Wave of the Future

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

In 1981, Paul Holmes, an Englishman who had built a shaping and writing career in Australia, assumed the role of editor. He oversaw 100 issues of Surfer as surfing as we know it today took shape. Tom Curren, Tom Carroll and Mark Occhilupo were upcoming stars; mega-brands Quiksilver and Billabong came to the forefront, transforming surfing into a billion-dollar industry.

“There was a lot going on,” Holmes recalls, smiling while looking out on his Laguna Beach back yard. He’s now 61 and lives with his wife in a simple, one-story white house, just up the hill from the water’s edge. His hair is slicked-back, white and wispy, and he’s got a matching patch on his chin. The title on his business card is Media and Marketing Consultant, but he has also written two books and been involved with a half-dozen others. Being the editor of the magazine in surfing lends a guy some credibility.

While Holmes was editor, the rivalry between Surfer and Surfing was at its most heated. “It was absolutely fucking intense,” he says.

John Severson at his home office in Maui
Ray Mains
John Severson at his home office in Maui
Severson in the '60s, working from 
San Onofre
Courtesy of John Severson
Severson in the '60s, working from San Onofre

Pezman referred to the two as “blood enemies,” likening the rivalry to “Stanford and Cal or USC vs. UCLA.”

In 1974, when Bob Mignogna joined Surfing’s advertising sales team, the magazine was a distant second to Surfer by every conceivable measure. Mignogna was young and likeable, with a New Yorker’s assertiveness, and he was competitive. He quickly ascended to the head of the sales department.

“I had only planned to stay around a year because I was going to go back into teaching; I had a job lined up in New Zealand,” says Mignogna, now 61 and the director general of the International Surfing Association. “I decided, if I’m going to stick around, we need to become the No. 1 magazine. I grew up in [New York City], with the Yankees winning world championships; winning was the goal.”

With the support of its new editor, Dave Gilovich, Surfing adopted a motto from Rolling Stone: “Differentiate or die.” The magazine immediately linked itself with whom it saw as up-and-coming surfers, predominantly Australians and South Africans.

“We embraced the brand-new pro tour, embraced young contemporary surfers who were bustin’ down the door and all the development in the business of the sport,” Mignogna says. “Surfer, led by Pezman, took the opposing position.”

While the respective ad and editorial teams battled, the heart of the rivalry was what happened on the beach—and in the darkroom. “Getting the shot” was the biggest deal in surf media—and it still is. Larry “Flame” Moore was Surfing’s go-to photographer. No one embraced the rivalry more than he. Moore “fought the dirty street battles,” says Mignogna. He adopted Salt Creek as his studio, and when opposing photographers showed up to shoot his waves and his surfers, words were had. When Moore took Curren—at the time, the top surfer in the world—to Todos Santos, a big-wave spot off the coast of Mexico, and Surfer photographer Jeff Divine showed up, Mignogna says, Moore sent Divine’s camera into the Pacific.

*     *     *

The rivalry still exists—but now it’s a sibling rivalry. In the ’90s, the publishing house that owned Surfing purchased the one that owned Surfer. This past March, when Surfer moved into its new offices, Surfing moved in down the hall.

The tan two-story building, wrapped with mirrored windows, is emblazoned with “Source Interlink” and located in a corporate business park perched atop a hill in San Clemente. Surfer’s lobby features a surfboard above the reception desk, and the halls are lined with framed photos. No one wears suits or ties, but there’s no tracked-in sand or flip-flops; the office is quiet and the carpets are spotless.

Having just relocated from San Juan Capistrano, its home since the ’70s, the office feels bare and “sterile,” as editor-at-large Joel Patterson says.

It’s a Monday in late November, and the editors are finishing up an issue before boarding a midweek flight to Oahu. Surfer has a house on the sand on the North Shore, near Pupukea, and a week from today is the annual Surfer Poll and Movie award ceremony, which is being held at Turtle Bay on the North Shore. (In previous years, it had been held at the Grove in Anaheim.)

The past couple of decades, surfing has grown more popular, and the sport has managed to maximize its exposure both within industry and to the general public. After Holmes—who held the editor role for nearly nine years—and Pezman—who left Surfer in 1991, after nearly 20 years—the magazine cycled through editors at a much quicker rate. Despite the turnover, the magazine has held relatively steady in circulation numbers and popularity. It’s still surfing’s Bible.

Brendon Thomas took over as editor just three months ago, after previously serving as managing editor. He’s young, just 30, with short brown hair, piercing blue eyes and a quick smile. Formerly of Durban, South Africa, he’s the first of his countrymen to hold Surfer’s top post.

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