Behold: the best-selling surfboard in the world. Excerpted from the new issue of TSJ.

I wish I’d snapped a picture of it.

Middle-aged guy, beleaguered look on his face, tween daughter fecklessly trying to help, overburdened flat cart, the two of them trying—unsuccessfully—to push their way out of the Southern California Costco with a baker’s dozen Wavestorms that wouldn’t cooperate. That’s thirteen 8-footers stacked six to a column on one cart, each of them taking turns alternately falling off the flat cart one by one, the daughter scurrying to scoop them up, the man cursing under his breath, the Costco lady not helping the process by meticulously counting the now-wobbling number of boards on the flat cart before signing off on the receipt with a flick of the highlighter in her right hand, the line behind the man swelling with irritated people, his face in turn swelling red, me wondering how far he had to go before he reached his car in the parking lot, and if I had time to snap a picture.

My wife turned to me as I whipped out my phone.

“What’s that all about?” she asked. “Why does somebody need that many of those things?”

The Wavestorm, of course, is a surfboard, in a manner of speaking. One purchases them primarily from the wholesaler Costco by pulling them from a bin that more accurately resembles a cubed pallet.

My wife doesn’t surf, has no interest in surfing, and yet her phrasing—“that many,” “those things”—had her saying a lot more about the modern state of surfing than she ever could have known.

The Wavestorm, of course, is a surfboard, in a manner of speaking. 8 feet of hard-bottomed, soft-topped foam that one purchases at any number of big box retailers—primarily the wholesaler Costco, but also The Home Depot and others, by pulling them from a bin that more accurately resembles a cubed pallet. For $99, the Wavestorm is yours, and if you break it, which you might, you can return it for a complete exchange at Costco.

And plenty of people are buying them. While there is no independent data analysis, Wavestorm’s parent company, AGIT, based out of Irvine, California, estimated that it sold more than 100,000 Wavestorms in 2016 through Costco alone. Like that, and not surprisingly, the board has become the number one selling surfboard in the world, selling. And yet many within the insular confines of the surfboard industry do seem surprised by this. Or at least dismayed…

 

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Surfers are riding unthinkably dangerous waves. Why aren’t more of us dying?

Seven years ago surfing seemed to be on the cusp of peak gnar, with top-freighted slabs the photographic order of the day. It felt likely that these reefs would soon be smeared with the remains of the slow or hubristic. Factor in the growing list of 50-plus foot waves in the XXL landscape, and it was getting hard to ignore an obvious question: why aren’t more of us dying? Writer Brad Melekian took up the assignment, and discovered that the odds might be worse than the statistics show. —Scott Hulet


As a scene-setting tale of our heavy-wave surfing times, this one does quite nicely: In 2005, Reef McIntosh was whipping Raimana Van Bastolaer into 15-foot Teahupoo set waves—the typical violent, backless, reef-sucking south-swell fare that the spot is notorious for. After “five or six good ones,” Reef failed to penetrate the lip of one such meaty Teahupoo barrel, couldn’t get the craft over the wave, and so abandoned ship, sending the 800-pound personal watercraft tumbling earthward with the cascading lip, nearly skulling the now-dodging Van Bastolaer in the process. Not to worry. The ski washed onto the reef but was totaled. Everyone involved was unscathed.

McIntosh later admitted that he “didn’t know how to drive” a jet ski but that Raimana had said to him, “Don’t even think about it, let’s just go!” The story is well worn by now, but what’s alarming isn’t the story itself or the consequence-flouting attitude it connotes nor the fact that McIntosh later stated that he hoped the incident “helps [tow surfing] grow,” but the fact that such incidents don’t happen more often. After all, every south swell that puts a charge into the reef at Teahupoo carries the same number of would-be big-wave conquerors as typically descend on Jaws on Maui when a band of northwest swell shows promise. At the latter break, it’s not uncommon to see as many as 30 pairs of skis and surfers crossing the lineup.

And this is to say nothing of the waves themselves. When Laird Hamilton rode his millennium wave at Teahupoo in 2000, “we were all pretty sure that it was 50/50 whether or not Laird would have survived that,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing. “After all, a guy died three days before that.”

Today, though, waves like Hamilton’s are ridden with frequency, and Laird can be credited with rewiring the surfing populace, which seems to have grown bored with mere “big” waves and has developed a yen for “heavy.” To that end, the latest de rigueur in the sport are “slab” waves—waves that aren’t really waves, but rather abstract impressionist wave shapes that some surfers have taken to riding. The “wave” at Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania, for instance—a square-lipped, four- or six- or eight-stepped oceanic phenomenon—offers a fetishist’s delight of photos of surfers tempting fate, and, in the process, has given rise to a whole new category of non-wave hell-surfing slab rider.

“Death is talked about in surfing a lot,” says Evan Slater, well-respected big wave surfer and the former editor of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. “But the reality is that it’s more dangerous to cross the street.”

In other words, we find ourselves in an epoch when it’s typical to see crowds of ill prepared motor-assisted surfers being whipped into backless, square, 20-foot, thick-lipped mutants that break over only several feet of water.

So.

Why aren’t more people dying?

“I really have no idea,” says Greg Long, who, at age 27, is recognized as the best big wave surfer of his generation. Long knows something about the consequences of riding mutant waves. He’s had his ear drum ruptured at Maverick’s, endured hold downs at most of the planet’s big-wave surf spots, come as close as anybody to riding the mythical 100-foot wave, won the Maverick’s Surf Contest and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, and is the all-time winningest surfer in the now ten-year history of the Billabong XXL Big-Wave Awards.

“It’s surprising that there aren’t more fatalities,” he says. “You look around at what people are doing, at some of the waves that people are surfing, at the number of people in the lineup at some of these places and, uh, yeah. I can’t tell you why more people aren’t dying.”

Despite the fact that big-wave surfing is routinely lauded as one of the most deadly pursuits on the planet, despite the fact that Forbes magazine listed it (without statistical warrant, turns out) as one of “The World’s Most Dangerous Sports” in 2002, big-wave surfing turns out to be not nearly as deadly as we like to think. In fact, for all the hand wringing that attended its arrival, no high-profile surfer—not one—has died tow surfing.

