Article

Culture of Cool

Surfers are sheep. Here are the details.

| posted on November 09, 2012

This photo checks every box for unimpeachable coolness: massive barrel. no sponsors. perfect positioning. Namotu lifeguard Shaun Woolnough. Photo: Glaser

Hypothetically, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Compared to other points in surfing history, the things that are cool now are for the most part, pretty cool. I’d like to think this explains why I’m sorta on-trend. Creativity is good. How can you argue with bodysurfing? Music is subjective, but The Velvet Underground’s cooler than the Backstreet Boys, unequivocally. And Bob Simmons was cooler than just about anyone, ever, so it’s pretty fucking cool that we’re riding miniaturized versions of his half-a-century-old designs. But if Simmons were alive today, how would he be received?

He’d probably be doing just what he did in the 1950s—leveraging military technology to create the most progressive, cutting-edge surfboards imaginable. But it’s extremely unlikely he’d be interested in riding decaying relics, or concerned with how trendy his airbrush was. As Simmons’ friend and disciple John Elwell wrote in The Surfer’s Journal, the Simmons Surfboard was “a radical departure, far ahead of its time, like the designer, and misunderstandings hindered its full acceptance. Bob Simmons disregarded criticism and just went surfing…”

If Simmons walked the Earth again, and he showed up at Windansea with some carbon-fiber, computer-shaped board that was as innovative as his boards were in the 1940s, he’d be ridiculed by surf hipsters for not being cool enough. The jury would pass their verdict with the certainty of those who are on-trend, with their Japanese wetsuits and hand-shaped Mini-Simmons. As for the real Simmons? His pants wouldn’t be skinny enough. He might wear booties, or God forbid even a helmet. In fact, a helmet might have saved Simmons’ life—he drowned in 1954 after getting hit in the head by his board in 8-foot surf at Windansea. There is rich irony in Simmons’ current popularity. Simmons was not particularly well-liked during his lifetime. “He was dunked and beaten up at Malibu,” Elwell recalls in The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “He was punched down at San Onofre, and stoned on the trail to Palos Verdes.” If there’s a modern equivalent, I’m not aware of him.

The Internet brings us global surf culture homogeny, and budding innovators, true Mini-Simmons, are bullied on Facebook long before they’re beaten down on the trail to Palos Verdes. Step out of line, and you’re gonna hear about it in the comments section. Perhaps this is why the surf world seems increasingly populated by people who look like innovators, instead of people who innovate. Most people who look cool do not look that way by mistake. Their image is the result of countless hours spent worrying about their appearance—they focus on the surface at the expense of substance. Cool people like cool things. Their credibility hinges on an endless stream of purchases—each one a test. You must buy the right boards. Like the right music. Eat the right artisan foods, and buy and wear the right clothes to define your unique personality—even if they’re the same clothes everyone else is wearing. For surfers, cool is increasingly defined by purchases instead of performance. That’s because some of today’s trendy surfboards are literally designed to hinder performance. If you cared about how well you surfed, you wouldn’t be riding an alaia or using a handplane. Perhaps some surfers are simply looking to capture a new (or old) feeling. But perhaps an increasing number are hiding their lack of skill behind hip wooden crutches.

Consider the case of George Greenough. Like Simmons, the enigmatic Santa Barbara shaper/designer/kneeboarder is one of surfing’s true innovators. He’s consistently cared about function while ignoring fashion. His design innovations helped spark the shortboard revolution. But it’s only now that some of his other creations—such as sub-5-foot flex spoons—are being truly appreciated. A quick review of the hipster surfing blogosphere reveals a fetishistic appreciation of Greenough’s 1970s ethos. But what many devotees fail to realize is that unlike Simmons, Greenough is still alive. And he’s not interested in rehashing the past. Instead, he’s interested in making surfing safer. What could be more uncool than that?

Ever pragmatic, Greenough, now living in Byron Bay, Australia, recently weighed in on one of the most egregious examples of surfing’s obsession with fashion over function: the pointed nose. Because he was instrumental in the shortboard revolution, Greenough remembers that the pointed nose was a completely cosmetic innovation. This vestigial weapon has injured countless surfers of varying skill levels. In the ’80s, nose guards were popularized as a reasonable safety measure. But like Gath helmets, nose guards were subsequently stigmatized as surfing returned to its minimalistic roots. Irrational? Yes. But surfers answer to trends, and nose guards fell out of style. More recently, after a young surfer was hurt at his local beach, Greenough wrote a letter to the Byron Bay newspaper, Echo, calling pointed noses a “fashion statement.” Greenough advocated a simple solution—he asked surfers to take a jam jar, trace its outline on the nose of their boards, saw off the excess point, and glass it over. But hipster devotees who are willing to earnestly rock Greenough’s signature bowl cut are likely not willing to go for the jam jar cut. Some of those boards are collector’s items, after all.

