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Glenn Sakamoto
(Tuesday) 8.24.10

Gerry Lopez-Liquid Salt Interview

Hawaiian-born surfer Gerry Lopez needs no intro­duc­tion. One of the pio­neers of The Pipeline, his smooth and grace­ful rid­ing in con­trast with the pow­er­ful wave has made him an icon. Later, his trav­els to exotic places like G-Land fur­ther rein­forced his leg­endary sta­tus. We were for­tu­nate to ask him a few ques­tions.

What was it like grow­ing up in the Islands?

It was sim­ply a great time to be a kid and a good place to grow up. In the 50’s, Hawaii was a pretty sleepy place, but it started to change pretty rapidly after state­hood in 1959. Surf­ing was becom­ing pop­u­lar and surf­boards were being made out of foam. Guys who were older than me, they had to begin surf­ing on a heavy solid wood board. For a young kid, it made surf­ing much more acces­si­ble. I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time. Look­ing back when I grew up, it seemed like it was a great time to be a kid. And a great time to be a surfer.

Why do you surf?

The first time you get a ride on a surf­board and you are being pro­pelled along by a wave, it’s prob­a­bly as close as humans can get to being able to fly like a bird. I’ve tried to think about it and fig­ure out what it is exactly that makes it so won­der­ful. I guess it’s a sense of free­dom. When you’re glid­ing along on a wave, you are kind of leav­ing grav­ity behind—and you soar. It’s such a tremen­dous feel­ing that grips you down to your core.

Like I said, I’ve been try­ing to think about what it is exactly. It is much more than phys­i­cal and men­tal; there must be some spir­i­tual stim­u­la­tion that we may not be aware of. We get some­thing more from surf­ing than from other things that might be stim­u­lat­ing or excit­ing. And that’s what is so unique about surf­ing. There is just this lit­tle extra of this mys­te­ri­ous some­thing that makes you want to come back and do it more and more.

Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?

After every surfer gets hooked into surf­ing, or “catch­ing the bug,” you try to improve. The way to do that is you look at guys who are bet­ter at it and you try and copy them.

When I was in the eighth grade, I knew that Paul Strauch was one of the best surfers in our school even before I actu­ally saw him surf. There was a beau­ti­ful shot of Paul surf­ing at Haleiwa on a poster doing his Cheater Five, crouched down on his board with his left foot extended out right on the tip that every­one admired, includ­ing myself.

The first time I saw Paul surf was at Ala Moana and every­thing about him I really admired. He was the kind of surfer I wanted to be like. And not only myself, but most of the guys in our school all thought he was the great­est too. And we had many famous surfers in our school, as teach­ers, who had more of a rep­u­ta­tion: Fred Van Dyke, Rickey Grigg, Peter Cole. But none of them had the ele­gance, style, and grace that Paul Strauch did. To do this day when I see him, I’m like a star-struck fan. (Laughs)


How impor­tant is style in surf­ing?

The first time I ever saw myself in a surf­ing movie, I thought to myself, “My God, that can’t be me—that guy has such an awful style.” What you think you look like surf­ing is dif­fer­ent than what oth­ers think. I guess style is what sets one surfer apart from another; the ones whose styles you like are the ones you watch the most closely.

Style devel­ops over a long period of time. And as you become more skilled at surf­ing and you move beyond the basics of stand­ing up and turn­ing, you can then focus a lit­tle more on how your body is posi­tioned. With today’s use of video cam­eras, it is much eas­ier to study how you look than it was back in the days of film.

When I was in the 1973 World Con­test in San Diego, I thought I surfed pretty good, but I fin­ished in last place. My girl­friend at the time said I didn’t win because she said I didn’t do any­thing. But that was kind of my style; I kinda stood there and let the wave do every­thing. The small waves didn’t do much, so I didn’t do much either. At the Ala Moana bowl, the wave did a lot; I could just stand there and I would let the wave do everything.

How were you able to main­tain a calm com­po­sure when you were drop­ping into The Pipeline?

I had a really good surfboard. What I mean is, if you had good equip­ment and you had con­fi­dence in your equip­ment, you were able to get away with quite a bit. This was in the early 70’s and the short­board was in the devel­op­men­tal stage. Nobody at the time knew what the per­fect surf­board was sup­posed to look like. I built my own surf­boards specif­i­cally for a par­tic­u­lar spot. Boards didn’t last long at The Pipe, so when you broke one you just made a new one, try­ing to improve it over the last one. I just hap­pened to get really lucky when I built my next board for The Pipeline.

I built a board I was so con­fi­dent on that I was able to just stand there and become a lit­tle more casual about it because I knew my board would carry me through. Peo­ple always say to me, “Come on, there’s got to be more than that!” But it really is just you and your board. The wave is just the music and if you get a good part­ner (in your surf­board), you can dance pretty good.

