Unconventional Wisdom: Derek Dunfee

The La Jolla charger on surfing and living since his injury

| posted on February 03, 2011

Derek Dunfee stands overlooking the La Jolla coastline which he calls home. Photo: Glaser

At the 2010 SURFER Poll, Derek Dunfee received the Worst Wipeout award, a double-edged validation for his relentless charging. After the last few tumultuous years—which included a horrific wipeout in Tavarua that left him with a broken leg and months of painful rehabilitation, a win at the Billabong XXL Awards, the firsthand loss of close friend and fellow big-wave surfer Noel Robinson at Puerto Escondido, and finally the success of his film, Down with the Ship—it’s fair to say the under-the-radar La Jolla charger has some experiential wisdom to impart.

I didn’t go left at all for 10 months after I broke my leg. I was over it. It’s been almost three years since I broke my leg and I’m like still really nervous backside.

When Noel drowned, he was grabbing rail going backside—just like how I broke my leg. And he broke his board in three or four places—just like how I broke my board. The way it happened looked exactly like when I broke my leg, so it’s really hard you know, just dealing with it all. I still get real upset. I think about him every single day.

I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual reading, trying to deal with death and just living in the now and the present. And I’ve been doing a lot of writing too, just for my emotions, because for me, as a big-wave surfer, Noel’s was one of the first real deaths of our generation.

I’m used to riding bigger, thicker boards, so that’s kind of how my surfing has kind of gone for the last few years. When I was in Hawaii, on a big day at Backdoor, I was out on this big, thick 7’6″ and everybody is riding 7’2″s and 7’4″s—Josh Kerr was even on a 6’3″ round-nose board. I remember Reef McIntosh and a couple guys were like, “Oh, are you on your Mavericks gun or something?”

Derek Dunfee has made a name for himself over the past few years in the most intimidating conditions at Mavericks. Photo: Glaser

I try not to get super emotional when I see a swell. I try to wait until three days before to see what it looks like. Otherwise I’d be an emotional wreck, because I’d get so pumped and then bummed.

I’ve never been too critical of my technique for aerial surfing. My job is to surf big waves. I don’t get paid to do airs or anything like that. That’s never been my thing. Before I could really even do floaters and tail slides I was pulling into big tubes.

It used to be, however I did on the last session was how I gauge my life, which for a while was ruining my life. I was either really happy because I got a good one or really bummed because I didn’t get one. Now I’m just trying to stay more level.

Even if I stopped getting paid to surf right now and had to work a nine-to-five job, I would still be tracking every swell and trying to get that day off if the swell was coming.

I’m super in-tuned with how I feel, like my energies and everything. That sounds weird, but some days I’ll accept that I don’t feel right, and I won’t even paddle out into the lineup.

Accepting death is part of what I do.

After an injury that would have given most second thoughts about big-wave riding, Derek Dunfee is back on the horse and charging harder than ever. Photo: Glaser

  • Kevin

    Can someone please explain to me why this guy’s broken leg justifies a movie and this article? I mean, I know breaking your leg sucks or whatever, but it’s not like dude clawed his way back from being paralyzed, homeless and drug-addled. He’s just a guy who broke his leg. It’s a fairly common (and again, painful) injury, but one that rarely inspires a film (or even a webisode).

    What am I missing? And please, spare me the “dude, why don’t YOU charge Mavs you wuss” treatment. I get it. He rides larger wave than I do. I am simply asking why – two years later – we are still asking this guy about a broken leg.

    Thanks for any insight.

  • Ben

    take it easy kevin
    the guy broke his leg and then a few months later caught the biggest wave of that winter at mavericks-
    its just a follow up, prob why its on the web and not in the mag

  • whamo

    I surfed for over 30 years, and three surfers I knew died surfing. Rusty Starr died in the 70’s surfing 3 foot Riviera. He just hit his head in the wrong spot, and he was dead in 3 or 4 hours. The kid had everything going for him, 15, going to Maui, dad was rich, lived right on the beach in a nice house, had a cool father, and then BAM, dead. One guy named Steve, I hardly knew, died back in the 60’s, in San Clemente, back in the longboard era. I was a fat gremmie back then and everyone tortured me, except him. Then, as everybody knows, Mark Foo died, I lived with him for 3 months at Shark’s Cove. Having a friend die surfing affects your stoke in a negative way, but the positive vibrations come back.

