Throw Your Hands Up

Whether Sano, Malibu, or Bali, Karina Rozunko’s prêt-à-porter surf style proves attractively portable.

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Karina Rozunko is standing at the south end of the Malibu Wall, sipping coffee and checking the surf in a green blouse and black sunglasses. This was at one time her regular stomping grounds, within range of her hometown of San Clemente. But soon after walking up to greet me, she says, “Until just last week I hadn’t surfed Malibu for six years.” 

Since 2020, the 27-year-old has been transitioning her life to Bali. Even prior to that, she’d been spending less and less time in California due to a busy travel schedule. “I’ve never had an apartment in California,” she says. “It’s so expensive here. I wouldn’t be able to save any money, and I knew that I didn’t want to live in San Clemente, even though I love coming back.” 

Rozunko recently closed on a piece of land in Bali, just east of Canggu, not far from where she currently rents an apartment with her boyfriend, surfer-filmmaker Jimmy James, the co-collaborator on Rozunko’s first two surf edits, Doll Riot and Haiku. Between filming and traveling, she’s settled into an idyllic-sounding routine with James that involves hosting a consistent stream of friends passing through—Shyama Buttonshaw, Andy Nieblas, and Creed McTaggart, of late—painting, designing swimsuits and jewelry, and daily surf checks on her moped with two stray dogs she adopted hanging in the balance—one propped up on her lap and the handlebars, and the other at her feet—to say nothing of the 9-foot log hanging sidelong on the moped’s board rack.  

Her current layover in California, on her way back from competing in the Duct Tape Invitational in Rio de Janeiro, is for only a few weeks, but from the procession of regulars—DJs and gallerists, pro surfers, hopeful stars of forthcoming survival-themed reality TV shows—who cycle by to say hello on their way out to surf or between set waves, you’d never know she’d left Malibu in the first place. 

Rozunko is not exactly shy, but she takes a genuine interest in others that tends to shift the focus of conversation onto whoever walks up. She seems to know everyone’s story: This one is dating that one, and that one runs a cool gallery in East LA, and that one throws a good party, and that one has a young daughter he says is going to surf better than her one day, and that one is definitely going to invite us back to his hot tub (and he does).  I lose count of how many people approach Rozunko to say hello before we’ve even completed our extended surf check, a testament to how much time she spent here in earlier years, but as the day winds on, the number easily exceeds 30.

Rozunko has been ingrained in the OC-LA surf scene from her earliest memories. Her father, Greg, a longtime fixture at the San Clemente Pier and a close friend of Midget Smith, took her surfing at San Onofre from the time she was 3. “My mom still tells me about times that I’m sure I was too young to remember,” Rozunko says. “But one of my first memories is lying down on the front of my dad’s board. I couldn’t have even been 5 years old. The waves looked like they were 40 feet to me. I was so scared, but he paddled me out and stood me up on a wave.” 

Her father’s enviable collection of Nuuhiwas, Takayamas, and Hap Jacobses got her thinking more expansively about board design than the average surf-stoked kid, while older brothers Tanner and Kyle solidified her commitment to surfing. “I’d see how much fun they were having with their friends at the beach and I wanted to be part of that,” she says. “Tanner really pushed me to get into longboarding when not many people my age were doing it, and I took his advice. He was like, ‘It’s way cooler and it suits your style.’”

Rozunko also found good surfing company in her childhood friends Makala Smith and Andy Nieblas. “My mom would drop me off at Sano for the day,” she remembers. “I spent so much time there with Andy and Makala. Andy is someone I’ve always watched and been like, ‘What the fuck? How did you even think about doing that?’ He’d be surfing with his f in flipped up, facing forward. When he came to visit Indo, he was surfing some pretty heavy days on a ’70s-style single-fin, with no leash, and lost his board so many times. He always makes me want to try new things and push the limits of things that maybe aren’t even functional.” 

Nieblas remembers how the mix of influences surrounding his and Rozunko’s upbringing formed her distinctive style. “We were growing up in San Clemente at a weird time through the early 2000s, when it was pretty much high-performance shortboards—and, even in longboarding, high-performance two-plus-ones. But then Karina’s dad was a logger, saying, ‘Hey, you should get on this board that’s 60 pounds.’ We’d be on the beach all day in our crusty wetsuits just figuring it out, trying different boards, and that became a melting pot where Karina never had to limit herself and she arrived at the pronounced talent she has now.” 

