HOW TANNER GUDAUSKAS BRINGS HIS MIND’S OASIS TO THE REAL WORLD
BY TAYLOR PAUL

PLACE: 405 NORTHBOUND, LOS ANGELES-ISH

ME: FICTION OR NON-FICTION?

TANNER: Fiction.

ME: MORNING, NOON OR NIGHT?

TANNER: Night...noon...naaaah —morning. [laughs] F--k! You got me.

ME: WINDOW OR AISLE?

TANNER: These questions are hard! Uh...aisle. I have a small bladder.

ME: FRIES OR SALAD?

TANNER: Salad

ME: BEER, WINE OR SPIRITS?

Tanner: Beer.

ME: LOOP SWOOP AND PULL, OR RABBIT EARS?

Tanner: The ears!

Tanner’s right foot rests on the gas peddle as he maneuvers his 2004 Sprinter Van through a freeflowing vein of L.A.’s normally clogged arteries. There, draped over both sides of his Sk8-Hi Vans, are two floppy rabbit ears.
I’m riding shotgun. There’s a bed in the back, as well as a cooler filled with Coors Original, hummus and Jalapeño cream cheese. Camping materials — sleeping bags, firewood, propane tanks, a grill that looks like a spaceship — are strewn about the floor. Six surfboards lie on racks overhead. We have everything we need for a California road trip. Although…

Mysteriously Absent
A photographer
A videographer
Matches (“Damn it!”)
Anything resembling a plan

It’s ironic we’d forgo the first two, since the purpose of this road trip is to work on a SURFING profile film, and the article you’re reading now. And while we already have a cache of photos and footage from California, Hawaii, France and Fiji, I figured we’d bring someone to capture more than sound bites. Because if a professional surfer lands a trick and nobody’s around to film it, did it really happen?
But Tanner insisted that our journey be as lean as possible. It was to be a “vision quest,” guided by the “no-plan plan,” anchored in the time-honored California tradition of “two guys camping on a camp trip.”
We just needed some matches.

Place: Around a campfire (we got matches) in Central California

Me: Butt or boobs?

Tanner: Boobs.

Me: Blonde or brunette?

Tanner: Brunette

Me: Sunrise or sunset?

Tanner: Sunset.

Me: Longboard or Wavestorm?

Tanner: Longboard

Me: Build a sandcastle or dig a hole?

Tanner: I’m gonna build it up from the ground up.

A biting wind blows through the canyon and Tanner pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. “It’s chilly,” he says, reaching a pocketknife toward the campfire, a browning marshmallow impaled on its tip. Stars blink above us in a black sky. Flames swirl and the smoke bends. Our wetsuits hang over a dewy picnic table.
We surfed twice today and it pains me to say, Tanner’s performance made me wish we’d brought a filmer. During our first session at Emma Wood, he didn’t stop moving the entire time, stalking chest high peaks up and down the beach, opting left to fly into the air wind. His surfing was sharp and powerful, but more than anything, it was energized. And not just during peak moments — throughout entire rides, Filipe Toledo-style. In every rotation and power gouge, every transition and bottom turn, there was a palpable feeling of I’M HAVING FUN AND I GIVE A SHIT. He brought CT-level talent to QS-style waves. And yet, except for about seven-minutes in CT heaven back in 2012, the QS is where Tanner lives.

Taking the marshmallow from the fire and smashing it between two grahams, Tanner explains his relationship with competition.
“I qualified when I was 21 and was on tour for six months,” he explains, an unfortunate victim of the mid-year cutoff experiment. “Since then, it’s almost been this hangover I’ve been dealing with but not really addressing. At first I was just like, ‘It’s cool. I’ll get it again next year.’ But I just kept trying and trying until I realized at the end of last season that it’s been five years.”
Tanner’s surfing is there. He proved this by qualifying in the first place. So where has he been lacking since then?

“You get on cold streaks on the QS and it can really zap your confidence,” he says. “A lot is riding on every heat and when you try your hardest — get down to the beach early, have a game plan, surf well — and come up with nothing, over time it makes you feel like you don’t have the ability to win. I just habituated to losing. Like, ‘Oh, I made the round of 24, that felt pretty good.’ But then I started thinking, round of 24? I should be wanting quarters and finals.”

