I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life last weekend (and I’ve had a few of those) when I got to paddle out for a surf session with Tom Curren, one the most stylish and influential surfers in history, and maybe the only surfer in the world who garners as much or more respect than Kelly Slater. He is surfing royalty, revered not just because of the glory the 3x world champion brought to American surfing during his career, but the way he has always done … well, everything.
Described over the years as “shy”, “private”, “eccentric”, and “enigmatic”, Curren was a professional competitive force with a free-surfer’s soul who never seemed comfortable with some of pro surfing’s rigid commercial trappings, even while he could not help but completely dominate the sport with his prodigious talent.
He retired in his prime when he seemed to simply get bored of the pro grind- an internationally renowned popular cultural icon with too much artistry, creativity and counter-culture DNA to keep doing the same things over and over. With nothing left to prove, he traded in the world tour for touring the world, becoming part of The Rip Curl Search, and putting more energy into his music career (he’s also an accomplished guitarist/musician/vocalist who has released two albums).
Tom never did a lot of interviews and never seemed to let the public into his life too deeply even while countless fans like me still longed to watch his timeless style. In 1995, Rip Curl and film-maker Sony Miller (RIP) produced, “Searching for Tom Curren”, one of the best surf films ever made, that finally let the world get a little closer look at the soul of Tom Curren. I still have a rare, 25-year-old original copy of that VHS that I preserved over the years, that Tom signed for me when I met up with him in Cardiff, CA last weekend.
How this trip materialized was absolutely incredible. Call it irony, serendipity, karma or a just a great blessing … maybe a little of all of that.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an Instagram post about owning that original VHS copy of “Searching for Tom Curren”. The second I finished posting it and returned to my feed, I noticed a post from Rip Curl Ventura. I only follow the California shop (I’m in Florida) because my friend, Ehren Tresher, from New Smyrna Beach, used to manage it and I had visited him out there.
Their post announced that after 25 years, “Searching for Tom Curren” was finally being re-released in streaming and digitally-remastered formats, and noted that to celebrate the upcoming world premiere in Cardiff that week, that they were going to let 5 lucky people enjoy a two-hour surf-session with Tom. They said they planned to notify winners on the following Thursday for the event taking place Saturday morning. With such a short turnaround, I figured they were assuming the winners would be from California. But I also figured that if I had a full day to figure out travel arrangements, I could potentially make it, so I entered my contact information.
Fast forward to the following Friday. I had not received any notices, so I assumed I had not won. Oh well, you don’t know if you don’t go. Then… on Friday at 4 PM, I received a text from Rip Curl notifying me that I had indeed won and to show up at the San Elijo Campground in Cardiff at 9:30 the NEXT MORNING to meet and surf with Tom! 👀👀👀😂.
The folks from Rip Curl would later share with me that they had about 3,500 entries, that I had won entirely at random, and that the one-day delay in notifying me was due to the fact that among the original 5 winners who were selected, one could not make it and another did not surf and thought that the event, called “Camp Shred”, might include surf lessons. Of course, it didn’t, but Rip Curl wanted to fill the slots, and my name came up in the second draw.
Back to 4 p.m. on Friday … I could not believe it when I received the text! I didn’t even know if it was possible to get to California from Jax by early the morning, but I knew that if it was, it would be very expensive and logistically, nearly impossible, at best. I showed the notification to my wife, who was also in disbelief. At the same time, she knows the great value I place on life experiences, on seizing opportunities when they present themselves, and understood exactly where surfing with Tom Curren might fall in line on both of those lists for me.
So, she jumped online and started helping me look up flights. Now, this was the weekend of the Super Bowl, so you can imagine what the prices and lack of options for flights to San Diego and LAX looked like. Worse, I had to make a final decision FAST, also find a hotel room and rent-a-car, and get to the airport 45 minutes away, just to have a chance of making it.
Finally, we found a flight- at $675, the cheapest available, that was leaving in two hours. We are far from wealthy and I knew this was going to set back plans for a trip to El Salvador that I had been hoping to take, but again, I thought about it and realized this was an opportunity that say, at a charity auction, might go for between $5K – $10K, maybe more. Essentially, it was priceless. It is just not something that most would ever get the opportunity to do. So, we pulled the trigger.
I scrambled to pull my board bag down from the attic and threw my wetsuit, board shorts, and a change of clothes into an overnight bag while Gretchen continued searching for a car rental, and a hotel room in Cardiff. Within an hour, we were racing off to the airport and I made the last flight out of Jax, with about an hour to spare.
I arrived in San Diego at about 12:00 a.m. Gretchen had booked me a rent-a-car and a hotel room in Carlsbad, about halfway between the airport and Cardiff. Alas –as most, if not all experienced surf travelers have experienced at one time or another– I went to the baggage claim to pick up my board and waited… and waited… and waited… until one by one, all the people had disappeared… and all the carousels had stopped moving.
My board had not made it.
Livid, I protested with the airline service representatives. They tried to do what they could, but the reality was that there were no more flights coming in from Dallas (the American Airlines connecting city where my board had made it to). They assured me that it would arrive at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. I was due in Cardiff, about 30 miles away, at 9:30 am. It would be razor-close timing.
