Down in a Southern State

Sterling Spencer’s turn from professional surfer to surfing satirist.

Light / Dark

In a holy place, Sterling Spencer raised his hand with hope. As a kid growing up in the church, he thought a spirit might find him. But over the course of his life—after ascension, loss, death, and a set of eternal questions—something led him far away from that place. In hindsight, parts of his life resemble a resurrection, although it never had much to do with anything holy. 

He remembers how, as a teenager, his mother once pulled off the asphalt to ask if he’d been masturbating. That was a sin, she said. Another time, she stormed into his room and explained how gluttony was a sin, too. He wondered if she was calling him fat. When he was 24, his mother placed a holographic portrait of Jesus on his mantel as a reminder of what he should and shouldn’t do. Dogma formed a thread of solidarity throughout his entire life—at home, in his understanding of being a good Christian, and even in surfing. 

Before his first trip to Bali at 15, his father warned him, “Sterling, you’re about to go into the devil’s playground.” Indonesia was home to demons, false gods, and was struck through with sin. Spencer arrived with a sense of fear, but in each smile and tiny kindness he sensed contradictions. “All these people are going to hell according to the way I was raised,” he remembers thinking. He wondered why. It stung to imagine. 

When Spencer returned to Pensacola, he told his dad that most people in Bali had never heard of Jesus. The lack of answers conjured more questions. Over the next 15 years, the things his mother and father wanted for him would become the things that led him away from Christianity, away from Pensacola, and away from surfing. But in time he returned to it all. 

When I arrive in Pensacola, Spencer asks me if Tom Curren does any cross-training other than roller skating. He’s in the sand, quietly watching a little swell move out of the DeSoto Canyon toward us. The brisk light of fall turns blue as it makes its way south, and the chirr of cicadas mingles with an east wind. On the little thumb of scrub and sand where Spencer grew up, this doubles as orientation for a three-day-long philosophical seminar. 

Pensacola lies at the western edge of Florida, where it indiscernibly spills into Alabama. And while it falls within the Sunshine State’s borders, it belongs as much to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana as it does to Florida. It’s the heart of Dixie, the Gulf South, the Redneck Riviera. It’s the place where the Spanish, French, and British met, where the Confederacy and the Union stood toe to toe, and where Geronimo was held captive. It’s the Old South and the New South, Piggly Wiggly and Publix. 

Spencer’s ties to surfing in Escambia County run deep. His father, Yancy Spencer III, is as centripetal to Gulf Coast surfing as thunder and lightning. 

It began when Spencer’s grandfather came down to this corner of the world in 1952 while serving in the Navy. He had three sons: John S., a Christian pastor, J.B., a city council member, and Yancy III. In the 1960s, Naval officers brought boards from California to bases along the rim of the Gulf. Yancy III first found his way into the surf in 1965. By 1970, he’d garnered a pro model with Greg Noll Surfboards. He claimed an East Coast title in 1972 against David Nuuhiwa. In 1975, he placed second in the United States Surfing Championship. A decade later he won the national title, making him the first from this little bend in America to do so. 

Back in 1969, Yancy III opened a surf shop in a squat building in Gulf Breeze. Over the past five decades the shop has grown into multiple locations throughout the Panhandle, remaining as central to the Spencer family as it has to Yancy III’s legacy as the modern forebearer of Gulf Coast surfing. 

A year after the shop opened, Yancy III’s first son was born, Yancy IV. Yancy III tried to lead him down the same path he’d forged in surfing. Because while Yancy III had made an earnest go at it, the infrastructure simply wasn’t there to support him as a professional. By the time his first son had come of age there was hope that maybe, just maybe, he could find a way.

“My dad didn’t get to fulfill that dream,” says Spencer, “and he was trying to live that through me and my brother.” 

Yancy IV tread that path, living on and off in California and Hawaii, but he leaned into the lifestyle rather than the rat race before returning home. Naturally, Spencer became the next link in the metaphorical chain. In 2000, when Spencer was just 14, Billabong started paying him. His father became his de facto manager. 

“I didn’t understand it,” Spencer explains. He remembers a palpable sense of pressure as he worried about his sponsors rather than his homework. But it became second nature to him. This is my life, he thought. And in that, a whole set of expectations hung over him. 

Apart from earning his father’s admiration, Spencer was driven by another kind of eustress. Coming from the Gulf of Mexico, he might as well have been from Oklahoma. “You’re from the Gulf?” people asked. “You don’t have waves.” 

