By Matt Skenazy
Politics & Culture Reporter
He has traveled the world, living for extensive periods of time in remote Indonesian jungles. He co-starred in the film “Conan the Barbarian” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and has starred in countless surf films. He was the catalyst for a multibillion-dollar surf industry, shaping high-performance surfboards for progressive surfers in the 1970s, and was widely recognized as the best tube rider in the world.
Gerry Lopez, aka Mr. Pipeline, can now add “author” to his list of credentials. In his new book, “Surf Is Where You Find It,” Lopez chronicles everything from his first wave at the historic Banzai Pipeline to his near-death experience during the winter of 1980.
His stories build bridges between the surfing experience and life lessons that anyone can learn from. Lopez is beginning a book tour that will bring him to UC Santa Cruz on May 3; tickets are $5 at Patagonia. Lopez lives with his family in Bend, Oregon, where he shapes surfboards and continues to surf and snowboard. City on a Hill Press (CHP) spoke with Lopez shortly before he left for the first leg of his tour.
CHP: In the story “Pikala” you talk about surfing as an escape during times of political and moral upheaval, like the Vietnam War. Do you see any connections between that time period and now?
Lopez: At any level and at any time [surfing] is an escape from life on the beach and it’s really a welcome one. Back then, being a teenager, it seemed that the world was really going through some pretty heavy changes. Maybe that’s how it seems to all 18-year-olds. It seemed more so right at that time period, and surfing was a sport pretty much under the radar. In our group a lot of guys did it. It was a quiet place to go to and really find some peace and some solitude.
Of course we don’t have the draft like we did back then, but I know a lot of soldiers now that have served in the Gulf and in Iraq that are pretty heavy-duty surfers. They spoke of their experiences over there that a lot of times in the heaviest situations thinking about going surfing is what grounded them and let them get through those pretty bad moments a little easier.
CHP: Some of these stories are pretty old. Did you keep a journal when you were younger, or was this an exercise in memory?
Lopez: Some of the oldest [stories] were more recently written in the last five years or so. I’ve been writing these stories over the last 20 years just because I always thought they were pretty good stories. You know, every time I told them to people they went “Wow, that’s a great story” and I thought damn, I better write them down before I forget. You know, the first time I went surfing at the Pipeline, that was when I was 14 years old. I don’t know, I think I wrote those five or six years ago.
CHP: Was it hard to remember so vividly?
Lopez: Those moments, those experiences were so vivid when they happened that they pretty much stayed with me. I think you could probably ask any surfer to describe his first wave and he’d do a pretty damn good job of it.
CHP: In “When in Doubt Paddle Out” you have a line that says, “I wanted to go where I hadn’t been, experience the new and different.” Do you still live your life that way?
Lopez: In some ways. I’ve got a family now and I’m a lot older. Every time I paddle out it’s new and a little different. Especially out here on the Oregon coast, the sandbars are always changing. Every time I go up after it snows the snow formations are a little different. I mean, it may not actually be that different, but that’s what it feels like.
CHP: Is there a message you’re trying to get across in these stories?
Lopez: Surfing becomes a metaphor for life. I’ve done it my whole life so I think I kind of took it for granted. Over the last twenty years now I’ve taken up snowboarding pretty heavy and that’s a whole world in itself. It, in a lot of ways I think, is way more dangerous than surfing ever is. I think a lot more guys get killed there than they do surfing. To me surfing is pretty safe. The one thing that I notice is really the key difference is that the mountain holds still for you, except in an avalanche situation, but those are rare. But generally it doesn’t move, whereas in surfing, the whole playground is in motion and in a way that’s more how life is. Life doesn’t hold still for you either.
CHP: What do you mean?
Lopez: If you sit around and are indecisive and don’t move at the right time and don’t take advantage of opportunities, life passes you by. It’s the same exact thing that happens out in the surf. You daydream in the lineup, you start talking to your buddy, you stop paying attention, the next thing you know you get caught inside and washed all the way in and you gotta come back out and start all over again.
I think that’s why surfing is so great. There’s a lot of messages in there, some of them I probably don’t even know about, but surfing does teach you a lot of things and I think the greatest thing it can give you is a sense of peace that is really important in this world.
We live in a really great time during the history of the planet. Modern technology is unbelievable, you have great medicines, food-producing techniques, computers, even surfboards are advancing daily. At the same time, we’re going backwards in another respect, in another area that’s really important, in minds. There’s really an epidemic of mental weakness in the world today. Drugs and alcohol are really overused and don’t offer any solutions.
I feel that we have to fix ourselves before we can be effective in dealing with the environmental and social crises that are such a big thing today and I think something like surfing and yoga really allow you to stay healthy mentally and be in a good space to hopefully do something about the environment.
CHP: You were talking about surfboards advancing daily, are you doing any experimenting in your shaping room?
Lopez: Every day. Nobody really knows how old surfing is, how long ago the Hawaiians were doing it. Some people believe that it’s been going on for thousands of years. I’m certain that the guys who made surfboards, and it was an almost religious kind of experience back then, were thinking about how to improve the shape of the surfboard so that you could surf better. Every single shaper, every time he shapes a board, that thought is going through his mind. It’s certainly going through the minds of all the good surfers out there that are riding the boards and trying to think of a way that they can surf better.
CHP: You’ve been a movie star, a pro surfer, an entrepreneur, and traveled all over the world. What’s next?
Lopez: I don’t know, it happens day-by-day, moment by moment.