Interview: Richie Collins

“There’s no ‘understanding’ in surfing. To me, there’s just looking and doing.”

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Widely scorned for his brash statements, embrace of neon, and a style that might be called stiff and robotic, Richie Collins of Newport Beach, California, was the guy people loved to hate as a symbol of pro surfing in the 1980s. Nonetheless, his wave riding was fast and radical. And for about a decade he was a competitive threat, winning major events on boards he designed and built start-to-finish—a distinction shared by very few top-echelon pros of his era. At 6-feet tall with a wiry build—he was nicknamed “Skeletor” at one point—his penchant for conflict might have been comical if the rage that drove it wasn’t so profound.

Still fairly brash, and still sporting his Oakley Blades with a touch of neon trim, Collins at 48-years-old remains true to form. He is a man of strong convictions, but he also seems burdened, not so much by his ludicrous statements in the past, but by a reckoning with isolation from so many missed connections. His full beard, with strands of grey running through it, suggests something Biblical. John 3:16 remains the foundation of his faith: “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” He says there are “five things wrong” with his back, and the stiff way he moves—a slight wince as he picks up his daughter’s board—suggests deep-seated physical pain.

He’ll tell you he’s the richest man in the world, and who could argue? He and his wife, Caroline, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. And with three highly talented daughters, Collins has the gift of family. His eldest, Meah, is holding her own in the Junior Pro division of the WSL, and has a virtually perfect high school record of academic and sports achievement. Naturally, Collins is as intense and demanding of his daughter’s surfing as he has been with himself and others, but his dedication to her is complete. While it would be easy to dismiss him as just another guy with anger issues, Collins gives an honest accounting of himself as he addresses his past and looks to his future. —C.B.

Christian Beamish: Meah just graduated from high school, and it seems like she’s done great in just about everything.

Richie Collins: The difference between my daughter and everyone else [she’s competing against] is that she went to school fulltime—none of these other kids go to school, at all. That’s the reason why her ratings are so low right now, because she finished high school with a 4.4 GPA. She’s had academic awards, surfing awards, golf awards, art awards. Back in our NSSA days [in the 1980s] you could not be on the national team unless you had a 3.4 GPA, I think. You know what you have to have now? A 2.0, which is a joke, and has completely lowered the standards of the United States.

CB: The contests are hard for you.

RC: I literally lose my mind watching the contests. And that’s why I don’t do the contests anymore. I’m done. I can’t do it. After nine years of teaching somebody how to do something, she still can’t figure it out. [She says], “I don’t understand.” It’s not about understanding. It’s just doing it. You don’t “understand” when you surf. You understand when the teacher tells you how to do something in math. It’s just looking at the waves, knowing what they’re doing, seeing how they come in, telling her how everything works, and just doing it. There’s no “understanding” in surfing. To me, there’s just looking and doing. But maybe there is an “understanding.” I don’t know. I’ve never heard of “understanding” something. You just get out there and surf and win. There are so many incremental, psychological, freaked-out, messed-up, analogical—whatever you wanna call it—aspects to surfing. The answer is to get all that out of your mind.

CB: You’re from Newport, but you’ve spent time in the islands as well.

RC: My dad used to sponsor and shape boards for Titus and Alekai and their younger brother, Michael, plus Byron Wong and a bunch of other guys over there. We became a part of the crew. My dad started going over there in the 60s. By the 70s he grew to be really good friends with the Kinimakas and he became one of the family. My first time over there was ’80 or ’81. I met everybody, like aunties and uncles and stuff, and was surfing places where I was scared out of my mind.

“There are so many incremental, psychological, freaked-out, messed-up, analogical—whatever you wanna call it—aspects to surfing. The answer is to get all that out of your mind.”

That’s how I got to be more involved with Hawaii, the respect of Hawaii. I have deep respect for the Hawaiian culture. I never went over there and acted foolish, because I knew I would get my ass kicked. I knew this was their island—I had been invited, and they would take me surfing to secret spots where no one was allowed. Except I didn’t really catch any waves because it was so scary. Now all the kids I grew up visiting in Hawaii, we’re all friends, they all have kids, and we compete with them and we hang out together and we laugh. “Remember we were like that?” We were fighting for it, butting heads, and now we’re all friends, which is totally weird and interesting.

CB: You’ve had some serious fights and head injuries. Do you think those have affected you?

