I grew up surfing in a place where it was pretty much standard to have the lineup all to yourself. Or, if you were lucky, you might have a couple of friends to trade waves with. (This was in California, by the way— South of San Francisco, if you can believe it). Granted, you were alone because you were surfing the foggiest, coldest, most depressing closeouts or the weirdest, boil-ridden reefs you could possibly imagine. Still, empty, albeit imperfect, breaks were the norm. But, occasionally, I’d paddle out, look down the mostly-deserted beach and see a mysterious, hooded regularfoot stylishly working over an empty peak. Every time I’d glance in his direction, there he’d be, making a psychotically late drop, flinging a big arc of spray skyward after a high-velocity turn, or tucking into a long, sand-sucking tube where I’d seen nothing but dribbly bullshit before. Then, poof, he’d be gone—a ghost vanished over the iceplant-studded dunes. I was fascinated.
There weren’t many world-class rippers in this area, so I presumed that each time I sat there slackjawed, watching a mysto surfer tear the bag out of the place, it was always the same mysto surfer. Indeed, I had to presume that, because I never actually met him. Or at least if I did—perhaps serving me a greasy basket of fish and chips as a waiter in one of the zillions of bayside seafood joints in my hometown, or maybe drawing my espresso shot as a barista, or lecturing one of my courses in college—I was never able to recognize him as the anonymous guy ripping down the beach. Come to think of it, that was actually the nickname my friends and I bestowed upon the unknown shredder: “Guy Ripping Down the Beach.”
That’s because the misfit stars seem within reach. We can, if we squint, imagine ourselves in their place.
Guy Ripping Down the Beach became something of a hero to me in my teens and early twenties. He was almost aggressively non-descript with his all-black suit and all-white board, actively trying to surf alone with nobody but me and the seals to witness his otherworldly shralping. He never stuck around the lot to hang out for some post-surf chat in the battered Volkswagen Eurovan he drove. GRDTB just showed up, punched his timecard, absolutely killed it for two hours, punched out, and left. So blue collar and workman-like was his approach, he may as well have paddled out with a battered Stanley thermos and a hardhat.
Now bear with me here while I connect two seemingly disparate dots, but I was thinking of GRDTB the other night after watching HBO’s “Ballers.” The episode I saw, from 2018, featured both Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton as surfers at the top of the surf world relevance pyramid, with a sports marketing group (led by a character played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) desperate to keep the two most famous surfers on earth in their portfolio. In 2018, that duo was a strange choice as the most-beloved representatives of a typically youth-oriented corner of the sports world, considering Slater was 65 years old and Laird is an immortal Greek god who’s walked the earth for untold millennia. (I kid, I kid. Slater is actually only 51).
I started thinking about GRDTB because while it’s easy to see why Slater and Laird would be Hollywood’s favorite surfers, with landlubbing producers just assuming the two surfers with high mainstream appeal are also surf world heroes, I wondered how many hardcore surfers would put either of them in their list of favorite surfers. Even at Slater’s zenith, back in the early ‘00s, when he was undisputedly the best surfer to ever live, I liked watching him surf, but I never would have included Slater in a list of my top 20 favorite surfers. Laird makes my favorite coffee creamer, and is certainly my favorite motorized surfboard pitchman, but that’s about it. And I think it’s because Slater and Laird have always seemed invested in stardom. They’ve actively pursued it.
Surf culture, at least in California, has always had a pronounced neurotic streak, where surfers want to be noticed for their talent, but, at the same time, the coolest thing you can do is to look like you don’t care about being noticed. There are plenty of peacocks in our sport, and there always have been, but our most beloved icons—the surfers other surfers want to be like—are the ones who make surf stardom seem like an afterthought, like something they could just as easily do without, or something they aren’t even particularly comfortable with.
As opposed to the stars mainstream culture gravitates toward—the Slaters and Lairds of the world—hardcore surf culture values the misfits and the regular Joes and Jills over the overtly ambitious. That’s because the misfit stars seem within reach. We can, if we squint, imagine ourselves in their place. Or at least surfing with them.
When I imagine my ideal surf self—put myself in my hero’s place—it’s never been as an 11-time world champ starring in ridiculous TV shows. It’s always been the surfer quietly, anonymously, and, most importantly, humbly, ripping down the beach. Whoever they may have been.
Words by Justin Housman