The Great Boardriding Bazaar, with Ryan Burch
A mission to swollen Desert Point, fraught with imminent peril, opens a small window into the insane genius of asymmetrical loon, Ryan Burch. Words by Jed Smith | All photos and captions by Thomas Campbell The idea gained momentum quickly. Ryan Burch, the great finless magician from Encinitas, CA was to meet Ozzie Wright and […]
A mission to swollen Desert Point, fraught with imminent peril, opens a small window into the insane genius of asymmetrical loon, Ryan Burch.
Words by Jed Smith | All photos and captions by Thomas Campbell
The idea gained momentum quickly. Ryan Burch, the great finless magician from Encinitas, CA was to meet Ozzie Wright and filmmaker, Thomas Campbell on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. Joel Fitzgerald – son of the Sultan of Speed, Terry – Harrison Roach, the Noosa-bred logger turned single-fin specialist, and Bryce Young – son of Nat – would head there of their own accord. And Jared Mell, well, he didn’t wanna miss out so he was in, too.
An Afro-Guatemalan funk band with echoes of Paul Simon whooped the Scandinavians into a state of nauseating bliss at the Deus Bali Temple of Enthusiasm the night before our departure. Scandinavians in Bali are never not in such a state. Ryan Burch approached me clasping a fist full of chicken burger. He yelled over the music, “It’s going to be so interesting just seeing all these different people with so many different ideas riding the same wave,” he said. I nodded enthusiastically. Burch was planning to test two of his signature asymmetrical designs at huge Desert Point in the coming days. The first, a 5’10” with a sawn-off tail angled diagonally, had two fins squeezed against one rail and one against the other. The nose was split down the middle like a snake’s tongue and it had a “seeing eye” pencilled underneath the glass, along with the words: Super legible, super rad and super curvy for pocket fits that will blow your mind!!! I eyed him with curiosity. He told me he’d been out in G Land testing his inventions for the past couple of weeks. “Seriously, when I’m on that thing I’m just trying to slow down,” he’d said of his step-up, the 6’5” asymmetrical configuration. “It goes too fast! I’m trying to stall the whole way.”
Ryan surfs how he wants to surf. He’ll go really fast, do a turn, get barrelled or maybe he’ll just step up and high line for a while if he feels it. It’s refreshing. He doesn’t give a fuck. He grew up watching Joel Tudor who’s one of the best surfers that’s ever lived.
Joel Fitzgerald would be bringing a number of hand-shaped single fins. Harrison Roach had a five-fin bonzer and Bryce Young was holding a quad, a single fin and a bonzer of his own. It was to be a board riding bazaar of the strangest order and by trip’s end there would be equipment failures and casualties. Harrison approached me with a fistful of chicken breast in his hand. Peri-peri marinade dripped from his knuckles. “Youwannabite from’iss?” he asked. I politely declined. “I don’t wanna say anything too soon,” he said, leaning in and giving me a blast of his chicken breath, “but I reckon Joel’s gonna dominate.” On queue there came Joel, lurching towards us, pissed as a mute. He swayed in the direction of a wall but failed to see the frightened child cowering at his mother’s feet, and teetered over him precariously. But his trademark balance kicked in with a smooth layback over the kid’s head, and with a hefty push from the mother he was safely back on his way. Tomorrow we would head to Desert Point to meet the biggest swell Indonesia had seen in seven years. Joel and his team would leave Bali the following morning, Joel spending the night passed out behind a drum kit. I would set out separately later that night with my Italian flatmate, Frankie, who hailed from the mostly waveless Adriatic Sea.
Ryan’s in the middle here with Harrison Roach on the left, and Jared Mell on the right during the ferry crossing.
Frankie and I left the that night on scooter-back, myself carrying a freshly crafted Harrison Roach thruster I’d finagled from the Deus boardroom the day prior. Four months in Indonesia had left my stocks awfully low. I was already down one Glen Pang 6’4” quad to Mikala Jones, which I had no intention of paying for. But Dustin Humphrey wasn’t new to this game. The Deus owner knew my type well and had seen me coming a mile away when I’d asked for a board loan. He’d smirked, pointing me toward a giant dust-covered 7’0” single-fin pintail. Hmmm, yes, I see, I’d thought to myself, as Dustin and I exchanged a long smiling stare. But then the phone rang and he was called away leaving me with his impressionable young team-rider, Harrison. Fool! Dustin should’ve known better. Impatience is the undoing of us all in this here Indonesia. And so it was that I pointed to the stack of freshly moulded boards in the bay and calmly asked Harrison whose they were. They were his, he’d said, freshly handcrafted just a few days ago specifically for this trip. With a few casual enquiries I took the polite Sunnycoaster like only a tight-arsed, Jesus-wigged freelance writer could, walking outta there with his unridden 6’3” shooter. “You sure you’re happy with me walking outta here with this?” I’d yelled over my shoulder as I beat a hasty exit. “As long as you walk back – something, something,” I couldn’t hear.
