About three years ago a video was posted on YouTube that not only captivated the surf world, but got it scratching its collective chin with what ifs? In it, Australian Derek Hynd takes off on a series of double-, sometimes triple-overhead waves. At first all appears to be normal. He rides in a low crouch, his rear hand tickling the wave face. But there’s a subtle drift in effect. The usual traction between surfboard and wave is non-existent. As the clip kicks on we see Derek slip, slide, drift, careen, ride backwards, and spin a fit of dizzying 360s.
“About fifteen years ago I watched the Daytona 500 live, and wanted that feeling on the high line,” says Derek. “I got to wonder what it’d be like to deliberately lose friction going as fast as I could, but increase the speed. That’s what I got a glimpse into when the leading car lost it with the field up its backside, and for a tiny moment put a gap on the chasers until it flipped multiple times. It lost traction thus friction and went faster for a flash. With the pack less than a yard behind at 200mph high on the speed bank, I saw the shift.”
Derek has had a long and colorful ride in surfing. He’s been a pro, a coach, a journalist, a marketing genius, a critic, a test pilot, a historian, an impresario, and now, at age 55, a finless surfer. It’s key to understand just how important fins are to surfboards. They provide the bite, the hold, the traction. They are what keep the board pointing forward. Without fins (or a fin), there is very little to cling to the wave face. Finless, a surfer is not unlike a child sliding down a snow hill on an inner tube.
In some ways it makes perfect sense that Derek would find finless surfing. While his contemporaries have gotten fat and taken on middle-age responsibility, Derek is lithe and carefree and continues to live the surfing dream as if he were still 21. He travels far and wide on the hunt for waves, rarely missing a swell. He has been an outspoken critic of the cookie-cutter surfing that takes place on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) tour—as well as its cookie-cutter equipment. He reads Dostoyevsky and Proust and Nabokov, and will describe a particular wave he rode ten years ago, or even a particular turn he did on that wave, the way Humbert Humbert describes Lolita.
“When the wave is going super fast, and a board that shouldn’t be matching it is matching it,” he says, right hand driving an imaginary board across his face, “it leaves you breathless about the potential of where surfing may have gone fifty years ago had the fin never gained such static popularity. I got a wave this year at Jeffreys, a big wave, and I was on it and the sections were coming toward me and I wasn’t going to make it but I was making it, and I was aware of my mouth getting wider and wider open, and the wind getting in my mouth, and I was conscious of knowing that the board’s out of control, no, it’s in control! whoa, what’s happening to me? what’s happening to the board? It was at a point of maximum velocity. I’d passed through some sort of barrier.”
Pro surfing is a young man’s game, not only because contemporary high-performance wave riding is extremely gymnastic, requiring great reflexes, but also because the industry is built primarily on apparel, i.e., fashion. Like the fashion world, surf mags and websites are rife with tanned, muscled, wrinkle-less teens and twenty-somethings. This is how the surf dream gets sold. “How does the industry treat pro surfers once their careers are over?” a former world champ once told me, “They hand you a gun, they tell you to go outside, ‘round back, and into the shed. Stick the gun in your mouth like this (he brought a finger to his mouth) and pull the trigger. But do us a favor. Put a silencer on it. We don’t want our stocks taking a dive.” In short, ex-pros often end up marooned and bitter. The lessons learned from riding waves—improvise, duck and weave, be mercurial—rarely translate into terrestrial mid-life and beyond.
One of the ways pro surfers stay sane in the wake of their competitive careers is by experimenting with boards. Three-time world champion Tom Curren did this in the ‘90s to great effect, inspiring a fascination with vintage and alternative wavecraft that has endured and is presently exploding (see Mollusk in San Francisco and LA, Thalia in Laguna Beach). Few people realize that Derek Hynd had a large hand in this. In the early ‘90s he began to lose faith in competitive surfing. As the global economy tanked, and Kurt Cobain sang his anthemic “Oh well, whatever, nevermind,” Derek went searching for surfing’s roots. In South Africa he built a pyramid-shaped house overlooking Jeffreys Bay, one of the world’s longest and best waves. He decked the house out with a nearly 90° slide that connected his capsule-like bedroom to the living room, where dozens of boards—some bought at garage sales and swap meets, others procured from top shapers and surfers globally—lined the walls.
