When you assemble surfer-historian Richard Kenvin, filmmaker Ryan Thomas, and two of our pastime’s most creative performers, you’re talking Surfer’s Journal DNA all the way. Two years back, we followed this crew to Central Chile during the production of Ryan Thomas’s feature film, Psychic Migrations.
Little did we know that the trip would produce perhaps the most resonant and defining surf action segment of the modern era. Timed perfectly to the arrival of a major swell and deluxe conditions, Thomas captured Ryan Burch going to town on a self-made board, perfectly scored with the Thee Oh Sees’ “Web.”
Regular TSJ contributor Kenvin was present for all of the sessions—which included the effervescent Ozzie Wright—and drafted a comprehensive breakdown of the venture. If you’ve seen Psychic, delve into this story for the context. If you have yet to indulge, put it on your watch list. This long-form report will make you all the more informed when you push play. —Scott Hulet
The ocean temperature at Windansea was already in the low 70s, the water a faux Hawaiian shade of ultra-marine. Out on the reef, a long period south swell, born at the bottom of the Pacific, crossed with local wind swell, wedging into enticing lefts that shifted across the shallow sandstone ledge. A light offshore wind added to the subtropical ambience. Normally I would have been indulging in the joys of surfing in trunks at home, but not this year. I was scheduled to leave the comfort of summer behind in twenty-fours hours to fly east through three time zones, drop south over the equator, and enter the heart of the Southern Hemisphere winter.
I couldn’t feel summer anyway. Three days earlier, on the solstice, I’d stood by a hospital bed and watched my father take his last breath. Earl Meredith Kenvin, my dad, suffered a stomach aneurism at a family gathering and passed away at Scripps Hospital at 9:45 p.m. He had travelled 800 miles, from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to San Diego to attend the opening of a surfboard exhibit I had curated. My mom, Caroline, and my sisters, Dorothy and Betsy, had travelled from San Francisco and Durango to see the show. Along with my brother, Peter, we had all been together at the opening.
It was a happy occasion for our family, which had been a long time coming. Earl had suffered a devastating divorce from Caroline in 1978, and the opening of the exhibit was only the second time in 28 years that we had all been together. I was supposed to catch a flight south the day afterward to meet filmmaker Ryan Thomas and surfers Ryan Burch, Ozzie Wright, and Nate Tyler somewhere in the South America. My dad died 18 hours before my flight departed.
I spent the next 48 hours with my family. Though overcome by grief, we knew something miraculous had happened: Earl was with his children when he passed away, and was happy. This was the last thing any of us would have expected, given the saga of our family over the past 35 years. It certainly wasn’t in the script Earl had written for himself, which was to die alone in a dusty town in New Mexico. Instead we were all by his side and Caroline, the love of his life and the mother of his children, was there too, something we never would have thought possible. I know, without a doubt, that this was how he really wanted to go.
“I’m aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic…”
Those are the words of author Isabel Allende, who writes in the distinctly Latin American literary style known as magical realism. Allende weaves her beautifully strange tales around families over many generations. Magic happens in her stories, manifesting itself through ordinary people and places against a backdrop of day-to-day life.
I’ve experienced such things. My current situation, with its coincidental collision of major events involving friends and family (my fathers death, the museum exhibition, and the trip south all within 36 hours) gave me the feeling that larger forces were at play. For all I thought about the significance of the exhibit, and my excitement about the trip, something far more profound had happened. A bigger plan had unfolded, one that neither my dad, nor me, nor my family could foresee. It was tragic, dramatic, and yet miraculously, magically beautiful.
Talking it over with my family, the consensus was that I should take the trip south that I had cancelled. I was extremely conflicted about leaving, but everyone encouraged me to go. We would have a memorial service for Earl in New Mexico the following month. I contacted Ryan and Burch and told them I was coming after all. Burch’s dad, Jerry, who taught him how to surf, had passed away a few years ago. Ryan had gone into the trip with a nagging fear that his father, Vincent, who taught him how to expose film, might lose a long, cruel battle with malignant melanoma at any time. Maybe spending some time with them right now wasn’t such a bad idea. I rebooked the flight for a June 25th departure.