“Death is talked about in surfing a lot,” says Evan Slater, himself a well-respected big wave surfer and the former editor of both Surfer and Surfing magazines. “But the reality is that it’s more dangerous to cross the street.”

This is something that we don’t acknowledge when we’re busy doing the salty sea-dog in-the-parking-lot thing, namely because it runs counter to the code of bravado that is entrenched so deeply in our culture. “I always wanted to challenge death,” Woody Brown said in looking back on his life of big-wave pioneering in 1940s Hawaii. “I loved to get just as close to death as I possibly could and then dodge it. That was my thrill in life.”

Brown spoke with authority, as he was surfing at Sunset Beach with Dickie Cross in 1943 when the pair got caught by rising surf and tried to paddle to safety at Waimea Bay before Cross died—surfing’s first big-wave fatality.

Seventy years later, the allure of death is still deeply embedded in the big-wave experience. Why else would Buzzy Trent’s oft-quoted cliché still reverberate in surf circles? When Trent famously said, “big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear,” he voiced a legacy for eras of big-wave surfers. What these surfers were doing was not merely an athletic feat. It was not the result of careful preparation, knowledge of the sea, years of surfing experience, and a dash of mental toughness. No, what they were doing was cheating death with every ride.

This is not to say that people don’t die surfing. They frequently do. It’s just that they usually die semi-anonymously in pedestrian conditions.

“Surfers, when you think about it, have always had a lot invested in the idea that what they were doing was deadly,” says Warshaw. “In reality, it’s not that deadly at all.”

The statistics don’t point to a very fatal situation. In their article about the deadliness of big-wave surfing, Forbes writes: “Surfing is misleading. These waves aren’t big, they’re ludicrously big. Drowning, by being pulled under by the current, by smashing your head against hidden rocks, or by being whacked by the board on which you were supposed to be elegantly surfing, can be deadly…as Adam Wright, surf forecaster at California’s Surfline, points out, ‘Anyone can try this sport, but the chances are you won’t be coming back.’”

Actually, the chances are very high that if a person were to try to ride big waves they’d be perfectly fine. How else to explain the case of German-born Sebastian Studtner who won this year’s Billabong XXL Biggest Wave Award, but who didn’t surf ten years ago and had never surfed before he began tow-surfing big waves?

Ironically, it’s been some of big-wave surfing’s most authoritative voices that have long held the position that the danger ascribed to big-wave surfing was trumped up. “It isn’t perilous, dangerous, or as hairy as it’s cracked up to be,” Peter Van Dyke wrote in Surfer magazine in 1966. Ken Bradshaw, big-wave standard bearer of the 1980s and 90s, is on record as saying that to those pursuing it, big-wave surfing “isn’t considered a death defying act” (a sentiment shared by Todd Chesser, who, in 1994, told Surfer magazine that “if you know the basics, the danger [from riding big waves] is minimal,” and then died while surfing the North Shore’s Outer Reefs in 1997).

This is not to say that people don’t die surfing. They frequently do. It’s just that they usually die semi-anonymously in pedestrian conditions. Rip currents are the number one cause of oceanic death, it turns out, with nearly 100 annual fatalities in the U.S. alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These are mostly non-surfers, though. And while nobody keeps stats on wave-riding deaths, sift through the dozen or so accounts of surfing-related deaths from the last two years and two things will jump out at you—in many cases, the ocean was just a bystander. Mid-fifties types suffering on-board heart attacks that were going to rear up whether the concerned party had been surfing, jogging, or playing tennis. And, two, in many cases, the surfer was caught in a situation they weren’t prepared for. Andrew J. Nathanson, for instance, who in the summer of 2009 while surfing East Quogue on Long Island, New York, while Hurricane Bill was sending rapidly building waves that way. The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg, in reporting the death, described the man as “a semi-retired financier living full time at his new beach house…[seeking] to gain a fast proficiency in wave riding. So intent was he to master the sport that he began hiring instructors daily to give him lessons on their own time, after surf camp hours.” That same pluck had him paddling into the face of an oncoming hurricane, even as his instructor paddled Nathanson’s daughter into the beach.

Some surf breaks are simply more fatal than others, but this is about the only constant in the surfing/death relationship. Pipeline regularly kills surfers and photographers, as does The Wedge in Newport. Except the reality is that when people die surfing, it’s usually just an anomaly.

For advanced surfers, some surf breaks are simply more fatal than others, but this is about the only constant in the surfing/death relationship. Pipeline regularly kills surfers and photographers, for instance, as does The Wedge in Newport. And while geography brings some sense of order to these deaths, the surrounding circumstances defy the easier-to arrive-at set of conclusions. That is, while it’s easier to believe that the deceased surfer had been doing something wrong—“pushing the envelope too far,” “taking too many chances,” whatever—the reality is that when people die surfing, it’s usually just an anomaly.

Take the case of Malik Joyeux, Tahitian-born barrel rider who’d surfed Teahupoo for years, but who died surfing a pedestrian-looking six-footer at Pipeline. Joyeux was hit squarely by the lip and likely lost consciousness before drowning. Similar circumstances surround the death of Noel Robinson, an accomplished surfer who was riding “average” waves at Puerto Escondido last summer when he died.

“In situations like that,” Slater says, “You come to the conclusion that this freak thing happened and it is so rare.”

Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare, despite the grip they seem to have on our collective imaginations. Though they’re not as sexy, there are a number of more deadly aquatic pursuits than surfing, each of them more blasé than the next. The most deadly water sport, according to the United States Coast Guard, is angling, far and away, which accounts for nearly 200 deaths each year. And when you include landlocked sports, it seems that most of your high school athletics are more dangerous than surfing—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting. There are fewer than 50,000 pole-vaulters in the United States, for instance (compared to five million surfers), and for at least two decades they have steadily had at least one of their legion die each year, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

What’s interesting about the preponderance of fishing and pole-vaulting deaths is not that they happen, but that the preoccupation of death has not ingrained itself so much in these cultures the way it has with surfing. It’s hard to imagine a pole-vaulter staring austerely at the high bar and saying, “You can try to vault, but you might not come back.”

