Story from Surfing World Magazine - Issue 325
Interview by Jock Serong
A couple of hours before his appearance at the Patagonia store in Torquay, Gerry Lopez sat down with Jock Serong and recorded this interview. Ranging across a few of the issues that confront modern surfing, from exploration to towing, the social order at Pipe and the universal curse of overcrowding, the exchange reveals a little something about the core of the man – in Gerry’s world, nothing is inherently negative, and every aspect of the surfing experience can be viewed as a lesson of some kind. It’s a refreshing window onto a worldview that says: the good old days are right now.
SW: Talking to people in the days leading up to this interview, it’s clear that there’s quite a buzz about you being in town.
GL: There is?
There is. That must follow you around. Do you find it disconcerting?
I guess it’s the way it is, but I’m really surprised – and I guess I shouldn’t be – by the reaction here in Australia, especially with a lot of the younger people. But the reason I shouldn’t be surprised is I’ve always known how strong the surfing culture in Australia is, and for a long time, surfers had no sense of the history of surfing, didn’t care about it, couldn’t be bothered with it. And I consider myself part of the history (laughs). I’m not that far over the hill, but it’s really interesting that a lot of these young people would know me.
We’ve got jetskis, enormous mobility, satellite forecasting, cheap flights, Google Earth... all of these things: is there any exploring left to do? If you can see the entire planet on your desktop, what remains?
Sure there’s lots, yeah. I think exploration will never end, because even with Google Earth, you’re only looking at an image of it. You’re not going to know until you go there, and even going there you’re still not going to know it until you do it, feel it, touch it… become a part of it. And that’s one of the beauties and joys of surfing, is that it’s one surprise after another every time you do it.
Looking specifically at Indo, do you worry about the commercialisation of the place? Do you think surfers have been good for Indo or bad for it?
Well, on one hand I feel a little sad because most people go to a place, discover a place for themselves; it’s really nice, really beautiful, and they have a feeling for it. Their reaction is, “I want to build a fence around it,” keep it like that for themselves. However that’s not the nature of life. Everything changes, and unless you change with it, or accept that change, you’re gonna have a lot of disappointment. As far as what’s happened in Indonesia, I haven’t actually been to Kuta in a while, but the last time I went I was pretty amazed that that sleepy little village under the coconut trees that Jack and I went to in 1974 was no more, and now it was pretty bustling – I think I remember high rises! There was some sadness, which often happens when you look back on the past, and nostalgia makes you sad. But on the other hand, it’s a beautiful place – it still is. The waves have not changed one bit, although there’s more people on ’em, and that attraction is just too powerful. You’re not gonna keep people away, so why get upset?
But do you think that Indonesian coastal communities are the better for surfers having arrived, or not?
I think that it works both ways. I think in some respects they are, but they’ve lost that simplicity of life, that innocence, that space that they once enjoyed. Maybe they don’t notice that, but I do.
Obviously during the exploration that went on in the 70s – you and Peter Troy and others – there must have been an enormous amount of trial and error. You do the hiking, you do the motorbike trip, and there’s just nothing at the other end. The discoveries have been the thin end of the wedge. Do you think people nowadays are less prepared to put up with that trial and error process and just want to go and surf the knowns?
I think that’s in the nature of our world, that every succeeding generation wants it a little faster, a little quicker, a little more instant than the ones before, and that’s the whole nature of the internet, to have the whole world at your fingertips instantaneously. I actually kinda enjoy it – it makes it pretty easy to get information, and more information is always nice to have. On the other hand, you show up at the beach and everybody now has surf forecasting... it’s just the way it is.
The places you’ve found in years gone by, are there some that you really long for, that you think about, and equally are there places you’re still desperate to see?
Yeah, there’s a lot more places in Indonesia I’d like to see. I’ve only been to Chile once, and I‘d certainly like to go and spend some time down there. Mainland Mexico... I’ve barely scratched the surface of that. For myself, when you asked the question earlier about surf exploration kinda diminishing, I don’t think I could even, if I thought about it for an hour, name all the places that I would like to see, and those are only the ones that I might know about or have heard about. And I’m sure that for every one of those there’s ten or 20 that aren’t even in my consciousness.