I woke up 45 minutes before landing after many hours of airports and air travel. Dawn was breaking over 20,000 foot peaks to the east, a snowy massive that rose above a lead gray, opaque layer of stratus clouds. We dropped through the mist and landed in a city of 8 million people. On the ground it was cold and foggy, the light flat and disorienting. I couldn’t tell east from west, north from south. Summer was thousands of miles and many months away.
I grabbed my board bag and duffle and headed out to find the local guys who were tentatively supposed to meet me at the airport and take me to the bus station. They had followed RT’s instructions and gone to the airport to meet me, but somehow we missed each other. I caught a taxi to the station, which was located 20 miles away near the heart of the city. My phone wasn’t working. No service. Without a local escort, my instructions were minimal: find a Pullman bus at the station and get a ticket for the town where everyone was staying.
The taxi dropped me at the big, bustling terminal. I found the Pullman ticket kiosk. They’d never heard of the town I was supposed to go to, and told me I needed to try another station ten blocks away. A weathered street porter with green eyes grabbed my board bag and motioned for me to follow. He was cloaked in a gray and black poncho and wore a tattered straw hat, like he’d just walked off the set of a film by Sergio Leone.
We set out on foot to the other station through the early morning hustle of the city. After several blocks we entered a labyrinthine, ramshackle market place, latticed with passageways lined with food stands and all manner of retail shops. It was too early in the morning for anything to be open and my anxiety increased as we turned corner after dark, deserted corner.
Deeper and deeper into the maze we went. I went back and forth between trusting this guy and fearing he would pull a knife on me from one second to next. Finally the market alleys gave way to ticket booths for trains and buses, and we emerged in a very busy central transit station. There were dozens and dozens of ticket booths, all individually operated yet representing the same carriers. I went to every Pullman booth. None of them went to the little town. We were sent to a third station. We marched another ten blocks through winter-bleak city streets. At the station, there were another dozen Pullman booths, all containing clerks who couldn’t help me.
Finally we were sent to the booth of a different carrier, where the ticket agent assured me he had a bus leaving for my destination in two hours. I tipped the man in the poncho generously, feeling like a gringo douche bag. Then I bought a ticket for the equivalent of five bucks and waited vigilantly for the bus. It arrived a few hours later, and I settled into a seat. I had no idea how long the ride would be. We left the station and passed through miles of dingy urbanism and industry before merging onto the main highway.
The cabin of the bus was a bubble of climate controlled comfort rolling through a vast agricultural valley walled in by high mountains. It was reminiscent of the Salinas Valley in California, but on a much grander scale. Winter held the countryside firmly in its grasp. All was dormant, barren, waiting for spring. Sleeping vineyards hemmed in by skeletal rows of trees sat etched against mountain snows. Wood smoke drifted from the chimneys of stone farmhouses. Each rural vignette would repeat over and over as we rolled south through the endless valley: another vineyard, another farmhouse, another row of naked trees. The repetition of the landscape was hypnotic, lulling me into a trancelike, haunted sleep. Memories of my dad transformed themselves into mournful dreams.
I woke up as we went through a large town. I hadn’t eaten anything in many hours. I opened the box of crackers I’d stashed in my backpack and forced a few down. Twenty-three hours of travel relieved only by a few hours of sleep left me physically and emotionally exhausted. The events of the past few days slammed into my consciousness with brutal clarity.
My father was dead. The isolation of my circumstances suddenly felt overwhelming. I had no way of communicating with anyone. I pondered how strange it was that, at a time when I should be surrounded with friends and family, I was suddenly thousands of miles away from them. I didn’t even know exactly where Ryan and Burch were staying, and I had no way to reach them. All I could think about was my dad. There was no filter, no buffer, no one to talk to.
Later I realized that this was a blessing. I was able to mourn, alone, in a completely strange and unfamiliar place, free of any pre-existing emotional or sentimental triggers. All I had were thoughts and memories, and the brooding desolation of winter. More words from Allende floated through my mind: “Roots are not in a landscape or a country or a people, they are inside you.”