But, as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

“Look at it this way,” says Greg Long, “Statistics are deceiving. Just because the number of people dying while riding big waves is relatively low doesn’t mean that it’s not a deadly thing to do. If you put me on a motorbike and ask me to do the things that Travis Pastrana is doing, there’s no question—I’m going to die. And it’s the same thing here. The people who are riding big waves have a solid foundation of how to operate in the ocean. If you took someone from down at the local beach and put them in those situations, you’d have a lot more fatalities.”

Statistically, surfing deaths are incredibly rare, despite the grip they seem to have on our collective imaginations. In fact, most of your high school athletics are more dangerous—including cheerleading, gymnastics, and pole vaulting.

Which is why, of all the surfing deaths, Mark Foo’s passing at Maverick’s in 1994 looms largest. Foo’s death was compelling partially because it was such an anomaly (the first death of its kind since Cross’s death in 1943), but also because it carried all the narrative elements that big-wave surfing’s history had laid out.

“The death thing is a little metaphysical to me,” says Slater, who found Foo’s lifeless body in the middle of the Pacific on that December day in 1994 and swam it back to a waiting boat. “Because the ones that happen are almost these symbolic deaths. Every once in a while there’s an inexplicable ‘why did that happen’ thing, but a lot of the more publicized deaths seem to have these deeper meanings. Eddie Aikau. Jay Moriarty. Mark Foo.”

Foo was a brash ego who had ruffled feathers throughout his career, had prophesied his own death, and was fond of uttering the memorable sound bite that has since been re-scripted into seemingly every surfing melodrama this side of North Shore. “If you want to ride the ultimate wave,” Foo said, “you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Foo’s death satisfied a macabre fascination with the deadliness of big-wave surfing both within the surfing world that was dealing with the emergence of Maverick’s as a surf spot and to the world at large—and so it garnered a huge media following. Outside magazine’s Jon Krakauer—fresh off a National Magazine Award nomination for his piece on Chris McCandless (which he would later revisit in the book Into the Wild) smelled the same romantic, crazy spirit in Foo that he saw in McCandless, and did his best to pair the deadliness of big-wave surfing with Foo’s own death preoccupation. Throughout Krakauer’s piece runs a heavy current of analysis on the type of surfer that Mark Foo was—an unabashed glory-seeker who kept a “Filofax [with] the phone numbers of surfing’s premier photographers, whom he cultivated and kept in close contact with.” Krakauer took pains to establish Foo’s primary goal in surfing (fame, glory, et al.), a sentiment that was summed up best in San Francisco surfing icon Mark Renneker’s comment on the lack of common sense he witnessed on the day of Foo’s death. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Renneker told Krakauer. “Here were the best big-wave surfers in the world, and they were behaving like fools. Partly it was the fact that some of the guys surfing Maverick’s for the first time were underestimating it. But mostly it was just Kodak courage: doing stuff they wouldn’t consider doing if the cameras weren’t there.”

“Statistics are deceiving,” says Greg Long. “The people who are riding big waves have a solid foundation of how to operate in the ocean. If you took someone from down at the local beach and put them in those situations, you’d have a lot more fatalities.”

If that type of behavior was alarming in 1994, it’s commonplace in 2010. And celebrated. How else to explain Garrett McNamara’s bizarre feat of waiting below an Alaskan glacier so that he could ride the waves wrought by its calvings? Or the fact that the Maverick’s Surf Contest last year took place in waves that were almost too big to paddle, but were watched by a live audience of 50,000. Or the enduring success of the Billabong XXL Awards?

Since big-wave surf contests were conceived, their ethical validity has been questioned, and they have been derided for the way they tempt fate. Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama have for years famously refused to participate in the Billabong XXL awards or other big-wave contests on moral grounds. “Part of their argument was that it was dangerous,” says Warshaw, “that somebody was going to die from this. But they haven’t.”

“The reality is that it’s not that much of a career opportunity,” says Slater. “If you look at the number of big-wave surfers making a living from it, you can count them on your hand.”

But there is also a sense among big-wave surfers that the sport isn’t any safer, just that surfers have found ways to mitigate the damage. A big-wave wipeout may still be out of one’s control, but with an army of jet skis roaming the lineup, help is almost always on offer. When Foo died, nobody noticed his absence for an hour, an unfathomable occurrence in today’s big-wave lineups, monitored as they are by surfers, tow-partners, photographers, and, in many cases, water safety crews.

It’s this type of aggressive preparedness, says Long, that might account for the lack of fatalities in today’s surf world, despite the fact that surfers are riding bigger, more dangerous waves in greater quantities. Long should know. In addition to being one of the ballsiest big-wave surfers in the world, he is also one of the most cautious and prepares himself meticulously—physically, mentally, and in addressing worst-case scenarios.

The jet ski in particular, he says, has become a safety net for big-wave and heavy-wave surfers. Long points to an incident when his own life was likely saved during a 2009 session at Maverick’s wherein he ruptured his eardrum before Jeff Clark rescued him on a jet ski. Similarly, when Shane Dorian endured a two-wave hold down earlier this year at Maverick’s, there was little doubt from anybody on hand that Dorian’s life would have been in grave danger had he not been rescued by a jet ski.

There is also a sense among big-wave surfers that the sport isn’t any safer, just that surfers have found ways to mitigate the damage. A big-wave wipeout may still be out of one’s control, but with an army of jet skis roaming the lineup, help is almost always on offer.

And while the ski saves lives, which is inarguably good, it’s equally impossible to argue that it doesn’t lead under-prepared surfers to ignore the consequences of their actions in the ocean. “Jet skis definitely give people a false sense of security,” says Slater. “People do things knowing that they can come up and look for the ski versus having to swim in on their own. I think that’s a little bit of a bummer. I don’t want to be the ‘glory days’ guy, but part of the big-wave thing is sitting in the middle of the ocean knowing that you’re entirely on your own.”