After hearing it enough, it stirred something. That something took shape in the water, over the course of long drives to the East Coast, and in resistance to the boys’ club of surfing. “Being from the Gulf,” he says, “put a chip on my shoulder.” 

In the years ahead, junior events led to the World Qualifying Series. The legs of travel grew longer, pressure mounted, and the atmosphere grew noxious. Competing in junior contests was fun, but this was the antithesis. “It was a whole new world of partying—of pressure,” he says. Looking in the rearview, he hated contests. He liked pleasing his dad. He liked pleasing his sponsors. But competition was hollow. 

On one leg, he flew to Brazil and lost in his first heat. Then he flew to South Africa where he lost again in the first round. When he made it home, his dad asked, “What’s it like going across the world and losing?” The question deflated Spencer at a time when the last thing he needed was criticism. “I needed someone to pick me up,” he says. 

To Spencer, free-surfing trips became a secret world far removed from the roar of contests. A trip to Nicaragua with Donavon Frankenreiter conjures a tenderness in his voice. There, he started to consider the parable of surfing as art or as sport. As soon as that rose to the surface, the allure of professional surfing grew dim. He wondered if trophies really were the most meaningful way to celebrate the pursuit. Eventually, in a divining moment in South Africa, he veered from that path. 

The sun’s glow appeared just after 6 a.m. at Jeffrey’s Bay. A gradient of low-slung ridges marched north toward the Karoo and, to the south, light spilled into the Indian Ocean. Huge sets swept through Supertubes as the finals for the 2010 WCT trials got set to go. From the beach, it looked untenable. Spencer barely made it outside. But with some luck, he managed to scratch into a wave, draw a line, and when he threaded the keyhole into the beach, hoots signaled that he’d won. 

When they handed him a jersey back on the boardwalk, he asked, “What’s this?”

With the trials done, the first heat of the main event was headed for the water. Spencer was in it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Andy Irons putting on a jersey and a shock coursed through him. 

Spencer lost the heat. In the next round, he came up against Kelly Slater. With a set moving toward them, Spencer tried to keep Slater off the first wave. As he turned, Slater asked, “Are you going left?” 

Spencer flailed down the line and lost that heat, too. Although he was out of the contest, a formative moment in his career took shape right there on the beach. 

It started with a candid video of a young fan asking Jeremy Flores for his signature. Flores didn’t have a pen. Neither did the kid. With that realization, the kid fell to the ground and threw the poster into the sand. From the dunes, David Malcolm filmed the exchange. 

Malcolm, who was filming for Billabong, worked with Spencer often. Once they made it home, Malcolm asked Spencer to dub the clip with an impression of Flores and the young fan. In a single take, they cut the 48-second video where Flores appears to be shooing the kid away as Spencer narrates the dialogue. 

“Go away,” Spencer overdubs Flores telling the kid. “Read some books.” 

“Jeremy!” the kid croons. They uploaded it to Vimeo under the title, “Jeremy Flores loves children.” By morning, it had more than 60,000 views. When Spencer crawled out of bed, his message counter exceeded 200. The first message he opened was from Flores. 

“I’m going to kill you,” Spencer remembers Flores writing. “I can’t wait to see you.” 

But in that moment, a crack opened up. Spencer shifted his weight from contests to filmmaking. “I realized that nobody gave a shit that I did good in the J-Bay contest,” he says. “But overnight, everyone knew who I was.” In airport terminals and car parks, strangers chanted, “Jeremy! Jeremy!”

Soon, a litany of voiceovers and edits appeared on Spencer’s lauded blog, Pinch My Salt, and with them a devoted following grew. Spencer and Malcolm cooked up whatever idea struck them. Between them and a camera, the only goal was to generate a laugh. Together, they started poking holes in the thin scrim of professional surfing’s ego, and Spencer became surfing’s resident satirist. Malcolm felt like they could do no wrong. 

With each video, bits of cultural cachet accrued until a lump sum fell into their lap to produce a film. Malcolm left Billabong. Spencer poured his time into traveling and filming. What became of that period was Surf Madness, a film as serious as it was campy, as engaging as it was refreshing. From surfing in Crocs to Spencer self-mythologizing as a centaur, a bit of humor made its way into surfing again. “Looking back,” laughs Malcolm, “I would never do that again. But at the time, it was perfect.” 

After producing cookie-cutter commercial content, Surf Madness felt restorative for Malcolm. There was a human element in the work, and that was reflected in its reception. The film struck a balance between Runman 69 and …Lost videos, trading aesthetics in service of entertainment.