Every morning he woke at dawn, studied the waves, and picked his board accordingly. A sort of time traveling ensued. His 1973 Lightning Bolt pintail, for instance, conjured yoga, Timothy Leary, Santana’s Abraxas. His late-‘60s Malibu Chip summoned surf nihilist Miki Dora and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Derek drew unconventional lines across the wave, often riding high in the pocket, at breakneck speed, hair blown back, arms like wings. He’d always been an expressive surfer, but never like this. These seminal sessions would lead him to finless surfing.
But Derek doesn’t like to call it ‘finless.’ “It’s ‘free friction,’ tagged ‘FFFF’ for ‘Far Field Free Friction’,” he says. “What I’ve been into is more than a solitary deadbeat word, because the feeling is right out there. It’s so far out there that the ‘Far Field’ of it refers to [Osmo] Vänskä’s theoretical physics construct of the instant before infinity. When all is in chaos, ‘the scattering’ or mass turbulence in the Beltrami field comes together in an astonishing blur. That’s the feeling in a nutshell. Getting right out on the edge and having it all fall into place.”
I knew of Derek Hynd long before I met him. Hailing from Sydney and ranked in pro surfing’s elite Top 16, his knock-kneed carves and zingy 360s featured prominently in surf magazines and movies. He rode with a low-slung style, his lithe, rubbery frame much like Mick Jagger’s. He had a reputation for being a merciless competitor. Then, in the 1980 Hang Ten International in Durban, he rode a wave to shore and hopped off on the sand, jogging to shave off the speed. When he turned around his taut urethane leash flung his board at him. It whacked him in the left eye. Derek was so determined to win the heat that he paddled back out and tried to use his injury (“the ooze running down my face was not blood”) to psyche out his opponent. Only after a water photographer screamed at him to go in did he do so. He was rushed to the emergency room and taken straight into surgery. He’d severed his optic nerve. Two days later he exited the hospital with a glass eye.
He returned to the tour the following year and finished 7th—the first one-eyed surfer in ASP history. But Derek was more thinker than jock. He retired from competition, but continued on tour, this time as a coach/journalist. As a coach he employed a heavily tactical approach, and took great pleasure in watching lesser surfers outsmart giants. As a journalist he wrote snappy, contentious pieces that often enraged the pros in question. His column in Surfing World was called “Hyndsight” and bylined with a Cyclops logo. Not only did we read it with great interest, but my surfer pals and I, all aspiring pros, celebrated “Aussie Nights,” on which we pored over Derek’s words, drank oil can-sized Foster’s Lagers, and listened to Midnight Oil, Men At Work, and INXS, often till we puked.
I met Derek in person in 1986 when I traveled to Australia as a pro surfer. A shaggy fellow given to Blundstone boots, pink shorts, and tweed vests over T-shirts, he was nothing like the puffed-up surfers who huddled in competitor’s areas. His shoulders slumped and his aquiline face wore an expression of perpetual disbelief. He spoke slowly, cryptically. He clutched a grey exercise book, and wrote in it constantly.
In 1987 my sponsor, Rip Curl, hired Derek to coach the team. His methods were peculiar. In his exercise book he transcribed every ride of every Rip Curl surfer’s heat, as well as their opponents. He wrote in tiny, curlicue script, with a race caller’s urgency, so that a typical entry would look like this:
JB 2nd: foamy, late, B hook, A hit float, cuttie roundhouse G+
RM 2nd: wide, critical, A layback snap, B+ cuttie, A- reo VG FULL ATTACK
HEAVY PRESSURE ON BOTH – JB NEEDS VG!
Derek’s beachside manner was like Slugworth’s in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He whispered in my ear with a cupped mouth, drew plays in the sand then abruptly scratched them out. He told me where to sit, which waves and maneuvers were scoring highest, and what tactics to use. “If you’re not up on the first wave you’ll be pushing shit uphill,” he’d say. Or, “I hate to break it to you, Jim (he called me Jim), but Occy’s the superior surfer. Your only hope is to keep him off the set waves.”
Our relationship was humming along, he’d assisted me in a few decent results, when suddenly he went from coach to opponent.
This was at the Margaret River Masters in Western Australia. In the days leading up to the event the waves were big and chunky. Among the fifty-odd pros in the water, Derek was a standout. While the Top 16 went up/down, up/down, he carved long, arcing figure eights in which he’d rebound off the foam with a head-tweaking flourish that was sinister, pure rock ‘n’ roll.
When a spot opened up in the trials Derek jumped on it. He won his first couple of rounds by a large margin. I remember thinking that he could very well win the entire contest. Then I checked the draw and discovered that we were in the same four-man heat.
