With three world titles, a poetic surfing style imitated by many but bettered by none and a vast array of talents that include a soothing, minimalist approach to music, California’s Tom Curren is the very embodiment of artistry. His name, says Alex Wade, has become synonymous with the sport itself.
Hossegor, France. The small beach town is even more awash with surfing imagery than usual thanks to the highest-rated WQS event of the year, the Rip Curl Pro. Australia’s Shaun Cansdell is the man of the moment, having won the event by beating twenty-one-year-old Californian Dane Reynolds. Cansdell pockets a cheque for $20,000 and, if he has yet to fulfil the promise that saw him crowned ASP Rookie of the Year in 2006, he has surfed well enough to remind the cognoscenti that he should be a contender in the coming years.
Whatever Cansdell’s fate, he looks a little more media friendly than his compatriots in the notorious Bra Boys film, which showed in Hossegor’s tiny beachside square on the contest’s last evening. The French audience seemed unsure of Sunny Abberton’s homage to the localism and testosterone endemic to the Sydney suburb of Maroubra, gasping with due reverence at the heaviest of oceanic hammerings courtesy of the Maroubra reef but greeting the film’s overt macho posturing with sang-froid edging – subtly enough, for this is France.
The Bra Boys might not have found a home from home in Hossegor, but a dark, almost swarthy forty-three-year-old Californian had. The man in question paced with such feline ease along the promenade on the morning after the film’s screening that, to the casual observer, he looked as if he owned the place. Or rather, he ambled so effortlessly as to suggest that ideas of ownership – of materialism of any kind – were of the utmost irrelevance. He was unhurried and calm, relaxed and lithe; the antithesis, you might say, of the avatars of aggression in Bra Boys.
Step forward, Tom Curren, arguably one of only three surfers to transcend surfing and etch his personality into mainstream consciousness. The others are Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, superheroes to contemporary surfing and men whose considerable wealth is matched by finely honed media awareness. Curren, though, is different. He’s from yesteryear. He’s famously reclusive. He once reputedly answered “Yeah” to every question put to him by a journalist. And yet he’s still one of the most charismatic sportsmen on the planet. After all, how many people can say they’re paid just to be themselves?
“It feels good,” says Curren of his long-standing deal with Rip Curl to be, well, Tom Curren. We’re talking on the terrace of the Hotel de la Plage overlooking Hossegor beach on a sunny, hot morning. Curren has strolled along the seafront to meet me. He shakes my hand firmly and smiles as Frank, twelve, and Pat, ten – his two children from his second marriage to Makeira – wander by, boards under arms. Their father asks where they’re going for a surf, says he’ll see them later, and reveals that – perhaps curiously, given their father’s natural foot stance – they’re both goofy-footers. “I think it’s from their skateboarding,” he says.
Curren himself used to skate – “both ramps and bowls,” he says, adding that “up until I was thirteen, I was more into skating than surfing. But from one day to the next, I stopped. I didn’t go further with it. I just surfed, more and more.” Curren was blessed in being brought up in Santa Barbara, the home of a number of world-class right-hand pointbreaks, and almost as soon as the young teenager abandoned asphalt it became clear that skateboarding’s loss would be surfing’s gain. Whether on account of his genes, or his environment, or because of a mother’s vision for her son or maybe even thanks to a divine gift, it was obvious, from day one, that Tom Curren was special.
Day one of Curren’s surfing life occurred some time during his sixth year. Born in July 1963 in Santa Barbara, the eldest of three children to Pat and Jeanine, he was given a surfboard by his father, himself a pioneer of big-wave surfing in Hawaii. Appropriately enough, Curren’s first surfing experience was during a visit to the west coast of Oahu. If skateboarding was a passion until he was thirteen, Curren nevertheless grew up surfing, inspired as much as anyone by his father. Pat Curren was one of the first men to surf Waimea Bay, and despite his abandoning the family when Tom was seventeen, his son has nothing but respect for him. He has previously said that his father is “one of the greatest men I’ve ever known,” and confirms that their relationship remains as strong as ever.
