Mick Fanning: The Devil In The Details
Tradition, technique, and the fate of form in surfing.
Interview by Beau Flemister
Photography by Corey Wilson
It has all become quite blatant. What thrills us goes fzzzzz-POP! like a firecracker. What excites us is immediate and obvious. What delights us explodes, makes our heart thump, is in our f–king face.
Where has all the art gone? Have we lost the mystery? Can we still stand in front of a canvas and watch the painting come to life? Are there details left noticing beyond slob-grab or stale? Is progression and modern defined only by the shock-and-awe? Indeed this magazine will be the first to celebrate the money-shot moments, but are we losing sight of nuance and line?
A confession: Once upon a time a couple months ago, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Fanning. It wasn’t that I questioned his ability; it was just that…maybe he was too consistent. Always around. And after more than a decade full of Fanning, his performances seemed so…predictable. Boring, even. All he does is turn, I’d ponder. As if a turn didn’t contain a world of its own. As if a turn weren’t still the most emotionally charged maneuver that exists.
If in fact form and technique are lost arts, then Fanning is our virtuoso of the line. Perhaps there is a power in his predictability. Perhaps there’s something wicked in the details, a hidden complexity in his approach. And perhaps consistency is wildly underrated.
Shortly after Portugal and on the cusp of a fourth world title, Mick and I explored this lost art. And wouldn’t ya know, there was something I’d been missing in the picture, looking down the line at that centerfold section. There is an art in the build-up, in the move before the move that’s as deliberate as it is exhilarating. But lemme let Mick explain…
SURFING: The concept of “progression” in our sport seems to equate with something spontaneous or surprising these days. Your style of surfing, however, seems to be something…different. Rather than going for that one big move, you utilize the wave more traditionally.
MICK: I have nothing against guys racing down the line looking for a section. Obviously everyone wants to see guys doing ginormous airs on every single wave. I was watching Gab’s wave the other day [his 10-point backside full rotation] and tripping out. But surfing is an expressive thing and there’s no one way or direct line to follow. The lines that I draw are the lines that I want to draw and I wouldn’t want to be dictated to on how I’m meant to surf.
Can you sum up how you like to surf?
Growing up the people I looked at for inspiration were guys like Taylor Knox, Tom Curren, Occy — to me, their lines were perfect. Basically, they surfed like ‘push as hard-as you can’ and the way they would hit those turns sooo perfectly — they’d be coming out of them faster. That style of surfing feels better to me than racing down the line, trying to do a big air or something. Most of my focus has always been how to maintain that speed, or even to accelerate, coming out of a turn.
But the judges are increasingly giving more 10s for those big, risky maneuvers. With the way that you surf do you feel like you have to try even harder to make the judges notice?
The way I see it, I know I have to put a whole wave together in order to get that score. To be totally honest, every time I’ve tried an air in a heat I lose. [laughs] It’s not that I don’t like doing them, but that’s just not the way I want to surf. And I think that’s the beauty of our sport — that there are different ways to get 10s. I think that’s what makes it exciting and why it keeps people so interested. For instance, Gabe almost got two 10s for two totally different styles of surfing. But people don’t remember the 9.8 because they’re so focused on that air. But those first two turns…if he would have connected that third turn like the first two, it would have been a 10. No one remembered that, but that 9.8 was some of the best surfing that he’s done in an entire year.
So you gotta turn the judges on in a different way…
When Taylor Knox was in his last couple years on tour, he’d do a bottom turn and wind up, and you’d feel the whole crowd get so excited. But different people like to see different things and that’s beautiful. The main thing is that I want to build that anticipation, ya know? So every now and then, I want to burn a section. It makes everyone watching wonder, “All right, what the hell is gonna happen next?”
And that’s all very intentional — ‘burning sections,’ as you say?
Yeah, depending on where you’re surfing and what you’re doing. There are different ways to work out what they’re judging on. Usually, I watch the whole first day and then figure out where they’re going and what they want to see. I might have a game plan but I’ll notice what they keep scoring high. But building that anticipation, that’s just the drama of surfing. And the judges too — they’re all human and they’re all fans of the sport. So if I can create a bit of drama…I think it really helps.
Everybody watches everyone and has a tactical plan. Even in freesurfing. Dane, for instance, will watch everyone’s footage and pick out what he loves and then put his own twist on it. And that’s pretty much what every surfer does. They watch everyone, then put their own twist on it. I do it. When I’m looking at airs I look at someone like Filipe and try to figure out how he spins so quickly…
Do the judges ever talk with you guys about that ‘emotional factor’ or how they want their heartstrings pulled?
Nah, it’s sort of an unsaid thing.
As far as form and technique go, whose form impresses you most on tour?
