A Cool Cat
by Gerry Lopez
Surf heroes become recognized for accomplishments that set them apart. Kelly Slater and Andy Irons battled fiercely for world championship titles among a field of surfers of extraordinary ability. Laird Hamilton rode bigger and more dangerous waves than anyone had before, which paved the way for others to make their own big wave dreams and imaginations a reality. No one, surfer or not, could deny that Kelly, Andy and Laird are true-life heroes. Whenever I see a photo or film of any of them riding a wave, I am instantly mesmerized with open-mouthed awe.
When I think about the surfers I liked when I was growing up, and the things I admired about them, I guess it was their style more than their accomplishments that set them apart. There was a guy named Paul Strauch, who was only a few years my senior, but he had a way of riding his surfboard that everyone admired.
His most significant contribution I can think of was a maneuver called the Paul Strauch Cheater Five. He probably never gave it more than a passing thought, the Cheater Five was only one move of many in his stylish and functional repertoire. Basically it was a forward trim position in a crouch with the front foot stretched forward towards the nose. A photographer got a hazy black and white picture of Paul performing the maneuver on a sizeable wave at Haleiwa. It became a poster that influenced an entire generation of surfers. Everyone copied the Cheater Five or Stretch Five, or simply, the Strauch.
Surf heroes weren’t as easy to come by back then as they are now, but Paul was certainly ours. And it wasn’t just his surfing. Paul was an elegant and graceful person. When other surfers were affecting a grubby fashion statement, Paul wore button down collar shirts tucked in smartly to perfectly pressed slacks and polished shoes. Paul was never a world champion, nor did he ride the biggest waves, yet no one had more influence on my generation of surfers in Hawai’i than he did. The funny thing was, he never sought publicity nor did he get much from the limited surf media of the time. Many of the surfers he made a major impression on never saw more of him than that one poster.
Modern surfers are many, multi-talented and all very different. They ride waves with a skill and expertise that far surpasses the performance level of previous generations. All are masters of small waves, many are masters of big surf as well, and some can ride the hide off any kind of wave at all.
The World Championship Tour is the highest achievement, an elite group of the top 44 contest surfers going for the big bucks. There are many more surfers of the same caliber who never aspire to that particular competition; free surfers who play by their own rules. Some are well paid to pursue this avenue, but most do it at their own expense, simply because they love it. And they are very good at it, in fact, almost unbelievable. I am continually impressed, entertained and dazzled by all of them, but for me, one stands out above the others.
My favorite surfer is Rob Machado. His stylish approach, not only to riding waves, but to everything he does, reminds me of Paul Strauch. Rob is one of those guys who, on a contemporary surfboard, can rip with the best of them, but put him on any kind of board – long, retro, tow-in board, whatever – and he will still be outstanding. He is a throwback to my generation of surfers who were trying to raise their performance level with innovative and radical maneuvers, all while being smooth and stylish.
Rob is as radical as any surfer today, snapping lightning quick turns anyplace, in any kind of surf, mushy or hollow. Rob blasts aerial maneuvers and generates speed out of places on waves where I never knew speed could be found. Yet at the same time he has a laid-back manner that makes everything fit smoothly into his ride and the wave. Rob's style is a unique combination as many of today’s moves come off as appearing hyper or frantic when performed by other surfers. Rob has all the new moves as well as everything I admired about the old surfers from the 1970s generation blended into a style entirely his own.
I’ve known and watched Rob ever since he appeared on the surf scene many years ago. Last September, I had the privilege of joining him on a boat trip to do some film work in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia. His surfing was off the scale, further raising my admiration, but it was the person – his character and personality – that really stood out.
In the evenings, when the fireworks of the surf and everything involved with filming a movie about it had died down, another page of Rob’s book of talents was revealed. He brought out his travel guitar, and relaxed himself and everyone else with some very soulful blues riffs: That brought a smile to my face.
Blues was the music that in the late ’60s and early ’70s, found its way onto the surf scene. It fueled the deep, heartfelt, soul surfing that was characteristic of that period. The Chicago blues scene must have been a wonderful experience with the likes of Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Bo Diddley, Albert King, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Big Mama Thornton and others all jamming together, creating a unique sound that would reach out with great effect. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, early Fleetwood Mac, Charlie Musselwhite, the Yardbirds among others translated the Chicago blues into faster, electrified, rocking music. Whenever Hendrix, The Rolling Stones or Santana launched into a blues riff, we would close our eyes and lose ourselves mind surfing.
The blues was our surf music. Everything about Rob seemed to fall into place when I found out he was a blues man. I like to think of Rob’s surfing as a combination of Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, Johnny Lang and Robert Cray: thoroughly modern, fast and exciting, but based on a solid foundation of traditional blues. Style says it all in my view of surfing. Rock ‘n' roll is good, but blues emanating from the heart and soul is better yet.
Rob’s style is what sets him above other surfers, and he backs that up with accomplishments within the surfing world. Rob capped another great year of surfing by winning the Monster Energy Pipeline Pro in late January, 2006. In an event that features the very best surfers who call the Pipeline their home break – and in excellent quality waves – Rob came out on top, scoring a perfect 10 during the final heat. Back in the winter of 2000, he also took down the field in the ultra prestigious Pipeline Masters, the premier contest on the world surfing tour.
Most surfers would sell their souls to have a good showing in either event. Rob barely commented on either victory when I called to congratulate him. Instead he was more interested in what I had been doing. Quiet, soft-spoken and unassuming, Rob Machado is one cool cat, the coolest surfer of modern times. I’m certain even Paul Strauch would be impressed.
If you're interested in more stories from Gerry, check out his new book Surf Is Where You Find It – a hardbound collection of 38 stories with new and vintage photographs. Choose from the regular edition or the boxed, limited edition that has extra photos and is signed and numbered by the author.