Written By: Elle Vincioni
Surfing is a passion for many students at Newport Harbor High School. With new technologies and commercialization, surfing has evolved into more than just a sport but an industry that takes in an incredible amount of profit, especially from young beach-goers and surfers. Whether you are an avid surfer or simply enjoy wearing the stereotypical surf clothing, it is important that members of the surfing community, of any age, take time to understand its ever-evolving progression and what the next generation of surfers and surf-lovers can contribute to bettering the surfing community and keeping the integrity of the sport itself. A number of experienced and exemplary surfers took the time to speak about their piece of surfing’s history, reminisce about their surf experiences, and discuss the changes they wish to see within the Newport surfing community and the World Surfing League.
Mr. Todd Kolber teaches mathematics and physical education at Newport Harbor High School. From the East Coast, he has been surfing since he was 13 years old, now 56. As a lifelong water and ocean lover, he enjoys the simplicity of being in the ocean and the freedom it provides. His favorite surf spot is G-Land, Indonesia, although he does love a good surf in the upper Jetties of Newport Beach. He misses the lack of crowds of his young surfing days and a truer identity of the surf culture. “I miss free parking. You could just pull up your car to the beach and not have to pay and deal with the crowds and commercialism.” When asked about his opinion of today’s local and world surf culture, he quickly replied, “It’s way too commercialized, way too mainstream.”
Following the WSL Tour, Kolber is plenty aware of the modern technologies of wave tanks and hydroplaning or hydrofoiling, a small mechanical surfboard that rises and is pumped above the water, even when the surf is flat. He categories wave tanks as a “novelty,” explaining that he would not like to see competitions in them every year of the WSL Tour. When asked about hydrofoiling, he said, “I think it’s kind-of interesting. It’s unique. I don’t like to see them in the lineup. I don’t think it’s safe for beginners to be in the lineup up surfing in them, but there’s a place for everything. It looks like it’s kind-of a fun evolution of the surfboard.”
Mr. Matthew Burns teaches biology and coaches the surf team at Newport Harbor High School. Discovering his love for surfing at a young age, Burns is a firm believer in taking care of the environment, especially the beach one surfs at, and advocates avoiding the current trend of animosity between surfers. Nowadays, some of the commoradary of surfing has been turned into a local passive aggression toward surfers from different areas. In addition, there is also an increasing lack of respect for experienced surfers, especially in the water. “There is a hierarchy to respecting your elders and the people that have been there before you, which a lot of people don’t understand either,” Burns explained.
He believes that surfing has come a long way, though, explaining that Blackies Beach (Newport Beach) was previously known as a “burn-out beach,” where punks would smoke their cigarettes and surf. He, like many others, is glad to see this stereotype fading away.
Burns remembers driving down to Mexico every weekend with his buddy to go surfing. Or the best wave of his life in Colorados, Nicargua, about a 15 foot wave, riding a log, out in the water with two of his buddies when he was a late teenager. Or the time he rode one last beautiful barrel on the morning of the last day of a trip with the Newport Harbor Surf Team in Colorados. When asked what he loves most about the sport, Coach Burns enthusiastically replied, “It’s something you can do your whole life. That’s what I love about it. Until you’re old and gray and can’t stand anymore, you can do it.” Surfing allows him time to be free of his life worries and enjoy the ocean atmosphere.
Concerning new methods of surfing and surf-performance training, Burns admits the skill-training advantages of surfing in wave tanks and hydrofoiling, but still enjoys natural surfing and believes that the ability to disertaine waves and work for a wave in paddling separates skilled and unskilled surfers.
“Be an ambassador to the sport. Help other people and just be cognisant of the world around you and how you affect the water. That’s another big thing that I’m pushing here as a coach and a teacher is trying to get rid of plastic bottles and stuff that ends up in the ocean,” Burns says.
