If you had told me in 1998 that the same rippers I saw skating hubbas and handrails in Welcome to Hell and Mouse would soon be wearing neoprene leotards and paddling out into the lineup I probably would’ve called you crazy.
Skateboarding may have originated out of the ocean, but the street skating from that time was urban, and the skating being done then didn’t look much like the stuff that was happening at the beach.
Twenty-something years later and things have come full circle. Surfers are doing kickflips and kickflippers are cruising like surfers. And even some of our favorite ’90s skate legends have taken to the waves.
Watching Chico Brenes, Rob Welsh, Elissa Steamer, and Max Schaaf skate you might think they’re naturals at anything board related. But, as I learned from talking with them about their passion for surfing, even our icons kook out and get worked when they’re mixing it up in the ocean. Check out what they have to say about learning not to suck on a surfboard and how it helps their skating.
How did you get into surfing?
I used to only try surfing when I went to Nicaragua around twice a year. I would stay close to shore. I was like, “If I can’t touch the bottom I’m not gonna go out there.” Then one of the homies at Potrero Park is a big surfer. He was one of the first dudes to surf Mavericks back in the day. He would be like “Chico you gotta surf, man!” He’d always tell me, “Come into the NorCal shop and borrow a suit, boards, grab whatever you want.” One day it was like 105 degrees here in the city so I took him up on it.
The next thing you know I’m going there every day to pick up a board. I didn’t understand anything about surfing. I would just go there whatever time, not knowing the tide or swell. I would get smoked! But I got hooked. A lot of homies that skate were getting into it and then my whole thing was, I need to get on their level and progress. I don’t like sucking at nothing! I was out there every single day. To tell you the truth, I never realized how hard it was. I used to think, “How hard could it be?” You know, I dropped in on vert ramps and stuff but…
“I would just go there whatever time, not knowing the tide or swell. I would get smoked! But I got hooked.”
But you’re not dropping into twelve-foot waves…
Exactly! It took me eight months to kind of build my arms and it took me another year to read the waves. Now I know when to pull back, when to take off, and the whole etiquette too.
How’s surf etiquette different from skate etiquette?
You don’t want to drop in on anybody and get run over. I didn’t know that at the beginning and people would yell at me. We don’t have that in skateboarding. Maybe the only close thing that I can think of is taking turns on a mini ramp. I’ve seen so many fights in the water. But, the more you’re at a spot the more you start meeting people. Skateboarding kinda used to be like that too, Embarcadero was definitely.
How does surfing impact your skating?
I feel a lot stronger and more calm. Every time I get out of the water I feel good. I’m like, “Okay, what’s next? Let’s go skate. Let’s go do whatever the day brings!”
Surfers will ride different boards for different conditions and I notice you ride a bunch of different setups and retro skateboards. Is there a connection between those two things?
Definitely. As I got older riding the popsicle kind of bummed me out. I got bored and I knew I wasn’t going to learn crazy new tech tricks. I have my tricks down and I want to keep them as long as I can but when I started riding these retros it made me more stoked to get out there and skate. It was actually possible to do some contemporary tricks on these old boards. Imagine if you could have done that like back in the day. As far as surfboards, right now I have a mid-length board that Travis Reynolds shaped for me that Thomas Campbell did some artwork on that I’m really stoked on.
Sometimes I kick myself for not starting surfing sooner. But I never imagined that I would be that dude getting up at dawn because I knew the waves were gonna be good at that time. When we were young we got up at noon to skate EMB and stayed up late every night. Never in a million years did I think I’d become that guy.
Anything else you want to say about the surfing and skating connection?
I’m getting like the same high I get on my skateboard by just dropping in on a wave and doing a little turn. If you can do this into your fifties or sixties and get that same high, the same stoke, then you’re up to something good. Who wouldn’t want to keep that? It’s hard to do that skateboarding as you get older. Also, I just love being out in the ocean.
It’s something I can do with my daughter and it’s the most special thing ever man. Just watching her catch waves and riding all the way to shore. You’re like, “This is what life is about right here.”
How’d you get hooked on surfing?
