Why there is only one surf movie (aside from that animated penguin flick)

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A friend I hadn’t seen since George Michael was urging everyone to have ‘fay-fa-fay-fa-faith’ came into town recently. Damian Bibic is an Aussie who lived here during my wonder years and showed me what good surfing looked like. He wasn’t aware of my sabbatical, and the first thing he said the other night was, “I went down to First Street to look for you. I wanted to paddle up and go, ‘Good swell, how big are the sets?'”

In you’re unfamiliar with the only Hollywood film about surfing that’s worth watching, Damian’s line is from Big Wednesday. Straight-laced Jack Barlow returns from three years in Vietnam and says those words to his frequently drunk buddy Matt Johnson as if nary a day has passed. Damian’s return after a quarter century set off a wave of nostalgia. I remembered being at a party and painting him with barbecue sauce so he could dive into a preheated oven (“We’re gonna roast the Masochist. How you like your haole?”). It was time for a screening.

Roasting the Masochist. Perhaps this was the root of Busey's later problems.

Roasting the Masochist. Perhaps this was the root of Busey’s later problems.


We had no smart phones in the ’80s, so our eyes had lots of free time. Mine fixated on a vhs cassette of Big Wednesday. I’m baffled the magnetic tape didn’t disintegrate after the thousandth viewing. I cannot recall a single postulate from geometry, but by the time I graduated I could recite every line in the film.

Several years later I got the movie on dvd. I never watched it, and after moving twice I considered it lost. I tried to find a pirated YouTube version but Warner Brothers demanded my credit card information. Oh well, I have a smart phone, so my attention fluttered back to Words with Friends.

Enter fate.

The next evening, I was sitting on my bum in the living room when in walks my son. His hair was wet from surfing, and he was carrying my dvd copy of Big Wednesday. I envisioned that somewhere Gary Busey cracked a(nother) beer, the clouds parted, and Ray Charles was accompanied by a flock of angels for an impromptu rendition of “What’d I say?”

Best seat in the house. I can finally throw quotes at my son.

Best seat in the house. I can finally throw quotes at my son.


An hour later, I was sprawled on my son’s bedroom floor for closer viewing as the narrator began, “I remember the three friends best – Matt, Jack, Leroy,” and the trio made their way down the concrete stairs toward The Point. I’ll spare you the whole story, but I was struck like an Enforcer uppercut by all the memorable lines. Big Wednesday says so much about friendship, growing up, and life in general that I can overlook the hackneyed ride-of-his-life-near-death-experience-saved-by-his-friends ending. Here’s a my list of my favorites quotes (in the order they appear in the film).

1. “You’re always alone out there anyway. You shouldn’t have to depend on anybody but yourself.” -Bear
One of the best things about surfing is that it isn’t a team sport, or possibly isn’t a sport at all, but a mental, physical, and spiritual sanctuary with real consequences. There are no tracks, coaches, fees, or support staff.

2. “At home being young is just something you do until you grow up. Here, here it’s everything.” –Sally
After growing up in Chicago, Jack’s girlfriend realizes the Great Lakes mightn’t be so great after all. That’s why there’re so many grownups there. The beach is more like Neverland, and everybody wants to be Peter Pan.

3. “They’ve condemned the pier, Jack. I’m gonna have to go and start livin’ like an inlander.” –Bear
We all reach a crossroads where that thug called “life” threatens to rob us of our passion. Some of us realize the moment isn’t a crossroads at all, but a speed bump. We get knocked around, spill our $5 coffee, curse the creator for playing such a cruel trick, and keep right on driving.

4. “I just surf ’cause it’s good to go out and ride with your friends.” –Matt
Competition, adulation, and free stuff get in the way of surfing. They aren’t reasons to do it. Going out and riding with ones friends, that’s the ticket – riding waves, riding flat spells, riding to Hatteras and stinking the car up with jokes and Hardee’s biscuit farts.

5. “Jack, your friends are the most important thing you’ve got. Have a drink…to your friends, come hell or high water.” –Bear One day your friends will lure you into a shady business deal, steal your gal, and have your kids calling them, “Daddy,” but until then, they’re the best thing you’ve got. Quit blowing them off. Blow everything else off and meet them for a drink.

6. “The change wasn’t in the beach or the rocks or the waves. It was in the people. Some got married. Some moved inland. Some died.” –Narrator
No matter where you live, people bitch about how the place has changed for the worse. Unless you live somewhere they’ve built a harbor over your break, shut up. All that’s changed is people have moved on. Adapt or die, the choice is yours.

7. “I’m not your brother, and turn down that crappy music!” –Matt I haven’t had a reason to attend Surf Expo or any other gathering of bro’s for several years, and I do not miss it. Unless you’re my brother, or we’ve been to war together, or at least on a surf trip, don’t call me, “brother.” And hippy music is indeed crap.

