The late, great haole Pipe king Ronnie Burns, the iconic image captured by Brian Bielmann, still alive, still beautiful. | Photo: @brianbielmann

Warshaw on: “Last white man to surf like a Hawaiian!”

Surf historian reflects on the too-brief career of the late Ronnie Burns.

If you were around in the late eighties you might’ve thrilled to a tall, blond, white guy lashing Pipeline alongside Derek Ho and Johnny-Boy.

Billabong paid him to decorate his board in their stickers and feature in their Jack McCoy movies. And then, somewhat mysteriously, after a motorbike crash in the hills behind the North Shore he was found dead, aged twenty seven.

According to Matt Warshaw, the man singlehandedly cataloguing surfing’s history and whom you should support with his three-bucks-a-month subscriber deal, Ronnie is a man who deserves a re-issue.

Come and be reborn in the eighties.

BeachGrit: I saw on your fabulous EOS a post on Ronnie Burns, the late, great haole Pipe surfer. Real hard to believe but it’s been almost thirty years since he died in a moto crash. He was quite a name wasn’t he, in the eighties?

Warshaw: At the end of 1989, right before I left SURFER and maybe six months before Ronnie Burns died, I asked all the hot Pipe surfers to give me a list of their top 10 Pipe riders. Added all the numbers up. Derek Ho came out on top, Ronnie next, then Tom Carroll, Gerry Lopez, and Johnny-Boy Gomes. Gentlemen can quibble, but nobody’s going to gainsay that list. Ronnie is thought of today, if he’s thought of at all, as a Pipeline guy, but what I remember best about him is that was the most complete North Shore surfer. Him and Derek. Ronnie killed it at Waimea, for example. Did airs at Rocky Point. Sunset, the only backsider who who had his number was Tom Carroll.

Six months before Ronnie Burns died, I asked all the hot Pipe surfers to give me a list of their top 10 Pipe riders. Derek Ho came out on top, Ronnie next, then Tom Carroll, Gerry Lopez, and Johnny-Boy Gomes. Gentlemen can quibble, but nobody’s going to gainsay that list.

Oweee, and how about that bow-legged style!

I posted a shot of Ronnie on Instagram and somebody remarked that Ronnie was the last white guy to surf like a Hawaiian, which is so true.

Billabong threw a bit of cash at him, took him on surf movie trips with Jack McCoy. Where did he fit in the surf star themes of the time?

He didn’t fit in at all. Or more like, he didn’t bother. Ronnie wasn’t anti-anything, he just did not give a shit about trade shows, or winning contests, or getting the cover.

Y’ever meet him? 

Just the one time, when I interviewed him. Big guy, 6’ 2” or something, nice, kinda bland — or bland when talking to a magazine geek he just met a few minutes ago. Jack McCoy was telling me last week that Ronnie was really funny when you got to know him. My impression was that he was super confident in his abilities, but not at all cocky. Confident in his surfing, and in his choice to not run after the spotlight.

He was quite the anomaly at Pipe. Tall, white, as opposed to, say, Derek Ho, small, beautiful honey skin. Was that a prob for Ron, the white bit? Or was this a belle epoch when skin didn’t matter so much?

No problem. Boscoe Burns, his dad, was a famous glasser, worked for Hobie and Phil Edwards, everbody loved and respected Boscoe. The Burns family landed in Hawaii when Ronnie was just four, so he grew up there, lots of Hawaiian uncles and such. Ronnie was tight with the Ho brothers, so no worries.

Are there any single waves of Ronnie’s that are remembered?

No single wave, but Ronnie was famous for being the guy who sat furthest out and deepest, especially at Pipe. He was incredibly patient, which I think is such an odd trait for a guy in teens and early 20s. The total opposite of somebody like Tom Carroll, who would ride 20 waves an hour to Ronnie’s three waves.

Ronnie was famous for being the guy who sat furthest out and deepest, especially at Pipe. He was incredibly patient, which I think is such an odd trait for a guy in teens and early 20s.

What were the circumstances surrounding his death? A moto crash? Got lost and died of hypothermia? 

A couple months after Ronnie died, Boscoe and Judy Burns, Ronnie’s parents, wrote a letter to Surfing magazine explaining that it wasn’t the motorcycle crash itself that killed him, but heat stroke. He was riding a valley trail, I think it was above Kawela Bay, by himself, on his way to meet Derek Ho. This was in July. The medical examiner told Burns’ family that Ronnie had fallen, couldn’t get his bike re-started, then started walking down a dry creek bed and died of heat stroke. It was originally reported that Ronnie had first fallen off his bike, then fell off a cliff. Boscoe and Judy wanted people to know that wasn’t the case.

