As easy as it is to be a professional surfer (enter a pro contest, wait for chicks to flock), becoming a surf journalist is easier. Trust me.
When I was a grom in Virginia Beach, getting my hands on a new magazine was as exciting as getting a new board. I remember several instances where a group of us frothed over a fresh issue, one kid doing the flipping and the rest of us elbowing each other for viewing position. We intravenously slurped up the stoke that oozed off each page. My buddies were happy gawking at the pictures, but I pored over every word of every issue. Repeatedly. That’s what you do with your bible.
I hated reading, but I loved reading surf mags. Matt Warshaw was the professional, Derek Hynd the instigator, and Dave Parmenter the god. Anything by these wordsmiths got reread so many times that their phrases were seered into my eyeballs.
As a fledgling pro in 1993, after scoring epic Hatteras barrels courtesy of Hurricane Emily, I was told that a shot of me was under consideration for the cover of Surfer. I happened to be in California, so I dropped by the hallowed Surfer offices to sneak a peek. “You’re who? From where?” I never made it past the lobby and sulked back to my rental car. And I didn’t get the cover.
A few years later, after hacking up a rundown of a local surf contest using my parents’ word processor, Surfer invited me inside the fortress as the new East Coast Editor. Under the bony yet nurturing wing of Tony’s big brother Steve Hawk, I became part of the family. I found myself sitting in editorial meetings with Warshaw and Hynd, hobnobbing at the Surfer Poll Awards, and like The Talking Heads I had to ask, Well, how did I get here?
When Dot Com boomed at the turn of the millennium, Hawk assembled a dream team at Swell.com and asked me to join them. I had just started teaching, but when he said he could top my teacher salary by 50%, I could work from home constructing an online encyclopedia (surf a-z), and travel to the best surf spots on earth to cover world tour events, I flew out my classroom door faster than a kid on the last day of school. Um, like, where did Mr. Borte go?
My typical day: Wake up. Surf. Enter my dungeon. Scan list I’d compiled of a few hundred people, places, and events that, together, comprised the history of surfing. Pick a couple to write that day and email Warshaw with a request. He had every surf mag ever printed, and he’d fax me everything on those topics. Peruse the info, make some phone calls from a rolodex of surfing’s royalty, and cobble together the entries. “Gotta put you on hold, Laird. Curren’s buzzing in. Oh, forget it. That’s Lopez on the land line. No, not Shea, you knucklehead. Gerry! I’ll call you back.” And Parmenter was regularly sending me pieces about surfboards, for me to edit and post. Another miserable day at the office.
Over the next few years, my passport gathered more stamps than my kindergartner’s school folder. Cuba for exploration with legendary lensman Art Brewer, Tahiti for death-defying barrels, France and Portugal for beachbreaks and old world culture, Fiji for Cloudbreak perfection, Hawaii for world title showdowns in the mecca of the sport, and South Africa for the regularfooter’s dream come true at Jeffreys Bay – and I don’t have to pay for anything? Wait, you’re gonna pay me? Are you out of your freaking mind? I mean, yeah, sure, I’m okay with that.
Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is. The writing had been on the wall for a while as Swell had blown through megamillions without turning a profit. The editorial staff had been steadily shrinking. As I was about to put my son to bed one evening, I got the call from the boss, Sean Collins. He’d become one of the most powerful people in surfing thanks to his revolutionary surf forecasting and web cams. It was the only time he ever called me, so I knew that after two-and-a-half years my time had come.
Sean seemed genuinely bummed about letting me go, so much so I almost felt bad for him. When he mentioned a severence package, I did feel bad for him. He’d been paying me to do what I loved, and now he was going to pay me while I did absolutely nothing, at least for a few months.
I thanked Sean and went to read some Dr. Seuss to my son. “Right this minute our future looks muddy, but we’re gonna get to play together a lot more, buddy.” I needed a job. Little did I know that Harper Collins was in negotiations for a book on the world’s best surfer. All they needed was a writer.