Rene­gades of Punts

Surfer - - The Last Place - Words by TODD PRODANOVICH

Over 10 years after the orig­i­nal air-based com­pe­ti­tion se­ries faded away, the WSL is breath­ing new life into the con­cept with to­day’s most rad­i­cal aeri­al­ists. But will the out­come be any dif­fer­ent this time around?

On a Novem­ber day on the North Shore of Oahu in 1995, two bleary-eyed surfers walked into Storto’s Deli in Haleiwa look­ing to eat just about ev­ery­thing in sight. While this may be a com­mon, long­stand­ing post-surf rit­ual on the North Shore, the con­ver­sa­tion that tran­spired be­tween ec­cen­tric aeri­al­ist Shawn “Bar­ney” Bar­ron and Surf­ing mag­a­zine ed­i­tor Skip Snead, and its im­pli­ca­tions in the surf world, was any­thing but or­di­nary.

“I re­mem­ber us talk­ing about how there wasn’t a plat­form for what Bar­ney and all the Santa Cruz guys were do­ing,” re­calls Snead. “At the time, Bar­ney, Rat­boy [Ja­son Collins], Flea [Dar­ryl Virostko] and their friends were con­sis­tently do­ing these in­cred­i­ble airs—prob­a­bly the best in the world then. But airs were still re­ally frowned upon by judges in most tra­di­tional con­tests. Bar­ney and I thought, ‘What if we made a con­test just for the air guys?’”

At the time, aerial surf­ing was pro­gress­ing in quan­tum leaps and cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tions of surfers world­wide through surf films and mag­a­zine spreads, but it hadn’t been adopted by the World Tour surfers of the time and was still con­sid­ered a fringe sub­cul­ture. In fact, 5 years ear­lier, a group of World Tour surfers went so far as to pen a let­ter to SURFER com­plain­ing about the amount of cov­er­age aerial pi­o­neer and punk provo­ca­teur Chris­tian Fletcher had been get­ting in the mag­a­zine

“False im­ages are be­ing cre­ated out of sec­ond-rate surfers at the ex­pense of high-ranked pro­fes­sion­als,” said the let­ter, signed by Jeff Booth, Bar­ton Lynch, Damien Hard­man and a host of other top-tier pros, which ran in a 1990 is­sue of SURFER. “It’s quite un­fair to ded­i­cate your­self to the sport, train hard and travel around the world, only to pick up a mag­a­zine and see a guy who spent his sum­mer at Tres­tles on the cover and cen­ter­spread.”

Re­gard­less of what Booth and his peers thought of aerial surf­ing, it was clear that airs weren’t about to go qui­etly into the night. A new gen­er­a­tion of aerial spe­cial­ists was gain­ing no­to­ri­ety along the Santa Cruz coast, and their in­no­va­tive ap­proach in­creas­ingly colored the pages of surf mag­a­zines and the frames of surf films. At the same time, baby-faced Florid­ian and fu­ture GOAT Kelly Slater had just earned his third world ti­tle at the end of 1995, and while he didn’t win his ti­tles with airs, his flight pat­terns in “Kelly Slater in Black and White” and the early “Mo­men­tum” films helped le­git­imize airs to a wider surf­ing au­di­ence.

“The ASP [As­so­ci­a­tion of Surf­ing Pro­fes­sion­als, the pre­cur­sor to the World Surf League] at the time didn’t re­ward aerial surf­ing,” says Snead. “Part of the prob­lem was that there just weren’t that many guys com­pet­ing who were even ca­pa­ble of do­ing good airs con­sis­tently. Back then, you could re­ally count all of the le­git aeri­al­ists in the world on two hands. And I think those guys felt some­what dis­counted and marginal­ized. The best air surfers were still un­der­ground. They were an­ti­heroes.”

Fast for­ward just 4 months after their Storto’s meal and Bar­ron and Snead had as­sem­bled some of the world’s best pun­ters in Santa Cruz for the first-ever air-fo­cused surf con­test, ten­ta­tively ti­tled, “Surf­ing Mag­a­zine’s First An­nual Bat­tle of the Trick­sters,” (in their cov­er­age, they thank­fully ended up go­ing with the much more con­cise “Air Show”). The for­mat was sim­ple: two six-man, hour-long heats fed into a six-man, hour long fi­nal. A surfer would be scored on their two best airs, and noth­ing else would be counted. First place would walk away with $500 cash, and sec­ond place through sev­enth got a high-five.