You are cred­ited with nam­ing Shaun Tomson’s famous board the “Pink Banana”…

That’s how Shaun remem­bers it. Actu­ally, being a shaper and surf­board builder, I was quite impressed with his board. It was a rad­i­cal depar­ture, as far as over­all rocker, from any­thing any­body was rid­ing. He remem­bers it was me who was laugh­ing at it, but I think it was Rory (Rus­sell) that was doing all of the laugh­ing. I was busy exam­in­ing it. It was exactly the oppo­site of how I thought it would per­form when I watched Shaun ride it; he rode the hell out of the thing.


What is the great­est thing you have learned in your life?

Well, in regards to surf­ing, I’ve learned that there is always another wave com­ing. Trans­lated that means there is always tomor­row. No mat­ter how badly you get caught inside, if you can just hang in there and keep pad­dling, the set is going to pass and there will be a lull after­wards. So don’t give up, just take your pound­ing, wait until the set passes, then make your move.

What inspires you?

Per­fec­tion, pas­sion, intel­li­gence, indi­vid­u­al­ity. All those things stim­u­late me and make me think. They make me want to improve and do a lit­tle bit better.

What are you most proud of?

That I’m still here. That I have a won­der­ful fam­ily and a whole bunch of friends. And that I’m still paddling.

What Golden Rule do you live by?

Before I want to crit­i­cize some­one, I need to put myself in their shoes and try to see it from their per­spec­tive. Because if you walk a mile in their shoes, you are a mile away from them and they’re bare­foot! (Laughs)

What is your rela­tion­ship with Patag­o­nia like?

I became famil­iar with the com­pany and its prod­ucts when I moved to Ore­gon in 1992 and started snow­board­ing. They had been around a long time before that but I’m always the last guy to fig­ure out any­thing. My wife sug­gested I try their Capi­lene under­wear instead of the ones I was using. And before that, I pur­chased one of their win­ter jack­ets from the Light­ning Bolt Maui store. To this day, I still have that jacket. I was so impressed with the com­pany and what they made that I took a closer look. It turned out that Yvon Chouinard and I have a lot in com­mon. We became friends and he approached me and asked if I wanted to be involved with the com­pany. I said, “Yeah!”

My job descrip­tion is ocean ambas­sador. I work with them to posi­tion Patag­o­nia as a surf/ocean com­pany because it is more gen­er­ally known as an alpine/mountain climb­ing one. Every­one at the com­pany is a surfer and ocean-oriented so this made a lot of sense. I inter­act in many of the company’s dif­fer­ent divisions—writing, doing photo work, prod­uct test­ing with their cloth­ing, wet­suits, and gear—and I work with Fletcher Chouinard on surf­boards. Fletcher Chouinard Surf­boards has a very green approach, using poly­styrene cores and epoxy resins. There is a lot of infor­ma­tion exchanged (with my shap­ing and long­time surfboard-building expe­ri­ence and with their green technologies).

Patag­o­nia is a dream com­pany to be involved with. Their creed is: make the best prod­uct, cause no unnec­es­sary harm and use busi­ness to inspire and imple­ment solu­tions to the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. I am really hon­ored and stoked to be a part of this com­pany and to have a rela­tion­ship with them.


How is snow­board­ing like surf­ing?

Basi­cally, the waves and the snow come from the same storms. I never really saw snow before I was in my 40’s; I grew up in Hawaii. Besides, in the win­ter, I was always wait­ing for the North Shore to break and had no inter­est in ski­ing. I tried ski­ing one time, in 1966, while I was in col­lege and said, “For­get it!” Then I tried snow­board­ing, in about 1989, and I thought, “Man, this is cool!” There are so many sim­i­lar­i­ties with surf­ing and rid­ing a snow­board that it seems every surfer has exactly the same style on a snow­board that he has on a surf­board. There was even a time, when I first moved to Ore­gon, that I was snow­board­ing more than I was surf­ing. I’ve been board­ing for about 20 years now, but surf­ing has once again risen to the top! (Laughs)

What are you doing these days with surf­ing?

I go surf­ing as much as I can—whenever its good here in Ore­gon or if I can take a trip some­where. I really got into stand up pad­dle­boards. It’s been really excit­ing for me, espe­cially in big­ger waves.

Why stand up boards?

I’ve been surf­ing for over 50 years, and I’ve seen a lot of things come and go with the sport. Surf­ing on a small board is really lim­it­ing because you have to sit right where the wave breaks and you end up miss­ing a lot of waves. The sport has grown so much; the crowds are so big. Surf­ing becomes frus­trat­ing for a lot of surfers. At this point in time, it seems stand up pad­dle surfers are easy tar­gets to take out some of these frus­tra­tions on. But what I like about the SUP boards is the abil­ity to tour. Say there are a bunch of guys out at one peak, but a quar­ter mile down the beach is another (empty) peak. It’s no sweat to cruise down there and check it out.

