Cool for the Ages

Matt Warshaw on the evolution of "cool" in the surf world, from our May issue

| posted on April 11, 2012

Barry Kanaiaupuni, the coolest surfer ever, according to Warshaw. Photo: Wilkings

For more from our May issue, available on newsstands now, click here.

Matt Warshaw’s latest project-of-epic-proportions is to take his celebrated Encyclopedia of Surfing online. Warshaw used to raise the requisite funds to take surfing’s largest body of work into the digital era, which means it will remain free from corporate influence, bias, and will be delivered just the way he intended it. We thought we’d ask him his thoughts on the tenuous relationship between surfers and cool while it’s all still fresh in his memory.

Looking back over the expanse of surf history, can you say with any certainty that surfers are cool?

Surfers really just did one cool thing, which was to be counterculture with a smile. To be really for something and not especially against anything; to be counterculture and athletic at the same time. Beats were pretty much anti- everything. Jazz guys were all drug addicts. Surfers weren’t “for” anything that mattered all that much. All we did, as Barton Lynch said, was find another way to make ourselves happy. But it was a nice, happy, well-toned, brainless form of counterculture. It looked good. “Cool” is one of those words that makes my head hurt a little, trying to think of what it actually means, but yeah, surfing was cool for a while there. Malibu, after the war. That was a good scene. Warm, tucked away, independent. And when surfing wasn’t cool anymore, it became, and will forever remain, one of the great marketing mother-lodes of cool.

It seems there is a growing need, at least in professional surfing, to have something more than surfing ability. In order to be successful pro you need a shtick. Is this a new phenomenon?

There were red-hot surfers from 50 years ago, like Dewey Weber and Mike Doyle, who poured bleach and peroxide over their heads to get that “surfer” look. And Weber with the matching bright-red board and trunks. People want to stand out. That’s forever.

Barry Kanaiaupuni. Photo: Barrett

Do you think cool is a cover for lesser ability on a surfboard?

Cool can’t do it on its own, no. But there are lots of surfers for whom cool has bumped up their rep. Dora, Lopez, Dane, they’re bigger figures in surfing for having tended and cultivated their stock of cool. And I think it’s there in all of our heads, to some degree, that if they’re cool, then we’re cool by association. Just because we do the same thing they do. Then again, three-quarters of what is thought of as cool is just how good-looking you are. Matt Kivlin was better looking than Joe Quigg, so he gets to be the coolest Malibu surfer from the early ’50s. There aren’t any ugly cool surfers, right? Poor Mark Richards, who in my estimation is one of the deep-down coolest surfers ever, seems to be losing a bit of luster as the years pass, and my guess is that’s because he’s got a weak chin and rocked the mullet. He never looked the part. And never tried to look the part. More credit to him.

Who do you think is the most egregious example of exploiting cool?

Probably the worst was Bad Boys using Johnny-Boy Gomes to invent the whole surf-thug thing. Those ads with Gomes in a woolen watch cap, and that murdering snarl on his face. The dude lives in Hawaii, surfs for a living, gets every wave he wants, and is still the angriest man in surfing? And okay, yeah, he really was the angriest man in surfing. The problem was that Bad Boys viewed Gomes’ anger, and all that implied violence, as a great marketing hook. And in fact that wasn’t really even the real problem. The real problem is that is was a great marketing hook. The surfing public, a good part of it anyway, ate that shit up.

Who, in your opinion, is the coolest surfer ever?

Barry Kanaiaupuni. He surfed exactly the way he wanted to surf, which was like nobody else. He won contests, but didn’t really care about competing. Never looked to be hero-worshipped but was good enough to accommodate it. I saw an old interview clip with BK recently, and he was laughing at himself, saying he raised his hand on the beach at Waimea the morning they were trying to figure out if they should hold the finals of the Smirnoff, when the surf was like 40 feet. Greatest power surfer of all time, and he raised his hand and said he didn’t want anything to do with those waves. He got voted down, shrugged, went out, caught the bomb of the day, and got annihilated. Listening to him recall that episode, I had the same thought as when I watch clips of him surfing: that this is the coolest man to ever set foot on a board.

