Nick Carroll: The Big Surf Stories of This Stupid, Glorious Year
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
Well you can’t say it wasn’t eventful. Maybe not “eventful” in the sense of pro surfing events, or surfing trade shows, or anything else you might call an “event” in a normal 12 months. But as far as weird, sad, illuminating and unexpected events, as far as actual non-events, and as far as fantastic and spectacular surf sessions at home and in places you couldn’t go for the first time in a generation — as far as all that goes, 2020 was a full on bell-ringer. 2021 will be a different matter, maybe in the coming year we’ll see what survived 2020 for real and what didn’t … but meanwhile, here’s a look at some of the stuff that made surfing news in the time of Covid.
No world champs — WSL’s slow-motion shutdown
The World Surf League had plans, and they were good plans. The pro scene was coming off a strong year, with a great finale at Pipe and popular champs in Italo and Carissa, and they had all this stuff planned and ready to go, including what seemed like a serious building block strategy around a new qualifying super-tier called the Challenger Series. They were about halfway through the first Challenger Series event of the year, in Sydney, Australia, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. While many things then seemed to happen very quickly, the WSL couldn’t bring itself to give up on such good plans, and it took until mid-July for the tour to be officially clamped in 2020. Ironically, by then a bunch of other pro sports were off and running again. Also by then, the rest of us were surfing our brains out.
Surfing’s Olympic debut — not
Everybody was excited! Well a lot of people were, that’s for sure. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were coming, and at long last surfing was in on the game. Fortunes had been spent — why, the Australian and US teams had put down close to a million bucks between them in hotel reservations alone. Olympic surfing had been a dream of the world’s organized surfing community for, what, almost 60 years? Would this be the Great Leap Forward for which so many of them had hoped? Could the shape of the sport be about to change forever? Well the answer to that last question would turn out to be Yes, but not because of the Olympics. Tokyo was an early casualty of the plague. By late March the plug had been pulled, all those reservations were postponed, and the great Dream was on the backburner once again.
You couldn’t surf! COVID shutdowns abounded
Surfers around the world were then confronted with a baffling inconsistency. In some places, you were allowed to surf, in others, you totally weren’t, and nobody was completely sure why. Nobody even knew if the plague could survive salt water, much less a good cutback — though Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at Scripps, sent everyone into a spin by declaring a good cutback might just infect you. Prather later claimed to have been mis-quoted, of course, but that didn’t stop beaches from Lowers to Bondi being shut down in a better safe than sorry sorta way, which in turn didn’t stop people from trying to surf them in a screw-you-it’s-pumping sorta way. Over time, sanity prevailed, the shackles loosened, and by mid-year almost everywhere was open slather once more. But we should spare a thought for the crew at Jeffreys Bay, who by Christmas were still being arrested just for checking the surf.
But you did anyway!! The Covid global surfing boom
But by the middle of 2020, despite the panic and the beach shutdowns and the vanishing world tour and all the rest, it became clear that surfing was in the midst of an unexpected and completely unforecasted boom. Like, crazy kind. There was a moment in late March, when amid talk of a coming Depression, a lot of boardmakers and surf shops braced themselves for disaster. A month later, they were trying to find new staff to cope with demand from the floods of semi-employed and very bored people who wanted to do what seemed like one of the few things they were actually allowed to do, without a mask on at least. Global wetsuit sales doubled, and city lineups everywhere were super-packed, unless of course it was overhead, in which case it was only very packed. And as the year rolled on, nothing changed, except half the surf hard-goods industry ran out of stock.
Surf travel canceled — unless you’re Kelly
Sadly, one area of surfer employment didn’t fare as well as wetsuits and surfboards. Surf travel, like all kinds of travel, got a beating. There wasn’t a whole lot of relief from surfing’s sudden popularity, either, because nobody could go anywhere. OK perhaps that is not entirely true. Almost nobody could go anywhere, but some people could go somewhere, if they trod lightly and didn’t rattle any local cages (see: Shane Dorian on Mexico). And a very few people could go pretty much where and when they wanted, at least if they chose the moment. Maybe the best performance in this genre came from none other than the Goat Himself, Kelly. Slater spent the first three months of the plague roaming up and down the east coast of Australia during its best fall season in a decade — then in September, found a loophole into Bali and spent two months getting barreled during the mellowest Indo winter this century. It’s good to be the King.
