Gerry Lopez is one of the most revered surfers of his generation, a legendary wave rider who came of age in the 1970′s, and continues to surf and snowboard with inimitable flair today. Lopez first made his mark on the famous Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore, with a laid back style so cool and distinctive, he came to be known as “Mr.Pipeline”. Surf Is Where You Find It is a collection of 38 short stories – tales and revelations told by Lopez about the people, places, and lessons learned during a lifetime of surfing. Originally published in 2008, this revised and expanded 2015 edition is filled with three times as many photos, many of them never-before-seen shots from Lopez’s personal albums. Surf Is Where You Find It shares his memories of surf eras gone by, and commemorates those who helped shape the surfing world of today.
Lopez, in addition to being a surfing pioneer, was also an early practicer of yoga, long before that discipline had the mainstream popularity it does today. We had a chance to chat with Lopez about the book, career highlights, and the parallels between yoga and surfing that made him one of the sport’s iconic figures.
SOS: So Gerry…where do I begin with you? There is so much we could talk about! Let’s start with the book, Surf Is Where You Find It. What I think is really fun about the book is that you can jump around from chapter to chapter. They really are short stories and I think everyone will find ones that interest them. For someone who’s not a surfer, what are the lessons can they can learn from this book?
GL: Well in my lifetime, I’ve met a lot of people who never rode a wave, but we share the same consciousness. Surfing is a kind of a state of mind… I mean, it’s a feeling that people have about their life that really, in a way, kind of makes them a surfer. There are a lot of parallels to yoga.
SOS: And I wanted to ask you about that…
GL: What usually happens is there are so many distractions, outside stimulation, and so much other stuff going on, that you begin to lose that inner sensitivity that you need to have if you are a surfer or if you practice yoga. I think you’re born with it, but you get side tracked with life and you get away from it. These are some of the things you learn from surfing. But I’m pretty certain that a lot of people still possess those things whether they surf or not, or practice yoga or not, and that’s why I say that I’ve met people along the way that I’ve related to on a surfing level even if they don’t surf.
SOS: I think surfing is one of those sports that everybody fantasizes about. I know I do! I’m a bad surfer but I love so much about the sport. I love the style, I love the locations, I love the culture, I love the photography. It’s a sport that’s so rich in all of that. I think we all look at surfers try to imagine what would it feel like to be inside a wave, in a tube. It must be the most incredible sensation.
GL: That’s something that surfing has always had, this tremendous attraction and influence outside of itself, outside of the sport. There’s something about it that people are attracted to, just by a picture, or a little bit of film, or stories in a book.
SOS: Absolutely. And I think also that with Stand Up Paddleboarding what’s been so great is that it’s made surfing accessible to a lot of people. You don’t have to paddle into a big wave but you can have that sensation of surfing. I know that’s so much of it for me. I paddle on flat water, and I paddle a lot, and I feel it’s kind of given me some credibility so I can say I’m a surfer (laughs).
GL: But you are!
SOS: Okay good! I can say Gerry Lopez told me I’m a surfer that so it’s really true!
GL: Well you hit it right on the head. One of the huge attractions of stand up paddling is that you can have the experience of surfing, and you can have it almost instantaneously, and you can have it without the tremendous skill that regular surfing requires. Regular surfing requires a huge time commitment, usually your whole life, and dealing with an extraordinary amount of frustration (laughs).
SOS: Absolutely! I wanted to ask you a little bit about yoga which you touched on earlier. Obviously it’s very popular now, but I know you’ve been practicing for a while. How did you get into it?
GL: I was going to college at the University of Hawaii in 1968 and I saw a bunch of girls clustered around a bulletin board. I went over to go look at the girls and they kind of put me on the spot and said, “Oh, we’re going to this yoga class tonight, are you coming?” and I went “Yeah” (laughs). I went to the class intending to see the girls, but I just remember that the instructor, as soon as she started to move I thought, man if you could move like that on a surfboard that’d really be the way to go. Yoga comes into each person’s life exactly when it’s supposed to. For a lot of people, it’s not immediate and there’s a lot of circling around it. There’s not that right time yet. When the time is right all of a sudden you just find yourself easily drawn into it and wanting to take that path, to take it wherever it’s going to go, and it’s different for everybody.
