robert "wingnut" weaver knee paddling his longboard at malibu, photographed by dane peterson for birdwell beach britches

The Wingnut Interview

Words by Mat Arney, images by Dane Peterson/Birdwell Beach Britches (Malibu), Exclusive Trailz (Costa Rica) and Navi Surf Photography (Maldives) & film by Bruce Brown



In 1994 Bruce Brown released Endless Summer 2, the long awaited sequel to his classic 1964 movie. Endless Summer 2 introduced a new generation of surfers to the dream of chasing waves around the world. One of the films two stars was longboarder Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and the first destination featured in the film was Tamarindo in Costa Rica. Surf Simply’s Ru Hill and Asher King met with Wingnut on a recent return visit to Tamarindo, sharing a few waves and then sitting down to talk surf trips, “that” sea-plane crash, coaching tips, WSL judging criteria and his “glass half-full” approach to life.

 

For anybody who isn’t already aware of you, who are you and how did you find surfing?

I actually started surfing a little later in life, when I was around seventeen years old, and I stumbled my way into being cast in the movie The Endless Summer 2 – a real case of “right place, right time” (Ed’s note: and the fact that Wingnut is an incredibly talented surfer). Off the back of my appearance in Endless Summer 2, I’ve been able to turn my passion into a career.

You say that you “stumbled” your way into Endless Summer 2 – can you tell us the story behind that?

It’s funny, because I never thought that I was only going to ride longboards. I grew up at Newport Beach, surfing at Blackies, and my whole plan was to figure out how to ride a longboard and then I’d figure out what sort of board I wanted to ride after that. There were a bunch of older guys surfing at the Newport pier, and I thought, “Well, it can’t be that hard. Look at these forty year old guys, if they can do it then I can do it,” I thought I’d get as good as them and then move on. I didn’t realise who those guys were at the time; they turned out to be some of the best surfers from the 1960s who happened to be living around Newport Beach. So, I set the bar pretty high and it was a decade before I could get to a level of surfing close to them. Over the course of that decade I entered club comps and then I moved to Santa Cruz and moved to Hawaii for a couple of years. Towards the end of that time, the surf club up in Santa Cruz was making these corny little surf films, and I was always in them. These were just VHS tapes for the club members, not for general release. I didn’t know that the guy who was making those was sending them to Bruce. Bruce Brown and his son Dana had seen these films and when they were deciding on who they were going to choose for Endless Summer 2 – they knew that they wanted a longboarder and they knew that they wanted a shortboarder – at least they knew that I wasn’t shy! At the time I think there were about twenty guys that were of a caliber that you could easily put any one of them in the movie. Joel Tudor’s biggest drawback was that he was too young, because it was going to take 2-3 years to make the film and he was sixteen so was going to change too much over the course of that time as he became an adult. So, I got a phone call one day and when you’re told that it’s Bruce Brown you initially think that somebody might be screwing with you, but it only takes three sentences to realise that it is definitely his voice and I realized “Holy shit! This is Bruce Brown!” I had no idea that this was happening and after a ten-minute conversation he gave me his phone number and I hung up the phone. He said that next time I had an opportunity to come south, to stop by so that he could meet me, because he didn’t want to go around the world with an asshole – he said he did that once already… I called my wife and realized that the Action Sports Retailer (ASR) trade show was going to be in San Diego in a month and I was going to the show, so I called Bruce back. That was probably the biggest sacking up I’ve ever had to do. Within half an hour I was dialling that number. I think he was just as shocked as I was that I called him straight back. He told me to come down a couple of days early so that we could go for a surf at The Ranch so that he could see if he liked me or not.

The ideal first choice for my co-star was Kelly – he was the new, young, super exciting surfer at the top of his game. But at that time it was the first year he’d signed up to do Baywatch, it was the year that he ended up winning his first world title, and he had a schedule. Endless Summer 2 couldn’t work around anybody else’s schedule. When we knew that Kelly was out Bruce asked Surfer and Surfing magazines to give him a list of the top ten guys who they thought would be appropriate for what we’re doing. Pat’s name was at the top of both of those lists.

