Rory Russell Speaks

On Pipeline, the Shortboard Revolution, and the art of the clean exit

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I caught up with Rory Russell on a balmy day in Laguna Niguel. He still lives most of the year on the North Shore but had come to visit his widowed mother for a few months while shaping boards in San Clemente. These include a limited series of Pipeline-ready guns—if you’re willing to roll back the clock and charge on single-fin pintails, complete with the Lightning Bolt logo.

Rory is a natural-born storyteller whose reminiscences—delivered in his trademark gravelly voice—are often punctuated with laughter. Born on an army base in Würzburg, Germany, he had the good fortune of landing on the North Shore in the early 60s, when his father was stationed nearby at the 25th Army Infantry Headquarters. (The shoulder patch of the 25th, nicknamed “Tropic Thunder,” was a lightning bolt over a taro leaf.)

Rory grew up around Chun’s Reef, developing quickly as a surfer. He enjoyed the tutelage of neighbor Jock Sutherland and surfed Pipeline for the first time at age 12. His enduring legacy was forged in those few golden years at Pipeline, when the shortboard revolution opened up new possibilities in tube riding. But as he describes it now, what proved most critical in that period—and the intervening years—has been the art of a clean exit.

Kevin:  Tell me about your early years on the North Shore, when you first started surfing?

My mom was a schoolteacher at Waialua and we lived right on the beach. My sister lived next door. She was a surfer. That’s how I got into it. All the guys wanted to take my sister surfing. And I’d ride their boards while they were trying to make out with her.

Did you always surf switch-stance or did that come later?

I got my switch-stance from Jock [Sutherland]. Moving from longboards to shortboards, it was really easy to learn how to ride switch-stance because there was so much freedom. In fact, one time I was surfing the sandbar at Ehukai and I was riding every wave regularfoot. Flippy Hoffman asked, “Are you sure you haven’t been regularfoot the whole time?” Basically, the shortboard and the weed made switch-stance easy.

Surfing hasn’t been as kind to everyone with the passage of time. What have you learned as your surfing life has continued beyond your Pipe days?

Gerry [Lopez] was always talking about how you’ve got to retire gracefully. People at trade shows started asking me, “What are you going to do after you’re 30?” It was like all of a sudden they were putting me in crutches at 30 or 40. Then I was surfing Pipe on this board I’d just made. I had this perfect wave, perfect setup, and I caught a rail. I got too confident and a prominent water photographer was right there with a camera. I came up and he said, “You’re too old for this.” I took it to heart. I went in and pondered the crowd factor, analyzed everything, and decided, “Maybe I’ll just kind of slide out.” So then I ended up doing my farmer thing at Chun’s. I had horses and fighting chickens. I had ducks and ponies and pheasants—right on the beach. I had this vision that I was going to jump on my horse and ride down to Pipe: I’ll get the wave of the day, come back in, jump on my horse, and ride off into the sunset. I never rode a single one of those fucking horses—let alone to Pipeline with my board.

In the early 70s, when you and Gerry were pretty much at the top of the pack at Pipe, what was your relationship like?

We just had fun. There actually wasn’t any competition. You take this wave; I’ll take that. Everyone else can fight over the rest. I’ve seen Gerry do some amazing things. We went to Nii jima in Japan, this little tiny island, in ’75. The movie Super Session had just come out. We went to a town where they had all these little arcade areas —tents with throwing darts and everything. One of them had a bow and arrow. Not only did Gerry blow my mind, he blew the minds of the people who ran the thing—the Japanese people. He could have shot the arrow with a blindfold on. He could have shot the bow upside down and still hit the target.

When did you start riding for Lightning Bolt?

It was kind of whenever I borrowed Gerry’s or Wayne [Santos’] boards. That’s how I started riding for them. When I stopped returning their boards I was on the team. Lightning Bolt represented everything I was doing in surfing, you know? It’s the best logo in the world. You’ll never find a better one. You can try all you want. The symbol itself represents surfing at its purest. My relationship was solely spiritual. If I could make some money on the side that was fine.

How has the approach to surfing changed in the years since you were coming up? Style seems to have taken a back seat.

There were two rules that Gerry gave me when I was growing up: don’t ever grab a rail; and when you cut back, don’t lose speed. A lot of guys now focus on one maneuver and then they’re dead in the water.

Image credits: illustration by Jamie Givens