In your surfing these days, and perhaps also in your snowboarding, do you happily mix with crowds, or do you try to avoid them?
Oh well (smiles) everyone tries to avoid crowds... but if that’s where the waves are good, you gotta go out there and be a part of the deal. You have to lower your expectations. But then again it always comes back to that thing about surfing that it’s always a joy – it doesn’t take much. A little bit goes a really long way. I mean it can just be one really cool little bottom turn or one off the top, or one cover-up. Maybe not even a whole wave, and that thing’ll last through the months. Crowds are something that the new generation of surfers have had to deal with. But that’s how they’ve grown up, so they deal with it if they want to surf.
In the years when you were pre-eminent at Pipeline, there were rapid advances in the way it was surfed. Have those advances now tailed off, or can Pipeline still be surfed better?
I just watched the Pipe Masters and then the Volcom Pro, and one thing that really came to mind that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before was how the event could be won in the last seconds, very easily, by just one wave. Of course part of that is the wave – it’s an exceptional wave, but I think a greater part of it is the skill level of the top guys at this point in time, that they’re able to pluck a wave just seemingly out of nowhere. At the Pipeline you’re not just gonna catch any wave that you see. There’s waves there that, in my time, you saw it and you just went whoa... this wave does not want to be ridden. And you get out of the way of it. But these guys, well, their skill’s taken to such a high level that they’re able to take those waves that one time, you know, you were too far inside, there was no way you were gonna make the drop and certainly not make the wave. I watched John John in the last seconds of that last contest just catch a wave that didn’t look like it was gonna be anything and it turned out to be a high scoring wave and he won the contest, just like that.
In your book you talk about the principle that at Pipe you’re subject to what the wave will let you do, unlike anywhere else. It’s still the rule?
(Smiles) It’s the Pipeline. But these guys, like I said, they’ve gotten so much better at surfing this wave that they can get themselves into it and make it work for them.
Is there still social structure and respect at Pipeline? Or is it a free for all?
Oh no, there has to be. Society doesn’t work without it and maybe to some people who aren’t really into it, it may look like absolute chaos and mayhem out there, but it’s not. You know, to get to the top level at Pipeline, to any top level in surfing, you have to have a really well developed sense of awareness. Really acute. Those guys are so on and so aware, they all know what each other’s doing. Occasionally you’ll see guys bump into each other or something like that, but by and large those guys know what each other’s doing. Despite the fact that there’s ten times the crowd that there was when I surfed the place, it’s pretty controlled. I can’t believe that with all those guys in the line-up, people constantly pull waves and get unbelievable rides. When it started to get crowded, and of course nothing like the numbers that there is today, it was crazy because I don’t think a whole lot of the guys knew what they were doing back then. They hadn’t really put the time in... some of them hadn’t put any time in, so it could be pretty dangerous there. And that does happen today, but comparatively speaking, when you see the difference in the numbers in the line-up, I’d have to say it happens a lot less now than then.
So mastery of Pipeline is much more than simply being brave, being reckless? It’s about judgment as well?
It’s all about judgment (laughing).
Is Teahupoo the new frontier for barrel riding? Or does Pipe always have its place?
I’ve never surfed Teahupoo. In fact I’ve never even seen it except on film, so it’s hard to say, but it looks like a very specialised wave. It produces unbelievable images. But I’ve heard a lot of these guys say they’d take Pipeline any day. Pipeline just seems to be a more complete wave. And instead of there being just one narrow corridor or slot, one particular way to fit like there is at Teahupoo, the Pipeline, as we’ve seen over the years with the top performers, there’s a lot of different ways to do it, and to do it well.
Which brings us round to towing… how do you see its place in surfing?
If you like big waves it’s a very efficient way to do it.
Thoroughly legitimate in your view?
Oh absolutely. Why not? Why wouldn’t it be?
What about the places that are still paddled and towed – is there any greater prestige in being the guy paddling?