*

We have, each of us, likely had such a moment in the ocean where, even if we weren’t convinced that we were going to die, we gave a good amount of thought as to what we were doing in the water and whether or not we’d be willing to throw off the old mortal coil for the sake of being there. Settings that come rushing to mind: shallow Fijian reefs, the way that waves in Hawaii jump astronomically over the course of an hour, the inside at Black’s when a canyon set is looming. And this all in the head-high to double-overhead category. But, so you’re there in one of these settings, facing down the fifth of a ten-wave set, getting tired, desperate, maybe a bit panicky, and you begin to wonder what you’re doing in the water. And, if you’re the type that’s honest with yourself, you also begin to wonder how feckless and senseless a manner of dying riding a wave would be.

If that sounds too cautious, consider this: After his near drowning at Maverick’s last year, Shane Dorian relived the event for an ESPN camera crew. “I had no air at all, and I started panicking—straight up panicking,” Dorian said. “Flashes of my son’s face looking at me, and I’m thinking what am I doing? What the hell am I doing at the bottom of the ocean in San Francisco?”

For his part, Evan Slater, 38 now, father of two daughters and a fair bit removed from the 24-year-old self-described “big-wave soldier guy” who discovered Mark Foo’s body at Maverick’s, has decided to stop surfing the Maverick’s surf contest. “At this age, late thirties, it’s just like one of those old heavyweight fighters—what punch is going to knock you out for good? Certainly, the last couple years have given me less of a reason to actively pursue it. I still enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. That little voice saying ‘don’t kill yourself’ gets a little louder. I don’t know how many more two-wave hold-downs I can sustain. And each year at Maverick’s, I’ll have another one where I’m like, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to go through that again.’ I’ve had enough of them.”

Greg Long, meanwhile, at 27, has lost several friends in the ocean, almost died himself, seen people on the brink come back to life, and given careful consideration as to whether or not dying surfing big waves is a worthy way to go or so much selfishness.

“You question your mortality,” he says. “You question what you’re doing and the situations you’re putting yourself in, and you weigh it against the rest of your life. I have given it a lot of considerate thought. Not while I’m surfing, but when I have time to sit back. In the end, you have to accept the consequences of what you’re doing. You have to accept that it’s a possibility. For me, that’d be a dream way to go. My life is in the ocean—it’s the place that I’m the most happy, the most content, and if my card came up that way, I’d be perfectly okay with that. So I prepare myself to minimize the risks, but once you’ve done that, some things are out of your control.”

If there is a metaphysical continuity to surfers’ deaths through the years, then perhaps the message for our times is that carelessness has consequences, that statistics don’t lie—until they do.

On discussing her husband’s death with the New York Times, Elyse Nathanson, the wife of the financier who died on Long Island, said, “I found peace in knowing he was doing something he loved when he died,” a common sentiment. But Mark Foo’s sister, SharLyn Foo-Wagner, when interviewed by John Krakauer shortly after her brother’s death, said, “My mom is mad…It’s no comfort to her that Mark was doing what he wanted to be doing when he died. She thinks it’s such a waste.”

The idea of something being “worth dying for” is probably a bit of a misnomer. None of us knows the day nor the hour and all that. “There are a million different ways to die,” Long says. “You get in your car to drive down to the beach for a surf and you could very easily die. If you sat around and focused on all of the ways that you could die, you wouldn’t even be living a life. The same goes for big-wave surfing.”

Or, as Slater puts it, “Surfing is a part of your identity. Just because some guy dies, you can’t change who you are. That’s what you do. If you decide suddenly that because somebody died you can’t do it anymore, then maybe you weren’t really into it in the first place.”

Fair enough, but surfers in general in our modern era have a preoccupation with “progression,” with “pushing the limits.” So there’s only one way for the sport to go: heavier slabs, bigger waves. That more people haven’t yet died, that they don’t frequently, doesn’t mean that they won’t, that the consequences aren’t very real.

If Slater is right—if there is a metaphysical continuity to surfers’ deaths through the years, then perhaps the message for our times is that carelessness has consequences, that statistics don’t lie—until they do. As the boundaries get pushed, as hubris drives decisions, as more people “don’t think about it” and get on the ski before jumping off when a wave comes, it’s likely that these things won’t go unchecked.

The laws of probability are unforgiving, after all. “If you keep putting yourself out there,” says Long, “you keep putting yourself in these situations, it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to you, or to someone around you. You understand that when you get involved in this.”

Are your hacks gargantuan? Your airs apparent? Our people will be in touch.

An example of TSJ’s proclivity for the unexpected, author Brad Melekian’s look at professional surfing’s paid deal-makers would not have been out of place in a business magazine. Except Melekian’s knowledge of the surf territory took this to a far more informed place. The resulting piece offered a previously unstudied segment of the surf experience to enjoy a moment in full light. —Scott Hulet


It’s 2010, and surf industry executives continue to speak about surfing as though we’re all still part of “the tribe,” or “the family,” or “the pond,” or any number of totally inclusive, we’re-all-in-it-together type euphemisms that promote the idea that it’s still a cottage industry plied by “super passionate” surfers with just enough pluck to make it work.

“That’s complete bullshit,” says Kelly Slater’s agent and manager, Terry Hardy. “That idea of family is used in a bad way right now to take advantage of people in order to make business decisions for these corporations. And they’re corporations, don’t get me wrong on that. If you do two billion dollars in business, that’s [an extremely] big corporation.”

There are many such corporations. Even despite the recent economic downturn, the surf industry is a multi-billion-dollar business—estimates vary, but Bob Hurley, founder of the eponymous apparel brand, says that sales of surf-branded merchandise are about 20 billion dollars at the cash register in the U.S., 30 billion globally. That industry is made up of companies that are publicly traded or owned by large companies that are themselves publicly traded.