8. “Nah, only when it’s necessary.” Matt, in response to Jack asking if he’s been doing much surfing
I don’t like the idea of surfing as a routine, like going to a gym and hopping on a treadmill. Riding waves is an adventure, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong and may as well be on a tennis court or a golf course. Go out on a choppy day or ride a different type of board.

9. “I never thought old Waxer’d end up in the boneyard.” -Leroy
We all die, some earlier than others. You never expect to hear that one of your buddies has expired. I’ve been through it a couple times and you always wish you’d been a better friend. Refer to #5.

10. “No, I’m just a garbage man.” -Bear, in response to a guy asking if he surfs
If you don’t surf now, you never did. That sounds funny considering my present situation, but I believe it. Since many think of me as a surfer, they are impelled to tell me about their days in the water and how they long to return. I wish they’d accept reality; they’re garbagemen.

On a final note, I’d like to think that when I die, I will relive Matt’s experience as he walks to the beach on the big day. He reaches the sand, and Jack and Leroy are waiting for him. I’ll walk up to the boardwalk at First Street, and I’ll find Jeff Hunter and Zeke Sanders standing with their boards. Nothing will be said. We’ll paddle out.

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When it is acceptable to cry at a surf contest

A more comfortable chair than it looks.

A more comfortable chair than it looks.

I’ve never cried while watching a surf contest. I’ve been thrilled a few times, angry lots of times, and I’ve been bored more times than I’d like to admit. But I’ve never had a tear well up in my eye in the process of viewing people in colored singlets attempting to outsurf one another. Hadn’t, at least, until today.

After competing in hundreds of amateur and pro events, covering dozens of others on the world tour, and watching as a fan forever, suddenly, today, tears. Do you want to know when someone cries at a surf contest?

When you see a six-year-old kid learning to surf at The Jetty with his dad, getting pushed into whitewaters as you ride into the shorebreak.

When that kid is 14 and he comes to your Sunday morning surf training, and you give him a few tips but can’t tell him the one thing holding him back, that’s he’s a scrawny kid and just needs time to fill out.

When the kid is 18 and starts traveling all over creation and immersing himself with good surfers and good waves and slogging his way through the trials and tribulations of international competition, a many year process, during which he may as well be in witness protection because he’s buried so deep in the ranks.

When he is 20 and you watch random events online, where the kid is surfing crazy fast but is still scrawny and unconfident, not unconfident in his ability, but unconfident in whether it is okay for him to knock off the best surfers in the world, even though he’s surfing better than they are.

When he is 24 and you tune in online and see that this year is different because the scrawny kid is filling out and gets pissed when he loses to the best surfers in the world, because he should be beating them and he knows it.

The man slips into a nice little day at The Jetty.

A nice little day at The Jetty.

When the kid comes home to the event that hasn’t been won by a kid from The Jetty since 1981, the year before you started surfing, and you’ve surfed this event countless times, made the finals a handful of times, once even came in and were told you won and were chaired up the beach on the shoulders of the guy who won back in ’81, but you ended up in second and had to watch another guy from Florida, or California, or Brazil, or New Jersey somehow finish on top and you feel like you let people down and you wonder if a local surfer will ever break through.

When you pedal to the beach to watch the kid’s first heat yesterday, and you track him down before he paddles out to assure him, You got this.

When you catch the rest of his heats online, heats in which he is fast, but also cool, radical, powerful, and dominant.

When he knocks out last year’s champ on the way to the final.

When he’s losing the final until the waning minutes and he scorches another jetty right that eliminates all doubt.

When the final horn blows and the kid enjoys a victory lap with his arms raised in elation.

When his friends don’t wait for him to hit the sand but rush into the water and hoist him onto their shoulders.

When that ’81 champ carries the kid’s board behind them and the entire procession has stoke shooting from their pores like fireworks.

When the beach screams with something it hasn’t been able to scream with in forever, something like pride.

When you feel that pride coursing through your veins and it causes the skin on your arms to erupt into little bumps and the hairs to stand at attention.

When the look on that kid’s face is the greatest look ever invented, that of pure joy.

When that stuff happens, your eyes get a little moist. Tears aren’t running down your cheeks, not like when you watch Rudy, but you can feel the moistness. You know that you had a little something to do with what is unfolding, just a tiny bit, because that kid once looked at you and said, It can be done. And he went out and did it.

Selfie with the man.

Selfie with the man.

And you know what you do then? You do something you haven’t done in years. You go down to a bar on the strip at almost midnight, even though you have to start school early the next morning, and you walk into that bar and see a mass of people toward the back. It isn’t the normal mass of people, downing drinks to try to forget that some out-of-towner swooped in and looted the top prize. This mass of people is celebrating.

You make you way into the middle of the mass because the kid is in there somewhere. You find the kid and he’s still coherent. His eyes light up. He’s honored that you made this effort. You’re honored that he’s honored. You lean in towards the kid and you say, You’re the man. And you step back to let everyone else tell him. And you walk out of that bar with your faith restored because it only took you 30 years to prove that good things can come from surf competition.

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 Swell.com, 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.