My writing’s been in a bit of a rut of late. Inspiration lacking.
The surf industrial complex, with all its usual gossip, intrigue and scandal, hit the Coronavirus head on. Whack! I was geared up for a never ending procession of scoops, expozes, shock reveals.
But after aqua planing for a ‘lil bit, the whole whirring mess has now spun to a complete stop.
There’s no tour to complain about. The pools are shut. Few new clips are dropping. Every angle of the Chinese Cough has been covered, and covered again.
The machine sits silent.
All we’re left with is Chris Cote playing bass guitar over clips of Kai Lenny folding his laundry to an empty live feed, while podcasters interview other podcasters about their favourite podcasts in some form of infinite meta loop.
Crickets in the real world. No one knows what happens next.
(Oh, and I missed the best day in a decade at home due to family commitments. I’d make the same choice again, but jeez some of the shots sting.)
Derek writes me just this week, asking if I’ve got any stories up my sleeve. Nah mate. I’m tapped out. Flatlining. There’s absolutely fucking nothing going on.
Then this story pops up in my feed: Man on electric foil board rescues dog from overturned fishing kayak in crowded Currumbin line up.
Read that sentence. And then read it again. Pause at every step to marvel the incredulity.
A fishing kayak, avec pooch, attempting to paddle out through four foot Currumbin Alley. Regular limb-powered surfers rendered as helpless onlookers when the ‘yak flips.
A South African, on an e-foil, swoops in as hero to save the day.
An electric fucking foil.
A story so stupid, with so little meaning to be derived from it, yet simultaneously the most fantastic thing that has happened in 2020.
You can try and pin it down, try and attach a narrative to it. Try and understand what has happened. Analyse how we got here. Understand what it all means. The electric foil. The fishing dog. The global pandemic. The collapse of the entire fucking world.
But you can’t.
At this point, all you can do is sit back and watch everything unravel. And realise that surfing, in all its gorgeous anarchy, is the gift that will never stop giving.
God bless it.
And God damn it if you don’t just wanna boop that little pooch right in the snoot.
Can we get him a content sharing contract with WSL studios, ASAP?
The making of Little Sister and the wrangling of rhinos…
You break a board, you get another, right?
I broke my 9’6” Rawson gun in June 2016 on a freak day at my home beach.
The board had lasted 28 years, one of a quiver of three from 1988: shaped by Pat, glassed by Jack Reeves, sanded by Charlie Walker, the greatest trio of boardmakers in history or ever.
It’d pinballed off all the rocks down Waimea Point and survived. Caught 25 foot waves and been mauled by Bay closeouts and survived. Traveled back to Oz in 2010 without a board bag, and survived that without a scratch.
Now it was on the sand at Newport Beach, Australia, shorn in two by the biggest long interval groundswell to hit the area in a generation. I’d swum in from the place that broke it, looking in to the beach, where a mate was walking along the shoreline, this board and all its deep memory in two pieces under his arm.
So I gotta replace it. I gotta go Modern.
I waited a while, thought about it. What did I want?
My thoughts strayed to Greg Long, and to the shaper who’d dialed his Eddie winning quiver from 2009, San Clemente’s Chris Christenson. It took a full year for my thoughts to stray this way. This is how my surfing brain works now, like the other parts of my brain. In the 28 years of owning the Rawson, I’d grown calmer, less reactive, possibly less likely to make the kinds of dumb decisions that’d been such a significant feature of my surfing life. There was less froth, but when there was froth, it was thick and fucken deep.
Just as well, because it took another 18 months to get this board.
Everything about it, the way it was made, the design ideas behind it, the fin set-up, the glassing process, even down to the way it eventually sat in the water and slid into a wave, was an expression of how much has changed in that old Rawson’s lifespan.
Chris does some boards in Australia via the Onboard shop in Mona Vale, about four k’s from my house. The way it works, people order boards, Chris sends files, the boards are cut, then Chris flies in once a year and spends a manic week or so finish-shaping the rough cuts. The time-honoured cycle of the traveling gypsy shaper, accelerated by the advent of Shape3D and the cutter.