When Spencer first contacted Rob Machado to be a part of the project, the latter felt wary, wondering whether he’d become the butt of a joke. But a friendship formed, along with Machado’s faith in Spencer. “He wasn’t even making fun of people,” Machado says. Rather, he thinks Spencer was helping people loosen up, encouraging them to laugh at themselves. “What he was doing was genius.” 

Spencer was filming on the Big Island of Hawaii when the call came. At first, he ignored it. But when his sister texted, “URGENT,” he called her back. He sensed something awful in her voice. And when she could finally gather the words, she explained that their father was dead. He turned to Malcolm and said it aloud. “My dad just died.” 

Up in the mountains, Spencer looked out at the road as a sense of peace washed over him. Then, just as quickly, the first pangs of grief came through the trees. He packed his things, drove into town, and boarded a flight to California to collect his father’s body.

What followed was a blur: the flight back east, the funeral arrangements, the paddle out that thousands of people attended. But after the funeral, when everyone had left, Spencer felt forgotten. 

In the year before, a distance had grown and metastasized between Spencer and his father. While his career gained traction outside the purview of the competitive circuit, he felt like his father was disappointed in the direction he’d taken. “He was so weird to me,” Spencer says.

The night before his father died, Spencer and Malcolm were chewing on that very question when Spencer promised himself to reach out and resolve it. In the cardiac episode that claimed his father’s life, the opportunity vanished. 

In time, he became haunted by the things left unsaid. 

Over the course of that year, Spencer’s grandmother, his best friend, and Andy Irons all died. Loss seemed to be everywhere. “I’d never dealt with death,” he says. “I didn’t know how to process it all. It totally changed me.” 

Hemmed into a condo along the Gulf, Spencer lay in bed most days. He stopped surfing and stopped filming. Stopped doing anything, really. But once he started filming again, he felt distracted from grief. So he leaned into work. Instant gratification kept grief at bay as he finished Surf Madness. 

“That was the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he says. “It made this addiction to fame stronger—to stay away from these deep, dark feelings. I just became this miserable person trying to become famous.” 

For two years, Spencer and Flores were like ships in the night. Periodic rumblings reached Spencer: “Jeremy’s looking for you.” Once, in Panama, they even crossed paths in a hotel. But it wasn’t until the 2012 Surfer Poll Awards on Oahu that Flores found Spencer. 

Outside the Turtle Bay Resort, Spencer nursed a drink just before the ceremony. Then an arm placed him in a chokehold. Just before he fainted, he realized it was Flores. 

When Spencer came to, a crowd had assembled around them. In a haze, he remembers Flores kissing him and declaring, “Everyone thinks Jeremy hates Sterling. This is not true. We’re friends. Look!” 

Flores had recently been disqualified from a CT event for a fight at Burleigh Heads. With the upper echelon of the surf community gathered around him, it must have sunk in that he’d gone too far yet again and that Spencer was anything but threatening. 

But once the crowd dissolved, Flores whispered, “I still hate you. I will get you tomorrow night at your premiere.” Inside the theater, Spencer’s voiceovers poured out over the P.A. during the award ceremony. A torrent of laughter cut through the room. 

The next day while surfing Pipe, Spencer felt Flores’ eyes on him. That night at the premiere of Surf Madness, Spencer paced anxiously. The cast and much of the North Shore filed into their seats. And just as the lights dimmed, Flores appeared with a crew of heavies lining the edge of the theater. When the lights came on, Spencer turned toward the back fearfully, but everyone just shrugged. 

Things coalesced when Flores offered Spencer a beer. 

“I thought you were going to kill me,” Spencer said. 

“We were,” Flores said, laughing. “But we’re not going to now.” 

By then, Flores wasn’t the only person after him. Sonny Miller and Laird Hamilton tried to eat him in a supermarket. Kelly Slater hunted him down after Spencer advertised his phone number on a mock webcast. It wore on him. “Making fun of people is dangerous,” says Spencer. “And we were making fun of legends.” 

But that concoction of satire, surfing, and self-deprecation moved his career forward in a way that contests never had. In Billabong’s film Still Filthy, Spencer is the only junior with a section. Presumably, that had something to do with his contagious sense of irreverence. He felt like this was the pinnacle of his career, or at least the pinnacle of his fame, fueled by the humor that carried him through almost everything in his life. Yet beneath it all, grief was coming up through the floorboards. 

“What is this world I’ve created?” Spencer asked himself. 