“Volcom—youth against establishment—is a public company, valued at, I don’t know, a lot,” says Hurley. “And Hurley—we’re the two newest—we’re owned by Nike. Billabong’s public, Quiksilver’s public, Rip Curl’s owned by a big investor, O’Neill’s owned by a real big company. These are real businesses.”

Like any real business, everyone, to use the phrase, wants a piece of the pie. As most of that pie has gone to the companies, increasingly surfers are eyeing the spatula in hopes of getting themselves a larger slice. For years, surfers have been paid on endorsement contracts that represented a tiny sliver of the budgets of these large companies, even as the industry grew on their backs.

“Kelly, Rob, and a few others changed the face of surfing,” says Bob Hurley. “And at the same time the companies grew phenomenally, the companies went public, and the industry became a global business. I can easily make a case that guys like Kelly and Rob and other folks are largely responsible for that.”

And, yet, they haven’t always been paid accordingly, which is why, to help even the playing field, guys like Kelly and Rob—and many less established top-tier, mid-level, and up-and-coming surfers—are increasingly turning to outside help, hiring agents to negotiate their contracts and find other means of profiting off of their talent. And the agents are only too happy to do it, for a cut. The historical precedent is quick and simple: The first agent was Australian Peter Manstead, who represented Tom Carroll and Martin Potter in the mid-80s and who had little discernible effect in changing the rules of the surf industry. Kelly Slater was managed by Bryan Taylor in the early part of his career. Laird Hamilton signed on with Jane Kachmer in 1995, and by the late 90s and early 2000s—as companies begrudgingly accepted the inevitability—a growing number of surfers began to enlist the help of agents.

“To me, it’s just a natural thing that should be happening,” says Hardy. “These guys deserve representation; they deserve to be handled the right way.” Today, Hardy manages only two clients: Slater and skateboarder-cum-pop icon Bam Margera. Like an agent in any industry, his work is to create opportunities for his clients to make money, and he’s unabashed in his earnestness in doing that.

In many ways, the fact that surfers have agents is not surprising—they are professional athletes, after all—but the agents provide a window into a bigger story about how the surf industry grew so rapidly as to outpace itself: Many companies are still loathe to work with surfers who have agents. Meanwhile, some agents, like many of their counterparts in the marketing departments at apparel companies, have few discernible credentials to be doing the work they are hired to do aside from the strength of their carving 360s. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, many agents come from cutthroat backgrounds of music and film management, a background that does not readily translate to the faux-bro barefoot breeziness of the surf industry. In short, in a surf world that is worth tens of billions of dollars, surfwear companies and surfers are still struggling to come to terms with what the agreed-upon value of a professional surfer is, and who should be included in deciding that value.

Companies want to sell as many shoes and shirts as they can at whatever it takes to reap the greatest profit. If that means underpaying your athletes or models, they’re going to do that.” Mitch Varnes

Terry Hardy started as an agent in traditional entertainment management, working he says, with a lot of big Hollywood firms to do deals in music and film. But, Hardy says, he switched over to action sports in 1999 and hasn’t gone back. The work is essentially the same, but the heavy lifting has been in getting the surf industry to accept real-world business practices in dealing with “talent.” According to Hardy, part of getting his clients “handled the right way” has been changing the ways in which surfers agree to work for companies.

“These guys were signing contracts that, quite frankly, were not contracts. They were being told and asked to do things four or five years ago—some guys are still in these contracts—that you can’t put in a legal contract. I’m not bagging on the brands. For the most part, they didn’t know, and some of them still don’t know, what they’re doing. It’s not malicious, but you can’t force people to do things in contractual relationships in the United States.”

This type of ignorance is institutional at many companies, says Hardy. “There are people in positions [at surf companies] that have no idea what they’re talking about when they’re working on these contracts—absolutely. They don’t understand the metrics and the dynamics and the relationships at work.”

Because the surf industry has typically been an incestuous business, wherein ex-pro surfers are hired on by their former companies to work in positions of power, those same ex-pros-turned-marketers are often operating in situations for which they have neither the education nor the experience to be doing.

And the gate swings both ways. Surfers, too, typically lack an advanced education, particularly in an era when the surf culture tacitly endorses home schooling for kids who show promise as amateurs. Few surfers attend college, and, so, with a sub-par high school education and no advanced degree, most are woefully under-equipped when it comes to handling their finances.

“They’re not experienced or schooled or skilled in negotiating their own contracts,” says Laird Hamilton’s agent, Jane Kachmer. “They don’t research the marketplace. If they are really succeeding at what they do, with the training and the work that it takes to be at their level, they don’t have time to be sitting on the phone trying 
to garner media and tell stories about themselves and their brand and their sponsors. They don’t have the wherewithal. More than that, I don’t think anyone can negotiate for themselves as well as someone who is educated and schooled.”

Like Hardy, Kachmer was a manager in the entertainment industry—a long-time manager of Mickey Rourke. She left the film industry in the early 1990s, began managing Hamilton’s wife, Gabrielle Reece, and then began managing Hamilton in 1995. Today, she continues to manage Reece, Hamilton, and Dave Kalama.

Kachmer, like Hardy and nearly every other agent, says that the biggest difference in making the switch from the entertainment industry to surfing was the resistance she faced from the surf industry. “The reaction I got was not positive, let’s say that,” she says today. “Particularly in France where Laird’s primary sponsor, Oxbow, is. They were used to just dealing with him and thought, well, who is this woman?”

While that resistance is dissipating, it is still palpable. “Part of it is this mentality that, ‘Oh, it would just be easier for us if we didn’t have to deal with agents,’” says Kachmer. But also, the need for a surfer to have representation is not always obvious. But agents—according to agents—provide a valuable service to their clients in being able to attribute a value to something that is amorphous and defies valuation.

“Surfers just want to surf,” explains Floridian Mitch Varnes, who manages—among others—CJ and Damien Hobgood, as well as current wunderkind Clay Marzo. “They want to be everyone’s friend, and they want to surf. They’re buddies with their team manager; they’re out there surfing with them and traveling with them. They don’t want to get into big pissing matches over ‘am I worth “x” dollars or “y” dollars?’ They need somebody else to do that.”