But right now — surfed out, in nature, two guys around a campfire camping on a camp trip — jerseys and scores and horns seem like a world away. It’s late. Time for bed. Brush the s’mores from our teeth. Kick the raccoon out of the van. Prep the sleeping bags. Slide the door closed. Fade to black. Outside, the offshore wind directs the smoke into our damp wetsuits. Starting tomorrow, Ash will be our cologne every time we paddle out.

Place: Sprinter van, checking the waves in Big Sur

Me: Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?

Tanner: Luke Skywalker.

Me: Seeds or seedless?

Tanner: Seedless.

Me: Hunter or gatherer?

Tanner: Together as one. Hunter and gatherer.

Me: Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings?

Tanner: Damn you! Harry Potter.

Me: Ignore it, or tell someone they have something in their teeth?

Tanner: I ignore it, but I hope that people tell me.

Me: You have something in your teeth.

Tanner: Do I?

Me: Nah.

Just off Highway 1, down a narrow road, under a bridge, at the base of thousands of feet of hillside, we watch a left peel into a rocky cove. We came here on a recommendation from a local we met in Morro Bay. He began as guarded, speaking vaguely about the perfect waves he’d scored recently at mysterious local spots. Tanner engaged earnestly, but asked for no clues. Soon, unprompted, the guy was dropping spot names and showing us photos on his phone as proof. Then he told us that it’d be good up the coast this afternoon. Tanner didn’t ask where, but before we knew it the guy was drawing us a map. This kind of stuff happens a lot to Tanner, his positive energy running so hot that ignites all obstacles before him.

“It’s always good to see the glass half-full,” he says as we watch a big set closeout across the cove. “But it’s unrealistic to think that way all the time. What’s more important is how you approach the adversity and challenges that arise in your life.”

One strategy Tanner uses to fight adversity is going somewhere called, “mental paradise,” a sanctuary in his mind where contentment rules all. (Bonus: It sounds a lot cooler than “happy place.”)

“I go to mental paradise when I’m having a shocker,” he explains. “I just think about scoring perfect waves or camping with my friends, doing exactly what I love doing. It’s a anecdote for fighting a bad vibe. Like, ‘I’m gonna disappear now. I’m going to mental paradise, I will see you soon.’”

This method seems to be working, as the word positivity has almost become synonymous with Tanner and his brothers, Patrick and Dane. The three of them have brought mental paradise into real life through the Positive Vibe Warriors (PVW), an organization that is part charity, part brand, part lifestyle. “The goal of PVW is to effect youth water education and surf communities in a positive way,” he says. This is done through online clothing sales and their Stoke-O-Rama surf events, which raise money for organizations like the San Clemente Junior Lifeguard and Jamaican Surfing associations.

“We’re not trying to be in your face or say that you have to be positive about everything. Because, really, PVW started when I was feeling really down. I was having a lot of trouble surfing in contests. I was traveling alone. Pat was still on the CT. Dane was not. And Dane drew these little three little guys on my board, just this rad piece of art, and then wrote Positive Warriors next to it. And he was like, ‘Dude, who gives a shit? You’re doing you and that’s all you can ask for. If you ever get bummed out, just look at your board and know that I put all this love into it, and get stoked again.’

The waves continue to pour in, breaking off exposed rock and into a barely holding channel. Plenty of closeouts, but the gems shine more clearly now. We suit up, paddle out, and Tanner proceeds have a session that could light a city for a week. Not a misplaced rail, not an unflexed muscle. Just a watermelon sized smile driving down the line, fast and loose and powerful and WHAM-BAM-POW. If we had a filmer, he would have had his end-section. If we had a photog, he woulda had a cover. But we’re just two guys camping, alone except for the Asian couple cheering from the rocks. They’ll be so impressed by Tanner’s surfing that they’ll leave an offering on the windshield of the van — we’d find it when we got out of the water — a vacuum sealed nug with “Candyland” written on the plastic. We wouldn’t smoke it. We were feeling pretty high already.

Place: Highway 1, just north of Big Sur

Me: Coffee or tea?

Tanner: Coffee.

