Coco Ho blasts out of the corner on a single fin. Joel Parkinson wraps magnificently on a twinnie. Adriano de Souza roundhouses with a vengeance and bangs the rebound on a three-fin. These are but a few highlights from the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy 2023, a contest with several twists, among them the single-, twin-, and three-fin divisions. Surfboards can work as time-travel machines, flinging us back to that design’s heyday. To enhance the journey, to transport the spectators as well as the athletes, contest director Ross Phillips added a playlist to the mix. Pumping from the sound system was sixties and seventies music for the single-fin day, eighties for the twin-fin, and eighties up to the present for the ever-enduring Thruster (codename for the dominant, high-performance three-fin surfboard).
It gave the feel of a concert: we the spectators on boats in the channel; they the surfers on the grand stage that is Sultans. And the waves were glorious. Sultans is a righthand reef break that wedges A-frameishly at the tip of a tiny, uninhabited island and throws almond-shaped barrels and highly-schwackable sections as it zippers down the line. Think Lower Trestles, in Southern California, but hollower, heftier, and in that distinctly Maldivian shade of sapphire/turquoise.
“The idea is that the event has to feel unique and exclusive,” explained Phillips, who’s spearheaded the Trophy for 11 consecutive years. “How do you do that? If there were 50 surfers it probably wouldn’t feel like a family. So it’s invitation only—six surfers. You make it challenging by riding different boards.”
Joel Parkinson brought his wife and three kids. Mason and Coco Ho brought their cousin Makoa. The nice thing about a one-off event is that the vibe is more relaxed. Instead of headphones and shadow boxing in the competitors’ area, it feels more like a group of friends on a luxury surf trip. Yes, there’s a contest and that demands a certain focus, but there’s also a lot of conversation around the breakfast table, an informal summit meeting of sorts.
I seized the opportunity to learn more about the competitors.
“You go through chapters,” said Coco Ho, who was ranked #6 in the world in 2013. We were seated on the patio of her beachfront bungalow, Coco, Mason, and me. The ocean twinkled. A sea plane cut across the cerulean sky.
Coco continued: “We’ve all wanted to win for a long time, and I think we’re now in that next chapter. We’re in the ‘cherish chapter.’ We cherish every little bit.”
Mason concurred. “When we were younger we were so ready to grind and just do anything it took to become a pro surfer. You’re just ready to go sleep on the couches and pile in, six guys in some little room, for the WQS (World Qualifying Series, the lower rank of professional surfing) or whatever. So you go through these phases, like she says, chapters. And I feel like right now, we’ve grinded it out. We love to compete. We love to free surf. So something like this”—he nodded at our lavish surroundings—“it’s super fun to be all comfortable.”
There’s an innocence, a sense of wonder about Mason. Or as the photographer Ted Grambeau put it: “Mason sees the world as if he’s a ten-year-old kid visiting Disneyland for the first time.” Most enjoyable was watching Mason pull a Mason. There were the fabulous waves at Sultans, there was the contest, but Mason had his eye on a rogue, side-wash wave at the opposite end of the island. It did not look rideable, and your average surfer would never have seen it. But Mason did—and that has made all the difference.
Twenty years ago, Ross Phillips did a boat trip to the less-developed Southern Maldives. There he encountered a young boy playing on an old, beat-up board in the lagoon. When he left, Ross gifted him a Channel Islands three-fin. That boy would go on to become the 2021 Maldivian champion. Now 32, Hood “Hoobs” Ahmed was thrilled to be invited to the Surfing Champions Trophy.
“I was born on a dhoni (boat)” he told me over breakfast one morning. “I learned everything from the surfers who came here. My heroes are Australians.”
I asked him if he likes competing. He laughed.
“I enjoy free surfing more. But I find this competition to be very friendly, more like free surfing. In the heats, everyone’s out there sharing waves.”
What was most surprising about competing in the event?
“Joel Parkinson has been a hero. To surf with that legend was a big thing. And Mason Ho—he’s a big name for us. I was stoked to surf with him. Even though I was in a heat, whenever they caught a wave I just turned around and watched.”
Conner Coffin is no longer chasing contests, but he’s as fired up as ever, and far from retirement. “I just didn’t want to be tied to the schedule, and the monotony of doing the same events over and over again,” he told me. Conner grew up riding the long, winding point waves of Santa Barbara. He was on the world tour for seven years. “I was never super in love with competing, but I was in love with the challenge of it, how hard it was to be on the WCT (World Championship Tour, the first division of surfing) and be in the mix. But I can never surf another contest and be happy.”
Has his surfing changed now that he’s off the tour?
“It’s still fresh, but yeah, I can feel my surfing just freeing up. On the tour you have to be methodical. Every surf is about bettering yourself for the next contest. Now I can surf however I feel, I can ride whatever I want. I don’t have that lingering thing in the back of my head of like, How am I using this surf to better myself for the next contest? It’s pretty nice.”
What was most disillusioning about being on the tour?