Was there a big paddle-out for Ronnie?

Not sure how big it was. But I recall that Boscoe had saved Ronnie’s first board, an old longboard, and he used it to paddle his son’s ashes out to Pipeline. He wanted Ronnie’s first and last ride to be on the same board.

Anyone still talk about Ronnie apart from you, us? Or have the tides of time washed his memory away?

Right after the original hardcover of Encyclopedia of Surfing was published, in 2003, somebody pointed out that Ronnie didn’t have an entry. I was mortified. I’d spent months working out this master list, checking and re-checking it to make sure I didn’t forget anybody, and I fucking forgot Ronnie Burns. Just blew it. The reason the paperback version came out so quickly after the hardcover was so I could get Burns in there.

Confession: I’m in love with a monster!

Should you be on an asymmetrical board? Should we all be?

Swell arrived in southern California yesterday for the first time in 1037 days and crowds descended upon my local breaks like a rabid horde. Men drooling and jabbering while forgetting how to parallel park. Women decapitating each other with 9 foot longboards. It was madness. Out of control. But I had a job to do and neither cockamamie Jeep Patriot nor fiberglass guillotine could stop me.

I had to properly gauge the value of asymmetrical surfboards for all of humanity.

Around a month ago, maybe even more, David Lee Scales of SurfSplendor fame and I met in San Clemente at Album Surf for our regular chat. Album was one of the finer surf shops/shaping arenas that I have ever seen. Very well appointed and worth your stopping by.

In any case, Album does many asymmetrical boards and had never quite understood the concept thinking the boards were meant to go right or go left. Matt, Album’s owner/operator gently set me straight. You can listen here or let me quickly summarize. Asymmetrical boards are shaped around the idea that surfers don’t surf the same frontside as they do backside. Frontside has toes facing the wave. Backside has heels. I am a regular footed man so the right rail is longer and the right side also has one giant twin fin. The left rail is shorter and the left side has a mini quad set up.

Very interesting but would it work?

I surfed it very often in tiny waves, having much fun but not being able to gauge it properly. It felt both looser (going right) and stiffer (going left) and I thought I might really like it… maybe.

And then 1239 days later swell hit and I risked life and limb for an accurate assessment.

I paddled around loosened funboards, careening though the whitewash like dumb bombs. I sat in a pack of 346 hungry souls. And I somehow got a wave. And here is what I think. The way the asymmetrical board is built makes it virtually impossible to not have your back foot right in the sweetspot over the fins. I didn’t fully realize how much this matters until I was wrap-around carving like I’ve never wrap-around carved before. The board… responded. And responded beyond my ability. Going backside it felt like it locked in the pocket without even a stray pump. Just sliding down and straight in and fast.

It was almost too much fun and now I am confused. Are these feelings I’m having wrong? These emotions impure? No one but no one had an asymmetrical board but me and none of us were surfing pumping Snapper. We were surfing a high tide bogged long interval swell. Perfect for racing and bobbing and weaving. No?

Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m a dirty dirty bad boy.

In the meantime, I am getting another asymmetrical to try out because it feels like the key to me getting on the WQS as a 40-year-old man. The feel-good story of the decade!

More to come.

The forever fabulous Jon Zawada and his graphic for Lost Atlas.

Meet: Ozzie Wright’s Dazzling Bro-in-Law!

Jonathan Zawada's grahic design changed surf forever… 

In the summer of 2003, I launched a surfing magazine with a friend. Beyond a desire to swim in the rivers of advertising revenue that flowed at the time, we had little idea of how the magazine should present.

Would it be the Vanity Fair of surf? Would it seek the tone of National Enquirer (actually, that’d come a dozen years later with BeachGrit)?

Our direction, ultimately, was decided not by focus group or editor, but by our choice of art director, a twenty-two-year-artist called Jon Zawada. Riding on his fantastic distortionist design, the magazine became the darling of the burgeoning hipster movement and advertising meetings were generally concluded with the line, “We’re moving all our ad-spend to you and Monster Children.”

Glory days, as they say.

Jon, meanwhile, became an in-demand artist with worldwide reach, commercially and exhibiting. German motor cars (BMW), high-end fashion labels (Bassike), surf filmmakers (Kai Neville’s Lost Atlas) and music labels (Modular) all begged for his touch.

Jon’s graphics for Lost Atlas.
Jon’s album cover design for The Presets.

Note: Inspect Jon’s hat for New Era. Free Dumb. Perhaps Jon should’ve repurposed for the Trump campaign?

