Wave of the Future

Surfer magazine's sometimes-wild, sometimes-mild 50-year ride

Wave of the Future

Surfing existed long before Surfer magazine. History books, along with the writings of Mark Twain and Jack London, tell us so.

But The Surfer, as it was originally titled, started something, if only by accident.

“It was supposed to be a tribute or celebration of surfing,” John Severson says. “I just wanted to make it a beautiful thing that surfers would appreciate and I’d be proud of in the future.”

The Surfer’s original purpose was to be a promotional item to be sold at screenings for Severson’s third surf film, Surf Fever. He had pulled together frame grabs from his filming in California and Hawaii; he wrote up and pieced together editorial content and sketched out a few cartoons for the margins, then he laid them out on the floor of his Dana Point home. The cover of the 36-page, black-and-white booklet features a grainy image of Jose Angel, his arms splayed as he drops into a massive wave at Sunset Beach in January 1960. Severson spent $3,000 to print 10,000 copies, selling them for $1.50 each; at the time, Life sold on newsstands for 25 cents.

“We sold 5,000 right off the bat; the other 5,000 sold over a few years,” Severson recalls.

Today, a copy of that first issue of The Surfer, well-worn and with unglued pages, can be purchased online for $1,750. One former Surfer editor said he received calls offering more, but on each occasion, the answer was no. The magazine only has a couple of copies in its possession. More than a collector’s item, a copy of that edition is a tangible representation of the earliest days of surfing’s documented history.

Although Severson gave surfing its first voice, he is no longer involved with the magazine. Surfer (the “The” was dropped in 1964) is part of action-sports media conglomerate Source Interlink. Just about every country that has a coastline has at least one surf magazine. Orange County is home to a handful, including Surfing, The Surfer’s Journal, Bl!sss and the recently introduced Ghetto Juice.

Surfing is a multibillion-dollar industry with publicly traded clothing brands, a professional competitive tour that surfs waves the world over, weeks-in-advance online swell forecasts and weekend-long trade shows; it has inspired feature-length movies and video games. Professional surfers sign hefty sponsorship contracts, drive nice cars and have personal surfboard shapers. Family and friends watch live webcasts of Pat and Tanner Gudauskas, blond brothers from San Clemente, competing.

With the digital medium now a major player in the media landscape, magazines from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair to Surfer are feeling the pinch. Younger readers of the convenience generation, want sooner, faster, better, so a once-a-month magazine is forced to adjust. The Surfer staff knows it’s behind the digital curve and is working to catch up while balancing deadlines, creating an iPad application, dealing with last-minute Surfer Poll preparations, booking flights to Hawaii for Triple Crown season and getting settled into its new offices. Busy schedules aside, the aim is still to—as surfers would say—stoke the readers on an issue-to-issue basis.

“I think I’m, like, the tail end of a generation that just lived for [Surfer] coming once a month,” says Tanner Gudauskas, who recently landed his first cover, a shot of him boosting big air in Baja California. “Now with all info online with the Internet, blogs and online features, maybe it’s not appreciated the same. I don’t know if kids get the same rush. But it used to be if you were in or on the magazine, you were the shit.”

*     *     *

Severson lives with his wife, Louise, in a modest home on Maui overlooking Napili Bay. The bay has a good surf spot off the point, and at 77, he still catches waves somewhat regularly, sitting the farthest out, waiting for the sets. His home is separated into two buildings connected by stepping stones. Severson spends much of his time in his office, which is cluttered and worn but seems appropriate for a man who has done as much as he has. A shelf above his desk is lined with thick, white notebooks, each filled with photo transparencies. Several of his paintings, which have appeared in galleries and on magazine covers for years now, hang on the walls. His hair is white, his skin tan and weathered; he’s usually barefoot and wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

At the time he started The Surfer, Severson had a Bolex camera, several rolls of film and a master’s in art education from Long Beach State College (now Cal State Long Beach). He was 27 and handsome, with short, wavy brown hair and an athletic physique. Most every surfer of the day fit that mold. Severson was known and liked by those he filmed, photographed and wrote about.

The timing of The Surfer was right. Three surfing publications preceded it, but none lasted more than a couple of issues. When Severson’s booklet showed up at bookstores and the few surf shops in Southern California coastal towns, the sport was in the midst of its first boom.

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