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Black Sheep DNA

Shane Beschen spent his professional surfing career raging against complacency. Today, he finds plenty left on tap through a blend of family and business ventures.

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Shane Beschen beckons me up the driveway toward his home, past blooming tropical plants fecund with color. Trade winds tussle his towheaded mop, and a rainbow flickers through the mist of a timid shower passing in broad daylight. 

Beschen has the look of a man well surfed. Such a look is unmistakable to fellow surfers. A man well surfed has skin that glows in the shade and a gait still dripping with grace from walking on water moments prior. A man well surfed may not have bathed since the last session, but he appears existentially clean. Eyes that smile with a Buddhist’s inner peace. Vibrations somewhere on the spectrum between baked and temporary enlightenment.

Indeed, very rich men spend their lives searching for such a look of contentment and still don’t find it. Like Beschen, you must live across the street from Rocky Point to obtain such a look. You must live next door to your younger brother, and you must watch your two talented sons shuffle in and out of the house, knowing that they likely have two choices on their mind today: To surf or to skate? You must have a halfpipe in your backyard beside a giant trampoline next to another skate feature made of concrete that resembles a small wave that rolls into the garage. A garage with a zillion boards. And you must surf all the time to get such a look. 

You also must earn this look. You must throw away your professional surfing career and stand by your convictions. You must find your hill and die on it, first.

Photograph by Ryan Foley.

Once ranked No. 2 on the ASP World Tour, Beschen didn’t always have this palpable look of serenity. Known for being disillusioned with and outspoken against the competitive format, he was considered by many in pro surfing as a sacrificial lamb to an archaic judging system. Enter monikers. Loner. Black sheep. Bridesmaid. Dark horse. 

Of course, for two and a half decades, anyone who wasn’t Kelly Slater was inadvertently the dark horse. Friggin’ Slater. The man who haunted much of Beschen’s amateur run and professional career. But, these days, Beschen is not bitter. Too much time has passed. Plus, a man so well surfed could never have too much to bitch about.

I sink into a couch in a downstairs den that, from the sight of modified bunk beds, appears to also house traveling pros. Beschen’s hair looks salty, his face vaguely smeared with sunblock, pants clinging unsuccessfully to his slender frame. A man well surfed does not age like normal men do.

*

“When I was a kid,” Beschen begins, “one of the main things that happened in San Clemente was when Jim Hogan brought Martin Potter to town. The first time me and my friends saw Pottz surfing T-Street, it was a thing. It was definitely a really motivating experience that just made us all like, ‘Holy shit, this is another level.’ Pottz really started the airs. And, being in San Clemente, Archy was right there too. But Pottz was the first guy that I personally saw making them. Right then and there, it’s like you’re a kid watching it, thinking, ‘Okay, that’s what we’re doing now.’”

Lucky to be young enough to grow up in the surf-meets-skate-meets-function hub of San Clemente, and in an era when pro surfers could begin to make an actual living, Beschen also had parents who both surfed and encouraged him and his younger brother, Gavin, into their respective careers. 

Beschen dominated the amateurs and state championships, was sponsored, and spent many a final of the US Championships going head-to-head with his rival, Slater.

Menehunes, Boys, Juniors. But Slater always got the better of him before hopping on the World Tour early. 

“Shane and I had a rivalry since around 1986 or 87,” recalls the 11-time world champion. “We competed on a couple of US teams together in various places, but it quickly became apparent that we were battling for the same space. We were very competitive. We had some great ones, though…” 

Beschen’s competitive prowess and silky, long-limbed style was renowned. Beyond a profound ocean sense, he apparently had abnormally potent eyesight, seeing lumps on the horizon that others literally could not. Often, he’d surf comps leashless, a throwback tactic that simultaneously thumbed a nose at failure.

“When Shane was on, he was on,” says former ASP World Tour surfer and childhood friend Dino Andino. “He was just so confident. I’ve never seen anybody that confident my whole entire life. Maybe Derek Ho, when he was really going for a world title.”

