Surfing Predictions: The Pro-Surf vs Free-Surf Divide

There’s long been an uneasy dichotomy in the surf world. The advent of competitive surfing created a distinct divide between those who see surfing as a true sport – something to be won and lost – and those who see it as a lifestyle – something to be lived. That’s a simplistic description of the split between the “pro-surf” crowd and the “free-surf” crowd, but it captures the essence.

The division was brought to the fore back in 2011 when Dane Reynolds shunned the World Surf League, opting to chase waves on his own (er, on his own with his sponsors in tow) and declaring that,

rankings and trophy’s mean very little to me. i wanna learn, i wanna make things, things of purpose, be productive. travel. new experiences. new sensations. and most importantly explore the outer limits of performance surfing. i’ll still compete. but its not going to consume me [sic].*

If Reynolds occupies one end of the pro vs. free spectrum, Kelly Slater catches his waves at the other. Arguably the most famous surfer in the world, Slater is a consummate competitor. He wants to be better than you. He seems to yearn for the one-on-one battles that the World Surf League, and competitive surfing in general, revolve around.

No one would ever question Slater’s love of the swell. But for him, surfing’s not about the chase, at least, not “the chase” as the free-surf folk would define it. The capricious nature of waves is something that has to be tolerated; it’s not an endearing feature of the sport.

This is best exemplified by Slater’s work in the lab. His company, Kelly Slater Wave Co., broke new ground by creating an artificial wave machine. It’s hard to think of something more anathema to free-surfers than a constant, predictable wave, potentially hundreds of miles from the coast.

Opting for the free-surf route – which ostensibly lets surfers go wherever they like around the globe and ride whatever swells catch their eye – sounds like a pure, noble endeavor.

In reality, though, it may be just as constrained as competitive surfing. In order to make a living as a free-surfer, you need sponsors. In order to get (and keep) sponsors, you have to (at least some of the time) go where they want and perform as requested.

I’m not saying Reynolds and his free-surf brethren are circus monkeys, only doing what the ringmaster (probably Billabong) commands. I’m simply noting that there is a “pro” element to the free-surf realm (unless you’re not getting paid, of course).

I’m also not here to make judgments. I have no horse in this race, no board in these waters. If Dane Reynolds doesn’t want to compete on the “Dream Tour”, so be it. If Kelly Slater only wants to surf on wet concrete, I’m fine with that, too.

Live and let live.

What I am here to do is make some predictions about the future of surfing, particularly the future of the pro versus free division.


Pro-surfing vs. Free-surfing Predictions

Who could follow in the footsteps Dane Reynolds and quit the World Surf League in favor of free-surfing? John John Florence

I’ll admit that this is a longshot. The Hawaiian is still just 24 and arguably the best surfer in the world today – check out the 2016 World Surf League standings, which he dominated – but as Reynolds noted in his emancipation letter, Florence succeeds despite his “rawness”. There seems to be a part of John John that’s after the unpredictable, and that’s part of the free-surf allure. (His charming visage wouldn’t hurt him with potential sponsors, to boot.)

He’s been working towards his WSL title basically his whole life, and competition clearly means a lot to him. But will he have anything left to prove in the competitive realm?

While I don’t see the youngster walking away from the WSL for good, I could certainly see a free-surf-inspired hiatus for Florence.

Who won’t quit the World Surf League in favor of free-surfing? Any top Australian

There’s a reason Tetsuhiko Endo dubbed the pro-surf way of the life the “Australian view of surfing”. Don’t expect the likes of Adrian Buchan to kick the Dream Tour out of bed.

Odds Dane Reynolds competes in another WSL event: 1/2

Reynolds didn’t quit the WSL cold-turkey back in 2011. He’s continued to compete in the odd event here and there. In 2015, he put in a part-time WSL season through wildcard entries (granted by the WSL, itself) and sponsor exemptions (e.g. at the 20115 Quiksilver Pro). But, as he said in his letter, he hasn’t allowed it to consume him. He competes when he feels like it. And that was not at all in 2016.

Now 31 years old, Reynolds could have ample time left as a top surfer. Slater’s still doing it at 44, after all. Of course, staying near the top of the game well into your 30s requires the training and diligence that guys like Slater are known for. Reynolds isn’t exactly a paragon of discipline. If his game isn’t up to snuff, sponsors won’t be keen to showcase him at WSL events.

Still, he has a lot of years left on the board and I see him dipping his toe into competitive waters at least once or twice more before it’s all said and done.

Odds Kelly Slater ever publicly disavows the WSL and/or competitive surfing: 99/1

That would be like peanut butter publicly disavowing jam.


Photo credit: surfglassy (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].

*Dane Reynolds, A Declaration of Independence (Dec. 20, 2011).