The Screwtape Letters

Has Joel Tudor's Duct Tape Invitational finally managed to make organized surfing…cool?

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This corner of Spain is lousy with specters—the ground riddled with corpses of luminaries like Cristóbal Balenciaga or those who perished when Franco held a torch to Guernica in 1937. There’s the scent of scandal left over from Hemingway playing soldier in these hills, and the sense of promise that led pilgrims to traverse the headlands toward Galicia over the course of centuries. In Zarautz, spirits seem to run down the hills and spill into the Atlantic. 

A few years ago, as spring carried into summer, a blur of blue framed by four surfers in singlets reflected the reverence that lends this stretch of the Basque Country its charm, character, and, ultimately, its saliency as the venue for a surf contest bent on ethos. It’s that careful attention paid to the past that’s animated the Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational and, in turn, helped reanimate longboarding over the last ten years. But surfing appeared to be the lowest common denominator among the litany of artists, musicians, and writers who gathered each night in vineyards, on balconies, and along the water’s edge in Gipuzkoa. There was the sense that maybe something more meaningful than surfing was taking place, and so I watched the final heat of the Duct Tape in Zarautz as though it were a séance. 

Only now are the ghosts starting to take shape.

Why I Am the Way I Am

The cauldron’s glow first reached Joel Tudor at a club contest in the mid 1980s, when he was just 8 years old. His father whispered, “There’s Nat Young right there. There’s David Nuuihwa.” And as his father’s hand fell on his shoulder, the weight of the past fell with it. Miki Dora and Phil Edwards formed bright spots in a constellation Tudor learned to trace as a kid—the bookends to a generation that consumed him. The Endless Summer was closer to his personal composition book than a film, and its stars, Mike Hynson and Robert August, were waypoints on the arc of his own career.

When Tudor was first faced with killing his idols, he was merely 12, floating around in the Pacific to compete against Nat Young. “My education was a little different,” he told me in a deadpan way when we spoke last September. By 15, he’d leave high school and devote himself to becoming a professional surfer. That same year, while his peers prepared for prom, he meandered off a tarmac in France to find Dora moonlighting as his chaperone. 

Three decades later, the coded understory of surfing was his departure point, part and parcel of the zeitgeist that undergirded the contest now named for him, but his adolescence from 10,000 feet up read as though it were lifted from Greek mythology.

Tudor’s design for the events came out of his frustration as a competitor on longboard tours in the 1990s and early 2000s. Practicing then what he preaches now at the Oxbow World Longboard Championships, Biarritz, France, 1992. Photograph by Tim McKenna.

“I didn’t ask for any of this shit,” Tudor said. “It just happened. It’s San Diego. It’s my pop. It’s all of it. People wonder why I am the way I am. Look at the people I hung out with.” 

As if drawn from some curriculum on how to shape a deity, you wonder if his father went down to Windansea one night and cast some spell, conjuring up the Duke, George Downing, or Bob Simmons to make a deal. Following his father’s incantation, Tudor found himself in Bordeaux with Young, in Malibu with C.R. Stecyk, doted upon by Skip Engblom, Donald Takayama, and Buffalo Keaulana. “For some reason,” Tudor said, “history was the only class that was ever important to me.”

The traditional but seemingly antiquated sort of surfing Tudor demonstrated as a teen was almost unthinkable. Hell, the deathlessly composed panache of the sun-kissed prodigy—the curvature of this lithe little kid with his arms thrown back in a fury—seemed to draw a through line across time and place despite being opposed to what was then in vogue. It was as if he were possessed.

With a warmth, he remembered the ways Dora chided him as a kid, how he watched as Dora became increasingly reclusive, and how once, lamenting the media over breakfast, Dora told Tudor, “Pay no attention to these fucking guppies.” 

It was a sentiment bound up in Tudor’s bones—an imprint of the beguiling culture bearers that encircled him. He was the lanky, precocious fuck from a working-class San Diegan family, the offspring of a mother and father without high school diplomas who built their way out of nothing. He was as provincial and parochial as the distance between his driveway and Cardiff, and yet he was as big-hearted and promising as all the people he knew.

