He was rated #1 in the surf world by the age of 20. His peers say he’s among the best big wave surfers of all time. He’s a stylish pagonist of the sport, in and out of the water, a father-to-be and an all-round amazing fella. Brad Gerlach spoke to Ozlem Esen about life, coaching … and why he doesn’t have typical days. Photos: Saskia Koerner.
BRAD, tell us about your early life growing up in California, and how you got into surfing.
When I was eight years old I bought a surfboard for $7. I remember this because I used to get a dollar for every year on my birthday. I only had $7 because I spent the other $1 on the ice cream man. Anyway, I tried surfing one day around this time with my dad. He didn’t help me, he just stayed on the beach. He couldn’t stand cold water (long story), and I didn’t stand up because it was a rough onshore day and the waves were really close together.
I didn’t like that I didn’t stand and told my dad that I didn’t want to surf anymore. Then two years later my mother moved us close to the beach in Leucadia about three miles north of Cardiff. I walked to the beach with a friend that summer day in 1976 and found a surfboard with a picture of Jesus on it. Evidently someone had thrown it off the cliff or something. I didn’t know that of course so I asked everyone on the beach if it was theirs. Nobody claimed it so I took it out and stood up on it right away.
It had no fin so it slid around every time I stood up. I was hooked. I ran home to get the $7 board and surfed every day after that until I got hit in the nose with it. Over the next two years I broke my nose in four places, had a 150 stitches, spent lots of time in hospital and had two surgeries. I vowed to never surf again. It fucked up my face, I had to wear a cast and people would stare at me everywhere we went. I hated it and was pissed off. After a while it healed and I skated around everywhere. My friends were all at the beach, so eventually I went back to the water, agreeing to only kneeboard. I rode half a wave on my knees and thought it felt stupid so I stood up and was immediately hooked all over again!
North County San Diego is home to the Self Realization Center. It’s on a cliff in Encinitas overlooking my favourite wave ‘Swami’s’. Since my mother worked and I was very independent it was inevitable that I would meet all kinds of hippy/spiritual people into yoga and health food and surfing. I thought they were cool and I loved being a surfer and skater. I watched the whole first movement of skating happen in San Diego with Logan Earth Ski, Bahne, Greg Weaver, Rampage, pool skating, and going to Carlsbad skate park. Tony Alva and Jay Adams were heroes to me and I wanted to be a pro skater for a while but I chose surfing instead. I didn’t like having cuts! They never healed!
You’re considered one of the sport’s most stylish surfers – who were your style icons growing up, in and out of the water?
Oh thank you for that nice compliment, coming from such a stylish person as yourself! Well, I liked Shaun Tomson a lot when I was young. He came across as intelligent, well dressed and ripped! I liked to dress nice my first year of high school at 14 years old. I got into Punk Rock and cut all my hair off and listened to The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedy’s, Germs, Buzzcocks … but just before that I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. They were my favorite bands when I was learning to surf and dreaming of being a pro. I loved Larry Bertlemann until I met him and he was a dick to me. Which made a big impact. I thought to myself that I would never be like that to a kid that looked up to me when I was on top! Ha, ha. I loved Buttons in the water, he was really cool to me too. He always looked like he was free and having a lot of fun. And it was confirmed when we shared a wave at Lowers in 1979. You know, I always liked James Bond, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. My dad and I liked to watch those kind of movies when I was young. Then by my junior year I was into KROQ and I loved musicians like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Robert Palmer, and what they wore. I have always been into music. I traded my motorcycle for a record player when I was young. My dad didn’t want me to hurt myself and talked me into it.
What you have been listening to lately?
I haven’t been listening to a lot lately because I was fascinated by all the political stuff that has happened here in the US. I mean wow, what an eye opener. It’s just crazy so I had to follow it. But I do like the new Radiohead album. And I like to listen to KCRW. I haven’t been playing much music myself lately but that’s normal for me. It comes in waves and since my lady is pregnant I have just been so happy to hang with her. She is a musician as well so we play together sometimes and plan to make some music when we move to Australia.
What drives you?
Creativity, originality and style, in lots of different forms. I am turned on by design, humour and aesthetic. I love clothes and playing around with colour and tones. Colour on my boards, wetsuits, towels, my car, guitars, walls in my house … it goes on. I look for inspiration in people and how they do things, how they see things. I am driven to helping my students surf better, and for some, help them to rewrite the cutting edge of performance surfing.
Tell us a little about Wave Ki.
It’s the method of teaching that I developed through my study of martial arts with my two sensei’s Adrian Crook and Laura McCormac, adding in my countless hours of surfing. I teach people how to harness the power of the wave through efficient movement and awareness of themselves. Wave Ki is practiced on land and mimics surfing. It teaches people how to surf in a safe environment. Then it is up to them to do Wave Ki every day. My students who practice Wave Ki get better, the ones who practice every day get better faster. My most famous student is Conner Coffin. He has been doing Wave Ki for six years. Other students include rising stars Noah Hill and Taro Watanabe. They have been doing Wave Ki since they were 10 years old. My newest student is 15-year-old Max Beach and he has improved like crazy and is catching up to the other guys!
