rob gilley

The Mark of a King

| posted on October 09, 2011

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The beer-fueled conversation ratcheted up a notch,

“If you think about it, they’re all dicks.”

At first this seemed like typical buzzed hyperbole, but then the Hawaiian surfer built a pretty solid case and made a closing argument,

“See? It’s all of ‘em, brah. Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. Roger Federer. Barry Bonds. They’re all cheaters or jerks or both. Everybody who’s number one in their sport is a complete donkey.”

Wow. I never really thought about it like this. That’s a heavy call. Surely this isn’t pandemic. I mean there’s Tom Brady and Tony Gwynn and Tony Hawk and guys like that, right?

But then I thought about surfing. About my own personal experience with world champions. About the surfer who threw a punch at my head because my pole-cam “surprised” him. About the champ who paddled out at Rincon with a smile on his face and then cut everybody off. Or the guy who displayed some of the most inconsiderate, ugly American behavior I’ve ever witnessed. Or the one who liked to spread rumors around like he was still in middle school.


And then I wondered to myself if this kind of reprehensible behavior is why these guys are able to reach number one. Maybe that’s the key—if you hitch your reins to the dark side you can ride straight to the top.

Or maybe this was just all misplaced, Tall Poppy thinking. Maybe these champs were just humans and we were all just jealous of their success. After all, guys at the top of their sport are constantly scrutinized and live under the type of microscope that none of us can even fathom. Moreover, if you had been coddled and catered to and worshipped for your entire life, wouldn’t you be a little tweaked by all that attention too?

Maybe the only way to have people leave you alone is by becoming an asshole.

In the end, though, I threw this excuse out. Everybody is flawed and makes mistakes but many of these guys seem to show a near-constant, almost pathological need to be a dickweed.

The other reason that I threw this explanation out was the thought of a couple of other world champions who manage to stay firmly planted on humble soil and retain a ‘supercool’ street reputation on a human level: Mick Fanning and C.J. Hobgood.

And then I thought of the greatest anti-prima donna of them all.

For those of you who might need a refresher, Australian Mark Richards won four world titles between 1979 and 1982—just slayed it. Shaped his own boards, refined and redefined the twin fin, and ripped the snot out of everything from two foot Huntington to twenty-foot North Shore—competitively so far ahead of everyone else it almost didn’t seem fair.

And near the end of his tenure as World Champion, Mark Richards happened to visit California and went surfing at Black’s Beach. Just walked down trail by himself one day and joined about four of us that were surfing up north. No entourage, no attitude, no attention grabbing—he just paddled out, asked us if was OK if he surfed with us (!), hooted at our waves, and demonstrated how Black’s should be properly surfed.

This session was impressive because it stood in stark contrast to other California visits I had witnessed by famous surfers and world champions. Guys who arrived with a group of lackey blockers, or tons of attitude, or both.

The other reason Mark Richards stands at the top of my surfing pedestal is that he is the protagonist in the greatest surfing performance I have ever witnessed:

It’s December 1986. The Billabong Pro has moved to Waimea Bay in anticipation of a big swell. It’s about 8 o’clock in the morning and the surf is 15 to 18 feet and there are about 40 guys practicing for the contest and freesurfing. Typical deal.

But then the first heat of the contest hits the water and suddenly the ocean goes completely postal. The sets jump to 20-foot plus with 30 wave sets. Just giant, scary, throbbing Waimea.

This morning there are about a hundred of us watching the contest and shooting photos from the point. This promontory at Waimea is so close to the lineup that it’s within earshot of the pack, and as such, we all yell, “GO!”, in unison like a giant cheering squad when a set comes.

Sometime mid-heat, though, the horizon lifts and the mood changes. We keep yelling, but this time with warnings in mind, not cheering. Car horns start honking from across the bay and join our chorus. This is serious.

It is fairly obvious that some heavy shit is about to go down.

As the waves get closer, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not a normal set. The competitors scratch for the horizon. The first wave, a solid 20-foot plus dark-faced thing, starts to unload. The attitude from the spectators on the point goes from elation to concern. It’s kind of scary just being on land.

As the competitors scramble for the channel, we can see one surfer retain a deeper position as he paddles up the near 50-foot face. Those of us on the point can tell that this guy is thinking about taking this wave, but there’s no way—this…thing is too big, too steep, too hollow to attempt.

But then this guy starts to swing around as he paddles up this massive wall. Somebody next to me notices what’s happening, and half-joking, starts yelling, “NO!”, instead of “GO!”. We all join in.

