Corky Carroll: It takes real talent to look great on a bad wave

In surfing, one of the true art forms and most difficult things to accomplish is being able to make really bad surf look good.

What brought this to mind was watching the final day of the recent Van’s U.S. Open of Surfing, which was held a couple of weeks ago at the pier in Orange County’s famous Huntington Beach, a.k.a. “Surf City.”  Hometown boy Kanoa Igarashi took the Men’s title by doing just that, somehow making the extremely poor and ragged surf conditions look like it was actually good.

This is really nothing new for events held at the Huntington Beach Pier, going all the way back to 1959 when they held the first West Coast Surfing Championship. Some years the surf gods would smile down and bring great surf, but others it would be small and choppy. I surfed my share under both conditions and can attest to the fact that it’s much harder when it’s really bad than when it’s really good.

But I was lucky that I grew up right up the highway in nearby Surfside, where the surf was bad way more than it was good, so I was fairly used to it.

The very best example of a kid who grew up riding really bad surf is Kelly Slater. He comes from Cocoa Beach in Florida. The average surf conditions there are very small, very mushy, normally blown out and generally all over the place, as the sand bars are prone to shifting with the changing of the tide. His skills at riding poor surf served him very well when he got into waves that were actually good. It is so much harder to ride a bad wave than a good one, so when he got into good ones he just flew.

Eleven World Championships would serve as proof of that.

In today’s professional competitive surfing world when you reach the top level, the World Championship Tour, you are blessed with the fact that they almost always wait for good surf to hold the events. Plus they hold them at only world-class surfing spots. So almost all of the competitions are held in waves that we all dream that we could be getting with only one other person in the water.

But to get to that level you have to go through years of competition on the qualifying levels where, for the most part, they don’t wait for good waves. And not all of them are held at the best surf spots either.

The Van’s U.S. Open, as big and important an event as it is, is a qualifying event and not part of the World Championship tour.

I thought of another all-time great surfer who could ride junk as good or better than anybody — former World Champ Tom Curren. Curren is from Santa Barbara where there are loads of really good and perfect point breaks, so you would not really think of him as a guy coming from a background of bad waves. But the fact is that Santa Barbara is not the most consistent surfing area and is almost always really small or flat in the summer months.

A day comes to mind when I was up there visiting Al Merrik of Channel Islands Surfboards. I was working for Surfer magazine and getting some advertising work done with Merrik.  Curren was about 12 or 13 at the time and the three of us went surfing at Carpinteria Point. It was as close to flat as you could come. For about an hour Merrik and I sat there in about waist-deep water chit-chatting, no waves came through. In the meantime, Curren had been catching these tiny, maybe 6 inch, shore lappers and absolutely shredding them.

Fade, big turn, slash cutback, another turn and step off on the sand. We never caught a wave but he surfed himself silly. I realized that he was one of those guys who were going to be able to surf ANYTHING and do it well.  And he did.

So, my message today is to all of you young kids who are thinking about or attempting a pro surfing career. Get out there in the horrible blown-out choppy and sloppy afternoon conditions every single day and learn how to ride that stuff. If you do it will make you much better and give you a higher chance at success in the pros. Anybody can look good on a great wave. But it takes real talent to look good on a horrible one.


Q.  Our son is 9 years old and wants to learn to surf. Is that too young? How old were you when you first paddled out and did you have help from neighbors or friends?

Robert Howell, Orange

A.  Every kid is different, but 9 is old enough in most cases as long as he knows how to swim well and you get him into a good surf school or with a good instructor. Generally, friends and neighbors are not the best surf teachers, get him with somebody qualified. I was 7 the first time I rode a surfboard. It belonged to a neighbor, a guy named Larry Conroy, and I snuck it out of his backyard when he wasn’t home and tried to surf it. I did get to my feet but I ate it pretty bad and wound up putting a big ding in the board. Was I hooked? Absolutely.

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