The call that would change everything

I'd be lyin' if I told you this story has a happy ending.

I’d be lyin’ if I told you this story has a happy ending.

I’d refinanced my mortgage twice, each time skimming thousands off the top, blown a fat equity line, defaulted on one credit card, and maxed another. With three kids, two dogs, and a wife counting on me, I’d bungled my finances so royally that I’d run out of options. I swallowed my last drop of pride and returned, with my tail between my legs, to the classroom. I became a 40-year-old substitute teacher. To borrow a line from The Big Lebowski, “Darkness washed over the Dude — darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night.” Then, that very afternoon, as I untucked my shirt and got on the interstate to mediocrity, I got the call that would change everything.

It was Perry Moore, a fellow Virginian who’d been living in New York. He’d received a copy of my recent self-published how-to, The Kook’s Guide to Surfing, from his sister for Christmas. He raved about my writing and insisted that the book needed to be made into a movie. “That’s what I do, take books and turn them into movies.” he said. “You may have heard of them, they’re called Narnia.”
Perry was the executive producer for The Chronicles of Narnia series, among the highest grossing series ever. You may have heard of it. Perry was also the author of Hero, a novel about a gay superhero published by Disney’s imprint Hyperion. His book was well-received and an inspiration within the younger LGBT community. Its author, by the way, was also gay.

I agreed with Perry that my book was awesome. Using my background as a teacher, pro surfer, instructor, and writer, combined with a sprinkling of humor (and don’t forget modesty), I believe it to be the best surfing instructional on the market. But a movie? I hadn’t pictured that. However, after listening to Perry’s vision — a guy wants to impress a girl so he learns to surf, complete with graphics pulled straight from the book — as well as his passion, I was sold.

Although we were around the same age and grew up surfing in the same town, we’d never met. After ten minutes on the phone, where he’d promised a bidding war for my book and a deal for the movie rights with Disney, we were best friends. That I’d just become a substitute teacher to earn a few grocery bucks suddenly seemed like a fun fact for the VH1 special on my impending meteoric rise to fame.

I’d learned that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, so I tempered my expectations. While I dreamed up an exotic surf trip to be funded with my advance from Disney, and what I’d say to Oprah when she had me on her sofa, I kept subbing.

Perry and I spoke regularly over the next month. His fervor had me diving into a screenplay while he focused on securing me a literary agent. I booked a flight so we could meet to hash out some details and solidify our plan, but a February blizzard shuttered New York airports. Not a big deal, as I’d accepted a long-term sub position. And no matter how many classroom shenanigans I dealt with, I’d soon have the last laugh. Mr. B was cashing in and looking forward to the day I could moonwalk out the door yelling, “See ya, bitches!”
I rescheduled my flight and kept hacking away at the screenplay. It had been a few days since I’d heard from Perry. Last we’d spoken, he’d received the books I’d sent and was putting them in “the right hands.” We discussed surfing on Long Island, and a trip to Montauk was penciled in for spring. Then, one night, I got word that Perry wasn’t busy making me rich. He wasn’t busy doing anything. Perry Moore was dead.

After I came to, I learned that he’d been prescribed multiple medications that, when taken together, apparently caused a heart attack. As horrible as I felt for his family, part of me had to ask, How could he do that to me?

For a while, I kept at it, feeding off the remnants of Perry’s enthusiasm. I refused to allow the project to die with him. This was, after all, my game changing moment. After years of living Demeter’s schedule – thriving in summer and scraping every winter – The Kook’s Guide was going to be my salvation.

The call that would change everything changed one thing. I acknowledged the clusterfuck I’d made of my finances. Surfing wasn’t enough to support my family. Like it or not, I’d have to work for a living. Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be enough.

This is Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. She created the seasons after Hades tricked her daughter into marrying him. Each year, when her daughter heads to the Underworld to be with Hades, we have winter. Even a goddess is prone to the occasional wardrobe malfunction.

This is Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. She created the seasons after Hades tricked her daughter into marrying him. Each year, when her daughter heads to the Underworld to be with Hades, we have winter. Even a goddess is prone to the occasional wardrobe malfunction.


Welcome to the Kellydome

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!

