Three Cheers for the Vans Duct Tape Invitational
Inside the bizarre, beautiful world of Joel Tudor's unique event, which stormed the Basque Country at the weekend
There were many things to shout about in Zarautz on Sunday, the final day of the Duct Tape Invitational presented by Joel Tudor and Vans. Not least of these was the punctual arrival of a new long-period swell, glassy in the morning and ruffled but unfazed by light onshores in the afternoon. But even that didn't make the top three.
The third most enthusiastic cheer of the day was earned by Ryan Burch, when he stepped forward to the mic after the final, and — beer in hand, beaming ecstatically — said: “¡Eskerrik asko País Vasco!" (Thank you, Basque Country.) The day before the surf had been almost flat, and the contest put on hold; I’d eaten breakfast on the terrace of the Restaurant Karlos Aguiñano around 10, half-watching Burch and at least five other of the sixteen invitees catch the barely breaking waves and ride them all the way into the sand. No matter how much I zoned out, no matter which peak I was half-watching, every time Burch got to his feet my attention was instantly drawn to the impeccably graceful figure in the long-sleeve short-leg wetsuit. This seems, incidentally, to be the wetsuit of choice among members of the logging community. Fair play to them, I say.
Burch is fond of the Basques and they are fond of him. The best example of this affinity is his improbable friendship with Peta, the delightful Basque shaper who lost his voice many years ago and now makes do with the hoarse, scarcely audible phantom it left behind. (There are downsides to cheering enthusiastically.)
Peta turned up at the event site on Sunday without having gone to bed after the night before. Burch, fortunately, had not been with him, having heeded Tudor’s warning to the competitors at dinner: “Don’t get too pissed.”
In his semi-final Burch’s dominance was total but he couldn’t find the same rhythm in the final, and for the first time all weekend, his wasn’t the most intriguing or captivating presence in the line-up. I asked him if he felt at all disappointed at finishing in fourth place. “Not at all,” he said, the “t”s softened to “d”s and the drawn-out “all” exaggerating the anapaest. “I was just stoked to be part of an event like this.” I remembered what Dane Reynolds had said a few days earlier: “I always hated winning!” Neither seemed disingenuous.
The second most enthusiastic cheer of the day came in the evening, on the balcony of a local winery where Vans had organised dinner. A grey-haired French woman, probably pushing 70, had intercepted the joint being passed round one of the tables and taken the longest toke I’ve ever seen. Four seconds, five seconds — still going! — six, seven… Periodically the ashy tip glowed red, and each time it did I winced, as though witnessing yet another barrel section pitch perilously far down the line. It was one of those long cheers that spreads gradually out from its place of origin, building in intensity and incorporating more and more of the crowd until it nears fever pitch.
The woman in question had been hosting one of the photographers at the event, and was consequently invited to dinner. She shared both the dress sense and the Anna Wintour hairstyle favoured by the majority of the longboarders present, so was instantly accepted as one of their own. I feared a hash-related crash might be immanent, given the lungful or two she'd just taken on board, but several hours later, discussing her attempts to learn Russian, she was lucid, bright-eyed, and among the most charming people I can recall meeting.
Also there, sat next to me at dinner, was a shaper from Suffolk via Yorkshire, who had bonded with Tudor over their shared interest in the views of Peter Schroff. (Schroff, an American shaper, was recently banned from Instagram due to an aggressive, and at times unpleasant, anti-Firewire campaign.) Tudor had unexpectedly replied to a direct message from this obscure board-builder living in Huddersfield, equidistant from east and west coast, and a correspondence ensued.
But the most unlikely guest at the meal was an unkempt Canadian hitchhiker, who had bonded with Tudor over a shared interest in da herb. This tatterdemalion stoic — to borrow Kenneth Tynan’s description of the two tramps in Waiting for Godot — had been on the road for seven months, and looked like it, too. He was en route to Santander, and had somehow fallen in with Joel at the beach, apparently by coincidence.
The most enthusiastic cheer of the day, however, and also the warmest, was saved for the event winner, Andy Nieblas. Tyler Warren finished third, winning an extra $1700 for what was deemed a particularly appropriate drop-in (“it’s something we encourage here, going doubles”, said Tudor); Al Knost finished second. But it was Nieblas who had the crowd spellbound in the climactic half-hour between 6.30-ish and 7-ish pm.
The other places were more or less a three-way tie, said Tudor, but Nieblas was the “clear winner, based on showmanship and overall performance and just killing it in general”. If Burch was the fleetest of foot, the lightest of touch, and Knost the funniest, the fruitiest, the most stylistically original, Nieblas was the most exhilarating, the most inventive, and no less stylish for all that.
Midway through the evening meal, Joel Tudor proposed a toast. Duct Tape invitees, Vans team riders, media hangers-on, stoned old ladies, East Anglian shapers, Canadian hitchhikers — all rose in unison to salute the 23-year-old from California who sands floors for pocket money.