By Tim Donnelly
and Brook Larios
There’s no question-San Diego is a hotbed of professional surfing. Hoards of male and female surfers flock here from around the world, hoping to win a contest, score a sponsor or bag a hot beach bum (usually in that order).
For their freakish shredability and unwavering desire to step outside the pro-surfing box, three of the region’s most talented surfers-Rob Machado, Derek Dunfee and Ryan Burch-stand apart from the rest. Machado, who’s most famous for his fluid style and radical hairdo, has one of the most recognizable faces in surfing. The bushy-headed Aussie moved to Cardiff-by-the Sea at age three and has since risen to rock star status. Dunfee, the laidback, bigwave psycho, chases swells that make sane people run the other way. Burch, the youngest of the three, left a successful career in competitive surfing to become a board shaper whose avant-garde designs are helping redefine how surfers think about their boards.
Here we go, San Diego, let’s claim ‘em-three of our hometown’s finest members of the board.
Back when surfing superstar Kelly Slater was chasing Pamela Anderson on the set of Baywatch, another radically talented ripper with neoclassic style was emerging from North County San Diego: Rob Machado.
Slater and Machado are of the same generation, but Machado ditched the pro circuit in 2001 to rekindle the passions that drew him to the sport in the first place-a sense of exploration, the lure of dream waves
and a globetrotting lifestyle.
Looking back on his childhood, Machado says becoming a surfer just seemed like the right thing to do.
“My dad surfed, my uncle surfs, my aunt surfs-everybody was doing it,” he says.
His addiction to the ocean set in at an early age.
“I think back to when I was a kid-the first time I remember turning on a surfboard seemed like the best wave I ever caught,” he says. “Standing up on a surfboard, it felt like this crazy rush of speed. It’s loud and it’s breaking all around you and you’re rushing towards the beach.”
As Machado’s popularity grew, so did his hair, which subsequently became one the most marketable afros on the planet.
In spring 2010, Machado took his life to the big screen in The Drifter, a big-budget, highly-stylized depiction of his surf wanderings that won top honors in the “Best Film” category at the Ombak Bali International Surf Film Festival.
Machado’s nomadic journeys have taken him to some of the most pristine landscapes on the planet. He founded the Rob Machado Foundation in 2004 to fund and initiate programs that introduce children to the importance of maintaining a clean Earth.
Derek Dunfee honed his craft surfing the reefs off La Jolla and Black’s Beach. These days, the big-wave surfer constantly scours the globe for mammoth swells.
On March 16, Dunfee was in the line-up with peer Sion Milosky and other elite pro surfers at Maverick’s, in Northern California’s Half Moon Bay, when Milosky failed to surface after a brutal wipeout. The tragedy cost Milosky his life and rocked the pro-surfing community.
“Sion’s death is one of the most horrible things that has ever happened,” Dunfee says.
Last year wasn’t any easier for Dunfee. May marks the one-year anniversary of the day Dunfee’s close friend Noel Robinson died while surfing Puerto Escondido, the Mexican big-wave break that some claim is the evil twin of Hawaii’s infamous Bonzai Pipeline.
“It’s a tough thing because I love surfing big waves, and (Robinson) did, too. And that’s how he drowned,” Dunfee says. “It’s really a test of how bad I want it and what I’m willing to do for it.”
In the professional surfing world, Dunfee has been labeled an underground charger, mainly because he came out of nowhere to win one of the planet’s most coveted big-wave awards, the 2009 Billabong XXL award in the Biggest Paddle-In category. He also was bestowed a Surfer Poll Award for the Worst Wipeout, a distinction most bigwave chargers hope never to receive.
See some of Dunfee’s death-wish rides and his arty surf video, Down with the Ship, at derekdunfee.com.
At age 22 and already jaded by the competitive surf scene, Encinitas surfer Ryan Burch slammed the brakes on entering contests to begin shaping some of the wackiest surfboards in the world.
On any given day, Burch can be found surfing Cardiff-by-the-Sea, riding everything from a traditional board to what appears to be a piece of tree bark. He has an uncanny ability to surf all board shapes with style
and grace. His experimentation has garnered him national attention, most recently from the widely respected The Surfer’s Journal, which praised Burch’s mad scientist approach to board design.
“I definitely have been on the wrong board for the conditions and not performing to my full potential,” Burch says, “but I’ve definitely stepped outside the norm, and people have recognized that.”
Keeping with this off-kilter approach, Burch teamed with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and Encinitas resident, Cyrus Sutton, to create Stoked and Broke , a film chronicling Burch and Sutton’s minimalist “Staycation Safari Epic on Zero Dollars.”
While most surfers venture to farflung locales around the world to chase waves, this dollar-short duo embarked on a 30-day, eight-mile walk from Encinitas to Point Loma, searching for waves, spare change and couches-sometimes finding only dirt to crash on. Stoked and Broke offers a creative, hilarious, and sometimes touching, look at what it means to be a true surf bum. It premiered in surfside cities nationwide last fall, culminating in three sold-out shows at the New York Surf Film Festival in Manhattan.