By Derek Hynd
The trouble with perfect alignment of surfer, wave, and cinematographer was highlighted in May of 1992 when Tom Curren’s hallowed “first ride at J-Bay” simply was not documented. Fifty years in the future, the now infamous film of the rider/wave will intrigue the same way, but it’ll still be the second wave that will be studied in awe.
Tom’s arrival at J-Bay that year was arguably the most anticipated moment in surf history. Could there be a greater vicarious surfing rush than the world’s best surfer at the world’s best pointbreak? Big call of course…there had been Gerry or the other Tom during their respective primes paddling out at solid Pipe, Simon Anderson likewise during his incredible test paddle-out at big Bells aboard the early Thruster. Tom and Occy’s paddle-outs behind the pier at the OP Pro had, in themselves, set some sort of compounding phenomenon. Maybe even Duke in December 1914 riding to shore as a large chunk of Sydney lined Freshwater Beach in anticipation of the greatest athlete on Earth walking on water.
The timing, linkage, style, and drive of Curren at J-Bay would be second to none. American surf fans alone willed it so. The last peg was gaping; they just needed Tom to show up.
Tom had missed the legendary 1984 swell at J-Bay, which was noted for the arrival of Mark Occhilupo and the swan song of Simon Anderson. Curren remained in Durban to get set for the upcoming larger events. It was regarded as a decent tactical ploy until the waves actually arrived. Thus, he lost his shot to elevate his surfing to never-before-seen levels. For Tom, years would pass before Jeffreys Bay came back onto the horizon. Rip Curl’s The Search campaign was developed primarily to give Tom any shot he wanted at any location, hoping that consumers would dig the vicarious rush.
He’d come away from Haleiwa six months before having hit a mark there that would likely never be surpassed. It was the best possible way to bow out of competition. The Search now afforded him indulgence in waves of freesurfing fancy.
Tom was on song as The Search started. Its first stab, a Canary Islands trip with Jeff Hornbaker as cinematographer, highlighted a few hiccups—personality clashes, the star’s tendency to miss flights, and his less-than-average quiver.
Veteran shaper Mark Rabbidge was inserted as a new variable to remedy the problem. The design Rabbidge ultimately created for Curren to ride in South Africa was based on his observations of Curren’s surfing during an epic 1990 season. The basic dimensions were 6’6″× 18 1/2″× 2 1/4″.
Tom was due to hit J-Bay for the May full moon. Just about every surfer who knew what was in the wind believed it would be the greatest display by a natural footer there, surpassing Terry Fitzgerald and Shaun Tomson whose high-watermark had never been categorically challenged. Rabbidge was sure that an evolved design under Tom’s feet would produce the right reactive first touch. Knowing the likely reality of Tom arriving late and without much in the way of boards, the 6’6″ Rabbidge was the agreed board for the occasion, colored in tribute to Tom’s yellow-railed Cole from Haleiwa.
As expected, Tom was late. He missed two days of the best J-Bay seen in a long time. Boneyards all the way down the line, the type of surf that doesn’t happen much anymore, went begging as flight after flight was missed, including one when Maurice Cole exited a French airport as Tom entered. The odds were insanely long, but apparently the sudden chat about great surf in France led to another plug pulled. If ever there was an easy stream of flights, here they were—no time difference involved, a night flight, a quick connection from Johannesburg, and an arrival at prime time for the renowned afternoon light.
At 2 p.m. on May 28, 1992, there was no sign of Tom. The swell was dropping. The flight from Johannesburg had landed at noon. The only word coming down from France was that this time he’d boarded the first of his flights. Twenty minutes later, he walked onto the front lawn of Cheron Kraak’s hallowed home above the Supers takeoff. He was with cinematographer Sonny Miller and second camera Tommy De Soto. The board was handed to him. Less than 10 minutes passed before the paddle-out. Miller gave De Soto the key role of capturing the length of the ride down the point. I butted in and asked the ultra modest and soft-spoken De Soto to be on the beach before Tom in order to document the rock hop and paddle out through the gully. The way the swell was ebbing, there were maybe five or six sets left before it died completely.
Cut to the beach and De Soto. No time for formalities. He got set up in time, did the 16mm load and lock, had Tom perfectly framed, flicked the switch, and…a disconcerting sound of tape being chewed as Tom made his way out. Miller’s main man hadn’t ever loaded this type of camera before. By now, with Tom outside and waiting for the wave during a lull and the cameraman too far away from anyone to call for help, he was in the type of hole that a person in his line of work might consider dire. The set came. Not a big one, but Tom took off. De Soto was still trying to figure out the loading. Some bozo dropped in on Tom, so Tom flicked straight off.
If ever there was a welcome bad act, this was it, for precious time was bought. A bigger set swung in immediately and Tom’s innate understanding of the lineup put him in perfect position. De Soto shut the camera and said his prayers as the ride began. No strange sounds. No chewing. Smooth running. It would be far and away the most professional of shots that De Soto would manage on the trip. Indeed, so good that the slight movement as he takes a breath halfway though the ride stands out like dog’s balls on a canary.
The ride itself was as expected: perfect. As good as anyone had ever ridden Supertubes. A piece of cake for a genius who had probably mind surfed the wave 100 times. Rabbidge’s untested board had the miracle touch just like certain Merricks and Coles did, with the type of accelerated release that was Curren’s hallmark on top-tier equipment. The board, indeed a one-off as shaper and surfer did not again link up, put Tom in the zone off the first bottom drive. It stands as one of the best boards ever built for J-Bay with the proof being the way the wave was ridden—style, substance, and variation. One can also appreciate the master working out the board as he powered down the line. It is perhaps the only ride worth studying for surfers of any level.