T.K. Brimer, lifelong soul surfer and owner of the Newport famous traditional surf shop, “The Frog House,” has witnessed the development of the surfing community since he bought his first surfboard in 1961- a 9’6” single-fin, pop-out longboard, shaped from a mold, in Titusville, Florida. “I was sitting in my front yard one day, and a guy named Richard Alexander came driving down the street with a surfboard sticking out of the back of his car, and it just kinda shook me. I went, ‘Oh my gosh. We live here at the beach, but nobody surfs. We could surf.’ I had picked up a surfer magazine out of the drug store and had been looking at that a little bit just going, ‘Dude, we could be surfers.” After waiting four months for his first board to come in at the surf shop, Brimer was the third guy in his town to get a surfboard. His board was shaped in the West Coast, whereas the other two surfers rode poorly shaped Kahuna boards. He explained, “I was a better surfer than they were within a couple of months. Suddenly, I was the best surfer in town. Whoopee! The town had three surfers, and I was the best.”
“My mom and dad made arrangements for me to stay in Titusville, Florida to graduate with all my friends, and I went, ‘I’m a surfer. I’m not staying in Titusville, Florida. I’m moving to Surf City Huntington Beach.” Brimer moved to Huntington Beach, still in high school, when another surfer named Charles Ray, a team rider for Froghouse, introduced him to the original owner, Frank Jensen. After a few weeks of demonstrating his sales and business skills, young Brimer was offered a job on Saturdays and has been working at The Froghouse ever since 1967.
Despite growing up on a longboard, Brimer finds a greater liking for shortboarding, although he questions if he can continue to shortboard until he reaches 80. “I love riding the way a longboard catches waves and all that, but I love the way a shortboard rides a wave, when I finally get the wave, stand up, and go, my feet in the right spot. I like the maneuverability of the shortboard, so I’m trying to battle to stay on the shortboard, and it’s a tough battle. You’ve got to catch a wave before you can ride it, and as you get older, it’s tougher to catch a wave. You’re just not as strong.” Surprisingly, Brimer does not have a favorite surfboard, he explained,“Every surfboard I get and keep I like better than the one before, so maybe you might think that my all time favorite surfboard might be the one that I surf today, a 6’9” Fred Rubble made by Channel Islands Surfboards, tri-fin. Kind-of a thick ole’, you know, old guy surfboard.”
Brimer says it all when it comes to the comparison between surf culture now and surf culture in the sixties. “I cry when I think of surf culture today compared to what it was 40 years ago, 50 years ago. It used to be so much more personal and so much more comradery.” When he first began surfing in Florida, it was all high-fives, handshakes, and introducing one another. If he saw another car with a surf rack driving down the coast, he would stop to look out at the beach for other surfers, and if there was any, he would paddle right out with them, thrilled to see other surfers. Today, surfing has become so much more private and surfers more unkind.
Surfboard shops were also hang-out spots, where surfers would drink beers, swap surf adventure stories, and share information about surfing. Today’s surfers know little about weather and swells, with social media and the availability of surf forecast apps such as Surfline. To know what waves break well on a certain swell or how the direction of the wind affects the surf, Brimer says that there were two ways in which surfers learned: exploration and word of mouth. “You would stand there around the surf shop and learn, and maybe one of the guys that was older and smarter would take you in their car on a surf trip somewhere, and you would learn their little surf spots that you’d never heard of before in your whole life. So, there was a lot more adventure to the surfing. It wasn’t just riding the waves. It was also the knowledge of the weather and the swell direction.”
Brimer finds that surf shops have overall lost their original purpose. “The board you made had a lot to do with the reputation of your shop. Nowadays, it’s mass merchandise surfboards.” Another change that bothers Brimer is the switch from hard goods to clothing in surf shops. “If you wanted to buy a swimsuit, you would have to go to another store that sells swimsuits,” he explained. Early swimsuit manufacturers taught surf shops that there was more money to be made in selling hard goods. “Newport Surf and Sport” was the first of this kind of store. “They did 80 percent clothing and 20 percent hard goods- hard goods being wetsuits, surfboards, leashes, tail pads- and they made a lot of money. It was good money. Suddenly the words out. There’s more money to be made in clothing than there are surfboards.” Thus began the trend of Surf and Sports and other big-box retailers. “Everything’s clothing. Well my store, The Froghouse, is not clothing. I never grew up wanting to work at a clothing store; I wanted to work at a surf shop. Now, the other flip side of that percentage, we’re about 20 percent clothing and 80 percent surfing hard goods. By the way, the markup in the profit of hard goods is not as good as clothing, you know, nowhere near as good, but it’s a labor of love and care for the sport.”