But the surfer can’t hear us and doesn’t heed our advice. He continues to swing around and then, at the deepest possible point, at the latest possible moment, makes the steepest, meanest, most impressive big wave drop I have ever seen. Almost beyond vertical, with palpable confidence, he lunges into oblivion—just drops out of the sky with front wrist cocked upwards, and flies down the face of this wave with lightning speed, elegance, and panache.

This gull is clearly not wounded. This is Mark Richards.

As this giant step-ladder set continues to pour through, one of the middle waves starts to close out, lands directly on Ricardo Salazar and the chain-smoking Rob Bain, and nearly kills them. They both have to be rescued.

At this point the Bay is a cauldron of white water and haze, but this giant set keeps rolling through. You can barely see through the salt spray, but then we all watch a young Ross Clarke-Jones attempt a massive wave on a 7’10”, and then another surfer stroking for an even bigger one behind.

This outer surfer swings around mid-face on the biggest rideable wave of the set, makes a beautiful drop and rides it to the channel like a walk in the park.

It’s MR again. He has somehow managed to dodge the close-out and has paddled back out in time to catch a second wave from the same set.

As most people know, MR went on to make several more massive Waimea drops that day, and then finished the rest of the field off at Sunset Beach to win the event.

So not only is Mark Richards a nice, humble guy, he is a dragon slayer too. To me, at that moment, he was King Arthur. In fact he still is: the combination of his graciousness at Black’s and his god-like warrior powers at Waimea has left an indelible impression on me.

In fact, it has left a Mark.

  • Stu Beef

    I was a 16 year old kid that day on the beach watching this entire episode go down. I drove out from Kailua with some friends. We had all cut school and we all wound up at the beach watching this exact heat that Gilley is talking about. Back in the mid 80’s, Richards was a still a total and complete legend. Juxtapose that next to Rob Bain and Gary Green. Remember him? He refused to even paddle out that day for competition!!!!

  • Richard Brady

    great story rob. i remember a story you did in the surfers journal a number of years back where you mentioned matt warshaw being pretty critical of your writing skills. maybe not up to your photography, but still very well put.

  • Whamo

    I loved the way MR rode single fins with a lot of rocker at Sunset. I saw him wipeout two waves in a row at perfect Haliewa once, so he is human. MR used to look like the wounded gull on land as well as in the water.

  • Aleks

    I haven’t had chance to witness the moments in 80’s when all this happened. However, I did have witnessed or seen on web/tv in magazines etc. many other stories. So, I’d agree with “primadona” behaviors etc. I won’t go saying that Slater is more or less that, with titles and all media fuss around him it’s hard to tell what he really is as a human being. But I have to mention what struck me the most and I could perhaps compare him to MR in this text – I’ve seen him surfing 2 ft mush and 50-60 ft outer reef breaks. He went on surfing/winning whatever – Mavericks and Shipstern’s and so on. Add titles, add his general lack of attitude and you might say he is one more of those praised in the text. That’s why I’d put him way up there with special human beings. But maybe it’s too early to do that, he is still in the process. Maybe it’s not easy these days finding uncrowded Blacks and having a chance to be nice – I do remember him asking a guy in a line-up if he wants the wave and then discussing in details how you should surf it and having a laugh with guys. Too bad MR was in another era (for my experience) and thanks for texts like this which tell the story about all.

  • matt

    Yeah, Rob, way to give MR his due. HIs cool hasn’t received its due in recent years.

  • Mik

    I respected MR right up until the 50th anniversary of Bells, where he ranted that the “Bells Contest is the only contest on the pro circuit that fucking matters.”

    (Realllllyyyy ???? !!!!).

    Really Mark?

    More significant than J-Bay? Teachupoo? Cloudbreak, Uluwatu, the list goes on? Just goes to show how nationalistic the Aussie mind can get. That is a flat out stupid point of view. They’re all good when they’re good, and they are all less than good when they are less than good. Eh? Regardless. Kelly is the man, and he’s in a league of his own. Other professional athletes do not face life and death challenges like the WCT does, and of that elite, Kelly stands alone. He’s not necessarily my all time favorite surfer, but he is the King, and I respect him without reserve. And the more I see, the more I like.

  • Gra Murdoch

    It might have been a grom hallucination but I saw MR walking around the car park picking up rubbish after winning Bells once.

  • Dirt

    @Mik. It seems your Kelly loving knows no bounds. It’s one thing to respect Kelly as a surfer, but to idolize his character is pathetic. You are a Twat!

