“Unlike other surfers who always knew where they were going, Buttons neither knew nor cared. Loop the loop, off the bottom, through the top, what did it matter as long as you got the buzz" - Phil Jarratt in Surfer Magazine, 1979
Afros & Skateparks
Surf exploration – and philosophies – were toward the East, but exploration was also internal, mind-altering, introspective. Music became experimental, and so too did wave riding. Glide alone was no longer enough, the object was no longer to caress wave faces in trim, but to attack, slash, change direction, pushing the extremities of where you could go on a wave. Deep inside it, up above it, railing daringly against it. This being the 70’s, your only limitations were the limits of your own consciousness, man.
Amid this upheaval, three Hawaiians were the chief architects of the surfing 360 genesis. Larry Bertlemann ‘The Rubberman’ brought a skate-influenced style, a well coiffed afro and a whole new groove. As well as pioneering the first aerials, Bert was pulling 360’s rotations by 1973. Injecting flair, treating wave faces like skatepark transitions, sure the flow and style were still there but a new audacity was upon us. An outlandishness. “You can master the ride, but never the ocean” may have been the era’s mantra, but Bert sure had a go at the latter.
As so often is the case, movements seem to invite paradigm shifts much more than individuals. And just as urethane wheels changed skateboarding in the mid 70’s, Ben Aipa’s Stinger tailed surfboards allowed a fresh skate-style approach to flower in the ocean. In 1975, Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani, or “Buttons” along with Mark Liddell picked up both Bert’s baton and Aipa’s stingertails, and ran with them. While the surf world was in the midst of the Free Ride/Bustin’ Down The Door era, the establishment of deep tuberiding, and taking itself pretty seriously, Bert, Buttons and Liddell’s small wave skate antics had put back a much needed helping of fun.
Echo Beach & The New Wave
The big bad 80’s saw another shift in style and attitude. Brash and unapologetic, punk rock and new wave embodied the ‘surf fast, rock hard’ ethos. Lewd neon airbrushes, unashamed sponsors logos the size of a house adorned surfboards, while an animalistic breed of hard partying power surfers ruled pro surfing, making proper money and drawing massive beach crowds. Aerials were around, but largely dismissed as ‘tricks’, as the sport held true to the staples of clean carving, power lines, tube riding and big waves. For all surfing’s liberal, free spirit values, a conservative orthodoxy ruled in what could and should be done on a wave. Manoeuvres should be ‘functional’. Tricks were frivolous, tricks were for kids. Ironically enough, notable 360 full rotation attempts from the 80’s include those of the ultimate power tube warrior, Johnny Boy Gomes. Johnny Boy’s el rollos (spinning upside down inside the tube holding the rails) drew no audible scorn, as they might have done from a less physically frightening man. As that decade drew to a close, air pioneer punk deviants like Christian Fletcher and Matt Archbold routinely went super high, but mainly on straight (unrotated) airs.
The 360 air reverse and alley-oop were as yet still very much forbidden fruit.
The New School
When a young good looking high school kid from Florida named Robert Kelly Slater won a World Title in 92, his first full year of trying, surfing would never be the same again. Boards slimmed down to thin, narrow curved ‘potato chips’. Anyone over 25 found it hard to stay on tour. Tails were slid out the back of tops turns, boards were reversed out of carves. Even an awkward acting foray playing Jimmy Slade in Baywatch couldn’t detract from the realness of Slater’s new deal; a whole new brand of electric, elastic surfing. Stiffness and conservatism of line were old hat. The New School were graduating, and Slater was the undisputed top of the class.
The New School generation, themselves influenced by crossover of skate and snow wore baggy clown pants on land, and punted aerial rotations by sea. Timmy Curran nailed a game changing alley-oop (spinning in the same direction as a carving 360, just in the air) in 1995 surf movie Focus “The first time anyone had seen an alley-oop” said Taylor Steele, the surf movie director of the New School generation and kingmaker to countless careers. Steele’s 1997 follow-up, The Show, featured a carving 360 by Kelly Slater, a 360 air reverse by Curran and an alley-oop by Shane Dorian in the opening sequence alone. The 90’s were nearly over, tricks were no longer for kids, and 360 rotations were must-have feathers in any legit New Schooler’s cap.
As Slater and Andy Irons duelled throughout the Naughties for World Titles, big airs were no longer a niche, side genre among the elite, but something you had to have. A brief flirtation with eponymously named tricks ensued like (Josh Kerr’s) Kerr-upt Flip and Flynn Novak’s Flynnstone Flip (a legit backflip), but wherever you stood on inventing new moves and naming them after yourself, one thing was for sure. ‘Air guys’ were a thing of the past. Modern pros needed to be able to ride deep tubes, gouge power carves and huck huge, preferably full rotated airs, preferably on the same wave.
And these days, anything in the air needs to be legit, credit card airs are denied. A full rotation in the air (as opposed to 180 in the air, then spinning the board around during the landing), is required fare. Dane Reynolds perfected the new approach, somehow adding power to his airs. Rather than floaty and speculative, they were full on extensions of a gnarly rail line… just frighteningly high and fast. And right on Reynolds’ heels was a certain John John Florence.
Florence, the epitomy of today’s ‘everything’ surfers, comfortable pulling the most progressive airs and riding the most giant barrels, nailed a behemoth alley oop during a World Championship Tour heat in Bali in 2013 that is still arguably the biggest rotation ever witnessed in elite competition. While barely recognisable from early efforts of anything Bert and co were attempting four decades earlier, it looked and felt everything like the organic progression of a revolution kicked off back in 70’s on his native North Shore.
While riding the tube is still surfing’s holy grail, and arguably both surfing’s simplest yet most difficult move to master, with a moving ramp and landing, nailing a 360 air in surfing still requires thousands of hours of water time. A full 360 rotation both physically and philosophically embodies the very essence of surf ride; progressive, innovative, playful.
A manoeuvre that ends up where it started, a fleeting moment in time, leaving no lasting trace of itself.
Just like a breaking wave.