Fourteen years ago, December 18, 1995 to be exact, I was sitting on the berm in front of Gerry Lopez's house covering the finals of the Pipeline Masters. A day earlier a large, unruly northwest swell had scoured the sand off the inside reef, dropped by a third, and shifted auspiciously to the west. Morning dawned on a feast of flawless 6- to 8-foot A-frames that handily split the difference between Pipeline and Backdoor.
Although a handful of contenders had a title long shot coming into Hawaii that year. Sunny Garcia was the points leader by a healthy margin and considered the new World Champ by default or design, given the intimidating home-court advantage. But through the magic of the Butterfly Effect, or perhaps karma, a recently resurrected Mark Occhilupo unexpectedly eliminated Garcia in the second round.
Suddenly a number of idle what-ifs blossomed into distinct possibilities. Over the span of 21 heats, the championship bobbled between a trio of dark-horse candidates, but ultimately came down to a single semifinal heat between Rob Machado and Kelly Slater. The beach crowd--an estimated 4,000 that day--eagerly craned forward expecting an all-out strategic battle between the two friends and erstwhile band mates. But rather than grapple in an unseemly points brawl, Slater and Machado briefly subverted the entire ASP contest machine to put on a transcendent half-hour Expression Session.
"I remember sitting out there," recalled Machado, "and suddenly it crossed over from 'I'm competing right now,' to 'I feel like I'm totally freesurfing.' I looked at the beach and said to Kelly, 'Can you believe this? We're out here at Pipe, it's 8 feet, and look how many people are on the beach. Dude, they're watching us! This is so weird!' And Kelly, he's so intense, he was just kinda, 'Yeah ... okay ... yeah, yeah ...' [laughter]. But that was a life-changing moment for me ... a realization. It totally changed my whole perception of a lot of things."
While Slater's paramount competitive instincts eventually kicked in to win not only the contest, but the World Championship and the Triple Crown as well, what most people remember from that day was Machado's ecstatic bro slap with Slater as Machado slid into the channel following an elegant, high-scoring tube slouch. It's been immortalized in photos and replayed endlessly on highlight videos.
In surfing, the image is everything. A couple winters after that day, I wrote about the sacred status that photographs hold within the surfing culture. "They create desire, fuel journeys, transporting us mentally, and at times spiritually, from our plodding everyday reality of land-bound existence. They document our history and heroes and leave a visual chant to pass on to our children."
I'll stand by that. And go a bit further.
These images hold such power because the heart resonates to iconic silhouettes. It's those defining poses, framed under glass or thumbtacked to the bathroom wall, that inspire us to keep being surfers despite the crowds, flat spells, pollution, humiliating wipeouts, and general hassle involved with catching and riding a decent wave in these times.
Contest results and mathematical world champions produce convenient marketing hooks but they rarely, if ever, evoke poetry. And while we respect a winner, we reserve our undying love for a stylist.
RASTA: "When I was about 15, Dick Van Straalen gave me this 4'11'" that he'd shaped from a scrap of leftover paddleboard foam. I started surfing on this tiny little stringer-less board at Burleigh Heads, and I was blown away. All of a sudden I was in places on the wave that I'd never been. That was my epiphany. I realized there are so many ways to surf and so many ways to experience the joy of riding the wave. I'd been surfing Burleigh nearly every day for 8 years and thought I had it completely figured out. But I realized that reality could change overnight just through me opening up my perception of what to ride and where that would take me."
"Boys, you better turn in your spurs." Lopez surveys we lollygaggers in the boat and has that look--part Himalayan mystic, part smartass schoolboy--that tells one he's been spotted putting his best moves on the prettiest babe at the reception with his zipper open. And she's just walked out the door with the bouncer. What's great is that he includes himself among the crew with the big "L" stapled to their foreheads.