That, says Varnes, is the work of an agent, and this is the value he believes he provides his clients. “People that think it’s all bros and family, that’s bullshit. Business is business. Companies want to sell as many shoes and shirts as they can at whatever it takes to reap the greatest profit. If that means underpaying your athletes or models, they’re going to do that. So where I come in, you know, I got along fine with pretty much everyone that I dealt with, but I understood that it was business. This is not bro-ing down in the water, this is business. I represent my clients, and I have no doubt that I have made some of the best deals ever made out there in the surfing world for my clients. You can quote me on that. I have no problem with that. And I think if I had not been there representing some of these clients, they may have a gotten a half or a third less than they would have gotten, I mean a significant difference.”

Other agents are similarly confident of their impact. Bryan Taylor, for instance, who manages a client list that includes Bobby Martinez, and who’s very assertive and concrete in what he believes he provides for his clients.

Some of them shoot themselves in the foot. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m just saying, that I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t make him drink.” Bryan Taylor

 

“If my clients want me to hang out on the beach, I don’t surf. If they want me to go hang out at a video premiere, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink. If they want me to go to a born-again Sunday morning worship, I don’t pray. What I do do, though, is provide the infrastructure of a lucrative career with the end goal of having them retire by their 30th birthday. That’s always been my bottom line. I would like to get these kids from the time they’re 17 to 19—they need to help with how they perform; the companies need to help with how they promote—to get them to the point when they’re 30 and they can say, I don’t need to make another dime the rest of my life. I can live in my house that’s paid off, and I have enough money in investments for the next 60 to 70 years that I don’t have to work.”

The fact that so many surfers are signing on and staying with so many agents is testament to the fact that the agents must be doing something. But do they really do what they say they do? Is Varnes really doubling or tripling the earnings of his clients? Are Taylor’s clients really living in paid-off houses at 30, with enough residual income to last a lifetime? Or are they just skilled in talking about it?

I put this last question—about the paid off houses and retirement at 30—to Taylor. A simple question: Have any of your clients actually retired at 30? Here’s his answer:

“I would say that many of them are—without mentioning names. Some of them shoot themselves in the foot. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m just saying, that I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t make him drink. I try to the best of my abilities, and I’m not always right. I’ve certainly always tried to attain that goal for them. I can’t say that I’ve been 100 percent, and I think there’ve been a few cases where I’d be a lot closer to 100 percent if different decisions were made on their part, but then again, it’s their lives, and what they do is their business.”

So, while it’s undoubtedly true that the business acumen that many agents bring to the table is valuable to their clients, it’s also true that we can’t overstate the case. Further, it’s important to note, Bryan Taylor, like many agents, doesn’t surf. In no other industry would such a detail matter, but for an industry that prides itself on being conceived for surfers and by surfers (however disingenuous that notion is, it is still prevalent), the notion that outsiders are driving change in surfers’ compensation may explain some of the animosity that exists between agents and apparel companies.

But perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps companies just don’t like to work with agents because of their approach. “I think it’s important in some cases for the manager to go in there and be the bad guy,” says Varnes, “represent the surfer. Because the surfers don’t want to do that.

“I’ve had some very contentious negotiations,” he continues. “I’ve had some that went smooth as butter, and others where we could have gone to fisticuffs. There are some marketing managers out there that don’t understand this is a business. And it’s because they don’t have, in my opinion, the education or experience to understand that. I’m not afraid to say that either; that’s just how it is.”

Taylor, who attended the Stanford Business School and is a former employee of the William Morris Talent Agency, says that agents themselves bear a burden of responsibility here, and that the lack of credentialing prevalent in the surf industry is also a problem in the world of managing surfers.

“I’ve seen many managers come and go over the years, and now I’m a manager, and a year later I work for an optic company, and then I start working at the magazine. It’s a mess. I think that’s probably what you attribute it to. I don’t think these executives are anti-agent; I just think they’re anti-idiots.”

Whatever the reason, the distrust can run deep. Bob Hurley, for instance, has refused to do business with agents in the past. “I don’t think agents are necessarily different than other folks,” says Hurley. “There’s good ones, there’s bad ones, but I have told a surfer or two that they can’t work with us anymore because of their agents. And they look at me like, are you serious? And I say I’m dead serious. I just want to work with fun people. But sometimes you don’t have a choice.”

Whether or not it is “fun” to work with an agent may be irrelevant, and it’s possible that much of the contention that exists between agents and surfwear companies stems from the fact that establishing the value of a professional surfer is not an easy thing to do.

There is no doubt about Kelly Slater’s value in the surf world, for instance, and if there was, Terry Hardy is quick to dispel it. “Kelly Slater is a vital employee of Quiksilver. I can argue that he’s the most important employee of that company. He’s a very unique talent and he’s a very unique person, and at the end of the day I can find another CFO who’s incredibly qualified to work at Quiksilver. I can find you 100 right now that could do that job. I can’t find 100 Kelly Slaters.”

And on this point, Hurley agrees with Hardy. “I’ve said it over and over again, I think Kelly Slater’s underpaid,” says Hurley. “I honestly believe that. I’m not saying he doesn’t get a fortune for surfing, but when you think of the business he drives, it’s disproportionate compared to other sports, and God bless the guy who’s driving revenue; he should be compensated accordingly.”

But what about the mid-level surfer. Does he really sell boardshorts? Does he drive revenue? What value, really, is there in a professional surfer outside the top one percent?

“What’s the value of a house?” asks Hardy, rhetorically. “The value of a house is whatever you can sell it for. And that stands here. The value of somebody working for your company as a paid talent athlete is what the market will pay. I’m using this as an example—but if Billabong wants to pay $200,000 to a rider and Hurley wants to pay $100,000—guess what, the kid’s going to Billabong.”

