Brendon Gibbens: The Element Of Air

Brendon Gibbens brings an artist’s eye to high-performance surfing. And a creative, adaptable approach to the industry. He’ll need both as he carves out a niche of his own in the culture. By Hagen Engler
“I honestly don’t know.”
            Brendon Gibbens has no idea of the biggest wave he’s ever ridden. “Overhead, that’s all I can say. There are so many different ways of measuring wave height. I really can’t say.”
            It’s also just of no real importance to a guy who measures waves by what they enable him to do while he’s on them or above them. Putting into words and numbers what is after all more of a feeling, an experience, holds little interest for him.
            Similarly with the obscene air-assault he’s becoming known for in the water around Cape Town and on the internet. “It’s hard to explain what I’m doing on the wave, because there’s nothing really going through my head. Once I take off on the wave, my mind pretty much goes blank.”
            Maybe that’s the essence of surfing’s lesson for humanity: live in the moment. Don’t plan things too carefully, don’t overanalyze them afterwards. Take off and ride the wave as it presents itself to you. Kick out, go get another.
            Of course, this is exactly the kind of pretentious hippy bullshit Brendon might subtly dismiss with a quizzical, “Ja, I suppose so…”
            Because putting words to something so experiential, so real, seems pointless to him. Why talk about surfing when you can do it? Why describe backside varials when you can actually land them them?
            “I know the names of the moves,” he admits. “But it’s not like I sit in the car on the way to the beach planning what I need to practise. And besides, the viewers want to see variety. Once you’ve done two air reverses on a wave, it gets boring.”
            Brendon’s acknowledgement of these all-important “viewers” provides another clue to his attitude, the surfing path he’s taking. For all his love for the sport, he’s also a performer, an entertainer. He seems to acknowledge on some level that people enjoy watching him surf. And in expressing himself in the water, he’s going to do that as creatively as possible, to provide the best viewing experience.

            For the record, though, watching Brendon Gibbens surf is one of the funnest things you can do, short of paddling out yourself and throwing some spray.

            The guy’s something special, make no mistake. You’d need to go deep into the back end of the internet to find the names of many of the airs he’s doing, but again, what’s the point?
            What’s most interesting about his progressive surfing is the creative new parts of the wave that he chooses to execute on, showing an artist’s eye for aesthetics.
            It’s a link that often sits awkwardly with surfers. While most of us create our own surfboard spray designs, many of us play music, and fuck around on our laptops, editing surf clips or producing electronic beats for fun, to actually claim that we’re artists seems a bit of a leap.
            But the surfing worldview is so clearly artistic, we sometimes overlook the similarities and it’s left to the social analysts who get off on that kind of thing to actually call it. Surfers are artists.
            When Nick Tasioulas wanted to set up Turtle Cove surf camp and had to explain to his Mozambican partners what kind of people would be coming there, he was stumped for the Portuguese word for surfers. Artistas is what he came up with. It’ll be a camp for artists.
            One take on surfing is that it’s the ultimate self-indulgence. But another is that surfers express ourselves creatively, for our own enjoyment, because we have to, and also to inspire others. By the way we ride waves, by the way we live our lives.
            Anyone who’s spent a flat day at Tofinho getting hammered on 2Ms at the camp bar might question surfers’ artistic credentials, but you get my point. And flyboy Brendon Gibbens does too, even if reluctantly.
            Editing the video clips that are helping to make his name is part of his artistic expression – along with the designs on his board, his playing drums since he was ten and a bit of music production on Ableton Live.
            “It’s impossible to say what kind of music I’m into. I reckon my taste in music changes monthly. I like making music. I travel with a little midi keyboard that I can just plug into my laptop. There’s so many options on there – you can make pretty much any style of music you like.”
            “I don’t enjoy it when someone else edits my footage and it doesn’t gel,” he says of his short surfing films. “I mean, if someone else who’s really good wants to do it, then great. But I love editing my own stuff.
“I often shoot with Alan Robb. We don’t plan what we’re going to do, we just go out and shoot. Then when you get back, you try and do an edit that does it justice. If the piece needs something more, I might go back out and shoot again.”