To Desert Point! Late monday night, we aimed our scooters at Padang Bai Harbour for the midnight ferry. But alas! I blew out a tire on the highway and almost died. Fortunately, and quite incredibly, it happened in the middle of an illegal scooter race attended by some 200 Balinese youths. Even more incredibly not one of the pricks had so much as a socket wrench to help me change the tyre. When the cops showed up they scattered into the night like bats leaving Frankie and I to sleep in our boardbags outside a mechanics. Come sun-up we pressed on, arriving many hours later, fatigued and irritable, at the fabled Desert Point. It was 10 to 12 foot with a deadly cross-shore pushing giant chandeliers through the warped runners. Ozzie was a no-show, Joel Fitzgerald had already blown out his ear drum after being hit by a giant chandelier in the barrel. And Ryan Burch was about to take to the water.
The first day we got to Deserts, Joel Fitzgerald was watching Ryan and he was jumping up and down going, “What the hell! What is this! He’s like the new Kelly Slater!” Joel and Ryan were the only ones out this day. They both got taken out by a big set and Fitzy broke his board, but the wave behind it had to be a 25-foot face, it could’ve been 30. People were saying it’s the biggest they’ve ever seen out there. Joel came in and barely talked for an hour because he was so rattled. When he did he said, “that was pretty much the gnarliest thing to happen to me in surfing.” Think about it… it’s Joel Fitzgerald saying that.
The Genius of Ryan Burch
As the tide rushed in out of the tremendously deep Lombok strait, the Indian Ocean pulsed relentlessly. Cartoon-sized bowls churned down the Desert Point reef and although it wasn’t the shallow, draining Desert Point we’d come to know, one mistake out here, one poorly selected wave and you were guaranteed to get washed into the infamous end-section known as The Grower, which on this day was doing a fair impression of Pipe at 12 foot, only there was no beach. It was ending at the base of a cliff. Burch, however, saw infinite potential in those long churning bowls. He wanted to dance and the power of the long period swell combined with the huge open faces was as good a canvas as you could ever get.
A small crew had congregated in the furthest hut to watch it go down. Joel Fitz was monitoring the yellow ooze leaking out of his ear, Jared Mell was sipping on his second longneck of the morning, and Mr Desert Point aka Pablo, the Brazilian Desert Point legend, cast a keen eye over Burch’s quiver. He was joined by a salty old Australian with a ponytail and speed dealer shades. He looked at Burch and then at his equipment.
You couldn’t see his eyes but you could see the twisted scowl of his mouth. “You’re fucken kiddin’ aren’t ya? What the fuck’s this gonna do out there? You’re gonna be bouncing all over the place,” Ponytail chortled. Burch bristled. “Yeah? This one? This is the big one,” he said, marching over and collecting the 6’5” before storming out of the hut. “You’ll see.” And with that he was gone. A lone figure making his way out along the reef as the Indian threw all it could muster toward him.
Ryan Burch is as close to American surf royalty as you can get. His Grandad was one of the original Palos Verdes Beach boys; those old groovers with their Redwood Planks who gals dug so much back then. Burch’s Dad was another local legend, hailing from Hermosa Beach, while Burch’s step-brother would become a respected underground shredder in the 90’s, even racking up a few spreads in Surfer Mag. Burch grew up for the most part at Cardiff where he would be mentored by none other than Rob Machado and Joel Tudor, both of whom were from the beach.
“I first noticed him surfing Seaside when he was a tall skinny lanky shred-grom riding a thruster. Kinda reminded me of myself when I was that age. He looked like he’d maybe just grown a foot in the past year and was still trying to figure out his gangly limbs, but it didn’t take long,” says Rob.
“Since then, I’ve watched him evolve into an incredible surfer. He has a passion for surfing that is hard to keep up with… (and) he’s inspired me to explore other avenues of my surfing and board building and open my mind.”
But that wasn’t until late. Initially he couldn’t stand Machado or Tudor and their soul schtick. “I remember I fucking hated when Rob rode those Merrick single fins, and that was when I first start seeing him surfing a lot,” recalls Burch. “I wanted to see him ripping and he was out there doing hair flick cutbacks and shit, and I was so over it. I’d actually get all bummed about it,” he says.
Burch was mad into the competitive racket back then, surfing alongside Clay Marzo, the Gudauskas brothers and later Kolohe Andino on the NSSA series. He did okay but day after day of watching Joel Tudor trim effortlessly along the peelers at home eventually had its affect. One day he went to his shaper and asked him to shape him a log. The shaper, a died-in-the-wool thruster hand shaper, laughed him out of the bay. Though he did offer Burch the chance to shape one himself, and so he did, hooking himself immediately on the art of crafting and logging.