When I asked if any moments felt like a point of ignition, Tudor laughed before staking out the edges of a life that seemed like a Mobius strip, hemmed in with a healthy disregard for the culture that shaped him and yet an insatiable appetite to affect it. In one way, it appeared that he couldn’t care less. But, beneath the hubris, there was the resounding sense that he cared. 

Joel Tudor, repairing a ding on Kaimana Takayama’s board in Zarautz, 2018. It’s this type of tip-to-tail surf knowledge, experience, and tradition that Tudor hopes to instill and preserve with the Duct Tape. Photograph by Luki O’Keefe.

In 1993, at just 16, Tudor placed second in the World Longboard Championships in Biarritz, France. In 1997, he appeared on the cover of Surfer magazine—a first for the new generation of longboarders more concerned with tradition than convention, who privileged style over progression. In 1998, he claimed his first world title. And then, as the twentieth century drew to a close, Tudor became a star in Thomas Campbell’s seminal films, 1999’s The Seedling and then 2004’s Sprout

That latter year, Tudor returned to Biarritz and won his second title—galvanizing his unorthodox ascension as one of the world’s best surfers and making him synonymous with a style of surfing now deemed timeless. After so many years communing with the past, it appeared that Tudor had become its de facto presence in the physical world.

People’s Parties

At the back end of the 1980s, any semblance of creativity in professional surfing seemed extinguished. By the mid 1990s, it felt about as artful as NASCAR, a sort of beach-blanket burnout parody that gave rise to some of the most cherished pros and shape to a new paradigm—one over which we still fawn and wince, knowing it poorly represented surfing writ large. 

“I took a route in the 80s to longboarding, which was the most hated thing you could ever do,” Tudor said. “People were jealous because this little kid that looked like Tinker Bell came along and was beating the adults. Before that, it was an old-boys’ club. I was the beginning of a new generation where people had the opportunity to make money. It bothered a lot of people.” 

When Scott Sisamis joined Vans in 1996, the company’s ties to surfing were scarce. But, in the past 25 years, there have been few, if any, brands that feel as central to surfing and surf culture. Sisamis’ faith in Tudor, who also joined the team in 1996, was central to that effort. The following year, Vans began sponsoring the Triple Crown of Surfing. Since 2013, they’ve run the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California—the world’s largest surfing competition. And, in 2010, Vans held the inaugural Duct Tape in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

In hindsight, it began with four people talking story across a table. 

Sisamis, Tudor, Mitch Abshere, and Nolan Hall of Vans found some connective tissue in the culture they grew up in and a covalent bond in the things they hoped to expel. Security guards escorting competitors through a corridor of crowds assembled like cattle in a pen was the antithesis of what they imagined. 

“I wanted to be the Antichrist of that,” Tudor said. 

Instead, he wanted to develop a contest that celebrated traditional longboarding and the cultures pressed up against its edges—something understated, something reverent, something prosaic that could become profound.

Over the course of years, their idea took shape. They saw it as a proscenium, a means to carve out space for longboarding’s reception and to afford some the opportunity to derive a livelihood from it, like Tudor had. 

It began with 16 invitations under an illustration by Neil Blender. At a dinner in Virginia Beach, Tudor set the compass of the contest, prioritizing nimble footwork and eloquence over three maneuvers. And, over the course of seven 25-minute heats held during the East Coast Surfing Championships, it ran under a moniker meant to reflect the culture it hoped to mirror—what Alex Knost deemed the Duct Tape Invitational.

Inculcate, Incant, Repeat

Ten years ago, a 19-year-old no-name from nowhere walked into a bodega just off Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach with a tiny goal and a deep well of hope. The former was that he could fool the cashier into selling him beer. The latter was something he could hardly gather the words for. Fortunately, the soft-spoken kid made off with the tall boys before boarding a trolley headed for the inaugural Duct Tape dinner. As an outsider, there are few things as intimidating as being in the midst of a fraternal set where the codes aren’t clear. For Justin Quintal, who made it into the first Duct Tape as a wildcard, he wondered whether Tudor would shake his hand or break his arm.