“I became a surfer because it wasn’t baseball, it wasn’t football, it wasn’t all these other sports. It was this unique thing; it had an element of counterculture that we all embraced. In my opinion, the tour has gone away from what makes surfing unique and rad and they’re trying to stick it in the box of every other sport. They’re like, Let’s make surfing like golf and tennis. But none of the surfers want it to be like that. I wouldn’t have gotten into surfing if it was like golf! And I know I’m not the only person who feels that way. I think the core surf audience wants it to not be like everything else. They’re trying to make it more commercially viable so they get the non-endemic sponsors to come in, but I go back to the ‘If you build it, they will come.’ If you embrace what surfing is and why it’s different to everything else in the world, people are going to want to watch it."
Adriano de Souza grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Guarujá, Brazil. His older brother pushed him into his first wave when he was seven. He hopped right to his feet and rode to shore. At age 14 he won a pro contest and bought his parents a house with the prize money. He knew that surfing was his ticket out. He was driven by the idea of helping his family, that it wasn’t just for himself.
“I saw fishermen who made their living from the sea. I needed a contest to survive,” he told me.
Adriano competed on the world tour from 2006 to 2021. He won the world title in 2015. Given how fierce a competitor he was, I wanted to get his take on the present state of pro surfing.
“Honestly, I’m not very happy with the decision the WSL (World Surf League) made,” he said, referring to the mid-year cutoff. “I think it did not benefit the surfers. It doesn’t benefit the rookies. To only have five events to show yourself is not enough. I’m not a fan of the finals [at Trestles]. You need to be a world champ twice: once through the season, and again on the day of the finals. It’s not fair, from my perspective. It’s good for the fans, but I’m looking at it from the perspective of the athletes.”
I asked him how he’s faring, two years away from the tour.
“I’ve had a battle with mental health for the last year,” he told me. “I’ve had trouble finding my happiness. I’ve been trying to find the joy again. For so long the surfing world was the only thing making me happy. You work so hard to get to a certain level—and that makes your day busy. It gives you direction. And when I stopped I felt like I jumped on a boat and the driver said, ‘Where are we going to drive this boat?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So I felt lost in the middle of the ocean. I tried to prepare with some businesses to care for, but in reality it’s been way more difficult than I thought.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. When you spend a couple decades or more focusing solely on winning surf contests, it’s hard to turn off that switch.
Joel Parkinson, on the other hand: he seems to be relishing post-pro tour life. He did 18 years on the CT, won a world title in 2012, and stepped off in 2018.
“The guys that retire on their own terms—they turn the stone themselves; they turn that switch and they seem to do okay. Then there are guys who fall off the tour but are still trying to get back on—they probably feel like the stone hasn’t turned for them. For me, I was completely done when I retired.”
How has his relationship with surfing changed?
“It’s not as important,” he said, “But it’s just as enjoyable. You’re not pushing to be two per cent better, you’re not constantly working on boards, but the enjoyment is just as good.”
The first three days of the weeklong waiting period delivered excellent, well-overhead surf, and Parko won all three divisions. I was curious to see what the competition looked like from the water, so I swam into the lineup and bobbed around the spot where massive hacks took place. The speed, the ferocity, the elegance—it was spectacular to witness from up close.
There were a couple of lay days before the grand finale between Parko and Adriano. Our fortunate surroundings were fully utilized: family surfs at a friendly break called Tombstones, snorkeling with nurse sharks and sting rays, marathon meals at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa’s bottomless breakfast buffet—it was all so lovely. On my morning swims in the crystalline lagoon, the coral reef alive with exotic, Zissou-esque fish, I thought about my own relationship with pro surfing. I like it. I watch. I’m astounded by the dizzyingly high-performance levels of the world tour surfers. I feel fortunate to have surfing blasted into my living room—and I stop everything to watch the webcasts (it wasn’t always like this).
Tonally, though, I do feel something hyperbolic, something Tom Cruise-ish. It feels closer to the NFL than the left-of-centre surf culture that I know. That’s the thing, for most of us, surfing’s not competitive. We don’t exit the water a winner or a loser. We go out there to lose ourselves, to wash it off. There’s a cognitive dissonance in the way I relate to surfing and the way it’s presented via the WSL. Is that because the stuff that Conner Coffin mentioned—the packaging, the dressing up? Perhaps.
The entire surf industry has been torn between what the writer Phil Jarratt dubbed “salts and suits.” The salts being, for example, Rabbit Bartholomew, who helmed the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) from 1999 to 2008. Rabbit came to the job not with NFL or Oprah Winfrey Network laurels, but with a 1978 world title. His love, knowledge, and understanding of surfing was never questioned. The suits? The Paul Speakers, the Eric Logans—WSL CEOs who came to the job powered by big resumes as opposed to surf cred.
If the goal is to grow the sport to tennis/golf proportions, well, then the suits might be the answer. Personally, I love surfing for its escape, its weirdness, its collection of misfits. Am I part of a dying breed? Maybe.
The finals took place on a hot and glassy Sunday afternoon. Parko and Adriano were electric. Again, I watched from the water, and again, I was struck by the relentless tail throwing, the regal swoops. Parko was ahead for most of the heat, but in the dying seconds Adriano heaved tremendous force into a mid-sized wave and squeaked into the lead. But wait, behind him, Parko, fanging hard off the top, and again, and again, and a huge bash in the closeout. Parko won. It mattered. But then it didn’t.