Maybe, when all this is done, the defining image of the time will be the unknown surfer sprinting up the beach in La Jolla, on the run from a lifeguard boat. He’d just paddled out and broken the San Diego surfing ban, his act of civil disobedience cheered on by the crowd in the street. Local surfer Derek Dunfee, who captured the whole thing on video, described it as “one of the best things I’ve ever seen at the beach.” Surfing as defiance. The waves weren’t even that good, but nothing was going to stop that kid from paddling out. When interviewed later—his identity hidden behind a mask—the fugitive teenager offered, “Surfing should be brought back to the world because we really need it.”
Back in April, they were simpler days. We only had to deal with a pandemic and a few corona cops—not the breakdown of social order, the upending of world geopolitics and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Since the scattered beach bans lifted, however, we’ve at least had surfing. With many liberated from employment and free to surf, surfers around the world have been able to paddle out at their local break and wash it off. As the world went mad, the people went surfing. It was a splendid, simple spell, with the experience rendered back to its elemental parts—surf, surfer, surfboard. The worse things got, the more essential surfing became.
Less essential, it turns out, was a world surfing tour. This was the first year in 45 that the Tour didn’t run. Not a heat surfed in anger. The Corona Open on the Gold Coast was the first event cancelled by the coronavirus. As it turns out, this virus wasn’t just deadly to human beings—it was deadly to professional surfing. The Tour has been on a ventilator all year. You could not have engineered a more fatal condition for the sport: not only were borders closed, not only was the global economy tanking, but there was something deeper happening with surfers themselves. It was a shift in attitude. They were too busy surfing to even notice the Tour was gone.
The Bells Beach Easter contest didn’t run this year—a first since 1962. If Bells had run, it would have scored. Easter Monday and Tuesday were bluebird days. Light offshore, double overhead on a 16-second period. Sunny, warm and not a pro surfer in sight. No bleachers, no broadcast, no Kelly Slater and no “Hells Bells” blaring from loudspeakers to start the day. Instead there was a very different energy. Bells was still full of punters, but they were all in the water surfing themselves.
What was happening at Bells was happening everywhere. The world stopped turning but the waves kept coming and people reconnected with their surfing in a way that a warp-speed world never seems to allow. Week after week, it got into a beautiful rhythm, and concern for the looming End of Days stopped at the tide line. In the water, no one talked much about competitive surfing. That seemed to belong to another time entirely.
Ian Cairns hitched a ride to the 1970 World Contest at Bells Beach. In the car headed south from Sydney was a cosmopolitan crew—Californians Corky Carroll and Dru Harrison, Hawaiian Dana Nicely and Kiwi White from South Australia. It rained the whole way and the windscreen wipers didn’t work. Cairns, a very serious 18 year old, spent much of the trip with his head out the window in an effort to avoid second-hand smoke. It was still raining when they arrived at Bells late in the afternoon and with nowhere to stay, Cairns grabbed his swag and curled up in the corner of the beach bathrooms. He pulled out his copy of “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” and drifted off to sleep reading about Colonel Jim Corbett hunting tigers in colonial India. Young Ian was all blood and thunder and he was very ready for the World Contest.
It didn’t quite pan out as he imagined. SURFER’s coverage of the 1970 World Contest was headlined, “The Death of All Contests”, and it wasn’t hyperbole. With the exception of young Cairns, it appeared very few people actually wanted to be there. Nat Young had just moved to Byron Bay and showed up looking like he’d been harvesting mushrooms down the back paddock. Ted Spencer bailed the day before the contest started and soon found Krishna. David Nuuhiwa went home to California early in protest against the Victorian weather. Wayne Lynch was about to disappear from pro surfing entirely to conscientiously object the Vietnam War. Everyone was on their own trip, including the guy who stayed long enough to win the thing. Rolf Aurness collected his trophy at the Lorne Hotel the night after the event ended and never surfed another contest again. Cairns watched on bemused, part of a new breed whose time hadn’t yet come.