I emailed Chris and he was all, yep, let’s do this, and a few ideas were chucked around. That was September 2017. Over a year passed. I would go into the Onboard shop every now and then and lurk over to this dark corner where several stock Christensons were slotted. Not being of the Fish persuasion, I would drag out these three mini round pins, boards Chris later model labeled the Carrera. To call them “step-ups” seemed lame. They were boards for the kinds of waves you might ride a dozen times in your life.
In October 2018 Chris came back with the news that he’d be in town in November and now was the Time. He mentioned a Twiggy Baker model file, 9’8” x 201/2” x 35/8”, Burford blank with a 1/4” Australian red cedar stringer, boom.
It was now an international operation. The blank and cutter were in Australia, the shaper was in California, and the file was in Twiggy’s computer in South Africa. Twig scaled the base file for the board down from 10’8” to 9’8” and sent the file to Australia.
In mid-November, Chris got to town only to find Twiggy’s file had already locked. This happens with custom designed files to prevent copying. You can’t cut from a locked file. At that very moment Twiggy was en route to Nazare for one of the WSL’s big wave CTs. What the fuck? I thought, is this board going to dodge me for another year?
Twig got the ensuing emails the day before he surfed, and re-sent the file. He then won the contest. I emailed him: “Yeah Twig! Shaping boards through time zones one day, winning contests the next!” He hit back: “Your board is the sister of the file I was riding.”
So there was the board’s name, Little Sister.
I spent an hour or so with Christenson while he finish-shaped the blank. Designers, especially good ones, come in a few different varieties. There’s conversationalists, there’s grumpy, there’s serene majesties, there’s the under-appreciated genius. Chris is a skill guy. He was just about to head back to North America for some kind of helicopter snow rescue course. He doesn’t waste words, or foam. I liked this. We talked about various things, while he did a bit of dusting off, and I gazed at the board.
You can look at other people’s boards, but you’ll never look at them like you look at your own. Immediately I saw the radical gulf between the old big wave gun style and the modern version. The old style was drawn-out, flat decked and flat bottomed, reliant on long tail vee, square hard cut Diffenderfer type rails, and raw rocker. That was the Rawson. It was designed to be paddled in flat and driven down the face like a bus, then tipped on to the tail vee and outline curve to drive clear.
Little Sister was a mile away from that: thicker in the core, yet foiled away in all directions, the deck doming down into the rail, with real rocker and a vee that moved with the foil. The effect was that of balance, but around no fixed point — gyroscopic in a way. A board designed to tip on to the rail from the start. On my first surf, a few months later all by myself in big windy early winter waves, I was taken aback by how difficult it was just to paddle. Little Sister swayed around under me, refusing to settle, testing all my paddler’s core strength. At times she felt like she wanted me to tip her onto one of the vee panels and paddle crabwise, rail down. It took me the whole surf to shake off the feeling and locate her best paddling point — quite a way up, a tiny bit forward of the thickest point, where the vee and the curve had a moment of stillness.
But on a wave. Something else.
Second surf was in solid ten-to-fifteen semi-draining reef rights and she went in like butter, straight on to the rail, on an angle, ready to turn. Unlike the old gun, the modern gun likes to be under the lip, the steeper and curvier the better. When I watched Twig in that unearthly first men’s heat at Peahi in 2018 — watched that 50-foot double-up on which he set a rail directly into the barrel from the drop — I realized what these super-board designers have done with these changes: they’ve turned the gun into a tube-rider. The modern gun’s not a gun any more, it’s a knife.
Anyway. Chris had detailed instructions for the glasser, specially concerning the back quad set boxes. Some glassers, he said, had been setting them incorrectly, so that the back set was canted a tiny bit more than the front set. “If that happens, let me know and I’ll make them re-set it,” he said sternly. Also the stringer. Red cedar is a sappier stringer than American spruce, which makes it a nicer flex — unless you leave the cut blank un-glassed too long, and let it dry out. Almost the last thing Chris said to me was, “Don’t let ‘em leave it long.”
