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Until The Wheels Fall Off

An interview with Timmy Reyes.

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Timmy Reyes’ first act in surfing followed a fairly traditional track, at least among those who are blessed to make their bread riding waves. 

Raised in Huntington Beach, California, he came to surfing early through his father and fast through his friends—it being the thing to do in Surf City, USA. He picked up major sponsors as a teenager, won lots of junior events, wintered on the North Shore, tripped to exotic places for the camera, spent a couple seasons on the qualifying tour, and, in 2005, graduated to the big show. Reyes did well once he arrived. He posted legit results and was trending toward the top ten before a series of injuries took their toll. All in all, a fair crack.

His second act, though, is where it gets a little bit loose. While he’s continued to slip on a jersey for events at certain choice locales, Reyes has shifted his focus to something much more foundational than bagging contest results: surfing lots of really good waves, unbothered by other people. And while this has included a steady diet of jet setting to surfing’s top-tier locations, he’s spent much of his time on the ground, in the driver’s seat of his truck (he’s gone through three), scoping for discreet setups that sit within driving distance from home. The result? Over the past decade, Reyes has made the West Coast of North America, and its more low-key holdings, something of his own semi-private playground.

Reyes does it right and doesn’t name names. Whispers, however, trickle in from the field. All-night drives to backless slabs at the edge of the woods up north. Monthlong dig-ins to desert outposts fronting ruler-edge points down south. Anything and everything in between, as long as it’s empty. The rare piece of photographic evidence—no landmarks or metadata, of course—back up the spoken-of accounts. 

When I reach the 39-year-old by phone, he’s at the end of a two-week camping trip south of the border. Days on end of warm water, long waves, and no footprints in the sand other than his own. He’s got his service situation dialed in—he has to know where he’s headed next—along with the rest of his rig for jaunts both long and short. In conversation, he’s open with his program while stopping just short of giving too much away. 

In a world gone truly mad with oversharing for the sake of clout, there’s something heartening about an individual getting after it as its own end—and keeping everything as under wraps as possible in the process. And though Reyes is vague in terms of where, his how and his why are certainly worth grabbing a highlighter to make notes for your own future approach. 

WB How often are you surfing around Huntington these days?

TR Hardly at all. Growing up wanting to be a professional surfer and wanting to qualify for the world tour, there’s probably no better place to learn the needed skill set than Huntington Beach. You deal with current and wind and shifting sandbars and all sorts of swell directions. You figure out how to make something out of a lot of nothing. But now that I’m not competing, it’s pretty much lost all its appeal. Plus, and I know everyone says this, the crowds lately are insane. On a summer afternoon, it’ll take a half-hour just to get to the beach, then another hour in line to find a parking spot. When I’m home, I’d rather go for a hike. I’d rather not surf for a couple weeks, then save up my energy to go surf somewhere that’s either empty or pumping. Ideally both. 

Most of Reyes’ map-pinned spots take care of themselves, requiring a damn-the-risks mindset in terms of big fish and other natural hazards—not to mention an expert’s hand once in position. Photo by Russell Holliday.

WB What prompted the change in priorities?

TR I did the tour for five years, did pretty good, and got to surf some of the best waves on the planet—Fiji, Barra, J-Bay, you name it. But surfing those waves in a contest can kind of take the magic out of them. It becomes more about the result, not the surfing. And in my last year on tour, we got skunked almost the whole way through, to the point where I could’ve just ridden a fish at almost every stop. I said to myself, “This is bullshit. I’m not traveling around the world to surf bad waves. I’m going to keep doing this—surfing for a living—but I’m going to do it the way I want to do it.” When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time chasing waves in Baja with my dad. And even when I was on tour, outside the events, I was spending all my extra time looking for really good waves with my friends. I realized that was what I wanted to do—what I still want to do. So I’ve been doing it. Finding good waves with nobody around, that’s the best part of surfing. 

WB How many days a year are you on the road looking for waves?

TR Definitely over half the year, for sure. Which is down from even just a couple years ago, when I was on the move pretty much nonstop. Back then it was basically going from swell to swell. Lately I’ve been trying to pick a place and then post up for a couple weeks, like I’m doing now, and wait out multiple swells. But there was a period there where it was bang-bang, staying up for 36 hours straight, Todos to Maverick’s and then farther up to a secret slab, all on one swell. Just as much as my body could take. It can really wear you out after a while. But if the right conditions line up, I’ll still throw my stuff in the car and run it hard.

WB Explain the allure of the car.

TR I still hop on a plane when I can, when a swell calls for it. But you have to remember that you can only be on it as much as your bank account lets you. Compared to flights and boat trips, gas and tents are cheap. And there’s a lot of other things at play when you’re flying all over the world to surf. For me, it was about maximizing my time in the water and my wave count. Plus, there’s the added adventure of going looking. I realized pretty quickly that I’d be out surfing a lot more if I just went for it. And I knew that there were lots of great waves within a day’s drive that most people overlook or don’t have a clue about. I mean, a few years ago some friends and I blindly drove to check out a spot, a cobblestone point up north. We went just to have something to do. When we got there, it was as good of waves as I’ve ever seen—and again, I’ve surfed all over the world. It was overhead, doubling-up tubes firing down the point. We had it completely to ourselves until the wind came up. And we were just a few hours’ drive from millions of people. 

