Feature

The Archivist: Guardiani del Faro

Our finless traveler communes with the “lighthouse keepers” of surfing authenticity—Italian style. Pulled from TSJ 21.1.

In a totally stacked issue (a few single copies still available here) which included profiles of Ryan Burch, “Pal” Al Nelson, and Ozzie Wright, as well as unseen John Severson sketchbooks and likely the last print feature ever on the kinky world of kneeboarding (plus a “wow factor” foldout of San Diego shapers by John Durant), TSJ 21.1 also harbored this pulsating little treatise on modern Italian surfing by Derek Hynd.

It was, of course, a writerly scam.

Hynd simply wanted to spend a month in Italy. Who doesn’t? And what reading surfer wouldn’t like to hear a Hyndian breakdown of a thoroughly understudied coastline? One of the more gripping surprises was the revelation of an intense brand of localism, occasionally boiling over into a famous Sicilian intensity. Hynd put his surfing stamp on the whole affair by riding finless during the whole campaign. Wouldn’t he, though? —Scott Hulet


Five thousand miles of coastline for 5,000 core surfers who surf 50 base spots on 50 decent days of the year. Dedicated Italian surfers form a collective time capsule, their attitudes aligned to early 1970s Australia and America. An arcane flame taps the last national surfing subculture.

They speak well, very well, the best of any nation, being done by the contemporary invasion of global surf culture, of the inevitable conflicts posed by exponential lifts in participation rates against the base of distinctly finite resources.

The surfers of varied means at the top and the tail in this short ode to the Italian surfer repeat their voice on all coasts, though perhaps not as colorfully as havoc-riddled Davide Pecchi (Pek-kee). In the scheme of world surfing, this seemingly inconsequential surf zone is like the mouse that roared. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

Philosophical power is innate in the oldest printed reflections of sea subculture, from the age of Homer’s Odyssey 2,800 years ago: “There is nothing like the sea for making havoc with a man, no matter how strong he is.”

I came to Italy for three weeks in high summer after three weeks in deep winter South Africa. The purpose was twofold: part research, part favor. My partner was doing thesis work on comparisons between Australian and Italian surfing. For my part, I intended to recycle a board to free friction for cyber gnat Davide Pecchi, whose stream of emails over two years had piqued some interest. If there’s one thing learned this last year, it’s that there’s more discovery past and present than meets the shallow eye. Taylor’s trawling today produced the hitherto unknown Bondi tabloid The Surf from 1917, print run 5,000, with surf-stoke-influenced penmanship best described as Steampunk Beat. “Did you take a feast on Captain Stroud shooting the huge combers with the surfboard on Sunday? He fairly winded beachites with his startling and hair-raising exhibition and through our telescope we saw Bill Smythe out in the blue waters. He was doing a shoot, and the wake he left behind was like the streak of a falling star.”

Pecchi had his own Latin Beat going on. One email in particular had me wondering if he was the exception or rule of a new style surfer speak. From June 2009:

Mr. Hynd, I think about you more than my girlfriend. It’s more easy dreaming than face your dream. She under- stands me. I no fashionista or pumping guy, I just have a little bit awareness to be a respectful okay Mr. Hynd? I don’t want blending money and surf. I don’t understand the contrast of new soul surfer. Making the money and keeping the secret. I like evolution, longboard has the best teacher, but long it’s not the only way to glide. I want to be a beginner all my life not a fake pro in a land without culture and give a false evidence. I did not like the small Italian contest cyrcus, another toys for solding more apparel, still lonely money. I don’t know was ugly double of real surfing machine.

I sold my small surf shop, I felt like no fun, my soul was harmed. Mr. Hynd, I lost bearings and escape in Australia two years (mamma mia che bello). I read the old surfer journal see litmus and glasslove. I looking for you and Mr. Kidman, but I was no lucky, big country. I always try to grow my roots and culture through the history with a real surfers, bring in my village this way of life, something they never seen before. I talking about lighthouse, I mean sailing enveloped in darkness but sure to somebody let the light on. Any lighthouse have its unique light. Lighthouse didn’t come to you and show the way, it was many swells and adventures. I don’t know apologize sorry the wishing and my English, is a labyrinth also for me.

Meeting Pecchi indeed presented a labyrinth. He repeatedly watched Big Wednesdayon VHS as a young man adapting to surfing after windsurfing. His real-life character was close to par for the film—the induction center in particular. Without changing a thing, he may have been deemed too deviant to draft. He is perhaps closer, however, to one of the great roles in 60s cinema, that of far-out beatnik stage actor “L.S.D.” in Mel Brooks’ The Producers: “I dream of a time machine going back 40 years to ride my point alone.”

I smoke marijuana. I get psychedelic. The trip isn’t always to go overseas and experience new culture. It is to change the mind, change the attitude. I give advice against fashion in a country where fashion comes before anything. I could be a chef for money other than working on a beach, but to be in a kitchen for 12 hours of working to perfection and not being able to smoke joints—I would escape and run and try to swim to Elba (large distant island). The times in the kitchen are bad, bad. You feel like it is Dracula hours.

As with many Italian surfers, he works seasonally—the summer trade off in order to escape winter temperatures dropping as low as 38-degree water and 14-degree air.