Today, the no-name from nowhere holds a world title, has won five consecutive US Opens as part of the Duct Tape, and, out of the 20 contests that have been held since 2010, has won nine—including the first in Virginia Beach. It’s impossible to talk about the Duct Tape without the rise of Quintal, a polite, understated Floridian who—without any social capital, let alone the gas money to make it home—

won the first and second contests. A few years later, after cobbling together tips as a waiter, building pools, and holding yard sales to fund his career, Quintal joined Vans as a team rider. 

Like its name and the culture it promotes, the Duct Tape is grounded in a DIY sense and aesthetic. Art by Geoff McFetridge.

While his story is struck through with fuzzy touch-yourself platitudes we rarely see in the world, it’s just one among many now woven into the hagiography of the Duct Tape. It began with a slew of offers that poured in over the years for participants like Tyler Warren, who was courted by Billabong, or Andy Nieblas, who became part of Quiksilver, lending visibility to the redheaded stepchild of surfing, and, as its organizers intended, reconstituted just what the center was.

“Those opportunities wouldn’t have been there without Joel,” Quintal said.

It also begged the question of whether you could call surfing a subculture anymore. What began in earnest took on a life of its own. Tudor and Vans built a motherboard, but they needed a steady stream of gold for it to come alive. They began mining what was an impressive roster of artists, surfers, skaters, and musicians that not only lent the event authenticity and an aesthetic, but also revealed where and how those cultures overlapped. 

“Maybe this kind of surf culture is interesting because when a culture is at this scale, everything is visible,” said Canadian artist and Duct Tape collaborator Geoff McFetridge in Zarautz. “You see the points and you connect them. All the people that are important are right there.” 

When faced with the question of what is ultimately creative about surfing, he bristled at the notion. 

“It’s more than that,” he said. “There is an endpoint with art. There’s a product. But this type of surfing is about caring for little, tiny things. It’s about detail. There’s no reward. It’s experiential. I think at its best it brings in everybody. It’s rule-less and scrappy and improvised.”

In the same breath, McFetridge noted that a lot of the contemporary culture is composed of a predominantly white, male, and middle-class cast of characters—despite its decidedly different departure point. “It’s like I hate to give it too much credit,” he said, “because it comes with this question of, ‘Is that just privilege?’”

In Japan, the Duct Tape brings out the crowd. Hallie Rohr entertains in the soup, 2019. Photograph by Luki O’Keefe.

This was not the case a century ago. The forebear of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, held demonstrations all over America, parlaying his Olympic career into the means to share this pursuit and the values he associated with it—values that spoke to inclusivity and aloha, what some understand as an ethos of compassion. 

Yet, as the sport took root, the opposite often held true along the coasts. As surfing spread in the wake of World War II, the center jumped from Waikiki to Malibu. The concentration of wealth along America’s coast afforded those with affluence access, and, in turn, surfing grew whiter in the shadow of Jim Crow and urban planners like Robert Moses.

“It goes from being Duke, Hawaiian, and dark to young, white, and suburban,” said surf historian Matt Warshaw. 

With that, surfing took on a whole new spirit.

While the past century of homogeneity falls neither on Tudor’s shoulders nor the Duct Tape’s, both the event and its founder have helped clarify just what it is about surfing and surf culture that’s worth celebrating—and, more importantly, what isn’t. In some ways, it resembled an exorcism, staking out real estate for those outside the established centers of surfing while drawing more attention to its edges.

Kassia Meador, who’s become a household name, felt Tudor tilled the soil that allowed her career to flourish. Picking up where he left off, Meador, Knost, and others carved out more space for people like Quintal and Kelia Moniz while showing just how much closer surfing is to art or music rather than football or tailgating.