I’d always wanted to surf but I’d never really taken the time because skateboarding was always enough. I got sober and I made some friends who surf. I told them how I was scared of the ocean. I’ve lived by a beach my whole life: Florida, Huntington Beach, LA, San Francisco but I’d only spend a minute or two in the water at a time. So they were like, “Let’s get you a wetsuit.” I went with my friend Lucas and got a wetsuit and paddled out that day and I got a sweet belly ride. And that’s when I got hooked. I was like, “I’m gonna do this.” I thought, “In no time I’ll be ripping.” But that’s not the case. It’s been 12 years and I still don’t rip.
What was it like being really good skating and then to learn something so hard?
It was a nice spark of something new in life to think about at night, to dream about, to think: “One of these days I’m going to be able to do this,” trying to visualize it and feel it.
Did part of the appeal have to do with getting older?
It definitely hurts less. I see old people skating. I’m one of them. But I see like 60-year-olds and 70-year-olds surfing. Once you know how the ocean goes and you have the muscles for it, you can keep doing it. You might catch a board to the face here and there but you’re not going to be smashing your shins and twisting your ankle every day.
“You might catch a board to the face here and there but you’re not going to be smashing your shins and twisting your ankle every day.”
Can you talk a little bit about surf culture and skate culture? How are they different or similar?
As a whole, they are different. Surfing wants less [people] and skating wants more. You want the waves to yourself. For skating sometimes you wanna roll up and not have a bunch of people there, but I think usually the more people skating the more fun the session could be… But with surfing, if I go to a spot that’s crowded, I’m fearing for my life because there are a million people with huge longboards that don’t know anything. They don’t know what the ocean does. They don’t know to hold on to their boards at all costs, to look behind them, to not drop in on a closeout, so there’s constantly boards flying and it’s super dangerous. If I pull up to the beach and see a lot of people it’s kind of a deterrent. It could be an instant bummer.
If I go to a skate spot and there’s a lot of people, sometimes I want to skate harder because there are so many people around. The other day I went to Embarcadero and a bunch of the kids were there hanging out and I rolled up and I’m like, “Well, I’m not gonna stick around and not skate.” I went and tried my hardest and threw my carcass down the stairs and stuff. Because I only do things for praise and attention.
Do you feel that getting into surfing changed the way you skate?
Maybe I got worse at skating because I don’t spend as much time doing it. With skating, if you’re not comfortable it’s scary, and it’s not fun when it’s scary. It can take me a couple of days to get comfortable skating where I could actually try something. But with surfing, once you pop up, it’s more comfortable right away.
I remember I saw this interview where you said something like, “Back in the day we used to just go straight, do a flip trick, ledge, flip trick, ledge…” I noticed that in your more recent parts you’re doing bert slides on banks and skating transition in a groovy way.
Yeah, I think that also just comes with age in general. If you keep going straight skating ledges, eventually you’re gonna get to some stairs! When you’re skating banks you’re gonna try to get groovy. But it used to be that skating came from surfing and now surfing comes from skating.
Are people trying kickflips and stuff?
Yeah and airs. They’re grabbing how skaters grab. They’ll go really fast and dig in their rail and turn. That’s like a powerslide. As much fucking commotion as you can make on the wave the better. I feel that’s a skate influence.
Can you talk about Gnarhunters’ surf influence? Gnarhunters is very playful. Sometimes surfing kind of takes itself very seriously.
Gnarhunters is my little baby. It started as making fun of surfing via skateboarding, or surfing brought to you by skateboarders. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff to make fun of about surfing, so that’s what some of the videos I’ve made for Gnarhunters are about.
It’s funny because surfers are all playing together in water. It’s like… I know what you look like naked. I can see your body’s shape. It’s very vulnerable. Is that why surfers are so fucking aggro? Because they’re feeling vulnerable?
Is there anything that should change about surf culture?
Sometimes things get blown out of proportion and people are dicks or people may fight, but at the same time, I feel localism is a necessary evil. The respect needs to go both ways: from locals and from visitors. A lack of respect is what causes a lot of risk. I’ve had people threaten to kill me in the water. I’ve had people hit my board.
I like it for the quirky way that it is. I wouldn’t have anything different. It makes for great stories.
People don’t usually talk about skating as though it’s this like transcendent spiritual experience but surf culture kind of has that aspect.