“I’ve got some software that I’ve accumulated over the last two years. Final Cut Pro, mainly, and I like cutting my own films. I wouldn’t mind studying film.”
            These allusions to career paths are instructive. Forging a career in surfing today requires multiple skills. Maybe you surf every bit as well as the next big thing, but if you want to make a go of this surfing gig, you’ll also need a knowledge of brand management, marketing, media and PR to go with your contest nous and big-wave balls.
            That sits fine with BG. And if he could avoid the contest route altogether, you get the feeling he would.
“I was doing the QS warrior-style, last year,” he says. “Trying to be selective about the events I surfed… But in the end the QS is kinda boring. You surf some pretty shitty waves, and I was on a fairly solid losing streak too, ha ha.”
Brendon currently “enjoys” an ASP ranking of 301, thanks to a 33rd place at the Van’s Pier Classic during his recent stay in California.
            “The QS is a different ball game, and I really just like doing big airs,” he says. “Also just the idea of there being time constraints. I mean 20, 30 minutes is enough time to get the job done, but you still find yourself taking waves you wouldn’t otherwise be on, just because you need a score to get through the heat.”
            The guy’s not as bad at comps as he makes out, though. He could probably just do with some better luck. His junior career was pretty stellar. As a lightie, he earned a couple of 2nds in the Billabong Pro Junior series, culminating in the 5th he got at the 2009 Oakley Pro Junior Global Challenge in Bali.
The next year he seemed all set to make the competitive step up when he got an excellent 5th at the ASP 5-Star Mr Price Pro 2010. There was a ludicrously low-scoring pig-show of a quarter against Klee Strachan that could’ve gone either way. It didn’t go Brendon’s.
Likewise, at the height of his junior career, Brendon surfed the 2009 Oakley Pro Junior final against fellow prodigy Shaun Joubert at shreddable Port Alfred. Maybe it was the Gladiator vs the Artist, maybe it was some kind of watershed, but Joubert landed an aerial, BG came off on his and Shaun took the win. Today, the two seem to have chosen pretty different paths. Joubert is campaigning seriously on the WQS, while BG appears to be on the road of self-determination.
But competitive off-days notwithstanding, Brendon Gibbens shows a realistic awareness of where the sport is right now, and how much of a living it can offer you.
            A year on the WQS tour will rush you upwards of R200 000, and there are few sponsors – or parents, for that matter – who’ll stand for that if your first few months on tour with the international freakfest don’t yield results.
            So then the mind wanders to, “How else do I make a living at this?” and equally quickly, talk turns to Dane Reynolds. Probably the world’s most talked-about freesurfer, he’s already starred in more than a dozen surf movies, killed it consistently, inspired a new generation of young rippers and has a reported $23 million, six-year contract with Quiksliver that even allows him to run his own small competitor clothing label.
            Dane’s currently ranked 72 in the world by the ASP, so clearly his cultural impact outweighs the little he’s achieved in competitive surfing.
“I guess Dane is the template for what I’m doing,” Brendon concedes. “I mean he is the best freesurfer on the planet. So, it’s the vibe.
“But I’m not copying him,” he immediately points out. “He’s just proved that it is a viable career. I’m sure we’re very different people and our interests differ vastly.”
            Of course. Dane left school at 16 to surf professionally, whereas BG made sure he finished up at Bishops before heading out into the world to make his fortune.
            “Brendon’s gone a different route,” says surfing coach and multiple SA champ Quinton Jones, who first worked with Brendon when he was 12. “He’s not shouting his mouth off about how good he is. He’s demonstrating it. And he’s also spending time in California, where the industry is.”
            Brendon seems to enjoy the Cali missions. “Damien Fahrenfort helped me organize a sweet apartment in Costa Mesa,” he reckons. “It’s near Newport Beach and Huntington. I’m off back there in July. Got some stuff to do there. Just plug in and get some face time. That’s what it’s about.”