As a result of this delay, I had to cancel my hotel reservation in Carlsbad and try and find a room closer to the airport. Thankfully, it was a Saturday, so the early morning traffic would at least be lighter than on a weekday. But I still had to go pick up my car rental and try to find an affordable hotel room (an oxymoron in San Diego), that would take me in that very night. And, the clock was ticking.
After driving around downtown San Diego and calling and stopping at multiple hotels, most of which were full, I finally found one that would take me in for a few hours … for $175. I sat outside for a few minutes, pondering sleeping in my car, but I felt I had to get at least a couple of hours of decent sleep which wasn’t going to happen that way. So at 2:30 a.m., I bit the bullet and checked in.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, I got up and made my way back to the airport and at 8:30 a.m., as promised, my board arrived. I threw it in the back of my car and high-tailed it to Cardiff, arriving at the San Elijo Campground at around nine a.m.
Upon arriving, there was no parking to be found. As it turned out, there was an event happening there, a BIG one: “Camp Shred – The World’s Largest Board Demo”. ALL of the top board-makers were there and basically, you could demo any type of board you desired, for free. (In hindsight, I realized I didn’t even need my board – I would love to see one of these events in Florida!) Rip Curl had premiered the remastered version of Tom’s movie the night before and I was told that a lot of industry bigwigs were in attendance. They were also doing a second showing for the two-day event, later that evening.
I didn’t want to miss my session with Tom, so I parked in the only space I could find: a No Parking zone. I made my way down to the Rip Curl tent/campsite. I was greeted warmly with a big gift bag full of all kinds of Rip Curl swag, an invitation to help myself to their cooler, and assurance that Tom was in transit. I told their crew that I was from Florida, and about my crazy journey to get there. They could not believe it, but were super-stoked to learn about it! They told me their drawing was completely randomized and that they had no idea I was coming from Florida. They had only seen that I had confirmed I would be there.
Right behind me, the other four winners showed up, all from California, and not too far away. A couple were my age, a couple a bit younger. All were super friendly, and they also loved hearing that I had come all the way from Florida, with less than 24-hour’s-notice.
At around 10:30 a.m., Tom showed up with his wife, Maki. We had introductions, and after a little chatting, we put on our wetsuits and headed down to the beach. The waves were nice, waist-to-chest mostly, a little soft, but clean with good form. The break, a reef, was beautiful and they said a couple of whales had come through earlier. Due to the event (or maybe just due to it being California), it was packed, with about half of the people on longboards – men, women, and people of all ages.
Tom rode a CI twin-fin that looked to be about 5’5” with a unique pair of cutaway fins. His wife paddled out with us on a bodyboard. Due to the crowds, the good waves were hard to come by. I caught three, maybe going 15-20 yards each time, before cutting out. I had surfed twice all winter and was just happy not to fall in front of the champ.
Tom rode about five or six waves and as you might expect, ripped them all to shreds in a very nonchalant way while riding just about every one of them to the beach, each time. Like Kelly and other elite surfers, he simply seems to know where the energy resides in every wave and uses it to generate maximum speed and flow. His style was as effortless, as beautiful as ever, and a joy to watch. People noticed Tom but did not bother him, and he didn’t dominate the break the way I suppose he could have. Instead, he just found spots and waves, inside and outside, and made the most of each one.
In the water and after the session, Tom was as polite as could be– soft-spoken, and as humble as he always seemed to be from afar. He took the time to interact with each one of us there as a group, and individually. He told me he had just moved into a new home and said he hadn’t traveled much, recently. He perked up most when talking about music.
I mentioned that I had seen him play when he came through Jax years ago (at the Milk Bar), touring with Kelly Slater’s band. He said that was one of his favorite tours and concerts, and that he remembered Jacksonville and Jax Beach in particular, and really loved the area. I asked him if he had been involved creatively with the production of “Searching for Tom Curren” or just the subject of it, and he said it was all Sonny Miller’s creation, with the exception of some diffusion effects that he had suggested (to great effect, I would add).
When we got back to the beach and Rip Curl’s cliff-side camp, I asked him to sign my original VHS of “Searching for Tom Curren”, which I had brought with me for that purpose. He did, and also signed promotional film posters for my wife and two daughters. The folks from Nalu.tv, the company re-distributing the film offered up VIP tickets to the second showing of the film that night, but my flight back was that same evening. I thanked them, Tom, and the Rip Curl team for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and headed out.
When I returned to my car, there were two tickets on it; one for parking in a no-parking zone and the other for entering the campground without a pass. My expenses were still going up, but honestly, I was just happy my rental hadn’t been towed.
Heading back to Florida, I had to fly Jet Blue from San Diego to New York, of all places, then all the way back down to Florida. There was a snowstorm at JFK, and it caused a three-and-a-half-hour delay on top of what was already a very long trip that spanned all night and well into the next day. I hadn’t traveled since the pandemic began and masking up on the planes and in airports for that long was its own challenge. I think I slept a total of four hours over nearly two days, arriving back home a couple of hours prior to kickoff for the Super Bowl. As you might imagine, I slept through most of the game, but I wasn’t too worried about it. I had just gone “searching” for Tom Curren, and I found him.