While it was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept, the first Air­show went al­most en­tirely un­no­ticed, with no spec­ta­tors on the beach, save for a few of the com­peti­tors’ friends, and only a two-page ar­ti­cle in Surf­ing. It didn’t help that it was a mo­bile

event, with the judges and com­peti­tors only de­cid­ing on the venue over break­fast at West­side Cof­fee the morn­ing of the con­test, and there­fore un­able to tell would-be spec­ta­tors where to go in ad­vance. Nor did it help that com­peti­tors were surf­ing small, gut­less waves in the mid­dle of a rain­storm. Still, a judg­ing panel con­sist­ing of Snead, aerial orig­i­na­tor Kevin Reed, skate­boarder Keith Meeks and lo­cal power surfers Anthony Ruffo and Mark Tay­lor jot­ted scores from in­side their cars with wind­shield wipers go­ing full speed. Bar­ron took top marks for an al­ley-oop, while Tim Cur­ran and Joe Crimo snuck into sec­ond and third, re­spec­tively.

They were hum­ble begin­nings, but the con­cept of the Air­show still held prom­ise to both the surfers and the Surf­ing mag­a­zine crew, and they man­aged to con­tinue adding events and cre­ate a sort of fast-and-loose aerial tour in the years that fol­lowed. In Au­gust of 1996, Chris­tian Fletcher won the sec­ond Air­show at 54th Street in Newport Beach with a mas­sive frontside air, and the field of com­peti­tors had al­ready grown to in­clude icons like Matt Arch­bold as well as aerial up and com­ers like Ozzie Wright and Chris Ward. By 1997 it was known as the Surf­ing Mag­a­zine Air­show Se­ries (SMAS) with mul­ti­ple events and a world cham­pion crowned at the end of each year. Vans came in as a spon­sor of the SMAS in 1999, and Quik­sil­ver and Surf­ing Aus­tralia launched their own knock-off Air­show se­ries in Aus­tralia in 2000. Main­stream pros like Slater and Andy Irons oc­ca­sion­ally showed up to com­pete, but the Air­show move­ment was mostly dom­i­nated by a spe­cial­ized cadre of oth­er­wise-ob­scure pun­ters like Eric Mchenry, Dave Rear­don-smith and Randy “Goose” Welch.

“A lot of the main guys didn’t have big spon­sors early on, and they were more or less out­casts in the surf in­dus­try,” says Snead. “The Air­shows starred the bad boys of the sport, for sure. They were punk, maybe not in the way they dressed, but in the way they thought and the way they ap­proached surf­ing. There was no ‘three to the beach’ men­tal­ity. They were very cre­ative in the way they surfed, and they wanted to be rec­og­nized for that.”

There’s no doubt the Air­show events gave these surfers a plat­form to show­case their tal­ents in the air, and that for a mo­ment they achieved a kind of cult fol­low­ing in the surf world, but the Air­show move­ment wouldn’t last. Ac­cord­ing to for­mer Surf­ing mag­a­zine pub­lisher Bob Mignogna, the Air­show se­ries was “so ahead of the times that it was a dif­fi­cult sell to spon­sors,” and by the mid 2000s, spon­sor­ship dol­lars had dried up and the SMAS ground to a halt. Oth­ers would ar­gue that the main rea­son for the Air­show’s demise was the fact that airs had gone main­stream, with premiere pun­ters like Andy Irons and Taj Bur­row at the top of the World Tour rank­ings year after year. Iron­i­cally, the anti-es­tab­lish­ment air events may have caused the top pros and the World Tour judges to take airs more se­ri­ously and in­te­grate them into com­pe­ti­tion, even­tu­ally elim­i­nat­ing the need for Air­shows in the first place.

Per­haps it was fit­ting, then, that in 2005, two years be­fore he would qual­ify for the World Tour, Aus­tralian wild man Josh Kerr clinched the very last Quik­sil­ver Air­show Se­ries ti­tle. It marked the end of an era, both for Kerr and for Air­shows as a whole, while Kerr’s World Tour as­cent would mark the be­gin­ning of some­thing new. In short or­der, many of the best, most cre­ative aerial surfers in the world would be the same surfers vy­ing for world ti­tles. But Kerr felt that some­thing was still be­ing lost with the dis­ap­pear­ance of the Air­shows. Thoughts of “what could have been” stuck with him for the rest of his pro­fes­sional surf­ing ca­reer—and gave him a bold idea to pur­sue in the af­ter­math.

