The Coast News Group
One of my favorite mid-length board riders of all time, the ever-stylish Devon Howard. Photo by Mark Keller

Thoughts on surfing style

The topic of surfing style may seem simple, but I find it exceptionally difficult to understand. For one thing, what is good style in surfing? Oddly, I used to think I knew the answer to that. That was in the early 1960s when Phil Edwards (in California) and Paul Strauch (in Hawaii) were synonymous with being smooth.

In the mid/late ’60s I would have simply answered the style question with a single name, Billy Hamilton. Perfect posture, right down to the fingers held together until the hands resembled knifes that seemed to be in command of a surfboard cutting through the water like warm butter.

From what I saw, no excessive moves were ever done by Hamilton. He never seemed to make a bad move while accomplishing some very good ones. The cutback was his thing as evidenced by his sweeping boards ranging from 10 feet in the mid ’60s to far deeper slices accomplished half a decade later on a 7’6”.

Gerry Lopez picked up the torch and rode through the ’70s, seemingly without breaking form. As Pipeline bore its vicious teeth, Lopez appeared as unrattled as a man in a warm shower.

Minimalism reigned until the Aussie invasion of the mid ’70s when terms like “Rip, Tear, Lacerate” became buzzwords. At the time, I considered Australian surfing crude and unfinished, like a gymnast who performs well on the balance beam without sticking the landing.

The Longboard Renaissance that began in the mid-’80s made the point when longboard surfing was divided into two camps: progressives, who were maneuver oriented and rode lighter surfboards, and traditionalists, who were all about riding boards made with little variation from the ’60s. I came down on the side of the traditionalists, which seems to have prevailed because of its timeless beauty.

To me it was all settled. Case adjourned. Then, I began watching surfers I had never considered stylish at all. One was Australian. The other Hawaiian born.

I know that the following paragraph defies conventional thought on the subject, but the Australian in question is Terry Fitzgerald, the Sultan of Speed. Fitz, as he is alternately known, never saw a section on a wave he didn’t want to attack. As such, his moves seemed rather abrupt to me in my early years.

Then, after a recent viewing of Australian Alby Falzon’s masterpiece “Morning of the Earth,” I realized that Fitz was not posing to look good, but seemed to be taking Bruce Lee’s advice, “Be water, my friend.” Fitz moved fluidly on a wave in a way few ever have, making him one of my favorite surfing stylists of all time.

The Hawaiian on my list is Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani. Known internationally by his nickname, “Buttons,” from his childhood, he redefined what was possible to accomplish on a wave. His surfing was among the most radical of his time while in sync with the ever-stylish, always moving mounds of water that we call waves.

There are all sorts of styles to wave riding, and my favorites are timeless and represent the surfer’s personality. Learned styles are like other learned behaviors. Take a look at photos of yourself over the years. I can nearly guarantee that the ones you feel best about are those where you were not wearing the latest fashion or posing for the camera.

Being cool like water and hot like fire seems like a good way to go on everything from a surfboard to a sidewalk.

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