At the risk of being a bubble burster, myth debunker, anti-Endless Summer campaigner, and monkey wrench tosser into the spokes of the wheel that spins the surf fantasy, I’m here to tell you that things are not always what they seem, that these idyllic surf trips you see in the magazines often involve smoke and mirrors, a little cutting and pasting in the editorial department. Let me put it another way. What appears to be a week, a month, or even a season of epic conditions can in actual fact have been only a few hours, or in the case of our story, about forty-five minutes.
We’re going back to 1988 — a time of industry abundance and eternally runny noses; a time of Occys, Currens, Carrolls, Op riots, lycra boardshorts, neon noses and big hair; a time of AIDS, Ayatollahs, Reagans and Gorbachevs; a time when mustard yellow Walkmans played INXS, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Midnight Oil, Big Audio Dynamite, The Cure, Culture Club, Wham, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, et al. I’d been a pro surfer for about a year at that point, done a few legs of the ASP tour, but been on only one proper “photo trip” (a week long excursion to Isla Natividad with Flame where I was so nerve racked — in my little mind the trip was so big time — that I caught rails and cartwheeeled and kooked out to the point of being unshootable). So when the call came from photographer Robert Beck asking me to join him on a week long, mag-endorsed photo trip to a spot in Brazil notorious for sand bottom, aqua blue barrels, I was in.
I arrived the morning after the week-long, round-the-clock-party of Carnaval had finished, which meant the entire city was nursing a hangover. Surfer Brazil editor Carlos Lorch met me at the airport. He was a few years older and a bit more suit and tie-ish than what you’d expect from a surf mag editor, but he was passionate and proud of his city. Before dropping me at my hotel, he gave me a tour of the local surf spots, which, for the most part, were sandy stretches of beach with big, sloping rocks at either end creating a bounce effect. We checked Joatinga, Sao Conrado, Pepino, Leblon, and Arpoador, Rio’s most historic wave. Carlos told me the story of Aussie Peter Troy who came to Rio ’64 and turned the Arproador locals onto modern surfboard design. Prior to this they were riding hunks of wood. Troy’s visit helped kick off the birth of the industry, starting with boards and evolving into trunks, wetsuits, clothing, sunglasses and all the rest, including Surfer magazine’s Brazil edition, a symbol of high tide in the global surf economy (Surfer Brazil folded a few years later).
After a couple of sandwiches and a coconut water at Arproador, Carlos dropped me at my hotel, a modest high rise a few blocks in from Ipanema Beach. I unpacked my things, dipped into a bar of chocolate from the mini-fridge, and waited for Beck, who showed up in the late afternoon. Beck was in his mid-30s and married with a kid. He’d only recently started shooting for Surfer and was hoping to make this a breakthrough trip. I was in the same situation, but on the other side of the lens. We discussed this over a coffee in the hotel restaurant, then strolled to the beach to watch the sun set.
That evening we had dinner with Carlos and the four Brazilians we’d be traveling with to Noronha. Adrian was tall, friendly, and spoke great English, which was a huge plus (neither Beck nor I spoke a lick of Portuguese). He would be writing our story for Surfer Brazil. Paulo, Jorge, and Magnus were pro surfers. They appeared to be great guys but because of language issues, all we could do was smile and flash the odd shaka. We ate pizza and drank beer at a cafe along Avenida Atlantico, the strip of high rises you see behind Copacabana Beach.
Fernando de Noronha is a chain of volcanic islands that sit a few hundred miles off the northeast coast of Brazil. Once a prison, it’s since become a military owned nature reserve oozing in marine and wild life, which, in turn, attracts a steady stream of hiking boot-clad nature buffs from around the world. But they’re smart about protecting Noronha’s fragile ecosystem — with only one flight in/out per week, visitors can stay a maximum of 14 days. To get there from the US you fly first to Rio, then Recife, and then out to Fernando de Noronha, in this military green, duo-propeller number straight out of WWII.
Under different circumstances, Fernando de Noronha may have been far more illuminating. If I was a climber I’d have had plenty of ascents to keep me well-occupied. If I was with a girlfriend I could have spent my days sunning, sexing, and occasionally swimming on a secluded beach. If I was a nature lover I could have bird watched, snorkeled, or even swam with dolphins But I was none of the above. I was a surfer on a business trip. And I wasn’t about to get sidetracked, even if that meant becoming the blinders-on, where’s-the-nearest-7-11? American I now try to avoid.