WB So you’re saying it’s still out there, even in California, so long as someone is willing to look? 

TR You have to be really committed, though. You’re not just going to pull up to a pointbreak, drop some coins in the parking meter, and walk down and score by yourself. There’s lots of late-night driving, nasty weather, hiking rough terrain, camping in wet conditions. And then the waves might not be good. You might have to go to a spot two or three times before it’s even working, much less actually pumping. You have to be really willing to put it all out there and get skunked. If you keep after it, though, eventually you’ll get it. But you have to look at it as a long-term thing. Most surfers would rather pick the sure thing, even if it’s crowded or not as good. It really requires a lot of time, and I’ve been lucky to have that. 

You’re gambling in a lot of ways. If something does happen, you’re screwed.

WB What’s your process for chasing a swell?

TR I pretty much stay as glued to the forecasts as I can, to the point [that] it’s become a bit of a bad habit. When it’s still a little ways off, depending on the direction, I’ll have my eye on a few different places. Then, as it gets close to filling in, I’ll start to check water temps and wind. Once I key in on a certain zone, I’ll start talking to people who live in whatever area I’m looking at, who have actual eyes on it. The places I’m going, there’s no cams. I try to give myself a day or two to get to whatever place it happens to be, based on how far the drive is. The best thing to do, and I’ve learned this the hard way, is to keep your options open. There’s so many factors at play, and if you’re too focused on a certain spot, you’ll probably miss better waves elsewhere. 

WB As a professional surfer who makes a living through photos and clips, how do you balance getting that work done without giving places away? 

TR It’s tricky, and you have to draw a hard line. I’ve filmed in places I probably shouldn’t have, and I feel bad about it. Most of it hasn’t been released; I’m sitting on probably five or six winters’ worth of footage. Amazing waves, and I really want to put it out. But the ultimate goal is to be able to surf those waves with as few people as possible, not to get a shot or make a film. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is embed myself as much as I can—keep going back to places and get to know the locals. You have to be real with them, not just show up for a swell, film it, then blow it up so there’s hundreds of people on the next swell. To be honest, I don’t want to ruin my own fun, either. You can see what’s happened down here in Baja, down at Scorpion and some of the other points. It’s really crowded now. And in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, the weather and the waves and especially the people govern themselves.  

WB Does your mindset change at all when you’re way out there off the beaten track? You can’t just hop back on the highway and get to a hospital in 15 minutes if something goes bad.

TR You still have to send it. I try to block out, as best I can, all the things that could go wrong. If you hesitate, that’s when bad things happen. When you’re out at these places by yourself, though, you can be really particular about where you line up and which waves you go on, and that helps minimize the risk a little bit. But it’s still scary. There’s not a lot of information about some of these spots, and you’re mostly just guessing with how shallow a lot of them are. You’re gambling in a lot of ways. If something does happen, you’re screwed. And up north, you have to take into account the animal factor. The ocean is deep and dark, and there’s always an eerie feeling. I’ve had run-ins with great whites while in that zone, and they’re much bigger up there.  

Direction change, Reyes style. Photo by Russell Holliday.

WB What was your closest encounter?

TR There was one at a beachbreak I’ll say is somewhere between San Francisco and Canada, where I was basically decoyed. It was in the afternoon, the waves were 6-foot and offshore, and I was alone. I heard a noise down the beach and looked over to see a seal jumping out of the water at high speed, making its way toward me. At first I couldn’t tell if it was running from something or was just on the move. But pretty quickly it got close enough where I could see it had pure panic in its eyes. It swam behind me and stopped, and that’s when I noticed a big shadow coming from the same direction. Then, of course, the ocean went flat. So I was in between this massive white shark and its dinner. The three of us played this game of, like, who was going to jump first—a full-on standoff. After what felt like forever, a wave broke a little bit outside and I rolled over the falls with it. In the soup, I could feel both of them right there. The seal and I popped up at the same time, just looking at each other. I didn’t know where the shark was at that point, and I luckily caught the whitewater from the next wave of the set in. But at that beach, there’s a big deep spot before you hit the sand. I didn’t look back once—just bucked it all the way until I hit dry land. I’ve had other encounters with white sharks, but that was the one where I felt like it really might go bad. I felt like prey. 

WB Did you paddle back out?

TR I did the next morning. Like I said, the waves were 6-foot and offshore, with no one around. 

WB Where is left on your hit list?

TR I’ve never been to North Africa, and there’s so many spots there that fit what I’m looking for: long points with tube sections. Places people know about, and lots of others that are well off the grid. There’s a few different islands in the Pacific I’ve marked that are low key but have great waves. As far as the West Coast, from Cabo all the way to British Columbia, I’ve surfed almost every setup. And I’ve surfed ’em on their day, from the known to the really secret. The only area I haven’t been to is Alaska, and I’m headed there next week. There’s places I definitely want to go back to, so it’s all kind of never-ending. And who knows, maybe the Pier will turn on soon and I can get a window with not many people out.

[Art by Kristian Hammerstad for The Surfer’s Journal]