By Nathan Myers
What would you do for a million dollars?
While the ASP is upping its prize purses to previously unseen sums — $400,000 per men’s event, more at the upcoming Hurley Pro — it’s also closing those contests off to a super-elite few, leaving the have-nots of the surf game to search elsewhere for their own string of zeroes. But new, non-traditional comp formats are upping the stakes for big moves and big waves. The result is a growing tribe of bounty hunter pros chasing major cash carrots without ever donning a jersey. So what would you do to get paid?
ONE CRAZY AIR — $50,000
Flynn Novak is flipping out. Hucking backwards off every shallow, pitching section he can find and praying for the landing that will save his career. He’s been trying this move for almost 10 years, and this year he’s finally landed it.
With little sponsorship and an empty bank account, Flynn’s homegrown flip clips are all he’s got left. He first posted them on Taylor Steele’s Innersection competition, but a fluke double-up DQ’d him from qualifying. Now he’s posted on the Kustom Airstike website, with US$50,000 up for “one crazy air.” But he’s up against some freakshow talents: Josh Kerr, Chippa Wilson, Mitch Coleborn. This is the new airshow, happening everywhere and anywhere at once. Now that all entries are in, it’s gotten pretty competitive.
Following last year’s controversial conclusion, Kustom appointed a team of specialists — Joel Parkinson, filmmaker Kai Neville, Kustom’s Erick Mehlberg and surf mag editors Travis Ferre and Sam McIntosh — to apply their personal rad-o-meters to this new field of submissions.
As of now, Flynn’s pretty sure he’s gonna look great in that cash jacket — which he’ll probably have dry cleaned at the first bank he passes. But as the judges’ decisions wait to be announced, things are still a bit up in the air.
RIDE OF THE YEAR — US$50,000
Grant “Twiggy” Baker sometimes wonders if he’s setting a good example. He didn’t worry about this before he won $50,000 for death-defying Ride of the Year at Maverick’s last year in the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards. But money makes people crazy. Now he’s gotta think about the children watching.
Here’s the thing: anyone who gets into big-wave surfing just for the money probably deserves to be drowned by the ocean anyway. The risk-to-reward ratio is infinite, and the true believers couldn’t care less. They’d be doing this anyway. Most of them are.
That’s what makes the XXL cool. At the annual Orange County awards show, the oversize check never looks very impressive after all those ridonkulous rides on the big screen. Shane Dorian. Greg and Rusty Long. Ramon Navarro. Laird. The same names appear year after year. They sit at the same table like it’s just another lineup and humbly pay homage to their fellow riders and the power of the ocean. From Greg Noll at Waimea to Snips-n-Gerr at Cortez Bank, “biggest ever” has long been its own reward. A precedent bigger than any photo spread or award show, these guys do it for history.
And ‘cause they’re crazy.
Back when “biggest” was the only criteria for the money, the judging process used to get pretty weird. This odd council of big wave geeks — photo eds, journalists, Jet Ski drivers and Snips — would gather ‘round the photos with rulers and calipers to argue over feet and inches from base to tip on Belharra burgers and Teahupo’o slabs. But since the change to “Ride of the Year,” judges use the same tools as the surfers: the gut.
“It’s way better than just biggest wave,” says Twiggy. “But I did think Dorian was gonna win because of it.”
As a main dish, big-wave movies are potato salad. Pure Novocain. Like watching the entire Indy 500 on your laptop. Just show us the crashes, right? A prime selection of the year’s best — biggest set from biggest day at biggest spot — now that’s better than Fox’s Bloodiest Police Chases.
This is an award we can sink our ugly human nature into. Feel the bloody juice run down our chin. Mmmmm, danger.
Each year, one lucky lunatic earns enough cheddar to re-boot his Jet Ski and pay off some of his credit card debt. US$50k goes fast when you’re outrunning 100-foot waves for a living. Meanwhile, “Wipeout of the Year” gets a plaque worth US$9.99. That goes fast, too.
When the show’s over, the big-wave warriors just go back to doing what they do. Penniless surf bums head-butting skyscrapers somewhere light-years away from the Orange County garment district.
“On the biggest days,” says Twiggy, “it’s still just you and the wave. I don’t think about money at all.”
BEST VIDEO SECTION — US$100,000
Josh Kerr quit the Dream Tour to focus on his blog. Sounds Kerr-azy, right? But that’s how weird things have gotten.
“When I was growing up we didn’t pay attention to people’s results on tour,” says Kerr. “It was all about the latest video sections. That’s what really mattered. I just didn’t want to be making a profile film when I was in my mid-30s.”
In addition to an active blog and a forthcoming profile film, Kerr’s got several entries in the Airstrike contest and just won a qualifying round of Taylor Steele’s new Innersection project. Instead of another round of equal 9ths and regrettable 17ths, Kerr is cementing a year in your surf library. Raising a next generation on Kerr-azy slides and Kerr-upt flips. Don’t call it a trademark thang.
Of all the bounties dangling, Innersection is surely the most sophisticated. Rather than praise a single fortuitous moment, Innersection demands a surfer’s full attention: three minutes of tightly edited, original footage. Airs. Tubes. Turns. Size. Music. Style. Destinations. The complete package.
Four times a year, a few dozen pro surfers post their best efforts on Steele’s website and — unlike the XXL and Kustom Airstrike — let everyday surfers decide their fate.
It’s yielded interesting results: Canadian cold-smith Peter Devries. Mid-coast nature-buff Nate Tyler. Maui lost boy Matt Meola. New Zealand journeyman Luke Cederman. “These are guys I might never have put in a video before,” says Steele, “but they’re definitely deserving. And that’s what this is about.”
Just don’t call it surfing’s American Idol. Innersection isn’t quite the open casting call it might seem. From hot tickets like Craig Anderson and Clay Marzo, to established talents like Cory Lopez and Ozzie Wright, Innersection’s Top 10 lists have turned away more than enough WCTers and established freesurfers to put fear in the hearts of anyone. Hard work distinguishes the qualifiers. Surfers need to find a filmmaker, gather their clips, pick a song and even market their section. It’s a resume builder beyond just hoping some filmer nails it.
Beyond the US$100k carrot, what surfers seem to be competing for in Steele’s event is a place in history. From Momentum to Stranger Than Fiction, Steele’s films have long set surfing’s high-performance bar. Now he’s crossing the streams of Internet connectivity with CASH motivation to super-charge the programming.
Or is he just making surfers do all the work for him?
“We’re not making anyone do anything,” Steele says. “The money is there for the taking. And for everyone else, this is an opportunity to do their job and a chance to be part of something fun and different. Even the filmmakers and viewers. It’s not about money. It’s about surfing.”
Instead of asking what you’d do for a million dollars, ask what you’d do if money weren’t an issue. Surf all day. Live on the beach. Hang out with your friends and never work again.
In the end, everyone just wants to keep surfing. All these bounties, prizes and contests are an excuse to stay in the water. To justify our little “industry” so none of us ever has to get a real job or put quotation marks around the word freesurfer.
Sure, the payouts are getting higher: A $100,000 bonus at the US Open. A $500,000 spread in Rio. A cool million dollars at the Vans Triple Crown. It’s still peanuts compared to “real” sports like golf and car driving, but slowly more and more guys are making a living doing what they love.