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Art, Film, Writing, Philosophy, Craft, History, Cosmic Connectivity (Oh, and Surfing)

Pete Hausler

29.10.12

“We are just one of many mammals that ride ocean waves for fun.”
—Steve Pezman, Publisher, The Surfer’s Journal

Did you hear the one about the guy who surfed a tsunami? Or about the artist who hand-rendered all 114 Suras of the Koran in L.A.-style cholo tag-graffiti, accompanied by graphic novel style scenes of everyday American life? Did you know Bruce Springsteen, back in the day (back before he was single-name Bruce, that is) was a pretty decent surfer? Did you know that the creative director behind Apple’s infamous “1984” commercial that introduced their new Macintosh computer, is a surfer in both temperament and deed? And have you heard of the kid who had a colossal wipeout at Mavericks—one of the most treacherous, big-wave spots in the world—and not only lived to tell, but became famous for it? Readers of  bi-monthly magazine The Surfer’s Journal know all these things.

I don’t surf. I want to make that perfectly clear. Unless you count one week per year of boogie boarding at the Jersey Shore, I don’t surf. And yet, my favorite magazine—one of only two magazines to which I subscribe—is a gorgeous and glossy, square-bound surfing/travel/arts/cultural history magazine called The Surfer’s Journal (TSJ). I don’t know why the incongruity of these two facts—non-surfer religiously reads a surfer magazine—continues to amaze me, two years on from picking up my first TSJ. I’m not sure it’s even worth mentioning, and yet, I feel somehow that it is.

I had seen TSJ numerous times in my local Barnes & Noble, held it in my hands, flipped through it, but could never quite bring myself to buy it. Despite its obvious aesthetic beauty and interesting lineup of articles, I wondered: what could a surfing magazine possibly have to offer me, a non-surfer? One day, two summers ago, I took the plunge, and plunked down my $13.95. I was instantly hooked.

I took that first issue with me on the abovementioned Jersey Shore vacation. I read my first TSJ cover-to-cover, morning to night, with coffee and beer, from the big porch of our weekly rental to the searing Wildwood sand. It was the perfect marriage of reading material and setting—like reading Moby Dick on Nantucket. I often wonder if I would have had the same initial impression of TSJ had I first bought the magazine in the dead of winter during a Brooklyn cold snap. Would I have been as smitten?

Regardless, it didn’t hurt that my inaugural issue (Vol. 19, Number 4) contained articles about the artist Sandow Birk, the photographer Dane Petersen, and the shaper and all-around surfing legend Peter McCabe. At that time, Birk was unveiling his latest project, a series of illuminated pages from the Muslim holy book called “American Qur’an.” What apparently prodded Birk, a non-Muslim, to become interested enough in the Koran to produce over 114 illustrated Suras, was his surfing travels through Muslim countries (Indonesia, for example, has some big surf spots).

Another Birk project featured in the article is a series of paintings and an animated film, where he transplants Dante’s Inferno to contemporary California.  Dante and Virgil wander around the 21st-Century Golden State, instead of the seven circles of hell. (Or is it the same thing?) TSJ ran the painting “Dante and Virgil Confront the Minotaur,” where the eponymous Minotaur is a takeout kiosk with a life-size bull mascot standing atop the shack.

I mention Birk here because of a line in the article where he  describes himself: “Birk defined himself as an artist who surfs rather than a surf artist.” While the distinction might seem semantic, there is actually a world of difference. It occurred to me that this comment could simultaneously describe a sort of TSJ ethos; that is, it feels more like an arts/culture/travel magazine with a surfing essence, rather than a surfing magazine that covers arts/culture/travel. I contacted Steve Pezman, the co-founder and publisher of TSJ, to ask a few questions and he seemed pleased with this description of his magazine. “I’m happy you see us that way, as that matches how we like to be perceived,” Pezman responded. “Surfing evokes a lot of emotion in those who do it, and the modes of expression that emotional energy fuels is an amazing thing. Art, film, writing, philosophy, craft, history, cosmic

Indeed, the look and feel of the magazine reflects this intended disposition. Self-described as half-book, half magazine, TSJ’s breathtaking design invite comparisons to art and culture magazines. Maybe it’s the square-bound, smythe-sewn binding (a process that adds durability), and the glossy pages and minimalist page design that draw the eye. Seeing it on the shelf, you just want to grab it, hold it, read it, and take it home.

