Can the barefoot drifter maintain his soul surfer vibe?
When Rob Machado stepped down from the podiums, he retained his title as the master of Zen. With a new film, new focus and new place in the spotlight, can the barefoot drifter maintain his soul surfer vibe?
“Rob! Tell us where we are!”
“We’re in Virginia Beach!”
“What’s going on?!”
“A nor’easter! It’s like a hurricane — but gnarlier!”
The first half of Rob Machado’s yelling gets drowned in a blast of wind. The second half slammed in a van door. But Taylor Steele, at the ready with camera in hand, catches it all. He jumps in the van and joins Rob in the back, alongside a board bag, guitar and crumpled Clash T-shirt. Up front, two Hurley coordinators hit the gas for a full day of surf shop signings. Outside, driving rain and gale-force winds send trash cans tumbling down the street. Rob, however, simply bends with the flow. Cruising. From place to place. Situation to situation. Much like his latest movie, The Drifter. Except instead of camping across Sumatra, he’s hitting hotels from Florida to New Jersey. And instead of riding waves alone, he’s packing rooms and signing posters to promote his new film. But he seems to be enjoying it nonetheless.
“Part of the movie’s point is to branch out and shake up your surroundings,” he reasons. “Besides, when you’re doing six-hour rides with a guy you grew up with, it’s actually pretty fun.”
Part documentary, part instant replay, The Drifter is more than just a chance for Machado to “branch out” — it heralds his return to the surf spotlight after nearly a decade of semi-hibernation. Once ranked second in the world, Rob stopped competing for titles in 2002 to build a comfortable home life with his wife and two daughters, going on random photo trips and maintaining unheard of popularity in such a fair-weather sport. From 1995 to 2008, fans kept Machado locked in among Surfer Poll’s Top Ten. Meanwhile, close friend Taylor Steele — once just a teenager with handy-cam and access to the planet’s best surfers — built his production house, Poor Specimen, into the biggest name in surf videos, churning out amped-up shred fests and cooler, more artistic displays. It was while filming clips for one of the former — Stranger than Fiction — that Taylor and Rob decided they should make one of the latter.
“The whole concept originated from watching Rob surf Uluwatu,” says Taylor. “It was a nice sunset kind of day and Rob’s surfing had this timeless seventies feel. We said, ‘Let’s put him in some perfect waves and have some magic moments.’ So that was the seed. Then, after four months, Rob showed us his journal and we were like, ‘Whoa, there’s some heavy stuff here!’ So from there we thought, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s make it a documentary — film him interacting with people as we follow along from place to place.’”
Hence The Drifter — a journey where Rob heads off into uncharted Indonesia, intentionally losing himself to find himself, tackling the end of his competitive career and finding solace by surfing when he pleases. The irony? In order to promote this tale of a man rejecting the trappings of surf stardom, Rob must now willingly strap them all back on for a promotional tour through far less sexy locations. Besides a star-studded NYC premiere, Rob’s traipsed up from Florida to a North Carolina college town. The one thing both missions have in common? Steele’s along for the ride — filming every second of it.
“Here, check it out…”
Taylor replays the clip for Rob, who watches and smiles as a pair of errant locks fall across his eyes. No matter how many times his pal hits record, Rob and his trademark afro look totally unfazed. Part of it is the thirty-six-year-old’s comfort with Taylor and his camera (they’ve known each other since Machado was twelve). And part of it is a serene confidence that transcends the lens. In a world where marketing gimmicks and branding actively sell fantasy as reality, Rob’s found himself at the crux of a series of Zen riddles: when a soul surfer sells an image does he also sell his soul? And once for sale, will the public still want to buy it?
“This movie will probably make people wonder who Rob is,” says close friend Chris Malloy, another surfer who’s faced the same conundrum. “He’s got this image of a soul daddy, but he’s also got a fierce competitive nature. One thing I’ll say about Rob is he loves surfing.”
That love may be the only constant in Rob’s life. The rest is a paradox of personal and professional conflict. An insanely talented surfer with heaps of drive, but the mellow groove of a doped-up house cat, Rob has racked up professional wins and prestige like no Californian since Tom Curren, but doesn’t define himself in terms of trophies. Now add fate, which pitted him against the perfect foil — Kelly Slater, slayer of contests and records and all things competitive. While Kelly would win everything — sometimes twice or more — Rob seemed to claim victory at the most perfect moments, be it at flawless Pipeline, in raw Western Australia or in front of a frenzied Huntington Beach crowd. And while Kelly’s primary claim to fame is an ability to bend every type of surf to his will, Rob’s is simply grace. Style. Often reading the wave and meeting it half-way, a mix of mind-reading and hypnosis that seduces the eye, making him, in the words of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, “the smoothest surfer of his generation”.