Our pre-match decorum, whether or not we wished each other good luck, how we got around the fact that he was supposed to be coaching me—all of it was washed away by a single moment: Derek and I straddled our boards side-by-side, eyes aimed seaward. The waves were nearly three-times overhead, their broad faces burnished by a light offshore wind. The sun was blinding. The horizon turned dark, signaling a swell. We stroked out to meet it. A shimmering, twelve-foot wall stood up perfectly. I was in position.
“Gimme this wave, Jim,” said Derek. “And I’ll buy you fifteen beers.”
It was his eloquence under fire that got me. Why fifteen? Why not I’ll buy you a beer, or a six-pack or simply I’ll owe you one? As I pondered this, he slithered to my inside, stole the wave, and knocked me out of the event.
He lost a couple rounds later and went back to his coaching and writing as if the whole thing never happened. It was like watching a recovering addict relapse.
In the late ‘80s the ASP tour was a relentless, 10-country, 25-event affair. Derek and I were frequent traveling partners. A typical evening might see me in one corner of our hotel room, stretching, polishing my board, psyching up for tomorrow’s competition, and Derek in the other, lying on his stomach, headphones on, writing in longhand a piece that was due at the magazine in an hour (he thrived on deadline pressure).
Derek’s vision has had a profound effect upon the surf world. In the early ‘90s he conceived of The Search, an advertising campaign for Rip Curl that was all about the ‘Endless Summer ethos,’ traveling to remote locales on the quest for perfect waves. Few campaigns have so fully captured the zeitgeist. In the late ‘90s he founded the IS Tour, a contest format that championed high-risk maneuvers. In 2008 he starred in Musica Surfica, a film that sets finless surfing to music by Bach and Paganini.
When in Sydney, Derek stays with his elderly mother in the home he grew up in. A modest beach cottage shrouded by trees and birdsong, it’s located in Newport, a small town in what’s known as the Northern Beaches, a spawning ground for world-class surfers over the last half-century. Derek’s bedroom is a trove of surf memorabilia. He pulls out old magazines and videos, a stack of the notebooks he filled back in his coaching days. On his desk he shows me handwritten notes for a non-fiction book he was working on back in the late ‘80s, “The Big Thick Book of Lists.”
In the backyard, from a shaded wooden shed, Derek pulls out his finless board. Browned from the sun, its shape is crude and asymmetrical, the tail slashed with grooves—this is what creates traction, though not even close to the degree that a fin does. Derek says that it’s a work-in-progress, that he often scrapes away at the hull with a file, re-shaping the board to suit the conditions.
It looks like something Fred Flintstone would ride, I say.
Derek explains. “Picture a pro sportsman of many years in the game suddenly changing dramatic tack, a golfer reducing his club head sizings to just about nothing in order to increase the speed of his swing through the air as a way to spark new method, or Federer not being content to use the small Sampras head but reducing it to such a 1960s extent where racket through the air is quicker and ball off a reduced sweet spot could be harder, faster. Every sport is at the point in history and technology where delivering outcomes like these are possible, right? Only it takes someone with a level of knowledge and commitment to pull it off. It means abandoning the past to work on future outcomes, never going back. And out there today in the conservative world of pro sport, the pioneering mindset is gone.”
We strap boards to the roof of Derek’s ’78 Holden Kingswood and head down a suburban lane toward Barrenjoey Road, the coastal road that snakes through the Northern Beaches. Newport has a neighborly, small town vibe. Puttering through “the shops” (the main drag that stretches about a half mile), Derek waves to friends. We pass the Newport Peak, Bilgola, Avalon, and Whale Beach—short, cove-like beaches replete with rocks, points, and outcroppings, the stuff that makes this stretch of coast a surfer’s wonderland. We arrive at Palm Beach, an upscale neighborhood that is to Sydney what Malibu is to Los Angeles. We pass the creepy-looking home that belongs to Australia’s most famous dominatrix, Madame Lash. We park in a grassy spot a couple doors down from the palatial estate that Nicole Kidman rents over Christmas holidays.
“Looks alright,” says Derek, pointing to a frothy blue wave.
We suit up, pull our boards from the roof, and head to the water. It has been said that great surfers’ mastery spills over into the way they hold their board, walk across the sand. Derek’s is not a prideful Superman strut but a languorous, almost yawning stroll. Ditto the way he reads the ocean with a glance, how he times his paddle out, zigzagging through the breaking waves and arriving to the lineup with dry hair.