Brimer does not follow the WSL tour very much and is not particularly fond of it either. “The WSL- I call it the ‘World Sissy League,” explaining how one of the first WSL contests in Australia was cancelled because of a shark-sighting. “Surfers know there’s sharks out there. Surf with the sharks. They knock on wood. In my 52 years working at The Froghouse, I’ve never known a surfer to get bit by a shark. Never. They just get bit because the shark is stupid. They’re not looking for surfers to bite. It’s murky, ugly water and they bump into something, and go, ‘Oh I’ll bite it.”
He believes that the surfing tour has turned for the worst, diving into commercialization, with brands like Quicksilver making a profit of over one billion dollars in a year, able to spend a few million dollars in sponsorships. “First off, it’s (The WSL) owned by a non-surfer. It’s a billionaire guy out of Miami. Somewhere near Miami. Tell me if I’m wrong, why is a non-surfer owning the surf world? He’s been trying to promote it big. I’m not a big WSL fan. I don’t like it at all. It seems like it’s kind-of marginalized the competition.” He claims that surfers are being taken advantage of in the industry, employed to keep the brands coherent to the surfing world. “Sell out your sport to us so we can make as much money because we’re big money business guys,” as surfing brands are owned by businessmen, not surfers. “I don’t care about a surf industry. I care about a surf sport.”
Brimer also mentioned the new effort for women’s equal pay in the WSL. Here is his idea to solve this controversy: “There should not be a women’s division and a men’s division. Let’s just have a division! Let’s see how much money the women will win. Cool! Come in and win some money. So, boy, that’s controversial. It would be fun to see.” Although he loves a Kelly Slater, John-John Florence, or Stephanie Gilmore, all very skilled surfers, he was never much for competitions. “I learned to surf in the sixties, and the sixties were hippie time, right? 1967’s the summer of love. Why do you have to be better than your brother? Let’s just both share the waves. It’s about joy and love and caring for each other, and ‘I hope that you’re better at it than I am because good for you, and my heart goes out to you.”
Kelly Slater’s popularization of wave tanks has also created a controversy of holding competitions in artificial waves. Brimer finds these man-made waves actually quite boring. “It’s the same exact wave every wave and the moves are the same. You sit and wait five minutes for the next wave to come and then the machine breaks down and you wait for forty minutes while they fix the machine.” He believes that wave tanks are actually taking away from the competition and culture, turning the competition into who can impress the judges the most, but surfing is more than simply riding a wave. “In a real competition, people are dicing for a position and playing games with each other. ‘I sucked him into taking that wave and now I’ve got priority for the next one.’ You’re going to have the kid, the state champion of Kansas, who is not going to be able to catch a wave in California, and might even drown, because he’s never seen a riptide in his life. I could see the WSL being owners of the wave pools, trying to manipulate the sport into having competitions in them.”
Concerning another modern surfing technology, hydrofoiling, Brimer has much more against SUP’s, or Stand-Up Paddleboarders, than he does hydrofoilers. He views SUP’s as those who could never learn to surf, constantly out-maneuvered by surfers, thus deciding to ride an enormously long board, with a paddle. “He doesn’t need to learn how to pop-up, and he can come out and dominate those guys who never let him catch waves when he was kook. By the way, he’s still a kook. You can put that in.” Although he does know some respectable SUP’s who take turns, he does not think they belong in the line-up, unlike hydrofoilers. “SUP’s are for people that can’t surf, but if you can’t surf very well, you can’t hydroplane. Kooks can’t hydroplane. Intermediate surfers cannot hydroplane. Hydroplaning is tough, dude. The only guys on hydroplanes at this point are those guys who surfed really good ahead of time, and they understand that they shouldn’t be dominating the lineup and taking every wave. They also understand that their boards are dangerous to themselves and others. Those things flip, and they cause injuries.” Brimer has surfed with hydrofoilers in the lineup himself. “These guys were going, ‘Hey, it’s yours,’ giving away waves, but still getting all the waves they needed in the whole world. They were really kind and really considerate to others, and they are skilled. These guys are kind-of staying in their little own areas. They don’t need the best waves. They can ride anything. They don’t need a wave at all. They can pump and ride anything, flat water, but anyway, hydroplanes- they don’t bother me, yet.”
