Noseride Obsessive

“The whole thing feels like a cool, sophisticated LSD trip.”

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Every time I hear the 1962 version of the bossa nova song “Desafinado,” my mind summons a vision of a willowy, teenaged Joel Tudor noseriding at Ehukai Beach Park. The sea is a washed-out jade green, the afternoon sun has transmuted his skin to brushed gold, and he’s riding in three-quarter time, winging his red Takayama to the improvisations of Stan Getz on tenor sax. It’s impossible for me to avoid this musical association, this sonic madeleine. The image is burned forever into my brain as a result of frequent, obsessive rewatchings of the opening sequence of the surf film Longer at a time in my life when noseriding meant nearly everything to me.

If I’m being honest, noseriding still means nearly everything to me—it’s that rarest of life’s pleasures, the “nowhere you’d rather be” moment, the hallucinatory flow state, the prolonged culmination, something on the level of the barrel ride or the tantric climax—but it was during my learning phase, when I was taking my nascent cross-steps and feeling those first breaths of wind under my toes, that Longer took up permanent residence in my DVD player. 

I still watch it, more than 20 years later, and still consider it to be the finest noseriding movie ever made. The fact that much of the 39 minutes of footage features Tudor on twin-fins, fishes, and eggs (the aphorism on the DVD cover reads, “Open your mind and your boards will follow”) only intensifies those dazzling scenes in which he is working the front rail. 

The film’s director—a Delphian figure known only as JBrother—possesses a brilliant, sommelieric ability to match his subject to his soundtrack. In his 1995 film, Adrift, he opens audaciously on a thigh-high crumbler of a wave, where a childlike Tudor tango-steps to the Beastie Boys’ “Son of Neckbone.” Other pairings include Donald Takayama noseriding backside to “E Mama Ea” and Nat Young carving to the overture from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In Adrift’s final scene, Tudor drops calmly into double-overhead Pipe on a 9’4″ longboard (with no leash) and swings under cover to Nina Simone’s gospel version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” 

Trying to describe the physics behind this kind of noseriding requires a dose of magical thinking. It’s a clear flouting of science, a force propelled by absurdist principles or divine mysteries.

Longer debuted in 2001, the same year as Momentum: Under the Influence, and served as a sort of soft-power foil to the Taylor Steele punk/shralp shortboard pictures of the post–New School generation. If the Andy Irons audience didn’t quite have the patience for small-wave logging set to jazz, a niche group of noseride obsessives (myself among them) did—and we sat back in marijuana-tinged bliss, reveling in the subtle play around the melody, the recursive tacks and adaptations, the slack carelessness, and the timeless affinities between jazz and stylish longboarding. 

As “Desafinado” rolls into its final verse, Tudor arches into another wave, rising in slow motion like a cobra. In two steps he’s on the nose, trimming, deep in the pocket, guiding himself through space-time via microscopic shifts of body weight and gentle flexes of the ankles. His board is a whisper in the wave behind him, and then it is gone completely and only the man remains, flowing through every rimple. Charlie Byrd plucks his guitar. The double bass thumps in time. The high-speed sizzle, the impressionist gleam—the whole thing feels like a cool, sophisticated LSD trip. Pause the film anywhere and you’ll understand why trying to describe the physics behind this kind of noseriding requires a dose of magical thinking. It’s like explaining how Kobe Bryant could levitate a few inches over his defender even after he was already on his way down. It’s a clear flouting of science, a force propelled by absurdist principles or divine mysteries.[1] What makes Tudor’s ride at the Ehukai sandbar even more extraordinary is his positioning on the face of the wave. The lip line is chipping at the height of his shoulder. Compare this to photographs of noseriders at your local break. You’ll almost never see the wave above the surfer’s waist. Riding at such a precarious elevation requires, more than just superhuman rail instincts and bravado, a willing suspension of disbelief. 

The best noseriders have a preternatural ability to see the future, to presage the critical section and plan accordingly. Should you fade into the peak or race immediately at an angle down the line? Body English plays a role too: Lean to the inside rail and elevator up the face, or tilt to the outside and drop your altitude? There’s also this: In order to get to the nose in the first place, you must traverse the length of the deck. This sounds easy enough  (walking, after all, is the most natural human motion), but the trick is to avoid looking like a rhesus monkey as you’re doing it. Amateur noseriders will shuffle, get tangled up in their leashes, duck walk, stinkbug, crab claw, or run like fools ahead of the sweet spot, only to bog down on the shoulder. Cross-stepping to the tip, and remaining peaceful about it, requires a Taoist soul mastery. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Longer’s title sequence and Tudor’s unbroken 27-second hang-five to “Desafinado.” 

Ryan Burch, Cardiff Reef, 2011. Sequence by Tatsuo Takei

The act of noseriding is at once a religious experience, a satisfaction of a desire, and an embrace of the impossible. It’s not surprising that it rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early ’60s.[2] Like the jazz practitioners of that era, surfers extemporized, deviated from tradition, and reimagined freedom of movement. The spontaneous lines Miki Dora and Lance Carson were taking at Malibu shared wavelengths with what Coltrane and Parker were doing at the Village Vanguard. 

