Does Men’s Surfing Have A Quitting Epidemic?

by Paul Evans March 14, 2022 5 min read

In 1992, Brad Gerlach retired from the brand new World Championship Tour after finishing the previous season as the world title runner-up.

At 25, he’d already done a lot of surfing, competing, and a fair share of living. Known as one of the tour’s bon vivants in an era when the extracurricular was compulsory, cultural highs included buying motorbikes in London in 1989 with Marty Thomas and riding out the second summer of love Euro leg in leathers. In the water, his surfing was ahead of its time, a bridge between the 80’s animals and the New School. It was fresh. Radical. 

“I reflect on that decision to quit and think I might have done it differently if I’d maybe been better advised,” Gerlach explains. “I finished second because I didn’t believe I could win, and I didn’t know who to talk to about that, because you were supposed to have this front. But at the same time, I gained a lot from quitting. Once off tour, I learned to play music, I had the most incredible time traveling alone and not being a surf star. I was a bit over being Gerr. Walking into a bar and everyone’s like ‘Hey! Gerr!’ I wanted to be a regular person, like, ‘Who’s that weird guy with the yellow pants on [laughs]?’”

“I’m the kind of person who gets bored real easily,” said a young Gerr.

And while Gerr, I mean Brad, is able to laugh off some of the emotional triggers that lead to such a monumental life decision, many high profile surfers who walk away from the tour, just like anybody in the public eye, might well have personal issues that we’re not privy to. But what we can observe from fan distance, is how the premature curtailing of careers tends to add to pop culture’s forever young, good-looking corpse ideal. Career brevity often ups the value of the art. The Smiths released The Smiths in early 1984 and broke up just three years later. That’s less than half the time Jake Marshall spent on the QS.

Professional surfing historically has an above-average incidence of those at the very top either taking a mid-career break or quitting the tour altogether. Gabriel Medina’s announcement at the start of this year that he wouldn’t be defending his world title in Hawaii may have shocked the surf world at large but it was hardly unprecedented. In fact, Mick Fanning is the only surfer out of the five 3x world champs who didn’t retire or take at least one season off before their 30th birthday. 

Mick Fanning, seen here with the perks of not taking a year off. Photo: Corey Wilson/Red Bull Content Pool

Some 55 years before Medina’s surprise withdrawal, surfing’s original anti-hero Miki Dora exited stage left at the 1967 Malibu Invitational. According to Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, “he advanced to the semifinals, where he paddled into a wave, stood and trimmed, dropped his trunks to moon the judging panel, and left the beach.” While hardly the conclusion of a contest career — Da Cat only rarely sullied himself in a singlet — it set the tone for a surfing’s fascination with sudden, often dramatic exits. Ever since Miki’s moon, stickin’ it to that pale, male, stale panel of stiffs known as the judges has become surfers’ cherished, soul-saving bank of last resort. Off with the singlet and over the horizon to pastures new; in Dora’s case, out of the way pointbreaks and credit card fraud.

Mark Richards, whilst hardly the anti-establishment icon, also quit the tour at 25 on the back of one of surfing’s most successful ever world titles runs, four in a row from ‘79-‘82. While the Wounded Seagull’s back trouble had much to do with that decision as well as the appeal of staying at home to resume his shaping career, the various pressures of being on the road — in an era when little thought was put to athlete well-being — no doubt played a part too. Thus, at the very dawn of the ASP in 1983, the best competitive surfer in the world suddenly wasn’t on the world tour anymore. 

By the late ’90s, Kelly Slater, having seen MR’s four consecutive titles and raised him a fifth, also decided there was somewhere he’d rather be. Slater has several peers famous for turning their backs on the tour, but he alone is famous for not quitting. Having made his CT comeback in 2002, wrestling back World Title silverware from Andy Irons is just one part in a series of events that sees him still competing on tour two decades later. In the interim, Kelly’s non-committal to near future participation has no parallel. Whether or not he would show at the Australian leg was as much January surf chat in the mid-noughties, as it is in 2022. 

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Kelly Slater said: “Everyone who retires from surfing just goes surfing more.” Photo: Thiago Diz/WSL

Meanwhile, broader society’s views on quitting, like carbs, have been radically rethought. Once seen as downright anti-American, quitting was almost as bad as reasoning that evolution is more plausible than talking snakes. Quitting was surrender, devious, dishonorable…French. More enlightened times suggest that quitting is actually productive. Freakonomics podcast listeners, for example, could quote numerous captains of industry whose sudden change of tack from one failed venture led to a new path and a world of opportunity.

“There’s a lot more to life than winning a championship,” said Tom Curren, surfing’s most revered quitter. “All it signifies is who’s best at getting four waves to the beach, and when you look at it in that form, it’s really insignificant.” Four years after that particular insight came the 26-year-old Curren’s third, 1990 World Title, already a comeback victory, having taken 1989 off. The following season he’d have a stickerless Haleiwa win on the Maurice Cole reverse vee, that Backdoor carve, and retirement. And while Curren was supremely popular with fans whilst a touring pro, his canonization really came after he left. 

Tom Curren is currently 57, and this video is swiftly approaching 1 million views. Ain’t that something?

Because he quit, he somehow exists in a permanent state of quit. Tom Curren has been a freesurfer longer than Slater has been winning World Titles, beyond the Search or the fish revolution, a reluctant flag bearer for surf savory, an enchanting blend of mystique and righteous virtue. Somehow, he’s simultaneously both the orthodoxy and the counter-culture. And because he’s still going, he even still holds that dominion over the fan. He could still quit, quitting any day now.

Retired mainstream sports legends might reveal they haven’t kicked/thrown a ball in years. But for all of surfing’s misplaced exceptionalism, perhaps there lies its one truth: our competitive departees surf — or at least we like to think so — more than ever. And despite them living entirely unrelated existences to us, what we really want them to do is live out our one shared, achievable dream: to fuck it all off and go surfing.  

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