“Let’s face it, your writing isn’t what’s going to sell this book. Kelly’s eyes on the cover are what’s going to sell this book to 12-year-old girls.” These words, flying into my ear at 3800 mph (five times the normal speed of sound) from the mouth of Kelly Slater’s manager across the country in Los Angeles, struck my temporal lobe and knocked me off my chair. He was probably right, and the bargaining technique his ancestors developed through centuries of bullshitting was probably effective, but I wasn’t having it.

“Look,” Mister Hollywood Manager Guy added, “there are three other people on our list, so if you don’t want to do this, we’ll move on to the next guy.” Not that I’d be stupid enough to pass on an opportunity to write the life story of the greatest surfer, arguably the greatest athlete, of forever, just because of a couple grand and some royalties. I would’ve taken the gig pro bono, but I wasn’t going to let some silver-tongued douchebag talk me into a corner. I hung up and called Kelly.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Lucky for me, Kelly had been hearing the “your manager is an asshole” line for so long that he knew his manager was…well, if you don’t have anything nice to say. I’d known Kelly since we were ESA groms, and he’d been humbled by a piece I wrote about him for Surfer’s “Most Influential Surfers of the 20th Century.” We weren’t bosom buddies, but the powers that be figured a fellow East Coaster from the same generation could best tell Kelly’s story. Manager Man was bypassed, and royalties were added to the contract. I had a job. A good one.

The timing of the project couldn’t be better for me. I’d recently lost my Surfline position in a final slash of the editorial staff, and had I still worked there I wouldn’t have had six months to dedicate to the book. Oh, and Kelly was in Hawaii for the Pipe Masters, so I had to bail on Va Beach in December and fly to meet him on the North Shore. Duty calls.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

For two weeks, I slept on a sofa or under my friend Cab Spates’ dining room table, the whole night alternating between battling mutant mosquitos and sweating inside my boardbag. Don’t feel sorry for me. I spent the rest of the trip surfing the seven-mile-miracle, watching the event at Pipe, and swimming through the head of a waveriding genius nonpareil.

I learned a few things about the champ in the process:

He’s late. We set up a time to meet every day, and every day I sat around waiting for Kelly to show up. His tardiness is not due to rudeness but negotiating an endless parade of people asking for his attention. It’s a wonder he makes it anywhere, ever.
-He’s patient. That endlesss parade of hangers on would be enough to break any lesser man. Kelly, lemme get a photo. Kelly, sign my vagina. Kelly, gimme some free clothes. Kelly, tell your manager to stick his offer up his ass. Slater understands that invasions of privacy comes with the territory and never loses his cool.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

-He’s sensitive. You might think the best water-walker in 2000 years (if you believe the gospels’ accounts) would have thick skin, but the guy is human. I mentioned Kelly’s receding hairline in an article, and he reacted by calling and telling me it was a surf mag, not a hair mag. He was being serious.
-He’s generous. Kelly didn’t hesitate when I asked him to give up a piece of his royalties. When the book was complete, he also offered me two custom boards from Channel Islands. (I didn’t need any boards at the time so I grabbed one of his personal sticks as a raffle prize for a local fundraiser and gave the other to Steve Hawk for helping my career.)
-I wouldn’t want to be in his flip flops. People see Kelly’s magic and think, I’d love to be him. I beg to differ. In addition to being pulled in fifty directions, hounded by fans, and belittled by wannabe journalists, imagine the pressure he faces every time he paddles for a wave. Kinda tough to have fun when every pair of eyes expects you to surf like Kelly Slater. I have mad respect for the way he handles his stardom.
That Pipe Dreams!

That Pipe Dreams!

All in all, the experience was invaluable. I wrote the book, convinced the publisher to abandon the kooky sea animal images they wanted at the start of every chapter, and handpicked the title, the cover, and the photos (many of which I plucked from digging through Kelly’s closets). As Slater made the late night TV circuit and signing tour after the release, Pipe Dreams peaked at #29 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction.

The weirdest thing about the process, which makes perfect sense, was that after six months of writing Kelly’s story in the first person, I felt like I was inside his head looking out. Seeing the world through his eyes made me hyper-aware of my surroundings, especially when I was surfing. Things made more sense, except I couldn’t figure out why so many 12-year-old girls were staring at me.

The short happy life of the septuagenarian grom

There's nothing in the quiver that is big enough for Gary Slaughter.

There’s nothing in the quiver that is big enough for Gary Slaughter.

I’ve taught thousands of people to surf over the last twenty-something years, but this guy in 2007 was the most memorable.