Surfers stranded in Paradise
Then there were the surfers who were already somewhere, and couldn’t leave. Stuck! In places like Bali! And Fiji!! And the bloody Maldives. You could even argue that Kelly’s international year began after he was trapped in Australia following the collapse of the WSL’s Challenger Series event in New Zealand, where he’d been hailed as the star attraction. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of this very 2020 dilemma was Anthony Fillingim of Costa Rica, who found himself trapped in Kandui Resort in the northern Mentawais, during a run of surf so impossibly perfect it’s hard to imagine how the poor man will be able go on with any kind of surfing life from this point. Like — how do you top that?
No wonder Kelly stuck around. The advent of Covid-19 heralded the Aussie east coast’s best six months of surf this century. First the Queensland and northern NSW pointbreaks went on a major tear, with Burleigh, Currumbin and the Superbank absolutely firing through the fall months for weeks on end — super enhanced for the locals when Queensland shut its borders to everyone else in the world, including the rest of Australia. Then as winter arrived, the coasts south of there joined the party, big time. Around the Sydney area, it was so big, so consistently, for so long that you might have been forgiven for thinking some sort of nuclear weapons were being deployed somewhere offshore. And like so much of 2020’s great surf, the best of it belonged to the locals — like underground charger Chris Lougher, who rode the best wave anyone’s ever seen ridden in that massive surf town. You couldn’t go to Indo, but maybe this was better.
Europe’s mega-fall — Hossegor cranks! Ireland overachieves! Nazare bombs! And then is closed!!
No sooner had the Australian surf binge kinda settled than the whole North Atlantic Ocean began spinning in mad counter clockwise circles. The US East Coast was first in line, sure, but when the hurricanes went extra-tropical and pointed at that ocean’s opposing shores, things got real serious. In Ireland, the local crew had to work around a lockdown, gaining permission to surf from local authorities before Conor Maguire was allowed to chase down a wave we suspect not even the virus could have survived. The same swell was more telegraphed at Nazare, Portugal, where the usual suspects went triple-XL in the cleanest conditions you’ll ever see when 80-foot waves are breaking. But even this old fishing town, whose economy was saved by its unexpectedly hosting the tallest surf on earth, couldn’t avoid the impact of Covid-19; regional health authorities put a ban on any kind of surfing at Praia do Norte, because dammit, surfing’s just too popular! Too many people show up to watch!
Mav’s — best day ever
It fell out of the sky. Not even the crew who flew halfway across the Pacific to score it expected anything this good. By all accounts, from the oddly calming video to the “how insane was that!” type commentary from the exhausted crew at the boat ramp on dusk, Tuesday, December 8th was the day everyone who’s ever surfed Mav’s has been waiting for this whole time. Super clean, powerful, chipping in from the outer takeoff, wind, tide and swell cooperating all the way. Like Grant “Twiggy” Baker said later: “If you wanted a big one, you could get it.” And when big Pete Mel, who’s been surfing the joint every which way for over 25 years, got the best wave of the day, one of the great themes of 2020 was reinforced. At Mav’s, as it was pretty much everywhere, this was the Year of the Local.
Sharks! (more attacks on surfers this year than ever in history)
When 56-year-old Maui surfer Robin Warren died after being attacked by a large tiger shark in shallow water at Honolua Bay in December, it was a grim punctuation mark on an even grimmer sentence for 2020. At least seven surfers were killed, and many more injured, in unprovoked shark attacks through the year, leaving more questions than ever to be answered about our relationship with the great predator. We still don’t really know why attacks sometimes happen and why sometimes they don’t; there’s enough drone footage around now of large sharks cruising harmlessly within easy range of us to know it’s not as simple as killing them first. The only thing not in question has been the courage of our fellow surfers, who time after time in 2020, showed a willingness to go toward danger and haul the victim out, no matter the risk to themselves. Maybe, in that sense, we’re our own best protection.
