An investigation into that hoary old chestnut, surf style!
When you want to talk surf style who you gonna call? You’re gonna call Mason Ho, right?
“You never know what he’s gonna do. He throws style points back to his influences and elders. He’s truly one of my favourite surfers to watch,” says Kelly Slater.
Kolohe Andino’s ex-pro surfer pops, Dino, a lifelong friend of the Ho’s, says, “John John is really gnarly, but he’s not as fun looking as Mason’s shucking and jiving. He looks down, looks back, does all that shit. He’s paying tribute to his dad on every wave.”
Mason, who is almost thirty years old, is in Costa Mesa, California, healing up an injury he got surfing a reef near Wollongong with Mick Fanning when a little emoji-heavy text jiving turns to a phone call.
Style? Want to talk to me about it?
“Fuck, yeah, it goes through everything…(pause)… almost everything. Not if we’re talking QS though. Those guys…whooooooooof! There’s not much at their end.”
To make his point about bad style, Mason talks me through two days at the Cascais Pro, a big qualifier there on the Portuguese Riviera, just west of Lisbon.
“When I think…bad style… the first thing that comes to my brain is when I did this QS a couple of years ago in Cascais. I was having fun, the waves were knee-high or less and I’d take off and…boom…do a little turn…whoo…style out a little, do a thrust or something…then hit my second turn, do a little jive…bing…and hit my next turn. In my eyes, I just did a three-thing combo not just three turns. That was in practice. I thought, that’s pretty cool, I haven’t seen anyone too into their style, and I went home stoked. When the contest started the next day I watched as this kid took off…”
“I don’t want to say his name. I don’t want to… ruin… him. He’s on his backside and he was doing these…uh…uh…uh… turns, hardly even bottom turning, the wave was only knee-high, just wiggling. It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. (Mason mimics exertion) Uh…uh…uh…cut down, cut down, cut down. I was thinking, why don’t you take one breath and release the tail real quick, hit the lip, maybe do a nice bottom turn and then bang the end instead of five wiggles of death?
You got a name?
“I don’t want to say his name. I don’t want to… ruin… him. He’s on his backside and he was doing these…uh…uh…uh… turns, hardly even bottom turning, the wave was only knee-high, just wiggling. It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. (Mason mimics exertion) Uh…uh…uh…cut down, cut down, cut down. I was thinking, why don’t you take one breath and release the tail real quick, hit the lip, maybe do a nice bottom turn and then bang the end instead of five wiggles of death? Okay, anyway, I think, let’s see what the judges give it. See how this works. Because that’s the opposite of what I’m doing. I’m throwing in a little style, and it’s slowing me down, but I figured it would be just as nice. The kid gets a six. Holy shit, I would’ve given it a three. Oh, whatever. I went out in my heat, got a nice little fun wave, did a little speed floater, took my time, styled, threw a little stoke, hit the end. And then it hit me – I was going to see, exactly, how the judges score my surfing compared to the kid’s wave. See how they compare what I think is ugly to how I surf. I got the three. I was paddling out, thinking fuck, the next wave, I’m not going to care about style, I’ll be fucking turning like the kid did, I’ll get mad and do that. I did and I got a pretty good score but the turns didn’t feel as nice. I didn’t reset with some style. It all felt like a shuffle blur. That’s always stuck with me. It was a big style epiphany. It hit me hard. I lost the heat, too.”
The former pro surfer, and for a time the world number one, turned performance coach Brad Gerlach sees it, knows it. When he was orbiting the tour in the eighties, he was told by coaches, and by other surfers and shapers he respected, to paint lipstick on his surfing.
“There’s old footage of Occy from ’84 and he had a really good style. He’d tilt his head a little bit but not wiggle or stick his chin forward. Then he grew his hair out and was whipping his head all about to make it look more difficult. He figured, I’ll just flick my head around and people’ll go…wow! I don’t know if that was the time, to make shit look more difficult to get a score. I was told that. To fake it.” BRAD GERLACH
Occy did it with his hair flicks. Even the surfer whose name gets thrown around as an icon of style, Tom Curren, played it.
“Tommy’s style in the eighties was kinda weird. Mine was too, but his style, and his style has gotten a lot better as he’s gotten older, was a bit contrived: head snaps, right hand balled into a fist. There’s old footage of Occy from ’84 and he had a really good style. He’d tilt his head a little bit but not wiggle or stick his chin forward. Then he grew his hair out and was whipping his head all about to make it look more difficult. He figured, I’ll just flick my head around and people’ll go…wow! I don’t know if that was the time, to make shit look more difficult to get a score. I was told that. To fake it. I can’t…fake it… that’s the worst thing you could’ve told me.”
Can you fix a bad style?
“Potentially!” says Shane Beschen, another surf coach, a former world number two and, in the nineties, a foil to Kelly Slater. His own kids Noah and Koda are headed for pro surfer careers. “Adriano de Souza is someone whose style has gotten better over his career. That’s something he worked on. It got better from him surfing good waves and focussing on the technique of his turns.”
But, says, Beschen, “style is like music. Everyone likes something else. Some people like jazz, some people like hip-hop. Alex Knost, to me, is someone I like to watch. I love his style when he does a layback cheater five in the tube. But other stuff I don’t love. It’s all personal…then you have Slater, Parko, Fanning. Great styles from an effortlessness and a look of control that comes from minimal movement.”