  • Scott

    I have been to Richards Surf in Newcastle twice and both times MR was at the register to ring me up. He gave me tips on where to surf in what swells and took a photo with me at the shop. I wanted to buy a DVD but he reminded me it would not work in the states. He is a surfing legend and a real life nice guy and my favorite surfer of all time because of that. Thanks for giving him his due.

  • Sam Claydon

    I still regret the fact I bottled the chance to tell MR how much I admired him when I bought a leash from his Newcastle shop. How often do you get served by a multiple world champion? A really down to earth bloke and a legend to boot! Nice one Mr. Gilley.

  • Byron

    He may not be a world champion , but Taj Burrow displayed equal amazing grace last year in a crowded Bali line up, he paddled out, greeted people ( as he could clearly see everybody staring at him ) and watched the guys and line up for about 30minutes before eventually taking a wave and showing all us how to shred a wave.
    Absolutely amzing to see a pro shred a wave right in front of you.

  • Greg Pero

    Excellent article …. I remember one winter at Sunset Beach – think it was ’79 or ’80. Sunset was enormous – almost closing out – which it eventually did. At that size it is hard to determine one surfer from the next from the point or parking lot. It looked like most guys in the lineup were just trying to survive and then on one of the biggest waves to come through – i saw someone dropping in on the peak – and then lost him for a second or two behind the huge whitewater from the previous wave – then i see him flying back up the face and execute a perfect full roundhouse turn off the top like it was an average sized wave – there was no doubt who it was at that point – MRs style and grace on a surfboard is easily identified and rarely duplicated.

  • chris

    quote from mick fanning, directed at a little known surf journalist, “you jew, you jew, you fucking jew.”

    you’re right; super nice, humble guy.

    nice one liner at the end, too. possibly the worst attempt at a pun ever?

    here is some writing advice: read a book. it could be any book ever published. if you pay attention to the syntax of the words you might learn how to formulate a paragraph or how to write a story better than a 5th grader.

  • Mo

    @Chris you’re miserable twat!

  • Michael

    Honolua Bay back in the 70’s. Uncrowded and there he was. Mark Richards coming down the face. Flowing one turn into another. Ballet on a surfboard.

  • Jimmy

    MR is the real deal. I headed over for a year at Newcastle University and went down to the local surf shop to get a board. I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but I ended up buying a fish from Mark’s shop after a good chat with the “clerk” (MR). I thought it was just a really nicely shaped local board. I pretty quickly realized that I had bought a board shaped by a legend. About 6 months later, I clipped a reef and broke a fin off of my board. I was your typical broke college kid, so Mark fixed the board for free and sold me a replacement fin at dealer cost. That’s a pretty cool thing to do and it’s gives a little insight into the man’s character.

    The year I was there, we got a beautiful double overhead swell for the surf contest final. MR surfed a couple of waves between heats and it looked just like the old film clips. The man can surf. Newcastle has a fantastic surfing community. It really doesn’t matter who you are in the lineup there, it’s just all about surfing. People are genuinely friendly (in the context of being crowded and competitive, mind you) and there really isn’t the cult of celebrity there that we have in the states. I think Mark is really a reflection of that culture.

  • Pete

    Ah yes! There are many champs but none are quite like the legendary and incomparable MR. Having the honour of him shaping for me an 82 retro in 09 and meeting him once it was ready for pickup at the old Hunter Street shop that his dad owned was a surreal experience indeed. Talking to the man, you’d never realise by his super humble demeanor that it is HE who conquered the surfing world 4 times in a row on his own boards and to this day still conquers the giant breaks of Hawaii like a fearless warrior. There is no ego apparent in him that juts forth. There he sat chatting to me, asking about the surf that day and explaining that he didn’t have time that week to get a wave in. He was inundated with custom orders from around the globe and was happy about that.
    His quiet spoken voice and calm personality is not that of a self absorbed suoerstar at all.
    Inbetween shaping my board he went to Hawaii for 3 weeks to refresh himself and get some waves etc. He sure doesn’t come across as a globetrotting surf legend, but seems more like a carefree soul surfer who has a hell of a lot of fun in the surf. He’s the kind of guy you love to surf with. He has perennial stoke.
    He was the reason why I took up surfing in 82, hence my preference for an 82 retro twinfin. I’ve had around 150 boards in my life but the one he shaped me is my main weapon. My alltimer. My magic board. In the surfing world, I stand in awe of no other like I do this man! To me, he is thet stand alone GOD of surfing. The perfect ambassador of the sport.

  • lemperts