While one wouldn’t feel it now in his presence, equally as notorious was his uncompromising nature, its wrath awakening even as a teenager. Turning pro at 17 years old, by 19 Beschen was mowing through the PSAA (Bud Tour) to qualify for the WCT. At that time, his contracts were up with his three main sponsors: Quiksilver clothing, Rusty surfboards, and O’Neill wetsuits. Headed into that year, Quik told Beschen he wasn’t in danger of a pay cut. But, concurrently,

Slater’s contract with OP was up, and Quiksilver wanted to bring him on board. Beschen was offered a third of his previous salary.

“I was pretty shattered,” he says, “because [Slater] had been my main rival since I was 11 at the nationals. I was just looking at them, thinking, ‘I can’t believe that you could tell me that before and then tell me this right now.’ It just lit a spark.

I had too much honor to just let it go. Maybe it was pride; maybe it was ego. But, to me, it was just dishonorable.”

 Leading by example, 30 years on. Photograph by Aaron Lieber.

So, Beschen told them to fuck off. Not long after, he got caught by Rusty riding a Merrick that Chris Brown had lent him. Rusty got pissed. So, Beschen told them to fuck off too. (When you find a magic board, what are you going to do?) He tried to renegotiate a pay bump with O’Neill for clothing, but they wouldn’t budge. So, Beschen told O’Neill to fuck off for the hat trick.

“Man,” says Andino, “over the years, there’s so many gnarly things I’d see him do when he felt like sponsors were punking him. And he’d just be like, ‘You know what? I don’t need the money that bad. Take the money. Fuck off.’ Then he’d just peel another sticker off and go out and rip a place to shreds. Who else does that shit?”

Beschen was no prima donna, either. The guy had the talent to back up his principles. Case in point: Suddenly sponsor-less, using a borrowed Merrick from Brown and a borrowed wetsuit from Andino (Beschen refused to even wear his old sponsor’s suit), he won the entire PSAA tour that year to qualify for the WCT. The following year, Rip Curl offered him a modest contract.

“Even though the money wasn’t all that great,” he says, “it was actually a really cool thing because it allowed me to spend time with [Tom] Curren. He’d just won his third world title, and he was in his prime right then as far as his skill set.”

Tucked knee. Functional grab pulled straight from skate. No shortage of pop. Beschen’s above-the-lip surfing in the 90s is salutable even by today’s ridiculous standards, a product of firsthand lessons coming up in San Clemente during the era of Pottz, Archy, and Christian Fletcher. Though he wasn’t the first to take to the sky, Beschen was a pioneer in pushing progression on the tour. Photograph by Tom Servais.

He did hang with Curren. They spent over a month together at J-Bay in regularfoot splendor. He went on Rip Curl’s “The Search” trips, traveling the world with Frankie Oberholzer, Brock Little, and Sonny Miller, finding himself on a sailboat in places very far from home. 

Not surprisingly, he also did well in his freshman season on tour, winning the ASP’s Rookie of the Year award. But the old bulldogs were butting heads with the young pits. And it wasn’t just a generational thing—it was a fundamental difference in what each generation considered “good surfing.” 

“It was a really interesting time because it wasn’t just all peaches and cream,” Beschen grins. “Guys were over us and they were fighting for their… It was an ego thing. Guys like [Gary] ‘Kong’ [Elkerton] and the power surfers were so anti-airs and tail slides and progression. Their main thing was always, ‘Tricks are for kids.’ The funny thing was that our whole generation—Slater, myself, [Shane] Dorian, Ross [Williams], and even the Aussies—all these guys knew how to carve, too. Yeah, we were ‘rookies,’ but we were skillful, aggro rookies coming in and taking them down. I mean, Slater had already won a title by the time I got on tour.”

