(This article first appeared in print in SE82, Sept 2011)
by Chas Smith
Riding the tube is the highest of all surfing arts.
Unlike airs, gouges, ungainly luggage and fibreglass, it alone belongs to surfing. There is no tube on the sidewalk or in the mountains.
The tube is not the oldest of all surfing arts. Ancient Hawaiians did not duck underneath the lip, they only slid down the face.
But it was a Hawaiian, in the 1970s, who made the barrel look so so beautiful. His name was Gerry Lopez and he stood, shielded from the sun and from spectators and from all but his own introspection.
He stood with loose limbs and flair borne of subtlety. He went very deep in thunderous barrels but always looked graceful and without worry or fear. Gerry Lopez made the barrel the highest of all surfing arts.
Other magnificent tube riders, following in Gerry’s wake, have been Tom Curren, Andy Irons and his brother Bruce, Jamie O’Brien, Rob Machado, Josh Kerr, Matt Archbold, Bruno Santos and Koa Smith.
They have made the tube a sort of second home and the nuances with which they trim, the slight movements that take them deeper and deeper are beautiful to witness.
Being inside the tube feels like all time has stopped. The first experience, inside, the surfer feels a rush of adrenalized fear.
"He is between sheets of water, breathing his own air, but otherwise part of the sea"
He feels that he is defying God’s natural order and should not be allowed to be where he is. He is between sheets of water, breathing his own air, but otherwise part of the sea. He feels that the lip will, at any moment, hit him in the head or the walls will crush him altogether for defying God’s natural order.
But he must persevere. He must trust that the barrel will stay open and do what it does, which is to roll like a freight train, unless he is surfing closeout beachbreaks and then he will be crushed for his defiance.
And the first experience, inside, the surfer has very bad form. His legs are spread too wide. His arms move in small circles, pointed in odd directions. He leans too much toward the wall of the wave. He thinks, maybe, that he looks like Gerry Lopez but in reality he looks like a spasm.
With time, however, the surfer becomes comfortable and the tube becomes the only place he wants to be. He is hungry for it with a hunger that never wanes. He can never get enough.
And so he listens to music that inspires him to get more tubes. He listens to anything by Icelandic supergroup Sigur Ros. Their ethereal sound gives him peace, unblock his chakras and allow him to flow.
He eats a macrobiotic diet filled with steamed vegetables that is dull, not spicy, but, again, his chakras remain unblocked. He lives in a Hawaiian-style white plantation home and plants pineapple in the front yard and grows zucchini, which he steams.
He decorates his walls with expressionist art of a certain flow-ey, colorful bent. It puts his mind in the mood to be both surreal and rubber. He refuses to watch film and only goes to the theater and only watches Russian ballet. Tears fill his eyes when Russian ballerinas perform Peter and the Wolf.
His mind warps so thoroughly that the barrel ceases to feel strange and it becomes the only place where he feels natural.
Western society marginalizes this obsessed man but he does not care. He spends more and more time in eastern places, like Bali, and odd places, like Hawaii.
He hums Sigur Ros tunes in these places and the locals cannot differentiate between these melodies and the melodies of Justin Bieber. He is home. He is free.