Me: Chocolate or vanilla?

Tanner: Chocolate.

Me: Dane or Kelly?

Tanner: Dane Gudauskas

Me: Film or digital?

Tanner: Film.

Me: Death by shark attack or drowning?

Tanner: Drowning.

Me: I feel like a shark would be way more badass.

Tanner: You know, yesterday when you caught that really long wave and I was out the back by myself I was thinking, “OK, there are probably sharks here, and if I go, at least the boys will know I was doing exactly what I loved doing.”

It picked up overnight. A lot. We drive north out of Big Sur and, between pockets of fog, watch wide corduroy lines stack toward the horizon. Tanner calls Dave Nelson to get the report in Santa Cruz. Rainy. South winds. A movie day. It’s clean here, just too big. Shit. Are we really going to spend our last day dry docked? The past three days we’ve scored increasingly better waves, surfing by ourselves every session except one. I’d hoped this pulse of swell would provide the crescendo to an already blaring road trip anthem.

“There’s one spot that might be able to hold this,” I tell Tanner. “Go left here.” We drive through a maze of tiny streets, past gazillion dollar homes to a place I’ve only heard about. We arrive to the bluff and within 20 seconds of watching the distant lineup we see a guy freefall from a 15-footer, stick the airdrop, then get exploded by the whitewater.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tanner starts freaking out. Giddy. He’s never heard of this wave and suddenly he’s looking at a Hawaii-style outer reef reeling off into a postcard-perfect bay. We make a plan — drive to my house in Santa Cruz, get big boards, big leashes and safety vests — turn around and come back with two cars. After the session Tanner will drive back to San Clemente, I’ll return to Santa Cruz. There’s still hope for a crescendo.

Speeding north, something’s bugging me and I realize that this might be the last time to talk to Tanner for this piece. This whole trip he’s talked about competing and requalifiying, but I want to know, why will this push for the CT be any different? So I ask.
“After thinking about it last year, I realized that I’d never really given the QS my full effort,” he says. “I was always trying to do everything and not prioritizing competition. So this year I’m trying to come at it with a clear head, keep the focus and try my hardest from Australia all the way to Hawaii. Just hungry for wins.”

“Do you think it’s healthy to put so much value on qualifying?” I ask, in part because I believe Tanner has much to offer the surf world outside competition. He’s smart, creative, ambitious. I’d hate for the QS grind to smother that.

“I think discipline is healthy,” he says. “No matter what you do in life, having the discipline to chase a goal is a good thing. It gives you focus. What I don’t think is healthy is putting all your eggs in one basket, training as hard as you possibly can and losing sight of what it is to be a surfer. But if you’re committing to go to all these events and put a full year together, you need go all in. Otherwise, why do it?”

We get to my house, grab what we need and bolt back down south to the final, beautiful sight of our vision quest. It’s still pumping. Nobody out. Psych up, suit up, strap up and jump in. I look at Tanner — grinning like a drunk teenager, paddling a 15 year old, sitckerless 9’8” toward an unknown lineup without a photographer or filmer in sight — and I realize that I don’t need to worry about Tanner requalifying. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, it will be because he wasn’t able to sacrifice what it means to be a surfer. Because this, right here, is what it means.

After 20 minutes of paddling we reach the lineup. Huge swells pass beneath us, dense fog drifts a few hundred feet above. We shake our heads and laugh in disbelief — once again we are surfing alone, about to score. Deep breaths. Settle in. It’s quiet except for the lapping of water against our boards. Suddenly, the horizon grows long and dark and steep. We are nowhere near the lineup. We break toward the channel. Sprint paddling toward deep water. A 25-foot wall extends past our reach, feathering as it drags along a shallow section beyond us. It boils. It lurches. It’s breaking and we’re not going to make it. Tanner is just out ahead of me and emits an adrenaline-laced cackle just before he dives under. What’s funny about this? F--k. I take two hurried breaths, the smell of ash and salt water stinging my nose, and dive. This is our crescendo. Ironic that it’s muffled by all this water. Oh, well. Guess adversity isn’t limited to land. For the next few violent moments, beneath the weight of the Pacific, I transport myself to mental paradise. Tanner’s already there.