Any

other Wed­nes­day and this hole-in-the-wall Huntington Beach dive would be nearly va­cant, but on this par­tic­u­lar sum­mer night you could barely squeeze an arm be­tween the fa­mous surfers lin­ing the bar to grab a beer. The place was filled with mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of high fly­ers, from San Cle­mente icon and for­mer Air­show win­ner Nathan Fletcher to Brazil­ian World Tour up­start Yago Dora. At one point, Josh Kerr tried to quiet the crowd enough to make a toast, but it was more or less im­pos­si­ble to make out any­thing that was said over the din of the rowdy group.

Some­thing told me Kerr didn’t mind. He’d brought these peo­ple to­gether to cel­e­brate the re­cent an­nounce­ment that the WSL and Red Bull had part­nered to bring the Air­show con­cept back to life, and con­sid­er­ing the fact that the orig­i­nal Air­shows had a very hard-par­ty­ing rep­u­ta­tion, shout­ing over a hun­dred drunken surfers in a dive bar must have felt like an ap­pro­pri­ate way to ring in the new era.

In the mid 90s, Kerr dis­cov­ered the Air­shows through surf videos and mag­a­zines that made their way from Amer­ica into surf shops near his home in Tweed Heads, Aus­tralia. Like many fans of the orig­i­nal Air­show events, Kerr was drawn to the raw cre­ativ­ity, wild char­ac­ters and anti-es­tab­lish­ment ethos.

“I was prob­a­bly only 12 or 13 when I got ex­posed to that stuff,” Kerr told me over a pint at the bar, “and I just in­stantly thought to my­self, ‘This is what I’m go­ing to do. This is the route I want to take.” There were other guys from my home­town, like Mick [Fan­ning] and Joel [Parkin­son], who al­ways wanted to go for the World Tour, but that was hon­estly never some­thing I thought about as a kid. For me, it was all about airs, and the Air­shows seemed like the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue that.”

Just a few years later, when the Quik­sil­ver Air­shows got un­der­way in Aus­tralia, Kerr would get his first taste of aerial com­pe­ti­tion, and it was im­me­di­ately clear he was a man apart with an in­cred­i­ble tal­ent for fly­ing high and a knack for think­ing out­side the box when ap­proach­ing sec­tions. At just 17 years old, Kerr won an Air­show World Cham­pi­onship and ce­mented him­self as one of the best up-and­com­ing aeri­al­ists in the world.

“I had a pretty rad­i­cal run dur­ing the Air­show days, from when I was 17 till I was about 20 years old,” says Kerr. “I won a lot of events and got to travel and hang out and party with all of my idols, and that was in­sane for me. But the Air­shows were al­ways a side tour and the money wasn’t good by any means. It def­i­nitely wasn’t a ca­reer path, but more of a way to make a name for your­self and hang out with rad peo­ple and pur­sue a real pro­gres­sion of the sport.”

Over time, how­ever, Kerr and oth­ers in­volved in the aerial com­mu­nity started to have doubts about the events. Ac­cord­ing to Kerr, the Air­show for­mat seemed to al­low for tal­ented aeri­al­ists to get through heats with con­sis­tent, con­ser­va­tive punts rather than the kind of rad­i­cal, Hail Mary hucks that truly ad­vanced the move­ment. Kerr was also start­ing to feel like a big fish in a small pond. He’d proven him­self time and time again in the Air­shows, and the me­dia had pi­geon­holed him as an “air guy,” or some­one who had mas­tered the art of the punt but didn’t have chops be­yond that. As the Air­shows were be­gin­ning to wind down,

Kerr’s com­pet­i­tive am­bi­tions were fir­ing up, and after bat­tling to qual­ify through the ‘QS and a few on-again-off-again years on Tour, Kerr fi­nally planted his flag in the top 10 in 2011, where he would stay for years as not only the Tour’s most con­sis­tent aeri­al­ist, but one of its hard­est charg­ers as well.

In 2017, dur­ing the Por­tu­gal event in the back half of the sea­son, Kerr an­nounced that it would be his last year as a World Tour surfer. In an In­sta­gram post thank­ing his fam­ily and friends for their sup­port fol­low­ing the event, Kerr in­cluded #bring­back­theair­shows, which raised more than a few eye­brows. As it turns out, Kerr had been busy.