After completing our morning surf check, the consensus on the conditions is that today is a shoulda-been-here-yesterday kind of day, which sounds about right for Malibu. But it’s also objectively true: A south swell is fastly declining, yet the lineup is still packed, as it’s one of the few places still turning that little bit of energy into long mechanical walls. I tell Rozunko I’ve never surfed Malibu, primarily owing to the horrific crowds. She says, “It’s a good thing to do at least once before you die, and you’re almost there, so don’t die.” We walk back through the parking lot to grab our stuff. 

Rozunko has two boards loaded up in her faded-blue 1985 Toyota Tercel four-wheel-drive wagon, a vehicle she purchased on Craigslist for eight grand, which, despite some rust it’s collected sitting at her parents’ house in San Clemente, still has only 40,000 miles on it. One board is typical of what she would ride, and the other—completely unwaxed and unridden—is noticeably atypical. It’s a short little keel-fin fish shaped by Ryan Burch. It’s atypical for Rozunko because she mostly prefers boards that are 7 feet and longer, and she doesn’t like riding twin-fins. “My stance feels too narrow from riding single-fin longboards,” she says, then clarifies that the twin-fin was shaped for a friend of a friend, with whom she’s dropping it later that afternoon. 

She inspects her longboard for dings. When she finds one, a Malibu lot lizard quickly slithers over with a roll of duct tape to seal it off. Then another approaches, offering water-repellent plumber’s tape. The board is a 9’5.5″ High Heel model—a pig-inspired design with wide hips and a pulled-in nose—that Rozunko has been refining with Australian shaper Thomas Bexon, which she rode in the most recent Duct Tape in Brazil. 

Rozunko has a thing about rounding boards off to odd numbers. “Nine-two? Nine-six? Never. I don’t like evens,” she says, only half-joking. “I like 9’5″s and 9’7″s, anything odd.” (Later in the day, she sees a friend in the water riding a purple resin-tinted Bexon and they trade. Rozunko likes it enough that they discuss making the swap permanent. She warns her friend that the purple board would be going all the way back to Bali. Then she flips it over for closer study, sees that it’s a 9’6″, and the whole deal comes undone.)   

Soon, Lola Mignot, one of Rozunko’s longtime friends, travel partners, and contemporaries, pulls into the Malibu lot. We make our way down to the beach with boards, blankets, towels, wetsuits, coolers, and not a single bar of wax between us. Mignot, who now lives in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, also has just returned from competing in the Duct Tape in Brazil. She’s French, but grew up in Sayulita, Mexico, where she and Rozunko first met during the frequent extended-family surf trips that Rozunko made to the area when she was young, at a time when her family owned a home there. Mignot and Rozunko both give menacing smiles when I ask what they remember about meeting one another. 

“We hated each other,” Rozunko says. 

“I was like, ‘Who is this girl showing up to Sayulita?’” Mignot says, raising an eyebrow. 

“There just weren’t any girls who surfed [there] at the time, so we both really stood out,” Rozunko says. “Now we’re like sisters.” In 2012, when Mignot was 14, she went to visit Rozunko in San Clemente. Rozunko was 16 and had just gotten her driver’s license. Rozunko took the seats out of her family’s van and the girls drove to Malibu, Ventura, and Santa Barbara, sleeping in the van and surfing. Mignot ended up staying for six months. 

On one trip up to Malibu, they lost the keys while the van was parked on the side of the road. Fortunately, it was unlocked, so they posted up for three days until Rozunko’s mom, Rene, could drive a spare set to them. “There wasn’t any rush,” Mignot says to emphasize how perfectly content they were in those days, stranded at a beach in each other’s company. 

In the following years, Mignot and Rozunko traveled to South Africa, Indonesia, Hawaii, Australia, and Sri Lanka together. On one particularly formative road trip in Australia, from Sydney to Noosa, when Rozunko was 17, she remembers, “Guys would see us surfing and say, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe a car full of girls showed up,’” underscoring the narrow surf-cultural margins that lady loggers of that era grew up on. “It wasn’t really something I thought about at the time until they pointed it out.” 

The last stop on that trip was the Noosa Festival, where Rozunko won the women’s pro division. It proved a major turning point in her surfing life. Joel Tudor happened to be on the beach during her finals heat, and Rozunko’s surfing grabbed his attention. She soon was invited to compete in the men’s division of Tudor’s Duct Tape contests in Huntington Beach and Tofino, British Columbia, as a dedicated women’s division hadn’t yet been established, changing the trajectory of Rozunko’s career at a time when she was still supporting her travels by working at a café in San Clemente. 

Within a few years, she was sponsored by Vans. “I missed the first iMessages I got about meeting with Vans because I was still on a flip phone at the time and the messages weren’t coming through,” Rozunko says. “The whole time leading up to that I was using the money from working at the café to go travel and surf. I think that a lot of people thought that I was getting paid to surf, but I was still kind of faking my way through it. It helped me realize that no matter what, I would still figure out a way to be doing this.” 