I avoided his calls for most of September. Four months of shoving an old man into nosedives was more than enough, even if he WAS paying me 60 bucks an hour. I’d never encountered a student I couldn’t teach, but his failure was my failure. His phone number was a buzzing reminder. He may as well have hired a plane to write it across the sky.

The little I learned about Gary between pushes was that he grew up in New York but was a Red Sox fan, and his only other physical activity was cruising on his Harley. His reddish-brown crew cut was obviously dyed, and by the look of his slow, stiff-legged gait I guessed he was in his sixties. Neither of us was big on small talk, and he was usually too winded to speak anyway. Before our first lesson, on a muggy day back in June, he’d nearly keeled over from wedging himself into a fullsuit, all before we’d paddled out. I made sure he signed a waiver.

Gary’s education hadn’t been a total loss. He got most of the way to his feet, occasionally rising to a hunched, four-point stance. Then he’d let go of the rails, and all hell inevitably broke loose. In bathtub-sized waves, his wipeouts were fantastic, as if blasted by an exploding underwater mine. His body contorted in a frenetic game of Twister, and he’d struggle in waist-deep water to extricate himself from the leash while gasping to the surface. He couldn’t paddle by himself, but with his own personal pusher, he didn’t need to.

I half-hoped he’d move on and forget about surfing, but perhaps inspired by his Sox’ charge towards the World Series he kept calling. Gary wouldn’t tell me how old he was but promised to come clean when (or rather if) he learned to surf. On the other hand, the days were getting shorter, and he was scheduled for knee surgery in November. It was now or never, or at least till next summer.

Finally, I caved and returned his call. I dragged The Blue Whale, a 12’ foam beast, down the sand to meet him. If you can’t stand up on this floating sidewalk, give it up. You’ll never surf.

I wish I had a photo of Gary, but this guy does a fairly good impersonation.

I wish I had a photo of Gary, but this guy does a fairly good impersonation.

For the first half-hour, it was business as usual – wait for Gary to lead the Whale to the lineup and regain his breath, hold her steady while he’d climb aboard, turn the two of them around, wait for a wave, give a heave, and watch in horror as he’d…crawl…up…almost…come on…you got it…yes…nooo! Damn mines.

I clicked away the minutes until my, I mean Gary’s torture would cease. He was so exhausted that the muscles in his face lacked the energy to make any expression at all. Buoyed by some unknown call of duty, he trudged ahead. Meanwhile, I nearly threw out my shoulder hauling him into yet another gentle wavelet.

This time I couldn’t bear to watch. I scanned the boardwalk and spotted a friend on a mid-work surf check. I wondered if my buddy was gonna paddle out. Maybe I’d stay out with the Whale and catch a few. Only ten more minutes of agony.

Oh yeah, my student. When I turned back to view the carnage, there was none. No Blue Whale popping out the back of the wave. No epic struggle between the old man and the leash. Nothing. But fifty feet further in, a most glorious sight. Gary had stood, let go of the rails, and managed not to detonate any mines. He was angling slightly down the line at the Whale’s behest. Holy shit! His failure was my failure. His success was my success. He’s surfing.

An unstoppable scream shot from my lungs. I splashed hysterically. Someone might’ve thought a Great White had chomped onto my legs. If one had tried, it would’ve choked on the goose bumps. Never had I been as stoked watching a surfer ride a wave. I’d never been that stoked while I was riding a wave.

After our lesson, this was Gary (on the inside at least).

After our lesson, this was Gary (on the inside at least).

Afraid to twitch for fear of the moment disappearing in a puff of smoke, Gary hung on with everything he had. His pose made the Duke statue at Waikiki look like a spaz. The Whale delivered him safely to the sand, where he remained frozen a few more seconds before clumsily dismounting. I was pretty far away, but I thought I could make out the slightest crack of a grin. We called it a day.

In my excitement, I forgot to ask Gary his age. We agreed to meet again the next week, but winter came all at once. His knee surgery was approaching, and he never called. Swept up with life, I didn’t think of him. A few months later, I got the message from one of his friends. “Yeah, uh, I believe you are the surfing instructor for Gary Slaughter. I don’t know if anyone has let you know, but Gary passed away. He said you had this little game going about how old he was. Well, he was 72.” Gary was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon after his knee surgery and was gone a month after that. If he had any family, they were estranged. He prepaid to be cremated and wanted no funeral, not even an obituary. “I just wanted to let you know,” the friend added at the end of the message, “that he really enjoyed it.”