We had a day of surfing where Bruce brought Pat up to surf at The Ranch – I think we were doing some camera testing trying to work out what film stock to use, and that was when I met Pat, who’s just the greatest kid in the world.

I guess Pat was a pretty fun person to travel around with?

Um, he is now. He was a bit of a pain in the ass at the time! He’s five years younger than me – I was twenty six, so he was twenty one when we were filming.

 

When lots of surfers think of Costa Rica, the first film that leaps into their mind is The Endless Summer 2, with you and Pat surfing Ollie’s Point and Witches Rock and crashing the plane. When you watch the movie there are these funny little narratives that Bruce works in. Can you tell us about the plane sequence, because that just looks crazy.

That was the pilot showing off. We were supposed to have the plane for two weeks, and he crashed it on the very first day. He crashed it at full speed in front of the restaurant there and it sat on the beach for two years with a broken wing. There was nowhere to move it to – they couldn’t move it! When it happened we were standing at the end of the river mouth waiting for him to come by and pick us up and he crashes it down there and we looked at each other and thought, ”Ok, now what?”

 

The premise of the movie is that you go on one long trip around the world. But you said that it took two years, so was it multiple trips?

We were filming for eighteen months, and we were on 24-hour call for those eighteen months. You’d come back from a trip, do your laundry, re-pack your bag and leave your bag by the door because the contract said that you had to be able to leave in 24 hours.

 

So the scene where you’re folding your clothes and packing them neatly in your bag, and Pat’s just crumpling them up and stuffing them in, is that how it really happened?

That’s exactly how I still pack to this day, and that’s exactly how much of a mess Pat’s bag is.

 

That was the first step of your career to date. By all accounts, you’ve had a fairly unorthodox run through the surf industry.

There was competitive longboarding back at that point in the nineties, but there wasn’t a lot of money in it. First prize at a contest was like $1000 – $1500 so to go and spend two days battling to the death for $1500 didn’t seem like the best way to go about it. I couldn’t sign up to a lot of contests because I was travelling too much, but I’d show up sometimes when I was available, just to hang out and help announce and commentate on contests. From that I ended up narrating a bunch of surf videos and I still do voiceover work, for the World Surf League shows on ABC and I did the live broadcast for the World Longboard Championships in China.

 

I know that it’s a little early, but we’re really interested to get your thoughts on the contest criteria at the WSL longboard events. Could you outline the style that you like, and what you consider good, and what their contest criteria is and where you think they could maybe improve it.

There are two different things here: there’s longboarding as I think we all believe these boards should be ridden, as at the peak of the 1960s performance longboarding before there were shortboards – back when there was no such thing as a longboard and they were just surfboards. Up until the shortboard revolution they were just surfboards, and after the shortboard revolution there were surfboards, and shortboards. I think the peak of performance was a little after Nat Young won the 1966 world contest, when noseriding was still important but there was a little more performance on the wave in the way that it was all tied together. At that point Nat was on a 9’4” and the performance was definitely showing as far as staying in the pocket with the energy of the wave and bigger rollercoaster manoeuvres. What has happened over the course of the last forty to fifty years, is that it turned into big shortboarding, so guys were trying to do on longboards what they perhaps weren’t good enough to do on shortboards at the sort of level that would get them on the pro-tour, so they built 9’ tri-fin high performance longboards and the whole judging criteria kind of mirrored that and progressed. There was a point, having been competing through the eighties, where it was blending really nicely and then it just went off into big shortboarding. That was my argument against it. Fortunately, the group that bought the ASP and turned it into the WSL knew that they wanted to change it and they knew that they wanted to differentiate between shortboarding and longboarding. Unfortunately though, the athletes involved have voting rights in this so you’ve got the guys in the top 24 who for the past ten years have been on tour and they want to keep it high performance. The point that I would argue with those athletes is that you’ve spent the past twenty years taking competitive longboarding in a certain direction and you have zero support. The sponsor in China for the men’s event was an acai bowl company from Brazil. That shows you how little interest there is in it.