*   *   *

The boy who lived through the Mavericks beat-down, Jay Moriarity, is the subject of Chasing Mavericks, the feature film directed by Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted, which opens this weekend. The movie depicts the lead-up to the now-iconic December 1994 wipeout, through the lens of Jay’s relationship with his mentor, a prickly older surfer named Frosty Hesson, played in the film by Gerard Butler. Mavericks is a surf break near Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, where Moriarity lived. The break produces so-called big waves a few times a year, when meteorological conditions are right.

I first read about Jay’s fabled wipeout in TSJ a few years ago, in their Vol. 20, No. 4 issue. The mere fact that I was reading an entire article about what was, in essence, a big mistake made in a sporting arena, caused me to put the magazine aside and ponder.  Here was a magazine—and a sport—that presented in awestruck, reverent tones, an entire mythology about a visually awesome and ultimately legendary fuck-up.

I thought of other infamous sporting mistakes, like Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s 1986 World Series disaster. So nasty was the reaction by Red Sox nation to Buckner’s series-changing error, that only  in the past few years has he felt comfortable returning to Fenway Park. Far worse was the fate of Colombian defender Andres Escobar, whose own-goal in a 1994 World Cup soccer match turned out to be the game winner for the upstart U.S. team. The aftermath of Escobar’s mistake is as horrific as it is senseless: shortly after returning to Colombia after the tournament, Escobar was gunned down outside a Medellin nightclub. A drug-cartel soldier was later charged with the murder. The popular theory is that his employers had lost a load of money gambling on the outcome of the game, as Colombia was heavily favored to beat the U.S. team.

Jay’s mistake? He was revered for merely surviving such a beat-down, and then for having the stones to get back on the board and paddle out again, within minutes of what everyone agrees was a near-death experience. The surfers interviewed about The Wipeout in the TSJ article titled “The Iron Cross”—and in two renowned surf documentaries High Noon at Low Tide and Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants—spoke of the iconic event in hushed tones of wonder.

At the time, Moriarity was only sixteen, a big-wave novice testing his mettle for the first time. He took off, paddled hard to catch a wave, and stood up. But before he could make the drop and catch the wave, offshore winds (winds that blow against the oncoming waves, in essence pushing them seaward) blew the lip back, and the face fell away from him. Jay describes it like this, from High Noon: “And then I looked down and I just see nothing underneath me. Just nothing. Thirty-five feet down to the bottom of the ocean.” Jeff Clark, often credited as the man who discovered Mavericks (and surfed it alone for fifteen years), said simply, “I think that’s the worst wipeout I’ve ever seen.”

When I asked Steve Pezman about the event, why it became so famous, he explained it like this: “His wipeout was published a lot as his position in the air and body language was rather unusual and had a lot of impact.” In other words, it was visually stunning; at one point his arms are splayed out like the proverbial Christ on the cross. Hence the “Iron Cross” title of the TSJ article. Photographers and videographers caught the wipeout as it happened. Bob Barbour snapped a photo that would catapult Moriarity to fame, after it landed as the cover of Surfer magazine the following week.

Evan Slater witnessed The Wipeout from the water, and came alongside Moriarity when he eventually surfaced. His description backs up Pezman’s reasoning, regarding the visceral, optical impact: “Has there been a worse wipeout than that since? Probably. More dramatic? No. For pure visuals that was about as good as it gets. They are going to have  a hard time purposefully recreating that in the Jay movie.” Sadly, Moriarity drowned in 2001, but not from surfing. He was free-diving, doing a breath-holding exercise in the calm waters of the Maldives.

Reading this Moriarity article in TSJ was like one of those strange plateaus you hit. While I was already hooked on the magazine, this article—the mere fact that it existed, that you could publish an entire four-page piece about a mistake—that brought me to the next level in my appreciation for the TSJ, and for a sport that I had heretofore known little about.

