"That crucial and controversial question will be answered by a panel of big-wave experts . . . with surfing's biggest prize taking on a new significance as a symbolic showdown between two countries at odds over global policy France and the United States of America."
This startling bit of agitprop led off the press release heralding the Billabong XXL "Biggest Wave of the Year Award" held on Good Friday in Anaheim. Lafayette in flagrante delicto! It was no longer a matter of a man, his driver and their attendant personal watercraft going up against phenomenal odds. The historic $60,000 winner-take-all prize, with an additional grand a foot added on for any wave over 60 feet, had been downgraded in importance by its own hype-minded creators.
If you want to start an international incident, the surfing community would be the last place to try. World-class wave riders are internationalists due to the scope of their activities. To surf, one must travel both literally and figuratively. Riders are essentially apolitical. To denigrate through cheap politics the genuine heroics of individuals who choose to risk all in order to careen down the faces of waves that are taller than eight-story buildings is idiotic. Injecting Francophobia only ups the cluster-fucked aberrance of what is beginning to reek of corporate sludge. Is this a measure of wave heights or are we analyzing colonial track records? Okay, so Dick Dale, the "King of the Surf Guitar," is Lebanese. Surfing in the Middle East? Would that be New Jersey? And there is a state-of-the-art artificial-wave machine at a five-star resort in Dubai. What's worse, who can forget that cultural-watershed Charlie's Angels episode where a sidewalk surfer played by Stacy Peralta prevented an undercover sheik's assassination?
Like any murder investigation, it's a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion. Billabong's XXL is the creation of Bill Sharp, who's an ungodly-blond Newport knee boarder turned promotional provocateur. A veteran denizen of the Orange County surf syndicate's cordon sanitaire, Sharp realizes that quantification is the portal to commodification, and therein lies his evil genius. Hence the reductive brilliance of XXL's supersizing of surfing. No one can argue with such a coronation of the obvious. Large is in charge. Apex drops by alpha riders are suffused with de facto meaning. Sack beats all.
The paramount metaphysical accomplishment here is that XXL allows the dry-land masses to "see" the truly unobservable. In actuality, the spectacle of surfers detaching from tow vehicles in the open ocean to slingshot themselves into far bigger waves than ever reach the continents is impossible to watch or comprehend. This activity takes place in the deep blue, usually scores to hundreds of miles from shore. The distances traveled by the riders preclude anything but momentary glimpses caught on film, which are absurdly being judged this night in Anaheim.
So, XXL is an odd hybridization of Barnum and Baudrillard, wherein natural force huge breaking waves manifests itself only to be reduced to a media incarnation that ultimately supersedes the original experience. This presentation is surfing's new sideshow. The ominous aspects for the sport posed by this paradigm shift? Even Jumbo eventually succumbed to a greater corporeal force than P.T. Barnum's renowned illusionism. The "Eighth Wonder of the World" was instantaneously rendered a couple of tons of ground pachyderm meat by a fast freight train. The Billabong XXL provides value as a core counterweight to the current onslaught of so-called "surf" business, but sure leaves one wondering what mayhem awaits down the tracks.
These days Gucci sells surfboards and $250 rattan thongs. Bic Sport proclaims its 7-foot-9 Natural Surf model to be "one of the top-selling single boards of all time." Diana Vreeland states that "Surfing's a bit of all right!" There are Tommy Hilfiger and Budweiser and Miller and Coors boards all hanging on walls just a-waiting. Prada models sport origami leis. Helmut Lang relates that "Surfing has existed for a long time, of course, but it is even sharper and stronger and more graphic now."
Richard Milhous Nixon's old Hobie is currently valued at more than some Old Master paintings. (That Nixon never surfed seems not to matter.) Runway mannequins walked through Chanel's spring show carrying surfboards. Ralph Lauren imported the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum to Manhattan to enhance his creditability. Donald Duck wears a surfboard-print aloha shirt as he greets visitors to Disney's California Adventure. Karl Lagerfeld says, "My insurance won't let me surf." But you can always see Karl at Biarritz. Or Ralph Lauren driving his woody wagon.
All of this is why when 18-year-old Makua Rothman, a son of Da' Hui, a group of truly fundamentalist watermen, accepted his award for $66,000, I was genuinely happy. Sixty-six feet Island-style is consequential. Hectic Hawaii always beats out pretense and pretenders. Monster mush in the Bay of Biscay? Makua No Ka Oi. N'est-ce pas?