Write good, you be trippin’

One cannot write about an event at Jeffreys Bay without spending lots of time getting to know Jeffreys Bay.

One cannot write about an event at Jeffreys Bay without spending lots of time getting to know Jeffreys Bay.

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?

"Daddy's in Africa working right now. He'll be home next week."

“Daddy’s in Africa working right now. He’ll be home next week.”

When Dot Com boomed at the turn of the millennium, Hawk assembled a dream team at 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.

Get a real job

Representation obligation leads to subjugation by corporation.

Do representation obligations equal subjugation by corporation?

One constant through my decades of surfing was a desire to be Tom Curren. In addition to aping his style in every way, I shared his notion that working in the surf industry was like a polyp. “Can I live with the polyp?” he asked in an interview with Matt Warshaw. A second constant was a rendering of a mountain and wave at the nose of all my boards. Nothing more than a mylar decal, meaningless to most of humanity, it was my polyp. My blessing was my curse.

By my mid-twenties, my work experience was scant. I’d delivered Coca-Cola with Mo “Daddy” Sanford a couple summers, then delivered Chinese food for a few years. Neither got in the way of surfing, nor were they what you’d call serious jobs. With Mo, most of what I did was laugh. Getting a few bucks afterward was a bonus.

Riding waves was bringing in a few hundred dollars a month, but as a married man with bills to pay I needed something more substantial. Besides, my car reeked of chow mein. Quiksilver, where I’d been a team rider for nearly a decade, already had a world beater from the East Coast. What they didn’t have was someone to stick around and do their dirty work, aka promotions.

When the boys in the OC doubled my monthly retainer to a cool grand, my only questions were, “Where do I sign?” and “Will I start acting different now that I’m filthy rich?”

The logo gets me over the ledge in Mexico. Photo: Mez

The logo gets me over the ledge in Mexico. Photo: Mez

The euphoria lasted all of a few hours as there was important tasks to be done. My first directive was to cut half of the surf team, which had swelled beyond control thanks to an ill-advised local tryout. No problem, I was friends with these kids, I’d just dial them up and let ’em down easy.

“Whaaaaaat?! Nooooooo, you can’t do this!” The first call, to a grom in Sandbridge, didn’t go well. The poor country boy was distraught, certain we’d made a mistake. He’d been surfing every day behind his house and was expecting a ticket to join Slater on tour when the axe fell.

I weathered his breakdown and assured him the sun would rise tomorrow, but that wasn’t the end of it. I got a call from his mom, then his dad, both insisting their child was on the verge of greatness. By the end of my first day, my hair had turned mostly gray and I wished I hadn’t deposited my check.

My job description, aside from overseeing the surf team, was to promote the brand, to make people think that Quiksilver was the coolest thing since the Harlem Globetrotters. “This is a dream job,” Lord Business told me, before making me learn and sing the ‘Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team’ song that would later be popularized in The Lego Movie.

Lulu, queen of the sticker hungry Mexigroms circa 1991.

Lulu, queen of the sticker hungry Mexigroms circa 1991.

The job had perks, most notably the summer runs up the coast with Matt Kechele. I used to doodle surfboards in my notebooks with the Matt Kechele Airlines logo from Quiet Flight. He was a pioneer of aerial surfing, a charger at Pipe, Kelly’s first mentor, and a world tour competitor. His legend status was cemented by the fact that older guys in VB seemed to hate him although they didn’t know him. I didn’t know Matt either, beyond getting schooled by him in heats from the moment I turned pro.

Keck is the quintessential ageless grom, a middle-aged Tom Sawyer, always ready with a joke (This guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but cellophane panties. The doctor looks at him and goes, “Bud, I can clearly see you’re nuts”) and always in search of adventure. I was lucky enough to join him as he surfed for eight hours straight in Costa Rica, hunted giant rats in Cuba, scored epic unridden surf off the Indies Trader in the Caribbean, and taught thousands of kids to surf in between.

I learned to run camps from Matt, and I’ll never forget the first one we did in Ocean City, New Jersey. There was a deaf kid in the group, but Matt didn’t know it. Keck was giving his introductory speech on safety, and the deaf kid wasn’t looking at him. “Hey kid, pay attention.” I tried signaling for Matt to cool it, but he didn’t get the message. “Hey kid, over here. Quit staring off into space.” Finally, the boy’s friends piped up, “He’s deaf,” and Keck melted into the sand.