Many hours later the bus turned off the main highway and headed west. A faint, watery sun hung low on the horizon, barely visible behind a veil of cirrus cloud. We went through little villages and past more farms and vineyards. Then we started up a grade into the coastal mountains, thickly forested with pines. We topped a high pass and began descending though a rugged gorge, emerging high on a ridge. In the distance I could see the ocean, ribbed with long, dark lines of groundswell. In an instant, the setting sun broke fully clear of the clouds and flooded the world with golden, radiant light.
Night fell as we reached the coast. We passed through fishing villages and more farm towns. By this time I was so hungry and tired I’d given up hope that my town would ever appear. Finally I asked the driver if we were still going to my destination. He assured me we were and, about an hour later, we came to the end of the line.
It was a dark little station. The night was bitter cold and getting even colder. There was no moon, but a billion winking diamonds lay strewn across an inky black tapestry in the sky. I’d never seen so many stars. I ate the last of my crackers and prepared to sleep on the ground in my board bag. I had no plan other than to somehow try to get some sleep and find some food in the morning. I’d abandoned all hope of connecting with my friends that evening.
Ten minutes later headlights appeared in the darkness and an SUV stuffed with boards and people rolled up. It was Ryan and Ryan with Ozzie Wright, fresh out of the water from an evening session. Suddenly I was angry about everything I’d gone through to find them here under terrible circumstances. I barked and vented at RT and immediately felt like an ungrateful asshole and apologized for my rudeness. I’d wrongly judged them as being callously lighthearted and surf-drunk in the face of my loss, but that wasn’t the case.
RT hugged me and gave his condolences. I didn’t know how to respond and realized that circumstances beyond any of our control had conspired to isolate me during the trip. It wasn’t anyone’s fault and RT and the rest of the crew, especially those who had already dealt with the deaths of their fathers, would go out of their way over the coming days to help me.
As we loaded my stuff in the vehicle, RT handed me some empanadas stuffed with meat and cheese and I devoured them. A few minutes later we arrived at the house and before long I was warm and fed and showered.
The swell was on the rise and these guys were stoked, plain and simple. It was contagious and I felt a hell of a lot better. Burch selflessly set me up with his bedroom. He slept upstairs in a tent so I could have some privacy and get some rest. I crashed hard and woke up before dawn the next morning. Seven hours of sleep passed in what felt like minutes.
I made some coffee and went outside as the sun rose. The house was perched on a hillside a few hundred feet above the ocean. As the dawn brightened I could see dark bands of swell crashing against a rocky coast. The rest of the crew emerged from their sleeping quarters. Nate, Ozzie, and Burch scoped the lines coming in and could hardly contain their excitement.
RT had been planning this trip for years. He was directing a new film, working hard to document the three goofy-footers in a way that would not only do justice to their abilities, but also capture in their surfing that intangible quality that has the power to inspire people, to move them emotionally. Waves were required to make this possible and it looked like today RT was going to be blessed with all the necessary ingredients.
Matt Shuster and Nate Leal, his trusted cameramen, were there to help him realize his vision. Brian Bielmann had also flown down from Oahu to shoot stills. RT is a detail-oriented perfectionist with total commitment to his artistic and aesthetic standards. To achieve the desired aesthetic, RT, Shuster, and Leal would be shooting a mix of RED and super-16mm Bolex cameras. Stakes were high today for the film crew.
We jumped in the vehicle and headed up a dirt track leading to the coast road, which we followed through forested hills and shady canyons. We passed rustic 19th-century ranchos and haciendas, some abandoned, some still being worked. It was cold and frost covered the ground in places that were still in shadow. We checked a few spots along the way: grinding left sandbars unrolled alongside dark, rocky headlands. They seemed to want a little less swell and cleaner conditions. We kept going until we came to a large headland that bent the southerly swell around a natural rock breakwater and down into a beautiful, cobalt bay.
