A Brief History Of Surfing's Search For The Strange And Novel
How Dylan Graves, Mason Ho and Ben Gravy are all keeping a time-honored tradition alive.
Weird waves are nothing new to surfing, but like Dylan Graves has just illustrated, they’re as important a component to the ethos of surf exploration as finding the next Skeleton Bay.
Until Google Earth went and made things easy, surf exploration was pretty much defined by the weird waves that were uncovered. Occasionally stumbling upon perfection was just icing on the cake.
“It’s about the journey,” as the old adage goes.
In terms of surfing’s modern consciousness, it goes back to at least 1964 and “The Endless Summer.” The most successful surf movie in history, from the rocky shores of Ghana to El Stumpo’s in Tahiti, Bruce Brown’s film hinged on unexpected sessions at unexpected locations with unexpected encounters with locals (“Being good Africans, they threw a few rocks,” chided Brown in one bit of narration that hasn’t stood up too well over time).
Brown was the master of making weird waves into something special. Even his epic score at Cape St. Francis, which was the seminal moment of “The Endless Summer,” was a fluke. What Brown and company did was give surfers the belief that somewhere, just beyond the horizon, an empty wave was waiting for them.
Legendary surf explorers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson furthered the endeavor with their work for Surfer magazine throughout the ‘70s. Seeking perfection, they hit the open road and stumbled upon gems like La Libertad and Tamarindo throughout their travels, but also enjoyed all the cultural exchanges and quirky setups in Mexico and Central America.
“Exploration is what makes the surf world turn. Waves have a way of making us all restless. Some of us get more restless than others, and so the search begins,” said Naughton in his book “Search For the Perfect Wave.”
Bali in the late ‘70s could have been construed to be the Mecca of weird waves. The exotic culture, the maze-like island chains, the unknownness of it all, it was unlike anything surfers had experienced previously. Just like Naughton and Peterson, the cultural exchange between surfers and Bali locals was part of the allure.
It wasn’t really until the likes of Gerry Lopez, Terry Fitzgerald, Jim Banks and Terry Richardson put Uluwatu, G-Land and other spots on the map that it eventually grew to become the over-crowded mess of surf tourism that it is today.
In ’96, the indispensable “Searching For Tom Curren” reinvigorated the spirit. From his performance on the Skip Frye-shaped fish at J-Bay to the mysto footage from Bawa on the 5’7” Tommy Peterson-designed Fireball Fish, what Curren did was illustrate that it wasn’t necessarily the wave but the board that opened up new possibilities.
“It’s more of an expression,” said Curren in the intro. “You know, when you’re standing next to a wave, and you’re just standing there, and you don’t have to do anything, and you’re just standing there next to this avalanche right, that can express something.”
A few years later, Dana Brown, Bruce’s son, released “Step Into Liquid,” which surveyed the evolution of surf culture around the world. Like Graves has just done, Brown spotlighted the Great Lakes in the film, but one of the most memorable scenes is the guys riding ripples behind oil tankers in Texas. It doesn’t get much weirder than that!
Today, surf communities have sprung up around the world based on weird waves. The Great Lakes scene is an obvious example. The Eisbach River in Munich, Germany, is another great example. There’s a core crew of dedicated fresh-water surfers thriving there. What they lack in salt they more than makeup for in stoke.
The Silver Dragon tidal bore in China, Garrett McNamara riding a swell formed by a calving glacier, the proliferation of man-made waves, they all fall into the category of “weird waves.” And guys like Graves, as well as YouTube star Ben Gravy and beacon of stoke Mason Ho, are all down to not only get weird, but celebrate it.
It all just goes to show, surf is where you find it.