Interview: Get Deep With Gerry Lopez PART 2
By Col Bernasconi | 04 July 2012
Gerry unfazed with his back to the wall; that's a metaphor for surfing Pipe right there. Pic: natesmithphoto.com
INTRO: The hour I spent talking with Gerry Lopez for this interview is without doubt the highlight of my career as a surf journalist. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the likes of Andy Irons, Kelly Slater, and even the late great Michael Peterson (to name a few), but Gerry, with his cool demeanour, and welcoming Aloha spirit, was so innately rich and uncomplicated an interview subject that I can’t seem to top it. Despite his obvious agenda, he has a book to spruke [Surf Is Where You Find It] we had an open discussion void of even a hint of self-promotion. There was no obvious attempt by Gerry to mention his book, or his publisher/sponsor Patagonia. I’d liken the experience to being granted an audience with a surfing father Christmas – as weird as that sounds. Imagine if after praying at the oceanic alter for 30 years it (surfing) finally spoke back to you? It was that profound.
Part 2: Get deep with Mr Gerry Lopez [Part 1 HERE]
So Gerry, can you tell me about the ‘lost then found’ Bali board that somehow involves Jack McCoy and the late Kim 'The Fly' Bradley?
We came here to Australia for Bells and the Coke contest, and that was my middle board (I also had a bigger one). In fact that year they had a part of the event held out at the Bower [Fairy Bower, South Manly] and I had a 7’8” that was my gun and rode it out there. Mostly I had a 6’8” that I rode around here – I never rode that middle board, the 7’4” – much. Then when we went to Uluwatu I found the 6’8” was too fat and too short. And the 7’8” was too long. So I rode this board – and I fucken hated it! It wasn’t doing it for me man. It had these double wings swallow tale thing, I don’t know what the deal was with that board. I was so frustrated with it. And one day I went home and I had a ding repair kit, and I sanded those wings right off! I was certain that was it. So glassed it back up and tried it again and it still didn’t work for shit. I think in the end, Kim Bradley, I think he was from Avalon?
Gerry giving the pesky 7'4" another chance out Ulu's (circa '74). Pic: Mex/Jack McCoy Collection
Yeah, he’s from my home beach of North Avalon, The Fly.
The Fly! That’s right. He’d come up here (to Bali) and, he was a great surfer, and we knew him from Sydney. Anyway, it was the end of our trip, I said to him, “You wanna board? Maybe you can ride it better than I can?” So I left that board with him. He ended up living in Bali and that board stayed there with him. I guess he hung onto it for all those years, I don’t think it worked for him either, that’s probably why, you know, “This thing doesn’t work for shit, so I’ll stuff back under the house or whatever.” Somehow it re-surfaced and Jack got a hold of it. Randy Rarrick had had it and refurbished it and tried to show me, look at that thing, and I’m, “Errr”
That board's haunting you!
Yeah. But that was the one. That was from our first trip to Bali, and I guess it was after Bells (which is April) and the Coke (which I guess was May). Then when I got to Hawaii all I could think about was going back (to Bali), so I worked all summer and saved up my money and made a bunch of boards that I knew would work a lot better [laughing]. We went back in September and stayed another six weeks and I had a lot more success on my new boards.
Deep in the jaws of "The Pipeline", as Gerry himself calls it. Pic: From Surf Is Where You Find
What about Grajagan?
Well, we went with Jack and he was filming a lot of stuff for, umm, was it Tubular Swells? Or Storm Riders? One of them.
Now I just have the vision of you taking your own rice into camp?
That was later. The way that all came about was we were surfing Uluwatu – we hadn’t even discovered Padang yet! Why would you? When it’s big you’ve got the Outside Corner which was just unbelievable. But somebody lost their board and it went way down there. And Louie Ferrante came back and goes, “Hey, there’s a really good wave down there!” But it was actually McCabe [Peter] and Doris [Terry Fitzgerald], Terry, they were the ones that were surfing Padang. And they were like, “Yeah, it’s really good!” And we were like, “Really? But it’s smaller down there isn’t it?” And they were all, “It’s really good!” But it was on that second trip that Bill Boyum (and Mike Boyum) came down, they were living in Kuta, they were Maui boys, and he (Bill) had gone to G-Land, he was the first guy in there with a guy named Bob Laverty. And they came back to Bali and we were down there laying on the beach after a morning session and Bill never even came down onto the beach, I just remember him yelling from the cliff, “This isn’t even a surf spot!” We were like, “Fuck you!” Threw some stones up at him and stuff. And then later on we questioned him a little more thoroughly and he started telling us about this G-Land place… And as luck would have it Mike was building a boat and we went there the following year.