    • Lost Winds

      This is in response to “Whamo’s” letter…The guy who died at Riviera was Greg Starr, he was a good friend and a great guy. They should have renamed Riviera after him.

  • Dylan

    @ Kevin:

    Dunfee rips…and has for a long time. This article and his video didn’t get made “just cause he broke his leg.”

    There’s a lot more to it than just the injury. He’s been putting in his time, charging hard, and finally people outside of a small community are hearing about him. There was also an article about how Pat Curren chose to shape a board for Derek about a year or so ago. Surprised no mention of it was in the movie.

    LJ represent

  • hciR

    Thats right whamo the positive vibrations are out there.
    Kevin must not have seen down with the ship. Its good to see real surfing in solid waves. Not another week long boat trip to indo with the rest of the team, real waves and real commitment.

  • john

    I agree for the most part with Kevin’s comment. I don’t know more if its Derek seeking publicity, or surf media seeking him out and blowing the thing up. Really though, a broken leg if far from the worst injury you can get surfing.

  • central cal

    The real stories should be about men who actually charge…Derek says he went to hawaii ? Well where were you when the biggest waves were rolling through in the afternoon that day the eddie never went ?

    Healy and Rusty long were out charging big…

    Healy is the man !!!

  • central cal

    Derek is the Nate Yemons of small wave surfing…a C grade surfer getting lucky sometimes to be slotted in with the big boys…

  • peanut

    i agree with kevin. there are so many underground big wave guys. big deal. most these guys can’t even turn. big wave dudes are riding SUP’s as far as i’m concerned. i know a few guys who charge but can barely go down the line at creek. big wave dudes are like vert skaters. no one cares… mahalo, ohana, and shaka zulu…

    • Ian Reilly

      As a vert skater i gotta say people care. And If you talk smack we can beat you up. lol, mahalo.

  • Johnny monster

    There are a lot of excuses to get out of dedicating years of your life into working your way threw the gnarliest surfers in the world, to sit and pack bombs under the bowl at Mavericks.
    Derek has shit on all those excuses we get in life, his leg included, and put everything he has into trying to paddle into the biggest and heaviest waves on the planet, sacrificing, and taking the worst beatings before successfully paddling the biggest wave of the year along with a bunch of other bombs. No handouts. All those guys who do that are on another level.
    Diving to find your good friends body in the line up you were just surfing together must be so heavy and emotionally draining.
    Putting yourself out there, and having haters talk shit must be nerve racking too.
    Derek your awesome man.

    • Lost Winds

      Johnny Monster came back from an even worse injury than Dunfee,,,a broken back. He is back charging HUGE surf also and should be given credit. In fact, both Dunfee and Johnny Monster were both on duty Lifeguards when their injuries occurred. Since Johnny’s rehabilitation I personally saw him rescue six guys in one session out at HUGE Cloudbreak. I guarantee that if any one of you were in trouble in the surf (no matter how big),,,both of these guys would be the first one to your aid.

  • NORcal

    have any of you haters ever even talked to dunfee? he’s a level headed humble and a super friendly dude. he CHARGES mavericks and yes that DOES matter(@kevin you little wuss) and he’s not going around telling everyone how gnarly is, just lets his surfing do his talking and minds his own business. so what he wasn’t out on that ONE day(@central cal you’re a kook that probly trolls pismo everyday) in hawaii when YOU were watching, who cares, you weren’t out either doesn’t mean he wasn’t surfing somewhere else. he keeps talking about his broken leg because people keep asking him about it, get some facts or some real insight before you all run your fuckin mouths like ignorant donkeys. oh and @peanut the only kooks i see SUPing mavs and getting attention for it are FROM hawaii (*cough*gmac.) Dunff charges in an out of the water and shows everyone respect wherever he goes, you guys charge on your keyboards and show no one ANY respect, end of discussion.