Mmm, how John John on the first day of the comp was ripping into those carves, or even on the smaller day when he was putting it so on edge and knifing it sooo hard — that excites me. Some people pick their targets really well and just have incredible timing. Wiggolly Dantas, for instance, hits the lip with such incredible timing that he’s just sending sooo much spray and I’m just going, “How can he be that perfect with his timing every time?’” Timing is a lost art.
And what are your secrets to timing?
I’m still trying to figure that out! [laughs] I just like to see guys push as hard as they can, whether on a rail or in the air. I want to see somebody give it their all by the end of the wave. I can always see when people are in top-notch form. Jordy and John John on this leg [Europe] last year. That kind of form can be with you, and it can also disappear in the blink of an eye.
How the hell do you maintain your consistency, year after year?
When you’ve been on tour as long as I have, every year you change your goals and you sort of have to reinvent yourself. So for me, now, it’s all about the process. It’s not even necessarily about the result but it’s about performing my best within that half an hour. That’s probably where the form comes through. Being ready at any given point to surf is good form. I don’t want to go out there and not show up. That’s pretty embarrassing, because the whole world is watching.
I’ll be the first one to say that my form when I first got on tour was so erratic. I’d have a great heat then a shocker and consistency was a big issue for me. It was something I worked toward. For me, if I don’t perform at a level that’s high enough, I’ll stew on it for weeks. I’ll just start burning up and be pissed off till the next event. I try to keep myself very prepared so when I lay my head down at night I don’t have those ‘shoulda-coulda-woulda’ thoughts.
You said that each year you have to reinvent yourself. I feel like I haven’t seen huge changes in your approach over the years; tell me about that.
For instance, last year was a little bit more planned out and strategic while this year has been more event-to-event. Every event I set goals for myself. On the surfing side, I think I wanted to be a bit more emotional on the wave this year. Putting more emotion into each turn and I’m not talking about claims; I’m talking about when you see a section and you’re like, “Here it comes; I’m gonna smash it.”
I just didn’t want to hold back this year and that’s been different from others. Every year the plan changes and that’s part of how you reinvent yourself. A great example of reinventing yourself was when Kelly went from his wrap — which was one of the most priceless things in surfing — to doing full rotations. That was surprising to me because I feel like his turns are the best turns ever. But as he’s been trying more airs he’s done some of the craziest ones ever. And they never would have been done if he hadn’t gone down that path. Maybe for me, the big question has been: Do you surf for the seven or try to go all out and nail it? I choose to go all out because if I fall, then I’ll have those regrets anyway.
And you really never just go for the seven when just need…a seven?
No, that’d eat me up at night.
Do you feel like the concepts of form and technique are getting lost among the youth these days?
Yes and no. There’s that Gabriel air, for example. He zipped down the line for that big ol’ air, but then his next few waves were all traditional surfing and blowing the back out of it. I think kids see a lot of these video parts and guys are doing all these big airs but you don’t see the hundreds of waves it takes to put together a part. I think if somebody can do both styles of surfing — progressive and traditional — and put it together, they’ll be unstoppable. And that’s what we see from Gabe and John John and Julian. When they get it right and blend those two styles, they’re untouchable. Keeping that form for an extended period is the hard part.
Is it possible to have excellent form with ugly style?
I think style has sort of gone out of the window these days. [laughs]
Has it? Go on…
Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s it was all about style. You had guys like MR, Shaun Tomson, MP, Rabbit…or guys at Pipe like Gerry Lopez and Ronnie Burns…even Manoa Drollet in Tahiti: all of them looking so relaxed. Today there’s still great style, and there are guys that make it look easy, which is what I feel good style is. Style is making things look aesthetically easy or effortless that you know are actually very difficult. But there are definitely guys that don’t make it look amazing that are still getting their boards in crazy places. [laughs] I guess it just comes down to personal opinion. Form and technique are a lot more transparent than what is or isn’t good style.
And whose style have you always loved?
When I first got on tour, the guys that I loved to go and watch were Sunny Garcia, Occy, Luke Egan, Andy Irons — the guys that would just throw everything into it. When I say that, I don’t mean all-out aggression. It’s doing things where they’re pushing sooo hard but still somehow keeping perfect form, going from one movement to the next without any downtime. That is the sort of stuff I love doing. Basically trying to perfect all those puzzles, and then be able to put them all together in a heat.
What’s the biggest thing that’s changed in your surfing over the last decade?
Probably strength. I was a pretty skinny, gangly kid that wanted to do power-turns like Sunny Garcia, but…[laughs] yeah, I would kinda surf on the water then, where as now I wanna drive through it. And that’s not just about putting on more muscle, that’s learning how to use rail. Learning good technique, and how to hold that turn for as long as I can.
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