Sterling Spencer, a surfer from Florida, met a heavy dose of skepticism when he left the sport’s professional circuit 12 years ago and built a career through short films rather than competitions.
“Everybody just thought I was a kook,” said Spencer, 34, who started a sardonic blog that not only documented his and others’ experiences within surf culture, but also made fun of them.
He had forsaken the traditional path to mainstream success in the sport: competing on the proving grounds of the North Shore of Oahu or the Gold Coast of Australia while vying for coveted real estate on the covers of surf magazines. “There was such a formula,” Spencer said.
So when he first arrived at a contest with his own video camera, some shook their heads. He remembers whispering reassuringly to himself that they would soon understand where the sport was headed: “Everybody is going to be filming everything. Don’t you worry.”
Spencer’s vision held true. After decades during which legacy surf publications folded and the glow of contests dimmed, the longstanding route for promoting the sport and its participants has almost entirely vanished.
Surfers remade it, cultivating their own audiences through the digital world and in turn altering the way professionals map their careers.
The value of stories told by surfers soon eclipsed the world rankings, and a carefully crafted persona garnered more currency than contest results.
Spencer’s prescience bore fruit in 2011, when he released his first film, “Surf Madness.” By that point, most people in professional surfing were keen on producing short films, without support — financially or creatively — from sponsors.
“It opened this huge door for me,” said Spencer, who plied the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, far from the industry centers in California or Hawaii. “Someone from the Gulf like me could make a career.”
The year before, Dane Reynolds, 35, a celebrated surfer from California, had released a sequence of short, unsentimental, raw films on a blog under the name Marine Layer Productions. In some ways, they ushered in a new era of surf filmmaking.
His films looked and sounded different from the surf films of years past, in which punk music played over perfect waves in far-flung locations. The soundtrack to Reynolds’s productions was eclectic, and he was unconcerned with presenting surfing as grandiose. He didn’t allow his videos to be embedded anywhere but on his own website, which helped him cultivate his own audience, and soon he was not only hiring filmers and editors but also directing and editing the short films himself.
In 2016, Reynolds set a new tone for surf filmmaking, as artful as it was autobiographical, when he released a filmic memoir called “Chapter 11,” which began as a jab at his former sponsor.
Over 37 minutes, he described scenes from the peaks and valleys of his career as a professional surfer, addressing notions of self-respect, depression and how vapid fame turned out to be.
It stood in stark contrast to the sport’s old-school presentations — glossy magazine covers and highlight reels narrated with fuzzy platitudes. But it was the story Reynolds wanted to tell, and the way he wanted to tell it.
Scott Hulet, the creative director and former editor of The Surfer’s Journal, believes that the accessibility provided by digital technology has revealed as many talents as it has buried. “Once digital arrived,” he said, “the learning curve was drastically foreshortened. Tech had high-hurdled mere autofocus. It was now auto-everything.”
Sam McIntosh, the publisher of Stab, an irreverent online magazine that has remained vital through films and inventive contest formats, echoed the sentiment. “There’s more losers than winners due to the shift, but the people who have done it well carved their own path,” he said, pointing to Jamie O’Brien as a case study.
O’Brien, 37, has parlayed the advent of new media into a viable career like few others.
With weekly videos that follow his life on the North Shore of Oahu and abroad, O’Brien has gained 655,000 YouTube subscribers, 10,000 more than the World Surf League.
“He wouldn’t have a career if he were waiting for Taylor Steele, Surfer magazine, or us to anoint him,” McIntosh said.
Alana Blanchard, 30, followed a similar path after leaving the World Surf League’s tour in 2015. Her 1.8 million Instagram followers dwarf the number of her former sponsor Rip Curl by 800,000.
O’Brien and Blanchard didn’t just get past the gatekeepers. They leveled the whole structure.
Ben Graeff, 31, has found similar success. “Ten years after I quit surfing, I became a professional surfer through making YouTube videos,” said Graeff, who is known as Ben Gravy. His career took off when a 2017 video of him surfing off a ferry’s wake in his native New Jersey went viral.
A decade ago, he said, he catered to the demands of any sponsors who would meet with him, trying to fit into their idea of what a professional surfer should be. “Now when a company approaches me, I have a basis of what I’m worth,” he said.
It seemed that his own story, coupled with the platform of social media, carried him from a promising upstart to a household name. “I’m just out here,” he said. “I’m a pretty average surfer from New Jersey.”
In Jacksonville, Fla., Justin Quintal, 30, made his name by devoting his energy just as doggedly to the traditional way of building a surf career as to the new one.
He funded his career with tips from waiting tables at an Outback Steakhouse and lump sums from yard sales.
In 2010, he started hiring photographers and filmers to chase down swells. “I wanted to try to show what I was doing on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Whether it was for barrels or better longboard waves.”
A streak of strong contest results propelled Quintal nearly a decade ago, but ultimately an understated approach to storytelling made his name almost synonymous with traditional longboarding.
“That’s what makes a difference these days between pro surfers,” he said. “You have to get creative, come up with your own stories.”
Central to Quintal’s story was his sense of place as an underdog from the American South, far from the magnetic centers of the surf industry. His audience followed along as he chased storms from Cape Hatteras to the Mississippi’s mouth, haunting the oyster shacks and stands of cypress in between.
As Quintal said, “You are your own media outlet.”