This unyielding belief in a more radical style of surfing was also the impetus of what would become a very public push for change on the ASP. Progression in surfing would become Beschen’s hill. By his second year on tour, 1994, he had his first big result with a win at the US Open. It was also the first time he ever beat Slater in a final after a childhood and adolescence of matchups. Beschen also refused to wear a leash, and he did it in front of tens of thousands of cheering spectators.

“That was probably the moment,” says Beschen, “that made me think, ‘Okay, I can go for the title. This is the guy, and it’s just how it ever was. Let’s do it.’”

In 1996, Shane rolled into the middle of the season ranked No. 1 in the world. He started the year by getting three perfect 10s in a heat for a 30-point score at Kirra in the Billabong Pro Gold Coast—a feat that’s never been replicated. Next, he won the Marui Pro in Japan. Then he doubled down with a win at the Quiksilver Pro G-Land by displaying phenomenal backside tube-riding chops, leaving fans confounded by the way he’d pigdog pump and weave using his right hand for rail leverage.

Along the way, he also surfed with risk, shining the tried-and-true three-to-the-beach format, often burning whole waves for an end-section air. It wasn’t recommended at the time, but Beschen’s never been one for safe surfing. With obvious momentum for a world title, he found himself in the final again with Slater at Huntington Beach, the commentators billing it the “Rematch from 94.” 

Any surf fan of the 90s has seen the notorious clip. The two men paddling frantically toward a right-hander walling off the HB Pier. Slater slightly too outside while Beschen pivots to take off. Slater scratching behind him, perhaps too deep, but now closest to the peak. The visible moment Beschen misjudges Slater’s mettle. Or was it malice? Beschen pumps toward a section without looking at Slater, who from behind gets an odd chip shot into the peak. Beschen clicks a nice frontside air off the closeout section, then follows it into the inside for another turn. But, unbeknownst to him, he now has an interference and is virtually doomed to lose.

The infamous US Open final in 1996 was just one of many battles between Beschen and Kelly Slater. Photograph by Mike Balzer.

“The way the rules were back then, it was a fair call,” shrugs Beschen 25 years later. “It was just a really—”

“Dick move?” I offer.

“Strategic, cold-blooded move,” he continues, charitably. “The heat had just started. There was not even a situation to be fearful of yet. It was basically his very first move of the heat—to win by default.”

The two exchanged words out in the water between inconsistent sets, the camera not straying from their positions. Even in the post-heat interview, Slater didn’t seem too psyched on his own behavior. 

“I’d rather surf it out, but that’s the way it goes,” he’d make out. “I wasn’t out there except for one goal, and that was to win the heat. But I gotta say…if it’s possible to have a disappointing win, this would be one.”

Beschen was never quite the same after that heat. 

“It put me into a horrible mindset,” he says. “It wasn’t really the loss; it was just the subtle energy of what had been done that just lingered with me through the European leg right after. I had another couple of really gnarly calls there that didn’t go my way. Kelly ended up winning two of the events over there. It was over after France.”

He finished second in the world that year. Not a bad result in the least, but…runner-up. And yet. Bigger picture, while Taylor Steele and Josh Pomer and …Lost flicks were showing the world surfing 2.0, the tour was still rewarding AOL dialup. It was precisely because of this that Beschen began to make a stink. He wasn’t bitter about the US Open heat. But he was plain furious with the ASP’s inability to recognize that the sport was evolving. Only fair the judges and playbook change with it, no? More profoundly, Beschen felt that tour surfing was lacking the excitement—the sensations of awe and risk and wonderment—that drew him to stepping on a surfboard in the first place.

“For me, I want to perform,” he says. “That has always been the best part of surfing: watching guys and wondering what they’re going to do. That was always the most exciting thing about it. It was never like, ‘Oh, he’s going to do four backside off-the-lips right now. One, two, three, four. Good job. Here’s your 8.5.’”

Derek Hynd, who was embedded with the World Tour through the 90s as a surf journalist, saw it too. 

