Joel Tudor is out in front of his modest Southern California dream home unloading his pickup of all the flotsam and jetsam from a huge summer weekend. All the trappings of a modern American beach life include his son’s board, wet towels, damp wetsuits, an old Morey boogie, piles of sand crunching against the plastic liner as he gathers his kit. Joel’s got it down to the essentials after spending his entire life traveling the world and surfing for a living.
He is also coming off possibly his busiest weekend of the year with the Duct Tape Invitational in Huntington Beach, which he created and oversees. The event gives traditional longboarders their moment in the sun as a novelty sideshow of the internationally traveling hordes of paid professional athletes, their trainers, coaches and sponsors that make up the World Surfing League juggernaut. But for traditional surf culture keepers of the flame, there is more to it than that. Joel may be one of the only guys to carve out his very own niche within surfing, and he pays it forward. When other surfers talk about him, you hear clean, classic, style, timeless, California.
But you can have all the natural ability in the world and still not perfect the technique. Refinement in technique is something that brought him to the world of competitive grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where he has won numerous titles such as the Pan Ams and US Nationals. Jiu-jitsu and surfing both hinge on insider knowledge learned through communal respect and only achieved through dedication, skill and many
years of paying dues.
Both disciplines have a similar tribal nature, a word of mouth history, and folklore passed and spread through person-to-person storytelling. This is where Joel excels; he is an encyclopedia of surf knowledge that you can’t just Google. I sat down with him to talk story as the marine layer burnt off a Tuesday morning in August.
So how was that weekend you just had?
It was nice, super mellow. Akram from Jack’s was showing me where they were putting the snipers. I thought it was actually pretty cool. I never thought I would hear about that kind of security at a surfing event. At the same time, kinda cool. The skate event usually steals the thunder anyway.
Do you go over there and watch it live?
The sun over there is pretty brutal actually. I stayed away from that side mostly since I had a thing cut out of my back recently.
I heard a rumor Slater doesn’t wear sunscreen.
He doesn’t wear sunscreen. He wears face sometimes, but he only surfs in the evening. He’s got a weird thing with his times. In Hawaii he surfs at night; you very rarely see him in the day. I pretty much refuse to lie in the sun after I had this thing cut out. If I go out in boardies I go out before 9 or after 4. Other than that I’m wearing a vest full time. Only chicks and European tourists lie in the sun all day.
Do you see viewership numbers from your event compared to the WSL?
Not really yet, I think they are still cleaning up the beach right now actually. The guys that put it on you know, there’s no money in it, unless you’re competing. We just do it for the...you know. They made a highlight of our event though, which was cool.
I heard you say there were only about eight guys with longboards in the 80s.
Well I was the only one around here; I take that back, Kevin Connelly. Then you got Nathan and Christian Fletcher who beat me in a longboarding contest. He had a skull deck patch in the middle of his board and was just slide slipping all over the damn place. There was Josh Farebrow and Lance Carson at Malibu too and a couple other guys here and there. No one really in Santa Barbara, they were all old guys.
If you want to enjoy yourself in California and be a surfer you need a longboard, right?
I think so. I had a moment last summer watching Ryan Burch on a small day at Seaside. He just gets it, as far as all the guys I think he really has it kind of figured out. The waves that day were just perfect; small, but flawless. I looked over to the beach and the whole Seaside club was on the beach jogging together and training instead. It’s like what are you training for? Do you think you’re going to get better by running? Go out and work on your posture, grab a log, get better. The surf is epic go out and surf! What are you doing?!?
Does the competitive aspect dampen the joy that is surfing?
The formula they have now doesn’t really work. The contracts are too big and guys don’t want to try once their ambition is killed by a huge contract.
Do you watch any of it?
Oh yeah, we watch it, the events are in good waves now so that’s cool. The kids love it.
Who was your greatest rival in competitive surfing?
When I look back the guy I thought was the best was Joey Hawkins.
And greatest rival in day-to-day surfing?
Well there’s always that one guy right? I mean now with social media and stuff there’s more of those “one-guys.” But what can you do, we live in an era where people can talk shit with no consequences. Just got to deal with it and not let it bother you.
Best waves you ever surfed in a contest?
Oh back when you could enter the pipe contest when it was the HPAC, that was really special. First session out at pipe was with Bonga who just rips and also speaks fluent Japanese and just blows people’s minds on any board. Two days before the 1991 contest my brother dragged me out and he was out there.
Worst skunked trip ever?
Tavarua, most expensive skunking on the planet. But you can get skunked anywhere you go. Though not really these days if you know what you're doing.
Just as Uncle Donald and that crew of guys took you in, who are the young up and comers that get to carry the torch? Do you have a young apprentice?
Not really. Well, there’s little Nate Strom but he’s going to be on his own in Hawaii this year doing his own thing I think.
When other surfers talk about Joel, you hear clean, classic, style, timeless, California.
What gets you excited to shape a board?
Well I’m finishing a board for Nate right now, it’s his eighteenth birthday. It just takes hours. Too much dust in there and chemicals, I’d rather glass ‘em.
What’s a board you wish you could bring back from beyond the grave?
I sold a lot of boards but I know where they all are. I kept the good ones.
When did you start wearing Speedos under the wetty and why?
OK, I don’t wear them, I did. I had a moment when I was wearing them, it’s like training; you get blisters on your feet from the mat the first couple times.
What wax do you use?
Sex wax original. I got my spots, the yellow bar orange label was the best, smelled like citrus. High beeswax content but it was too expensive for them.
That was the one where you would hear stories of it sticking to the wood racks back when wood racks were for wood, not stand up paddles.
What is the most underrated beach accessory?
The beach umbrella/tent. I don’t leave home without it. Made fun of my aunt my entire childhood for it but now I realized she was a genius.
How did you get into jiu-jitsu?
Well I watched the first UFC with some lifeguards in Hawaii, and watched a bunch of fights live. Then I was 26 and these 18 year olds at the Quick House tried to shave my head. They held me down for a while and that was convincing enough because I couldn’t move. And that was kind of it.
Tell me about Malibu and your introduction to it as a surf spot.
Oh man, back in ‘87 as a 12 year old I sat in a van in a parking lot and watched “Five Summer Stories.” There were a handful of these left over Miki Dora lookalikes kinda trying to copy his style still with the hand jives. It was wild. Not many people even rode a longboard at first. It was mostly Becker eggs. Surfed with Robbie Dick and Allen Sarlo a couple times out there too.
What do you think of surfing as a reflection of modern culture versus surfing as a reaction or rebellion to culture?
Well, it’s funny that it’s all in that direction now. Everyone thought Christian Fletcher was the antichrist. When he was the only one doing it, it was pretty cool. And in its own way it’s kind of the private “fuck you” to the judges that he always hated anyway. Those moves are still kind of the same, even the ones the kids do now. I’d rather watch someone just get really barreled anyway. In my experience guys that have the longest run at making a living surfing just have the best style.
The “sport” has seemed to progress to pushing the physicality to acrobatic heights, yet the style is almost a reserved control and confidence.
In an old magazine from 1980 David Nuuhiwa explained style as “keeping flow through the transitions,” and that’s fucking cool because it’s true and still relevant. It’s not like you have to go out and have some snazzy super style, you just gotta maintain being cool.