Four years go, the Los Angeles art gallery Prism sponsored Jon, who is thirty-five years old, and his wife Annie, the sister of Ozzie Wright, to live and create in LA. One of Jon’s first assignments was to visit a Malibu billionaire to discuss, and then design, a tattoo.”Once I have this on my skin you and I will be linked forever,” the billionaire told Jon.

Recently, Jon, and his wife Annie, released a furniture collection. “I’ve made a lot of furniture for giant mansions in the hills,” he says. Side tables cost three-thousand dollars, coffee tables, nine-thousand dollars and rugs six thousand dollars. (Available at Just One Eye, a “luxury boutique” on Romaine St, Los Angeles.)

“A lot of money for us, but not a lot of money for them. Everybody’s happy,” says Jon.

Why you should you care about Jon’s art?

Because his work immerses us in substance, originality and is dazzlingly charismatic. Like the artist himself.

BeachGrit: First, let’s play on a little of your surf experience. One of your first jobs was building websites.

Jon: I actually went to Tavarua to set up one of the early live streams for the Quiksilver Pro. I had to try and get satellite video streaming from the little tower out on a reef. At times it was harrowing. I went for swim off the back of the boat at Cloudbreak, got swept in the lineup and was repeatedly annihilated. I was completely out of my depth. Totally fine for doing the task but not for being on an island with a bunch of surfers.

How would you describe that year of designing Stab? It propelled us, straight away, into a realm of hipness that, perhaps, we didn’t deserve.

Jon: What I liked the most, and it’s what attracted me to music jobs even though I can’t play an instrument, and I can’t surf, is I find everything inherently interesting. The mystery about it all meant I could be a little more objective and have a different view on it. I didn’t carry any baggage on the way things should be over the way things should look. My magazine context was imported fashion magazine and I bounced that out into Stab. If I was a surfer, and had been reading surf mags since I was a kid, I’d be in that little funnel.

And, oh, how you smashed the rules of readability, sensible use of typography etc.

Jon: Yes! I tried! I tried to! Obviously there were times when I had so much to learn, you guys telling me what the interesting part of a photo was. I have no idea looking a wave what you think is interesting. I can tell what I think compositional, although actually cropping out the most important part of the photo to the surfer. What I found challenging was, how do I get something that I find rewarding too?

How does being an artist in LA differ to Sydney?

Jon: Everybody is really excited to do things here. There’s not that competitive nature that there is in Australia where people are wary of working with everybody else. Because there are so few opportunities in Australia you have to hold it with two hands and not share it. Here, everybody’s doing something, everybody wants to work with you and work together on stuff. It’s that awesome American optimism. It’s a good offset to my innate extreme pessimism. It takes me to a nice happy point. What also helps is we haven’t slid into the cultural echo chamber that we were probably in in Sydney. Our friends are more varied and what they do is widespread.

From what well does your inspiration spring from?

Jon: Looking back, the natural aspects of mathematics and science and physics, the things that I gravitate towards. If I’ve got any downtime or if I’m reading, that’s what I focus on and absorb. It’s a constant push-and-pull, the maths, and being pulled towards stuff that’s a natural beauty, finding what’s amazing in stones and plants and water and landscapes. Stuff that’s very outside me. Two extremes, one super internal, maths, the other super external, the natural world.

Album covers were your thing years back, but you stepped away from music until recently. Why?

Jon: I didn’t really like the whole system, the way it operated ethically. I liked talking to musicians and bouncing ideas back and forth with interesting and nice people. The stuff I didn’t like were musicians being signed really young, having their egos blown up and if the album didn’t do so good, or the second album, all the people that hd been around them and inflated them and changed the way they viewed the world… drastically… well, they suddenly disappeared. Kids came out of school, got a record deal, didn’t learn how to operate in the world or how to make compromises, were told everything they did was brilliant and as soon as something didn’t work out for the record label, everybody would turn their backs. If they had personal problems or trouble that couldn’t be solved by placating their egos, nobody was there to help them. Even though that same group of people pulled them away from their friends and family when they blew up.
And, now, in the interim, the music industry has collapsed. A lot of the bad stuff has gone, musicians have to do a lot more for themselves and it facilitates a nicer, more interesting work arrangement.

Do you examine what is called surf art?

Jon: Not heaps, but there is one guy I follow. Thomas Lynch III does amazing airbrushed psychedelic space waves and sunsets with multiple plants over a perfect tube. I love that stuff, outside of that, I don’t seek much of it out. Annie’s brother, being a professional surfer, whenever we introduce ourselves and they say, I’m a surfer, we mention Annie’s brother and they all know who he is. It’s always a good ice breaker.