It's the last day of the trip and the south swell we've been milking peaked yesterday at 5-foot and is sputtering out altogether. A small contingent of the Tavarua Trippers is spread out over the Cloudbreak reef, gamely sifting the tailings for the occasional head-high runner. The Trippers, a high-spirited crew of Family Guy professionals who book Tavarua each year to re-groove their surfing mojos, are in desperation mode. Most of the waves are small and short-lived, breaking in absurdly shallow water over an inside boneyard of live coral appropriately named "Shish Kabobs."
I came out in the morning boat with the all-stars--Gerry Lopez, Rob Machado, and Dave Rastovich, together with Volcom team riders Dean Morrison and Andrew Bennett--for a final good-faith surf check. Within minutes of pulling into the channel, however, the most popular option among the crew seemed to be splitting the $75 cost to have an additional boat ferry the surfers back to the resort. Even Lopez, who'd been consistently logging 7-hour sessions on his self-shaped SUP the whole week, wasn't making a move.
For diversion we trolled up the reef. Illuminated by the full morning sun, the water clarity was dazzling. Beneath the boat, schools of tiny iridescent damselfish darted between folds of large brain coral. Rastovich, a true amphibian that needs to wet his gills daily, quietly slipped over the gunnel for a swim, despite the invisible plague of stinging jellyfish larvae that had been vexing us all week.
From our shaded lookout we could see Rasta sprinting away at a fast clip, expertly dolphin-kicking for 30 yards underwater. By deftly undulating his spine up and down, he generated extraordinary propulsion through his big whale-tattooed feet. Observations were tossed out about Rasta's paddling prowess, gained as a junior competitive lifesaver on the Gold Coast where he trained for countless hours against future Olympic gold medalist Grant Hackett, among others.
I happened to glance over my shoulder and saw a big hump approaching. Freak wave of the day, easily overhead. Threatening enough that Jimmy the boatman quickly revved up and angled over it for safety.
From our outside vantage we could see the entire Tripper lineup was caught inside and were scratching to avoid a pounding. Rasta, however, had somehow perfectly timed the wave's approach and with a definitive final kick insinuated himself into the top of the swell's invisible rotation. The last thing I saw were his feet disappearing into the wave.
We tracked the back of the swell as it broke and steamed down the reef, expecting to see Rasta's head pop up in the foam at any moment. While an expert bodysurfer can maintain trim for several seconds, few can outrun a section on a long, fast-breaking wave like Cloudbreak. We sat transfixed, watching the wave connect all the way to the inside. Finally, just as the wave petered out in the channel, we saw Rasta emerge in front of the forlorn, birdshit-covered contest scaffold. Easily 150 yards from where he caught the wave. Jimmy hooted.
Lopez arched an eyebrow with that mocking rueful look, seeing as how we boat-slackers had all just been royally smoked by a bodysurfer.
GERRY: "At one point when you're kinda learning how to surf, which is a long process, you look at the guys that know how to surf better than you and try and emulate than. You copy them. There's a lot of that in surfing. You know, I look at these guys surfing now and in my mind I'm trying to copy them. I wish I could ... couldn't even come close."
ROB: "That's 'cause we're copying you."
Lopez. Personal surf god. My early surf tuition in the mid-'70s was absolutely infused with Lopez and the ruling Pipeline cartel--Rory, Reno, Jackie Dunn--together with all the "new guys" like Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards who were riding Lopez's sleek, handcrafted pintails. To we unworthy kooks back in San Diego, Lopez was Thor forging magic thunderbolts, Prometheus stealing fire on our behalf. We lined up at the Strand, a vintage beach grindhouse, to see him taunt Pipeline's deadly spinning caverns. And each of us wondered, as we melted into our beer-stained seats under the effect of a random shared joint of sensimilla, if we'd ever have the skill and arctic cojones to paddle out and slouch just so in the maw of such a surreally oversized beast.
Most of us, fortunately, never had to find out first hand. But if we didn't have the waves, we could definitely cop the moves. With his willowy physique and classic sense of composure, Lopez had this way of making a squat look regal. Especially when framed by a house-sized vortex of heaving blue water.