“I didn’t go into it thinking that I was going to be a high-paid professional competitive longboarder, because that didn’t exist,” said Knost, “aside from Joel.” 

More back-of-the-class party than hard-boiled competition, heats rarely end in the type of ultra-serious weeping or board beating often seen in “the leagues.” Photograph by Jimmy Wilson.

While it’s become more accessible than ever—mainstream, even—longboard culture remains something intimate that doesn’t translate to a webcast. It’s legible on the ground, not at 30,000 feet. It’s unsanitized, rough hewn, and, as Knost told me two years ago, “kind of a lackadaisical commune or cult.” 

That’s what the events try to celebrate, ultimately making what was once deemed a subculture more visible. “That’s why I built the Duct Tape,” Tudor said. “I think we’re the blueprint for surfing events.”

Soon, the events bled out into the broader surf world, both inspiring and validating a handful of contests not dissimilar from the Duct Tape. There was the Deus 9ft & Single, the Single and Unattached, as well as Quintal’s Loggerhead Invitational. Tudor noted how those grassroots events cultivated more currency than a webcast, pointing back to the essence of club contests and 30 years of competing: “We made a cultural gathering that celebrated what it’s all about, and there was a contest within it. It echoed all over the world.” 

Not unlike its source, it showed how “there is more to surfing culture than just surfing,” as Sisamis put it. 

There was a tether in its marrow that led back to Duke and Mary Ann Hawkins, to Doheny and Waikiki, and to the principal belief that longboarders compose one of the most vital sectors of surfing. 

“It started by trying to set the stage for another generation and portion of surfing that was being ignored,” Sisamis said. 

For Tudor, “Surfing was just the icing on the cake.”

As It Ever Was

“There’s something elegant about it,” Tudor said, trying to describe why people feel compelled by the events. “When we got to showcase women, I think that’s when the Duct Tape took off.”

Despite the contest inviting women since its inception, a distinct division didn’t exist until Vans unveiled it at the 2018 US Open. Most meaningful was the prize-purse parity, which, unlike the rest of professional surfing, paid women the same as men. In Surf City, USA, above the roar of the industry’s machismo, it felt especially poignant.

During the same week, 41 years since women first joined the professional tour, the World Surf League promised to award women the same payout as men, marking a seismic shift in surfing’s problematic past. From the outside, it looked like it was in no small part due to being made to look like a dinosaur by what many had written off as prehistoric. 

Even within Vans, as the contest started to draw press and block out dates on the company calendar, there was a shift. In the last decade, the resources set aside for the Duct Tape grew exponentially, more than tripling since the first contest in 2010.

Clearly, there was more attention paid to what smaller intimate events could do both for the brand and for the cultures to which it catered, and that seemed reflected throughout an industry now vying for the sort of cool the Duct Tape embodied. 

“It started to have influence both outward and inward,” Sisamis explained. “If you’re trying to create a platform for progression in a culture, you want it to pick up some sort of critical mass.”

Inevitably, it did. Inexorably, it grew. 

To date, under the Duct Tape’s umbrella, two dozen events have taken place in nine countries with over 100 invitees. Longboarding scenes strewn throughout the world seem almost omnipresent, little hive-like clusters of kids who appear to care about the past as much as they do the present. While there’s no single thing to point to, you can’t ignore the outsize role that Tudor and the Duct Tape have played in making these communities more visible, vital, and connected. It isn’t even a question of knighting Tudor or dispensing credit to the organizers. Instead, it’s acknowledging how so many have staked claim to what was once relegated to the margins as moribund and uncool. It’s about acknowledging how many people were made to feel like they belonged.

“It’s been a long uphill battle to get longboarding’s legitimacy to where it is, to where it’s well respected,” Tudor said. “That’s what the Duct Tape has done.”

“It’s been a long uphill battle to get longboarding’s legitimacy to where it is, to where it’s well respected,” Tudor said. “That’s what the Duct Tape has done.”