On a wave he’s dazzling. Stroking his way to the frothing crest, he drops in late, at an angle. His pop-up from prone to feet is an effortless, split-second transition. He never fully stands up; he rides in a low crouch, knock-kneed, right hand gripping outside rail, left hand aimed knifelike straight ahead. He rides high on the face, dancing in and around what’s called the “trim line,” that vertical spot where the wave sucks up and pitches. His free-friction approach is obvious: he does little sideslips, his tail points shoreward for a couple seconds then corrects. He goes much faster than any of the couple dozen surfers in the water—while they go up and down and draw figure eights, Derek draws a straight line. Watching him brings on a weightless, heart-in-mouth feeling.
His next wave is a short, bowly right. He pops to his feet and in a pouncing crouch, slips right into a 360. It’s not a quick spinner but rather a slow, drawn-out 90° to 180° to full circle in which he rides sideways for a suspended couple of seconds, as if to revel in the anchorlessness, as if to play with the fact that he’s at the wave’s whim. “Play” is the key word. Derek compares free friction to Formula One, and all this is true. But my immediate response when I first saw him riding finless on YouTube was that it was childlike, the kind of jury-rig thing you might see a nine-year-old kid do on, say, a discarded piece of plywood. It seemed like the ultimate rebellion against middle age.
Derek reinforces this idea after his surf. Board under arm, face crusted with salt, he stops to have a chat with his mates, all Palm Beach regulars who have designed their lives around the surf. He changes out of his wetsuit and hangs it over a fence that abuts a $10 million mansion. He sits on the grass, barefoot, and inspects his board. A friend walks over and he and Derek talk about the building swell in shorthand that to the nonsurfer would sound like a foreign language. Derek holds his hand up to check the wind.
“Sou’westerly,” he says. “Could be really good tomorrow morning.”
“Meet me at the BP station,” says Derek, when I telephone him to make plans to meet up. “You’ll hit it right as you arrive into town.”
Byron Bay, Derek’s adapted home since 2011, is a seaside community teeming with surfers, yogis, hippies, and vegans. Even the neighborhood gas station sells fresh local fruit. Derek pulls up in his Kingswood. “Follow me,” he says, and I trail him in my rental car. We turn into an industrial park and arrive at a cul de sac. We enter a studio full of spankin’ new boards. Like all surfboard factories, there’s the incessant whine of the shaper’s planer and the brain cell-frying scent of fresh resin. Upstairs, on wooden racks and under bright lights, are the first seven of Derek’s limited edition “Seven Squared Series” boards. They’re brightly colored, with long grooves carved into the tail. They will command a hefty price tag.
“F-F-F-F,” I say, reading the four F’s on the rail as if they’re an acronym.
“No, it’s ‘FFFF.’ That’s the way these boards sound on the wave.” Derek raises one up from the tail and inspects the bottom.
I ask him about his surfing goals.
“It’s about ‘FFFF’ on most levels, I guess. Leaving fettered things behind, testing possibilities, seeing how far I can get before conking out. The future sits in the past for most people.” Derek sets the board down, slips his hands into his pockets. “For me a turning point was seeing two-thirds of my surfing pals fall to the lure of drugs in my hometown when I was right on sixteen-years-old—and it happened one morning. They never came back. Their souls were gone. Four of us were left and we just looked at each other: What’s happened? Since that morning I think I’ve been steeled not to get my soul ripped away by drugs or work or other life pitfalls. I’ve engineered ‘FFFF’ well enough to never want to go back to the pivot of fins, and maybe that’s a metaphor for the standard crutches that people fall back on as the years wear on.”
We hop in Derek’s car and drive to a nearby health food store for lunch. A portrait of Sai Baba hangs on the wall. A dreadlocked mother breastfeeds her baby in the bulk foods aisle. Derek orders only a carrot juice. He is known for his austere diet. It’s as if he wants to be ever-ready for that ephemeral swell.
I ask him how he pays the bills.
“Nothing has changed since I left university,” he says. “Writing, mostly. Other stuff at stages within the surf industry, but the staple has been to put pen to paper. I was a ‘last Mohican’ with pen to paper, by the way. I didn’t like the keyboard because I lost the ability to tell through the way my ink looked on a sheet of paper when I was thinking just right to complete a story. The ease of the stroke told me when I was on song or not.”
