Eclectic Youth: Linking the past, performance, and play with San Diego's New Generation of surfers
Words: Andrew Smith
Photos: Billy Watts, Aaron Goulding
All Rights Reserved 2010
At this point in surfing’s evolutionary timeline, the old rallying cry of "rip, shred, and lacerate!" seems almost quaint. Gone are the days when every kid at the beach aspired to be Pottz, Curren, or Occy. No longer is a clear, white thruster the singular desire of young surfers everywhere. A new paradigm has emerged: young surfers around the world are selecting from a strange and functional diaspora of craft to surf in creative, expressive play.
They draw their inspiration from both today’s cutting-edge of surfing and the validated lineage of surfing's past. They shape their own boards, make their own art, and dance to their own beat. These young surfers are as likely to throw a poised, ten-toed hang as they are to blast fins-out lip attacks. These are the surfers of the here and now.
At the turn of the millennium there was a spark. Films from Jack Johnson, the Malloy brothers, and Thomas Campbell highlighted inspiring surfing from fantastic surfers on diverse surfboards. In these films a new norm was introduced and statements were made. Surfers of talent did surf on a variety of craft. Top-notch watermen did seek new and thrilling modes of enjoying their surf time. Soon surfers young and old were beginning to ask questions about differing designs and dusting off their quivers, seeking out anachronistic boards to see what gems might be lurking in the rafters. Suddenly it became acceptable for young surfers to fill their quivers with a range of surfcraft. Suddenly, “good surfing” was redefined to include a wide range of performance that could be modeled by a wide range of performers.
The freedom discovered by embracing this new paradigm has allowed young surfers to explore every facet of the surfing life more completely. They not only experiment with new and old designs, but also trace the history of the sport and discover the giants upon whose shoulders they stand. They not only learn to surf in new ways, but also uncover new ways to create. Cameras are taken in hand, the whir of planers on foam is heard, and paintbrushes are dipped in paint. Their new openness leads to discovery. Their new vision leads to innovation.
San Diego surfers Lucas Dirkse and Ryan Burch epitomize this emergent subset of surfing’s youth. At home on all manner of surf-craft, Burch and Dirkse experiment readily with the gamut of designs. Their surfing is grounded in a strong connection with the past of the sport and an appreciation for the creative aspects that have driven surfing through its many iterations. Well versed in the history of the sport, they have discovered the feats of their predecessors. Legendary names such as Bob Simmons, Skip Frye, Steve Lis and George Greenough serve as their inspiration. Burch and Dirkse are mentored by influential San Diego surfer and thinker Richard Kenvin and have been the subjects of many of his short films. Their surfing has garnered widespread attention as they have become the prototypical post-millennial groms.
Youth on Fire: Lucas Dirkse
Sun bleached blond hair and tell-tale wetsuit neck-tan place the tag immediately. This grom, 15-year-old Lucas Dirkse, is surf stoked. Raised by a supportive mother and a commercial urchin-diver father, Dirkse has spent his youth next to the ocean, mere blocks from the iconic shack at Windansea. Undoubtedly, Dirkse is ideally positioned to become whatever version of a surfer he desires. As it turns out, this naturally gifted surfer only wants to be himself.
Looking back on his earliest surfing years Lucas sees himself as one of the herd. “My vision of good surfing was shortboarding,” Dirkse relates. “ I was just trying to be what I thought a good surfer should be.” Gradually his focus began to shift towards boards and surfing of other kinds and variations on the experience of riding waves. “(La Jolla shaper) Tim Bessell was sponsoring me,” Dirkse remembers. “He made me a double-bump quad fish and a longboard. As soon as I started riding them I was just hooked. Those boards really set me off. I was just all about the speed and feel of those boards.”
Before long Lucas was intently watching more mature local surfers and beginning to understand the range of possibilities available to him. “San Diego is a place where an amazing variety of good surfing is done on a lot of different boards,” Dirkse states. He studied the smooth noseriding act of Joel Tudor and appreciated the poised grace of Skip Frye. He would enjoyed the tube-riding exploits of the local La Jolla crew. “I would just watch anyone that looked good on a wave. Anyone could be an inspiration.”
Dirkse’s fresh vision propelled him to a new level of excitement about surfing and surfboards. He found himself competitively successful, but more importantly he found himself inspired. “Exploring the unknown is all of it. It’s just so fun,” Dirkse he says. “I mean, you look at a shortboard and you know what it does and what it is supposed to do. You look at a finless with weird concaves or a funky log and you just have to imagine what can be done. I want to ride any board anyone has ever made!”
Youthful hyperbole aside, Dirkse certainly is breaking new ground in his exploits. Thanks to the influence of Kenvin and his Hydrodynamica Project, Lucas finds himself acting as test-pilot for all manner of Simmons’ inspired craft. As documented through Kenvins’ lens, Dirkse has been seen riding everything from mini-simmons dual fin designs to finless boards inspired by Derek Hynd to alai’a. He has even taken to shaping his own finless creations.
Surf-stoked groms are everywhere, but. Lucas, however, has been blessed with both geographic fortune and a willingness to explore all that the surfing has to offer.