Back in 2011, Quintal, Harrison Roach, and a revolving door of would-be Duct Tapees found themselves under Tudor’s roof. As dusk fell, Tudor plied them with food and story. At dawn, he roused them with notes on where and when to surf, usually with some set of surf royalty at his side preparing to pass them a bong. Above them, rafters lined with boards told their own stories. And, as if waiting for someone to ask, Tudor dispensed them with probity. If you were really curious, he wriggled the board down and told you to go surf it. Often, he staved off the crowd and snuck you into a set, too.

As a kid, Tudor attracted the gaze of an almost laughable number of mentors. As he’s climbed the hallowed hill of middle age, he’s become indispensable to his own generation and what’s to come. It’s hard to underscore just how much of that good faith he’s returned, even if you listed every damn person. Sure, you can point to blemishes, falling-outs, and age-old grudges that haunt his name. You can deride him as a self-mythologizing snake-oil salesman or hold him among the most holy and pious. For some, he’s not their first choice to talk foreign policy or infectious disease. But, as a dear friend of his reminded me, “He’s a longboarder from San Diego.”

“He’s always been himself, and he’s never strayed from that,” says Meador. “He’s passionate about what he’s passionate about, and he’s unapologetically true to that. It’s what allowed him to do what he did within surfing.”

This was how Tudor made a life, a living—how he made his world bigger and, by proxy, made ours bigger too. 

“Everything I have,” Tudor said, “I made hanging ten.” 

Back to the Center

Long before any promises were made, back when Tudor was just a kid chasing a world title, there was a sequence that stuck with him. After a contract fell apart in the early 90s, Tudor’s sense of purpose grew dim. It seemed there was little hope that traditional longboarding would be exhumed, let alone rise to the level of something he could make a living from. 

But a few words from a mentor kept the lights on. 

“Let me say something to you,” Donald Takayama told the listless teen. “You’re going to get older, and what you’re doing is going to be cool as you get older. These guys that are up here at the top right now, when they get older, they’re gone. Trust me.”

More than two decades from that day, Tudor chewed on the thought. He laughed before saying, “Fuck, he was right.” 

As 2019 ran out, the WSL held the last leg of its recently reconsidered longboard tour—largely rebuilt by Devon Howard and more attuned to logging. But as the final unfurled, you could barely hear the chirr of palms that marched down the beach in Taiwan as the crowd crooned. Coming in through a keyhole on the beach was the winner: Quintal, the nobody from nowhere. He became the first to win a title on a single-fin since Tudor did so 15 years prior, forming one more bright spot that conjured up a century of surf history and reminded the broader surf world of just how central the notions of tradition and convention are to progression.

Drawing a line farther east across the Pacific and up a ribbon of pavement to Tudor’s perch in Del Mar, you could almost hear him shouting. “It was like watching your kid win,” Tudor said. “Watching him win felt like I won.”

Tudor approaches the DTI commentating like he does everything: no bullshit, a dose of snot, and with an appreciation for whatever he deems to be the real. Photograph by Nolan Hall.

For three decades, the idea that longboarding was second to shortboarding gnawed at Tudor. “I don’t want to hear that longboarding is easier, because it’s not. Go fuck yourself if you make that claim. It’s just as fucking hard. It’s a refinement of style through generations and generations. Style is the most important thing.”

A year earlier in Zarautz, there was a buzz along the water’s edge where the crowd assembled to watch Ryan Burch, Knost, Warren, and Nieblas in the Duct Tape’s final heat. The crescent beach hemmed in by verdant headlands had molted into a sort of amphitheater with an amber glow that dressed the place up. All around me, some of surfing’s most lauded figures blended into a symphony of people shouting, smiling, and talking story.

“It was just one of those moments,” Abshere remembered, “wave after wave.” 

Out in the water, that blur of blue framed by four surfers seemed more meaningful—less like a specter and closer to an apparition. Near-falls turned thrilling. Exaggerated arcs drew hoots. And, by the time the heat ran out, nobody knew who’d won. 

Frankly, it didn’t seem to matter.