I don’t think that has anything to do with it. And I think what’s happened, certainly at Jaws this year, it looked more crowded paddling than it ever did towing. And the wipeouts also looked horrendous. I think there are some spots that if you wanna get a lot of good rides when the surf’s big then it’s much more efficient to tow surf. If you wanna, as you said, gain some prestige for paddling in at a spot that’s not that great for paddling, and you don’t mind getting caught inside, don’t mind getting pounded, taking gas real bad, then go for it. But before there was any such thing as tow surfing, I’ve spent a lot of time getting pounded in a lot of those spots in Maui.
You’ve been involved design aspects of tow surfing. Is it helping to push design for all surfers, or is it relevant only in the specific bubble of tow surfing itself?
Well, design ever since boards became specialised for particular surf breaks, applies exactly the same to tow boards. A board for Jaws would not be anything like a board for Teahupoo or any other spot. They become very break specific.
What is it about towing that appeals to you? Is it the courage, the speed, the design...?
Nope, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s just that you can get a lot of rides in big waves. If you’re paddling and the surf’s big, you spend a lot of time paddling, and you don’t spend a lot of time riding waves. You try not to get caught inside and get pounded – you try to catch the wave and make it. If it’s big and especially if it’s a little unruly, you generally don’t catch that many waves if you’re paddling. But if you’re towing, you can catch a wave in every set. I guess it really comes down to what is the surfing experience for you that you’re hoping to accomplish on that particular day. You wanna ride waves, or you wanna just be out there...
Well, taking the chance of getting pounded: and if you’re not getting pounded on those days it’s generally because you’re sitting too far outside, and you’re not getting caught inside, and you’re not really putting it on the line to catch the waves, and consequently you’re not gonna catch that many waves. But the thing about paddle surfing is, it’s such a function of precise positioning that you have to be right where the waves break. When the waves are big, that zone where they break can vary quite a bit, and that really makes it difficult if you’re paddling, unless you get this gigantic board – which, you know, is hopeless once you catch the wave – to be mobile, to escape and to paddle into some of these waves. And that’s what you see at Jaws, these guys are riding gigantic really thick boards, and all they’re hoping to do is catch a wave, although I have to say that I’ve seen some of the most unbelievable air drops there on some of the scariest, biggest waves that I’ve ever seen, so that’s kinda cool.
Gerry, in the 70s there was the one career that you could make out of surfing and that was if you could compete and gain sponsorship and win prizemoney you could scratch out a living...
(Laughing) Well that didn’t work out for me...
But it seems that these days there are a whole range of careers you can pursue. You can follow the tour, you can be a paid freesurfer and just travel, there are big wave surfers who do nothing else. There’s the Laird model, the Dave Rastovich model... Gerry Lopez emerging in this decade, how do you think you would’ve modelled it?
Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I really don’t. I never really had any plan in my whole career. I wasn’t very successful in surfing contests, so that didn’t really work that great for me. I supported them, you know – I used to come down here all the time for Bells and the Coke contest. Never did any good in ’em but I had a good time. Just enjoyed the outing, so to speak, the camaraderie with everybody. Surfing’s always been a pretty tight knit tribe. I guess I probably wouldn’t have done anything different from what I did. I really enjoyed most of what I did. Those years in Indonesia... I still think about G-Land all the time, I think about Bali too, because in a way the surf in Bali was more diverse and there was more variety – it was great. You could do something a little different every day, which was kind of a good thing, but for me the zenith of my Indonesian experience was those years spent at G-Land.
Do you think it’s possible that the way you spent those early years has created the template for people to do what they do now: that is, to travel and get footage and make a living that way?
Peter Troy did it before me. He did it very well.
I take it from your earlier comments about the Pipe Masters that you like what you see in competitive surfing these days?
Oh, unbelievable. Yeah! If it’s at a great spot like that, especially for me at the Pipeline, because I had such a long, great relationship with the place that it’s really warming to see how good these guys have gotten, and how well they can surf this wave that was pretty difficult. Still is, I think. The wave hasn’t changed, so it’s gotta be tough. The wipeouts are still as horrendous to watch, and imagine how bad they must be for the guys going through them, but the success that they do have, the amount of waves that are being made there, it’s really great. I’m really proud to have been there, and more proud to watch these guys that, you know, I didn’t have anything to do with. They did it completely on their own, but in a way I’m associated with them because I like that spot too.
