The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Surfing

Bombs Away!

Chasing Mavericks, this month’s 20th Century Fox surf drama based on the story of a sweet, doomed big-wave rider named Jay Moriarity, will enter theaters without a ripple of acclaim and kick out a few weeks later with minus-tide earnings.

That’s one old surf-geezer’s prediction, anyway.

Hollywood can’t do surfing. For 50-something years now, beginning with Gidget, Tinseltown has muffed it. Overcooked drama. Undercooked characters. Expensive action shots (which, yes, look great on a big screen) stapled to cut-rate scripts. Ride the Wild Surf, Big Wednesday, Blue Crush, Soul Surfer—each one is, at best, a damp approximation of a surfing life.

The problem is, surfing has no hook. You do it—a lot, obsessively even—and in terms of story arc that’s pretty much it. The whole point is to continue. You rode a huge wave? You won the big contest? Great, a week later you’re out there like the rest of us trying to scrape together rides, and the week after that, and the next year, ad infinitum.

Hunger drives surfers. The sport has its romantic and exciting moments, but mostly it’s just base, simple. Hard to get an elevator pitch from that. Making a great movie about surfing should be easier than making a movie about digestion—not by much, though.

Chasing Mavericks won’t move Hollywood any closer to the mark. I didn’t even have to watch the trailer to figure that out. I just listened to it. The ominous single-wallop bass drum, the cymbal crash, the Top Gun wailing guitar riff.

It’s the sound of 20th Century Fox trying to frog-march me to an off-the-shelf, PG-rated climax.

Anybody remember Surf’s Up? The animated one with the cute surfing penguins? No joke, that was the one time Hollywood got it right. Don’t take the sport so seriously, in other words. More penguins, less drama.

Matt Warshaw is the author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing.

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Surfer Gabriel Medina Lands Amazing Backflip

While competing in ASP junior events, Brazilian Gabriel Medina made a name for himself as an aerialist. As a 17-year-old, he won the most prestigious event in the ASP's Cash for Tricks series. Now 18, Medina is competing on the ASP World Tour and perfecting new aerials in his off time. A little more than a week ago, he took to the North Shore of Oahu and landed his first backflip. It's not the first backflip in the history of surfing, and it won't be the last, but it's still rare and impressive.

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Guerilla Relief

Driving over the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Bridge toward the Rockaway Peninsula, the first discernable evidence of catastrophe is the half-mile wide mountain of rubble bulldozed atop the parking lot of Jacob Riis Park, a desolate sweep of sand, sea grass, and concrete that wraps the wiry tail of Long Island like a bandage. Heading east into Rockaway Beach, we glance nervously at the NYPD and National Guardsmen stationed at dead traffic lights, and at the men siphoning gas from abandoned cars strewn everywhere. On 87th, we cleave the guts of flooded homes and park beside a long procession of people queuing up for rations outside the Rockaway Surf Club, where founder of Waves For Water, Jon Rose, and a group of local surfers, anxiously wait.

“Glad to see you made it,” Rose says, behind him the grimy brick walls of the club, accented with a surfing-inspired calavera mural. “We were wondering how a trip into New York City with a thousand-pound gas bomb would go over with Homeland Security.”

Earlier that morning, professional surfer Andrew Gesler and I met in his hometown of Ocean City—a Southern New Jersey barrier island also hit hard by Sandy—where we loaded six 25-gallon containers of fuel into the back of an unmarked pick-up, grounded the tanks with jumper cables, tarped the cargo, and made the tense three-hour trip up the Garden State Parkway and into New York City.

It was a dangerous and not-quite-legal mission, but it was just the kind of maneuver that fits Rose’s “guerilla humanitarianism” philosophy—a style he adopted in the days following the 2009 earthquake in Padang, Indonesia, when, as a one-man show, he pulled together key community members to distribute portable water filters, ultimately saving thousands of lives and launching the non-profit Waves for Water.

“Indonesia was a very tangible experience,” says Rose. “I made a lot of impact in a short amount of time and it just clicked. I knew this guerilla mentality that comes naturally to athletes, travelers, and adventurers—like surfers—could be replicated and implemented around the world.”

Andrew Gesler is just one in a groundswell of volunteer surfers from New Jersey and New York’s tight-knit beach communities who have joined Rose’s team, using close relationships up and down the coast, as well as a fearlessness nurtured by a career chasing waves, to quickly build the Sandy Relief Initiative (Waves for Water’s first disaster relief mission on U.S. soil) into a strikingly efficient operation.

“My life is pretty much about taking risks,” Gesler tells me later. “I’ve encountered the word ‘can’t’ so many times, like, ‘You’re a surfer from New Jersey, you can’t surf the best waves in the world’ or ‘You can’t make a living out of this.’ If you tell me I’m not allowed or can’t do something, I’m going to figure out a way to prove you wrong.”

Another renowned Jersey pro, Sam Hammer, has also been quick on his feet since waking up on October 30 and discovering that parts of his beloved surf stomping grounds in Bay Head, Mantoloking, Lavallette, and Seaside Heights had been literally washed away. When the National Guard evacuated the island due to exploding gas lines, failed roads and bridges, and looting, Hammer redirected and rushed to get supplies into Staten Island, where 30-foot fishing boats were deposited several blocks inland and thousands of residents wandered the streets in need of basic goods like toiletries and cleaning supplies.

“In the water surfers butt heads—we can be greedy,” says Hammer. “But when this disaster hit us, we stepped up together and got things done. It’s incredible how fast [Rose’s] initiative came to fruition.”

