JESUS CHRIST, PERSONAL FRIEND OF SURFING
"The Finest Surf Contest Coverage Ever?" - SURFER Magazine
I wrote a longer version of this piece in 1999 for Salon.com. The professional surfing world went ape for it, and I got to fly to Hawaii to meet a bunch of my surf heroes. It was one of the best experiences of my writing life. This particular edit came from a shortened version that appeared in SURFER in 2015. Since I wrote it, the great Andy Irons has passed away, but not before eventually gaining my total respect.
I went to France to write about the 1999 Lacanau Pro, a professional surfing event. I don’t know that much about surfing, but I have a deep (if dilettantish) affection for it, and I read SURFER magazine each month, because for me it’s sort of a semi-extreme sports version of Tiger Beat.
The most famous surfer is naturally the (then) six-time world champ, the emerald-eyed and demure Kelly Slater, a sleek wave yogi light years beyond the rest, Neptune’s Beautiful Son who rose fully formed from the seas of Florida and joined mankind to dance with the veiled and giggling ocean mysteries, and who also had a minor role on “Baywatch.” The international press got out of hand for Slater earlier this year when he was schtupping Pamela Anderson; then Tommy Lee was released from jail or rehab or wherever he was and there was an unceremonious breakup and all the lager-dribbling press yobs in Australia and the world hounded the shit out of Kelly, because Pam Anderson is way more incredible to them than unprecedented quantum leaps in surfing artistry.
There wasn’t much driving need on Slater’s part to be the official Best in the World for the seventh time in a row since everyone knows he is anyway, so Slater took a break from the limelight this year, which left professional surfing without its biggest mainstream face, but it also gave everyone else in the Association of Surfing Professionals’ Top 44 a fighting chance for the World Championship title.
I was dying to see the ASP in Lacanau because of my slavering personal interest in the careers of several pro surfers (I disclaim in advance the accuracy of these assessments):
1. Cory Lopez. I have a Cory Lopez screen saver. He’s not the greatest surfer, but he’s a fabulous, scowling young malcontent with diamond-hard, grapefruit-sized balls, who will take off on anything—anything, even the glass cliffs of death in Tahiti. And he can really spice up a mushy little wave session with all manner of whippy skatepark aeronautics. He’s a rudely talented, visceral show-stealer with unpredictable bolts of infernal genius; a monosyllabic, antisocial strange boy from an essentially mom-less upbringing. As a former juvenile delinquent, my bosom heaves and aches for him; I wish I was his favorite aunt or waitress or something. My main ambition for the whole trip was to see Cory walking around Lacanau with some preposterous-looking slag girlfriend, so I could ogle.
2. Shea Lopez. Cory’s long-suffering Good Older Brother, kind, handsome and helpful, who seems blessed with a totally serene brain chemistry and an amazingly triangular waistline, which is pleasantly obvious due to the fact that he wears his pants slightly below his pubic hairline. Shea, though a connoisseur of greasy kid tricks, seems more elegant than flashy, and appears to have a diligent and mature aesthetic approach. He’s also done a remarkably graceful and ego-less job of being Cory’s Brother (second in line for the Lopez limelight). I read an article once that said that when they were kids, Cory used to hit Shea for breathing too loud.
3. Mark Occhilupo. Aka “Occy,” a koala bear of a boy, the most charming, affable, regular Australian human ever, with a big, square, blond head and an underbite. I admittedly own and watch a lot of surf-porn videos, “The Occumentary” being one of our top faves—lots of hardcore, cum-shot surf action, unimpeded by bogus plots or excessive living-room lo-jinks. Occy was headed for a serious shot at the World Championship in the late ’80s when he decided to stop surfing, lie on his couch, watch TV and get really fat for a few years. Now he’s 33, he’s trim, he’s back, and he wants the title, and it’s kind of weepily inspirational how great he’s doing.
There was also a gaggle of surfers that I was crazy to see because I so love to hate them:
1. Ken Bradshaw & Layne Beachley. Ken Bradshaw is not a World Tour surfing professional but an older, veteran hard-ass—a surfboard shaper and Sunset Beach local, with an ancient reputation for ultra-hardcore big wave surfing and a general tone of ass-holically judgmental macho outdoorsmanship. Bradshaw seems to have built Layne Beachley, his much younger girlfriend, out of the refuse of his own frustrated ambitions. He coaches the living shit out of her. She is his creature; he shapes her surfboards with obnoxiously classified measurements and she publicly gushes over him whenever she wins anything and its all kind of grimy. Beachley, last year’s women’s world champion, is fearfully unstoppable and most likely going to be world champ again this year.