*   *   *

Pezman and his wife, Debbee, launched The Surfer’s Journal in 1992 with a specific visual and editorial esthetic in mind: they wanted to separate the commercial part of surfing from the pure part. Both partners had previously worked at Surfer magazine, and after they married, were not allowed to both be employed by the same, corporate-owned venture. So they quit Surfer. Like many a dreamer, Pezman believed “that a surf magazine should ideally be published from a beachfront house, rather than as part of a media conglomerate,” so they set up shop in a rented room in Capistrano Beach, a small beach town near San Clemente, California.

The TSJ distribution model is somewhat unique. One of the big hassles of any periodical endeavor is advertising and distribution. Pezman refers to these twin nuisances as a “tar pit.” When outlining the plan for TSJ, the Pezmans pictured “a rose bush, trimmed of the thorns and left the  flowers.” They decided on a so-called reader-supported model—similar to how public radio works—with no newsstand distribution. “We eventually tested and grew into book stores so that potential subscribers could discover us. We also distributed to surf shops who had generally stopped carrying surf mags because they were so widely available on the newsstand.”

One of the first things you notice about the layout of TSJ is that the few ads they run—most of them spanning across a spread—are all in the front of the book. After the initial ten or so pages, there are no more ads. So, the rest of the magazine—issues usually run around 130 pages—is filled almost entirely with editorial content. According to Pezman, TSJ has six sponsors per year, who re-up a year at a time, and a waiting list to boot. “We have promised ourselves we won’t carry more than the six. We could sure sell more.” The other interesting thing about the ads is that aren’t product based, “but support our ethic by running ads that have cultural content,” says Pezman.

So, the shots in the ads are all action, and can easily be mistaken for editorial content; a fact which usually annoys me when I read magazines, but here it works. For example, Patagonia, whose iconoclastic founder and CEO, Yvonne Chouinard, Pezman has high praise for: “His half-billion dollar corporate structure is almost totally organic and humanized. Yvon surfs his way through life more than anyone I know, either literally, or otherwise.” Patagonia took the inside back spread in the most recent issue of TSJ, with a triptych of beauty shots of five different surfers (from what I assume are five different locations) framed inside perfect overhead tubes. Other regular sponsors include Rainbow, Quiksilver, Rusty Surfboards, Billabong, and Hurley.

TSJ lets the bigger, commercially driven surf magazines fight it out for advertising dollars. “All the surf magazines covered pro surfing and the money part of the sport, and their edit was bent by the demands of their advertisers. We gave voice to the purist point of view, which ended up giving affirmation to the majority of surfers who ride waves strictly for pleasure.” Over 21 years of publishing, TSJ has never wavered from this philosophy. And strangely, perhaps incongruously, this purist credo is very thing that attracts me, a non-surfer, to the magazine. I don’t follow the competitive aspect of surfing, and doubt I will ever feel the urge. What I love so much about TSJ is this unsullied aesthetic of surfing, the myth and history of the sport sprung to life and writ large in its pages.

*   *   *

For me, it’s a no-brainer. What would I rather read about: Who won the latest Pipeline Masters competition, or about Peruvian surf legend Felipe Pomar’s claims to have surfed a tsunami? As unbelievable as that story sounds, after reading Pomar’s recollection of his experience of being sucked miles out to sea during the October 3, 1974 Lima-area earthquake, I accept his story. According to his tale, he and a buddy were surfing when the earthquake hit and the ensuing ocean movement of water sucked them out to sea. He eventually rode a wave back in—what he thinks was a tsunami—and landed virtually unscathed at a familiar beach miles from where he began. He attributes it all to lucky timing and being in a specific place at just the right time. On his ride back in, he saw boats thrown against cliffs and reduced to kindling, so he was under no illusions about how lucky he was.

It is these stories that make me admire this magazine: Pomar’s astonishing tsunami tale; the Jay Moriarity myth; trying to imagine Springsteen surfing between gigs; or peering into the mind of Lee Clow, the creative force who spawned such classic TV commercials as Apple’s “1984” or the original California Cooler spots. These are the reasons I’ve grown to love TSJ. Indeed, as I went through my back issues in researching this essay, I was like, Oh, yeah, I loved this story and that story, so many that I could only relate a few here.

I am just beginning to catch a glimpse—an accurate realistic peek—behind the curtain of a sport I knew nothing about a few years ago. That excitement of learning something fresh and unusual, about a sport that has its own rules, mythology, history, legends; a world unto itself. I can’t think of a better guide than The Surfer’s Journal.

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