            “I went in a couple of comps there and I did okay. Got through a few rounds. I was actually still seeded in some of them because of my being on the tour last year.”
In moments like these, Brendon Gibbons the artist, who just wants to express himself, to do big airs, reveals Brendon the pragmatist, the operator, going to the mountain, to the heart of the surf industry, even surfing the contests he battles to love, all to build the relationships he needs to build a surfing career.
Life is a complicated bastard, and the young prodigy is finding that out in other ways too.
            “It’s weird,” he muses. “When I was at school, surfing was the only thing I was interested in. But since I left, my interests have kind of been diversifying. I really enjoy filming and editing and applying the various cinematic ideas I’ve picked up.”
            Again with the artistic vibe, but in a progressive, practical way. If you ask for his surfing influences, he mentions stylish performers like Dane, Matt Meola, John John, Craig Anderson… but also the movie Chapters for its cinematography. In Brendon’s worldview, surfing and filmmaking are now inextricably interwoven.
            Him and his Dad Corne also put together a clip for Taylor Steele’s Innersections project and the vids on his Tumblr blog are required viewing.
            “Progression is good. You do kind of look up to those surfers and think, ‘maybe I can also do some things that other guys will… not emulate, but enjoy watching.’”
            The cinematic aspect of modern surfing is hard to deny, when part of what binds surfers together these days is following web clips of the WCT dream tour. “Did you watch the surfing today?” asks Jones, meaning the Volcom Fiji event, which Slater picked up this morning to get his 2012 challenge back on track.
            Brendon Gibbons’ clips are slowing becoming part of that same culture. Links traded on Twitter or Facebook like contraband… “Cheese & Rice! Check this sickness!” with a link to BG’s self-produced short film of him getting ridiculous around Cape Town.

            “I guess my surfing kinda took a step up when my family moved to Kommetjie,” says Brendon. “I was 15 then. Before that we were living in Bishops Court, so I was mainly surfing on weekends. That made a big difference to my surfing.”
            He came up through the ranks with his mate and fellow Kommetjie local Matt Bromley. But where Bromley chose the big-wave charger route, BG went with the progressive new-school approach.
“Matt and I have known each other since we were ten years old,” says BG. “As far as surfing goes, we don’t discuss it too much or analyse the kind of moves we’re doing. We just hang out and have fun.”
            It wasn’t always that way, though. Bromley recalls how they were bitter rivals at school, where they both swam for Western Province. “It’s been quite a funny friendship. We started off being quite serious rivals. He was this tiny guy who just swam like a machine. He used to smash me!”
            The way Bromley tells it, BG came for his first surf with the Bromley crew. “My dad and I took him down to Muizenberg when we were about ten, and he got right into it straight away. He started competing almost immediately. I only got involved a couple of years later.”
            Somewhere along the line, Brendon worked that competitive streak out of his system. “Ja, he decided the QS wasn’t for him. Now he’s built his image around freesurfing,” notes Bromley, sounding almost proud of the path his mate is taking. “He just wants to go as big and as high as possible, to spin as quickly as he can at, like, cross-shore Misty Cliffs.”
            “He’s the only South African guy really competing in terms of putting out the sickest clips.”
            To take the hippy bullshit to its logical extreme, we could consider Brendon’s starsign. Gemini is considered the sign of transition, of mutability, governed by Mercury, which is know for swift transitions. Believe it or not, Gemini is linked to the element of air, which implies openness to ideas, and adaptability to changing circumstances.
            Bromley’s not having it, though. “BG’s not a soul surfer,” he states categorically, down the phone from Elands, where Matt’s in the middle of a West Coast mission, waiting for a swell. “He wouldn’t come with, cos we don’t have a video guy with us.”
            “BG’s a bit artistic, in an alternative kind of way. He rolls up his jeans!”
            With that savage indictment, Bromley goes back to checking the predictions for tomorrow’s epic long-range groundswell.
Open-mindedness is another fascinating part of Brendon’s make-up. What might first seem like cluelessness, is actually just him being open to other ideas.
            How big were those waves? I have no idea. They were overhead, but some might call them six foot. Other guys’ll say it was 12 feet!