  • Will Duke

    Thank you for this.

  • Larry Fuqua

    Mahalo on Cool!

  • http://boardrecycler.com BoardRecycler.com

    Is this like the pot calling the kettle black while looking in the mirror? Good stuff as always LS.

  • john

    come to the NW if you want to see some real ‘surf hipsters’. seattle and portland are pumping them out, and they’re ‘emo ‘ hipsters. couldn’t be anything worse anywhere. L.S would choke on his own puke here.

  • http://nathanpetty.com Nathan

    I don’t worry about it all too much. I just surf.

  • Charlie

    Absolute genius article,

  • Jon Kinley

    yep-as a 42 year old SUP surfer only (due to bad discs in back that prevent me from proning anymore) i now am seeing-GASP!-SUP Hipsters-there are easily the lamest hipsters of all. But to be honest-i simply dont care-im not a hipster-im the 42 year old guy whose kids are older-been married 23 years- i sup cuz i love it and it keeps me pretty fit and dosent hurt my back-i ride a local shaper and i go when and where i want. Why, because its about fun not fashion and i dont give a rip about what everyone thinks-sure i Instagram as well-its fun-i wear flannels and hoodies cuz im cold-i go to Patch a lot cuz it kills the sesh to be vibed by all the young douchebags out there hating on me, but i still poach old mans when the lifee isnt watching and i head down south and hit out of the way spots on occasion. I surf (im sure ill get flamed for calling it surfing) because i still can and i still think its the single greatest physical activity i can do.
    Im glad everyone hates me and it-good, if you dont like it stick it. Less people clogging my crappy lineup-(hey i sound like the sup equivalent of the local prone haters club) i laugh at everyone with their Spread Aloha stickers at Sano especially-Fricking sheep-Aloha Bro!-as long as you dont sup near me!
    Im a surfer-get over it-so are you-get over yourself and get in the water and shut up.

  • Booner Cope

    Brilliant article. I envy those who are un affected by the bullshit. I am lucky enough to get to know the author Jonny Gibbings, after a reading of his. I met him for a surf and he turned up on a waveski, and I must admit it pissed me off, even though he ripped on it.
    Anyway, I walked to his car with him and it was rammed with a fish, bodyboard, a weird Luke Young thing, ancient beaten up long board on the roof with grafiti from his kids on it. even sharpie ideas for the book scrawled on it. I realized I had missed the point. He was having fun, didn’t give a shit what people thought. He just seemed free. I know it sounds bullshit, but when having a bad surf, I think of his attitude and it reminds me it doesn’t matter, just have fun.

  • The Roller

    If you think anything will change, consider yourself mistaken.

    There will always be sheep. It’s the nature of humans.

    Thankfully, sheep are just one large section of the equation….

    Sheep. Wolves. Sheepdogs.

    Search out the article for the ages which describes this….

    Tribes. By Bill Whittle.

  • ZOD

    hahaahahaha ‘hiding their lack of skill behind wooden crutches’….yep! their like a fat chick with baggy clothes.

  • roger meras

    this is an old article, pretty sure i read it a while ago. also pretty sure you are over thinking everything and thats why you are a surf hipster

  • jimmy

    yep, pointy surfboards are POINTLESS !
    cut them off, and round them off.

  • jimmy

    no please EVERYONE ditch your shorty and go and build an alia,

    then i’ll have the entire line up to myself.

  • Thetwister

    When I started surfing we did not know the word “cool”, in its slang form anyway! Maybe that is the problem.

  • ippo

    Great article and insightful on so many details of today’s trends.
    But at the same time it’s more of a statement of what is cool than a pure criticism to surfer’s (apparently both modern and past) approach to things.
    The basic assumpion that oversees the article is that real coolness is originality, wheter you develop it in researching new things or just sticking to the things you individually apreciate despite their uncoolness.
    If you accept that assumpion then it is safe to agree on everything else said (personally, i do), but being cool has historically and actually just meant being tuned with the fashion of the time, so saying that cool cats are not cool because they are following a trend would be like saying you can’t be cool if you are cool, so it’s a paradox.
    What the article is saying is that, it’s not cool to want to look cool, cool is something else that you achieve by being indipendent minded and not caring. Nathan Fletcher is cool, Knost isn’t.
    But then again, since today’s trend is actually quite cool, I think they’re both cool.
    It’s a great era to live in, everyone is cool.

  • Michael

    Wonderful article Mr. Samuels.

  • Matt Johnson

    YES, YES, YESSSSS! Great article. Great writing.