It would have been a breathtaking sight even on a flat day, let alone seeing it under solid swell. One blank wall after another stretched down the point, ready for painting. Burch, Ozzie, and Nate prepared to get creative. Ozzie grabbed a 6’4″ channel-bottom shaped by Joel Fitzgerald, Nate a trusty looking 6’2″ Channel Islands thruster, and Burch a self-shaped 5’3″fish.
Burch was on his third extended trip to the area, and had already been down here for a month, surfing and making boards for his local friends. Hardly a show-up-blow-up photo pro, he’d taken things slow, quietly getting to know the surf and the locals. He’d set up a little shaping and glassing room at a friend’s house, where a few days earlier he and Ozzie had given the little fish a rather gaudy color job and dubbed it “The Rainbow.” The board was a fairly conventional, Lis-inspired fish, but with a few noticeable twists. It had a slight side cut above the pins, something I’d seen in La Jolla for many years in boards built by the Mirandon family and by an old-time Windansea guy named Hugh Duckworth. I’d also seen some made by Mick Mackie down in Ulladulla, Australia. I knew it was functional, I’d ridden some myself, and I’d seen Mackie and Eli Mirandon lay down some amazing surfing on fishy double-pinned side cuts.
For the past few years, Burch had been on a surf and design pilgrimage, riding self-shaped asymmetrics and, more recently, fishes at G-Land, Gnaraloo, Uluwatu, Mundaka, and small Teahupoo. He learned something from each wave and each board he built and rode. He’d programmed the side cut mutation into The Rainbow’s DNA for very specific reasons. All that remained to be seen was if this latest experiment in artificial selection would help the species evolve.
The crew ran down the grassy path that led to the paddle-out spot near the top of the point. Just then three or four locals paddled into position during a brief lull, using the serious longshore drift to squeak out from a keyhole cove behind the rocks at the top of the point. One after another they caught waves and rode them perfectly. The back-siders slipped into deep barrels and gouged the lip with state of the art, stylish precision. The goofy-footers pulled graceful carves and snaps before casually backdooring long tube sections. Every ride was an impressive display of surfing. It was obvious these guys were familiar with good waves, and they knew how to ride them.
At this point I began suffering from sensory overload. For the past few days I’d gone through one extreme experience after another, coming in relentless, rapid-fire succession. This particular instance involved being plopped down in front of a pumping left point break. I watched as Burch caught his first wave and drove the little fish through a series of blistering highline carves and blow-tail snaps before driving through two barrel sections. The garish rainbow board contrasted beautifully with the azure wall he was flying across.
Waves spun down the point, shimmering like liquid jewels set against the deeper velvet of the bay. Jetlagged and light-headed, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I concluded that the only thing left for me to do now was get in the water.
To simplify travel, I’d brought only one board with me, a 5’8″ modern planing hull shaped by Daniel Thomson. Looking at the lineup, the no-brainer solution for an aging back-sider like myself would have been a 6’6″ conventional thruster or quad. But I was so used to the 5’8″ that I was reluctant to borrow a step-up and go through relearning how to ride it, especially in my frazzled state. I figured better to ride what I was familiar with. I might learn something, like what a step-up version of this board would need.
One thing I already knew: planing hulls are difficult to slow down in fast, backside barrels, and hard to pivot-stall with precision. They tend to run too fast and low in the flats while waiting for a section to throw. This means that, when you finally pull in, you’ll sometimes find yourself too high on the face, over-correct, and then get too low again. Conventional boards handle that kind of stuff better and make it easier to get slotted in the sweet spot of the tube on your backhand.
Regardless I put on my full suit and booties and set off down the little path up the headland. The sets now coming in behind the top of the point were pushing triple overhead, smashing up against the rocks in an intimidating display of raw power. By the time they wrapped into the bay they’d lost more than a third of their energy, but were still pretty hefty by pointbreak standards. It looked as if there were multiple ways to get worked out there. The most obvious was an ill-timed paddle though the keyhole, which would leave you right in the impact zone if a ten wave set rolled through, which meant getting swept down the point into oblivion at best, and dashed against the rocks at worst.
When I reached the little cove at the top of the point, a local in his late teens was about to paddle out. The ferocity of the sweep through the keyhole and down the point was no joke. We stood there trying to time a lull. For a moment the horizon looked quiet, and the local turned and motioned me to follow as he jumped in and instantly got swept sideways in the current.
