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In the cutthroat, energy-drink-fueled world of modern professional surfing, 37-year-old Rob Machado is a throwback to another age.
With his trademark mane of curly, blond-streaked hair and his easy, relaxed manner, Machado gives the impression that he has somehow tripped and fallen into the world of modern commercial surfing. In a sport where athletes ride limousines to sip champagne at award ceremonies and collect $100,000 checks for spending a couple of hours surfing, Machado’s humble, environmental ethos would seem quaint, if it weren’t also so marketable.
Machado, who now holds the title of “ambassador” for surf industry giant Hurley International, spent more than a decade on the international surfing circuit. He finished second on the world surfing tour in 1995 to 10-time world champion Kelly Slater and remains one of the most popular icons in modern surfing. These days, he continues to travel the world, attending events, competing in the occasional contest and, as he likes to put it, “drifting” through some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Machado’s carefully groomed image as a “soul-surfer” has made him a favorite with surfers from Sydney to Seoul to his hometown of San Diego. He starred in filmmaker Taylor Steele’s 2010 movie “The Drifter,” which follows Machado on a voyage of personal discovery through the islands of Indonesia, and he and Steele recently released “Melali,” an experimental surf movie with a music score that Machado and a friend perform live at showings.
We sat down under the marine layer on the wooden patio at Machado’s ocean-view home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and talked travel, dough, the world surfing tour and unbreakable surfboards.
In your life, with all the traveling you do, how do you make the balance between telling people about your adventures and not letting everybody in on the secrets and the good places to go and surf?
It’s a really fine line, especially being a pro surfer.
You can be looked at a lot of different ways when you show up somewhere. You can be looked at as a bad person who’s going to expose something and share it to the world — blow it up — and then you can be welcomed with open arms, just for the pure fact that you’re coming and riding waves, enjoying waves with people.
It’s challenging, very challenging.
You can go find waves — there’s a lot of waves out there that haven’t been found — but what do you do with it when you find something? Everything inside you wants to share it and bring it home and take your friends, and that’s just going to lead to more friends and friends of friends and someone’s friend that you don’t really know that well. That’s a scary thought.
Being a pro surfer, most of the time, we’re with cameras. We’re documenting a lot of what we do, so I’m pretty wary of that. When we go into a place that’s super sacred or special, there’s absolutely not one shot of land in anything that we share.
A couple of times, we’d show (on a video) a wave we found in Hawaii and my friend would cut to a random shot of us camping in Mexico that has nothing to do with anything.
You don’t want people chasing you down, getting pissed off that you ruined their spot.
Do you think there will ever be a time where the government needs to come up with some sort of policing system for controlling the crowds of people that want to surf the best spots on good days?
Yeah. It’s getting crowded.
Would you be in favor of a system like that?
What becomes dangerous is when you have a whole bunch of people in the water who don’t understand the lineup and don’t know where they need to be.
But it’s hard to say. I don’t think it could ever make sense, to regulate who can surf when and where. It’s just such a big, wide-open ocean.
Surfing’s one of the only sports that has large companies sponsoring competitions in which athletes sponsored by that company are also competing. A skeptic would look at that and say that’s a conflict of interest, especially as surfing’s such a subjective thing to judge in a contest. Is there anything to that skepticism?
Yeah, for sure.
When I first got off the tour, I sat back and looked at it and it’s a trip.
The ASP (the Association of Surfing Professionals, which organizes the world tour of surfing) is just a body that does the tour and the companies own their events.
Quiksilver owns the Quiksilver Pro. That means that Quiksilver’s paying to have the tents set up, they’re paying the people who run the event, they’re paying the judges. So, it doesn’t make sense.
If any other sport was set up like that, they’d call bullshit on it.
Are professional surfers paid too little, and are things getting better?
For sure they are and yeah, it is getting better.
The prize money has only just improved in the last couple of years and I take my hat off to Hurley, because they made the U.S. Open (of surfing) a $100,000 prize.
We’re better than bowlers, you know? You watch bowling on TV and they’re making the same amount of prize money.
Most surfers ride surfboards that are terrible for the environment — they can’t be recycled and they break easily and have to be replaced often. Do you think the technology’s out there to built an unbreakable and environmentally friendly board but the industry doesn’t want to do it because companies wouldn’t sell as many surfboards?
The fact that we ride surfboards that are built in exactly the same way they were built in 1950 is pretty ludicrous, it boggles my mind.
Until Clark Foam closed his doors, (Clark Foam, which provided the foam “blanks” from which most of the industry’s surfboards were made, closed down abruptly in 2005, causing a worldwide shortage) he kinda had a stranglehold on the entire market, as far as foam went, so nobody was really experimenting with anything until then.
Surfers are creatures of habit.
There have been attempts — there’s been epoxy and carbon and people exploring making stronger, stiffer, lighter boards, it’s all happened, but it’s changing the feel of what we had before.
It’s something that people haven’t adapted to. The kids now that are going to grow up riding those more experimental — maybe more environmentally friendly — boards, it’s going to grow as they grow.
Do surfboard companies really want to make indestructible boards though?
Well, they have a business. They know their business, they know what makes money and how to do it.
Surfboards are incredibly underpriced.
That’s like the worst thing you could ever carry in a surf shop. The markup is 20, maybe 25 percent. Compared to, say, a watch, which they’re getting 100 percent markup on this little thing in a case. With surfboards, you’ve got 10 boards and it takes up a whole wall.
I think surfboards should be up over 1,000 bucks, like in Japan, where they cost, like, 1,400 bucks.
Do you still surf every day?
Pretty much, yeah.
If I’m not surfing I’m still in the ocean doing something. I’ll go for a paddle or a stand-up paddle cruise down the coast or just bodysurf.