The duo perfectly depicted surfing’s eternal soul-versus-contest conflict, immortalised in a 1995 Pipeline Masters semi-final that saw the pair slap five in the water on Kelly’s way to his third world title. In fact, some might say that when their hands parted, so too did their professional careers. Kelly would go on to stomp his name into the record books. Rob? He’d finish second and slowly slip down the ratings until 2001 when — months after rebounding to third and winning his Pipeline crown — a broken wrist would snap his competitive future. Except, it wasn’t the injury that ended his run. It was his ASP compadres, who granted the wild card to another surfer when Rob didn’t show up to plead his case. He felt nothing less than betrayed.
“I was like, ‘Whoa. Wait a second,’” he says. “I had a very valid reason to get the wild card and I didn’t show up to the meeting because I had a baby the week before. Most guys on tour at that point didn’t have kids, so they didn’t get it. They were like, ‘Why isn’t he here?’ It could’ve been a total disaster. I could’ve fallen off the face of the earth.”
He basically did. Besides random cameos at comps and the occasional photo trip. But like Gerry Lopez or the other style-masters of yore, Rob’s surfing made a deeper impression than his resume — powerful enough to pack East Coast theatres today, ten years down the line. One stop on the film tour has seen more than a hundred fans turned away – a remarkable feat for any surf film.
“I have a hard time feeling sorry for Rob Machado.”
That was the first review I heard for The Drifter. It didn’t come from a mag or a website. It came straight from a buddy in between sets. More than a critique of the movie, it’s a judgment on celebrity. A growing belief that anyone famous — especially anyone whose job description is to surf perfect waves as and when they please — has no right to complain. And that, for critics, is where The Drifter falls down. An ex-pro kvetching over a lost career and the invasion of cameras, while attempting to resurrect said career by inviting a film crew to document his soul search, just doesn’t sit well with some folk.
What some people fail to realise is that the journey he goes on is real. So too is the corresponding transformation. It’s the reason behind the soul search that’s a bullshit lie. Fact is, Rob came to grips with his competitive upheaval long ago. The wounds he’s licking are much fresher — and twice as painful.
“Rob had a real hard time the past couple of years,” says Chris, the eldest Malloy brother. “He was living this great life at home in Cardiff — then he and his wife split up and she went half-way across the world with both daughters. That shattered him. Rob was not Rob for a long time.”
When not remaking journal entries, Taylor documented raw emotions — stockpiling clips of Machado fully breaking down. But Rob wasn’t willing to exploit that part of his life. Surfing? Sure. His family? Nope. That would be selling out. So every tear fell on the cutting room floor.
“Watching that stuff felt too intense and serious,” Taylor explains. “And too specific. We wanted the film to be about your experience when you watch it so you’re along for the journey. He was in one place when he came [to Indonesia], and he left in a new place — that’s the honest part of it.”
Rob’s justification is more direct: “I just felt it was unnecessary to tell that story.”
As our vehicle pulls into the day’s first surf shop, it appears Rob may well be right. Barely 11am, and already a few dozen fans are lined up by a sign screaming, “Welcome Rob Machado!” Walking in, we meet five lucky competition winners who’ll get to eat lunch with their hero. They all shake Rob’s hand then creep back into the shadows, watching their feet like fawning peasants.
Not one meets his eyes. Piercing. Blue. Framed with angles and facial hair, Rob’s visage gives off a holy man’s mystique. Add the Zen-like attitude, and it’s easy to see why fans gravitate. It’s also easy to understand why cynics ridicule (in the wake of 9/11, Rob was a regular butt of Bin Laden jokes because of their alleged likeness). The owners couldn’t care either way. They’re too busy handing him a brand-new Merrick to sign and add to the semi-circle of blanched white celebrity boards lined up overhead. Every one donated by a Kelly, Dane or Dorian. All autographed and perfectly stickered, but never ridden. What at first looks like the world’s greatest quiver now seems like a total waste of foam.
