Surfing: Trouble in paradise

Surfing is suffering an identity crisis, with a surfeit of competitors and an excess of commercialisation. Andy Martin on Hawaii's North Shore wonders whether the world's hippest sport has become too sexy for its own good
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A palm-fringed curve of sand straight out of a Bounty commercial, sultry tropical breezes, and a few hundred yards out, tumbling turquoise walls of water 10-feet high where men in shorts are spraying their personal signatures like demented graffiti artists. The waves, rearing up out of the Pacific like sea monsters, topple over and erase all this incomprehensible calligraphy and try to take anyone in the way down with them, but by and large the surfers come flying out of the barrel, miraculously spat out in a fury of foam and thunder, waving their arms overhead like extremely tanned muscular evangelicals. The World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach on the Hawaiian island of Oahu moves towards its climax.

The O'Neill-sponsored event is the second leg in the Vans Triple Crown, which provides the finale to the Association of Surfing Professionals global tour. The legendary North Shore of Hawaii, which is to big waves what the Empire State Building is to tall buildings, has long been regarded as the ultimate Colosseum for these gladiatorial rituals, since it is here, in a uniquely Polynesian blend of sport, sex, myth and martyrdom, that surfing began a millennium or so ago. This is the 30th anniversary of the World Cup. But this year there is something wrong.

It is not just that the young Hawaiian hot rod Andy Irons has already sewn up his third world title anyway. Nor is it just the usual crop of invalided-out competitors hobbling around on crutches. No, it is more fundamental than that. This is the end of an era, the loss of innocence. Hawaii must have felt something like this back in 1819, when Christianity finally smashed the kapu (or taboo) system, and the traditional sense of the sacred was lost.

It is not so much that surfers have been kicked out of Eden but rather that they have made it so groovy that everyone else is clamouring to get in.

Randy Rarick, the tall, laid-back contest director of the Triple Crown, and one of the men who dreamed up the ASP circuit, gives a wry smile. "I am partly responsible for what has happened to surfing," he admits.

While we are talking another Japanese tourist bus pulls in and a few dozen highly disciplined tourists troop out, duly take a few pictures of the dudes, and troop back in again. Then an obscenely stretched white limo draws up, a good-looking couple of billionaires get out to stretch their legs and pose with a long-haired sun-bleached denizen of the beach and his waxed-up board, before sliding off again in air-conditioned elongated splendour. "I live here and I look at what I've done," Rarick says in a lazy drawling mea culpa. "We've hit saturation point." He uses the word "inevitable" to describe the slow and painful slide of paradise into a kind of hell.

While Kelly Slater, now 32, who ushered in a new generation of high-performance manoeuvres, and won six world titles on the back of it, is out on the waves jousting with Irons, who has stolen all Slater's tricks and given them an upgrade, Hollywood has occupied the beach next door. This is not the North Shore any more. This is an episode of North Shore, a surfside soap opera from Fox TV.

"This is NOT Baywatch", says Nathaniel (whose job appears to be to shout out "rolling"). I suspect this is Hollywood speak for "this IS Baywatch".

In case I don't get the point, he adds: "It has some real serious drama." A handsome hunk, called Gabriel, is canoodling down on the water's edge with Jade. They both look as if they were grown in vats. Every now and then a team of technicians swarm around them and douse them in extra fake tan and give them emergency cosmetic surgery. Jade storms off in a bikini-clad huff because Gabriel has revealed that he loves another - the ocean, and always will, or something like that.

Surfing has become almost indistinguishable from celluloid. Hip has coalesced with hype. These days all surfers have to have their own movie dedicated to them: even Fabio Gouveia, a Brazilian tour veteran, good surfer and nice guy, but who has only ever won one championship event to my knowledge, has now been immortalised in Fabio Fabuloso.

The modern surfer has become a lean, mean materialist, with his own investment manager, driven more by the American dream than any mystic quest for the perfect wave. "I gotta make as much money as I can as fast as I can," Irons says flat out in Blue Horizon, his recent film. At 32, Slater is still raking in around a US$1m (£528,000) a year in sponsorship, while Irons is reckoned to be earning around half to three-quarters of a mill. The ASP tour was invented to enable surfers to make a living out of what they do, although only a handful really make a bundle.

But now Rarick is having a rethink, 30 years down the line. From his own backyard, he gazes out at a congregation of recreational surfers sitting poised out on the break like a bunch of Indian fakirs on poles. "Look: that is a lifestyle not a sport," he says, thus verbally demolishing everything he has stood for in his entire career. He set out to sell surfing and he sold it - but at a high price. He doesn't actually use the phrase "I created a Frankenstein's monster", but this is the general gist of his remarks.

O'Neill - and other beachwear companies - sponsor kids as young as eight. By the age of 12 young pretenders to the Triple Crown are already gearing up for or shadowing the pro-tour. No wonder the North Shore has now hit overload.

Once upon a time Waimea Bay, the holy of holies, a few miles to the south of Sunset, was seen as too big, beyond merely human powers; then it was pioneered by a handful of big-wave heroes; and now when Waimea has a big swell there are - on the last count - 85 guys out there: 85 guys going for one wave. It's like a traffic jam. Waimea Bay has become the M25 of surfing. The Few, like old spitfire pilots, have been displaced by a Jumbo-load of passengers. They wanted to make surfing sexy. Maybe they made it too sexy. The result? A population explosion.

I ask Rarick what advice he would give to a young wannabe surfer these days. "I'd say, 'Go to school and get an education'." From anyone else that might sound like conventional wisdom; from Rarick, the guru of professional surfing, this statement is tantamount to blasphemy.

The beach is a jungle. It is easy to die there (and, having survived a near-death experience this week, I know how true this is). Some thrive and prosper. I bump into Martin Potter, Britain's one and only world champion (in 1989), who has now become a kind of elder statesman figure, the surfing republic's ambassador to the United Nations or equivalent. But I can't help remembering Ted Deerhurst, the British pro who never made better than 200 in the world, and who died here in the land of dreams at the age of 40. "He was so deluded," Rarick says, "and he needed his delusions to go on as long as he did." Rarick looks out to sea as if expecting to see Ted's ghost still riding the waves. "He was lucky." Dying young, I think he meant.

This year's Triple Crown has seen the return to competition of Tom Curren, ex-world champ and mild-mannered Clark Kent of surfing, still a master of style at the age of 40. But he burned badly in the opening rounds of two contests. "I believe it is definitely possible for me to compete," he protests. "I was just unprepared." But he is outgunned by the new kids on the block. It is not quite like watching a old punch-drunk boxer getting back into the ring, but it's close.

I used to think old surfers rode off over the horizon, like Shane, or found a berth in Valhalla's hall of heroes. "Do you want to know where Glen Winton is now?" says Randy, rubbing it in. In his heyday, Winton was known as Mr X and he carved the straightest lines on the biggest waves and he looked the Minotaur square in the eye. "He is a doorman somewhere in northern New South Wales." He could have been a contender; and now he's a bouncer. "He is lucky," says Randy, starting to sound like an old Monty Python script. He mentions some other guys I knew well who have fallen a lot further from grace. "No skills, no education. All they knew how to do was surf."

Sunset Beach is not quite apocalypse now. But it is the twilight of the idols.