“In the beginning I was embarrassed I was riding longboards. I grew up in the mentality they weren’t cool at all. It almost felt like I was coming out of the closet the first time I rode one,” he says.
From logs he went to finless experiments before eventually cracking the code with a twin-keel fish inspired by his shaping guru and Simmons revivalist, Richard Kenvin. “That was my victory board and at that point all I wanted to do was ride my own boards,” he says.
It was then Volcom came knocking with a contract, enough to get him by and on trips. But as he began to travel he quickly realised many of the boards he was shaping were actually pigs. “The waves were so forgiving at home I could get away with murder and that eventually turned into me failing miserably when I travelled with the boards. They were so out of control I was embarrassed by my surfing,” he says.
Burch’s journey towards asymmetry came in part inspired from those early fish designs as well as a number of finless experiments he rode, including those during a trip to the West Australian desert alongside friction-free pioneer, Derek Hynd. “He’s crazy. He’s got a lot of energy, a lot of passion,” says Burch of Hynd, adding, “I don’t see why asymmetrical boards are such a radical idea. Surfing is a traverse. It’s never a flat thing. The water enters your board at an angle so there is reason symmetry should be the end all. At what point do you ride both sides?”
Burch also doesn’t surf like most people. It’s not so much about destroying the wave as much as going up, around and over it, sorta like an obstacle course. The excess speed and ample control of the asymmetrical board allows him to do that. “That’s the most exciting thing for me in surfing: to be flying and not having to worry about that speed, you know, just having that open-ended ability to go as fast and however far out in front of the wave as you want and just having the challenge of having surfing being more like plotting a course and a timing and all that,” he says.
The idea of skeptics is bullshit. Surfing is sensational. The thing that makes you want to surf is your engagement with sensation. Ryan is modifying his surfboards in order to have the kind of sensation he enjoys. That’s what everyone does, regardless of what they’re riding.
Burch’s skinny frame stands poised on the reef like a bird. He is waiting for a gap in the sets. He waits and he waits. Twenty minutes go by and he’s still waiting. Eventually there’s a lull and he’s out. A small cheer goes up. “Musta had some good acid,” chortles Ponytail, still riffing on Burch’s boards.
Then it’s on. The Indian Ocean begins its tremendous march towards land and Burch is in the slot. Whichever wave he chooses he will have no option but to ride it perfectly and make it to the end. Anything less and he’ll cop the next one on the head and be washed into The Grower. Burch gets in on the second wave of the set, dropping to the base of a giant foam ball and setting a hand against the face in a picture perfect bottom turn. Then, ZAH! He clips the top off the first section with a vert reo, sending it smoothly up and over the coping and out onto the face. He’s travelling at warp speed. No need to pump, Burch is feeling it now. He’s got a big, beautiful section ahead of him and comes off the bottom with laser-like precision. ZAH! He fucken gaffs it, cutting off the full-bodied turn just in time to keep his speed. For a second it looks as like he’s gonna get hung up, but he rides it perfectly, dropping back down into the pocket.
It’s time to get going now. The wave has stretched out for eternity. But it’s no match for the liquid lightning under his feet. From the pocket he shoots up into a high-line trim, then another. He fades a little off the top, draws off the bottom and he’s off trimming again, this time with a subtle soul-arch thrown in for good measure. His back arm is delicately poised
as if commanding an orchestra. He’s got it in the bag. The warung goes up, all five of us. Mell grabs me by the shoulder, and raises his longneck. Ponytail sits inanimate with his arms folded in front of us.
The last time I felt like this was when I travelled alongside Dane Reynolds on tour back in 2010. But there’s a difference. Burch is all grace. He’s distilled it to its pure essence, something, after watching him surf, I take to mean the perfect combination of speed and confidence. Burch combines the two like no other surfer I’ve ever seen. Maybe Curren was better. I don’t know. “He’s next level,” confirms filmmaker Thomas Campbell (of Sprout, The Seedling), who’s travelled the world documenting Burch’s talents over the past year. When he kicks out it’s way down the end of the point. He disappears between the vast rolling hills of Indian Ocean. A lone figure, lost at sea, but with a destination in mind. I’m gobsmacked.
He will repeat this flawless act seven more times, never falling once, before returning to shore and sitting among us mortals, God-like, in a pair of Steve Waugh-era speed dealers. The question plagues us all. Why, Ryan? Why are you so? Like some sort of mad professor he begins to speak, making chopping hand-gestures as he explains the board’s performance. “Zah-zah-zah, I just, you know, had to get it going,” he explains. A bubble of spit forms near the corner of his mouth then bursts. Finally, with a sigh, he says it.
“It’s not about how it comes across to other people, you know. It’s about how entertained I am!”
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