Kerr had been think­ing about start­ing a cam­paign to bring Air­shows back into the fold for the last 5 years, but it was only in the last 2 years, as he pre­pared for his own exit from com­pe­ti­tion, that he started se­ri­ously lob­by­ing the WSL. His case was sim­ple: “On Tour, you see a lot of amaz­ing aeri­al­ists scale back their surf­ing to be more con­sis­tent and win heats. I think we should be do­ing more to push pro­gres­sion, and I think surf­ing needs that. I’ve al­ways loved ac­tion sports, whether it’s skate­board­ing or freestyle mo­tocross or any­thing where they re­ally fo­cus on con­stantly push­ing pro­gres­sion. We should be push­ing our­selves to the next level, and I think fans will en­joy see­ing that live and hav­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In Kerr’s mind, the tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter for a re­vival of the rad­i­cal prin­ci­ples that guided the very first Air­shows. Out­side of the con­fines of World Tour heats, top com­peti­tors like World Cham­pion John Florence have pushed the bound­aries of what was once con­sid­ered pos­si­ble, like in Florence’s edit “Space” ear­lier this year, in which he lands mul­ti­ple back­flips seem­ingly with ease. On the other side of the pro surf­ing aisle, freesurfers like Al­bee Layer have spent the past few years try­ing to un­lock never-be­fore-stuck punts like 540 al­ley-oops and back­side 720s (Layer re­mains the only surfer to have landed ei­ther).

Kerr knew that if a re­vived Air­show was go­ing to le­git­i­mately push the pro­gres­sion and im­pact surf­ing in a mean­ing­ful way, a few things needed to hap­pen. First, he’d need to con­vince the top com­peti­tors that risk­ing their limbs (and there­fore World Tour stand­ing) to land a strato­spheric air was worth their while. Sec­ond, he’d need to get the typ­i­cally non-com­pet­i­tive class of to­day’s most rad­i­cal freesurfers to put on a jer­sey and per­form for a crowd. Fi­nally, for the new Air­shows to not be­come an over­looked “side tour,” Kerr would need to re-launch the con­cept through the WSL, giv­ing air-based com­pe­ti­tion its big­gest-ever plat­form.

A few weeks after Kerr’s cel­e­bra­tion in Huntington, the WSL would an­nounce the full list of in­vi­tees, which in­cluded both top-tier com­peti­tors like Italo Fer­reira and Jordy Smith as well as wilder freesurf­ing char­ac­ters like Al­bee Layer and Chippa Wil­son, who prob­a­bly would have fit in just fine com­pet­ing against the orig­i­nal Air­show gang. All the pieces were in place for Kerr’s grand Air­show re­vival. All he needed now was for some­one to do some­thing huge.

For the av­er­age surf fan, it can be hard to look at a given lineup and ac­cu­rately as­sess its punt­ing po­ten­tial for the world’s fore­most fly­ers. The right an­gle of wind can keep the board to your feet for cer­tain ma­neu­vers, and blow it away from you on oth­ers. A good day for frontside al­ley-oops might be an aw­ful oc­ca­sion for back­side air re­verses, and so on. So most spec­ta­tors prob­a­bly had no idea what to ex­pect back in Oc­to­ber when the WSL’S Red Bull Air­borne com­peti­tors pad­dled into shifty, slightly windy, mostly soft-look­ing French sand­bars for the pre­lim­i­nary round.

The for­mat, with six-man pre­lim­i­nary heats feed­ing into a six-man fi­nal and each surfer be­ing scored on their top two airs, was rem­i­nis­cent of the old Air­shows, but some things had clearly changed. Kerr’s new for­mat re­wards high-risk ma­neu­vers by dou­bling a surfer’s top air score, mean­ing that even if you don’t land any­thing for half the heat, if you throw an oth­er­worldly in­ver­sion at the last sec­ond, you could jump straight to the top. Also, the level of tal­ent has in­creased so much that it al­most de­fies com­par­i­son to the Air­shows of yore. Frontside and back­side grabs, liens and slobs and stale­fish, al­ley-oops and var­i­als and var­i­ous de­grees of corked out ro­ta­tions—there was no short­age of com­pelling ac­tion in the wa­ter and the WSL tal­lied 58 com­pleted airs by the end of the event.

A few weeks be­fore the air­show, I’d talked to Layer about the odds of some­one ac­tu­ally do­ing some­thing on par with a top-shelf freesurf­ing edit. In those hi-fi reels, the best surfers in the world might spend months work­ing on a part, only to have a few min­utes of wor­thy ma­neu­vers to show for it. I won­dered how those same surfers could pos­si­bly do any­thing at that level in the few hours that make up the new Air­borne event.

“It all comes down to the waves and the num­ber of guys surf­ing at a time,” says Layer. “Sure, it might take one of us a while to film a full edit, but that’s usu­ally be­cause we’re chas­ing good waves. If the waves are good and there are six guys in the wa­ter for a heat, some­body is go­ing to do some­thing crazy. Plus that whole dy­namic of bat­tling it out be­tween each other, I think that kick-starts pro­gres­sion more than any­thing.”

