Feature

Interview: Tom Curren

On twin-fins in big surf, skimboards at pointbreaks, and the “immutable laws” of surfboard design.

Despite working closely with shaper/mentor Al Merrick for decades, Tom Curren has frequently strayed toward unconventional designs, often in pumping surf. Remember his mastery of the 5'7" Fireball Fish at maxing Bawa? Or trading between a 6'11" quad and a Skip Frye fish on J-Bay’s flawless lines? Then there was the reverse-vee “accident” with Maurice Cole that led to his third world title in 1990. Throughout his career, he’s always been open to ride anything that has piqued his intrigue, no matter how far-fetched the concept appeared to the tri-fin establishment.

Over the last few years, footage has circulated of him stand-up surfing on skimboards and bodyboards at Indonesian bommies, pointbreaks in Mexico, and around his hometown of Santa Barbara. As a lifelong Curren disciple, I watched and pondered whether the master of style was still operating with a full deck. These vehicles seemed beyond alternative. Had he lost his mind? Or was it just inherent boredom from a blessed life, one oversaturated with high-performance surfing at world-class waves on each and every other type of equipment?

When I first moved to Santa Barbara two years ago, I bumped into the famously under-the-radar Curren twice. The first instance was one evening when he whipped an illegal U-turn in front of me. My oncoming headlights froze him in his tracks but all I noticed was the behemoth prone paddleboard on his roof. He hurriedly corrected his SUV and skirted away, a scofflaw in the night.

The second occurred on a sleepy, gray morning at County Line. I was getting out of the water as he peered through a fogged-up windshield at the lineup, his car cluttered with surfboards and damp wetsuits. We chatted briefly and he showed me a scabrous foam blank with some of that kitschy bamboo fencing you see at tiki bars glued onto the bottom. He drove on southward. I left scratching my head.

Over the next couple of years, I’d often see his sons surfing the local spots, but never Tom himself. He bobbed and weaved my inquiries for an interview. Yet given his beaming excitement when showing off the homemade bamboo composite, I sensed he would eventually share what was cooking in his quiver. As it often happens, life took us in separate directions. Recently, however, I was hired as a story consultant for a film project, and we needed to get Curren on camera for the movie. He was surprised to see me when I arrived at his house with the crew. He recalled our last encounter at County Line and, like a mad scientist, appeared eager to show off his new aquatic creations.

Filming went well. In typical Curren fashion, he squirmed and trailed off when pinned in a chair with two cameras, boom mics, and lights in his face. But afterward, as the crew was gathering B-roll of his garage—complete with multiple guitars, keyboards, drums, sound equipment, stacks of surfboards, and four decades worth of dusty surf memorabilia—I asked if we could talk shop about the type of boards he’s been riding of late.

I reminded him that he was still mic’d up as he pulled pieces of his quiver from the rafters, the garage, and the bushes—splaying out two Channel Island polys, a single-fin, a twin-fin, an alaia, three skimboards, a bodyboard, and a Tomo Vader across his backyard halfpipe. What follows is that relaxed conversation about wave-sliding equipment with a three-time World Champion and benchmark of style, a surfer who, as it seems, is a strong advocate for having maximum “edge” in the water at all times—no matter how appalling his vessel may look.


MC: What have been your go-to crafts lately?

TC: Here you go, this is a 6'6" [picks up a Channel Islands pintail]. It’s for overhead surf, when you want to handle the drop and get into the barrel and do a few turns. Then this shortboard [a 5'10" Channel Islands squashtail] is going to guarantee you the most waves, the most turns, the most tricks—the most “landing it.” Over here, that’s an older board my dad made [an 8'6" Pat Curren gun]. Single-fin. He made it in 1981. What I like about it is it’s got a nice, consistent curve. The outline is very nice. I don’t like weird hips or things like that. This board has a very straight rocker so you have to be very delicate. It’s not a good all-arounder. This is a hybrid between a regular Waimea gun and for waves a little smaller than Waimea. But what you want at Waimea is a curve like this. [Picks up twin-fin.] This is the one that I surfed during Typhoon Wipha in Japan in 2013. It was my board of choice, and I had plenty to choose from. I think twin-fins are good for larger waves, actually. All the fundamentals are there. It has a nice curve. It doesn’t have extreme rocker. The only thing is, because the tail block is so wide, you can’t go too deep in the barrel. [Picks up 5'2" Tomo Vader.] I saw Daniel Thomson walking down to Salt Creek one day with two boards that looked like this. He let me try one. It was a 4'10". When you’re sitting on the board in the water, it’s up to your chest. But when you get on a wave, it’s really exciting. Lots of rocker. Decent amount of concave. It’s a very exciting forward push with these types of boards. Also exciting is finless surfing. Do you know what one of the seven wonders of the man-made world is? [Grabs the bodyboard.] If you’re a certain height and weight, you can stand up on a boogieboard. A boogieboard is great because it’s flexible. And this rail…[He indicates the half-diamond-shaped foam edge.] You can travel through the barrel without fins and without spinning out, and stand up into massive closeouts. It’s so fun.

“You notice that when you’re surfing with no fins, you have to fit in your turns at a certain time. You can turn, but only when you’re at the bottom and at the top of the wave.”

MC: I saw a clip of you at outer Uluwatu standing up on a bodyboard. 

TC: It’s just one of those waves that’s ideal for this type of thing. At the Ulu Bommie, you get this roller and it goes onto this inside, shallow reef. If you get going the right way into the flats, you don’t hear any sound. It’s the strangest thing. There’s not any sound coming off your board—you’re just going.