2. Damien “Iceman” Hardman. A two-time former world champion and Occy’s biggest threat to this year’s championship, he is monstrously capable but strangely cursed to be the Richard Nixon of the surfing world. He’s rigid with media unlovability, broody, uncute and super ambitious. He also colors inside the lines and racks up the points by being a ruthless and precise techno-surgeon. The Iceman is coldly serious and basically impossible for teenage girls to get a crush on. The utterly heart-melting bonhomie of Occy makes Hardman come off like everyone’s Evil Stepdad.
3. Andy Irons. Andy has a knack for showing up on videos half drunk and talking in an especially depraved-sounding Hawaiian patois—a nearly unintelligible melange of surfer dude-isms and mangled English—and coming off like a real parking lot alky with a big foam head. But on the positive side, he’s a really exciting surfer with the kind of brute animal energy that makes your blood pay attention. You can find Andy on the last page of the latest issue of SURFER, charging the tube holding a can of Bintang Pilsner, with his eyes rolling half up into his head, looking red, bloated and poisoned like fat Elvis.
I showed up in Lacanau on the second day of the competition, flashed my press credentials, and it was like walking in the Green Room at the Oscars, or in the locker room of the Chicago Bulls. Seventy percent of the people around us were centerfolds from SURFER. As if on cue to make me scream, in walked Dark Prince Cory Lopez, with a girlfriend who surpassed all of my most fiendish voyeuristic hopes: a cobra of an unsmiling hula princess with eyebrows plucked into fierce black commas. I was beside myself with visual gratification; it was one of those transcendental vacation moments.
A vast majority of surfers are built like sea turtles—short as hell. Most of the women are barely over 5 feet; many of the men are barely over 5’5″—with wide torsos and really short legs and arms with wide hands like flippers, and long, rubbery spines that seem to have too many vertebrae, like the Ingres Odalisque. Extremely low center of gravity. The Brazilian pros are practically Oompa Loompas—they weigh little more than the chicks, and it does nothing but magical things for their wave ability.
Shea Lopez, who is uncharacteristically tall, was standing right next to me, so I throttled my nerve and went up to him, wild with too much saliva and agitated fan-girl fear, to ask what I figured was a Good Question:
“Uh — Mr. Lopez? Is there anything you’d like to complain about in the world of professional surfing?”
“Uhhh … well, not really …”
“Nothing? What about the judging criteria? Anyone you’d like to personally assassinate?”
He shook his head and shrugged. “It all looks pretty good … we’re pretty fortunate …”
“Nothing? You wouldn’t change anything? Not if you were king of the world?!”
“Well,” he said patiently, “if you want to change things, then you’re not happy where you are. I’m a lot happier here than I would be on Wall Street. We’re in the sun, at the beach …”
I mumbled something and shriveled away, feeling like a corrupt, scab-picking New York vampire. It was a moment like the one in that Bob Marley documentary, when the idiot journalist asks Bob how he justified using the “fruits of Babylon” (i.e. the technology of the recording industry) in order to further his message of Jah Love, and Bob, not meaning to hurt the guy or humiliate him but inadvertently doing it anyway, looked at the guy quizzically and said, “Babylon don’t got no fruits!”
Anyone who has fallen in love with a group of uniformed firemen at the supermarket—noticing their polite, jokey teamwork and easy, 100-proof manliness while they shop together for the station—would probably like being around surfers. Like firemen, they’ve seen it all. They’ve plunged over the blue edge of eternity and been held underwater until their lungs turned to cannonballs; they’ve been scraped on sharp animals and poisonous invisible landscapes until all that remained of them was the basics of throbbing humanity; good sense, casual good feeling, good sportsmanship, respect for life.