In the days of Clark Foam, when Clark would publish his sales figures, 50% of the foam that he sold was over 8’ long. That meant that 50% of the boards being made and sold every year were longboards and longboards last, so the audience is out there. I basically told the athletes that we need to reset the clock, that it needs to go right the way back to 1966; we’ll change it as we move out of that, but that’s what the WSL is going for. This is a tribute to what Joel has done with his Duct Tape Invitationals. He has shown that there is support for this format. A lot of those performance guys say that it’s too extreme, but he’s the only guy that has figured out how to find any money – Vans has been a phenomenal sponsor for Joel, personally and for traditional longboarding. I’ve said to the athletes, if anybody else can find a sponsor who will put up a quarter to a half a million dollars then bring it on, and we’ll have their contest.

 

You and Joel are the only real household names in terms of longboarding, which says a lot.

It was an interesting and difficult discussion for some of the athletes; and some of them totally get it and have said, “Ok, I’ll dust off my single fin”. The criteria going forward is going to be very traditional.

 

It seemed to us that the judges were rewarding more traditional surfing this year.

Kevin Skvarna and a whole bunch of other surfers, especially on the women’s side, were surfing more traditionally. The problem is that they got out-competed because the other guys have been competing for so long. There are a few ways that competitors can be a little savvy in the water during a contest – ways in which you can be forced into making poor choices – and those guys fell foul of that and that’s how they got eliminated. In the end the last twelve surfers on the men’s side were all high performance longboarders.

 

Two Years ago Justin Quintal rode a really heavy single fin and made it through to the semis, and he’s a hell of a competitor.

I managed to get Justin a wildcard but he couldn’t make it to the contest this year. I’ve had a conversation with Joel, after Justin got a load of flak from him, to say that we’re trying to make it better for the athletes that are following this pathway, attributing to what he’s doing. I don’t want to change anything about what Joel does with Vans and would love to have a conversation if he wants to be involved with the WSL longboard tour, but I don’t want him to be putting a leash on guys who also want to compete at the WSL event and go for a world title, which Joel has – and he won his on a 9’ thruster. We’re pushing the right way, though.

 

Politics aside, just on surfing, which of the younger guys do you now see coming up who you love to watch surf, outside of the contests.

There’s a whole plethora of guys, particularly when you watch Joel’s event. Alex Knost – I used to hold him when he was two years old so that his Dad could surf at Blackies – I’ve known Alex his entire life and I really like the way that he surfs, and he’s a great kid. Joel and I are now both at that stage where it’s not about us, it’s about what we love best about the sport and how to keep it moving forwards. Up in Santa Cruz, Riley Stone is just amazing and he’s such a lovely kid and really pretty to watch. Every region’s got their own – that’s what’s so amazing.   It’s not like it’s unique. There are cadres of phenomenal traditional longboarders in every surf town now, so let’s give them the opportunity to do something special.

 

One of the conversations that we’re always having is trying to objectively measure what better or worse surfing is, because when you can do that then you can coach more effectively and as you get better you can have more fun in a wider range of conditions. With longboarding that’s obviously more difficult because there’s such an aesthetic element to it, more so than with shortboarding you could argue. When Alex Knost walks up the board he has these really small, fast steps, whereas Joel by comparison will seem to do bigger, slower steps to the nose. When you’re coaching, do you encourage one or the other or do you teach people to do both?

 It’s not even a worthwhile discussion in the sense that you’re going to work out what’s appropriate for the conditions and for what’s going on. Sometimes you have to hurry, but I’ve seen Joel take thirteen tiny steps to get up to the nose. Conditions will dictate whether you’re going to take bigger or smaller steps, and how you’re going to make this whole thing happen. I don’t discuss that with a client that’s trying to figure out how to noseride – let’s just figure out how to walk, and then you’ll see when it’s more appropriate to do this or the other.

