve and reverse the clock of time.
Taj Burrow is the best surfer never to win a title. Taj is an air guy, easily lofting up into space. Like Kelly, he has a compact frame is able to fly with a high degree of success. Taj won the Quiksilver Pro easily – he never even looked challenged, and 2010 just might be his year.
Outspoken South African Jordy Smith and reluctant surf hero Dane Reynolds are on everyone’s radar, and are now finally delivering brilliance in contests. In Modern Collective, their surfing is breathtaking – a combination of old school power and modern levitation techniques. This is the third year on tour for both surfers and their futures have been written large for so long that success seems inevitable.
Jordy is in a hurry; his bursting ambition is self evident in everything he does. At 6’3” and around 190 lbs, he is a formidable physical presence. He has great reserves of power and utilizes a powerful rotational bottom turn as the basis for a wild repertoire of ingenious aerial maneuvers. Dane is erratic and inconsistent, and like his literary idol Charles Bukowski, does not seem that enamored with trying too hard. But when he does, his surfing is sublime destruction: a mixture of full rail carving and highflying vaults into the ether. He is totally unpredictable, full-on power of the beast and then he’ll change it up into a high flying no hands air. Rabbit Bartholomew, former ASP President and ’78 world champ called the semifinal heat that Dane had against 2009 #2, Joel Parkinson, one of the greatest heats ever surfed. Illustrious praise from a guy who has seen all the greats first hand since the ‘70s. If the criteria were written with two surfers in mind, these would be the guys. Both of them will be redefining surfing in the decade to come.
The biggest surprise this year has been Jadson Andre from Brazil, a teenage rookie who made the cut through the tortuous qualifying series. He had an inauspicious start with a 17th, a 9th, and then at Santa Catarina in Brazil he unleashed his trademark move, an air reverse 360, a maneuver so technically advanced, so complex as he spins through the air, sometimes burying his nose in the water and rotating around it, and so perfectly executed that Kelly Slater had no answer in the finals, and the result stung him. In an uncharacteristic slap down after the final Kelly said, “We’ll see if he can match the performances at places like Teahupoo and Pipeline.”
While the change in the judging criteria is great for the spectator, the new aerial attack poses terrible risks for its exponents. Never in the history of the sport have the best surfers in the world been so exposed to injury during every heat. The new judging criteria demands exciting, radical, and varied maneuvers, and forces surfers to push themselves into high-risk situations.And it can be dangerous. The danger is in the landing, because the weak points and the places of severe stress are in the knees and ankles. And a sprained ankle will doom a World Title quest. Just ask Joel Parkinson. He’s managed to seriously injure himself two years in a row. The list of injured is long and will be a lot longer – 2007 and 2009 World champ Mick Fanning separated the muscle around his buttock on a landing that eventually had to be reattached with a steel hook. It took him 5 months of therapy to come back. Kelly Slater surfed at Bells Beach injured, a fractured foot resulting from a failed Alley Oop. He went on to win the event, but at 39, it is difficult to tell how many more injuries his body can shrug off. It’s like the NFL has hit the beach – except here the concussion is with an object with the force of an entire offensive line.
With risk comes reward…higher, faster, and more radical. It is the anthem of youth, but it looks like two old veterans have learned the melody as well. It is ironic that the first casualty of the revolution was the man who created the manifesto. Perry Hatchett wrote the blueprint that will define a new age in pro surfing. He was the architect, but the revolution will happen without him. Dane Reynolds and Jordy Smith will be carrying the flag of radicalism into the future, and Kelly and Taj will be there too, sabers drawn, ready to duel it out, high up in the air.