Huckleberry Finn and Matt Kechele, birds of a feather.

Huckleberry Finn and Matt Kechele, birds of a feather separated by a century.

Aside from many memorable shenanigans with Matt, my work experience with Quik was utterly forgettable. The bloated marketing department was filled with guys who carried the task of “making Quik seem cool” into every facet of their being. I was a round peg doing everything in my power to avoid being squeezed into a mountain-and-wave-shaped hole.

All I wanted was to keep surfing and avoid getting a “real” job. Somehow, I held on to the position from 1994-2006, through a one-year stint as a teacher, two years as a full-time editor for, another year writing Kelly’s book, and finally as a full-time Quik employee with benefits and stock options, even a company car for a time.

Handing out stickers was hardly my mission in life, but it paid a helluva lot of bills.

In the end, after more than 20 years with the company, during which (despite my inability to take the job seriously) I’d say I was worth what they paid me, the money tree finally ceased yielding fruit. They said I could stay to run surf camps. My golden parachute was the privilege to continue promoting the mountain and wave, only doing it for free. I respectfully (cough, cough) declined. Peeling those stickers off the nose of my boards, while bills were stacking in my mailbox, was strangely liberating.

2004 OBX Pro, trying my darndest to violate my contractual duty to let my team riders win.

2004 OBX Pro, trying my darndest to violate my contractual duty to let my team riders win.

Even if I’d been a good company man, best case scenario I might’ve held out a few more years. Once the economy tanked, they canned even their most corporate of yes men. It feels good to have gotten out with at least a shred of my soul intact.

What kills me is something I heard from one of the marketing gurus after I surfed to the finals of the ECSC pro division in my mid-thirties, eliminating a few young Quik athletes along the way. Rather than being stoked for me, he reprimanded me. “Come on, dude,” he said, “you’re not supposed to beat your teamriders.” I was never very good at faking it.

He got game, but he don’t want it

You know you're a good surfer when you see people in the mall wearing shirts with your picture on the back.

You know you’re a good surfer when you see people in the mall wearing shirts with your picture on the back.

I don’t claim to be good at anything (except making egg sandwiches and smartass comments), but I’m good at surfing. It’s a fact, and important to know for what I’m going to tell you. I have no clue why I’m good, and I don’t take credit for it. Many have devoted just as much time to the pursuit as I have, and still suck. I cannot explain it; it just sorta happened.

First, let me say that one of the earliest lessons I learned about surfing (and about life in general) is that anyone who tells you they’re good at it is lying. In 1983, a new kid at Lynnhaven Junior High said he could surf. My friend Chris and I went to the beach with him, and the kid couldn’t paddle through waist-high waves, much less catch one. Although he fully deserved to be frog-marched out of the cafeteria in front of the entire student body for such a transgression, I won’t mention his name (but he’s a friend of mine on Facebook if you want to make guesses).

Anyway, two years after my first wave, I was winning local surfing events, and a year after that I was contending for an East Coast title. I have no doubt that I became so enamored with surfing because I was good at it. It wasn’t the other way around. I absolutely love surfing, but I’m not sure I’d love it as much if I grew up as a kook.

Getting a trophy for surfing was nice. Getting free clothes for surfing was pretty cool. But getting money, just for surfing, now that was freaking awesome.

In 1990, my life changed when somebody decided that a good use of their hard-earned cash was to pay me to ride waves. My brother Derrick, who was born with two superpowers – wicked creativity and the ability to convince people to do stuff, suggested to an upstart local surf shop that I was worth some dough. The owner of that shop, Mike Basto, had worked for Op, then still a behemoth within the industry. Mike convinced Op that they too should be paying me, and just like that, checks began arriving in my mailbox. Monthly. For riding waves.

I immediately flew to California to compete in a U.S. tour event in Imperial Beach. Op had signed a guy from San Diego named Taylor Knox, who was making a helluva lot more loot and happened to be in the same event. When we met up in the fourth round, I wanted to show Op that they’d mixed up our deals. Intent on proving my worth, I won the heat. Next round, with nothing to prove, I floundered.

