By Jed Smith
Andrew Doheny is sitting on his board in the surf. It’s the day after the World Junior Championships, an event in which he’d surfed exceptionally, racking up a third-place finish. Although he fell just short of victory, his zany, unpredictable attack, which contains sprinklings of the last 30 years in progressive surfing—laybacks, lip-bash fin-throws, fade takeoffs on wide Keramas bowls into double-hand drag jams a la Dave Rastovich, and an amusing, though risky gimmick, where Droid would spend an unnecessarily long time riding backward after blowing the fins out—installed him as a crowd favorite. One of his fans now paddles up to congratulate him in the lineup. “Great surfing man,” says 1980s style-master-turned-surf-coach, Brad Gerlach. “Really dug the approach.”
Droid too is pleased with the performance, though mostly because it vindicated the board he’d ridden throughout the event, shaped in his backyard in Newport. “You don’t want to shape a board and surf out there like shit,” he says, “because you know what everyone is going to point to first.”
But this, it seems, is as far as he’ll go in terms of considering the ramifications of what he’s accomplished here in Bali. While his contemporaries wrangle with the radical emotional and financial fluctuations so typical of this stage in a surfer’s career, you’re more likely to find Droid in the quietest corner of the room perfecting a new riff on his guitar. The training, the diets, the heat strategizing, the paddle battles, the meticulous study of the latest blockbuster surf video—it’s not for him. “I’m just trying to do my own thing and feel my flow,” he says. “I’m trying to be an individual and not be anyone else.”
Though, he admits, the big bosses don’t always like it. “They think I’m oblivious.”
Original thinking and “feeling your flow” are two very Doheny traits. His great-great-grandfather became very famous (and rich) for his original thinking and his flow—a flow of oil, that is—when he became one of the first men in California to tap a rich vein of crude. For a period, the Doheny clan was among the richest families in America, evidence of which you’ll find in Doheny State Beach near Dana Point, LA’s Doheny Memorial Library, and Doheny Road in Beverly Hills. (Elements of their story have also been re-appropriated for the Beverly Hillbillies TV series, and the Oscar winning film, There Will Be Blood.)
More recently, the Doheny clan has veered in the direction of fringe culture. Both of Droid’s brothers were talented surfers before turning to art school, in one case, or photography, music, and the technology racket, in the other. “That gene is in our family for sure,” confirms Droid, who himself plays in a number of garage punk bands. Meanwhile, his hometown of Newport/Costa Mesa has remained a hotbed of indie music and surf culture, spawning the likes of Al Knost, the Captain Helm surf stores, Kid Creature, and bands like The Growlers, Hindu Pirates, and the Tremors. On the fast breaking beachbreak at 54th street, Droid has shown an almost autistic dedication to surfing, complete with a weird knack for remembering obscure surf statistics—like where and how many event victories Kelly Slater had in 1995. “I’ve been doing that throughout my life, just because I’m into it. I really am curious about those guys,” he says.
By his mid-teens, Droid was competing with the likes of Kolohe Andino in contests and it was predicted he too would make the leap to the World Tour. But when that critical stage in a surfer’s development came, when the long-fingered shadows of agents, coaches, and (ahem) surf journalists loomed large behind him, something changed in Doheny: He showed signs of a fertile mind, one that would take him far beyond the narrow chute of modern pro surfing. He also matured emotionally and started to recognize the things he held dearest in this world. Training and early morning dune runs didn’t make the list.
“I can’t be thinking of surfing all the time,” he says, “When I go surfing, I want to really want to do it, you know? You need other things that entertain you and other things that you’re passionate about.”
Droid admits it probably cost him. As Kolohe, John John, and Medina were chaired onto the Tour amid buckets of cash and a soirée of agents, journalists, and coaches doing barnyard dances in the background, he could only watch. “They’re really focused and I’m just not as focused. My mind is here and there. But hopefully, having my mind everywhere can work to my advantage.”
Droid’s Bali hotel room is a wretched sty of damp towels, Oreo wrappers, boards in odd places, stale corn chips, and a miscellaneous grit on the floor. Preserved in a small ring of cleanliness on his bed, however, like a sleeping child, is his guitar. It’s the first thing he picks up when we enter the room. Droid’s reluctance to realize his lucrative potential as a surfer and assume a professional persona has been a considerable source of frustration for many.
“People look at me and my ‘perfect life’ and they’re like, ‘spoiled f—k,’” he says. “I feel a lot of pressure that people think I’m underachieving all the time, but I don’t feel like that at all. I’m really stoked where I am and I like where I am and how I’m doing it. If someone is not fine with that, I don’t really care.”
What becomes of this supremely talented kid is still unclear. The good news for Doheny is that if he wants to make it in this nebulous category of surf stardom, he’s surrounded by the right people. Al Knost and Dane Reynolds, two of surfing’s most influential characters (both of whom, as it happens, have also taken to shaping their own boards) are only a phone call away. And Droid says their support has been priceless. As of right now, however, he’s still a little unsure what exactly he wants to do with his career.
“When you lose in a contest you get so down. That’s why I don’t really know what to do. I’m like, ‘If I try to do a bunch of contests I’m worried about losing and feeling that way over and over and just being like, ‘Drown me,’ you know? You get so depressed.”
But the whole freesurfing thing hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be, either. “It’s fun and it’s great and it’s a really good job, but what people forget is that it’s still a job,” he says. “Traveling is great but traveling all the time is gnarly. You miss home and you miss friends. Surfing gnarly waves, you pull up and it’s big and there’s a lot of pressure to do that. There’s a lot of pressure to surf well. You’re on a surf trip and photogs get pissed because you’re not getting stuff done.”
So what else is there? Droid calls the latest answer to this question “The Butt Queen,” and right now it’s his everything. A 5’7″ with plenty of volume under the chest, and a tail somewhere between a Dumpster Diver and a standard square, the board was shaped in his backyard and is one of the several he’s taken to riding exclusively.
Board building, he says, has given him a renewed focus, and the engineering process has afforded him a new appreciation of what is possible on a wave and the sort of design tweaks that will allow him to do it. “I’m sure they’re not as good as Mayhems or something, but I’m gonna try that much harder when I ride it. In a way, I’m gonna surf just as good on one of my boards because I’m trying so hard to surf good on it and make it work. I’ve realized you can take surfing to such a creative level on a wave, and a lot of different boards will help you do that.”
He also reveals that he’s worked hard on changing his style and his stance to something quirkier than average. “I try to take different lines and play around a little bit with my style, bring some old tricks in with the new—laybacks and stuff,” he says. “I’m focused though. Maybe not one path specifically, but I want to do this.”