SOS: It seems that surfing, almost more than any sport, the yoga connection, even just physically, is so similar in a way. It seems that yoga can help your surfing almost more than any other sport because so many of the moves are related.
GL: Well I think so. I think the real foundation of both of them is the breathing. It’s the most difficult part too because we all just take breathing for granted and never really think that much about it. When it does become important enough that you need to focus on it and it needs some concentration, you begin to understand more the value of it.
SOS: I wanted to talk to you a little about the surf style in your heyday. I had not realized that you started Lightning Bolt. When I talk about surf photography and why I love it, there’s an era in the 70s and that board so defined the photography for me. You see that yellow board with the red bolt or the red one with the white bolt, and I feel like that was so symbolic of the sport at the time. Can you talk a little bit about the style of that era?
GL: Back then surfing was just beginning to go into that transitional stage from being very obscure — an almost outlaw type of activity — to becoming what it is today, which is a very mainstream, very recognized, legitimate sport. Back then no parents wanted their children to grow up to be surfers, you know, beach bums, con men, and gigolos. It was a very small sport back in the 70s and it was a tribe, a family almost. Anything that happened in the sport, it didn’t matter where it was because it wasn’t really spread out all over the world yet, we all knew about it. We didn’t have internet or anything back then but word travels quickly in surfing and Lightning Bolt was just something that came along — like yoga comes into peoples lives — apparently at the right moment. It just, I don’t know, made a huge impression and as the sport started to grow that image of the Lightning Bolt surfboard, the waves in Hawaii, the style of all of that, whether it was riding the waves or the shape of the boards, or the look of the people, it was just something that for us happened very naturally. It wasn’t something that we tried to do, it’s just like in your yoga practice. If you try too hard, its counterproductive. If you let it just happen spontaneously on its own accord, then that’s when it’s real. Somehow, I guess, that came across and it was embraced.
SOS: It’s just so iconic.
GL: Well it wasn’t back then (laughs). Now even young surfers look back and say wow that was really cool. And I guess, among each other, we were trying to be cool, trying to look cool, trying to act cool, but didn’t yet have that capacity to understand that it was going to go beyond us. It was just in our little circle, and that’s all it was. Sometimes things like that happen so naturally and so spontaneously they can have a lasting impression.
SOS: One other question that I wanted to ask you about is your personal style, your surfing style, and again I’ve seen in photographs, that sort of laidback thing you do, that you don’t see any other surfer do. I’m just wondering if that was a conscientious thing or is that just the way you surf? How did that evolve?
GL: Well on the one hand there was my yoga practice. A lot of the poses are muscular but you have to find that relaxation or you’re not going to be able to hold them. The other thing was, I guess, what we were trying to do in our surfing at that time was try and make it look easy and effortless, even though it wasn’t, you know, especially on a wave like Pipeline. There was an attempt to try not to make it appear forced or something that we’re trying too hard at.
SOS: Now here is really my last question. I interviewed Shaun Tomson, another great from your era, about Pipeline. He gave such an intense description and since we are talking about Pipeline, I would love to hear you describe what its like to ride that infamous wave.
GL: Well at first it was terrifying, because the wipeouts are very vicious and very sudden. But after a while, I think any surfer that spends a lot of time at a specific surfing spot or area begins to develop an affinity or a relationship with that place. I spent a lot of time at the Pipeline and I got to spend a lot of that time pretty much by myself or with just a handful of other guys — very unlike it is today. Pipeline wasn’t the main spot back then, but the beach was, and that’s where all the best surfers, the best surfing, the biggest waves, the most waves were. Pipeline was really kind of a sideshow. In a surf movie, the Pipeline would have been featured more in the wipeout section than anywhere else. Then there was the evolution from the long boards to the short boards, and the changing shape of surfboards that made having some success surfing the Pipeline more possible. This just happened to coincide with my time being there. So after a while you are able to develop and be relaxed out there. In the back of your mind you know it’s dangerous and guys did get killed, even back then. So, there is always that factor but at the same time if you could develop that, like I said affinity, if you could like the place, it seemed reciprocal in some way, that it would like you… and I definitely had a pretty nice relationship with the Pipeline
SOS: Wow, that’s a great description. Well, thank you so much, Gerry. This really has been special. It’s such an honor to speak with you!