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.”

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
Severson (left) and a colleague work on an early issue of Surfer
Courtesy of John Severson
Severson (left) and a colleague work on an early issue of Surfer

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.

A few years prior, California surfboard manufacturers stumbled onto a new material that changed the business: polyurethane foam. Hobie Alter, a young, blond, Dana Point-based surfer and shaper, was one of the most successful board builders of the time. With the help of his then-laminator, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Alter experimented with materials that had surfaced following World War II and mastered the foam-blowing process. (Clark later parted ways to open Clark Foam, a foam-blank behemoth based in Laguna Niguel.)

The new blanks cut down weight, production time and cost and made boards more durable and maneuverable. Even the advent of a viable surfboard product, however, could do only so much for a sport with little to no exposure.

Enter Kathy Kohner. Better known as Gidget, the 5-foot-nothing young woman wanted to learn to surf and hung out with a mostly male group of hip Malibu surfers. Her father, Frederick, turned her story into a book, and in 1959, Columbia Pictures released Gidget in movie theaters across the country. It was Hollywood’s first surf movie, and it starred Sandra Dee and James Darren.

After Gidget, surfing went from “somewhat exclusive, full of eclectic adventurers” to a part of the public consciousness and, eventually, into the mainstream, according to Mickey Muñoz, one of the hot surfers from that era.

Born in New York, he grew up in Santa Monica, got into surfing early and arrived in Malibu at the dawn of the first boom. Muñoz appeared in the first issue of The Surfer in a pose Severson calls “the quasimoto”: his back hunched forward, head facing down, left arm extended to the front, right arm to the rear, racing along a small wave at Secos in LA County.

Encouraged by the response to the initial issue, Severson introduced The Surfer Quarterly in the spring of 1961, with a 75-cent cover price.

Surfer magazine, when it came out, filled this gaping, raw need that surfers had to look at themselves, to look at their sport and to have it be sort of validated on paper and have the feeling you get while surfing, there, just sort of humming in your hands, instead of being something you just talk about with your friends,” says Matt Warshaw, a surfing historian and former editor of Surfer.

Herbie Fletcher—now a well-known surfer, filmmaker, photographer and artist—was a teenager in Huntington Beach when the magazine began. “We couldn’t wait for [the newest issue of Surfer] to come out; every kid wanted to see it,” he recalls. “We were all part of surf clubs. We’d hang out together, we went to the beach together, we’d surf. And then we’d stand around the campfire because we had no wet suits and were freezing; we’d be wearing fur coats, and we’d pass around the magazine.”

“[Surfer] started communicating the appeal and charm of surfing,” Muñoz says. “But it was a double-edged sword: good for business, but eventually, it contaminated our spots, as there were more surfers than waves.”

Letters poured in to Severson, raving about the new magazine. “We had guys write in saying, ‘Show my spot!’ We’d show their spot, and then a few months later, they’d write again: ‘Don’t show my spot again!’” Severson says with a laugh.

*     *    *

As Surfer’s popularity grew, so did its role in the surfing community. “We had a whole lot of people coming into surfing who had no idea how to act as surfers; a hell of a lot of them were just Hells Angels on surfboards,” Severson says. “There were the old-timers. They were the muscle men, and they were the guys who had carried the sport through the ’30s and came back from the war and found the sport changing: balsa-wood boards, kids riding the nose and gremmies—which came from the war, from Gremlins—who mucked up everything. Surfing got itself in a lot of trouble with lots of pranks and rebellious, in-your-face operations and outright destruction, and cities started shutting surfing down. Newport Beach licensed surfboards, and the East Coast was shutting beaches down [to surfing]; we were having a real crisis, and we had no economic base, no political base. The only thing we had was this little magazine through which I could talk to them. And I, by default, became a spokesman for the sport.”

Almost 40 years removed from his time with Surfer, content in his still-busy life, Severson has the time to consider his impact. “I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t [created Surfer], if I hadn’t done anything and just meatballed off and surfed or whatever, what would the landscape of surfing look like today? It might be a day or two behind,” he says with a slight chuckle.

As surfing grew in popularity through the ’60s, an industry slowly sprang up around it. It began with an increase in surfers, and in turn, surfboard builders and shops. Then came the magazines, followed by the surf-style clothing brands: Hang Ten, Janzen, McGregor and Catalina.