What are the biggest pitfalls that you find people make when hoping to progress their longboarding, because there are a lot of people who surf a longboard ok, but they haven’t pushed it to where it’s actually proper trim based longboarding with cross stepping and noserides.

We’re lucky that we took this sport up at a fairly young age, and many of the people that you’re talking about took it up later in life. They don’t have the time that we did to make a thousand mistakes a thousand days in a row. That’s what we all did, right? Walk off the end, walk off the end, walk off the end… Just messing around. Their surfing days are so precious that they don’t really want to waste any part of what they’re doing. I try to encourage people to think of the last third of a wave as the experimental part; enjoy the wave but then when you’re getting down to almost nothing or you can see that a section’s going to close out in front of you, that’s where you should start experimenting or walking so that you’re not wasting chances.

 

It seems that 99% of people can get about a foot from the nose of their board and then that last 6-12 inches is like the Grand Canyon.

That’s the easiest discussion, because you’re already there – just take the last step! Just don’t even think about it, even if you have to back up and re-step to get all the way to the tip. Most of my clients are actually riding smaller boards, most of them ride sub 8’ boards, so I’m trying to help them transition off of longboards and onto mid-size or even shortboards. I work with a lot of people who, when the conditions are right, are on a 6’6” or 7’0”.

What was it that got you into coaching – what drew you to that facet of the sport?

A gentleman named David Taschen called me in 1998 and said that his kids were fans and he wanted me to take them surfing, so we set up a day at Newport Beach. Long story shortened, he was my first client – I was going to do it for free because he was a friend of a friend and I was just going to go surfing with him and his kids, but he said “no you’ve got to get paid to do this”. I thought “what do you mean, get paid,” but he said “if I pay a golf pro, or I pay a ski pro, then I should pay a surf pro,” I thought, “that’s an interesting idea…” In 1998 he became my first client then he handed me on to some friends of his in New York and I did about two trips a year, and it was just a specialty thing because I was sponsored at the time. O’Neill were a great sponsor of mine so I had the income that I needed and these trips were just an added bonus. Over the course of the years two trips a year became six, became twelve and so throughout the year I’m in a different location around the world depending on where a client wants to go. Basically a client will approach me and say “I’ve always wanted to go to the Maldives” and we’ll look at when we can go and set up a plan, or they’ll say, “Where can I go in May?” and I ask “Do you want to travel 2 hours, 10 hours, or 22 hours?” and then with that opportunity we start building a trip. I handle all of the logistics in-country, from figuring out what the options are for where to stay, do we need cars, do we need a small plane – all of that.

And I’m oversubscribed. I don’t have a website and there’s no way of contacting me so unless you’re a friend of a client of mine, it’s really hard to reach out to me. I have a fantastic group of clients and I’ve got relationships in every country, so for example when I go to the Maldives I work with the Tropic Surf guys, they have a fantastic operation and I piggyback on them.

 

What is that you enjoy most about coaching?

The best thing about surfing, and the thing that you have to remember is that it’s supposed to be fun. When I was down in Guiones what I enjoyed was the attitude of everybody; a lot of times when there’s a lot of surf schools in the water it can get tense, but I thought that everybody down there was really respectful of everybody else who was getting the first wave of their life. As surfers we see that, and there’s a difference between a beginner and a kook. A beginner is totally innocent and doesn’t know right from wrong. They’re just trying to get their first wave and they’re a blind squirrel – let them get that acorn and have a good time! The kook that looks at you, paddles, looks again and continues to paddle and drop in on you, that person needs to be spoken to, in a nice way, to say “don’t do that…we all know what the rules are,” But I love seeing a person get their first wave. It’s like “Ha! That guy’s life is ruined – he is into this forever and is never going to contribute to society!” So I think that if you’re not having fun then go and find another way to spend your day. It feels so much better to be in the water so share it with people and take care of the whole thing.