The competitive paradigm had totally receded. The World Contest 2 years later in San Diego flopped in shitty gray surf and it was only the Peruvians and their supplement program that lifted communal spirits. The ’74 World Contest was cancelled due to lack of interest. Small enclaves fought pitched surfing battles at places like Pipe and Bells, but the idea of these tribal rituals coalescing into anything remotely resembling a “sport” seemed fanciful. Cairns, at his competitive peak during this period, referred to it disdainfully as “sham amateurism”.
Surfing elsewhere became kaleidoscopic. The zeitgeist was freedom and self-expression and it manifested in the first great wave of surf travel, shape-shifting shortboards and country soul escapism. None of this was happening in isolation, of course. The changes in surfing were set against a backdrop of wider social upheaval. Surfers were being carried along with it, but in many ways were also out in front. Timothy Leary’s throw-aheads and all that. Contests sat as a thoroughly-uncool counterpoint to all this.
Ian Cairns knows pro surfing well. He invented it. In 1976, Cairns, alongside Peter Townend, devised a ratings system and crowned a world champ at the end of the season—which just happened to be Townend. Cairns was second. In the decades since, he’s filled pretty much every role in the sport. At certain points he’s been the sport. He founded the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), won at Waimea, wore a Bronzed Aussies jumpsuit and watched on as the ’86 OP Pro riot set his pro surfing dreams on fire. He’s unapologetically pissed people off over the years, mostly those who’ve got between him and his vision for pro surfing. Cairns is a true believer. “I believe in the opportunity for young kids to make a life for themselves in competitive surfing.” Ian grew up in a surfing outpost in Western Australia and worked on a potato farm—pro surfing was his way out, and up.
But like any true believer in pro surfing, it also drives him insane. In 4 decades, the World Tour has rarely settled into a comfortable groove. Nobody can ever agree on how to run it. It’s been on the bones of its ass several times and has never found a wider audience beyond a masochistic surfing core. And yet it’s still here. Talking to Cairns just after the WSL announced the cancellation of the 2020 Tour, and a recalibrated 2021 Tour, he wasn’t impressed. “All they’ve done is put lipstick on the pig. It’s the same tour the IPS had 40 years ago with a new logo. You have the same events, the same format, the same broadcast and the same business model. The WSL have just put a bit of buff and polish on it, but it’s the same thing.”
The World Surf League brass are the first true outsiders to take charge of the sport. When they acquired the Tour back in 2013, they ran a traditional major league business model: run the events and sell the broadcast rights, advertising partnerships and event licenses. Kicking the tires when they bought it from the ASP, they would’ve known surfing had only a marginal audience, consisting mainly of core surfers. They weren’t the first to believe in the existence of a great, mythical, non-surfing audience. But as non-surfers themselves, the WSL figured they were better placed to go find it. Seven years later and it’s been a slow, painful reveal.
They could have walked early, cut their losses, but instead were led on by serendipitous opportunity. As the first waves of Kelly Slater’s wave pool spun seductively down the Lemoore facility, minds raced ahead to the implications. The WSL were already there. By the following year, they were in essence a wave pool business. The Tour—as it had been for the surf brands—was now simply the marketing. Soon after, it was announced that surfing would be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the WSL immediately positioned their pool to host the games. The WSL were dizzy. First, the Olympics in their pool, then hundreds of pools in residential estates and tourist strips between Palm Beach and Abu Dhabi. Some fine, chlorinated, late-stage capitalism.
But then the Olympics announced they were surfing in the ocean and the WSL’s Palm Beach pool literally sank. Even worse, the surfing public grew tired of watching the same wave going up the pool and back again. Lemoore flopped as a Tour event. Worse still, Lemoore soon became a metaphor for elitism in surfing. It drove a divide. Tech execs paying $50K a day to stinkbug the length of the pool was hardly the democratization of surfing that had been promised.
Most recently, the WSL has pivoted to a content business. Driven by likable, luxodontic CEO Erik Logan whose last gig had been at the Oprah Winfrey Network, the big-ticket item here is the shot-but-unreleased “Ultimate Surfer”, a reality TV series modeled after the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter” and filmed at the Lemoore pool. While that was going down, however, the best the WSL’s content business could manage was microwave-reheated highlights from past contests, packaged without any real imagination. Everyone was too busy watching “The Last Dance” to even notice.