    Can somebody please send this article to SATURDAYS SURF NYC! and the rest of their idiot followers

  • mike

    amen, the really hip thing for you all to do now is to denounce surfing completely that would put you ahead of the trend, off you go and leave it to those who just want to go surf.

  • Ciaran

    This is a great article – reminds me of the video “being a dickhead is cool” only three minutes long, worth checking out if you haven’t seen it already and want to have a laugh at the “hipster” type.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVmmYMwFj1I

  • Chris Atkins

    I thought I read this about a year ago…. or maybe I am experiencing some deja vu.

  • danny

    Great article. The name could be culture of Dane Reynolds…the most hipster fake surfer ever.

  • Max

    Funny article and well written. I see it all over Newport. Kinda makes you want to just punch some of these little f’ers. But hey, I guess they are just lost and trying to fit in

  • “Fkn Haole”

    The meaning of the word “Aloha”… it’s not what you think. Come to Hawaii, and you’ll experience true Aloha. Unless you look “local” you may not survive it..

  • Noll is king

    Wah wah wah. Nice article you p. Way to open up by saying you’re as guilty as the rest then spend the rest of the article explaining how you’re really not. The only thing worse than a real narcissistic hipster is a hypocritical-narcissistic hipster who doesn’t realize what he sees in the mirror. Throw away all of your thoughts and f-ing surf. Just shut up and surf. I wish Flea and Tyler Durden could morph together and kick some sense into your head. I’ve heard enough about “stickered boards are for conformists who support commercialism”. Nobody gives an s about your thoughts. You are as guilty as they are for acting like your style is authentic. There is no doubt that you shared and probably still currently share the same thought process when it comes to your gear. I try to accept everyone that commits to paddling out and throwing down. As long as they have respect and work hard at their craft they can hang. When idiots like yourself start writing articles about all of the b s swag that makes somebody who they are except when it’s you who has carried the torch through the years…what a racket. I really do hope the reason the masses of comments above favor your thoughts is because people like myself hardly ever spend the time writing a response like this because we don’t have the twitter and facebook accounts. We are out of tune or better yet just don’t give a hacking s about your thoughts. Talk is cheap. Shred.

  • CJD

    Great article. I think we all need to accept that we’re all just a bunch of tools.

  • Noll is king

    Roger Meras-agree.
    Booner Cope-agree(minus the word brilliant, add the word “lousy”).
    That is it.

  • marc

    Penetratingly insightful! Yet utterly irrelevant.

    Mr. Samuels, your assessment of modern surf culture with its intrinsic contradictions and blatant superciliousness (thank you thesaurus!) is spot on. Fortunately, it is also unimportant.

    While the psyche of modern surfers may be lame, and current surf heroes might not deserve their accolades (not to mention paychecks), the act of surfing, remains blissfully untarnished. In fact, there is nothing that modern surfers can do to ruin, or enhance for that matter, surfing.

    The act of surfing remains, and always will be, what it always was……cool

  • Tim Hamby

    Really well written, insightful piece… “Hipness” (aka cool) is all about being recognized as an “insider”– someone who “gets” what outsiders don’t (and never could) understand, because you’re “hip”. Eventually, however, even “insider” groups get too large and the “hippest” members realize that they have to distinguish themselves by getting “inside” the “insiders”. It’s maddening– a never-ending comical game (and believe that it will never, ever go away. It’s just the way things are). There is a lesson here, Mr. Samuels. Everything you wrote points right to it. It is that honesty in all things- music, art, writing, brands, design, people… is what ultimately makes them cool in ways that are deep, lasting and real.

  • kim

    Jambi!

  • http://www.cottageskateboards.com Cottage Skateboards

    I like reading articles like these, because it shows that everyone is obviously searching for ways to show their own personal style, and with current comercial offerings, everyone ends up buying the same gear.

    I think it will (and already is) opening up opportunities for lots of small-scale creators to make a living from shaping completely unique surfboards, making clothes, making skateboards, or even carving handplanes…

    It’s easier and easier to find information – if you want to learn how to build anything, you can! Then, once you’ve put your own twist on it (and actually get good at creating) it’s completely worthy of consumption by anyone interested!

    I think it’s a good thing that we are searching to be unique, we’ve been sheep for too long. The fact there was a “Big 3″ of surfing companies and now there are sooo many more brands shows we’ve come a long way.

  • http://www.surfermag.com Chris Ward

    Check out Mnt. Rushmore. You have to know this name before going. Then in thier lake, they have a pump under water that makes perfect waves, any size. Don’t tell anyone your going though because they might call you out on the name of the state. Ask someone what state mnt. rushmore is in and thats the lake. Go in the summer though.

  • wilbur

    wilbur was a kook, and he was definitely cool.
    lewis writes, and he’s a poser through and through.