“The huge flaw in Australian surfing for a good 30 years—since [Shane] Herring’s flash—was too much manufacture and not much magic and madness,” Hynd says. “It was all getting so fucking predictably boring with the same year-in, year-out ratio of questionable subjectivities at the hands of judges, or sometimes just a head judge. Something had to change. Beschen’s ire and his sincerity about changing this system were infectious. And he not once tooted his own horn. He had such respect as a dark knight that when he—when we—got to doing something about it, momentum wasn’t going to be an issue.”

Hynd approached Beschen with a plan to start a new tour—an updated one, rooted in progression. A “rebel tour,” as people would come to whisper of it. (Their branding, not Hynd’s, if you ask him.) It would be called the IS Tour, the “is” signifying a sense of presence and nowness. But, for registration purposes, it stood for International Surfing.

“That was the direction that I pushed with Derek,” Beschen explains, “and that’s what he wanted to do too—to evolve this criteria that had been slowly manifested from the beginning and never really modified to what each generation of surfers was doing. That really became a main goal for me, to help change that.”

Hynd and Beschen did a few trips and visited a couple potential contest venues. They mapped out experimental judging formats. By 1998, the two were vocal about their discontent. Hynd was speaking with a major investor and had secured underwriters through Merchant Bank—none of this above board.

Meanwhile, Beschen would sit through tedious ASP “surfers’ meetings” to discuss modifications to the old format. But if barely a quarter of the Top 44 could land functional airs, why would they want to see them awarded higher than a floater-to-roundhouse combo? 

“I’d just come out of them wanting to smash my face into a wall,” he says. “Nothing would ever get resolved. Everyone would just say what was best for their own interests, everyone would argue, nothing would get done. You know, it’s funny, I was talking to a surfer recently about it who’s on tour today, and he was pretty much saying the same thing.”

Not everyone craved a profound change, though. 

“I felt like our whole generation was clearly surfing differently,” says Slater. “A lot of us were pushing what surfing was. I think we were fairly rewarded for it as we started dominating the ratings and winning events and titles. Our generation became the generation of the day in the 90s, really.”

After years of groundwork, and with nine of the ASP’s Top 12 signing letters of intent to join this IS tour, Hynd somehow made his way up the chain of command at the global sports and talent management company IMG/TWI. Actually, he made it all the way to the top of the mountain, receiving the ear of the company’s founder, Mark McCormack. But, right after giving the nod, McCormack died of a heart attack. Enter power vacuum. The plan collapsed, and the ASP rebranded their own circuit the “Dream Tour” the following season.

Beschen was always a proponent for progression, even if that meant less points from misunderstanding judges. Photograph by Grant Ellis.

“I think me being vocal about it definitely hurt me,” admits Beschen. “There [were] a lot of articles and stuff where me and Derek just blasted the ASP for not seeing the evolution of the sport and not adopting the criteria to progress it.”

Discouraged and disillusioned, by 2001 Beschen was missing events, losing interest in the tour, and spending more and more time at his new home on the North Shore. Then he failed to qualify for the 2002 season. Along the way, he met his wife—a disarmingly gorgeous Venezuelan fashion model, Sofia, whom he’d marry and have two sons with.

“You know, he could have just floated around the top five, like, forever,” recalls Andino. “Personally, I’ve never seen another pro surfer sacrifice his career to push the sport more than him. He was so stubborn. He basically just gave up a gigantic portion of his career to make a point. And he did it relentlessly. He was committed to what he believed in, and that’s who Shane is. He can’t fake it. Lo and behold, 15 years later, look what they’re doing [on tour].”

“At the time,” says Matt Archbold, “I was glad he was trying to change things. He sure fought a lot longer than I did for change. He speaks his mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think more people should do that. If no one said anything, nothing would ever change.”