In the course of making his next film, GOLD the Movie, which was more mature, more poignant, and even more sardonic, Spencer unraveled. He lost momentum as the media landscape molted from periodic edits to a persistent content stream and then to the daily doldrums of Instagram. “It was a blessing in disguise for my personal health,” he says. 

By 2015, he was living full time in California and, in the wake of a hasty and short-lived marriage, that rotten feeling returned. Grief kept him from traveling. Kept him from surfing. As Spencer puts it, “Just no peace at all in my life.” 

Nobody knew he was drinking heavily. When Machado came to rouse Spencer for a surf one morning, he found him melting into the couch, unable to move. Hours later, the grim details of where Spencer was and had been for some time rose to the surface. “I feel trapped,” Spencer told Machado. 

Machado remembers that diminished look painted on Spencer’s face. “It was hard to watch,” he says. But looking back, he notes how he thought there weren’t many people Spencer could talk to. His own comic persona followed him everywhere. The funny guy. A constant parody of himself. “He created this niche for himself,” Machado explains, “and everyone had these expectations. Those expectations build and build.” 

Finally, Spencer broke. 

He called his ex-wife and asked for help. Together, they sold everything he owned. Then she took him to the airport to board a flight back east. 

GOLD was nearly done. Spencer left Billabong to join Rusty at the behest of his agent. He isolated himself into his apartment. He could barely get out of bed or open the curtains, let alone navigate his career. “Hey,” he told his agents and sponsors, “I’m fucked up.” 

They agreed to give him three months to sort himself out. The deadline made things worse. His contract lapsed. His manager dropped him. His career evaporated. A curtain closed on his first act. “All I knew was that world,” Spencer says. 

Suddenly, he was itinerant, back home with nowhere to go.

“I became suicidal,” he says. 

It wasn’t the first time. He’d been suicidal in his early twenties, seeking therapy and something like a higher power. He’d even sought help from his dad. But the second time, he felt like there was nowhere to turn and nobody who cared. 

Help came in the form of a goldendoodle, a blond ball of light named Pollyanna. The dog became the central focus in his life, getting him out of bed, onto the beach, and through the woods. Color crept back in. “She was the last little thing I cared about.” 

Then Spencer met Amanda, and fell in love in a way he still can’t find the words for. He’d never known a love so powerful. “It kept me living,” he remembers. 

After only a few months together, Amanda was pregnant. “Nature took over,” he says. “The premarital pull was too strong. But I wouldn’t change it. That energy and that time is so short. It’s so amazing to fall in love that hard. I just felt like, ‘Go with it. Do it. It’s never going to happen again like that.’” 

They told their parents, wrote their vows, and had a shotgun wedding. 

But as the thought of becoming a father took root, Spencer slipped back into melancholy. By the time Amanda went into labor, Spencer felt shell-shocked. The last time he’d spent any time in a hospital was when he’d collected his father’s body from the morgue. He could barely stand being inside. As his son, Wyatt, was born, he just tried to keep from fainting. 

That day was the turning point. It was as if the past and present met, and something new took hold. With a newborn son, a wife, and a dog, Spencer knew he couldn’t let the days slip by in bed. He turned inward, spending time meditating in the woods and in the dunes at Fort Pickens. He subsisted on fruit. He surfed. He carefully watched as his thoughts moved past. Eventually, he came to see those thoughts as little registers of the past. He turned toward what lay ahead. 

“I went so deep in myself,” he says. “I finally found a connection. After that, I was healed instantly.” 

With his father, Spencer let go. With his family, he made a home. And with surfing, he found something restorative. 

“It was like I’d never surfed in my entire life,” Spencer says. “I was like a kid in the candy store, jumping up and down on the beach. I was surfing alone, surfing for the right reasons again. Ever since then my focus has been on my mental health, my physical health, and my family’s health.” 

A testament to this fact is his most recent film, Join the Dance, a medley of Zen philosophy and comedic levity coupled with only his own surfing. Much of the footage is from the Gulf, from the little bends in the coast he’s been surfing since he was 3 years old. 

At the base of the Pensacola Beach Pier, a spot featured heavily in Join the Dance, a statue of Yancy Spencer III stands sentry to the history of Gulf Coast surfing, much like modern surfing’s forebear, Duke Kahanamoku, in Honolulu. Thinking about that lineage, Spencer says, “It’s like I’ve come full circle.” 

The sun is high and the wind is onshore. Spencer stares at the sea. 

“My life has been such a curse and such a blessing,” he says. “When I went to church all those years, I was just seeking truth.” He pauses to chew on the thought. “I was doing the same thing in surfing.”