Awakening: Ryan Burch
Success came early and often to Ryan Burch. Gifted as a surfer and with a supportive family, Burch spent his early youth seeking and getting what many groms covet: shortboard surfing success and recognition. In his younger days he found himself the National Scholastic Surfing Association boy’s explorer division champion. He became the number-one surfer on the San Dieguito Surf Team as a freshman, a role akin to being the starting quarterback as a freshman at any other high school.
Then a shift occurred. Where once he found surfing satisfying, he began to feel as though it was becoming stale and repetitive. A change was in order.“I kind of got a taste of what it would be like to be a competitive pro surfer,” Burch reflects. “I was fortunate enough to have sponsors and some local publicity, to take some trips. I should’ve been content. But something was gnawing at me. I didn’t burn out, I just became disinterested in what I was doing. I needed to explore my surfing options.” A summer encounter with good friend and fellow open-minded surfer/shaper Chris Cravey led to Ryan’s first taste of traditional longboarding. Before long Burch was hooked. “The longboard thing captivated me. It was all so fresh and new and exciting for me.”
Days were spent log riding the local reef while observing Tudor’s unmistakable flow. Where once the shortboarding contests were the focus of Burch’s talents, now longboarding took priority. Burch relates, “I started to get kind of weird about it. I remember a time when I was in this (shortboarding) contest just down the road from my longboarding spot. I was doing well, but between heats I’d just log ride. I’d do a heat, get in my car and then log ride until my next heat.” This kind of quirky behavior soon spread into a full-blown obsession with boards of all types. His current quiver holds every wave-riding tool from handplane to Frye-styled glider. Ryan is simply entranced by the options available to put under a surfer’s willing feet. “I am still totally into shortboarding,” he says, “but the feeling of riding different boards is just so amazing. I’m so interested in what these boards do well that I don’t think about what they don’t do.”
All at once, Ryan Burch the shortboarder was awakened to a new reality, a place where options abound and creativity opens new doors. “Watching the differences in surfing styles among longboarders at my local break was shocking to me. It opened my eyes to see that differences are a good thing.” Now 21, Ryan Burch views his grom days with growing maturity. He is equally at home on a fish, glider, Alaia, noserider, or chippy thruster—his smooth, radical surfing translates to a tremendous spectrum of surf-craft with ease. He shapes his own boards, paints, and creates with passion.
Ryan spends his days experimenting with new equipment of all kinds while revisiting the roots of the sport. Here again Kenvin has played an important role, filling the gaps in Burch’s understanding of surfing history, particularly regarding San Diego and Bob Simmons. “RK gave me a grounding in the history and connectedness of surfing in San Diego.” The connections he’s learned have propelled both he and Lucas Dirkse into a new realm of exploration.
Sea Foam: inspiration and innovation
The exploration of the moment for Dirkse and Burch is the riding of short, wide, unglassed, finless blocks of closed-cell foam, a unique craft they have employed in waves from ankle-high to overhead. The two surfers are enamored of these blocks of ungainly craft and their unique surfing characteristics. “They’re just so versatile and unique,” Relays Dirkse,. “They have amazing flex and a kind of trim that’s hard to explain.”
Foam block surfing emerged from a remarkable confluence of factors. One afternoon Burch found himself with a block of closed-cell foam in the back of his car. Without any impetus he simply took it out the foam and surfed. “I had an outline for a finless on a blank in the back of my truck. I was going to shape and glass it but I stopped at Seaside (reef) on the way to the factory. I was went out on my shortboard and wasn’t having fun so I just grabbed the unglassed foam. My first wave I got this insane trim and knew something special was happening.”
Before long the two finless enthusiasts were sliding their foam ambitiously. Richard Kenvin witnessed and documented their new endeavor. He also delineated a remarkable historical connection: the foam boards are almost identical to the foam planks that Lindsay Lord documented used in his studies of planing hulls, documented in his 1946 book, entitled Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls. The book was a major influence in Simmons’ design process of as he later explored planing -hull theory as applied to surfboards. Burch had stumbled upon a piece of the Simmons puzzle without prior knowledge, and by sheer open-minded innovation, he had connected the excitement of the present to the innovation of the past.
Finless surfing continues to be the aquatic adventure of the moment for Burch and Dirkse. Motivated by their foam riding and prior encounters with finless virtuoso Derek Hynd, Dirkse and Burch are both excitedly crafting and riding finless craft. “Riding finless boards is kind of unexplored territory,” Burch states. “I’m stretching my imagination to envision what might be next.” The two young surfers are making amazing things happen on these quite unusual platforms. Waves of height and consequence are being challenged and trim is being broken in radical, controlled displays.
The Wide-Open Future
Even in this new age of surfing diversity there are the ever-present critics. Richard Kenvin reflects, “Dirkse and Burch have been subjected to oppressive negativity from certain members of the surf "community" about riding Simmons’ type boards and the like. The pressure to conform is heavy. Those kids, Lucas and Burch, are a shining light.”
Surfing, in its essence, is an act of freedom and creativity. We seek out the ocean as a place to explore and discover. In the past, the wide-eyed exuberance of youthful surfing has been overwhelmed by the heavy messages of a surfing public consumed with appearing and performing in a particular manner. Only now, for the first time since the shortboard revolution, are we seeing young surfers reach beyond the conventional to explore the breadth of possibilities offered in the simple act of sliding down waves. It is a brave new world for a grom, full of options, full of opportunities, full of fascinating moments of pure fun and profound stoke. Surely this is the age of the Eclectic Youth.