I followed, put my head down, and paddled as hard as I could, feeling the sting of cold water. We were behind the protective rock barrier, getting swept sideways toward the impact zone. As we emerged from the safety of the rock’s shadow a big set appeared. I proceeded to duck dive one steam-rolling wall of whitewater after another, getting thoroughly rag dolled and thrashed by seven or eight waves before I was finally able to paddle wide into the channel near the bottom of the point.
The current wasn’t too bad in the channel so I caught my breath and started paddling slowly back up to the takeoff section. The morning sun illuminated the clear water, fusing the blues and greens into a subtle, cool palate. A large pack of seals broke the surface next to me and headed quickly out to sea. I tried not to think about the things I usually think about when I’m paddling near a pack of seals in deep water.
I spent the next few hours dodging wide sets and riding waves when I could. My board felt good on the open face but was definitely hard to slow down and weirdly unpredictable on the barrel sections. During the long paddles back up the point, I watched everyone ripping, locals and guests alike.
Burch was taking the little rainbow fish to an absurdly high level of performance, a spontaneously radical outburst of creative expression. I watched as he repeatedly blew the split-tail and keels through the back of the wave, throwing huge fans of spray. He’d taken on a new nickname, the Greyhound, for the way he speed-paddled against the current, wave after wave, hour after hour, never slowing down. Ozzie, on the longer Fitz channel-bottom, power-hacked and carved with dramatic little style-flares thrown in for good measure. Nate was fast, radical, and precise, taking full advantage of the refinements built into his little thruster. Everyone was also getting barreled.
After a while I was too tired to continue paddling and I caught a wave down the point and all the way in through the bay. I forded a little river and scrambled along the cliff path back to the little grassy knoll where we’d left our stuff. I sat in the sun and watched the rest of the session.
A local goofy foot named Fabian Farias, aka El Conejo, (the Rabbit, “because he’s always hiding in a hole,”) locked into some amazing tube rides, as did Leo Acevedo, another goofy-foot. I learned that the backside guys I’d seen first thing in the morning were two brothers named Maximiliano and Esteban Cross. The Cross family had emigrated from Scotland to this country six generations ago.
An older regular-footer riding a bigger board got some beautiful rides, assuming a tube stance reminiscent of Owl Chapman’s. This was Milton, the guy who had pioneered local surfing in this area. The son of a fisherman, Milton’s family has lived nearby for four generations. Milton is the gatekeeper, the steward, the shaman, the environmental protection agency, and the judge and jury for what goes on in the area. His culinary skills are also legendary, from seafood empanadas to fire-roasted potatoes. He’d spent years living in a beachcomber shack in one of the nearby coves, living off the land and the sea, diving, fishing, and surfing. He is a natural inhabitant of the headland, as much a part of this place as the rocks, the trees, the sea, and the sky.
The tide dropped in the afternoon and the surf got cleaner. The next day was a slightly smaller version of the first. Ozzie paddled out on The Rainbow. I watched him take off deep on his first wave and pump through three tube sections, his dark silhouette visible through the curtain all the way down the point, emerging from time to time to throw a gouging carve or full speed floater. Ozzie is a big guy, and it was a testament to his intuitive board sense that he could jump on Burch’s experiment and stitch together a ride like that immediately. Once again Milton, Conejo, Leo, the Cross brothers, and local youngsters Daniel and Lucas put on a fine display of surfing, as did Nate and Burch.
The swell dropped a little in the coming days, and we surfed a few playful lefts. Burch and Ozzie continually swapped between The Rainbow and another fish named “Licorice All Sorts” that Burch had made down in Australia. While they skated and flew all over the place on the little craft, Nate put on a hyper-stylish and innovative display of aerial surfing. His airs were explosive and unpredictable. From the launch to the landing something different always happened, the hang time so extended that he’d make adjustments mid-flight to tweak it. His board control in the air was pure artistry, especially when seen backlit against the setting sun.