A memorable moment, Gerry surfing North Narrabeen on the 6'8" he later took to Bali. Pic: Mex/Jack McCoy
Was it pirate style? Get the map out where X marked the spot?
Well, we knew where it was. Back then on a clear day you could look from the Bukit [Peninsular] there at Uluwatu and you could see the point at G-Land. So it was only 50-60 miles, it wasn’t that far. So shit let's go look. Those guys had already gone and said the waves were great, so we got the boat loaded it up drove straight across. Peter and Terry Fitz and… I can’t remember who else it was, were on one of those turtle boats and it took them like 12 hours downwind to get to G-Land [laughing] and 24 to get back – the boat was hopeless. We had this speedboat so we all went across, the two boats, and that was the first time we surfed G-Land. But we stayed in the boats – we didn’t go on the shore.
What about the wildlife at G–land? Have you had any close encounters with legendary tigers or anything?
Yeah, I think I was there the only time a tiger came close to the camp. I was in there, by myself, with one of our boys cooking, and he only knew how to cook for 12 people. So every night I’d sit down to eat and there’d be food for 12 people. Then one morning he was really upset about something and I was trying to figure out what he was talking about. So he went to the trash and there was a beer can – Tiger Beer – he pointed to the can and I went, “Oh”. And then he kinda pantomimed this story of how he was washing dishes right on the water's edge and how there was this tiger, and he acted out like this tiger, and how the tiger gave him this look – he then pretended he was himself again, petrified.
So I made him show me where he saw the tiger, and we walked over there and sure enough the tiger had come right by these rocks there and jumped down to the beach and landed in the sand – it was that big. [Gerry, eyes light up at the thought, using his hands to show me that the paw prints were as big as large dinner plates]. And I was like, “Oh, shit!”
That night McCabe came in with another couple of friends of mine from the States, and one guy, the owner of Rainbow Sandals, Sparkie, and you know, we were out surfing, and the board came back on the leash and split open the back of his head. Now it was an early trip and we didn’t really have any first aid for me to suture him up with so I shaved the wound and used some butterflies – it was a nasty gash! It was kinda oozing, you know? And that night the tiger was out in the jungle meowing like a cat would, like a big cat! It was really loud. And we’re up in this chicken-shit tree house looking at Sparkie bleeding, thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder if that tiger can smell that blood?’ “Hey Sparkie", we said half jokingly pointing outside. "Why don’t you go sit down there?”
We used to complain about climbing up that shitty ladder to the tree house but now it didn’t look that far at all! That tiger could easily get up and get us all.
But that was it. The next day the tiger was gone and never came back. And that was the only time, in my experience, and even the rangers I've met there, “They usually they don’t come to this area" one told me later. But he must have smelled the food.
Catching up with an old friend, the Grajagan barrel. Pic: From Surf Is Where You Find
You travelled with Jack a lot. Was he as big a personality back then as he is now?
Oh, yeah. I’ve known Jack since we were like 12 years old. We grew up together in Hawaii. He was always big – his Dad was a big personality. His Dad had a real famous radio talk show…
And Jack can talk too.
Yeah, Jack inherited ‘the voice’.
You’ve long been considered a wise old cat, and for some reason you’ve been considered that since you were 25. Was that weird for you? Did you feel wise? Everyone seemed to be turning to Gerry and that seemed a lot for a young man t have on his shoulders?
Well, what’s wisdom? It’s that quality that keeps you out of situations were you might need it. I wasn’t really wise so much as I, thought it better to keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool, then open it up and remove all doubt.