 

MC: You’ve been dabbling with skimboards at pointbreaks in Mexico and at Rincon. What’s the attraction there?

TC: It was really a lucky accident. I met [pro skimboarder] Brad Domke through a filmmaker [Yassine Ouhilal] I was working with in Canada. They met right around the time Brad got those really big waves in Mexico. He said, “Hey Brad, I’m filming with Tom and he’s been surfing on his boogieboard. You should talk to Tom about your skimboard stuff.” So I met Brad and he gave me this. [Picks up modified Exile skimboard.] I surfed it for about two months without the fins. It was good, but at one point I thought it needed these fins. [Shows me S-Wing fins.] So, I put fin boxes in with Gorilla Glue and tried it. It turns out these worked. Normal thruster fins, not so much.

 

MC: Wait a second. What happened when you went from the boogieboard to the skimboard without fins?

TC: So here I was on these righthand pointbreaks in Mexico with Brad Domke, who is doing surfing turns on a finless board, and he’s doing his skimboard tricks. He’s a human. He’s not some extraterrestrial. He’s not Spiderman. Yet he’s doing these amazing things on a skimboard. So I went home and was trying this skimboard with no fins for a few months. But it was hard to paddle. I’d surf for four hours and only catch two waves and come in completely worked, but also completely satisfied because those two waves were really worth it. And that was fun for a while. Eventually, I got to go out with some friends from France. They [towed] me into some bigger waves, not huge, but pretty big. And I’m really liking it, because my edge is holding and I can go as fast as I want. So the situation is: I’m on a good wave and setting up for a good barrel. I’m trying to slow down and hang on but I have no fins. You have to do this with your hands. But I didn’t want to do that. So the next day I put fins on my board. Immediately I was like, “This is the next thing in this process toward everything sorta making sense.” You notice that when you’re surfing with no fins, you have to fit in your turns at a certain time. And that’s what I learned for three months—sliding around, swimming a lot. You can turn, but only when you’re at the bottom and at the top [of the wave].

“You find the balance between what works for you and what you would call ‘immutable laws.’ There are certain things that don’t change about surfboards.”

MC: Why do you add chunks of foam to the decks of skimboards?

TC: That’s just for paddling. But you have to make it so you can still be able to stand on it—because if you’re not standing on it then you’re not having any fun. You can actually lock your foot in there against them as well. But it’s a whole other thing when I go down to Rincon and mix it up with that crew. The thing with Rincon is you have the best surfers on the planet with the best surfboards on the planet from up the hill [at the Channel Islands factory]. I had to deal with missing waves out there because I couldn’t catch them. People were looking at me going, “Well, how’s that working out for ya?” The most exciting part of this whole skimboard thing is that it’s all edge. The entire board is edge. Now, it’s just a matter of dialing in the fins and the float. Overall, it’s on the way.

 

MC: What do you foresee as the final destination with these boards?

TC: We already accomplished that goal. We got it. This is it. [He holds up a signature pro model made by Exile Skimboards called the SkimFin.] I’m very proud of this.

 

MC: Will you ever go back to just regular boards?

TC: When you see me riding a wave and smiling about it, you’ll know the answer to that question. You’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, he’s not coming back.” And it’s true. You’ll be like, “All that good style, gone out the window, for what? For nothing.” Nah, some of these have foam. And this Wegener [picks up another skimboard] is made of cork and foam. This performs very well. I have two others, too.

 

MC: I swear I saw you driving around Santa Barbara with a prone paddleboard on the roof of your SUV. 

TC: Oh yeah. It’s not just for paddling. I ride waves on that.

 

MC: Do you think you alter your style with each different board you choose to ride?

TC: Yes. One time I surfed on a [Channel Islands] Semi-Pro [model] and I was like, “I can’t surf this thing. I’m going to have to try and surf like Kelly.” I had Kelly’s fins in, too. I went into a turn and the whitewater hit me, and I tweaked my ankle. I was out of the water for three weeks. That was the last time I ever did that. But yes, sometimes it has to do with the board. And I’m not making this up, but I really try and think and surf how Occy does. Like I really try to become Occy, but a regularfoot. Or, maybe it’s like Andy Irons. Those are people who surf or surfed differently than I do. It just depends on the board. Andy’s boards had narrow noses, so he surfed more vertical. A narrow nose allows you to surf tighter to the pocket. You find the balance between what works for you and what you would call “immutable laws.” There are certain things that don’t change about surfboards. The same thing has to do with boats, too. You can’t simply say, “It’s this way now.”

 

MC: Can anyone truly master riding a surfboard on a wave?

TC: Oh, sure. I think it’s been done, time and again, for many years. Absolutely. And even before surfing history was documented.

 

MC: How does that happen?

TC: You have to practice. When you look at surfers from the past, and how hard their boards were to ride, they must have worked so hard on their style to get it the way it was. You had to have tai chi balance to manage that equipment without falling over. It’s not like nowadays, where you can go wherever you want to, whenever you want to, on a wave. Classic style—Hawaiian style mixed with Greg Noll’s style—means going on the biggest waves. They knew they were going to crash. Whether it was early or late, they expected to crash every single time. Why? Because of the surfboard. The boards were very underdeveloped for what they were trying to do. But sometimes they’d get to the end and still be standing. You see Greg Noll’s style…he was going to crash…but he was paddling…he was up…and he was going on that thing no matter what.

 

Photo by Jon Shafter