1990 Op East at Sebastian Inlet. I beat Taylor in this one as well.

1990 Op East at Sebastian Inlet. I beat Taylor in this one as well.

When a passion becomes a job some people burn out and move on to something new. Not me. I wanted the checks to keep coming. So I surfed. A lot. When I wasn’t surfing, I went to college, or delivered Chinese food for extra yen, or hung out with my girlfriend. But surfing, and doing so competitively, came first.

Eventually, the girlfriend became a wife, and cats and dogs and fish and kids needed to eat. I needed to surf well, and I did. I won professional events up and down the Eastern Seaboard and earned the title of East Coast Pro Champion in ’97. (The tour disbanded the following year, so technically I’m the champ 18 years running. Take that, Kelly!)

By 2006, I had no fanfare but could still throw a decent fan of my own, even in the middle of winter.

By 2006, I had no fanfare but could still throw a decent fan of my own.

Being a good surfer afforded me a lifestyle people dream of. I got paid to do the thing I love above all else and traveled a good portion of the globe at others’ expense. I couldn’t have been luckier if Angelina Jolie had adopted me.

Furthermore, riding waves kept me from having to speak, which I abhor. Talking was my brother’s gig, so discovering that surfing could pay me and speak for me made it all the more attractive. Whenever I felt uncomfortable in my skin, which was any time I was around people, I knew that when we got in the water they’d see that I had something to say. Surfing was my life support as well as my voice.

Indonesia 2013. The kid still clinging to his identity as a good surfer.

Indonesia 2013. The kid still clinging to his identity as a good surfer.

I don’t paddle out looking to prove myself anymore, but as soon as I see some guy ripping I turn into a monster. My mission in life becomes ruining his session, showing him how we did it back in ’90. You can take the kid out of competition but you can’t take the competitor out of the kid. By the way, I’m the kid in that parable.

I’m not bragging. I hate that I’m so damn competitive. Riding waves shouldn’t be this way. It should be relaxing. It should be a release. It should be fun. The best guy in the water, it is said, is the one having the most fun. I just realized that that saying could be taken two ways. Is he the best guy because he’s having so much fun or is he having the most fun because he’s the best guy in the water? Does it matter?

Humanity 101, by my dead BFF

Jeff laying down some heavy tracks. Photo: Dugan

Jeff laying down some heavy tracks. Photo: Dugan

I’ve had a blast reliving moments from my past, but I was dreading this one. It isn’t that I don’t want to delve into the topic, or that it’s upsetting. I just didn’t want to make it sappy or all about me. And I wanted to do it justice. After all, no other event has rocked my foundation like the death of my best friend.

Jeff Hunter and I were inseperable for eight years, from pimply Jetty upstarts to established professionals. We hung together, surfed together, traveled together, and grew up together. It just so happened we were two of the best young surfers around here, so we were also rivals. Then, without warning, at the end of a beautiful fall day in 1992, after managing his mom’s hair salon and surfing fun waves at The Jetty with his friends, Jeff’s heart quit working. He was 24.

I knew Jeff as well as anyone did, and as well as I’ve ever known a person. I was too stubborn to admit that I learned anything from him while he was alive (except for how to do a roundhouse cutback. His was the best around. He told me that instead of pushing hard with your back foot, distribute your weight evenly and guide your board around. That way you can maintain your speed.) After he died, I realized he’d taught me lots more than that, including how to be a good human. The best way I can honor him is to pass these truths to you.

Jeff and I at a high school party.

Jeff and I at a high school party.

1. Family isn’t so bad. Even when there were waves, Jeff always showed up for family functions. The youngest of three boys, he got along with everyone. His mom, a hairdresser from Morocco, is about the sweetest lady you’ll ever meet. Jeff adored her, just not her extravagantly-spiced cooking, which is why he’d always raid my refrigerator for my mom’s leftovers after picking at his plate at home. He never spoke ill of his family. Too many people write off their parents or siblings over disagreements. He wouldn’t think of it.

2. Be you. Jeff was proud to be Jewish way before Adam Sandler made kitschy songs about it. While I did my best to hide my heritage from my friends, he embraced his. He was never afraid to be different, even if that meant ridicule. Jeff was never into drugs. He rarely drank and quit completely by 22 (except the single tallboy I made him drink after he beat me in a man-on-man heat in a pro event at Sebastian Inlet). People gave him grief for drinking water at a party or in a bar, but he didn’t care.