  • maddie lomonaco

    teenagers are the best. we are not scared to say/do whats on our mind

  • http://facebook Marco

    in 1980 I went to BK and asked him tomake me 3 surfboards, he asked me the sizes and I told him, a 7’4″, 8’0″, and a 9’6″, then he asked what I wanted on them, I just told him all three of them be 3 stringers with diamond tails, he asked what else, I the said “make them like they are for you, I want them to go fast on any wave, specially Sunset Beach”. Leslie told me, “you’ll be sorry”, but those were the best boards I have ever had in my 46 years of surfing, great memories with them, mahalo and Aloha Barry!! hanahou!!

  • Stephen Davis

    For me, I gotta say Tod Chesser! He freaking ripped backdoor and charged humongous waves before the hype… Also that golf cart he cruised around in Fred Flintstone style was way ahead of its time. Seriously…

  • Ollie

    Ozzie Wright especially in “Dope Youths”, or Otis Carey in “One Day In Bondi” then it has to be Matt Meola in innersection or lastly Clay Marzo all amazing surfers with amazing styles

  • Blake ostrosser

    Would agree on BK being the coolest with Billy Hamilton a close second.

  • Ben

    Teenagers are the least cool, we are incompetent hormone packed idiots, we are not afraid to speak our minds because we think what’s in our mind is better than everyone else, if you ask me.
    Teenagers are the worst and me being 17 and saying this.

  • lauren rowe

    gregg noll is my hero! or laird hamilton 🙂

  • Charlie Raisin Sacks

    Typical Surfing Mag. You forgot old Charlie Sacks. So cool he could put a warm can of beer between his pits and bring it to a chill. I once saw Sacks split the peak with a fishing boat, then get barreled. He also owned 3 trained attack tigers which he kept with him when he was chilling with the ladies. The coolest.

  • kyle

    phil edwards so stylish

  • Mike

    I would have to go with Butch Van Artsdalen. Style and guts. To bad he drank himself to an early grave

  • Zach

    Bunker Spreckles may have inherited his ‘cool,’ but man, he was pretty cool

  • yuki adachi

    Bill Hamilton Cool !!

  • eddie donnellan

    Thanks Surfer for printing work from Matt!

    BK! Good call.


  • Calvin

    BK and Billy Hamilton – you voters are right-on and after my own heart. Met Billy at Big Save Market in Kapaa in 1978-79. Coolest big-name surfer, not full of himself, along with BK in Warshaw’s article. Both guys are right-on men. Need more of this kind of “the right stuff” out in the line-up.

  • http://stuffthatgoeson'on'blogs' Erwin Dence, Jr.

    Coolest, most impressive surfer I ever saw surfing in person- Billy Hamilton doing full cutback/off-the-lip/back to trim on a longboard. Any San Diego county surfer would have to include Skip Frye for continuous non-stop stoke/coolness/lack of angry bluster. A special old time mention of Dale Dobson.
    Otherwise I see cool and otherwise every time I go. Oh, and I must include my old school/surf friend, Ray Hicks, never once seen (by me) doing anything uncool in almost 50 years, still chilling at Pipes. Otherwise, BK, endless lean-back bottom turn to surf coolness.

  • Mike Work

    When you truly consider cool you have include the lack of, or should I say exclude any ego. True cool is doing your thing for the sake of art rather than acknowledgment, gifts, or money. Their have been endless truly cool surfers that vanish into the tapestry of life. Every beach town had at least one and they usually end up being the local gardener, musician or handyman, not the CEO of some surf garment company. Sadly, the cool guys do not have a high life expectancy. Recently we lost one of these coolest personas in Michael Peterson. I never saw him surf in person but I knew he was the coolest guy on the planet from my perspective an ocean away. RIP MP and all the other cool dudes.

  • s4p

    We forget those cool surfers who also happen to be the happiest, kindest souls in the lineup. The locals that don’t go out of their way to hassle others. The ones who give away waves even though by rep and rank they’ve no reason to… The ones who go out of their way to steer others out of danger… The ones who rescue the least fortunate… On the flip side, the ones who respect the local scene and surf with polite deference. Ones who clean up after themselves…and many times others. Those working to keep our surf clean. We all know someone who embodies at least some of these qualities. They are benchmarks by which we often try to measure ourselves… Be like Jay… Eddie would go… Aw heck… Randall Kim (just exuded aloha stoke in those 80s vids)… (Insert other legends here) A few bigger names, sure, but I’m sure we all have our local stalwarts of aloha… Here is a BIG MAHALO to every surfer that has helped me and others along our respective paths…

  • Cris

    I met Mark Richards on a surf charter and I have to say he is the coolest surfer I have ever met. Truly a class act.

  • NorCal

    Such a sick article.