Pro surfing has been an indulgence in a time of plenty—where does it stand in an uncertain world?
Their canceled 2020 season has at least seen the WSL focus back on core business and breathe some fresh life into the Tour for 2021. Starting in Hawaii and finishing at a mystery location with a final-day showdown looks sound. The run home with Grajagan, Jeffreys Bay, then Teahupo’o channels the Dream Tour heyday. But whether any of this gets off the ground is yet to be seen. The women’s 2021 season is due to start first in November, which looks shaky. Beyond that, good luck. There are viral spot fires and raging infernos still burning. This thing isn’t done by a long way, and then there’s what comes after that.
The realities here are epidemiological and economic, but there’s an underlying social shift that might have the final say. If consecutive pro tour seasons don’t run—if 2020 and ‘21 are scuppered—the bigger threat is a fatal disconnect with the surfing core. What if surfers, after 2 years without the Tour, just didn’t care anymore? What if it was suddenly 1970 again? The seeds of social upheaval are sown. People are in the streets already and there are tough years ahead. Pro surfing has been an indulgence in a time of plenty—where does it stand in an uncertain world? Surfing during the time of corona has been changing in ways we don’t fully appreciate even now. As Cairns puts it, “Whatever the world was in January, it isn’t anymore.”
Right now, the sport of surfing hangs on the whim of one man. Cairns describes billionaire businessman Dirk Ziff as “the greatest patron pro surfing has ever had.” It’s a genuine term of recognition. The Tour wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. The term doubles, however, as a backhanded compliment. Ziff might have described the sport as “a passion project”, but didn’t buy it out of charity; he bought it as a business. One truism remains: the sport of surfing has never turned a profit, and not even a businessman of Ziff’s pedigree has managed to make that happen. Ziff’s current mood in regard to the Tour can only be inferred from the fact the WSL was being quietly shopped around earlier this year, before the pandemic broke. The asking price was reported as $150 million. No takers.
Maybe a simple correction in scale and ambition lies ahead. The WSL has shot for the moon in everything they’ve done and poured millions into the sport. “The WSL is a high horsepower V8 engine that uses an enormous amount of fuel,” offers Cairns, “but the moment you stop putting the fuel in, it will stop working.” When pushed for a suggestion for some cost cutting, Cairns looks straight at the conga line of execs brought in from outside of surfing to run it. “Firstly, you’ve got to get rid of those offices up in Santa Monica. They can’t relate to us. The elite stratosphere of the World Surf League, it’s something I’ve had issues with for a long, long time.” Cairns has a personal line to Ziff and has offered his services as a Tour consultant, but, as he puts it, “they can’t afford to have a mad dog like me in the house.”
The fault line between the sport and the surfing heartland has opened wide under the WSL. They’re hardly self-aware about it. In his only public speech made as WSL owner—at the SIMA Waterman’s Ball in 2018—Ziff wasn’t breaking bread. “Do they not deserve to be rewarded for their magic, in a way comparable to the greatest athletes in other sports?” Ziff asked rhetorically about his Tour surfers. “Not everyone seems to think the answer is yes. It is hard to imagine this happening in other sports, but I think we all know that there are strong and vocal elements within the surf culture that question whether the very ideas of competition and profit are compatible with the true spirit of surfing—whether there is a place for the WSL at all… And I ask you: Why? It seems pretty obvious that if the WSL keeps growing in popularity, and surfing takes its rightful place among the great and elite competitive sports, everyone connected with our sport, and certainly all the members of SIMA, will prosper—except maybe a few grumpy locals who have to deal with some new faces in the lineup.”
Surf brand execs shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. The brands have walked the line between sport and lifestyle for decades and understand the Yin and Yang of surfing. “Grumpy locals” would become Ziff ’s “basket of deplorables”. The WSL on the whole have pitched to a mainstream audience that hasn’t been there, alienating the surfing core in the process. What happens if grumpy locals are all they have left?
