45-year-old Devon Howard’s cross-stepping, side-slipping, hard-carving, and elegant nose-riding is a joy to watch. I first encountered it a couple decades ago at Cardiff Reef in North County San Diego. It features in many surf films. We met around 2002. His passion for wave-riding ran deep. Along with daily immersion in the brine, he wrote and shot photographs for surf mags and books. His ideas expanded to the marketing end of things—he has worked with Spy, Black Diamond, and Patagonia.
Devon recently moved to Ventura and joined the Channel Islands family. I wanted to get the full scoop—and maybe score some tips on how to prolong the stoke. We met on a sunny Friday at the CI factory. Boards ridden by the world’s best surfers graced the walls. Planers whined in the distance. We had coffee in the upstairs meeting room. Like so many great surfers I’ve interviewed over the years, Devon spoke with his hands, as if trying to peel past some invisible veil and inhabit the wave.
You’re kind of a Clark Kent/Superman. You get a lot of time in the water. You’re absolutely tearing it up. You appear in all these surf films. Yet at the end of the day you don’t go and sleep in your car. You’ve got a successful professional life. So often those two things are at odds with each other. How do you strike that balance?
Being a longboarder surfer, I knew I was good enough to be what you call “professional,” but no one made any money. So I went to school, I went to the University of San Diego, and got a degree. I got an internship with Scott Hulet [then editor] at Longboard magazine. So I ended up going into this sort of professional career, but kept picking careers that revolve around surfing. So I think that allowed me to continue to be active and to surf at a high level—on a longboard. But longboard surfing’s not as physically demanding as shortboarding. It does take some athleticism, but I equate it more to the life of a dancer. You end up setting yourself up as a longboard surfer for kind of an interesting, long, healthy life because you don’t hurt yourself as much, you’re not pulling into big barrels, you’re not torqueing and twisting on your body as much. The burnout factor is much less with longboard surfing. I’m not in amazing shape, but I’m in reasonably good shape for my age. Diet’s a big thing. Staying away from sugar. I don’t do any kind of working out—I just go surfing. And I’m no angel; I do drink. But I think not getting wrapped up in drugs and alcohol is a pretty big deal. It’s such a cliché, obvious thing to say. But when you get to 45 and you look around, you’re like, “Where is everybody?” Literally half of them have fallen off from drugs and alcohol. Not necessarily dead, but spun out. They’re just hanging out in the parking lot.
There’s definitely that. But also, probably bigger than anything else is attitude. Bitterness is the great killer. I’m always amazed at how something as light and fluid as surfing can produce such heavy, hard, kind of ossifying attitudes in later years.
I’m glad you brought this up. I don’t want to get into politics, but we’re in a massive state of victimhood on all levels, and surfers are some of the worst. There’s a long list of things that create negativity. It’s easy to get sucked into. The breaks are getting so crowded, and it takes a good attitude to keep the joy in it. Attitude is a big part of it. Taking personal responsibility. If it’s not bringing you joy, there are other things to do in life. Gerry Lopez coined the tagline, “Surf is where you find it.” I’ve used that in Instagram captions: #surfiswhereyoufindit. It’s people doing things that aren’t traditional surfing—it could be a standing wave, it could be riding a skateboard on a bank, it could be snowboarding. It’s an attitude.
What are you doing here in Santa Barbara?
My wife is from Ventura, and she got a job growing coffee. She’s with a company called Frinj, and they’re growing fourth-wave premium coffee, and it’s amazing. So she’s a farm manager. She wanted to move home, and I was like, ‘OK, well I can work anywhere.’ I do marketing consulting. I have a small business called Blue Sky Collective. And I go to brands, and it’s kind of like hiring a carpenter: “Do you want to build a cabinet? Do you want to build a home?” And then we scale the job accordingly, and then I go out and find freelancers—maybe I need a writer, a graphic artist, video—and I basically put it together as though I was running a marketing department. So Channel Islands had an opening for the marketing director, and we had a chat, and we got along, and it worked out. I’m here part-time. I come in, work with the team here, we make a plan and then execute. It’s really been great. The people here are genuinely passionate about surfboards. So I’m the marketing director. I’m here to help tell the story; I don’t get in the way of it.
And you have a new gig with the WSL?
Yes, I’m the longboarding tour director. The WSL reached out and said, “We are really going to have a go at this in 2019. Instead of one event, we’re going to have four.” So the first three are kind of like a qualifier for the final one. The way it works is of the first three, your top two results rank you to get into the final event. However, those results don’t get thrown out, you carry those results with you into the final event. So it’s your best two of three, the top 24 women, top 24 men, boom, they go into the final event. The cumulative result of the top two from the three, plus the final event, determines the world champion. So technically it’s three events. Final event is 10,000 points. Three previous are 6,000. So now we’re not just a one-event world title; now we can follow a story. There’s no restriction on equipment—you can ride a flying saucer. But the judging criteria rewards traditional longboarding. It’s not a nose-riding contest; it’s the surfer that can utilize the whole board—so, great nose-riding and rail surfing—but seamlessly connect everything. So the best surfing is someone who comes off the bottom, walks up into the pocket, hangs ten, comes out, redirects, and is just kind of dancing and moving beautifully. Kind of like how Nat Young surfs. It’s really a beautiful dance. And I literally get goose bumps just talking about it because I can feel myself doing it.