 

Is there anything that you look for in a location when you’re planning a trip?

The style of wave is going to depend upon whom the client is and what they’re hoping to achieve. I run trips from just one or two guys, through to extended families where all the kids and cousins are there and I’ll have sixteen people. Depending on what they need determines the type of waves that we’re looking for. For six guys that really know how to surf, we’re going to a place totally different than with the big family that’s trying to get the little kids in the water too.

 

You’re one of the most well travelled surfers in the world, so where’s the place that you’re most excited to go to?

Well, if somebody were to offer me a free surf trip to anywhere in the world, I’d go to Hainan, China.

There are no crowds. It’s a giant tropical island with reefs, point breaks and river mouths; the water’s 75-85 degrees, there are coconut palms…it’s just like Hawaii, but with no Hawaiians. But it’s not easy, because I don’t know how your Chinese is, but mine’s not very good. You can’t figure it out on your own; you need somebody there. There’re five and six star hotels on the beaches, and there’s a small surf cadre there who you need to use otherwise you’ll never find the waves.

 

For anybody looking to go to Hainan, when is its surf season?

They actually have surf nine, almost ten, months out of the year, and the best season is November through April just like here in Costa Rica – that’s their winter season and that’s when the Wanning coast gets the most surf. And then in the summer you get the typhoon stuff that’s coming out of the south. It’s surprising.

 

I have one last question, and if it’s too personal then we can leave it: A lot of the guys that I work with at Surf Simply come with ailments – whether it’s that they threw out a shoulder or they have a hip problem that affects their flexibility. I know that you’ve been diagnosed with MS, which is pretty debilitating for surfing. Could you talk about that?

Eighteen years ago, yeah. I mean, it could be very debilitating. MS affects everyone differently; it’s an autoimmune disorder so the white blood cells in the brain attack the myelin sheath which is the insulation around the wires in your brain that tell your body what to do. Mine came after my balance, and my right leg. If I was an accountant then I don’t think that would bother me as much, but for what I do for a living it seemed to be incredibly specific. It was a gnarly couple of years figuring it out, and because most of the treatments are steroid based drugs they would have destroyed my joints by now, because I was 26 at the time. If you want to see what you joints look like after 25 years on steroids, take a look at baseball players. I was fortunate in that I had a very “wait and see” Stanford doctor who said “let’s see how bad yours gets and what else we can do,” so I focused on my diet and a few other things. There’s a couple of really good diets; there’s Dr Terry Wahls who has a good diet that has some application for MS. I was really fortunate that I did not have any further episodes, so I’ve been virtually seventeen years without an episode.

 

I guess whichever modality you use to treat it, it’s about risk: benefit right? With diet, there’s very little risk.

Right. There’s no risk and if it doesn’t do anything then you can move on to the drugs to knock it back.

 

You said it was eighteen years ago that you were diagnosed, which is about mid way through a surfer’s journey. What sort of mindset did you have to have to get over it?

I think it was put into perspective for me because I was seeing the same neurologist that Michael Locatelli (a local Santa Cruz surfer and surf shop owner) was seeing in Santa Cruz, and he had what was thought to be a benign brain tumor which turned out to be very invasive and he’s dead now. Over the course of the years that I was being treated he was going up for horrible treatments in San Francisco, so I had to think that having MS is bad, but I don’t have what Mike has. Everything gets put into perspective. If you look at the world as glass half full rather than half empty then I think you have a better attitude. We’re all going to get something. We all die. Quality of life can change for all of us, so keep a good attitude about it because it could probably be worse.

You can also listen to this interview on episode 41 of the Surf Simply podcast.

 

Huge thanks to Geoff Clawson of Birdwell Beach Britches for putting us in touch with Wingnut and for sharing their imagery with us.


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