    • SOcal

      @NORcal I completely agree with you

  • Gamby

    Its pretty funny how all the guys writing negative comments don’t even know Derek, if you want to say something negative at least get your facts straight….Derek was in Hawaii during the Eddie swell and got some bombs at Waimea and the outer reefs, then jetted over to Mavericks and got some more bombs the following day…….I guess people are going to be jealous since he is living his dream…..hate on haters haha

  • ninian

    kevin your a kook derek deserves everything hes earned and everything coming his way. Liked said before hes a really down to earth guy and comes from a good family a person anyone would be stoked to be friends with. No need for the hate mail if you keep it up you will catch a severe beating KEVIn. 1302 1209

  • tubejunkie

    Right on NORcal, the “cough” and the “guys who charge keyboards” comments cracked me up!

  • O’NeillDan

    umm….[to all the idiots talkin poopoo]:

    I grew up with this guy – went to school with his sister, my lil bro is good friends with him and was classmates with him his whole life. The whole family is cool as hell (a true soul-surfing family), he rips hard, but more importantly, has his own style…what a surfer should be. Anyone that has something to say should send surfermag their own pics of themselves charging Mavs/the 100 other places he has bombed gnarly waves that only .001% of surfers will ever attempt.
    And yeah, LJ represent 1210 fo sho

  • Jojo

    Kevin John and Central Cal.
    You guys are fuckin faggots. Clearly just hiding behind your computer talking shit and jerking off to photos of yourselfs boogyboarding you dick dragging homos.

    So where were you Central Cal on the eddie day? Freddy Land? Wait.. that was probly too heavy for you too…Fag

  • 1210kook

    What, no WSR comments? Shootz.

  • NOEL Admirer!!!

    NICE job …NORcal yes that DOES matter(@kevin you little wuss)
    +centralcal… guys obviously have no clue before u open ur mouth!

    Derek keep it up! all u guys are inspiring!
    (non of these blogs matter anyways… Let the guy live his dreams…
    b/c when the buoys are up… all the boys know whos paddling! )
    (surfermag… keep doin articles like this… b/c some of us actually paddle out when its ON, +what it takes guys like Derek are true Grit! )

    LIVE like NOEL!!!!! R.I.P.

  • SOcal

    dunfee is the man

  • AK

    @peanut, @central cal and @kevin’s remarks are obviously drenched in ignorance. I think often times people forget that when many of these “Big Wave” chargers say that doing airs and such isn’t their thing, it doesn’t mean they can’t do them, it just means they don’t do them as well as the top 1% of surfers that are pro and specialize in airs and such. If you’ve ever seen Derek ride regular size days he still stands out as one of the top guys. Airs, tail wafts, reverse 360’s, hacks, he does them all with style. It’s just he doesn’t focus on that and doesn’t measure his success as a rider using those moves as his measuring stick. He searches for the biggest, heaviest, cleanest waves, which at that level requires a whole new set of water skills, physical abilities and mental prowess to attack and survive those waves and water conditions. His dedication is real. His work ethic to come back 5 1/2 months after his major leg break and win the XXL Monster Paddle award is definitely note worthy. Just because he didn’t come back from the dead doesn’t mean having a major spiral fracture in two bones, major ligaments torn with a plate and 6 screws inserted and winning the biggest award in that genre less than 6 months later is no small accomplishment. It’s major, it’s real and the movie was something Derek made on his own. No big budget from a huge sponsor. Just himself some friends and a lot of help through networking resulted in a rootsy cool film. I think that’s why the surf mags respect it so much. They understand what it takes to not only ride well but to produce something that successfully shares the experience with the general public. People who do and make things happen see it in others who do. Critics who talk shit create nothing and only judge on things they often times know nothing about. So if you have nothing constructive to say shut the pie hole. Go back to floating at your local lineup, talking smack and being grumpy. Those who do things for the love of it and excel at it will gain recognition because it’s noteworthy. You da man Derek!