By the time Pat left Jeanine, herself a surfer and devout Christian, Tom Curren was already a winner. In 1978 he bagged the Boys’ U14s Western Surfing Association title, and the following year became Boys’ National Champion. As Pat was heading down the coast to a new life in Mexico, his son, in 1980, won the World Amateur Junior Championship. He could have turned pro but retained his amateur status because he wanted to win the Men’s title. This he duly accomplished in 1982.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Curren in his mid-teens did his fair share of drinking and smoking pot. But his mother, Jeanine – aware of his prodigious natural talent and determined both to nurture it and ensure that her son didn’t go off the rails – did two things for which he must be eternally grateful: she drove him up and down the west coast to contest after contest, and instilled a deep Christian faith that persists to this day. This much is clear when we talk about big-wave surfing, something Curren is looking to pursue further, especially in France. I tell him of a reply from John McCarthy, the Irish big-wave surfer and committed Christian, when I asked him about surfing Aileens, Ireland’s most formidable big-wave break. McCarthy – an eloquent and humble man – told me that surfing per se was “the most blissful experience you can have on this planet, a taste of heaven”. At Aileens, the bliss was off the scale.
“I can see where he’s coming from,” says Curren, as we sip our espressos. “Surfing those waves [at Aileens, beneath the towering Cliffs of Moher] would be a very religious experience. When you surf big waves you learn to trust in God. It’s a situation where you’re fearful, where you’re aware that life is short, but where you’re reminded that only God knows how long you’ve got. You experience fear and faith at the same time.”
Curren’s emergence as a pro surfer came in the early eighties, an era when the competition was as good as it gets. Three Australians – Mark Occhilupo, Gary Elkerton and Tom Carroll – were blazing their way around the pro circuit, and Martin Potter – South African or British, depending on which magazine you read – was redefining surfing with the sport’s first aerials. All save Elkerton would go on to win world titles, and Elkerton himself cemented his reputation with a Pipe Masters victory in 1989. But Tom Curren was always more revered, more enigmatic, and more sought after than any of them – then and now.
The Californian’s three world titles – in 1985, 1986 and 1990 – help to explain his enduring appeal, but do not give the full story. Not that Curren’s campaigns lacked drama. He won the first event he entered as a pro (the 1982 Marui World Surfing Pro in Japan), made a stand against apartheid in boycotting South African events and, with perennial nemesis Mark Occhilupo, went down in history as the unwitting cause of a riot. The scene was the 1986 Op Pro at Huntington Beach, California, a venue that was often kind to Curren. Not this time: despite his having taken an early lead in a preliminary heat, Occy first scored two great waves and then won a paddle battle in the dying minutes, forcing Curren to take an inferior wave. Though Occy was a popular surfer in America, the locals were not amused. In the ensuing riot – which saw a police car upended and set on fire – Californian surfing’s hippie vibe acquired an image makeover of Bra Boys dimensions.
Curren, though, seemed immune both to the controversy and blandishments of fame. He rode his Al Merrick-shaped boards with unique and mesmerizing grace, went surfing and won contests. Lots of them. He didn’t talk much and signed his fair share of autographs. Then, with two world titles in the bag, he quit pro surfing. He married his first wife, Marie (with whom he has two well-known surfing offspring, Leanne and Nathan), and went to live on the Basque coast, in France. If his decision to take time out stunned the surfing world, it was nothing compared to his comeback in 1990. Curren had to surf as a triallist to have any hope – and did just that, winning an unprecedented seven events to earn his third world title.
By 1992 Curren had notched up the respect in Hawaiian surf that had been a sine qua non of his father’s life. He won the Wyland Galleries Pro in heavy conditions, garnering plaudits for big-wave surfing that had already come his way for his pioneering exploits at Todos Santos. Curren was famous. He was loved. For every nuance of shyness and unease under the spotlight, the media and the public loved him all the more. And then he did what so few sportsmen in any arena manage to do. He quit at the top.
