Wave of the Future

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

He and fellow South African Grant Ellis, the photo editor, have their own offices; the rest of the staff sit in a cubicle village among Source Interlink’s other action-sports publications: Snowboarder, Skateboarder, Powder, Bike, and Canoe & Kayak.

Against the wall in a corner of Thomas’ office leans an unwaxed white shortboard with a Monster Energy Drink sticker. It was a gift from Dane Reynolds, who has been called “the next Kelly Slater,” and Thomas doesn’t know whether to hang it on the wall or leave it where it is. Four framed photos sit atop a shelf behind him; the black-and-white image of Tom Blake, an early surfing and shaping innovator, has been passed from editor to editor.

“When they told me I was taking on this position, I was ready to flee back to South Africa at one point because it’s such a big task,” he says. “The people who have sat in this seat are so well-respected, and that’s all my goal is: to live up to that legacy. I wouldn’t for a second think I’m in their league, but I’m aspiring to leave that sort of legacy, too.”

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

Every month, nearly 92,300 copies of Surfer go out to readers, a number that’s held steady for several years now, after peaking at nearly 130,000 under Pezman. It’s the highest in the surf-media race, with Surfing second at nearly 89,000.

Maintaining and growing circulation is certainly essential for Thomas, but chief among his pursuits has been to improve Surfer’s digital properties. A new look went live in early December, but the response from industry observers was that it is still pretty stagnant. Frequency of updates and variety of content seem to be lacking. If, however, as Thomas put it, “the website is going to be the magazine now, the magazine is going to be more evergreen,” then work remains to be done.

On the final page of the first issue of The Surfer, Severson wrote two lines of text below a photo of a surfer paddling out to an empty lineup, with a right-breaking wave, water feathering off the top. Those lines became an ethos of surfing, one that has withstood all that the sport has endured over the course of 50-plus years: “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts. . . .”

That’s the ideal. That’s what keeps surfers surfing and picking up the magazine. That’s the legacy with which Thomas has been entrusted, along with, he says, a little piece of wisdom passed down from every departing editor to the incoming one: “Don’t fuck it up.”


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