The first time I saw Tom Curren surf was at Hammond’s Reef in Santa Barbara, right around 1980. I was with my brother, Steven, we’d arrived in the morning with sack lunches, planning to spend the whole day. Between surfs we got to talking with a friendly guy named Kim Robinson, who, it turned out, was the manager of Channel Islands surf shop.
“You must know Tom Curren?” we asked.
“Oh yes,” he said. “He surfs here everyday. He’ll show up here this afternoon. Just you watch.”
We watched. And on cue, with the sun low over Santa Cruz Island, a set loomed from the green, glassy sea. A slightly overhead right peeled in almond-barrel glory, and a springy, soulful kid in a Rip Curl full suit with yellow arms tore across it.
We’d seen him in the mags. His legend loomed large. But to see him surf in person was riveting. His cutbacks were tight and bouncy. His rebounds paid respect and also spat upon those wobbly mounds of foam. He pierced the lip with surgical precision. He did a layback in the closeout that’s as vivid in my mind today as it was 40 years ago.
I would follow Tom Curren across those right-hand point breaks in Santa Barbara through the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’d watch him double pump and bang at Rincon, float for what seemed like thirty yards at Pitas, and get barreled thrice on one wave at Sandspit. Inspired by Tom, I joined the Channel Islands team in 1982, and have been riding Al Merrick’s designs ever since.
But it wasn’t until I saw the movie Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story that it all came to me: That Santa Barbara is one of the great design incubators in the surf universe. That Al Merrick and Tom Curren are part of a lineage of first-rate shapers and test pilots. That the Shortboard Revolution owes a lot to those long, bending, right-hand point breaks.
Spoons is a documentary about craft, heritage, and place. I attended its premier at the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, at the elegant Arlington Theatre on State Street. 1983 world champion Kim Mearig was there. As was design innovator Renny Yater. And the eminent Tom Curren. There was something so right and satisfying about seeing it in that storied locale with that hometown audience. Exit the theatre and head west and in about seven minutes you’d be at Sandspit. Along the way you’d pass Al Merrick’s old board factory. And Yater’s, too. The ghosts were palpable.
“I never felt like California had really contributed much,” said Spoons director Wyatt Daily on a recent phone call. “I felt like Hawaii invented the sport and Australia popularized it, turning it into a national pastime, so to speak. California, in my mind, had always been responsible for commodifying surfing, putting it in movies and making a multi-million dollar T-shirt empire out of it. And when I started to learn about all this real innovation, I had to kind of trace it all back and try to find what it was about this one area in particular that can claim so much in the way of influence. And that’s where it started coming down to Renny Yater, George Greenough, and the main character, Rincon.”
Wyatt and I talked about Rincon, and how beloved it is to the people who’ve surfed there over the years.
“I grew up surfing beach break waves down in Newport Beach with really short rides,” he said. “But I was a skier my whole life, and when I skied I always looked two or three turns ahead in the fall line. When I caught my first wave at Rincon, I felt like the whole world opened up, because all of a sudden I could anticipate two or three turns now, and have the time to make them. And the more I started asking questions and talking to guys like Renny, and Bob McTavish, and eventually George Greenough and Al Merrick, it’s like that was a common thread. Rincon, for as crowded as it’s become, will provide a pretty consistent test track for shapers to try things. And I could see from that point of view that it was an ability to make subtle advancements as you move forward that contributed to the innovation and progress.”
There are so many great moments in Spoons, and so much reverence for Santa Barbara. “The goodwill from this little town spread all over the world,” says 1977 world champ and SB resident Shaun Tomson. “I think of Renny. I think of George. I think of Al Merrick. Craftsmen. People that have taken surfing on a different path.”
Watch Spoons at: spoonsfilm.com
And special thanks to Jimmy Metyko —check him out at @metykojimmy.