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Dropping in on Surf Legend Tom Curren

Tom Curren doesn’t have a favorite spot in Montauk to surf, but we’re trying not to take that personally. Admittedly, the waves are just a little too small and inconsistent for this Santa Barbara native. But that hasn’t stopped him from visiting often – to play live shows (a passion of his since he was a teenager) or for the “enthusiasm” – a term of endearment we’d never expect a Californian to use on us salty New Yorkers. The three-time ASP World Champion – who took home his last title in 1993 on a secondhand 5’5″ 1970 Rick twin-fin – pioneered a new era of wave riding with a retro feel. To this day, Tom Curren remains one of the most revered surfers of all time, so we couldn’t help swoon a little bit when he agreed to the interview below.

What’s your favorite surf spot in Montauk?
I don’t actually have a favorite. I haven’t ever gotten it very good – it’s pretty small. But we go to Ditch and that’s kind of the spot. It kind of seems like it’s the most local place to surf in the Northeast. It’s just a nice place.

Is it as fun for you to come back to the East Coast and surf, given that the waves are so much better in California?

Oh, totally. It’s super fun, and the enthusiasm is really remarkable. Especially for us, it seems like it’s a good all-around vibe.

You’ve played The Surf Lodge a couple of times, when you’ve come to town. How often do you play music live?

It depends, but more and more I’m kind of in between surfing and music right now. The Surf Lodge is a nice place, and those guys are really supportive. It’s definitely a good place to stop in.

Tom Curren, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 2001

How much do these two passions feed each other? Is music important for your creativity as a surfer?

Sure. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. Surfing is always the best, but music is definitely fun and there are a lot of satisfying moments in that as well.

You are often called a “transcendent surfer.” Is that an appropriate description?

I think that’s pretty generous. That’s a really nice thing to say. I don’t quite know what that means, but I always try to surf with good style, so I think that has something to do with it.

How much is a style formed and how much comes naturally?
I think style is just technique, really. It comes as you work on it, just like anything else – like with doing tricks. Just about anybody that surfs well now can have their own technique and that keeps it interesting.

tom curren

I read an interview with your daughter [pro surfer Lee Ann Curren], who mentioned that you were in a band together. Do you prefer to play solo or to collaborate?
My daughter is pretty good. She plays the bass guitar. She started when she was little. It’s been a lot of fun to play with her, and my other kids also play. I actually prefer to play in a band, but that doesn’t happen that often. But it’s way more fun.

Did you teach your kids to play music?
A little bit, but mostly they taught themselves.

But you must have taught them to surf?
Sort of- but not really. They were just always in the water, so they developed. I told them a few things without overstepping. Sometimes you see that they need a little advice or you try to tell them one or two things. It’s better to just be less of a burden and be around for them just in case or when they actually need help, but they mostly learned on their own.

Did you learn from your father [big wave rider Pat Curren] or was it the same kind of thing?
Yeah, actually, it was the same kind of thing. He was available to me, and helped me out in a few situations; but not really with giving me instruction, it was more just being there.

Tom Curren, Montecito, California, 2005

You took a hiatus from competitive surfing for a while. What was it about the industry or competition that inspired the break?
I was just doing a lot of traveling to contests, and I took a break from that and then started to travel to do filming and surf on my own and look for really good waves. So that was sort of a shift for me - that expression and the change of pace. So I didn’t really focus on the contests too much- but I did come back and did one year, I just kind of kept up with the filming after that.

Andy Irons’ death brought to light issues of drugs and alcohol within the surf community. Do you think it’s the surf media’s responsibility to talk about how this is a problem more than it does?
You know I found out [about his death] like everyone else and it was really sad. I think that it’s always the case of “Oh we should have known,” or “We should have done more.” It’s always something like that, but it’s just a tragedy.

As surfing is being taken more seriously as a mainstream sport, do you believe drug testing should be implemented at contests?
Actually, I think they already do have all that in place. I don’t know if they’ve ever done the actual testing, but they have it in the rule books. I think mostly the issue isn’t really steroids, or that sort of thing. It’s the parties – the parties and drugs and that sort of thing. As far as I know, the situation with the guys competing is that if there’s anything going on, it’s very minimal. I mean, I don’t actually follow the tour, so I don’t really know who’s doing what.

But overall, as far as I can tell, nobody’s doing drugs and competing, so that’s not really an issue. It’s just the partying and going out and all that. I don’t know where ASP can go in and address that. But I think it’s probably better to ask somebody who’s really seasoned in exactly what happens. All I can say is that the testing is there as an option, so people are being careful and not getting involved with performance-enhancing drugs.

What boards have you been riding lately?
Channel Islands boards are pretty much what I ride – these days it’s been some of the newer models.

Are you ever out with a long-board?
Yeah, a little bit. Not too much, but here in Santa Barbara we get really good long board waves, and in the summertime it’s really a good time to do that; but mostly I just short board.

What’s your favorite all-time spot to surf?
The place near where I live in Santa Barbara is a really good spot. The waves aren’t so consistent; but when they do break it’s pretty special.

When you first started surfing, the sport and the culture in general were a lot different than they are today. Now that it’s more popular – do you see this as a good thing?
Yeah, I think it’s a good thing. It can be a little more crowded, but overall I think it’s pretty good. When you surf – you can’t help it – you just want to share it. That’s kind of what’s happening. Of course, the downside to that is that the lineups are more crowded than they used to be; but I think the good points outweigh the bad. Sometimes you have to be happy surfing in crowds or surfing in waves that aren’t as good; but overall, I think it’s its rise in popularity is better.

Images (except archival) by Joe Curren