* This article was modified on June 23, 2011.
The offices of Astrodeck, the traction pad and sandal company Herbie Fletcher has owned since 1977, are located in a two-story white office building midway up a hill in San Clemente. A dance studio is next door, and the walls are thin.
Herbie unlocks the front door. There are paintings and framed photographs hanging throughout the building: a pair of large, colorful pieces with rows and columns of Buddha heads; his son Christian on the cover of Surfing Magazine, launching an air while wearing a pastel pink wetsuit; a photo of two young, tanned kids on the beach—a young girl, with short brown hair streaked with blond, a green towel wrapped around her shoulders, hovers over a boy with wavy brown hair, who's sitting on the sand. Dibi and Herbie met as teenagers on the beach at Makaha in Hawaii in 1964 and were married in 1969.
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"Come on in; we're hanging out in the back," he says, as he opens the door to the warehouse. The two-story-high room is filled to the ceiling with rows of cardboard boxes stacked on shelves. More than 30 years' worth of memorabilia, Astrodeck product, as well as forays into art and big-wave surfing and motocross and photography and movies don't fit neatly into 4,000 square feet.
Herbie leads the way down the row. Dibi Fletcher, dressed as though she's about to go shopping at Fashion Island, stands at a table, folding a Christian Fletcher-label T-shirt. Across the table, her grandson, Greyson, is packing a pair of sandals into a shipping bag. Somewhere among the boxes, Christian yells out; he's trying to find the remaining items for an online order. The economy has taken its toll on the business, which is why Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., this is where the Fletcher family works.
"Now, is this a family business or what?" Dibi asks.
Nearly 20 years after its anointment as such in an Esquire cover feature, the First Family of Surfing remains original. It has grown and diversified, but at its core, the Fletchers are still a surfing family: Grandpa Walter was a big-wave pioneer; Herbie, now 64, is a surf legend and still surfs Lowers; and his sons are surfing innovators. They'll talk about the past—tell you where they've been, about the drugs they've taken, describe the mistakes they've made, all without a hint of reverence or regret.
When the orders have been completed, the group heads its separate ways. Dibi disappears to her office, while the boys head to their outdoor lounge. Some time ago, a worn, old couch and a pair of mismatched cushioned chairs appeared out back. They've been there ever since. Herbie plops down on the couch and pulls his black sunglasses from his wavy, gray hair to shade his brown eyes.
Christian lights a cigarette and eyes his 20-year-old son, who's riding an old-school skateboard around the parking lot. The pair recently returned from competing in the Florida Bowlriders Cup; Christian competed in the Masters division, and Greyson Thunder (yes, that's his middle name) was in the Pro. There was a time when the pair hardly even spoke to one another. A year living together in Bali, and then living in the family's garage has brought them close. They seem more like brothers than father and son.
"Growing up with these guys," Herbie says, nodding toward Christian, "I just wanted to play with them and grow up like kids together, instead of like old dad." He follows this statement with his classic half-smile, half-smirk.
Minutes later, a white truck with a sky-blue stand-up paddleboard hanging off the back pulls up. The board has the Herbie Fletcher logo, a vertical arrow. Nathan, Herbie's 36-year-old younger son, steps out of the passenger side, tanned and disheveled and yelling at a little blond mutt that just went running across the parking lot. "Get back here, Buzz!"
He walks up to Herbie. "Hey, Pops, which one do you want?" he asks, as he presents his right arm. Two large-faced Nixon watches are strapped to his wrist; Nixon is one of Nathan's sponsors.
While Nathan tries to tell his dad about his various projects, Herbie just seems to want to get ahold of Buzz, who scurries at their feet, racing in and out of the warehouse. When he finally succeeds, Herbie holds the dog close, its legs flailing.
"Just let him go; he'll come back," Nathan says. "He's so unsocial."
"No, this is the first time I got ya; now, you're going to hate me," Herbie says to the dog. "All right, now, you can go. See I held on to him tightly, and then let go of him lightly."
"Oh, I've heard that," Nathan says, as he reaches into his black bag. "That's why I brought you this book: Listening With Your Heart. It has some really good things. It's Native American."
Both of Herbie's boys were natural surfers. "We were products of our environment," Christian says. While he became surfing's anti-hero, launching aerials while criticizing pro surfers for their conservative approach, Nathan stepped away from the sport altogether.
He was burned-out and decided surfing wasn't his path. For nearly five years, he focused instead on music, motocross and anything else that kept him stimulated. But while working in the warehouse, he'd see old friends such as Chris Ward and Cory Lopez come in to pick up products before contests and trips. He realized he was through with being his parents' "whipping boy."
Nathan's now a professional vagabond, traveling the globe in search of big swells and spending weeks and months at a time on the North Shore. Despite his late-in-life success, he gives much of the credit to his family, particularly his father.
"He's the gnarliest guy by a mile," Nathan says. "I try to tell him that; I don't know if he ever hears me. To have your dad be your hero—in the water, out of the water, as a man, as an innovator—I was fortunate."
While Nathan's surfing career is flourishing, it's Greyson who's getting the hype these days. An adequate-enough surfer, his real talents are on a skateboard. "He has a surf style," Herbie says. There are numerous videos on YouTube of the youngest Fletcher racing through bowls, climbing and flowing across walls, grinding the lip, and punctuating the rides with seemingly effortless air maneuvers that stretch 3, 4, 5 feet above the concrete ledge. Through it all, Greyson remains composed, his face expressionless.
Another Fletcher is writing his chapter in the family's rich history. They have a shared past of being grounded in the moment, while remaining perpetually forward-thinking.
"Do you live life looking in the rearview mirror?" Christian Fletcher asks accusingly. At 40, he's a prime candidate for a past worth re-visiting—from revolutionizing surfing to shunning the pro scene to drug use to his patchwork of tattoos to a year living in Bali with his son.
"You got to keep playing, keep pushing," says Herbie, trying to explain the family's successes and failures. "If you slow down, you get old."
The risks don't always lead to rewards, and the new ventures don't always work out, but "that's just life," as Dibi is known to say. Lives lived at the pace of the Fletcher family produce their fair share of scars—some visible, some not. It takes a lot to rattle a Fletcher.
Case in point: On the same day Herbie and Christian left for a book launch in New York City, Nathan caught a flight to Jalisco, Mexico. He was among a small group of surfers chasing a large incoming swell to a spot called Pasquales.
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Two days later, Herbie and Christian were back in California, working at the Astrodeck offices. Nathan, it turned out, had lost his wallet and his passport and was stranded—and he couldn't have been happier. The swell lasted longer than expected, and he had 10-foot waves almost to himself.
"He called me and told me how happy he was. He said, 'If I wouldn't have lost my passport, I would have missed this,'" says Dibi. "He just asked me to cancel his credit cards."
This article appeared in print as "Keeping Up With the Fletchers: Herbie Fletcher & sons Christian and Nathan, plus grandson Greyson."