The decision was no doubt oiled by his contract with Rip Curl. All he had to do was surf with immaculate timing, fluidity, style and control – to be, in other words, Tom Curren. The surfing had to be done in any number of idyllic locales, thanks to Rip Curl’s ‘The Search’ marketing campaign. When he wasn’t surfing, he could develop his other great passion – music. It sounds too good to be true, and it was: Curren’s marriage to Marie soon foundered, perhaps a casualty of life on the road. While Al Merrick continued to shape his boards, there was an interlude during which he was sponsored by The Realm. Now, though, his early twenty-first century incarnation sees him back with Rip Curl. Although he has no plans ‘to do an Occy’ and make a serious return to the world tour, he does enter the occasional ASP event. He looks fit, healthy and composed. But what’s life for Tom Curren like today?
“I’m really involved in the coaching side of things,” he says. “I’m lucky to be able to surf and do a bit of work on the promotional side. I get to go to some great spots but I see my main value in coaching. There are some great young Rip Curl riders coming through now.” He names Australia’s Owen Wright as a prospect, and mentions St Ives supergrom Jayce Robinson. “I spent time surfing with him in Chile during the Rip Curl Pro Search. He’s got a really good style, is a nice kid and could develop well. He just loves to surf and that’s the secret – the kids who are going to do well are the ones who are always in the water, trying to improve.”
At this juncture my wife, Karen, appears on the promenade beneath us, with my two sons, Harry and Elliot. They’re the same age as Curren’s boys, and like them they’re heading for the beach. He asks if they surf, I say yes, and find myself hearing Curren suggest we rendezvous for a surf sometime over the next couple of days. “It’s great that you’ve got your family here,” he says. “That’s cool.” He smiles broadly at Karen, and I can tell that something in him has downshifted. It’s not that he’s been tense – far from it – but the customary Curren caution with the media has been present. Now it seems to have lifted, like a wisp of mist evaporating to reveal clean, three-foot waves on a slate-grey sea. I can’t help but wonder what the former world champion makes of British and Irish surfing.
“It’s really hardcore. The stoke is really visible. They’re a handful of guys who surf through the winter, come rain or shine. I’ve surfed in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the Hebrides, and they’re probably the most stoked surfers I’ve come across. The only other place I can think of where you seriously see stoke like that is on the east coast of the U.S. In places like New York and New Jersey you’ve got to be able to ignore the cold.”
Curren says that of the current crop of surfers, he most admires Kelly Slater (“obviously”) and Bruce Irons. He is complimentary about Dane Reynolds’ surfing to win the Rip Curl Pro, says he gets frustrated at crowded line-ups at his home breaks around Santa Barbara and wants to try big-wave tow-in surfing. I wonder if he ever found the perfect wave on any of the Rip Curl Search trips, and find that its whereabouts is just across the border, at the Spanish village of Mundaka. “It’s pretty damn close to perfect,” he says. “It looks as if the wave is static, like a painting, but then you look at it and realise it’s moving. It’s an amazing place.”
The use of art by way of an analogy for Mundaka is unsurprising in a man such as Curren. Not only is his surfing the very embodiment of artistry, the still waters of his soul run deeper yet, to something even more intangible than surfing: music.
“Imagine if you were asked to explain what surfing was to someone from another planet,” says Curren, his eyes transfixed on the distant horizon of the Atlantic, “the first thing you’d try and describe is the sound. The sound of the ocean is incredible. That’s just one of hundreds of similarities between music and surfing. Surfing a wave is comparable to a drummer who’s really fast and technical and in time; when that drummer loses the tempo, it’s the same as a surfer losing the wave or having to recover awkwardly. You need to be in the pocket, both in music and in surfing; if you’re not, the whole thing falls apart.”
