Cultural movements are slippery things. It can be hard to pin down the exact moment when a belief held by a handful of eccentrics makes its way into the current of mainstream thought. What may feel like an overnight change is more often a culmination of years of conversations, individual acts and public events that add up to a larger transformation. Sometimes a movement goes from fringe to mainstream so gradually that it’s only after a moment of reflecting on the past that you realize you’ve entered the future.
I had one such realization at Blacks Beach in San Diego, California during a recent run of hollow, headhigh surf. Paddling out after catching a nice, long South Peak peeler, I watched as a teenage ripper got to his feet on a twin-keel fish, arched his back through a speedy high-line and then banked a gorgeous, fullwrap grab-rail cutback. On the very next wave, a man in his 20s stood up on a resin-tinted, roughly 7-foot egg with a pulled-in tail, drew a lengthy bottom turn and shuffled toward the front third of the board, tickling the roof of a thin-lipped tube while locked in trim.
San Diego lineups have always featured a subset of alternative surfcraft, but typically fish, eggs, midlengths, bonzers and other deviations from the “standard” shortboard were reserved for off days when the swell, tide or wind didn’t lend themselves to high-performance surfing. But what I saw that day at Blacks, and what I’ve seen elsewhere in California and beyond, are high-caliber surfers riding left-field designs in the kind of quality conditions that were reserved for normal thrusters just a few years ago.
But what the hell does “normal” mean in surfing, anyway? Is there such a thing as a “normal” wave? Have you ever described your favorite surfer’s approach to a section as “normal?” Of course not. Every single wave produced in the ocean is unique, and every single surfer draws their own individual lines. The only thing that we’ve ever used as a control in this grand aquatic experiment is the standard shortboard, and that seems to have outlived its namesake in 2018. When you take that concept out of the equation, what’s left is a sea of individuals riding whatever suits their fancy, in whatever conditions they see fit— and it’s thoroughly awesome.
This issue is about the unraveling of convention and the surfers gleefully tugging at the thread. I traveled to Northern California to connect with filmmaker, artist and culture-shaker Thomas Campbell, who raised a freak flag in surfing in the late ‘90s and 2000s with his eclectic films “The Seedling,” “Sprout” and “The Present,” and his new project may be his most ambitious yet (“Return to Freeform,” pg. 34). SURFER photo editor Grant Ellis sailed through Indonesia with the cast of Campbell’s new film, capturing images of the best experimental surfers in the world in surfing’s ultimate natural laboratory, and managing editor Ashtyn Douglas got insights into their unique approaches to shaping and wave riding (“Adrift with the Vanguard,” pg. 42). Surfboards are at the center of this cultural movement, which is why features editor Justin Housman spoke with the world’s biggest board manufacturers, as well as the most specialized handshapers to find out what the new world order looks like in shaping bays around the globe and on the racks of our favorite surf shops (“Redefining Normal,” pg. 76).
Sitting at a café in Santa Cruz with Thomas Campbell, whose films heavily influenced this cultural transformation, I asked him what this moment in time means for everyday surfers. “I think people are probably having exponentially more fun now, accessing new sensations through trying out all these different boards,” he said. “So I’d say that it’s completely positive. I mean, do you want people to enjoy themselves or do you not want people to enjoy themselves? It’s that simple.”
So there you have it. Forget normal. Try a fish, an egg, a mid-length, a bonzer or an asymmetrical. Or pick up a planer yourself and try to make whatever weird little craft you’ve got bouncing around in your head. Because in surfing’s modern era, if it floats, it can’t be wrong.