  • Jojo Roper

    Ya Norcal and Monster you both put it well. DD rushes. Not scared like all you pussys talking shit and hiding behind your keyboard. @peanut- Its funny how you name drop creek…first mistake. Creek must be your spot because it never gets overhead you homo. Derek rips on a shortboard. Mavz is the heaviest big wave spot in the world and he rushes the shit out of it and that is nothing like riding a SUP (@peanut you dooshbag)

  • stevo

    Sad to know that in this day and age the internet trolls still lurk out there trying to pick on people doing what they love and getting the respect they deserve. The very fact that you take the time to criticize someone like Derek while browsing surfermag evidences your pathetic existence. get back under your bridges trolls

    keep rippin the shit out of it Double D

  • central cal

    bla bla bla at least the comments are going up. more comments more press for derek…happy i contributed to this message panel…

    derek is not the man nor his he the man but he is a man trying to chase a dream. Does he get paid to chase this dream or does he come from money ? surfing is not about being sponsored and trying to get exposure. this to me looks like a cry for media exposure or he is just taking what he gets.

    there are some serious wave dwellers out there right now and I find it hard to fit Derek into this category. If you really want this big wave life you need to do something…

  • Jojo Roper

    Central Cal is a fucking kook

    • Norcally

      Hey might be a kook. But you are a god damn spaz. STFU SPAZ
      No respect for you my friend. By the way you have a horrible surfing style.
      You have issues. You better check yourself kid.

  • Hyme

    How many who have posted here have ridden a wave this size ? Not many, I’m sure. Don’t talk the talk until you can walk the walk.

  • Max Emberson

    For Kevin and John to appreciate the wipeout, you can check the video below. The video is Laurie Towner’s huge wipeout at Cloudbreak Fiji, so Derek’s wipeout was like this & maybe worse by breaking his leg and snapping his board in 3.

    Cloudbreak when big is something like Sunset power but tubes vertical like Pipe and Derek is paddling to make a macking vertical drop straight into a 100 to 150 meter long freight train tube to make the ride. Dude Derek is a gladiator the waves and places he takes on. He sure gets my respect.

  • Nor Cal locc

    Derek shreds in big waves and small, you gotta give him credit. Plus, Seeking publicity for yourself/surf media blowing up a story, are one in the same. Surfers abilities are theyre business’, and thats how they make money. Whether you are trying to push yourself into the industry, or you are so good that youve had team managers fondeling your balls since you were 8 years old, its a business. Derek is roots. Windansea is roots as fuck (if you dont know, windansea guys were some of the first guys to surf pipe. no lie) Derek and windansea are tied at the hip.

    one thing though:

    I personally know a few locals who have been surfing Mavs longer than derek, and i have been told, that he isnt one of the hard charging psychos that sit on the bowl ie the long brothers. he sits more to the side, and snags the ones that swing wide and arent as critcal.

    Im not hating though, you have to be out of your mind to paddle out there, and he actually won the XXL paddle in award for doing exactly that.

    Big ups derek, i enjoy your blog too!!! RESPECT

  • NOEL Admirer!!!

    XXL speaks for itself…
    theres nothing wrong w/being calculated… i have seen Derek in the water before…
    Ask anyone when its big…. taking a pounding is nothin to take lightly.
    With due time… the haters will shut up.
    but damn XXL paddle award… .now Wipeout award?
    for someone who doesnt tow… that is as heavy as it gets!!! so much hate in this world already… lets have respect for each other… especially when its deserved!

  • buddy rose

    All of you rad big wave guys who think for one second you can do what Derek does are nerds, zeeks. do me a favor. the next big west so. west we get come out to the point . point loma, little Y’s and ditch your goon cord and try to get some sets. not even in the same size shi@ he surfs and I see you poo poo in your new this years awsome have to have suits. P.L. HUI
    P.S. Colin Smith thank you for giving me the balls to surf the right between dolfins and dounuts. Oh and gas for my rig.

  • Sand Sock Girl

    Wow. The quarrel here is quite intense, huh? I don’t really see why kevin and the others are too distraught about this article when everybody has the right to talk about and share their experiences in blogs. There has to be respect given to people who are doing all their best to survive after an accident that basically hampered what could have been a great career. If at some point, they are incomparable to others, there’s no point in bashing and insulting a person’s integrity just because you thought they didn’t live up to others. Peace out, guys. 🙂