“My friend from Torino, small-time Mafia, took car from a man who owed him. It is the Volvo that I am driving now. He sold it down to me for half price to get rid of it. Now I know that I owe him a favor because of it. But Mafia is Italy. And the Volvo that I drive is my dream car. It is the most secure against thieves or in a crash and I can fit in all my boards.”

His role as lifeguard paid less than as a chef, but as a surfer he was a natural.

My father could float after a stomach full of red wine so my mother taught me to swim. Now I work on my stretch of beach for the tourists. I listen to their problems. I fix their chairs. I stop their fighting for the first row of chairs five meters from the water, and I listen to their lies about their ill child or sick mamma. I tell them it’s not my fault the shadows move with the sun when they complain that their shade has gone. I say it’s not cool to throw their cigarettes away like they’re in a movie. When the waves come, 30 centimeters high, I surf for them, entertain them, give them free rides that they remember forever, take them on my board, even the Russian pigs.

Self-proclaimed “stone surfer,” “pastor of the beach,” and “lover of the mamma,” his psychographic has been tattooed in small and big-wave pro surfing for 35 years as a mix of self love and self loathing, heroic figure worship, and drug induced psychosis. His physiology has the look of a young George Clooney, severely taut of build like the compulsive cannabis “thrivers” that defined the subcultural face of Australian and American surfing through the 1970s (if not the minority block of the pro tour through the 1980s in the group colloquially tagged The Lions for its part in holy conflicts with polar opposites, The Christians).

The Lions featured two geographically focal groups— one from a suburb in southern Orange County at the core of developing the ramp style of surfing we see on tour today, and the other from a similar two-mile pocket in southern Sydney that culminated in its two most gifted members obliterating their careers through drug-induced psychoses with both in the Top 5. The Lions were often beatable if heavily “sedated,” one setting a world record three- wave total of 30/30—with zero recall upon returning to shore.

The example is mentioned because the reader meets Davide paddling out on a fish without fins with a lit joint between his teeth. His penchant for weed is compulsive through day and much of the night. He smokes as 90 percent of Italian surfing smokes albeit at the far end of the scale. As one of the nation’s greatest surfers, his great competitive moment before going into semi-retirement sat over the course of a day on the North Shore of Italy, Sardinia, when under the progressive influence of 13 reefers, all of them kept to himself, he out scored traditional nemesis Alessandro Ponzanelli in a blur of superlatives, the only thing left to memory being one soul-arching bottom turn that he felt was the complete Davide Pecchi. The next day saw the reverse: In attempting to surf “straight,” he lost all sense of balance.

I’d worked the small hours the previous night in a suburban Tuscan street ripping apart his favorite fish, a parting gift from the girlfriend who never came back. He’d provided the grinder at midnight, inviting me to cut the thick keels and strip half the glass. This I did—90 to 120 decibels for 15 minutes. In the early dawn, with perhaps 50 sleeping citizens tucked in around the town square, Davide pulled in for coffee en route to the test ground. Nowhere open. He went to a vending machine in a rock alcove with a big echo. Out of order. He murmured, then spoke, then shouted, kicked, stomped into the rattled object for 30 seconds. Traumatized, he walked off then walked back and stomped it again. The performance was no longer in the costume of “L.S.D.” but of “Little Alex” in A Clockwork Orange. In the latest cacophony, again the citizenry stayed quiet.

We drove into the morning in a late-model, all-optioned diesel Volvo. My friend from Torino, small-time Mafia, took car from a man who owed him. It is the Volvo that I am driving now. He sold it down to me for half price to get rid of it. Now I know that I owe him a favor because of it. But Mafia is Italy. And the Volvo that I drive is my dream car. It is the most secure against thieves or in a crash and I can fit in all my boards.

His plan is to make it dry through the foam, blow through a tight pack on the button of the left-hand boulder point, rob the first wave, then toke for 20 seconds down the line.

Well aware of the effect of an ebbing though marginal Mediterranean tide on fading swells, last drinks for the next week are at hand. The paddle out is ruined when an unwanted two-foot foam wets the joint. Another meltdown is possible. He gets outside and past the patient throng.

Gesticulations start with one longboarder in particular. Both have cupped, stabbing hands as voices suddenly rise. From 100 yards away on the rocks it looks like a classic fight brew, but nothing happens. It’s only the long-held Italian tradition of hand-driven expression, in this case the call and response of friends.

The wave comes, first of a final two-foot set. He takes it and manages to do what most first-timers of free-friction surfing cannot, certainly on the backhand, riding it through with the keys realized—low center of gravity, body weight shifting, hand lifting the outer rail. Over the course of the next 40 minutes, he works up speed and gives the impression of a surfer able to ride anything. The surf dies further. The surfers retire. They wait out the day in case of a freak last pulse. They smoke. At day’s end, perhaps more excitedly than normal, Davide lights up a fat one, devours it, then under grip of the munchies in the safest car in all of Italy, we return to his Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia and late-night supper with his mamma. He reflects on his attitude of going to the inside for the first ride on his deconstructed board. Crocodiles fight for the meat. It is like this here. In Italy there is a culture of trying to be better than the next person in the water and on the road. As we veer across the center of the road and back the other way, we nearly hit the guardrail doing 150 on the long trip home.

Research by Taylor Claire Miller