Soup Jockeys

Fins-free at 1/10th of a second, Jordan Rodin and Billy Cervi make hay in the slop and art when the conditions present.

Light / Dark

In one of his many Instagram clips, Jordan Rodin drops down the face of a head-high, mushy right-hander. He’s a regularfoot, tall, long-limbed, balletic. In a low crouch, he bottom turns into a long sideways drift, rear hand planted in the wave, nose of board aimed lipward. The drift is visceral, contagious. You feel it the way you do driving over a rise in the road at high speed. Then he whips into a lightning-fast cutback-to-reverse and rides backward down the face, the tail of his finless board lifted out of the water. He catches, redirects, and pumps down the line in a pouncing stance. His arms swoop. A section falls. Where a finned surfer might do a floater, Rodin slides into a 360 so fangy that his tail belts the lip. The wave explodes and he rides out of it, his long hair covering his face. 

I first encountered Rodin via social media. The algorithm brought me to his feed. The further I plunged, the more I fell in love with his surfing. He did a rare thing: He was clearly highly skilled, virtuosic, but at the same time he oozed the pure stoke of a kid riding his first waves. Along with the video clips were still photos—beautifully composed, moodily lit, many of them slightly blurred, inducing that sideslip whoosh of the finless. The clips and photos, I soon learned, were all shot by one guy: Billy Cervi. I found his feed, followed.

That was about five years ago. The clips and pics kept coming. I found myself transported. It was the opposite of the selfie shallowness that the ’gram is famous for. Rodin rode humble, wind-ravaged waves. There were wipeouts and awkward in-between moments. They soundtracked their clips with Modest Mouse, Australian Crawl, Nick Cave, Dire Straits. I felt like I knew them. But social media abounds in untruths. 

“We’re a couple of working-class guys,” Rodin tells me. He’s 29, recently married, wife pregnant. “I lay concrete. Billy’s a house painter. On rainy days we get in the water, but mostly we just surf on weekends.” 

“We’re hell-good friends,” says Cervi, also 29. “We live 15 minutes from each other. We talk every day. We’re like a team.” 

Rodin started surfing at age 12. “I was sick of bodyboarding,” he explains. “My sister’s boyfriend was a surfer. He was the popular kid at school, so I was just trying to follow him.” The Rodin family lived a ways inland in Perth, Western Australia. He had a hard time finding rides to the beach. “I was a mind-surfer,” he says. “I was always watching surf movies and skating the beaten-up curbs on my block. That really helped me to get better.” He got good fast, and for a few years he competed in local and state contests. “But I remember when I was 17 and Jack Robinson was 12, we were in a heat together and he had me combo’ed in the first two minutes,” Rodin continues. “He was just doing airs all around us and I thought, Contests are not for me.” 

One late afternoon in 2015, Rodin raced down to his local break, Mullaz Point, to squeeze in a few waves before dark. When he pulled his board out of the car, he realized he’d forgotten his fin. Not a worry, he thought, and charged out there finless. “I basically ate shit for about 40 minutes until my last wave,” he remembers. “I kind of held my line for about 20 meters, then slid out. I thought I just landed on the moon, until I got home and did a Google search and came up with a guy named Derek Hynd. There was no real guidance or influence where I’m from. I was just sort of living under a rock. That’s where my free-friction seed was planted.” 

Film by Billy Cervi. Music by Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Cervi was a bodyboarder before he started surfing at age 10. The break near his home was a whomp, so he alternated between the two growing up. “I still like bodyboarding,” he says. His interest in photography traces back to his early childhood. “For a long while, I’d just play with whatever camera I could get my hands on. In 2014, I swapped one of my wetsuits for an entry-level DSLR. I started practicing with landscape stuff. I got hell into slow shutter speeds. Then I bought a housing, upgraded the camera, and just started shooting empty waves. I’ve got a bit of an obsessive nature, so I’m always thinking about different ways to capture surfing.” 

Rodin and Cervi went to the same junior high school, but were only acquaintances. A half-dozen years passed. They were young adults, trying to find their way, when Rodin saw one of Cervi’s surf photos on Instagram. That’s that guy from school, he thought. He DM’ed Cervi. They met up to shoot. 