(US) Too many hurricanes! East Coast gets it good
El Niño, La Niña. When it comes to the great climate cycle, you’re either on one side or the other, and as the 2020 Atlantic tropical storm season arrived more or less in sync with the Little Girl, everyone from the Caribbean to Maine knew what side they were on. It seemed like late September’s Teddy was the favorite, feeding pretty much every exposed Atlantic coastline with something worthy of the name “hurricane swell”, but in the busiest hurricane season since they began taking notes, Teddy was not exactly alone. And in the way of such seasons, things kept happening into the cold months, with a gorgeous December nor-easter elevating many a surfers’ barrel count. In a year when you couldn’t escape whatever Fate your local spot dished up, this great season seemed like another gift from the surfing gods.
Maya’s world record wave — first for a woman, and wouldn’t you know, it became a disagreement
Some say the Guinness Book of World Records is the finest PR stunt in the history of beer. That may be! But it is still full of records, and one of them is 73.5 feet. That’s the recorded size of the wave Maya Gabeira towed into at Nazare in February — the one that earned her the cbdMD Biggest Wave prize at the WSL’s Red Bull Big Wave Awards. Maya’s wave was actually deemed the biggest of anybody’s, regardless of gender, which might have seemed super appropriate in this year of women ripping, except for the fact that another woman heartily disagreed. Justine Dupont’s ride at the same location earned her Ride of the Year, but she reckoned she was ripped off for Biggest Wave, declaring herself “deeply hurt”, “disappointed and ashamed of this league which claims to represent our sport.” Whew! There’s a punchline here, but we’re not going near it.
Passings: Derek Ho, Shmoo, MT, Jack Murphy, Marty Tullemans, Mara Wolford, etc.
It was a year filled with untimely death, and the surf culture suffered its share. Valé, among many others, Derek Ho, Hawaii’s first world pro champion and magnificent Pipeline rider; John Shimooka, great Hawaiian surfer turned much-loved Australian bon vivant; Michael Tomson, Pipe charger, Gotcha founder and creative genius; Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy, jewel thief and murderer in search of redemption; Martin Tullemans, great Australian surf photographer and Cosmic Pygmy; and Mara Wolford, one of Santa Cruz’s many gifts to the world of surfing. If you lost someone close to you this past year, we’d like to wish you all the best, and may your memory of them stay sweet and strong.
WSL declares its hand…to muted applause
Meanwhile, the WSL had scarcely been idle. In July, just as the 2020 season was shuttered, they opened up an audacious plan for 2021: a complete CT re-fit, beginning with the Pipe Masters in December ’20, and culminating in September ’21 with a one-day top five world champ shootout, at a then-undisclosed location. It was news, but hardly a secret; the League had been bouncing the idea around since 2017, and WSL owner Dirk Ziff was a big fan. Trouble was, at this point the WSL CT didn’t functionally exist, and the whole amazing surf Boom of 2020 was rolling along just fine without it — most of us were way more interested in what the next swell would look like, and how we could talk our shaper buddy into pushing our next board out before Christmas. Would the WSL be able to pull off these plans in 2021 — and would we paying attention again by then? Time will tell.
Surfboard makers in Boom overwhelm
We love ‘em to death, of course we do. Couldn’t surf without ‘em. Yet…ever noticed how often boardmakers seem to, well, complain? Whether it be those cursed foreign imports, someone ripping off your design idea, or the sander failing to show for work because he broke his arm last night in an “accident”, there’s always something wrong. But by the back half of 2020, nobody was complaining any more. There wasn’t enough time to complain. There wasn’t enough time in the day. Surfboard demand, thanks to the Covid Surfing Boom, had exceeded supply for the first time this century, and it included everybody: softboard suppliers, importers, custom guys, blankmakers, glass shops, the big names, everyone. Materials were put under even more pressure with the unexpected shutdown of a couple of key chemical plants in Germany, threatening the supply of PU foam — and though that crisis seems to have passed, if you got a custom board within two months of ordering it in 2020, count yourself lucky.