Surfing is a more peaceful thing. You’re at a clean beach with the sun shining and there’s birds and waves. But skating you’re in the gutter downtown with some fucking tweaker, falling over next to needles and shit. But both have this sort of mindlessness where you’re just getting all your energy out. They’re both helpful in the same ways. Sometimes if I’m having a rough situation I’ll just leave the house and go bomb hills for a little bit and feel better. Or I wake up angry and then I’ll go surf or and I’ll feel better, or who knows… maybe I won’t.
How’s it going out there? How’s the surf been?
It’s a windy Northern California day. I’ve been surfing a little bit less since COVID. At first I felt a little guilty. Also, I saw my obsessiveness with it. I would drive to Pacifica, which is 45 minutes away and then to another spot up north which is an hour and twenty minutes away on the same day. I think I became addicted to it. I was not getting anything done at the shop.
How’d you get into surfing?
I painted a motorcycle for these surfer dudes and I said, “Rather than give me $1,000 for the paint job, how about giving me a really nice board?” I put it in my motorcycle shop in the corner and I painted fish scales on it. On my 42nd birthday I decided I’m gonna go surfing for two months at least once a week. I paddled out and was completely clueless. I wasn’t going with anyone in the beginning.
A couple of older guys recognized me like, “Hey man you skate right?” They’d be like, “Oops, you dropped in on that guy” or, “Try leaning forward or leaning back a little,” telling me the smallest things. I could tell they were a little self-conscious about telling the skateboarder what to do.
The first few months were brutal. A couple of times I punched my steering wheel hard with watery eyes like, “Why can’t I do this?” I couldn’t understand. Why was I on top of the wave as it’s crashing and slamming me down into the whitewater? I would be awake at 3 am staring at the ceiling like, “Am I just I’m just not meant to do this?” That learning curve was extremely difficult. But once it all kind of clicked… I remember the day that it happened and my feet were really close together and I was on the right wave and going so fast.
“A couple of times I punched my steering wheel hard with watery eyes like, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ I couldn’t understand.”
What’s the relationship between your surfing and skating?
People told me it would mess up my skating. I don’t know if they thought I’d stand wider or stop ollieing into backside airs and just float ’em. I never saw that happen. I think it helped me. It was a nice distraction from overanalyzing skating in my forties. People have asked me if I think a surfer that skates has better style. I actually think most surfers skate kind of weird. But I do think skaters have better style surfing.
I got to a place in my surfing where I can take time off of it and come back and be fairly strong. But if I don’t skate vert for months, I usually slam the first session. And, doing a blunt to fakie, I’m like, “Oh no, this is terrifying.”
Can you explain the particular schools of surfing and how that relates to skating?
It’s a skater mindset to be divisive about skating, especially back in the day. We’d be like, “I only skate elliptical ramps,” or “I only skate Pier 7 with this size jeans and this size wheels and two bolts on each truck.” It was silly.
I didn’t want to shred with a stomp pad. When I would see the Huntington hop happening at the beach, I was like, “I don’t want to do that.” It’s just goofy and unnecessary. As a skater when you see someone on a Sector-9 s-turning down the street you’re like, “That’s not the skateboarding I wanna do.”
I discovered Greg Liddle and his legacy by googling the logo on my surfboard that I’d picked up at the shop, and I was like, “That’s exactly how I want to surf.” I want to trim and glide. My friend Barry [McGee] is the epitome of that. I’ve pulled up to Pacifica and the wall is blocking the wave and he looks like he’s floating across the top of the wall, like there’s zero effort being shown right there and I think that’s so “skating.”
Was it relieving to not have to impress while surfing?
Being anonymous was the best part. There’s a skate park down the street and when I go I’m like, “God, I hope no one knows me.” Then someone’ll be like, “Max! What’s up, dude!? Tailslide that thing and ollie out!”
I can still skate but, you know, some days you get out of the car and primo a kickflip and it hurts and your session’s over. So to be able to go out there and even if I pearl [dig the nose of your board and fall] no one’s gonna be like, “That dude pearls and he’s ‘somebody,’”… That part was killer. Now people can’t tell I’m a beginner so I’m even more anonymous.
There are these particular rules in every subculture, be it, motorcycling, skating, or surfing. What’s your take on that?