There are the odd bullheaded tantrum-throwers like Hawaiian tiki monster Sunny Garcia, who had a couple of colorful shit-fits and poked some guy in the chest while we were there, but for the most part, all the petty parts of surfers’ brains seem blasted away by the overpowering waters and they have the weird, gentle majesty of giraffes or monks. Something about living enslaved to an element like fire or water, I suppose, gives them that 1940s Royal Air Force, movie-hero kind of self-possession. Anyway, I felt dirty and mean after talking to Shea Lopez, and kind of sick with admiration for him.
I tried to think of a different Good Question, but all I could think of was “Would you rather have flippers or an extra dick?” so I abandoned the role of interviewer and decided to just soak up the atmosphere.
Cory Lopez, to my dismay, was quickly out, beaten down into 17th place by one of the tiny Brazilians. The high point of the quarterfinals was when Luke Egan, Aussie good guy, friend of Occy, beat ruthless point-eater Damien Hardman, Occy’s biggest threat to the world title, which was the surf-war equivalent to sitting on the land mine and saving the batch of little children. “Puissance!” the French announcer yelled. “Tres radical, et tres fort!”
Besides the surfing, the best show was the enormous windfall of bronzed tube-top blond, preening surf-groupies with 12-pack abs who looked like L.A. strippers: professionally huge tits and Japanimation-quality round asses, high shoes and short shorts. A real TV-quality hooter show, which stood out starkly in comparison to the top female surfers like Megan Abubo, who had a quietly bratty manner and big Walkman earmuffs on her head, and dressed way down in shapeless casuals like a sullen teenage raver, looking like she needed to be grounded or spanked or something.
Bradshaw was hulking around for the women’s surf-offs, overzealously rubbing so much wax on Layne Beachley’s surfboard we thought it might sink from the weight.
Surfers are a spiritual bunch; a great many of them are big Jesus freaks, in a real Old Testament, Book of Jeremiah, the-Apocalypse-cometh kind of way. Christian surfers like Glyndyn Ringrose and Tim Curran are always doling out quotes about how “He’s coming soon!” and attributing all their victories to personal favors from Christ. He was the first shredder to walk on water, I suppose.
Apropos of Jesus, a surf photographer named Paul Sargeant handed me a couple of articles he’d recently written for various surf magazines about the Top 44 at the midpoint of the ’99 tour. We were a little stunned by what he had to say about Occy:
“After a comeback that nearly rivaled that of Jesus Christ, Occy came from obese proportions and a non-surfing recluse four years ago to show the world that anything is possible … The highlight of the life of Jesus Christ was his rising from the dead, after dying nailed to a cross. He was 33; so is Occy. He has already come back from the “dead” and he is currently doing the nailing. Should he be uplifted to world champ this year, the blinding glare and reverence from the surfing world will be every bit as stunning as that which befitted the ascension into heaven of Jesus Christ! God Bless Him!”
Wow, I thought. I don’t love Occy half as much as Sarge does. I read on; Sarge had a quote about Shea Lopez: “He remains outspoken and indignant at the current judging criteria, and refuses to change from surfing ‘his way.’”
Shea himself is quoted in the document as saying, “The judging is stuck in the ’80s contest pack-’em-in routine.” OK, Shea. I’m just … (sniff) … I’m hurt, OK? Why would you complain to Sarge and not me? Is it my body? (sniff, sob). Don’t touch me.
The final heat of the day came down to Occy vs. Tim Curran, the Jesus-loving bantamweight from Ventura, who happens to be an ankle-high wave virtuoso. Here was a real dilemma; if Jesus is on Tim Curran’s side and Occy is Jesus, who gets to win?
After a tense if uneventfully flat-watered heat, Curran was smiled upon by Occy and won, but it didn’t matter—Occy, securing second place, ended up surging way ahead of Damien Hardman in the points toward World Championtude, which is what mattered most. Shea Lopez came in third, launching him impressively past his rock-star brother in the ASP ratings, which was surely some kind of karmic victory. Megan Abubo beat Ken Bradshaw’s “Champion Beachley” prototype, and all was right with the world. Even Andy Irons looked healthy and relatively sober, despite the fact that he was wearing a wool stocking cap over his ears to cover a terrifying self-imposed 3 a.m. beer-binge haircut.
We left Lacanau feeling grateful, knowing that Occy has a sacred plan for us all. Praise him!
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Artwork: “Vickers,” oil on linen by Cintra Wilson 2020.