The shift was reflected in the advertisements that appeared in the magazines’ early issues: Velzy, Yater, Surfboards Hawaii, Wardy, Ole, Gordie, Hobie—nearly every known shaper of the day, along with the occasional shop. By the third volume, Severson shifted the production schedule to bimonthly.

Just as the clothing mirrored the styles on the beaches, the content of the editorial pages shifted with the changing scene. With each of the first issues, a new surfing frontier was introduced, beginning with California and Hawaii, then South America, Australia and Europe.

Following the first issue, Severson met then-16-year-old Rick Griffin, who became The Surfer’s cartoonist, creating the cartoon strip “The Gremmies” in 1961, followed by the introduction of Murphy, the smiling, floppy-haired young cartoon surfer who became a fixture in the magazine and appeared on the cover in 1964.

Over the years, Griffin’s cartoon strips continued in their fun-loving nature but grew more detailed and reflective of the times, specifically by referencing drugs. Griffin relocated to San Francisco in the mid-’60s, disappearing into the counterculture psychedelics scene while still producing pieces forSeverson. At that same time, Griffin’s work also began appearing in the music scene, including a poster for Jimi Hendrix; the original logo for Rolling Stone; and album-cover artwork for the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

By the late ’60s, the changing societal tides were well-represented in the surfing community, as hairstyles went long and acid-splash artwork was common on surfboards.

Over the course of the early and mid-’60s, various Southern California-based magazines started up, including InternationalSurfing, which would shorten its name to Surfing.

At this time, Severson began working with Drew Kampion, a freelance writer from Santa Cruz. “In 1967, Santa Cruz was kind of a convergence zone,” says Kampion, now 67 and living on an island in Washington. “The first part of that was alternative culture, which was psychedelics and pot and all that, which was pretty big in Santa Cruz.”

Following his write-up of the Smirnoff Pro-Am, one of the first contests to offer a cash prize ($1,000), Kampion wrote a fictional piece for the magazineabout “a surfer who drops acid, has a bad trip and drowns,” as he explains it. Soon after, Severson hired the then-24-year-old Kampion to be the editor of Surfer.

“It was a risk, yes, but it was riskier not making the change,” Severson says. “Drew was very on top of it; he took us into the shortboard era and opened up a lot, got us more politically involved, more environmentally involved.”

“When I started reading [in the late 1960s], the magazine was publishing a lot of poetry, psychedelia, drug references, lefty political commentary, and Kampion was really the architect of a lot of those things,” Warshaw recalls. “It was the biggest, most abrupt change in the history of the sport—and the magazine.”

Once, Kampion covered the U.S. Championships with a 2,500-word run-on sentence; another of his pieces was titled “Conversations With Spirit Forms.” He was responsible for the addition of poetry. In Warshaw’s recent book, The History of Surfing, one early shortboarder put the era in perspective: “The mood of the times made for a really creative period in surfing, and the mood was largely the result of getting stoned.”

Even before Kampion’s arrival, Severson was considering life after Surfer. “I had started with a 10-year program in mind, which I shared with my wife, Louise, and she liked it,” Severson says. “I was going to work 10 years and sell what I had created and sponsor my ongoing life as a painter and traveler and surfer, and she said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’”

In the late ’60s, the small publishing group For Better Living Inc. offered Severson the right deal, including stock and the possibility to contribute while living in Hawaii. Severson stayed on board for several issues before penning his farewell piece in 1971 titled, “Goin’ Surfin’.” He wrote, “I’m going to travel around and find me a perfect hollow right point break around 6 to 10 feet—with offshore winds and only me and a couple of other guys out, and when I find it . . . well . . . what would you do?”

*     *     *

Surfer immediately after Severson faced a changing sport—as well as the rise of its greatest competition, Surfing.

Steve Pezman, a talented surfer, competent shaper and accomplished writer, became publisher after Severson’s departure. He took over as editor as well when Kampion defected to Surfing in 1972.

Vietnam was at its height; peace and freedom and the hippie movement and do-your-own-thing were in vogue. Being No. 1 was not cool, being competitive was not cool, so competition surfing lost favor,” recalls Pezman, now 69 and publisher of The Surfer’s Journal.

Though that world-view persisted for most of the ’70s, Pezman saw that the sport’s rebellious period was coming to a close: Surfers still wanted to get high and ride waves—but they wanted to make some money while doing so. By the early ’80s, contests popped up around the world and big-name surfers arose.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

cmarshall@ocweekly.com

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