In Staten Island, the Rockaways, Long Beach, and the crippled Central Jersey Shore towns, tens of thousands of people are facing the grim prospect of being short on fuel, without power, or homeless for many more weeks and even months. The widespread duress has left the Red Cross and FEMA stretched thin—their size, often an asset, becoming a hindrance. But the quick-thinking tactics of Jon Rose and other hyper-local organizations like Rebuild Recover—and the urgency of surfers like Gesler and Hammer—are getting food, fuel, and other necessities to overlooked neighborhoods today, rather than tomorrow, next week, or next month.

“Surfers are naturally very driven,” says Rose. “A lot of times you have to solve a number of problems just to get to a remote surf break. You have to develop a sense of resourcefulness and have the courage to navigate through difficult situations. Surfers, mountaineers, adventurers—we go toward danger rather than run from it, and that quality naturally makes us better at things like disaster relief.”

Since arriving from California on November 3, Rose has set up two warehouse hubs in New Jersey and New York, as well as six local distribution points, like Rockaway Beach Surf Club, that are brimming with donations. On top of that, Waves for Water has raised $165,000 for long-term relief and rebuilding efforts, some of which has come from 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater and singer/songwriter Jack Johnson. “All of these experiences I’ve had as a surfer,” Rose explains, “I pull from them every day in this work.”

JUST AFTER DUSK, WE are down to our last 30 gallons of fuel. There are stars, finally, hanging above the hulking silhouettes of Rockaway’s powerless apartment blocks, but the temperature is scratching at freezing and rain is in tomorrow’s forecast. A curfew is in effect and the streets are barren and dark, allowing for an uneasy mood to roam the night.

On 96th Street, we arrive at a large white tent—the kind you’d find at a wedding—glowing atop a muddy, empty lot squeezed between two redbrick high-rises. We’ve come for Michelle Cortez, who I find seated at a picnic table in a far corner of the tent, surrounded by take-out containers and relaying instructions into a glowing iPhone. While the generator she has acquired is humming outside and powering our light for now, her fuel cache is running low. When she hangs up, I ask her what this huge, empty shelter is for.

“Anything,” Michelle says, her steady New York accent betrayed by worried green eyes. “We put it up earlier today for people around here to come to. To sleep. To eat. To get out of the dark. Anything.”

We fill Cortez’s gas cans, then help her carry them across the street and into the living room of a vacant apartment. Inside, the air is stale and bathed in a faint blue light that freezes furniture and photos hanging on molding walls exactly as they were when, three weeks ago, the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay surged together and changed Rockaway Beach forever.

Back at the tent, we huddle around Gelser’s pick-up truck, all of us shivering and reeking of fuel, and pass around Rose’s compulsory flask of Johnny Walker—the same one that’s accompanied him in the tough days, months, and years after disasters in Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, and Haiti. Standing there, with the heat of the whiskey in my mind, I cannot help but feel like we have stumbled into a McCarthyian post-apocalypse. “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence,” the Man thought in The Road.

This is Cormac McCarthy’s ponderous counterspectacle defined. The same force of nature that surfers around here rely on to feed their addiction to riding waves has ripped away the very beaches where they fled to get their fix. The ocean had revolted against them, yet the bond it created between them long ago was not only left unmarred, it was made stronger. This is no Haiti, but, like Rose’s effort there, it’s going to take days, months, and years to get this coast back to a semblance of what it was.

“There’s no doubt that here in the U.S. it’s more challenging because of bureaucracy,” says Rose, contemplating the long road ahead. “But sometimes you have to go out on the edge a little bit to get things done. That’s the point of this work, right? To look back on days like today and know that you charged, got it done, and helped make people better off.”

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How We Can Make the Surf Industry Much More Sustainable

Drppy-king-fishPhoto: Sustainable Surf

Here is the good news: Expanded polystyrene (a.k.a. EPS, or the branded name Styrofoam) is recyclable. Here's the bad news: much of it is not recycled and therefore EPS-based surfboards are made from virgin EPS. Some more bad news: Only about 30 percent of surfboards are made with EPS. One more piece of bad news: The most commonly used resins* used in surfboard manufacturing are toxic. Sustainable Surf, a non-profit aimed at helping the surf industry reduce its environmental impact, is hoping to change all of that bad news.

The NGO celebrated the launch of its Ecoboard program, which finally established an industry benchmark that board makers can follow in order to boost the environmental credibility of their products, last week in San Francisco. "Ecoboard is the industry's first third-party science-based benchmark," Sustainable Surf's co-founder Michael Stewart told me.

Stewart is a life-long surfer, and he looks like one. But he's also all business, which becomes apparent as he starts to talk shop, rattling off the attributes of recycled EPS and the potential of using bio-based epoxy for glassing a surfboard instead of using polyester resins. The majority of surfboards on the market today are manufactured with polyurethane foam cores, which can be recycled but aren't in any meaningful quantity, and these boards are made with polyester epoxies.

Prior to launching Sustainable Surf, Stewart worked at Underwriters Laboratories, a standards-setting organization serving the electronics industry. He knows from standards. And he's quick to point out that Sustainable Surf is still a long way from developing a sustainability standard for the surf industry—doing so will be major undertaking. "We're going to build a standard," he says. "But first it's a [bench]mark."

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Julian Wilson Wins Rip Curl Pro Portugal

Wilson7547portugal12kirstinJulian Wilson. Photo: ASP/Kirstin

Surfer Julian Wilson won his first ASP event after scoring big during the final seconds of the Rip Curl Pro Portugal, leaving his competitor Gabriel Medina stunned and with tears in his eyes. “I’m overwhelmed,” Wilson said. “I lost to Gabriel (Medina) on the buzzer last year in France and to beat him back again on the buzzer, I don’t even know how to describe the feeling."

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