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America’s top male pro surfer, Conner Coffin, center, looks to the future. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Checking state of pro surfing in general, the Brazilians in particular

Walking into Trestles on Sept. 17 of this year was nothing like the journeys I made there in the mid-1960s.

Some of the changes are common to all of society — the omnipresence of cellphones (which would have looked like something from “Star Trek” half a century ago), the use of motorized bicycles, non-military personnel proudly displaying sleeves of tattoos.

As for the surf scene itself, there are more people, a lot more people. Surfboards are a fraction of the length and weight of the past, and the moves that can be pulled on them would have been unimaginable to even the best surfers of my generation.

Attacking Trestles back in the day was always an adventure. The prize was perfect and usually empty surf. The challenge was getting past the armed guards, the Marines who chased us and confiscated our surfboards if we were caught. That only happened to me once. Then, my dad had to drive me onto the base to retrieve my board.

With all of the changes, Trestles still has its magic, especially on a day like this, when a clean, glassy, 6-foot swell is on the rise.

This is the first time I have ever walked into Trestles without a surfboard. I am glad for that, since the water is littered with kids my grandchildren’s age who blast aerials as comfortably as I cross the street. The pros, on the other hand, look like, to use a previous comparison, something out of “Star Trek.”

Unlike a few years ago, Brazilians now dominate surfing’s professional ranks. Female Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira holds the record for the biggest wave ever surfed, while Brazilian male surfers Gabriel Medina, Italo Ferreira and Filipe Toledo hold down the top three spots on the pro tour.

Next up, in fourth place, is California’s greatest hope, Conner Coffin. Down the list of Americans are former world champions, the injury prone, Hawaiian-raised John John Florence (11th) and 11-time world champ, the forever-young Kelly Slater (18th).

The air show is a Brazilian specialty with a variety of big blasts commonly sending board and rider many feet above the wave.

Coffin ended his world title charge through a close loss to Ferreira, which set up the final for Medina and Toledo to wage war in perfect Trestles. In the end, Medina’s high-wire act could not be stopped and he won the event along with his third world title. For the many Brazilians on hand, it was time to do what they do best, celebrate. 

As I exited Trestles, I realized that something else has changed over the years: The top surfer in the world, Gabriel Medina, has an estimated net worth of $23 million, all earned from riding waves. That’s a big difference to my crew from the ’60s, who hoped to scrape together enough money for a tank of 25 cents-a-gallon gas with enough left over for a quart of milk, a can of pork ’n’ beans and a loaf of Wonder Bread. We didn’t know we were poor and we felt we had it made.

Now, to Gabriel and every other pro surfer out there—the show you put on was worth every cent.

Congratulations to the California Surf Museum on its official 30th birthday. To learn about CSM’s history and exhibits, visit surfmuseum.org.

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