After lunch we drive about a half-mile up the road to The Pass, Byron Bay’s most popular surf break. Derek steps out of the car and finds a spot under a tree to scan the waves. He dips into a squat that looks excruciating on the knees and stays there. The Pass is a long sandy point break with a double-mounded rock clump at the tip that resembles an airbrush painting you’d find hanging on a stoned surfer’s bedroom wall, a Nirvana of sorts. But today the wind is onshore and the waves have lost their perfect shape.
“The bank just got blasted away,” says Derek, referring to the recent cyclone that ravaged the northern New South Wales coastline.
Still, there are plenty of surfers in the water. A thirtyish, vibrant girl toting a longboard saunters past and nods to Derek. He smiles. Derek is hailed as a visionary genius around these parts. On The Pass’ endless, forgiving waves he has done much of his free-friction test piloting.
What does he love most about finless surfing?
“It’s like going back to when you were thirteen—liking to wipeout, being amazed at making a wave, being super stoked that there’s a variable involving any possibility on a wave face. There’s nothing structured about riding without a fin. It makes me wonder what I was doing for thirty years of my life just taking off waves and running to a pattern.”
A couple months after visiting Derek in Australia I get a phone message. “Hey Jim, in Chile, arrive LAX on LAN tomorrow at 7:00 am. Santiago via Lima. Would love to see you if you’re around.”
The following morning at Tom Bradley International, amid a herd of what look like Peruvians, out walks Derek. He wears black sneakers, black stovepipe jeans, navy T-shirt, black wool blazer. His tousled long hair falls in his face. He looks less surfer dude than wandering minstrel—say, a wiry Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan.
“Hi Jim,” he says, offering his hand.
In the car he says that at baggage claim he ran into longboard virtuoso Kassia Meador, who’s based in Venice. “I asked her where her favorite Mexican food is. She told me about this truck on Rose Avenue in Venice. Fancy a taco?”
There is a sect of waveriders who frequently run into each other in airports worldwide. These encounters are casual, like running into a neighbor at the local supermarket. The waveriders typically wear one of two faces. The first is of deep anticipation, hunger, maybe hints of fear pending the swell forecast. The second is of saltwater kissed afterglow. Derek wears the second.
At barely 8:00 am, in a brightly-colored booth at Pancho’s Tacos on Lincoln Boulevard (we couldn’t find the taco truck), Derek describes the spiraling, dream-perfect waves he scored in Chile. “Below sea level, over a shallow sandbank, just winding and winding and winding…” His descriptions are as physical as they are verbal, a sort of pantomime in which he stands in the aisle and makes curling wave shapes, tucks into knock-kneed, rail-grabbing squats.
During my pre-teen years as a surfer I was spellbound by waves. Every tunnel was a tube, every hedge a glistening blue wall, every banked patch of cement or grass an off the lip or cutback. Seeing Derek, well into mid-life, living in this space is inspiring, contagious. Suddenly the workstuff I think I so urgently need to get to seems less important.
Some months later I’ll get this email from Derek:
“At Jeffreys Bay with Mikey Meyer and Brendan Muldoon, all of us in our fifties. We do not speak in the lineup, we respect and expect to be humbled by the sea at some stage, and loathe both the state of jibber-jabber rapping in the lineup between the locals of younger age, and the state of the quiver they use, or the lack of one.
There have been a couple of big days, one an outer bombie day, where the boards have felt so sweet on the late drops into the offshores that there’s been a touch of floating in the air about them, a tad of the Giant Ski Jump maybe, where without fins an unimpeded air flow cushions and stabilizes the board on particular drops, sweeps under the bottom curve of the board in an accelerating foil line. The release up the face into 360s out of the lip has also been evolving as it increases the speed of the board out of the turn.
I’m humbled in the face of a gannet or a plain gull trimming a Jeffreys Bay wall far more than Slater [as in Kelly, eleven-time world champ] at his best. Not many younger surfers can see it. There’s a bond between the slipstream of the bird and FFFF on a critical face. Maximum minimalism.”
*This story first appeared in Victory Journal.
Jamie Brisick has written three books: We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations; Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow; and Roman and Williams: Things We Made. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Details, and The Surfer’s Journal. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. His new book, Becoming Westerly: The Transformation of Surfing Champion Peter Drouyn into Westerly Windina, comes out in February 2015. His website is jamiebrisick.com; his Instagram handle: @jamiebrisick.