The way competitive surfing is structured, the way heats are surfed and the tour’s conducted, is it delivering the best surfing to us or is it simply delivering the best competitors?
Well, I mean that’s what a surfing contest is. The guy’s trying to win, and only one guy can win, and we’ve seen Kelly – how many years has it been? Jeez. He’s really honed it down to a tight, unbelievably fine act. All the time he’s been winning these things, there’s been a host of other guys who’ve been giving him a run for his money, and have come really close. Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose, but all the way along there’s really unbelievable surfers in that format... Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, last year Owen Wright... those are just a couple. Any one of those guys, if you saw them in person surfing as good as they are at any place... you stand in awe.
Stand-up paddling – there’s been all these branches from surfing over the years...
Is stand-up paddling off on a branch, or is it going to be a permanent part of the culture?
I think stand-up paddling is just a different kind of surfing. It’s just on a big board. Right now there’s a lot of tension between the guys doing stand-up paddling and the guys doing regular surfing. I find that... interesting, amusing, because surfing has grown and got more and more crowded. There’s always been tension in the line-up and that tension has always been directed at different people. You know, when shortboards first came out, it was directed at us because the guys on the longboards, (nasal whinning voice) “you guys are getting in the way, you’re right inside of us... you’re droppin’ in!” And then bodyboarders came and there was a little tension directed at them. And then the longboards made a resurgence and suddenly it was all directed back at them. And then the windsurfers came along, and the surfers hated the windsurfers. And tow surfing came along and some idiot would tow right through a crowded surf break and everybody hated them... and now we have stand-up paddlers and they’re an easy target. But I absolutely do believe that stand-up paddling is here to stay because it offers a lot of people the opportunity to have some very instant success at the surfing experience, which as we all know is not something that can be instantly successful, except for a very, very few very gifted individuals. And I think that’s a good thing. Why wouldn’t we want people to have fun going surfing? Surfing at one point, when Jack (McCoy) and I started doing it, was absolutely inclusive. Everyone was welcome. And that has not been the case as surfing has grown and become more popular. It’s never gonna be the case because there’s not enough waves for all the surfers, but if surfers can get that in their minds, that hey, instead of being uptight I need to surf with a little more aloha, to be giving a few more waves away than just trying to take them all the time, I think it would be a happier line-up.
Do you worry about the rise of mass-manufacture, of computer generated boards, or do they have their place?
Again, that’s part of the deal. The boards made overseas, we like to think they’re mass manufactured boards, but they’re not – they’re handmade – they’re just not handmade by the surfers like they always used to be. They’re handmade by workers in a factory in China or someplace. They’re still surfboards – you can say all you want that they have no souls in ’em, and that may be the case, but they’re still surfboards. I’ve often said that you can ride any surfboard, you just have to adapt your surfing to that board. Every surfboard works.
Do you think that surfers as consumers have enough respect for the shaping craft, or are they blind to it?
Well, I think it works like this: a surfer gets a surfboard to learn how to surf, and he becomes a surfer and he gets really stoked on surfing. And he wants to do it all the time. He understands that he needs to do it a lot to get any good at it, so he does, he rearranges his entire life and he spends a lot of time surfing. He gets better, he takes his skills to a level that’s equal to that surfboard he’s riding. And he gets to a point where he has an idea that to get beyond that level, to get better, he has to get a better surfboard. And that’s the way it always works, until he gets to a point where if he started out on a pop-out, or a mass produced surfboard as you were saying, he’s gonna get to a point if he’s really stoked on surfing where, “Wow, I think I need to try something else,” and maybe he’ll try his friend’s board and go “Whoa, that thing really works a whole lot better than mine.” And that’s what’s always gonna keep the custom surfboard builder doing what he does. It may not be like it once was where there’s just untold work, but there’s always gonna be the guys who wanna get a better surfboard, so that their surfing will improve.
Who do you really admire among the current crop of shapers?
