My Perfect Adventure: Chris Malloy

The filmmaker and surfer with dozens of firsts to his name tells us about his former dream of rodeo stardom, how he entered the film industry, and why he always travels with a smile

Chris Malloy.     Photo: Dean Azim/Patagonia

Chris Malloy.

Chris Malloy.

Many professional surfers devote their careers to nabbing big titles at major competitions, but Chris Malloy has other things on his mind. Instead of chasing medals, the Patagonia-sponsored surfer and filmmaker behind 180° South (2010) chases huge, previously unridden waves in some of the world’s most remote places, as well as incredible stories to document along the way.

Malloy, a 40-year-old California native who grew up on a ranch with his younger brothers Dan and Keith, also big-name surfers, has caught waves on all seven continents and achieved dozens of first descents through Polynesia, Indonesia, Antarctica, Europe, and South Africa. Along with his brothers, the artist-surfer co-op Woodshed Films, and his production company Farm League, Malloy has produced more than 20 films, including Thicker Than Water (2000) and A Brokedown Melody (2004), both award-winning collaborations with singer/songwriter Jack Johnson, a friend and fellow surfer; Shelter (2001); One Track Mind (2008); and Groundswell,” which premiered in late October.

Here, Malloy tells us about his former dream of rodeo stardom, how he entered the film industry, and why he always travels with a smile.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Describing my perfect day pretty much guarantees it’ll never happen, right? I’m hexing it, but it would probably include being dropped off by a boat on the coast up in British Columbia, camping on the coast with just a couple of friends, fishing, hunting, and finding waves.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Siberia. From the homework I’ve done, I think it might have the best freshwater waves in the world. I’ve got a lot more research to do, but it’s got plenty of fetch to produce really good surf. (Fetch is the distance a wave travels; the longer it travels, the more it has a chance to build.) As the earth warms up, the ice melts and there are new wave possibilities popping up all over the place.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Antarctica was the best place I’ve ever visited. I went there to find surf, and the people made it special.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Probably Ed Abbey, who thought for himself. He lived for the environment but he wasn’t a politically correct environmentalist type. He knew what he knew about the environment from being outside. If he was alive today, he’d probably say: “Hey, I know you’re learning about the environment from the jingle on the packaging of your $18 organic cashew milk carton, but when you’re done with that, let’s go get in the backcountry.”

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
At home, it’s an AR-7, a little collapsible .22 caliber rifle. I’ve been packing it around for a while now in my truck and I just feel naked without it. On the road, I travel with a knife. I go to my bags as soon as they come down the carousel at the airport, pull out my knife and put it in my pocket. I don’t carry it as a weapon, but a good knife has a million uses and it just seems strange not to have one on me.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I get to know the people. You’re in their home. If you show them respect, your whole experience is going to be better, and you might end up with a friend for life. I’ve traveled with folks who ignore the locals in third world countries. It’s their loss. A smile can go a long way.

What motivates you as a surfer?
Now 35 years in, and I’m certain it’s because surfing is the most exciting way to bathe.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I wanted to make the finals of the PRCA Rodeo. I wanted to ride saddle bronc. I rode junior rodeo and just got stepped on so many times. I never won a buckle, never made eight seconds. When I was 13 years old, my cousin (who was my hero) broke his neck rodeoing and I gave up dirt for water. No regrets.

When and how did you first venture into surfing and filmmaking?
I don’t remember learning how to surf. I think my dad pushed me into my first wave when I was four or five years old. The filmmaking came when I blew my knee out while surfing pipe. The doctor said I was done. I had to figure out a new way to get by. It’s taken me a while to figure out that you can’t make a living making surf films, but that doesn’t seem to stop us. Our whole film crew does other gigs to get by, and we make surf films for the love of it.

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring professional surfer?
Don’t do it. Once you’ve sold your soul, you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get it back. Trust me.

I don’t regret taking this path [becoming a professional surfer]. It’s just that as a kid, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” As a kid, the surf industry seemed exciting and glamorous, but it’s also pretty slimy and shallow once you get to know it.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
Maybe Miki Dora, the dark night of surfing. In the short time I spent traveling with him, he taught me to be a vicious cynic but, at the same time, to enjoy every moment of every day. I think he taught me that paradox is OK.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Not yet. I was getting close to settling on one, but then I had kids. That changes everything.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident that made you think twice about going out surfing again?
When I was in my late twenties or early thirties, I lost two of my best friends through big wave drownings. My lesson: Only the good die young. I just turned 40, so clearly I missed my window.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I had a scheme to walk away from pro surfing in 2008. I got my commercial fishing license and worked a pack string at the same time for two years. I’d come home every few days smelling like horses or fish, and always like beer. I’d have 200 bucks to show for it. My wife and kids helped me realize it would be smarter to take out a second mortgage on my soul and keep the surf gig.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Make a bucket list.

Make a bucket list.

Make a bucket list.

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