I can find another CFO who’s incredibly qualified to work at Quiksilver. I can find you 100 right now that could do that job. I can’t find 100 Kelly Slaters.” Terry Hardy

It’s in this sense that it becomes painfully apparent how much of a business the surf world has become. Surfers are commodities, and while the negotiations of their worth between agents and the companies who pay them are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, the tenor of such negotiations only supports the point that the sport has been commoditized intensely.

Of course, this line of argument presupposes that agents are always acting in the best interests of their clients. It should be noted that agents take an often substantial cut of their clients’ earnings, and, unlike other industries where that cut exists at an industry standard rate (15 percent in book agenting, for instance), the world of surf agenting is so nebulous and amorphous that there is no standard rate. This, says Hurley, is where he becomes skeptical.

“So let’s say you got the best surfer in the world and he’s 16 years old, and you get a guy who isn’t a taker, right, he’s a giver, and he says, ‘I’d like to help this guy with his career, and I’d like to get him with the right company to create some magic and do something special.’ Now, that’s a fantastic situation. But if you get a guy who looks at so-and-so who just won the NSSA nationals, and you get a guy who goes, ‘You know what? I’m going to make a lot of money off a lot of companies with this guy right here.’ That’s a horrible situation, and those people don’t provide any value at all. They probably actually lose money for their clients.”

Agents, meanwhile, have their own skepticism rooted in the fact that the top-level executive positions at surf companies are increasingly being manned by businessmen with advanced degrees who are often shrewd in their own business dealings. “I used to say to a lot of these people at these companies, ‘Do you negotiate your own contracts?’ And of course the answer is no,” says Jane Kachmer. “No, they would look for expertise and the best resources they can, and they have lawyers to look over their deals.”

Or, as Bryan Taylor puts it: “I remember back in the old days, ’88, ’89. I remember there was one kid I had at the time, very young. He had just won a very prestigious title, and he was making pennies a month. I think it was something like $500 a month. It was ridiculous, and he said to me, ‘I went to my sponsor, and I asked them for a raise.’ He said, ‘I just asked so and so if he could give me another $200 a month, and he just gave me this lecture on how dare I, we’re surfers, we don’t think about money.’ And I said to this kid on the phone, ‘Did you happen to see what kind of car he pulled up to the meeting with, or what beach house he happened to drive into?’”

The example holds extra resonance because, increasingly, young, amateur surfers are seeking the help of agents, says Kachmer. “You’re seeing kids getting representation now younger and younger. If it’s not their parents, then it’s someone, and I think that really freaks out the companies, because they kind of start to go, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s happening at a younger and younger age.’ To me, I think that they actually need it more at a younger age, only because they’re so vulnerable and have such little knowledge. All of the clients I work with are highly intelligent and they have a grasp of the business, but when it’s a kid, they can’t be expected to know.”

As these kids grow up with agents representing them, surf companies either begrudgingly or willingly are accepting that the agents aren’t likely to leave. Which really makes this more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. Companies deliver quarterly earnings to shareholders; CEOs’ compensation packages are publicly disclosed and, yes, as surfers hire representation to help them get the money they believe they’ve earned, the surf world can less convincingly make the argument that it’s still a small, plucky “tribe” that needs to look after its own best interests.

“I think the surfing world likes to view itself as this hallowed area, and it’s not,” says Terry Hardy. “It isn’t what it used to be. It’s a ten-plus billion dollar annual worldwide industry, and I think this is just one of those things that has to happen. The top athletes have to have representation.”

Dissecting one of surfing’s most loaded labels.

If over the past, say, decade, you haven’t had occasion to visibly wince at the dramatic over- and/or mis- use of the phrase “waterman,” you’re probably not paying attention. The word is everywhere: In publications both mainstream and surf-specific, in marketing campaigns (especially in marketing campaigns), in fawning descriptions of people, in films and the subjects of films—“waterman” has been having itself a nice little moment.

And yet it’s a strange moment, if only because it’s entirely unclear what drove this most recent resurgence, even less clear who or what we are actually attempting to describe when we call someone a waterman in 2016, unclear-er still what vague-yet-vaunted praise the phrase is meant to convey, and perhaps most unclear of all how and why, over the past ten years, “waterman” has become the aspirational descriptor for oceangoers everywhere. So casually deployed is the phrase today that it often seems as though anyone who so much as paddles a Saturday afternoon mile or straps on a handplane for a post-work womp is being fed a carrot from the culture at large to self-identify.

Fair enough. It’s a proud title, after all, and one that expands our ocean-going identities beyond a simple act. A “surfer” just surfs and a “fisherman” just catches fish, but a “waterman,” or so we tell ourselves, is someone more, something more, even if we can’t quite say what that something is.

So extolling is the phrase that despite its dilution, it hasn’t lost its cultural resonance. Trying to divine a consensus definition of what, precisely, makes a waterman is a fool’s errand—10 people, 11 answers, etcetera, but there’s no doubt that the word is our culture’s highest honorific, as close as we get to standing up and saluting. The question is why?

It’s entirely unclear who or what we are actually attempting to describe when we call someone a waterman in 2016, unclear-er still what vague-yet-vaunted praise the phrase is meant to convey.

Ambiguous by nature—two nouns unceremoniously slammed together—the word’s vagueness serves several masters. Writ large, it conjures an ethos and a set of practices, with a quick nod of the head in the direction of history and heritage, sure. But in 2016, it’s equally safe to say (and perhaps more important to acknowledge) that the term has come to show remarkable utility as a buzzword for brands, a trite (if savvy and effective) imprimatur for marketing departments worldwide looking to co-opt a lifestyle and make a tidy profit in the offing.