I remember Eric Koston once looking at my skateboard and being like, “You ride Phillips head bolts?” I was like, “Yeah.” Him and six people in the van were like, “No Phillips head. Only Allen.” I was like, “You guys are fucking high!” The dudes I surf with are like, “Don’t wear a fucking leash!” But this winter I’d wake up at 4 am, be the first guy out there, and if it was overhead I’d use a leash because I got a couple of tubes and it was too crazy. If someone said, “Hey man I think vert is wack” I’d be like, “Really? How good are you at it?” If they’re like, “Well I’ve never even dropped in” I’d be like “Well, then shut the fuck up.”
I’ve tried the Huntington hop to see what it feels like, I’ve tried a frontside air on my fish and I ended up like flying through the air upside down. I don’t like when people hack the lip [of the wave] but I’m definitely going to try it before I say it’s wack.
I’ve stopped caring what people think and I’m on my own deal. There’s some clip that people keep sending me of a dude doing like a finger flip on a surfboard. It’s so wrong. There’s no soul in it. I think with surfing, this sounds so cheesy but there’s a soul to it. I think the rules come from a place of taste and time spent doing it.
Anything else you want to say about surfing and skating?
Anything I love, including the woman that I’m with, has found me at the right time in my life, whether it was motorcycles or surfing or skating. I really needed skating when I was a kid. I was extremely lonely and lost. With surfing, I had just gone through a divorce. I really needed that at that age. I could have slid into the bar scene and drank myself to death. There was something happening there that aligned for me really beautifully and I’m so happy about it. I find waking up in the ocean really appealing. I’m grateful for anything in this digital age where we can ground ourselves, appreciate where we live more, and slow down.
How’d you get into surfing?
I was 15 years old, living in Maine and I tried it a few times but I was working a lot and saving, trying to move out to San Francisco so I didn’t do too much of it. Also, I loved skating so much and it was my priority. I didn’t think much about surfing again until I hurt my knee in 2003 and was like, “I need to do something.” Now I love it.
About six months after the knee injury I just started going out at Ocean Beach and getting destroyed. I would just try to make it out into the lineup and just kept going every day. When you’re beginning, you don’t know where to go or when to go. It took a while to figure out where I needed to be in the lineup and then to develop the strength to be able to get there. I think it’s discouraging to people if they’re not getting it right away.
What was it like to be really good at skateboarding and then start basically from scratch with surfing?
I say this all the time: If I could start skateboarding from ground zero all over again, that’d be great. Remember how fun it was to learn how to skateboard? It’s painful but it’s exciting. It was the best thing ever. So with surfing, to not know how to do it was another opportunity to learn how to skateboard again. You’re starting from scratch pretty much and the skatepark is moving! It’s just great and I think everyone who skates owes it to themselves to try it. If you don’t love it there’s something wrong with you. It’s life-altering. I joke that my dream is to play in a Thursday night cover band on some surf island and then surf all week.
Do you skate differently now that you surf?
Not really. I would say that I think of surfing through a skate lens. I think floaters look cool to me. It’s like a 50-50. You see certain turns look like a frontside rock. Backside hacks are a backside tailslide. When someone is throwing their tail, it’s like a backside disaster that’s throwing water. I always just look at it like skating.
How do you rate yourself as a surfer compared to a skater?
I’m not by any means a great surfer or even a good surfer. It’s the same as skating where you have to put in the work to be good. Those years that I would’ve been doing that, I put into skating. I’m only as good as the wave is. I have a hard time sitting back and letting the wave do its thing. I feel like I need to go somewhere. I’m trying to pump it or something to get speed, tick-tack, or whatever. And you’re only riding for two seconds sometimes.
When you’re a pro skater your skating is attached to your identity. You want your skating to be good. You don’t want to put out a wack photo. Is it appealing to have surfing be something it’s ok to not be good at?
No one in the water knows I’m a skater. I’m just another bare bum in the shower. There’s nothing awesome about being an old skateboarder. Physically, it hurts, and you’re like, “I know I’m skating like shit.” But now with skating and with surfing, I go and do what I do and I have fun and that’s all I’m trying to get out of it. It’s all for enjoyment. The other stuff, selling products and all that shit, is a whole different animal but the act is what’s important.