Heading to the restaurant, I brace myself for another fantasy production. ‘Lunch With Rob’ has become ‘Lunch With Rob Plus A Dozen Reps And Industry Players’. The store’s staff push the kids next to Rob, then seat themselves as close as possible, filling out the table depending on perceived status like some royal court. Rob ignores the chatter of iPhones and networking to focus on the kids, trying to eek some conversation out of their dial-tone expressions. One teen’s copied Machado’s whole look — full-grown clown wig with a chin-whisker starter kit — but won’t say a single word. To his credit, Rob steps in to lead the conversation in a dance of insightful, philosophical queries followed by long awkward pauses.
All day long, it’s clear Rob’s mastered feeling comfortable in whatever situation he finds himself. At one shop a cute blonde girl gushes to her colleague, “I’m just gonna follow him around.” In Wrightsville, a kid admits he stole Rob’s shirt at a comp a year earlier. “I took it while you weren’t looking. It’s in my backpack if you want it.” Rob simply adapts from scenario to scenario, always obliging, whether it’s by answering a question or facing the camera a certain way. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s part of the reason I get to do what I do.”
And he does it like a professional — which makes sense, seeing as he’s done this as many times as he’s pulled into perfect Pipe. But that’s where Rob gets into trouble: contest dudes can hoist trophies and pose for catalogues all day long without committing a sin. They’re already sell-outs. Soul dudes are expected to convey a holy image without playing the game. And no matter how pure his actions may be — no matter how starved the next generation may be for heroes who just love surfing for surfing’s sake — purists will always question the motive.
As Malloy points out: “You’re not just setting yourself up for a contradiction — you are the contradiction.”
Leaving lunch, our last stop is the most crowded yet. At least sixty fans — aged thirteen to thirty. One holds a surfboard ready to be signed. All grip tickets for the impending premiere. Within seconds, Rob’s found the table, posters and marker pens. Watching from the perimeter, I spot a childhood buddy here with his kids. One wants to interview Rob, so dad hands over his digital recorder.
“What do I ask?”
“Ask him whatever you want,” he replies, pointing the boy towards the growing line of fans awaiting their turn.
Later, back at the hotel, I ask Rob what the kids wanted to know.
“One wanted to know what religion I believe in,” he says. “I said all of ’em. I told him when you travel the world, and visit all those different cultures, that’s just part of the deal.”
“Another wanted to know what was going through my mind while riding the wave that’s on the poster.”
“And the answer?”
It’s still a couple of hours until the premiere, so Taylor orders room service beers. Rob puts on a track from the movie, then hops on the phone — the first time I’ve seen him use it all day. You can’t tell if he’s talking to his wife or his agent. Either way, it sounds bristly. Like the ocean from an airplane, all that’s calm from a distance may look different up close. Perhaps even lifelong surfers can’t comprehend what it’s like to be a surfing star. Which makes me wonder: if more people knew the reason behind Rob’s disappearance — the potential loss of his family, not his pro surfing life — would criticism of his actions turn to sympathy for his plight?
“There’re haters, no matter what,” he says. “But that’s part of the deal. The point is, we’re proud of the movie as it is. We’re stoked on it. We just wanted to inspire people. To go on a journey and travel. To experience different cultures. To go out and do things.”
Which is what the movie has done for Rob. If a late-nineties career shake-up forced Machado to focus on family, his family struggles put him back in career mode ten years on. The same guy who was once content to cruise Cardiff, is now ready to make more films. More projects. He’s even ready to compete again. Not to qualify, but to perform in prime waves against top guys.
“That’s the part you miss the most about being on [the world] tour,” he says. “Being around that level of surfing. You don’t get that surfing Seaside every day. But when this is over, I think I’ll go and disappear for a while.”
But first he has a show to do — jamming on stage while the audience take their seats, with childhood friend Jon Swift who recorded two tracks for The Drifter. Walking on stage for a sound check, Rob picks up a Stratocaster — born 1973, same as him — and plugs it through a Fender Deluxe Reverb for a few blues sweeps. The warm tones match the hall’s redwood walls. Nothing flashy, just how a guitar should sound. The movie’s running behind, but not once does he peer up to see how he looks.
Perhaps everything in this industry — in this world — is a production of sorts. If Rob hit record and sold a CD of this spontaneous display, nobody would bat an eyelid. But recording and selling the results of his life is somehow deemed a betrayal. Maybe it’s too much build-up – too much hype. Maybe it’s just fifty years of surf industry angst. But, in this case, at least the image they’re hyping and hocking is genuine.
At one point, you hear Rob say, “I’d like to think there’s a reason for the people you meet along the road,” except it’s not his voice — it’s the movie. And when Rob repeats the line into the mic, you can’t tell the echo from the original; the recording from reality.