Thus the Little Sister disappeared into glassing, and stayed there for three and a half months.
It was with Rhino Glassing in Brookvale, renowned for their immaculate super quality work, yet also seemingly trying to glass half of Sydney’s stock product in the middle of the summer rush. When that shit is going down, ten CI 5’11”s are going to slip ahead of a triple-six custom super-board any day of the week.
I knew this but I could not forget Little Sister. Where WAS SHE? Hidden under a pile of faux-retro longboards destined for some cheesecloth surf shop in Bondi? I niggled Juan, Rhino’s owner, in mosquito-like fashion, while he politely reassured me. “How’s she going?” “Got the deck on yet?” Sting sting sting.
It got awkward.
I could tell Juan was getting the shits with me, but I was getting the shits with him, or at least with this process. Finally I squared up with him, told him the Truth. I’m running on borrowed time, in a way. I’m not who I was when that Rawson quiver was made — 27-years-old, full of god knows what, not even thinking about the march of Time. That luxury, or whatever you want to call it, is in the past. What I know today is what I shoulda known then — that there is no Time.
So finally, Juan called and said he’d be at Onboard with Little Sister next day, and indeed he and she was.
Little Sister is a deep butter yellow. She weighs around eight and a quarter kilos and has double leash plugs. She has a five box Futures set up which thankfully is set clean, so Chris doesn’t have to tell anyone off about the back quad set. She wears an improbably small Lopez tow quad set made of G10 glass by Soar fins, which is a fin company run by an old friend of mine named Greg Trotter, who CAD cuts what I suspect are the best surfboard fins in the world. As far as I can tell, on current evidence she’s one of the top three surfboards I’ve ever had.
I won’t need this board for twenty-eight years.
I’ll be lucky if I need it for fifteen.
Little Sister is it.
She’s the board I’ll catch my last really big wave on.
She might still get me the best wave of my life.
Unless she breaks, she’ll be in the garage when I die.
Calories don’t count on vacation, they say. Maybe the weather doesn’t either.
And then suddenly the doors swung open.
One day we couldn’t go inside a store or sit down at a restaurant.
The next day, just like that, we could.
A girl could get whiplash trying to keep up with things around here.
Memorial Day weekend showed up out of nowhere like a car swinging around a blind corner. A three-day weekend. What does that even mean?
For quite a few people it meant a weekend away in Santa Barbara. The hotels are still supposedly closed to tourists and “leisure travelers,” but there they were, leisuring all around us. The county added two-hour parking restrictions to some of the beaches, but it didn’t seem to matter.
The determination of tourists to sit on the beach under a heavy, cold marine layer, just because it’s Memorial Day weekend, will never fail to amaze me. Calories don’t count on vacation, they say. Maybe the weather doesn’t either.
A solid round of upwelling meant the water temperatures were far from tropical. Good luck, bikini-wearing tourist! Good luck with your Wavestorm! Good luck with that.
Every car has a board strapped to the roof, it seems, never mind the mostly flat surf and uninviting temperatures.
I slip down to the beach early ahead of the crowds, all totally socially distanced, of course, and ride some sloppy little runners. Summer soft top times, not worthy of an actual surfboard, not really. But I stand up and slide along, so I’ll call it surfing.
Certainly, the tourists with their bright boardshorts and fresh bikinis and the Wavestorms they bought on the way to the beach will call it surfing when they brag later about how they rode one all the way to the beach.
They stare at my 4’6” like I’m crazy. They’re probably right.
A pale grey ray, bright against the dark green seagrass, passes under my feet, fluttering in the currents. It looks nice down there, beneath the surface turbulence, just swimming.
They close one of the main streets of town to cars and I ride my rusted out town bike down the middle, giddy with the weird freedom of it. For weeks, we’ve sat around home, without much to do. Now, suddenly, we can ride down the middle of the street like there’s no rules at all.
I stop by the surf shop and slide under the caution tape intended to ensure against too many people entering at once. It’s a large warehouse-sized building with roll-up doors open at both ends. It’s as safe as anywhere else. To me, it feels safer than small-wave surfing with stingrays underfoot, but I don’t claim to be good at figuring out things like risk and probability.