At the time, Cervi was getting into what he calls “shutteries,” meaning slow shutter speeds (i.e., blur). He tried it out on Rodin, who was fresh into his finless odyssey. “Onomatopoeia” describes words that are constructed and pronounced to approximate a specific sound—“cuckoo” and “sizzle,” for example. Billy’s “shutteries” are the visual version of this. The images they began making together conveyed the sensations of speed and frictionless-ness that Rodin was generating in the water. They knew they were on to something. 

“The surf around Perth is really bad,” says Rodin. “But we’ve got a little spot that’s about a half an hour north that’s like a poor man’s Trestles—kind of soft, but it’s always got shape. That’s where we’ve done most of our work.” 

“The waves don’t have to be amazing to get a good shot,” says Cervi. “It’s more about the light and the feel. If we’re going to shoot ‘shutteries,’ we’re going to shoot sunset or sunrise, ’cause you want that low light and color. We know what we’re looking for—but it’s real experimental more so than anything. Jordan’s pretty flowy, and hard to beat when it comes to style.” 

There’s no world tour for the finless surfer. But there is the great Derek Hynd, whom Rodin first met over, ahem, Instagram. When Hynd invited him on a surf trip to J-Bay, Rodin jumped on it. “I was almost like his student right away,” he says. “Every time I went to pick something to eat from the shelves, Derek was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want that, do you?’ Derek doesn’t drink coffee. So I didn’t drink coffee for the two weeks when I was there.” 

What did he learn from Hynd? 

“I was blown away by his awareness of reading the charts,” says Rodin. “And when to paddle out and when not to—he’s just this wizard at knowing tides and winds.” 

Rodin and Cervi are road dogs. They’ve done many trips together. Among the most memorable was a run up to the remote, beefy left-handers of Red Bluff, also known as Gnaraloo. 

“We went up late, around Halloween, and there was no one around,” remembers Cervi. “And because there was no one around, we set up camp right next to the point. It was so windy. We tried to set up the tent and it ripped to pieces, so we didn’t have a cover. It was mainly just the netting. We could see everything outside the tent. We were just getting harassed by kangaroos. They were going through our rubbish and wouldn’t leave us alone. But it was pretty good. Every morning we’d just go to the point and shoot. It was a hard swim with the rip, so Jordan would let me hang on to his leg rope and tow me out the back. We’d be out there pretty much by ourselves. There’d be heaps of fish jumping, and there are sharks. When we weren’t surfing, we’d drink beers and go fishing.” 

“We’ve never been on a sponsor trip,” says Rodin. “There’s never been a time where it’s like, ‘Okay, here’s your path. Here’s a trip. Go film.’ It’s literally: I pick Billy up, we go out and surf shitty, onshore waves, and just try our best.” 

I ask Rodin what he loves most about surfing finless. 

“The biggest attraction for me is not having to generate your own speed,” he says. “It’s flat out from start to finish, and it opens a lot of windows to waves that aren’t so good for surfing with fins.” 

Why the low tuck? 

“The more leverage you’ve got, the more connection with the board,” he continues. “Your toes are like little feeling sensors, little signals to your brain. The low center of gravity is better for control and stability. It’s a weird one. Definitely doesn’t work when you stand upright, that’s for sure.” 

Much of the surf dream is built on the fantasy of chasing the perfect wave, which naturally leads to globetrotting. Rodin and Cervi have inverted this idea. They do their road trips, but mostly they make do with their local break, which is by no means world class. 

Rather than dream of elsewhere, they find new ways to come at the banal, the quotidian. 

“There’s not much going on here,” says Cervi. “It’s a remote-ish, pretty humble corner. But I feel like a lot of cool stuff comes from the photos. I’ve had people I really look up to—Kelly Slater, Tony Alva—like my stuff. I’m lucky to have met Jordan and be where I am.” 

“I’d be nothing without Billy and vice versa. If I’m doing good, he’s doing good, and if he’s doing good, I’m doing good,” says Rodin. “And yeah, it’s been pretty bizarre, some of the names liking our stuff. But we keep it pretty low key down here.”