You’ve appeared in quite a few movies; in lead roles, you played the classic black-short heavy in North Shore, a monk in Conan, which was massive in the '80s. But it’s your cameo in Big Wednesday that I want to talk about. There’s a scene when the character Matt Johnson is in a movie theatre watching the latest surf flick – he was a bit of a surf star – where he realises his time’s over and that he’s been eclipsed by this new guy Gerry Lopez. Has life ever imitated art in that regard for you?
At that time, 1977, I identified more with Jan Michael’s character – as far as being a surf star – there really wasn’t any such thing as surf stars back then. Kinda, you go to a small little party and the girls will say, “Oh, I’ve heard of you!” And that was about the only reward you could hope to get being a “surf-star”. I never thought I was a surf star! There really wasn’t any such thing.
Let’s put it this way. Your surfing was getting the hoots in theatres all around the world and that’s the biggest accolade one surfer can give another?
In Hawaii if you acted big, there was some older bigger guy that was going to slap in the side of the head. That didn’t work. Maybe in California you could get away with it a little bit. Then you come to Australia, here, we were shocked when we realised surfers were considered top-level athletes. Shit, at home if you were a surfer, scum of the earth. You were lumped in there with con men, gigolos and beach bums … being a surfer wasn’t a good thing. That didn’t happen for long time after us.
Not as big in the States is it, surfing? You’ll find it quite often on prime time sport here.
Yeah, Kelly Slater wins 10 world titles and barely gets a mention, you know? So to go back to your question, there was never any expectation in my mind that there was ever going to come a time when I wasn’t a surf star, because in my mind, I never was one to begin with!
The transition was smooth then!
I didn’t even notice it.
A young Gerry playing on the beach at Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii. Pic: Lopez family collection
Surf Is Where You Find it is the title of your book, it’s a good read. Was writing it something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time and how’d you find the process?
Actually the stories were stories I've been telling, you know when you sit around with a bunch of guys and tell stories, “Oh, yeah, I remember…” You start telling the story and after I’m like, “That’s a good story, man!?!” They go – write it down! And I go, “okay”. I’ve always kinda been a writer, when I was 18 my old man was a career newspaperman. My Mum’s a school teacher so we all read, a lot. We’d be at home and everybody would be sitting in the living room with a book! I was 18, my Dad’s paper had a surf column – and that guy quit. Dad said, “Why don’t you do it?” I told him I’d try. So I was pretty young and I was already writing for the newspaper.
So when you were eighteen you writing for a newspaper and not pumping gas or whatever like the rest of us?
Well they didn’t pay much.
Still here you are, a fully-fledged author of your own book – a book published by Patagonia, a company with an environmental consciousness. That must sit well with you?
It has been a great trip, yeah.
Gerry mid (this) interview, Manly Beach apartment, early 2012. Pic: natesmithphoto.com
Speaking of book, have you read any good ones lately you care to share with us?
The memoirs of Ulysses S.Grant Union General in the American Civil war. Quite a war story, pretty interesting.
Have you seen the movie about Hawaii with George Clooney? The…
Descendants, yeah. A lot of people where I live saw that movie and didn’t quite get it. But maybe you have to have an understanding or the history of Hawaii to really enjoy that movie. I really liked it, I thought it was a great movie.
Well, thank you Gerry, it’s been an absolute pleasure... Any one story in the book that’s your favourite.
There’s a story in there, you know my mother is second generation Japanese born in Hawaii at a spot on the South West side of Kauai called Kotowa (or sometimes it's called Infinities). I spent a lot of time there growing up. A lot of people ask me what’s my favourite story in the book, and I tell them it’s that one. That was really the place were I felt I started to understand that surfing was going to be a part of me. Here I was growing up at this spot, beautiful wave right out the front, a horseshoe reef, just magic, and I never really took to much notice of it till this one day two guys showed up with boards and went out and surfed it. That was, for me, I’d done surfing before and thought it was great and whatever, but not till then, when I was 12, but watching those guys – that was really the moment I was like, “Alright, I think I want to do this.” I think there are steps in every surfer’s life, that first wave caught, first open-faced wave – and then there’s that moment when you really see it! It’s a different part of surfing that really catches you down deep.Thank you Gerry.
Note: Surf Is Where You Find It is a fabulous read and available from all good book stores or at Patagonia