Music has been an integral part of Curren’s life since he was fifteen. He began playing the drums and moved on to guitar and bass. He could, if he were the type (which he isn’t) justifiably lay claim to having invented the surf-soul/folksy-blues zeitgeist long before Jack Johnson came along. In 1993, he completed a twenty-seven-stop American tour with his band Skipping Urchins. He released an eponymous CD in 2003 and before that an instrumental album, entitled Ocean Surf Aces. Both garnered critical acclaim, not least for their creator’s minimalist style.
Curren loves jazz (“I get a lot of what I need from Duke Ellington; my music has a jazzy feel and I’d love to play more jazz but am still learning how to go to those places”), classical music (“it gives a lot of good energy” in contrast to rock, which “drains you”), MC Solaar, The Who, Midnight Oil and African music. An eclectic mix by anyone’s standard, and it doesn’t stop there – he’s a fan of Ray Charles, old R ‘n’ B records from the fifties, the Beatles and Ry Cooder (“he’s a great ambassador of different sounds”). He likes another great musical minimalist, Miles Davis, too. As he talks about music, surfing is never far away, and soon enough the two things are directly compared again:
“I love the combo of bass and drums in The Who’s music. Even though it might sound abandoned, the drummer’s appreciation of time is always there, keeping everything going, anticipating the next moment. A good surfer has that same timing and the ability to stop, slow down, then pick up again. Joel Parkinson does it on those long Gold Coast pointbreaks. He’ll pull three or four big turns, cutback, then take a second or two to look down the line and really look. In a fraction of time he’s taking the opportunity to rest, physically, then get back in the pocket and put together the next series of moves. We have the same kind of waves in Santa Barbara and that’s what I like – the sense of flow and speed, of surfing really fast, in the pocket, with a little spontaneity.”
Many surfers will empathise with Curren’s sense of music being a kindred art form, but few will be so well-read. He can readily discuss two writers who were among the first to describe surfing, Mark Twain and Jack London, and enjoys Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. A recent discovery is Saul Bellow: “I found a really good bookshop in Panama recently. It’s run by this old Greek guy and I picked up [Bellow’s] The Last Analysis there. It’s very funny but has a lot of depth to it, too.” Curren says that he tries to read the established classics whenever he can: “I try to read literature that gives some enrichment. It’s a way of catching up on things I missed out on.”
The morning has slipped away, and far from answering in monosyllables Curren has been, if not loquacious, engaging throughout. Our respective children reappear, and Curren reiterates the idea that we all hook up for a surf. I bemoan the crowded Hossegor line-up, and mention that I’ve been bodysurfing instead. Curren’s dark eyes flash. “Bodysurfing – that’s something I’m really fascinated with,” he says. “Some of the best waves I’ve had have been through bodysurfing. I love being inside the water, feeling how it moves differently underwater from the sense of riding a wave on its surface. It’s pretty hard to beat a good ride from bodysurfing.”
Curren speaks reflectively, pausing often between phrases as if to check where the sentence is going. He puts his competition success down to sheer drive, and says that while he was on the pro circuit he would eschew the party scene and sit alone in his hotel room, wholly absorbed in what he had to do to win. He says he will continue to pop up at ASP events from time to time and enter as a triallist, and that he looks forward to riding some big surf off the Basque coast in the winter. His boys might join him, and their surfing, now, is crucial. “I’m really interested in seeing how they develop,” he says. “I want them to thrive and maintain their direction.”
The interview comes to a close, and we rejoin our families. As I’m walking along the Hossegor promenade I see a flyer for Bra Boys trodden into the pavement. I wonder whether Tom Curren has seen the film and what he made of it. And just then a refrain from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue enters my mind. It was inevitable, really – not just because Curren is to surfing what Davis is to jazz, but because of what the legendary trumpeter once said about the space between the notes. As he put it: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” There is no finer summing up of the Curren way.