I did not participate in the forro dancing that went on each night in the bar, a legs entwined, folkloric hop that Robert described as “dry humping to music.” I did not hike, rock climb, scuba dive, snorkel, windsurf, swim with dolphins, have sex or even engage in language-hurdled conversation with the locals.
What I did do is surf about six hours a day, listen to my walkman, stretch, read Pat Riley’s book about the Lakers’ breakthrough season, creatively visualize making love to a girl I’d recently met back home, psychically attempt to summon the wave, wind, and sun gods (a combo that could rightfully be called the “photo trip gods”), and more or less exist in my own little bubble.
(Over time I would come to discover this is standard behavior for a pro surfer on a photo trip. As easy as it for the young athlete to fall into the kid-in-a-candy-shop mentality, to lose sight of the mission at hand, it’s essential to preserve oneself for the big moment, if and when the big moment comes. How this is best achieved depends on the individual. There was a handful of guys on tour with boundless energy and iron constitutions. They could party all night and still be up at dawn, ready to surf three heats throughout the day if need be. The most memorable of the bunch was Aussie Rod Kerr, who left me with an indelible impression. During a heat in Zarautz, Spain, Kerr caught a head high wave from out the back, weaved his way through to the inside, then, in the presence of eager fans, proceeded to puke his guts out while trimming through the shorebreak).
The first three days it rained from dawn till dusk, making it impossible to shoot. The orange hued coves we’d seen flying in were now a murky, photogenically-challenged gray. The waves were decent enough — head high peaks doing that same ricochet number I saw in Rio. We surfed a spot called Cacimba do Padre, a left that bounces off a pair of chocolate colored volcanic rocks that resemble a pair of melting Hershey’s kisses or a dark-skinned woman’s pointed boobs, depending on your mood. We surfed Conceicao, the beachbreak in front of our hotel that broke like Huntington, Hebara, Manly, Lacanau, Hossegor, and Biarritz, spots I’d be visiting later that year for contests, and I imagined it as such, holding 20-minute heats with myself, riding each wave like my entire career depended on it.
On the morning of Day Four we woke to sunny skies and light offshore winds. The bad news was that the swell had all but disappeared. It was knee high and absolutely perfect. Triple overhead for GI Joe, but a cruel, perverse joke as far as we were concerned. We spent a good portion of the day lounging about the beach at Cacimbo do Padre, hoping the incoming tide would deliver something. But it never did, and on the walk back to the hotel, Beck made the comment that we were halfway through the trip, and he’d yet to shoot a single frame.
The surf came up for the next two days, and the sun poked its head out from behind patchy clouds, enough to get a couple rolls off. But it was only head-high and could just as easily have been Oceanside or Huntington on any average summer day and this was by no means what we’d traveled halfway across the world for. I was, however, deeply impressed with the amount of energy and overall spirit in Paulo, Jorge, and Magnus’s surfing. They huddled close to the rock and used the wedge to fling themselves down the line. They pumped with ferocity, committed major rail to their turns, and milked their waves right to the shore. Even the tempo of their paddling showed a hunger beyond what you’d find at Trestles or Rocky Point or Narrabeen or any other aggro spot. And yet they were laid back and unassuming on the beach, Jekyll and Hyde’s.
That evening Beck called a meeting, and at 8 pm sharp, the six of us gathered at the hotel bar to discuss our predicament. “Here’s what we’re dealing with,” said Beck. “We’ve got one and a quarter days left, we’ve shot only two and a half rolls of film, and quite frankly, we’ve got nothing. Unless we wake up to full-blown perfect conditions, we’ve wasted our time here. That said, I propose we stay another week.”
Adrian translated to Paulo, Jorge, and Magnus and then, after a long silence, chimed in with his reasoning. “March is best time for Noronha. We got bad luck this last week. Next week we get good luck.” He repeated as much in Portuguese and within seconds I had the entire clan pleading with me to change my ticket and stay another week.