For all the emphasis put on punts and tricks, all the greats are well sorted in the fundamentals. Beschen, surely in the top tier. Photograph by Andrew Shield.

“It did create attention,” says Beschen. “It created a message of evolution. The following year—and I’m not 100 percent sure if this is a fact—was the first year that ASP put the word ‘progression’ into their criteria, which I was stoked on. Now when I watch these guys compete on the WSL, I think it’s so cool that they can do these insane airs and get rewarded. Maybe I had my little piece in that evolution.”

Beschen actually requalified for the ASP World Tour in 2004, simultaneously co-launching a clothing brand called Monument that gained exposure at every stop along the way. But his competition run lasted only a couple of years, and the 2008 recession, coupled with the discovery of his business partner secretly paying himself an exorbitant monthly salary, led to Monument collapsing. 

So, Beschen went from retail back to what he knew best: good surfing. In 2009, he was hired by Red Bull to do high-performance coaching. Working with the likes of Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith, Kanoa Igarashi, Leo Fioravanti, and the rest of the team, Beschen was more than a good fit. He’s also worked closely with four-time world champion Carissa Moore. 

These days? In that same vein of progression, while still coaching with Red Bull, Beschen’s had his fingers in various wave-pool developments as a professional consultant. The first, Citywave Tech, which lands here, on Oahu, shortly, and the second with Swell MFG, which will roll out a very different park in Arizona called Cannon Beach.

There’s still something I’m dying to know: Him and Slater? Cool after all these years? 

“Oh yeah,” he laughs, “I’m way over that. Me and Kelly are fine. It’s funny. Like, literally a decade after that happened, I’d still run into people, and they would be like, ‘Fuck Slater, that fucking guy. He screwed you!’ This and that. And, I’d be like, ‘Dude, that was, like, ten years ago. It’s all good.’”

*

A local teen from the neighborhood pops his head in through the door of the den, asking for Koda, Shane’s younger teenage son. 

“There’s barely anyone out,” exclaims the boy, and we understand the subtext completely.

Koda, lanky as his father, breezes by with a shortboard and a shock of hair dyed acid-washed pink. “Came out sick,” says the boy about the new ’do, and the two scramble down the driveway to cross the street. 

Noah, Shane’s older son, a slightly bigger version of Koda (the two of them a perfect mix of their mom and pops), peeks in shortly after and gestures toward the sea beyond Kamehameha Highway. Pops nods. For a man well surfed, any amount of time, no matter how short, is surely too long since the last surf.

Rocky Rights is windy, but kind of pumping. All the groms and goofyfoots battle it out on the left, while Shane, Gavin, Noah, Koda, and a few of their friends—young North Shore pros like Barron Mamiya and Makana Pang—bag the lion’s share of set waves rifling toward Gas Chambers. Shane—now Uncle Shane, as he’s referred to in the lineup—tells his sons and their boys to go, perhaps waiting for the gem he knows will inevitably reveal itself. 

Noah, a sponsored pro with hopes of qualifying for the WCT, backdoors a peak that runs along the inside reef. We watch from behind as he gets blown out in front of the Jones house, another rainbow flickering through the spit like color bars glitching through white noise on an old TV.

During a longer-than-usual lull in sets, Beschen shrugs. 

“If there is one thing that I would be proud of about myself,” he says, “it’s my relationship with my kids. We’re really good friends and we can talk about anything, but I can also be the dad, too. Sometimes my wife will stress about them growing up, and I’m like, ‘Honey, trust me. He’s fine.’ I remember when I was 18. [Noah’s] 20 and he still wants to live and hang out with us. I think we’re killing it.”

Suddenly Shane turns and strokes into a lump I certainly hadn’t seen coming. He’s deep, but a man well surfed is always limber, if not explosive. From behind, I see his dark shadow traveling through the translucent blue right-hander growing along the reef into perhaps the wave of the entire day.

Beschen, leading the way for the next generation of progressives. Photograph by Ryan Foley.