With corona, things are not quite so bullish now and we need to consider what lies ahead. If the WSL goes tits up, what holds the World Tour in orbit? In the past it’s been “bastard desire” (late ‘70s), the whiff of surf money (‘80s and ‘90s) and actual surf money (2000s). All of those seem long gone at this point. There’ll be no surf industry white knight.
The sport, however, has remained remarkably un-killable. There have now been 4 decades of pro surfing and three generations of people who’ve grown up knowing little else. It’s been imprinted on them. “Lifers”, as Cairns calls them. “The surfers, the guys putting up the scaffolding and the tents up. Every one of those people have got surfing their veins. They won’t let it go away.” The pro surfing life taken to its natural limit, well, then you get Kelly, and you’ll be prying the contest jersey from his cold, dead hands.
Among the lifers, there’s a range of views about what higher purpose pro surfing serves (the scoffing from the cheap seats at the mention of “higher purpose” and “pro surfing” being used in the same sentence is noted). For a guy like Cairns, it’s primarily social mobility—the chance to move beyond your station in life. The dream of surfing for a living will never tarnish. For someone like Kelly, however—and alternative tour evangelist Derek Hynd—surfing performance is pro surfing’s raison d’etre. Competition sharpens the knife.
Hynd is a good barometer of Tour fortunes. Having spent a lifetime working both inside and in opposition to the pro surfing system, if he’s got a rebel tour idea kicking around, it’s a sure sign the Tour is wobbling. Back in 2000, he almost had the signatures of both Kelly and Andy Irons on contracts for a breakaway tour. Pause the tape as Kelly’s hand holds the pen and hovers above the dotted line. There’s a moment where the Golden Age of the Tour looks very different. Hynd’s reasoning for going out on his own back then? “I needed to start a new system to let progressive surfing breathe.”
Late last year, before the pandemic broke, Hynd announced an idea for an underground tour, the Roots/Art Test (RAT), which was a counterpoint to both the WSL and 40 years of the Tour. “No disrespect to chasing dreams and checks, but there’s got to be more to it,” he wondered aloud. “I’m first to put up a hand and confess guilt at furthering the horror of one-dimensional contest surfing from club to amateur to pro ranks. Dog eat dog, judge eat dog, magazine eat dog, sponsor eat dog, drug eat dog. Still, at the dawn of the circuit in 1974, there was a long moment, post-‘Morning of the Earth’ and not long after Rolf Aurness backed out of the sport as World Champion in 1970, that the Bells and Surfabout criteria veered to art as much as turns. A neon Frankenstein could have been reined in and the future inked differently. Art could still have trumped sport.”
At the end of the day, however, the very thing that threatens the existence of pro surfing might be the thing that saves it.
In Hynd style, exactly how it would work is a little abstract, but the sense of it is tribal. From the Outer Hebrides to King Island, he’s worked to take his vision for the Tour away from the masses and develop it in tight cliques of open-minded souls. It will happen on beaches without crowds and it will put the surfing act first.
And maybe if the sport blew apart, that’s what would be left. Who knows? You might have legacy events like Pipeline and Bells surviving with the card tables and tents on the beach. Maybe it will go full circle, and at some undetermined point in the future another world title will be decided on the sands of Johanna with just a handful of local farmers watching on trying to make sense of it.
At the end of the day, however, the very thing that threatens the existence of pro surfing might be the thing that saves it. While the Tour has been on life support during the pandemic, surfing has boomed in terms of regular people paddling out. The crowd in the water at Bells over Easter was split straight down the middle. Half of them were the rusted, recalcitrant core, working on their three surfs a day. Grumpy, local and proud. The other half, however, were all newbies down from the city. A disarmingly-enthusiastic kook armada out there on an assortment of brand-new, candy-colored craft. A WSL demographic if there ever was one. More surfboards and wetsuits have been sold in recent months than in any corresponding time in history. There’s a payoff somewhere down the line.
And the beat goes on.