When disco and cocaine came to snuff out the innocence of the ’60s, jazz and noseriding went into hibernation, and all the adepts turned their focus toward radical turns, barrel rides, and, eventually, aerial maneuvers. Shortboarding offered a lighter essence, and the surface dance supplanted, for a time, the more elemental connection with the depths. A brief moment in the ’90s saw performance longboarding flirt with the mainstream, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that art-house productions like Adrift and Thomas Campbell’s The Seedling (1999) fully resurrected the noseride. Working in the mode of Rainbow Bridge, Morning of the Earth, and George Greenough’s Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, these films recalled the tenor and aesthetics of the past and set the stage for the neoclassical noseriding renaissance. By the early 2000s, a new generation of retro purists had arisen, and Joel Tudor emerged as its oracle. Perhaps no better proof exists that the Aquarian Age is truly upon us than the ascendance of women as today’s top world-class noseriders. Everything that makes longboarding appealing—the graceful gesture, the lack of contrivance, the casual glissade, the forward movement executed without aggression or hostility—finds its ideal expression in women. From a spectator’s perspective, the sight of Kassia Meador, Kelia Moniz, Karina Rozunko, or Honolua Blomfield performing mudras in the high curl has certain advantages over watching Wingnut and Bonga Perkins smacking 9-foot logs against shortboard waves.[3] The males might have more raw power, but the females ultimately have more style. 

Lauren Hill, the writer and director of The Physics of Noseriding, elucidates with this proverb: “Men tend to lead with their knees, but women, we go hip first.” Which calls to mind two iconic images: one, David Nuuhiwa, that Apollo of noseriders, his body curved like a longbow, knees thrust forward, flying across a Huntington Beach wall, and two, Rell Sunn (in what might be the greatest noseriding photo of all time) hanging 10 in her blue trunks, one eyebrow arched, hips far out ahead—a transcendentally chill sorceress. This fearlessness, this inner harmony in the midst of a screaming noseride, is what separates the maestros from the mortals. To be utterly comfortable, down to your hands and fingers, especially in the face of an imminent upending, is possibly the end goal of all longboarders. 

As for moving pictures, Longer maintains its place for me at the summit of the genre. It is simply the best noseriding footage ever stitched to song. I need only pull up the film’s “Misty” sequence to find enough inspiration to paddle out into thigh-high closeouts on any given morning. 

It’s not surprising that noseriding rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Like the jazz practitioners of that era, surfers extemporized, deviated from tradition, and reimagined freedom of movement.

The scene opens with a monochrome dissolve…semi-tragic conditions, 1- to 2-foot fizzling wind slop, a day that would have most surfers moaning and flailing. Tudor gathers speed easily, pivots low in the trough, and steps up the scales to the liquid trill of Erroll Garner’s piano. Suddenly he is slicing across the top of the wave, harnessing some previously hidden power. Everything is suggestion, like a Japanese ink painting, the wave a horizontal field of gray, Tudor himself a winged silhouette, like a pelican soaring on an updraft. With each turn, fronds of spray rise up from his tail. (The board is the Blue Messiah, a precursor to Takayama’s Model T, so heavy, so deep-riding, that it manufactures its own sections.) The musical notes seem to sparkle on the water. 

There is one stuttering instant when Tudor loses his balance and nearly plunges headfirst into the soup. JBrother manages to syncopate this glitch with a pause, an empty space in the song. Here, we are made to understand how time can actually slow down for the greatest dancers and athletes. Just as a tennis ball swells to the size of a balloon for Novak Djokovic, or the basket seems as large as a hula hoop when Steph Curry heaves a three-pointer, the wave cooperates with Joel Tudor, opening up possibilities unavailable to the faithless. 

With a simple bow at the waist, he makes an epicritical adjustment, sideslips the tumbling rapids, and a new section appears, as if conjured there by the Blue Messiah. And there it is. Nothing could be simpler or more obvious than another run to the nose. No hesitation, no resistance. Just carry. 

[1] In The Physics of Noseriding (2022), Lauren Hill employs stunning deck-mounted camera shots   to illustrate the hydrodynamics of the Coanda effect, wherein water displaced by the front of the surfboard enfolds the tail “like a blanket” to lock the vessel in place. Suction is only one of the innumerable variables in play on a noseride. As water strikes the legs (especially backside, where it can’t sluice freely over the insteps), it creates drag. One must also consider the fin, providing submerged tension and keeping the tail from slipping out of the wave. The weight of the rider and construction materials of the surfboard dictate buoyancy and fluid thrust, not to mention the multiform differential equations associated with rail contours, nose template, hips, foil, thickness flow, rocker, et cetera.

[2] Chances are noseriding’s true provenance came centuries ago, with the ancient Hawaiians. Rabbit Kekai was perching as far back as the 1940s, and doing it without a skeg, on a redwood hot curl. Dale Velzy and Mickey Muñoz were pulling toes over in California in the early ’50s. But noseriding didn’t peak until the ’60s, when surfers like Nuuhiwa, Dora, Carson, and Joey Cabell took the art form to new dimensions.

 [3] Part of the reason Tudor got hassled when he first came to the Islands as a youth was his long blond hair, skinny frame, and balletic mien. The derisive nickname “Tinkerbell” carried certain misogynist implications. Years later, Tudor’s contest series, the Duct Tape Invitational, displays significantly less chest-thumping combativeness and one-upmanship than the stuff seen regularly on the WSL. In fact, winning almost seems incidental. And Tudor was the first contest organizer to offer women the same prize money as men.

[Feature Image Caption: Joel Tudor, Hobie San Onofre Classic, 1999. Photos by Tatsuo Takei]

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