Today, in addition to her sponsorship with Vans, Rozunko sells limited-run swimwear, jewelry, and bags that she designs through an online store called Noise Shop. I ask if she could see that growing into a larger-scale business that fully supports her. “It’s hard to run a company, and I don’t know if I’m that business-minded,” she says. “I don’t really want to do something on a mass scale. I’m more drawn to designing something to see how it turns out. Only making 20 of something rather than thousands of them feels more special to me. At the same time, I know surfing can’t be everything. I love the sense of completion I get from making a film or finishing a painting. The best times in my life have been making movies with Jimmy that came together organically, when we didn’t really have a plan or a deadline, but we were just bouncing ideas off each other and getting our friends involved.” That kind of spontaneity is a guiding principle of Rozunko’s surfing as well. At Malibu she improvises waves with maximalist energy. By contrast, most of her surfing contemporaries seem focused on paring their style down to minimalism, bordering on conservatism, with no movement wasted. Rozunko seems to approach waves without letting the traditional surf-style rubric weigh too heavily in her mind. 

Sure, she can check all the boxes, and there are a few waves she rides during our session where she cross-steps confidently to the nose and hangs 10, hands at her side, completely unadorned. But most waves keep me guessing the whole way, with plenty of signature hand jive, her feet spinning and pedaling from nose to tail, her frame sometimes dipping down into a cavewoman crouch before straightening and sneaking up for a cheater five, followed by an upright and calm parallel stance to admire the beauty of the clean Malibu wall reeling ahead of her. Then she transitions into another sequence of borderline-reckless movements. 

Rozunko doesn’t care at all about blowing a wave or losing her board—and she does a couple times that day. “I like being out of control, and I really don’t even want to think about what I’m doing,” she says. “A lot of surfers just try to keep their arms by their side. But one thing I learned from doing gymnastics as a kid is you have to use your upper body. That’s what lets you balance and move. I always love trying new things, and I don’t want to be in this box where I’m just hanging 10. That’s so boring to me.” 

“There’s so much surfing that’s competition driven, but it’s the artistry that really matters most, and that’s what Karina does so well,” says Kassia Meador, whose own career arc opened up possibilities for the generation of longboarders that followed. “Her surfing seems to have gone to the next level since she’s been spending more time in Indo. You can see that she’s really in that freesurfing mindset, and there’s so much creativity in her films that displays what it means to be a surfer outside competition.” 

Rozunko loses track of time as she paddles laps up the point, and soon more than two hours have passed. She’s startled from her trance only by the realization that she’s late to drop off the twin-fin sitting in her car. Still in her wetsuit, she makes the handoff in the Malibu parking lot and quickly hops back in the water. The sun peeks out from behind the fog and the wind goes slack. The lineup swells from extremely crowded to “so crowded you could see such a thing only at Malibu” crowded. There are surfing dogs to contend with—and Allen Sarlo. Eventually things become unbelievably sketchy. Mignot has a hectic three-way collision that knocks the wind out of her, leaving a deep pressure ding in her 9’4″ Dane Peterson log. Afterward, she heads back to the beach and cracks a beer. 

Rozunko soon follows and cracks one too. We talk about how drastically the surf conditions in Bali differ from what Rozunko grew up surfing. “I definitely ride longboards a lot less because of how often the waves are good,” she says. “It’s helped my confidence living there, but I still want to get a lot more comfortable in hollow reefbreaks. It’s going to take some time before I’m getting completely drained with no water touching me.” 

As soon as the sun and the Modelo Especial have warmed Mignot, she gets right back in the water and picks off wave after wave that slides just under the First Point crowd and reels off toward the pier as she cross-steps gracefully to the nose. Rozunko hoots her on from the beach and films a few of her rides. Then she hurries to finish her beer and hops back in for her third session of the day. 

After another hour or so, the tide drains out, the wind comes up, and the after-work crowd begins swarming. By now, Rozunko and Mignot have been in their wetsuits for more than six hours. They finally peel them off on the beach and crack a couple more Modelos. 

It’s a bittersweet moment. Rozunko has a flight booked back to Bali in two days, and they’re unsure when they’ll see each other again. 

“Stay for a little longer,” Mignot says. 

The south swell is due to bump up again overnight. The new property in Bali can wait. Her design plans on the new line of swimsuits for Noise Shop can wait. Her next surf edit can wait. Rozunko is clearly tempted. 

“I already extended my ticket before,” she says, not providing a definitive yes or no answer. 

Sure enough, they’re back at Malibu together the next day.