Your dad was a diving champion and gave you great advice with your surfing. What was some of the best advice he gave you about life, love and work ethics?
He has given me a lot of advice: Don’t go around with no cash, like don’t be that guy. Don’t get married too young, lots of women out there. Look people in the eye and give a firm hand shake. A good deal is one that is good for both parties. There is always something to learn. Show up when you say you are going to, your word is everything. Don’t smoke a lot of pot, just a little if there’s pressure, lol. That was a funny one when I was 15. He said it will make you stupid and you don’t need to smoke more than one hit to get high. Those are fatherly things … but where he has been the biggest influence is with my surfing.
It would take up a lot of space here if I were to go into it, but basically he taught me to look for efficient movement, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so if you do something that doesn’t give you speed or control then it’s unnecessary and will probably look shit. He is very blunt but very smart. He saw things that I didn’t see and he showed me and talked to me about them over and over. I feel like he passed down his eye for beautiful movement. I am very grateful to him for all the time he spent with me, video-taping me, giving me feedback and sharing the passion he has for watching the body moving beautifully. He was an Olympic diver from Hungary who placed 4th at Melbourne in 1956 – he was 18 and it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to go back at 22 for the US games. He says the Chinese, who are the best divers now, copy a part of his unique style that the University of Michigan head coach wanted to change. He refused…
What are your favorite boards to ride?
Chris Christenson is one of my best friends and has been shaping my boards for 10 years now and they are the best ever. He is a genius and a wonderful artist, original and hard working. Salt of the earth, diehard integrity. I love Chris so much so it is cool to call him with feedback on my boards. And meet him in the snow to ride together. I am stoked and have such a good thing going with my boards. I usually ride 5’11 x 19 six channel swallow tail while I am in Bali. But I bounce around depending on the power or lack thereof. Anywhere from 5’7 x 21 to 6’ 18 7/8, mostly swallow tails.
If 20-year-old Brad could speak to Brad Now, what would he say?
Work to be more flexible than anyone else in your sport. Stay focused on surfing, the women will come to you :).
As a pioneer surfer how do you feel about the new era of surfers? How has surfing evolved in your point of view?
I think some of the new era surfers are great, especially the ones that can mix the modern with the old stuff. But those are few and far between. Most of the surfers are jocks, much the same as before. It’s the ones doing different stuff that are intriguing. It’s usually that they aren’t progressive enough with their surfing to keep my interest. But these guys have it: JJF, Dane Reynolds, Jordy Smith, Jack Freestone, Conner and my young students Noah, Taro, and Max. I have recently been coaching a girl and I like to watch her too. I still love to watch Tom Curren, and Mike Rommelse absolutely shreds with great style.
What is style to you?
It’s about having good manners, looking understated, owning a personal look, having a good sense of humour and not being cheap!
How do you overcome doubt?
By feeling it fully. It’s the only way it dissolves.
What best describes who you are?
I care about people and I strive to give credit to the people who deserve it. I love the underdog and relate to people who have struggled and overcome. I love to teach and help people. I am a good listener. And finally I love to make people laugh, even if it’s at my own expense.
What does a typical day entail for you?
I don’t have typical days but the most consistent thing is stretching and doing Wave Ki, then spending time with my lady. I surf or work or do both. I could drive a lot or stay close to home. Just depends. I am not structured and organized. I like to be free, however if I have made an appointment I am good at keeping it or letting them know in advance if it needs to change. It has to be fluid like this because a lot of my work depends on mother nature.
What is your most epic wave memory?
I have so many but one that sticks in my mind is a giant tube I got on a first wave one morning, alone at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. On a borrowed 9’3. My new friend at the time Zen Del Rio (who is now an old friend) let me borrow his board because his back was bothering him. I planned to paddle out with Coco Nogales at first light and he didn’t show. So I paddled out alone and within five minutes a bomb came right to me, and I was like “fuck I have to go”, so I took off hoping the board was a good one and I slid down the face into a giant cavern. It started breathing. By this I mean it got bigger and smaller while I was in the tube. It threw out way in front of me and I thought for sure I would get flogged but somehow I just kept going, and I had time to think, hey I might make this thing, then no, no way, then wait, nah, holy shit I might… and I did. I did a small personal claim that I was sure nobody saw. But Coco had just woken up and stood out on his balcony to witness it. Ha, ha, ha … odelay!
Who in your opinion is the most iconic surfer that ever existed and why?
The Duke. Multiple gold medal Olympian, pioneer, ambassador for surfing and gentleman.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good person with class and manners; a loyal friend and an inspired and innovative teacher. A contributor to surfing who didn’t take himself too seriously and blazed a trail. A classy dresser, stylish surfer, good son and brother, loving partner and an awesome dad. And an animal lover. I love animals.
You’re welcome Ozlem.