Lopez's hands were of particular interest. They reposed at the end of a relaxed yet supple arm, extended like Kwai Chang Caine assuming the Snake readiness stance. The arm was held, just so, at approximately 45 degrees while the hands were slightly cupped, fingers gently extended and fused together as one. The hand was the cobra's flickering tongue, tasting the shape of the tube, scanning for the most elegant and direct route to safety. We studied that pose obsessively, taped torn-out pages on the wall, reversed it in mirrors for the sake of regular-foooters. And then went out and struck that pose every time we found trim on some anemic 3-foot mushburger at Ocean Beach pier or riding our G&S Fibreflex skateboards ducking alongside the neighbor's hedge.
In the boat I asked Lopez about those hands and how he developed that photogenic Shao Lin. style. He says he never knew he did it.
"Most of my style was doing nothing," laughs Gerry. "The boards did most of the work. If you made the drop and set your line right, the single-fins would accelerate you right out of the tube. You just had to stand there. If I was learning to surf on today's boards I would have a shitty style."
But I don't believe that. Lopez, if nothing else, is all about the mastering the perfect moment of whatever endeavor he embarks on. As a young surfer in the early-'60s he spent years at Ala Moana smoothing his chops on heavy longboards, modeling classic high-performance stylists like Paul Strauch, Sammy Lee, Buzzy Kneubuhl, and a score of other South Shore luminaries. When he began challenging Pipeline in the late-'60s, he methodically studied radical new board designs from master shapers like Dick Brewer and Mike Hynson to come up with a shortboard that could handle the steep drop and accelerate out of the tube. Later he would take up yoga, motocross, archery, windsurfing, snowboarding, and tow-in surfing at Jaws, becoming an expert at each. For the 1982 swords-and-sorcery epic Conan the Barbarian, Lopez trained for months in the art of broadsword combat to convincingly play the Mongol thief-warrior Subotai.
Nobody comes from nowhere. We all have our beginnings, roots, influences, and mentors. Most of what is called genius is simply clever adaptation and a makeover coupled with the short collective memory span between generations. The greats of today obsessively study the greats of the past. Bottom line, we all begin by copping a move off someone else, even if unconsciously.
For example, if you were to chart a style legacy tree for Rob Machado you would see obvious branches to Tom Curren, Occy, and, of course, Lopez. By the time Machado was a teenage surfer in the mid to late-'80s, he was modeling signature moves off surf videos and the occasional Bud Tour contest coming through Oceanside.
Rob gets very animated recalling a particular Occy move he saw as a grom watching Beyond Blazing Boards. His normally taciturn nature toggles to that of a stoked young kid, the half-lidded eyes popping wide as he mimes the entire move he committed to cell memory through repeated rewinds of the video.
"When I was a grom I'd skateboard this little bank in front of my house with my friends," says, Machado," ... and we'd go down the thing, come off the bottom and hit the lip. But we were so intense about getting it just right. We'd trade off ... one wave we were Curren, the next Occy. It was just hilarious."
While it's hard to underestimate the impact the surf media had on Rob's style, less obvious but just as important would be the influence of the local crew at Swamis that Machado would see out on a daily basis. Every spot has its crew of local heroes that ultimately have the most profound effect on a developing surfer.
"We'd be on the inside pickin' off the scraps," says Rob, "... and you'd see these guys take off on a wave out the back and you'd just know, well, I'm not gonna ride that one. These guys just had it so dialed with the flow and they knew the wave so well. They drew those perfect lines and just never made mistakes."
RASTA: "1 member it got to a point when I was about 19 where I realized that for me to countinue my enjoyment of sufring and experience holistically, I had a plan. I was going be a yoga teacher and surf in the day and then at night I would be slinging drinks at the cocktail bar. At that point in my life I just wanted to maintain that joy "cause it fell so good to be surfing more intuitively then intellecaully"
Surfing, when left alone by capitalism and competition, is a highly individualistic, even original, act. No two waves are the same, nor the people who ride them. The recombination of wave physics and body mechanics that occurs each time a wave is ridden is about as unique as it gets. This is the raw DNA of true style.