Brimer’s favorite local surf sport is the Santa Ana River Jetty, primarily because of its close proximity to The Froghouse. “When I get done from there, I walk back here (The Froghouse) to a hot water shower in the backyard, I change out of my clothes in a towel, get dried, and I’m back to work again. I don’t have to drive and don’t have to park. I just walk from work. I’ve surfed over there so many years that I know the area, and I know lots of people in the water. I generally, at this advanced age, get more waves than I deserve. People out there, often times, will just give me waves because they’re going, ‘Oh, an old man. He’s been here a long time,’ and give me some respect, whether I deserve it or not. Then, there’s some of them that give them because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their discount at the shop. ‘He always gives me a discount, but if I take off in front of him, he’ll probably stop,” he jokes.
His favorite surf destination is Tavarua Island in Fiji. “I think I’ve been 17 times. I tell people this: I would go and not even take a surfboard or be allowed to surf if I had to because the biggest joy I get is interacting with the Fijians that work on the island- amazing, loving, caring, giving, joyful, people. To just go spend a week with them is a great bonus. Now, you can also take a surfboard and catch some very good world-class waves, so that’s a bonus, also.”
“It was fun to be part of a culture that overwhelmed America. I mean, surf culture just overwhelmed coast to coast. Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas- surf was the coolest thing in the whole world, so it was kinda fun to be at the epicenter of that. Before I even moved to California, I was a junior high school surfer, and my mom was having surgery. The family sent me to Wichita, Kansas, where I have relatives, to spend the summer. I was totally bummed that I’m not going to surf for the whole summer, but I went to Wichita, and I had a surfer haircut and had surfer kinda dressing, even though we didn’t buy our clothes at the surf shop. We had our own styles. It could be white sandals or tennis shoes, white pants. Anyway, we had our look, and when I was in Kansas, the chicks thought I was pretty hot,” he laughs. Brimer tributes the overwhelming popularity of surfing across the nation much to the world-famous surf movie, Endless Summer. “How could you not like that movie? I mean, it was a surf movie! It was the best surf movie of the time and ever made.” Brimer explained that Endless Summer surprisingly opened up in Kansas in the middle of the winter, as the movie distributors had little faith in the film’s success. “It sold out and sold out for days in a row.” Brimer also loves surf film Five Summer Stories because of its Hollywood film quality, vibrant colors, and made-for-movie soundtrack. Music also had a major impact on surf culture and its rising popularity in the sixties.
All things said, what Brimer misses most of his days as a young surfer is the comoradary. Nowadays with passive-aggressive beach localism, he misses the days when everyone was welcomed, the person to person relationship of being a surfer, simply because there were not many of them. He also just misses being 17, when he was a stronger surfer.
Brimer lastly had some advice for new surfers: “Don’t get discouraged when it takes you a long time to get any good because surfing’s tough. You don’t learn how to surf in a day or two. Don’t get discouraged when you run into a kook in the water that’s way better than you and wants to demean you and treat you poorly. Find a friend that surfs better than you, and go surfing with them, and let them help you learn the rules of the road; you’ve got to learn the rules of the road. You’ve got to learn that you can’t take off in front of somebody. You’ve got to learn that when you’re paddling out and a guy’s coming your way, you can’t just throw your board away and dive under the water. You’ve got to duck dive under the white water. You’ve got to paddle behind the guy and take the lump on the head because he’s surfing the waves; he gets the right of way. You don’t have to spend a million dollars on the best equipment in the whole world. Start with a used board. Don’t go out and buy a brand new board. You have no idea what you like, so you’re only going to take someone else’s advice on what to use. You’re not paying so much for it, and you’re going to beat up your first board, anyway. Don’t give up. Have fun. Surfing is a fountain of youth that will keep you young and in shape and in good health for many, many years without the drudgery of going to a gym.”