And you branded the Kai Neville film Lost Atlas, a collaboration I believe that caught Mr Neville at the apex of his game.

Jon: For Lost Atlas, I was completely unaware of who any of the people were in it and was able to treat it with a level of distance which, for me, was super beneficial. If I’m too close to something, or I know too much, I can get quite nervous about taking chances or not trying to dig into some aspect that I think is interesting. I was keen on a bunch of other stuff at the time, graphic poster stuff. As a result, when I did all the art work I did what I wanted to do. It was the same with Stab. In retrospect, and deep, deep down, at the time I wished I was doing some art-film poster in the seventies instead of DVD package for surf film in the two-thousands. It all becomes more interesting as a result. Digging for how I can get what I want out of it and ending up in a unique space.

Visit or contact Jon here. 

(Note: this story appeared in an issue of The Surfer’s Journal.)

Michelob Ultra: What do the people think?

The official beer of the WSL gets reviewed!

There is finnnnnnnnally surf in southern California and it has basically been 876 days since the last swell. Panic is in the air as grown men stumble over their children and grown women accidentally kick their dogs as they rush out the door shouting, “Wait! Do I use warm water or cool water wax?”

I didn’t know either so I logged on to Surfline to check water temperature but got distracted by the website being wrapped, top to bottom, with Michelob Ultra branding. The beer of the bourgeoisie.


And many videos feat. Seabass Zietz all with less than 500 views. Would you like to watch one?

A bald-faced attempt to appeal to The People™ if I’ve ever seen one. Parents not making enough money, boy orphaned, getting kicked while down, getting shouted at, whilst in tube, by a beyond ecstatic Pete Mel… etc.

A tough looking life but let’s be honest. Let’s be real honest. The Garden Isle is a land of endless bounty and Seabass Zietz lives a life of eternal privilege.

But maybe I’ve been too hard on Michelob Ultra. Maybe it really is a beer of the people too. So let’s watch the people drink and review.

I guess I’ve been too hard.

Gabriel Medina? Made the final in France four times in six years. Worst result, a fifth. John is second in average event placings in France, and is near the top of what Surf-Stats man Balyn McDonald calls "relevant categories", average heat score, peaks, etc.

Moneyball: Gabriel or John to Win France!

Gabriel, almost unbeatable at Hossegor. John John in outrageous form.

I love a little Moneyball. Throw the stats into the machine, spit out a winner. Forget reputations. Forget who’s got the big-money stickers wrapped around their beaks.

Do you remember last month when the thirty-something school teacher Balyn McDonald predicted the outcome of Trestles via the cold machinery of statistics. Filipe and Mick all day, he said.  

One out of two ain’t bad.

Tomoz, or maybe later today, the Quiksilver Pro is going to light up on Hossegor’s always difficult to predict sandbars. Who’s going to win?

Let’s roll some of Bal’s numbers.


Gabriel Medina has entered the contest six times for four finals, two wins. His worst result is a fifth. In 2010, he won the King of the Groms there with a perfect heat score. “It’s his contest,” says Balyn.

John John Florence is on top, or close to top, of all the relevant categories: average event heat score, best results in peaks and over the last two contests he’s been averaging better than sixteen points per heat, the best on tour.

Filipe Toledo. Balyn ran the numbers of what he calls his “form column”, how each surfers last three events compare to their career heat average. Jordy swings in at ninth, but is averaging a full-point better than his career heat score. Mick is slightly lower than usual. But Filipe. He’s hitting 15.61 over a career average of 12.92. Two wins out of the last three events.

Who to avoid

Joel Parkinson averages a paltry 9.82 over the past three years. “And his form lately has been pretty awful,” says Bal. “He’s averaging 11.38, one-and-a-half points below his career average. He’s in a slump. They reckon he’s going to run again next year but the numbers tell a different story. He doesn’t seem psyched.”

Bede Durbidge. Two finals out of eleven events but also three last-place 33rds and two 25ths. Five events without a heat win. Too hot to touch.

Wiggolly Dantas. “Hasn’t won a heat here in his two years on tour. Has the second-worst average heat score or the event over his four heats (9.57).”

Dark Horse

Kolohe Andino. Has the equal second-best average event placing in France. Gabriel wins, averaging second, but John and Kolohe both average a (non-existent) seventh placing. Keanu Asing is in there too, but with only two events there, and his average is skewed by last year’s win.

And really don’t touch 

The beautiful, but sadly can’t-win-a-damn-thing, Miguel Pupo. One heat win out of six and the lowest average heat score from the last three events.

Visit Balyn’s website Surf-Stats here. 

And watch last year’s highlights here.