Yesterday, Machado and Lopez were sharing overhead sets in a quirky yet lyrical pas de deux that spanned a seeming chasm between generations and two highly dissimilar, many would say incompatible, forms of wave-riding.
I was paddling back to the boat as the afternoon session was winding down. The swell had picked up steadily throughout the day, providing consistent overhead sets and a heavy demand for boat space. The next boatload of Trippers were awaiting their turn and the hand signal had been given by the driver to the surfers already out to get their last wave and call it a day.
Lopez was on his standup, a hefty 8'10" notch-tail he'd shaped in his Bend, Oregon, studio just prior to his trip. He'd sprayed it with his trademark camouflage colors--this one a squiggly green pattern taken from the winter colors of a WWII Panzer tank. Before he was a surf star and legend, Gerry was a shaper. Few, including myself, realized that most of the Bolts Lopez rode in the '70s were shaped by himself, sometimes glassed mere hours before he would paddle out to tattoo another sacred silhouette on surfing's collective unconscious.
Machado, by contrast, was surfing a diminutive alaia with a shaka-throwing Mr. Peanut branded on the deck. Beyond retro, Machado's hand-carved lumber plank bordered on the downright prehistoric.
I was sitting mid-pack when Lopez dug in and picked off a well-angled runner from far up the reef. As he worked his way down the line, he seemed almost a parody of himself on such a thick, oversized board. It was like watching a debonair Formula One driver race an RV.
But the more I watched I began to appreciate Lopez's precise, economical positioning; subtle weight shifts that kept him securely parked in the power zone just ahead of the hook. The paddle became an extension of those famous hands--the shaft held loosely at an oblique angle toward the wave face with the blade retarding speed or tickling the feathering lip. More importantly, the sheer sustained momentum of his board was blasting him ahead of fast closeout sections that were a 50/50 proposition at best on a standard tri-fin.
As the wave approached the inside and stood up, Machado slid in just ahead of Lopez on his alaia. Employing a low CG and a trailing arm to keep the thin finless board tracking on the inside edge, Machado matched Lopez's line as Lopez tapped the brakes to allow Rob room to build up speed.
Machado unweighted, leaned back on his haunches, and executed a flawless Bertlemann pivot that slung him at Mach speed directly across Lopez's path. Having anticipated Machado's move, perhaps from all the Pipeline waves he shared with Rory Russell back in the '70s, Lopez feinted high toward the breaking lip, creating a small gap that Machado shot through to complete the go-behind. Lopez took the lead briefly as Machado, now engulfed in the Whitewater, hunkered down to allow the alaia to build up a head of steam. Seeing that the wave was nearly played out, Lopez eased himself over the lip while Rob shot vertical, clocked off the lip, and performed a textbook 360.
I heard a scattered chorus of appreciative cheers ... including Jimmy. In the final tally a hoot from a boatman is worth more than a thousand cheers from the beach.
And when you consider that both surfers were Pipeline Masters the moment should have toppled over with its own significance. As it was, it was simply two friends sharing a wave across generations.
And that's what's so goddamn cool about it.
"I watch these guys surf and you know what? It just makes you feel good. Hell, Yes! I mean, it's just uplifting to watch these guys ride a wave. When you think about that, how can that be? Well, that's because it's stimulating something " really deep inside you, I mean, it's not just a mental stimulation or even a physical stimulation like sex, but something a little deeper. It's some kind of spiritual stimulation. And that's what's so goddamn cool about it."
--GERRY LOPEZ, JUNE 11, 2009
BY STEVE BARILOTTI
PHOTOS BY TOM SERVAIS
Barilotti, Steve. "Sacred silhouettes: a brief and eclectic dialogue from the boatman's helm on the topic of style with masters past and present." Surfer Jan. 2010: 104+. Popular Magazines. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
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