It's just your not-so-typical aerospace press conference. In attendance are a couple of shuttle astronauts, a bevy of Air Force brass, a plethora of big-balled test pilots, plus a gaggle of Internet millionaires and telecom billionaires with an outer-space itch to scratch. There is also a smattering of heavy hitters on hand: moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Erik Lindbergh (Charles' son), Congressman Bill Thomas, and Academy Award winner Cliff Robertson who, in typical Hollywood fashion, takes the microphone and talks about himself for 10 minutes before remembering he's here to introduce Burt Rutan.
It doesn't matter much; in this room Rutan needs little introduction. First off, he's an aerospace legend. Since 1972, he's rolled out an unmatched record of 38 experimental aircraft. The best known are the Voyager, which made the first nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world, and the Proteus which holds the world record for altitude, distance and payload lift. Secondly, the press conference is taking place at an airplane hangar at the Mojave Airport, which also doubles as headquarters for Rutan's company, Scaled Composites. Today, the legend is making a little more history by unveiling the world's first privately funded, manned spaceship.
Rutan's spaceship is an attempt to win the $10 million X Prize Competition, awarded to the first privately funded person or team to travel to and from the edge of space. The X rules are simple: The spaceship must be flown twice in two weeks, each flight must carry one person to a minimum altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles), the crew must return from each flight in good health, the vehicle must come back in good enough shape to be reusable, and entrants must specify takeoff and landing sites ahead of time. That's it. Get up. Get down. Don't get dead.
Not getting dead brings up NASA, a considerable topic of conversation here and the target of some pointed jokes about the space agency's inability to keep its crews alive. Which is the other reason Rutan built his spaceship because almost everyone in the room shares the same basic opinion: NASA sucks and if you want a shot at outer space, do it yourself.
Rutan is a tall man with a tousle of gray hair and sideburns that make him look like the Neil Young of aerospace engineering. When he finally takes the mike, Rutan echoes the general anti-establishment theme: "In the 42 years since space flight became possible," he says, "we've had 241 manned space flights which have taken a total of 437 people into space. When Buzz first walked on the moon, I'll bet he was thinking that in 40 years we'll be walking on Mars. But we're not and we're not close."
Peter Diamandis, who created the X Prize, did so because "I was tired of waiting for NASA to get the job done. The old model of government-funded space exploration is stalled. We need the capitalist engine to help open the space frontier."
But even the capitalist engine is driving slowly. In the eight years since its inception, more than 24 teams from seven nations have signed up to participate, but this is the first time any team has unveiled an actual vehicle.
Up at the podium, Rutan hits a button and a curtain drops and we're looking at his personal space shuttle, secretly in the works for two years. White Knight, his mother ship, looks like a giant, turbocharged fork. It has an 82-foot seagull wingspan with a pair of fuselages each set halfway down the wing. In the center hangs the cockpit, which looks like the Strangelove bomb with windows. Beneath the cockpit sits another ship: the aptly named SpaceShipOne. SS1 has a similar cockpit to White Knight's but it's attached to a giant triangular body with manta-ray fins and a rocket engine sticking out its butt.
The idea is that White Knight takes off like a normal airplane and flies to 53,000 feet while towing SpaceShipOne. It then drops the spaceship, which fires up its rocket engine and darts off into the universe. When it is time to come home, the giant triangle levers up to a 45-degree angle from the cockpit, and the whole things floats back to Earth like a glider. Simple. Just don't get dead.
Everybody piles outside and watches as the White Knight takes off and does loops ä and whirls, and the whole deal is like a tennis match crossed with an X-Files episode. Then we head back inside for technical details such as, the rocket uses nitrous oxide as fuel and was built for dirt cheap, which in the aerospace industry means about what it costs to paint a space shuttle. And then it's time for coffee and cookies and the weird feeling of being in the room when history got made.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
We Have Our Issues
LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A. WEEKLY
The shame of L.A. theater is over, and for proof we need cite only one fact: In the L.A. Basin, in 1979, there are more than sixty-five (65) different, small theaters. The growth of theater in this town of the past few years is unparalleled anywhere in the country, and perhaps anywhere in the world . . . That L.A. theater is healthy, however, doesn't mean it has no problems. Talk to any producer in town and you will hear tales of frustration and struggle: There is no sure-fire way, including producing a string of hit plays, for theaters to get money, grants and an audience. And, of course, the power of the L.A. Times theater critics is maddening.
October 5-11, 1979