There were mo­ments of bril­liance, to be sure, from Grif­fin Co­lap­into’s high-scor­ing corked-out re­verse to even­tual win­ner Yago Dora’s in­cred­i­bly stylish full ro­ta­tions over the French peaks. But there was no sin­gle ma­neu­ver that you could ar­gue was bet­ter than any­thing al­ready done in World Tour com­pe­ti­tion, or that held a can­dle to a Florence back­flip or a Layer dou­ble-oop. Ac­cord­ing to Kerr, how­ever, that will come in due time. Kerr has said that the France event was just a step­ping-stone and that there will be more air-based events in the com­ing year. His goal is for the new in­car­na­tion of aerial events to even­tu­ally be a tour of its own, com­pletely sep­a­rate from the World Tour, but of per­haps equal im­por­tance. Layer, for one, is a true be­liever.

“If you look at most ac­tion sports like snow­board­ing or mo­tocross, they started as races with freestyle as a sideshow, but, even­tu­ally, freestyle al­ways gets big­ger and be­comes the apex of the sport,” ex­plains Layer. “It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent be­cause surf­ing didn’t start out as a race, but I think the same kind of evo­lu­tion could hap­pen with the Air­shows. This is our freestyle event, and if we nail the for­mat and make it as good as it can be, it’s go­ing to be more fun to watch. I think it’s go­ing to be as big as the nor­mal Tour pretty quickly. There will be some grow­ing pains, for sure, be­cause it’s a brand new thing, and they need to fig­ure out the best venues, the for­mat and the judg­ing, but I think it has tons of po­ten­tial.”

It’s too early to tell if the new it­er­a­tion of the Air­shows will be able to build a ded­i­cated au­di­ence, main­tain long-term spon­sors and push pro­gres­sion in the ways that Kerr and Layer fore­see. After all, the old Air­shows also had lofty am­bi­tions as well, and although they man­aged to pro­vide a plat­form for bud­ding aeri­al­ists and grow a cult fol­low­ing, in­evitably that wasn’t enough to sus­tain it.

But, in a way, Kerr’s ap­proach to re­viv­ing the Air­show con­cept makes a per­fect kind of sense. Much like any good punt, Kerr and the WSL are ap­proach­ing the Air­shows with speed, com­mit­ment and plenty of cre­ativ­ity. Now fans of aerial surf­ing can only hope they stick the land­ing.

Photo by PETER TARAS

(From left to right) Orig­i­nal Air­show com­peti­tors Micah Pitts, Gavin Beschen, Joe Crimo, Justin Mat­te­son, Josh Sleigh, Dave Post, Ja­son “Rat­boy” Collins, Homer He­nard, Josh Mul­coy, Dar­ryl “Flea” Virostko and Zach Keenan in Santa Cruz.

Photo by JEFF FLINDT Photo by PETER TARAS Photo by PETER TARAS

(Clock­wise from right)Chris­tian Fletcher, the pro­gen­i­tor of punts, do­ing his thing in the early Air­show days.A very ex­cited Ben Bour­geois, post Air­show win in In­done­sia.Air­show reg­u­lar Gavin Beschen, with equal parts style and pro­gres­sion at Salt Creek.Randy “Goose” Welch, newly-rich and rock­ing out in Santa Cruz.(Left to right) SMAS com­peti­tors Micah Pitts, Ben Brough, Matt Rock­hold, Kasey Cur­tis, Mike Mor­ris­sey and Ja­son “Rat­boy” Collins.

(Right) Be­fore Josh Kerr was a WSL stand­out, he lived and breathed the Air­show events where he reg­u­larly punted his way onto the podium. Photo by JEFF FLINDT

(Left) Red Bull Air­borne in­vi­tee Chippa Wil­son, re­garded by many as the most tech­ni­cally-skilled aeri­al­ist in the world to­day, opt­ing for some­thing sim­ply lofty in Indo. Photo by RESPONDEK

(Above) Aerial pi­o­neer and Air­show com­peti­tor Matt Arch­bold, talk­ing shop with Wil­son after an aerial ex­po­si­tion at Surf Ranch. Photo by GRANT EL­LIS

Air­borne win­ner and World Tour com­peti­tor Yago Dora is the em­bod­i­ment of aerial prow­ess merg­ing with surf­ing’s com­pet­i­tive main­stream in the new era. Photo by RYAN MILLER

One of Maui’s most in­ven­tive surfers, Matt Me­ola was an in­vi­tee to the Air­borne event in France and is sure to be at the cut­ting edge of aerial pro­gres­sion for years to come. Photo by DAYANINDHI DAS

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