Over the next few days we were able to spend time with the locals. “We are the first generation of surfers here,” Conejo told me. “We know who we are and what we have. We don’t want to lose it. We want to conserve it.”
In some ways, the surf community here is basking in an idyllic golden age, like California in the early 1950s, made even sweeter perhaps because of the more-advanced boards and the collective progression of surfing. In other ways they are flirting with 70s-style localism bent on repelling outsiders by any means necessary. They are firmly planted in the present, however, global citizens of surfing, wired and connected, embracing the surf industry and media, watching webcasts and emulating their favorite athletes. In the midst of these somewhat conflicting realities and attitudes, they are united as a community, as an independent nation of surfers. They have their own identity, and they are dedicated to protecting and preserving their lifestyle and surf spots.
I was struck by the reverence and respect the younger surfers had for Milton. One night Maximiliano and Milton had more than a few beers together. They locked eyes and arms and swore eternal oaths of brotherly respect and soulful honor. They sang the praises of their home. Maximiliano is one of the most successful competitive surfers in the country, an absolute ripper, but it was clear that he felt his accomplishments were secondary compared to Milton’s seniority and his pure dedication to surfing this coast. Milton had founded a sort of paradise here and, in keeping with the coincidental circumstances of my journey, I couldn’t help but associate his situation with the work of another Milton, the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost in the 17th century. “A mind not to be changed by place or time,” wrote Milton “…is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Keeping paradise, not losing it, was a prevalent theme among the locals here: Beware the serpent and his trickery when he enters Eden, lest you lose paradise forever.
They call Maximiliano “El Duende.” In Spanish mythology a duende is an elfish, goblin-like creature that possesses magical powers. But duende has another, deeper meaning associated with human emotion, the soul, and creative expression. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca first developed the aesthetics of duende in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933. As Lorca put it, “Duende is that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.” It is a feeling that wells up deep inside us, an emotional and physical response to a work of art, a performance, or a piece of music. Duende is what gives us chills, makes us smile or cry as a bodily reaction to such things. Duende is the spirit of evocation.
Flamenco critic and aficionado Brook Zern wrote that when someone with duende performs, “there is a quality of first-time-ness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”
The birth of something original arises from one person and affects others, not only mentally but also emotionally, transforming reality because it has never existed before. Steve Lis achieved this in 1967, when he was 15 years old, with his little twin-keeled kneeboard, forever changing the minds of those who watched him ride it. I’ve seen Burch do it—no, I’ve felt Burch do it, more than once, and he’d just done it again. I’ve felt RT do it with music and film, weaving the two together until the duende is conjured and sound and vision are transformed into that feeling. That was why RT was down here, to capture the visitations of the duende in the surfing of Nate, Burch, Ozzie, and the locals. Through the craft of editing he would reveal it yet again in a new, and perhaps even more powerful, form.
Lorca concluded his lecture with these words: “The duende…where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s spit, crushed grass, and Medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
The endless baptism of freshly created things. What better way to describe surfing, when every ride, every board, becomes part of an endless procession of creation, the greatest of which are anointed by the duende.
The day before we left a new round of swell pushed up from Antarctica. It had a different character, gray and somber with a stiff offshore wind. We surfed in the morning and, for an hour or so, the conditions were epic. Then the cold front passed over us and the wind turned onshore. We whiled away the rest of the morning around a campfire that blazed in a ring of stones on the grassy hillock above the waves. We watched the swell building, torn to pieces by the wind, gaining ferocity with every set. Milton threw potatoes in the embers, and we ate them with salt and chilli powder. Ozzie strummed his little guitar, and before long he and Milton broke into song, a spontaneous serenade whose lyrics and chorus were dedicated to the magic and beauty of the headland.
We left the next morning. Snowflakes fell as we drove through the great valley on our way to the airport in the city. The swell we’d been riding was traveling up to the northern hemisphere. I would surf it at Windansea after I got home, seven or eight days of excellent summer sessions. But I’d known these swells in winter, too, in another place, one I will forever remember in the context of my father’s death. Among many other things, he was a flamenco guitar player and I know the duende found him in the end.