  • Stanton

    Well done Lewis. Because you get paid to pontificate on a culture that sustains itself by marketing itself as “cool,” you are writing your own future check! Why is this?

    The “cool” phenomenon works because people are afraid of being seen as “uncool.” Divisive articles like this one make people are afraid of being called out for doing things (driving vans, riding handplanes, etc) that are easy to do and don’t support big surf companies which fund the publications you write for and the athletes you make fun of (PostSurf.com). Therefore, this will only fuel the everyman’s desire not to stray from their Chinese boardshorts and throw-away thrusters which support this publication.

    Well done sir!

  • frank

    i hope readers of this article realize what this really is all about. surfers coming to terms with their sexuality finally, and its ok guys! all those tan, muscular, groomed, shaved, guys hanging around with “the boys” all day talking about frothing and comps. we all need to embrace our true selves. its ok to be a any kind of surfer. we welcome you here in west hollywood guys. especially those thruster riders, we know you’re the ones who are really the most open and willing underneath it all.

  • http://rampfever.se Gerrie Warner

    I left the States, my single fin Venturi concave Larry Felker and VW bus in the late 60′s. Bought a one way ticket to London with $200 and a A1Pentax 35 mm camera. Hitch-hicked through Europe that winter to Libanon – ended up at a boat building school in a tiny village in eastern Sweden a few years later. Surfed empty but now famous surf spots in Portugal in the 80´s and found surf spots in Sweden. Still no sun glasses, iphone or MAC but organic farming and luvin’ it. Stay Stoked!! //Gaz

  • Simon

    What you resist persists. Let go bro and just stop “hearing” what you think everyone is saying. Most crew ride these boards and try these styles and listen to this music because they are actually interested in how it feels, looks and sounds. Aren’t we all entitled to try, attempt, learn, fail and grow. You have to embrace before you can innovate and there shouldn’t be a day you live on this earth without letting go of this idea that everyone is a follower, because that idea is the one that will forever keep you a follower and not a creator.
    Perception is reality.

  • Jay

    good article, but what the fcuk is a hipster? is a hipster a new surfer? do vans make you a hipster? This article sounds like a case of the “I dont want that band to get popular cause then I won’t be the only one who likes them”. There are posers everywhere, just laugh call them kooks under your breath and paddle/surf around them. bigger problem in surfing than hipsters- cry babies.

  • ixtepo

    The hipster apparently is an internet thing. My 12 year old is really worried about being called a hipster. Haha!
    Surfer, please make Lewis write some more smack about wct surfers. It was hilarious. Those PR are becoming more legendary as other lesser ones keep coming up.

  • http://www.yankaus.com Mik

    @Jon Kinly:

    Moron.

  • Jeff Knox

    If you were interested in improving your surfing and water skills, you WOULD be using a hand-plane. Being a true waterman is almost a lost art…

  • Blackie

    Great article. Well written. However, the readers who could actually understand all the references and vocabulary words, and whom actually could read the entire article without ADD setting in are the select few: they comprise the proverbial choir that sings the same woes regarding our culture.

    After reading many of the comments about this article, I’m curious about the apparent trend in negativity in the surf culture. In the 60′s I believe it was a more positive culture. Now, the spirit of competitiveness and performance level seems to pit surfers against each other, but not in a positive way. I surfed Trestles on Thanksgiving 2012 and it appears that many surfers’ frustration levels are at an all-time high, as I heard many guys in the lineup cursing under their breaths if they couldn’t get into a wave or if they didn’t perform as well as they anticipated.

    Have there been any articles about this? If not, maybe it would be an interesting subject?

  • Nobby

    Hello everyone. Sorry about this late entry, but, to be honest, I only came across the article because i´m holed up in bed with the flu. Having read it a couple of times I headed for the comments for a giggle. Some interesting points and well rounded opinions…. and then….Noll is King…ok, not having twitter or facebook (neither do I) may explain your inability to be succinct, but doesn´t excuse the waffling durge that you wrote. Do you think that anyone cares what you think? I´d be genuinely surprised if I wasn´t the only one who even bothered to finish reading your stooopid comment, but as I said i´m bedridden and bored. If I was a Noll i´d be embarrassed to have you associated with my name and as for your pathetic inability to write half a dozen lines without resorting to c—ing is truly sad. Mahalo??

  • limpy

    ??

  • Mad Cat Leo

    Lewis..became worried…He certainly must use only the right side fins…

  • http://www.conselhosdebeleza.com/onde-comprar-perfumes-baratos-2/ conselhosdebeleza.Com

    Hi

    I don’t know we recognized totally what you meant by that, could you develop a little more about lewis samuels ?

    Cheers

  • kiki

    Really enjoyed this piece. Not in surfing or a surfer at all, but speaks to larger trends across industries. Kudos!