In the 1980’s, wind­surf­ing came into some of the surf­ing areas and there was a lot of fric­tion there. And the same thing hap­pened when the long­board became pop­u­lar again in the 1990’s; the guys on the long­boards antag­o­nized the short­board rid­ers because, often times, a lesser-skilled surfer on a longer board could get the wave before a bet­ter surfer on a shorter board and this caused ten­sion too. I think these things have a way of work­ing them­selves out.

The thing about surf­ing is that it doesn’t take much to make you feel good. Some­times it’s just one wave or maybe even just one turn. Or maybe it’s just the sight of a nice wave that nobody catches that goes by and is beau­ti­ful. The only thing you can say to those who get pissed off, or get uptight about this or that, is, “Hey, there’s another wave coming.”

Who are the peo­ple who are shap­ing the path for surf­ing today?

There’s just so many good surfers. The level of surf­ing is so high right now. And the list is endless—Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Laird Hamil­ton. We could sit here all night. There’s this kid from Maui, Matt Meola, who is a friend of my son, Alex, since birth. He sent me this video that was just incred­i­ble. He’s leap­ing his surf­board all over the wave just like a snow­board or a skate­board. I told him he doesn’t need to enter com­pe­ti­tions to get noticed; he could just con­tact spon­sors to have him do exhi­bi­tions. The kids today are doing things that the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion never even dreamed about. But I should men­tion some of the old surfers who are shap­ing the path for the surf­ing indus­try, which is the foun­da­tion of our sport today—Yvon Chouinard of Patag­o­nia, Paul Naude of Bill­abong, Bob McK­night of Quik­sil­ver, Richard Wol­cott of Vol­com, Sparky Lon­g­ley of Rain­bow San­dals and many oth­ers. All these indi­vid­u­als are ensur­ing a future for surf­ing with the busi­ness deci­sions they make today.

Lopez_5What is your all-time favorite surf spot?

G-Land. For the kind of surf­ing I like and the kind of wave I like, it was the most per­fect place I have found. It’s long, it attracts a swell, it’s fast and hol­low, and very chal­leng­ing. It’s become more crowded than when we first surfed there, but it is still an out­stand­ing wave. I go on a lot of boat trips, but to me, G-Land still stands out as the best. I haven’t been there in a while, but I think about it all the time. But the real­ity is, these days my favorite spot is any spot I can go surf­ing at—no mat­ter what the waves are like.

What’s your favorite meal?

Brown rice, tofu and veg­gies, and salads.

How do you stay in shape?

At my age, in order to stay active, I would gen­er­al­ize it this way: a yoga/surfing lifestyle. Yoga has been around for a very long time and is a totally bal­anced and well-developed sys­tem that is ben­e­fi­cial to all. Surf­ing? Well, that speaks for itself.

What kind of music are you lis­ten­ing to these days?

Mostly old music from the 60’s and 70’s – Elvis, Jimi Hen­drix, Ray Charles, Jack­son Browne, Dylan, The Bea­t­les, the Stones, what­ever. My wife and son kinda shake their heads, but we all lis­ten to Jack John­son together.

What organizations/causes do you sup­port?

I sup­port all envi­ron­men­tal causes, par­tic­u­larly any of them that have to do with the ocean. The Surfrider Foun­da­tion does a good job. Sea Shep­herd. Any­body that is con­sciously try­ing to pre­serve the Earth, not use it and abuse it. Any orga­ni­za­tion try­ing to leave the world at least like we had it (for our kids and future gen­er­a­tions to enjoy) has my support.

I also sup­port most health-related research that can make a dif­fer­ence with the trou­bling increase in can­cer and other illnesses. I sup­port yoga in what­ever style or school that can gen­er­ate inter­est and enthu­si­asm in peo­ple who aren’t into it.

What’s next for Gerry Lopez?

Well, they open Mt. Bach­e­lor tomorrow…

More infor­ma­tion about Gerry Lopez Surf­boards can be found here. Read more about Gerry’s involve­ment with Patag­o­nia here. Surf pho­tog­ra­phy cour­tesy of Jeff Divine. Por­trait by Chris Orwig.

About Liquid Salt

Liquid Salt™ aims to celebrate surfing for what it is: a joyful union between the surfer and the ocean. Part blog and part magazine, its premise is to give voice to those people—surfers, shapers, writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers—who quietly keep surf culture alive. Our mission is to highlight the rich, vibrant diversity of the worldwide surfing community. Make sure to check out the other 100+ interviews that Glenn and Liquid Salt Team have been compiling over the years.

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  • Richard Payne

    I got to watch Jerry surf Sunset Beach in Dec. of ’09. He was having so much fun on his blue sup. Taking time to let beach goers get a shot with him. If there’s one surfer I’ve looked up to it’s been Jerry. Style and Grace. rp

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