RC: One hundred percent. I don’t know how many concussions I’ve had. At 17 I got in a really bad car accident—I shouldn’t be alive. In the wreckage there was only this little pocket where I was sitting, like God sent an angel. My faith in God has never changed since I was a child, knowing that Jesus Christ is my lord and savior. There’s no way I’m going to heaven unless it’s through him. I might have gone off the handle and done some crazy things and this and that, and pissed people off, but you know what? My beliefs have never changed. God has had a reason for me to be here. I don’t know what the reason is—to use me, to do whatever he has to do to me to change me into the guy he wants me to be, the husband, and the father. I still have anxieties, those egotistical, dumbass, prideful [ways] that upset me so badly. I see and remember how I was raised and how hard it is for me to become who I really want to be. All the concussions and the mental, beyond mental, stress that goes on inside my brain…they’re so beyond out of control. I’ve done things that only people on meth would do. But [through all of it] God has been sitting right there in the back of my mind saying, “Stop. Listen to yourself. Look at what you have.” Recently, I went to go hang out with [former pro tour surfer] Jake Spooner [with Meah after an event in Australia]. I had an epiphany. I went over there not wanting to go, but I said “F this, I’m going.” And I was reading my Bible, and praying, saying, “Lord, show me the light.” After the contest, we drove down to Wollongong, where Jake was barbequing chicken with his brother. I think his sister was there with her husband. His brother’s wife was there and I think [Jake’s] girlfriend. So, we showed up and they were kickin’ back, drinking some beers. And by the way, I don’t drink beer, never have in my life, still don’t, won’t do it. I introduced Meah to everybody and we ate, and I was sitting there just listening to them talk and hang out. “Mate, bro.” Just talking. I was sitting there thinking, “What have I been doing my whole life?” That whole week was an entirely new experience…making me realize how I’ve been a complete dumb ass because of the way I was brought up, thinking, “You’re the best, no one’s as good as you, if someone steps on your toe, knock their ass out and walk through ’em.” You get to this point…a guy you used to do the tour with, you had the opportunity, I don’t know how many times, to go to Sydney, and hang out with him, surfing perfect right pointbreaks. What the hell have I been doing my whole life?

Certain things in my past should have been different. I screwed it up.

CB: What’s your bread and butter now? Richie Collins Surfboards?

RC: No, my wife works. I take care of my kids. I’ve always known since the day I was born what I wanted—to be married with three kids. Not three girls, but I know why God gave me girls and not boys, because I’m too much of a hard ass. And I’m really hard on my girls… Certain things in my past should have been different. I screwed it up. I have my life now. But maybe I misinterpreted what God said…

CB: MR and Simon Anderson famously designed and shaped their own boards at the height of their competitive careers, and with the exception possibly of Glen Winton, you were one of the only guys to build your own boards start-to-finish. And you were really young too, still in your teens—how did that start?

RC: The shaping started by following in my dad’s footsteps and creating better stuff than what he was doing, because I was surfing and had a couple guys riding my boards. I just started re-designing boards, re-designing fin templates, and trying to make things work. Everything I saw out there, not only through my father but everyone else in the industry, I just kind of said, “OK, I’m a kid, I’m 14-years-old, I’m really going to get into shaping, airbrushing, laminating, hot coating, and sanding and building my own boards…everything.” Once I started going in that direction, I had other kids riding my boards and they worked really well. As I got older, there needed to be more performance—the tri-fin, four-fin, the twin-fin—and I just started trying to figure out different ways to make the boards work better. It started evolving on tour. The late 80s were still kind of the same, and then there was a huge change in the early 90s and I had to completely adjust everything. I don’t even know what happened. The boards got to be potato chips and I was like “OK…” I made a board like that and it didn’t work. Most of my designs have been from years of dreaming about an idea—the water flow, boats, fish, dolphins, sharks—and figuring it out. Looking at water flow, basically. Taking different people’s techniques. Saying, “Maybe this will work…” Staying up all night making a board and using it the next day. The flip-tip and heavy rocker in the tails in the early-to-mid 90s wasn’t really working. The boards got really narrow and thin. I’d get on a wave and be ripping that board—the problem was I’d duck dive and wouldn’t come up. In small, mushy waves it was hard. Then in ’93 or ’94 I said, “Forget this, I’m going to come out with a pig board. An old-school, Simon Anderson shortboard—same thickness [as what most pros were riding] but wider.” So, I made myself a 5’10” that was 19 ½ inches wide, and it worked insane right off the bat. I started riding that. I’m 6-feet-tall and I was riding a 5’10” or 5’11”. The 6’1″ by 18 inches? I went, “Forget this, I’m going short and wide.” I had my OP Pro board, my Bells Beach board [two major events Collins won]. I had all that stuff. Those boards worked insane back then. The OP Pro board was different from the Bells board because of the transitions and the tail rockers. But I’m back to where I used to be—a flat bottom with a little vee through the tail.

CB: So, what happened when it all clicked for you competitively?

RC: When you’re winning like that, you’re kinda like, “I’m king of the world. I can do this.” But the realization is that it’s all luck. You could be the best surfer in the world and if you don’t have the luck in a competition, if you don’t know how to surf a competition, you don’t have it. To be honest, Matt Archbold, back in the day, he was the best surfer in the world, hands down. The best raw, out-of-control, all-around surfer in the world. In a contest, though, he couldn’t put it together. He was like Andy Irons—when Andy put it together he won three World Titles. If Matt Archbold could have focused and got some help, he could have won, I don’t know how many World Titles. He kicked all of our asses.