Renegades of Punts
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.
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.
(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.
(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