“I’m looking for beach chairs,” a woman says loudly. A thing you learn living in a tourist town is that vacations are stressful. If I don’t find a beach chair, this whole thing is going to be a failure, the woman seems to be saying. I don’t linger to see if she finds one.
An old-school kind of place, the shop has beach toys for both tourists and surfers. Buy a towel, a pail and shovel, a beach chair, or a Hypto, and do it all under one roof. Bikinis cover an entire wall, boardshorts another.
Vintage boards hang from the ceiling, a treasure trove hidden in plain sight. Behind the wetsuit rack stands a 1950s-era Simmons. Several wetsuit racks stand empty, a reminder of how not that long ago, time stopped. There are few, if any 3/2mm men’s suits in stock. Maybe next week, maybe next month. No one really knows.
I wander the board racks, imagining. The tourists, busy with their beach chairs and their flip flops, haven’t made it here. The room’s quiet, boards lined up in the racks, so much fresh fiberglass. It would take a lifetime to ride them all.
A half-dozen Andreini’s showed up a few days ago fresh from the glasser, and already, two are marked sold. I look longingly at a Ghost, thinking less about the board itself than about the dream of waves good enough to make a board like that sing. There’s a bright pile of Trimcraft midlengths. High-shine, Gloss-coat Yater longboards march down the wall, almost too beautiful to ride.
There’s three bars of green wax left. Toilet paper, whatever. Green wax is precious stuff. I buy all three. Unlike the toilet paper, there’s more where those came from. Sex Wax is just down the road.
I walk out into the bright sunlight and pedal up the street.
The cars turn off the main street and I keep going. People sit outside the restaurants, drinking and laughing. A band set up outside one of the bars that’s still closed plays a Van Morrison cover. A couple slow-dances in the road, as though there’s nothing to worry about, not now, not ever again.
Maybe they’re right.
It’s a lovely fantasy, here under the trees, in this moment out of time.
The sun slides lower, and a flurry of swallows dart across the sky, flashing in the light.
I think I’ll stay a while here in our happy bubble.
All the real world’s worries will still be there when we wake up tomorrow.
But for now, they can wait, just like we did.
Watch: Chippa Wilson, Craig Anderson, Ryan Callinan, Stephanie Gilmore and mötley crüe mock the strictures of quarantine!
I must say that some of the boldest, the best, surf art has come out during this Coronavirus quarantine. Two years ago, who could have imagined that Wade Goodall feat. Dane Reynolds would release a banging film that would smash so so hard?
Who would have imagined another full-length film with Chippa Wilson, Craig Anderson, Ryan Callinan and mötley crüe of bold new faces coming from the brilliant mind of Travis Ferré.
And here it is. A full-length pastiche surf vid made entirely from home with our friends. Some new faces. Some familiar ones. And hopefully a refreshing return to a surf video full of different styles and approaches all ripping together to get us hyped. So that’s it, hit play and enjoy. We recommend volume at full tilt. We can talk later.
We are entering a new phase of the Coronavirus Dystopia, a sort of respite between the pandemic’s first wave and second wave where mass unemployment leads to mass homelessness leads to mass food shortages leads to solving that problem by watering the world’s crops with Brawndo™ because it has electrolytes.
The only retail that remains open, after we’re through, is Costco, St<a>rbucks exotic coffee for men and, quite unexpectedly, core surf shops.
Industry newsletter Shop-Eat-Surf revealed today that sales at many of the world’s surf shops are not only surviving but thriving, smashing forecasts and even outpacing last year’s numbers, which may say more about last year’s numbers.
Patrik Schmidle of ActionWatch has repeatedly said during this crisis that core stores could be better positioned than many traditional retailers when they are allowed to open. Many industry stores are not located in malls but in individual locations or strip centers, which can make customers feel safer. And more importantly, they sell a lot of activity based goods like skateboards, surfboards and body boards – all things people can do in this virus era.
Very surprising… or maybe not. We surfers, we proud descendants of Spicoli, seem primed to thrive in our new future.