Crazy mini girls going HAM
In 2020, Covid or no Covid, lots of surfers had a lot of fun, but it’s hard to escape the idea that nobody had more fun than girls. Crazy mini girls! The world’s their oyster, and they’re shucking it. Erin Brooks, 13, being taken to the BSR pool in Waco by mentor Bethany Hamilton, once a crazy mini girl herself but now at the age of 30 almost a senior, and watching her protege launch huge airs all over the shop. Vahine Fierro, 14, sensationally pitted at flawless eight foot Teahupoo, and Summa Longbottom, 15, being whipped into Cape Solander by her dad Dylan (and Summa’s a goofyfoot!). Sierra Kerr, Caitlin Simmers, Sawyer Lindblad, you could do a top 100 without scraping. These girls have more blue sky ahead of them than any other group of surfers in the world. They’re a pandemic on their own.
Difficult days for sponsored surfers!
Are you really worth a million bucks? Many a professional surfer was forced to ask a question like this in 2020. It began in January with what seemed like a wholesale massacre of the Hurley superteam at the hands of the label’s new and very non-core owners; the massacre was later revealed to be an over-call, but then the Covid set in, the contests and their prizemoney were canceled, and the contracts began to wither on the vine. Let’s face it — how do you showcase your brilliance without a world tour for a stage? And when you can’t just go do clips in the Ments? Truth is while some tour pros enjoyed the unexpected year off, others may have lost a critical career year to the Covid. And one, John Florence by name, departed that Hurley superteam, only to found his own label with the support of none other than fellow Hurley departee, Bob H himself. JJF is one of those people for whom the cards just keep turning up aces.
Surfer mag pulled, last of the print giants
Nothing lasts forever, though when you’re a grommet, you think it will. Modern surfing was a total grommet in 1960, when John Severson started up Surfer magazine. Almost exactly 60 years later, this past October, when the current trademark owners unceremoniously shut the mag, it came as a shock, but not that much of a shock. The world over which Surfer magazine held cultural sway for so long was a different place — one in which surfers waited a month for news from home and abroad, where surf movies took three years to shoot and a year to show, where a single great photograph might engrave itself on the collective surfing memory, not for days but for years. By 2020, when surfers can insta-check their favorite spot via remote live-cam, and surf stars send you daily updates on their magnificent lives via social media, those days were long gone. But you know what, you can still look at the back issues.
The elements! fire destroys Australia’s coast
It began in late 2019, when Nat Young’s fabled Country Soul property in Nymboida, NSW, was burned to the ground, along with some of the best-ridden surfboards in history. But that was just the start. By the end of January 2020, half the Australian east coast had been put to the torch in the country’s worst ever fire season. Millions or acres and billions of animals, including 173 humans, were incinerated, and numerous surfing lives permanently altered by the blazes; to this day, when you approach some of the coast’s best remote reefs, you’ll do so through dead blackened stumps. The Black Summer only came to its true end when the great storms of fall brought the rain and surf that would herald this same coast’s epic winter.
WSL staggers to a re-start, and Pipe has the last say
Was this a sign of normal service being resumed? If so, well, normal service isn’t quite what we thought it was. After months of planning and negotiation, the WSL got its major league rolling again in late November with the Maui Pro presented by Roxy. It all looked normal enough — waiting period, swell arrives, small but pretty Honolua Bay — until the terrible shark attack on Robin Warren drove the finals away from Maui and into limbo. Segue to Pipe, where again things looked normal enough, if you could ignore the absence of any spectators — until the astonishing news broke of WSL CEO Erik Logan being struck down by Covid-19. No, in the year of the Plague, nothing was destined to be normal — though the fact that somehow both these events were concluded without further bizarre incident has to count for something. If they can just keep their hands clean enough to get the next event at Sunset Beach done, the WSL’s 2021 might just happen after all.
This article also appeared on Surfline
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