THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS The Big Guys Are Taking Over
Has anyone else noticed that the size of pro surfers is changing? And that for the first time in 25 years attemptable waves, pro contracts and grom egos aren’t the only thing that are getting bigger?
…It seemed that there was no room in the Top 45 for anyone who topped anything much over 5’10″
It hasn’t been this way since I was, well, little. I remember the first time I saw Jeff Hakman in person. The shock, I mean. In the late 1960s I had grown up pouring over photos of Hakman in the surf mags: the low, powerful bottom-turn, every flexed sinew of the man they called “The Surf Muscle” standing out in relief; the wide shoulders, broad lats, lumpy deltoids. I assumed Jeff Hakman was a giant of a man—he certainly surfed like one. And so, naturally, as surf stars of my childhood like Jeff Hakman morphed into the superstars of my formative years—the Terry Fitzgeralds, Peter Townends and Rabbitt Bartholomews of the world—I assumed they, too, matched these mythical proportions.
But then I talked myself onto a team competing in the 1978 Katin Invitational, held at the Huntington Beach Pier. I remember pulling up in the gloomy gray of a winter’s morning, and surveying the grimy northside peaks when a surfer stepped out of a van parked in front of me. It was Jeff Hakman, Ohmigod, the guy was a midget! Couldn’t have been more than 5’6”. At 5’11” I towered over Mr. Sunset. Then two more surfers stepped out onto the sidewalk next to him: Terry Fitzgerald and Rabbit Bartholomew. Two more Lilliputians! Granted, seeing them all standing together, with nothing else for scale, they approximated my image of surfing giants. But excusing myself as I brushed by the terrific trio, staring down at the tips of their tiny heads—their tiny feet in size 8 Beachcomber Bills—I had to seriously reconsider the role size played in both surfing ability and stature.
Did size matter? As throughout the subsequent decades the world of professional surfing expanded it certainly didn’t seem that way. For every Paul Neilsen (6’1”) there was a Reno Abellira (5’7”); for every Ian Cairns (6’2”), a Michael Ho (5’5”); By the time the first graduating class of the post-Free Ride School posed for their class pictures in the 1980s—bantams like Tom Carroll, Derek Ho, Martin Potter and Tom Curren—it seemed that there was no room in the Top 44 who topped anything much over 5’10”. And with very few exceptions, this has been the rule: for the past 20 years pro surfing has definitely had a glass ceiling that stopped surfers at about six feet.
But for the first time in a long time the stature of some of our top surfers appears to be creeping up past the 72” mark, as a new crop of Goliaths have sprung up to challenge the Davids. Names like Jordy Smith, Dane Reynolds, Bede Durbidge and Luke Stedman might not yet appear on the SURFER Poll, but if these wave-riding Watusis are any indication the prospects of taller surfers in today’s most intense lineups are headed through the roof. Literally.
Stature in surfing has always been an interesting subject. Think back to the era when “boards were made of wood and men were made of iron.” Didn’t all those early surfers look Herculean, posed next to their tall redwood laminates, pre-fast food-light boards-and-leashes muscles rippling? And in many cases they were. Proto-surfers like Duke Kahanamoku and Pete Peterson were big guys, no question. And it made sense that a bigger guy was going to have an easier time of it wrestling a 70-pound slab of redwood in and out of the water. Upright leverage, too, would’ve been a definite advantage considering the upper body, hips-and-above body English necessary to maneuver the era’s finless surfboards. And yet if you do look at some of those old sepia-toned portraits—Duke and his brothers lined up on the sands of Waikiki or the finalists of the 1938 Pacific Coast Surfboard Championships at San Onofre—you’ll see that Duke and Peterson towered over many of their contemporaries. By today’s standards innovators like Tom Blake and Lorrin Harrison, though superbly muscled, were of average height—and in Harrison’s case even small. Size, then, was obviously an advantage, but not an essential to pushing performance barriers.