I’d reached a meditative groove with my days — surf, stretch, listen to Walkman could just as well have been chop wood, carrry water, talk story around the campfire. But I had to get back to a quiver of new boards and an appointment with the Aussie consulate to insure my visa, which I explained. This came as a disappointment to Robert, not because I was a joy to be around but because of industry politics. There were four surfers on the trip — three Brazilian and one American. The Brazilians were sponsored by Hang Loose, a leading clothing company in Brazil but a non-advertiser in the US mags, which deflated their value in the trip not because they lacked talent but purely because of these odd financial dynamics, which was all news to me. I, on the other hand, was sponsored by Quiksilver and Rip Curl, two of Surfer’s biggest advertisers. By association, my stock suddenly sky rocketed. I became A-list. Robert explained to me as much, adding that without me, the trip would never fly in US mags, hence the weight was on my shoulders. It was a bitter pill to swallow after having my ego jacked up on what I thought was camaraderie and incredible matesmanship, but I stuck to my guns and announced that I would leaving the following day. This led to an alcohol-fueled bonding-of-the-bros, which goes down as my second fondest memory of the trip.
Funny things happen when you loosen your grip and surrender to fate. I experienced this later in my career, or rather after my career, when I officially resigned from competition and subsequently found myself surfing better than ever, and I experienced it here when I shirked my “serious athlete” armor and threw myself into the Fernando de Noronha mix, knocking back cachaca and beer with the lads until well past midnight. The following morning, shortly after 8 AM, Beck came barreling into the room, rifling through drawers.
“Get up! It’s on. Get your shit together. Quick!”
I grabbed my board, a towel and a bottle of water and beelined for Cacimbo do Padre, trailing behind the overzealous Beck. We skirted through a tunnel of trees, high jumped rocks, and waded through a small river. Ten minutes later we were staring into the line-up.
There were waves all right, a couple feet overhead at least. And the sun was shining, the sky cloudless. The problem was the A-frame peaks we’d surfed the last six days had now become one big close out, the kind of waves you’re more likely to bodysurf than surf. But there was Beck, tearing through his case like a madman, rushing and panting like it was perfect Backdoor.
“There’s no shape, ” I said as yet another one dumped.
“Oh yeah. That’s what you think.” He pulled a camera and a housing from his bag and held it up for me to see. “This here’s a water housing. And this is an extremely wide-angle lens. If we can line up in one of those barrels with about ten feet of distance between us, no one will know the difference.”
The paddle out was rough. Beck and I caught four or five pounders on the head, with only waist deep water under us. We ragdolled, wore sand, and eventually made it out the back on a lull.
“Remember: Ten feet. No more, no less,” ordered Beck, kicking his feet and floating backward toward the impact zone.
A sapphire wall marched in. I gauged my distance from Beck — about 25 feet. The wave was a wall, a drop in/pull into the tube/get pummeled affair. I spun around, stroked, hopped to my feet, clawed the wall, and leered at the camera as the thing swallowed me. It was a glorious sight — like a slowly clenching fist of glass, with Beck about ten feet away, the two of us sharing the same little hole. I felt a pocket of air lift my board and then the spin cycle. I then felt Beck’s elbow, back, feet and hands; an underwater wrestling match. I was worried that my board could be skewering him. When we came up Beck was laughing. “Got it! Beautiful. Now go do that again.”
I paddled back out and waited. There was a long lull. I looked at my watch. I had to be out of the water in exactly eighteen minutes. Another one came. This time I was thinking pig dog. I sprint-paddled into position for the left. I dropped in, grabbed my rail, and pulled into an awkward, warbly backhand tube. Again, Beck was right in position. And again, he came up laughing.
I caught four or five more before our time was up. I exited the water with exactly three hours before my flight would depart. I raced back the hotel, threw my stuff together, caught a cab to the airstrip, and was out of there, my entire Fernando de Noronha experience behind me, a 20-something hour flight nightmare in front of me.
A couple months later Surfer magazine ran a major feature on our trip, making it look like some idyllic epic wave locale. Then about a month later the same story ran in Brazil, then France, and then Japan. We couldn’t have hit the photo trip jackpot harder and my sponsors were stoked. And I’m sure the Brazilians and their sponsors were stoked. But despite the blazing blue skies and heaving, crystal clear barrels and Land of the Lost backdrops and all the other shit that makes something on the other side of the world look 100 times more alluring than whatever’s at home, I knew the real truth.