All of them. I don’t even know a lot of ’em, but any time I see a surfboard, I always take a look at it. I like a lot of the old guys because they’re always reinventing themselves, and because they have so much experience. Today we were just out at Maurice Cole’s little shop, and he’s making – he’s always been making – surfboards that are way different to everyone else’s. They seem to always be cutting edge, and I think in every shaper’s mind, that’s what they feel they’re building each time they build a board, because each board they make, they’re trying to improve it over their last one, especially if they’re riding those boards. Not all shapers surf, but lots of ’em do, and they get some pretty good feedback from close relationships with good surfers, so every surfboard shaper’s trying to make it better than the last one.
Are there any particular boards over the years that you’ve parted ways with, that you wish you could find again?
Pretty much every single one of ’em. But it took a long time for me to realise that. Over the years I’ve had a lot of surfboards, and like I said when you’re trying to improve a surfboard the one you had that works okay gets replaced by the new one that works better, so you get rid of that old one. And it’s not till years later that you go, “Damn! I should’ve kept that,” and I should’ve kept all the surfboards that I had. I noticed today at Maurice’s shop, he has! He does, he’s got so many boards in there, I mean it looked like a surfshop. But you never do, and afterwards you’re sorry that you didn’t keep all those boards.
Among all of the people that you’ve surfed with down the years; some of them have passed on, some of them you would’ve parted company with one way or another... are there people that you really miss?
What happens in surfing is, say for instance you’re all out there at your local break surfing and somebody gets injured, and because generally speaking the good breaks are so crowded these days, you really don’t notice it, that he’s gone. Until he comes back and it’s like, whoa, you know? “I haven’t seen you for a while – where you been?” This happens... and I think because surfing requires being so much in the present moment that you’re not thinking about what happened, and you’re not thinking about what’s gonna happen because you’re focussed on the here, the immediate moment.
Do you ever dwell on what it is that unites these various disciplines that you engage in – the yoga, stand-up paddling, the snowboards, the surfing? Is there a particular drive or feeling in you that unites all those things? Are they serving different parts of you as a person?
That’s another good question. Jeez, I don’t know how I’m gonna put that one. I think people, and myself especially I’ve noticed, go through different phases in life. You try and stay focussed, you focus on different things; I’ve gone through the heavy surfing phase, I’ve gone through the heavy going to Indonesia phase, the Pipeline phase, the windsurfing phase... which at one time got so intense for me that I stopped putting my surfboard in the back of the truck. And I’d just go down to the beach and windsurf all day and I’d be so tired I’d just come home. Eventually that changed to where the surfboard went back in the truck, and eventually that went to where the windsurfer didn’t even go in the back of the truck anymore. I think a lot of people look at life on a scale basis, especially in the Western mentality: they start here and they end here. The Eastern mentality looks at things in a more cyclical way. You start here (draws a circle in the air) and you end up back where you started, more or less. I’ve gone through the snowboarding phase, and for a while I snowboarded more than I surfed, and all of a sudden I realised that it’s changed – I’m surfing more than I snowboard, and I’m thinking about it more again. So it always seems to come back to the surfing. For me, yoga has always been part of the surfing, part of the life. As much a part as surfing is, so both those things are really important aspects of my whole life.
What does yoga give to your surfing, and should we all be doing it?
Absolutely. Why wouldn’t you? I think yoga gives you the framework for the ideal surfing lifestyle that you hope to live. Yoga’s been around a long time, and with a lot of success.
At a very broad philosophical level, do you see surfing as us all making ourselves happy, or are we in some wider way improving things? Are we positive contributors to our environment, are we tackling disadvantage, or are we all just making ourselves happy?
Well, in one sense, surfing’s a very selfish, very private, very personal endeavour. On the other hand, if you’re really serious about it, if you’re really looking at what you’re doing, you start to see that there’s a lot of depth in surfing, and there’s a lot of very, very valuable lessons that surfing will teach you that really have more to do with everything that you expressed there: the longevity of the world, balance for our planet, balance for ourselves, balance for relationships between everybody and everything we do. And if you really take a good look at the surfing experience, it’s obvious that there’s a deep level of spirituality to be gained by doing it...