Which means that in our current era the only unimpeachable truth is that the word is heavily fraught. Examine the conversation online, for instance, and it should take fewer than ten minutes for you to realize that you’ve entered an ideological and self-serious morass driven by a tremendous amount of good old-fashioned, chest-inflated, surf-cultural dick swinging. All of which seems to fall along two distinct, telling and predictable lines of ideological fault: 1) Self-appointed, earnest traditionalists, standing in judgment, steadily doling out salt-encrusted jeremiads against perceived carpetbaggers, and 2) Said carpetbaggers, shamelessly shilling all manner of product (but mostly just stand-up paddleboards) by the Matson container, fists placed steadily beneath ever-rotating hands, hocking product via the appropriation of the word itself and the creation of carefully curated promotional materials comprised almost entirely of suggestively gritty and tough-nosed oceanic imagery. Miles are paddled. Bodies are hardened by water. Etcetera is etcetera-d. And for a low introductory fee, this, too, can be yours.

It’s all more than a bit silly, of course, the type of thing that a real waterman—whoever that turns out to be—wouldn’t have the time of day for. Which brings us to the question at hand.

Too many hagiographic words have been spilled on the subject of what a waterman is to warrant rehashing, but turn to the literature and you’ll inevitably find purists saber-rattling with phantoms, disturbingly obsessed with an is/is not dichotomy that almost certainly does not exist. To point out examples would be mean-spirited, but they are many, and the only thematic consistency among them seems to be an irrational compulsion to apply a set of arbitrary parameters on what and who, precisely, a “waterman” is (cue the phrase “all conditions”) and—more pointedly—a similarly irrational compulsion to put a set of parameters on what and who a waterman is not (basically anyone this side of Molokai). This parsing of who does and does not get to come to the club meetings is the worst parts of surf culture laid bare—exclusive, elitist, insular, self-important, but also understandable, if only because it’s sourced in an anger at perceived interlopers trading on and profiting from some otherwise authentic thing.

This parsing of who does and does not get to come to the club meetings is the worst parts of surf culture laid bare—exclusive, elitist, insular, self-important, but also understandable, if only because it’s sourced in an anger at perceived interlopers trading on and profiting from some otherwise authentic thing.

As for those interlopers? They all seem to mine the same tired clichés, but take away the Tumblr, Command-Z the Instagram filters, Force Quit the Photoshop, and what you’re left with is a cynical play directed at, but grounded in no reality for, the broadly-painted and equally faceless “end consumer.” It’s target marketing, pure and simple, and the dispersing of daydreams to folks who need them. To look at the websites, the ads, the magazines, and the glossy brochures is to become convinced that underwater rock-running is a tremendously popular activity with your workaday surfer. It is to believe that the watery majority of us out there are pulling in our nightly meal via handline and outrigger canoe. It’s a sham, is what it is—the whole distasteful thing. An entirely aesthetic promise being peddled to that ever-growing percentage of coastal-dwelling folks for whom the ocean may as well be a 24 Hour Fitness, good for 60 minutes of pre-work lung-pumping before the knotting of double windsors and the filing of briefs.

That’s no slight—not on ties, not on jobs, and certainly not on people long on responsibility and short on spare time looking for something aspirational to hang on to. But while there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the optics of a decidedly beautiful culture, daydreams are daydreams precisely because they have a tendency not to manifest—and they certainly don’t do so with the swipe of a Gold Card. Dropping 10 grand on a chronographic dive watch doesn’t make you a waterman any more than buying a Waterman pen makes you a writer. And that carbon-fiber paddle in the garage will, at day’s dusty and sundried end, still just be a paddle in the garage if you don’t know what to do with it.

So yes, waterman in its current iteration is fraught, but fraught perhaps for the best of reasons. Surf culture, ocean culture, may be given to the cynical and the idealistic in equal measure, but the phrase—when used accurately and sincerely—has over the years come to represent a sort of common ground. Perhaps this is because when we talk about what it means to be a waterman we are not actually talking about a set of skills, but rather something far more prosaic. Perhaps we are talking, in our most unapologetically Deepak- and Oprah-infused terms, about our highest aims, the best parts of what life on the water can offer, the things we have always valued most as a culture—commitment, devotion, understanding, awareness, competence, self-reliance, respect.

Which is kind of the point. That such an inherently subjective label has for so long been discussed along vague moral and ethical lines is telling. Lost in the attempts to quantify and make an objective definition of what a waterman is—the checking of boxes and attempts to pin down—is the fact that the activities themselves are just the lemon next to the proverbial pie. The activities themselves—the spearfishing and freediving, the surfing and paddleboarding—are, in fact, just byproducts of an ethos, and it’s the ethos that we respect.

When we call someone a waterman, maybe what we’re really saying is that that person is entirely and uncommonly devoted—to their core, in a subculture already rife with uncommon devotion—to the raw, edge-of-nature wilderness experience that the ocean can offer.

On some level, we probably all know this to be true. But of course in our actual discussions we almost always ignore such intangible and considered realities in favor of a simpleminded and wrongheaded devolution into a cataloging of skill and adeptness. And this reduces our highest honorific to something like a trip to the local DMV—show your proficiency, get certified. When we talk about what makes a waterman, that is, our tone might shift to the reverent, but our talk shifts to the taking of stock. In our rush to answer an elementary question—“What do you have to do to be a waterman?”—we forget that what one has to do ignores the question of who one has to be.

Which means we’re missing the point. Surely there are hundreds of watermen and women out there gleefully flying under the radar, even in a modern era that would seem to render such dedication passé (more on which in a moment), but think of today’s unimpeachables—Brian Keaulana, say, or Mark Healey, or Dave Kalama, or the late Rell Sunn—and you’ll find that you’re thinking of men and women who not only know or knew how to do certain things in the ocean with incredible skill, but men and women who knew why they were doing these things, and dedicated their lives to existing in deep harmony and accordance with that profound sense of purpose.

When we call someone a waterman, maybe what we’re really saying is that that person is entirely and uncommonly devoted—to their core, in a subculture already rife with uncommon devotion—to a coastal life lived in its totality, to the raw, edge-of-nature wilderness experience that the ocean can offer, and to the possibility that such devotion can lead to a better existence not just as a person in the ocean, but as a person in search of a meaningful life.

All of which is as embarrassingly earnest, overwrought, and clichéd, as it is undeniably accurate. And therein lies the problem.