            How does this board work? I honestly have no idea! “I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to surfboard design,” says Brendon of his DVG sticks. “I trust Dave van Ginkel. He’s the guru, but he’s more like a friend. I’ll leave the shaping to him, and just tell him, ja, that 5’9” was pretty sick! Ha, ha!”
Close-minded attitudes don’t sit well with him. “At school I was considered the stoner surfer. But I’ve never touched that shit in my life! And now, since I’m out of school, some of my snobby friends from school are, like, ‘Oh, Gibbens, how’s the surfing going?’”
            “Does that attitude motivate me to succeed? No. If people are that narrow-minded, I’m not even going to let them have any influence on my life!”
            These are the same preconceptions faced by the pioneers of professional surfing back in the Seventies. And like Shaun and Rabbit, the modern surfer also ventures into unknown territory when he chooses waveriding as his profession. Since the credit crunch and the recent decline in surf-company largesse, no one’s too sure exactly how viable this sport is any more.
            “It’s not easy making a career out of surfing,” admits Brendon. “Whether it’s freesurfing or the tour, there’s only a handful of guys who are doing that.”
            “It takes sacrifice,” agrees Quinton, who himself spent years dragging his boards around the world. “It’s about more than just ability and brains. I think Brendon’s doing the right kind of things.”
            It’s a scary time to be a pro surfer. The economic climate’s putting the squeeze on the sponsorship tap, every second surfer’s running his own blog, edit suite and brand campaign, the best surfers aren’t necessarily the one’s making it, some of the ones making it don’t surf that great…
            Brendon Gibbons does surf great, though. And he’s media-savvy, with that artist’s eye that sets his surfing and his media output apart.
            “My sponsors… It’s Quiksilver, DC Shoes and DVG surfboards. They’ve all been pretty supportive of whatever route I’ve decided to take.”
Interesting times for surf aerialists, then. But for now, our man has a twenty-first to go to.
            “Just don’t phone me on Friday. It’s my 21st. Or Saturday. I’ll be out of commission. I think we going somewhere down Long Street”
            By the Monday, he’s still feeling seedy.
            “Ja. It got a bit ridiculous,” he concedes. “We went to Bombay Bicycle Club, and it went on from there.”
            There was a food fight at some point. Okes made it to The Shack and then indie club Evol.
            “I love jolling,” says Brendon. “Especially now, when I’ve just got back from Cali, there are so many friends to catch up with. I like to hang out on Long Street – there are a lotta grungy, disgusting places where you can just chill.”
            For today, he’s thinking of just swimming out at Long Beach for a cleansing float, let alone a surf. Luckily today’s flat. There’s also time for contemplation, not something he does easily, being more of a live-in-the-moment person. But when pushed, he provides some glimpses of his motivations…
            “Am I ambitious? I’d say I want to get better, and do amazing stuff. It would be nice to be in that position where you’re doing the kind of moves that others can feed off. I like progressing.”
            “I don’t know if I’m quite at the stage where I’m inventing moves, but it would be nice to come up with something that might influence your competitors… well, not your competitors. I’m less inclined to think of other surfers as competitors.”
            “I’d love to go back to Hawaii. I went there once when I was about 14. But it was crowded and I was shitting myself. The crowds on the main strip are crazy, but you gotta put yourself out there because that’s where the photographers and videographers are. Maybe there’s some less crowded waves at Lani’s or Goat Island or whatever, but that’s not where the cameras are. So you gotta just go and get your hustle on.”
            “My best wave in the world I’d say is Dunes. When I hear from someone that Dunes is going off, and I get hold of my friends, and they’ve heard the same thing. And we all just head down there, acting like little children… Even if there’s no one out there and it’s a bit sharky, it’s still amazing. It’s the best feeling.”
            “Where do I see myself in ten years? I’m only 20 now, so that’s another half my life! There’s no way I can imagine where I’ll be! No idea! Happy, healthy, I guess. And still surfing.”

This interview first appeared in The Bomb Surf

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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