“To look stylish, your body has to be relaxed,” says Gerlach. “You can feel the wave coming up through you. You have a sort of freedom. When you watch that person, they look free on the wave, they turn where they want. It’s where you are on the wave and how much force you’re using versus power. Michel Bourez forces his surfing so much. Occasionally, when his timing is perfect, he does some of the biggest, raddest turns but so much of his surfing is about forcing it. I hate that board he’s riding, what is it, a five-ten? Sorry bud, you can ride a six-two, you’re way too strong to ride a five-ten. You’d look soooo much better on a bigger board. Taylor Knox did that a lot in his career. When his thing was good it was amazing to watch. His top turn carve is unrivalled. I still study it, it’s so fucking good. But I travelled with Taylor. And I told him that some parts of the wave don’t require one hundred fucking percent of your effect. Do sixty percent here so you can do 100 percent when the wave’s bowlier.’
“Jesse Mendes surfs with his adam’s apple out. I notice this about Parko, who otherwise has the sickest style, too. His chin goes forward, his head goes forward when he’s trying too hard. They’re pigeons trying to put their heads forward. They’re anxious to get down the line.” BRAD GERLACH
“Jesse Mendes surfs with his adam’s apple out. I notice this about Parko, who otherwise has the sickest style, too. His chin goes forward, his head goes forward when he’s trying too hard. They’re pigeons trying to put their heads forward. They’re anxious to get down the line. Jordy’s style is great. His butt is really low and his back is straight when he’s pumping, he twists really good, and he’s lighter on his feet than Conner Coffin is and he’s 40 pounds (20 kilos) heavier. That’s what I was working on with Conner. To be heavy looks good when it’s powerful and he can dig his board in and gouge the wave, but as soon as they don’t have that power, then you have a problem.”
Gerlach says style comes from body awareness and how connected, or disconnected, a surfer is from their feet and what they’re doing in the water.
“Some people are more intuitive and connected,” says Gerlach. “It’s so radical seeing my students, who started with me when they were ten and now they’re almost sixteen, and watching their body habits. A bad style can happen when you grow fast. They’re used to their head being four-foot-six away from their surfboard then, suddenly, they go to five-eight in a short amount of time and they slouch and bend at the waist and they don’t know how to fix it. It’s foundational. You can watch someone with a fucking ugly style and you know they have no chance of being a big star. Then you watch someone else with good movements, and even if they can’t do all the manoeuvres, they’re only going to get better and better. Every single day I’m either eating, studying footage of my students, studying footage of what’s happening on the WSL, some of the WQS, some of the edits and I when I see someone doing something great, I save it, put it in a Dropbox for one of my students, and tell ‘em to watch this a hundred times and we’ll talk about it next session. People think that wave pools are going to be the answer to everybody’s problems, but if you don’t know how to move correctly, it’s going to be the worst thing. You’ll continue doing the wrong thing and by wrong I mean digging rails and losing speed.”
John John Florence, says Gerlach, is an example of untrammelled style.
“You don’t have to look like anyone else or have a specific…thing. John John’s style wasn’t one of my favourites when he was younger and weaker but now that he’s really strong I don’t give a shit what he does with his left arm. I love the way he rides waves, how free he looks, how unpredictable he is. He’s relaxed and super confident. He’s in the pocket of the wave waiting for the full power to kick in and that’s when he does his turns. John John’s surfing at Margaret River last year was just sublime. He was relaxed and loose. He could turn anywhere he wanted. It looked like he wasn’t thinking at all.”
Is style a gift? Does it matter? Is it worth mortgaging yourself physically to get some into your game?
“It’s fucking everything,” says Gerlach. “It’s why you love somebody’s surfing, it’s why they’re your favourite surfer and it’s why you can see a guy who rips hard, but you can’t stand the way they surf.”
“I was five years old and I went straight on every wave and put my front arm out straight and the other one up in the air. After that, everyone said, you look just like your Dad. It must’ve got boring for everyone because a couple of my uncles said, do it like this, put your hands behind your back and poke your pee-pee out. I remember that. Mixing up my Dad’s style with my other uncle’s and poking my pee-pee out with my hands behind my back.” MASON HO
Mason got his first lesson in style at a surf contest when he was five. His Dad, the Triple Crown winner and Pipe Master, Michael Ho, told him he was to use his front arm as a guiding antenna and the back arm as his balancing tool. Hold it high, he told Mason.
“I was five years old and I went straight on every wave and put my front arm out straight and the other one up in the air. After that, everyone said, you look just like your Dad. It must’ve got boring for everyone because a couple of my uncles said, do it like this, put your hands behind your back and poke your pee-pee out. I remember that. Mixing up my Dad’s style with my other uncle’s and poking my pee-pee out with my hands behind my back.”
Mason’s very personal style now includes backside alley-oops (with a stale fish or slob grab), disco floaters to 360s, backside tweaked method grabs, club sandwiches in the barrel and look-down-at-his-feet take-offs.
“I always loved those look-downs because it felt nice. Chris Ward would do it a lot, backside and frontside. When you take off, you don’t freak out and look down the line, you take in the moment, take in the drop, and only look directly in front of you. Tom Curren does it a lot too I noticed. He keeps his eyes on the nose, literally in front of him, not down the line.
“The thing with style,” says Mason, “is that style truly does come out when you don’t give a fuck. Right when you truly don’t give a shit what your surfing looks like, that’s when some sort of style comes out. As soon as you let go of everything, you’re styling. When I was growing up, I copied all of my favourite guys but I was never as good as them. Once I got the theory down and stripped it back…boom…finally…something came out. There was some style. Finally…”
(Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in issue #342 of Surfing Life magazine. Subscribe here.)