3. School sucks (for some people). Graduating from high school was a huge deal for Jeff. He was the only member of his family to do so. Afterwards, he would’ve been happy to never see the inside of a classroom again. I pressured him to go to college, and he signed up but only lasted a few weeks. He told me that higher education isn’t for everyone, and he was correct. Some people learn better from the school of life. Even without college, he was on his way to a successful career.

Cooking with Kelly in the Bahamas. Photo: Dugan

Cooking with Kelly in the Bahamas. Photo: Dugan

4. Roll the dice. Jeff was a phenomenal surfer, among the best on the East Coast. Not content with that, he moved to California to test himself on the U.S. tour. He did okay, but he grew and learned a lot as a person. He made heaps of new friends, rode plenty of waves, and after a year realized that Virginia Beach wasn’t such a bad place to settle down. Plus, he let me sleep on his sofa for a summer.

5. There’s more than waves out there. Try as I might, I could never convince Jeff to go to Hawaii. All he’d do there is surf big waves. Instead, he traveled by himself to France. He rented an apartment for a couple weeks, soaked up some culture, surfed some interesting spots, and cruised around Paris. He also traveled to Israel, where he hung out with his grandparents and still managed to ride a few waves. He was open to what the world had to offer, a world that extends far beyond the coastline.

6. Find your thing (hint: it probably isn’t surfing). Jeff loved his hair, his impossibly thick, gorgeous, naturally spikey hair. Why not make sure other people have good hair too? He took over his mom’s salon at the beach and made it a cool place to be. He had no problem leaving behind the surf industry and thrived on the challenge of a completely different field. In a newspaper article from when he was 23, Jeff talked about quitting surfing and said, “I’m getting a little old to be a surfer.”

One of our early gatherings held in Jeff's honor. These events brought out the best in Va Beach.

One of our early gatherings held in Jeff’s honor. These events brought out the best in Va Beach.

7. Playboy life gets old before you’re an old playboy. Jeff was a stud. All he had to do was flash his stunning eyes, and mesmerized girls did whatever he asked them to do. Along with swearing off alcohol, he retired from womanizing after a short but legendary career. He couldn’t reconcile with treating females as objects. At the time of his death, he was in the most serious relationship of his life.

8. Treat your feet. I could never see spending much money on kicks, but Jeff routinely splurged on his shoes. He insisted that since we’re standing for so much of each day, our feet are the most important part of our bodies. If they aren’t comfortable and well-supported, you’re going to have problems. With this in mind, I just ordered a new pair for $130, the most I’ve ever spent.

9. Strangers are friends you just don’t know. Some people are simply assholes, and Jeff had no patience for them. However, he was more than courteous to everybody else. He was even nice to boogieboarders, a notion that most surfers of his status couldn’t fathom. His friendliness was evident at his funeral, where hundreds of people of all ages came to pay their respects.

10. Friends are the best thing you’ve got. I was so caught up in our competitive rivalry that I treated Jeff like shit. I wanted him to lose in contests, I told girls he was a jerk, and I ridiculed his every move. Through it all, he showed nothing but kindness to me. It should be obvious that friends are meant to support one another, but I failed to grasp that concept until it was too late. The final day of his life, I surfed the rights peeling off the Jetty and refused to paddle down to the lefts Jeff was riding at his spot a hundred yards down the beach. I wouldn’t get another chance.

On the anniversary of Jeff's passing, my son and I went for a visit. We drove around the cemetery for an hour, finally gave up on finding him, and suddenly there he was.

On the anniversary of Jeff’s passing, my son and I went for a visit. We drove around the cemetery for an hour, finally gave up on finding him, and suddenly there he was.

I wrote my first article for publication, a short piece on Jeff’s life for Surfer Magazine, just after he died. For nearly 20 years after his passing, many of his friends gathered annually to honor his memory, have some fun, and ride some waves. The articles I wrote about these gatherings for Eastern Surf Magazine later got me hired as East Coast Editor at Surfer. So, in addition to all he taught me, in a way Jeff also made me a writer.

He wasn’t around for long, but Jeff affected a lot of lives in a positive way. It was tragic that he left us so soon, and anyone saying his death was part of some masterplan is just trying to make themselves feel better. Literally, Jeff’s heart was too big. He also “had a big heart,” but that is hardly fatal. It’s something we can all strive for, and something that will ensure we’ll live long after we’re gone.