Alex Gray is a wave chaser. The 26-year-old professional surfer is more than comfortable riding some of the world's most consequential waves, coming out of every session with a smile on his face. But what would drive a man to such extremes as paddling into 20-foot barrels and 45-foot behemoths?
He's just trying to relive the elation of any surfer's first ride. Like an addict, it takes more and more for Gray to get that first rush of the initial experience of standing up on a surfboard.
While volunteering at an awareness event for cystic fibrosis last month, Gray helped kids catch their first waves, learning something about himself in the process. “Here are these kids, in inch-deep water, doing this dance like surfing is the greatest thing they've ever done,” he says. “Here I am, traveling hundreds of hours on planes and spending all of this money, just to get that first feeling again.”
Gray, a Palos Verdes native who graduated from Peninsula High School in 2006, followed the traditional route of a young surfer with aspirations of making the World Championship Tour, the top tier of professional surfing competition. He picked up Bodyglove wetsuits and Volcom apparel as sponsors at just 12 years old — quite the affirmation of a promising surfer. Gray's contest placings showed his versatility, as he's able to combine both big-wave gusto and technical aerial maneuvers. From age 15 on, Gray spent significant amounts of time in Hawaii, honing his tube-riding skills with the pros who inhabit the North Shore. Gray seemed primed to make big moves within the World Tour's scope.
Then he gave it all up.
He abandoned his World Tour dreams to focus on capturing that first feeling again. Gray now spends nine months of the year chasing massive swells, the surges of storm-brewed oceanic energy, to the world's best waves. To this end, in the past three months alone, Gray has made five trips to Fiji (the most recent of which he also spent commentating at the Volcom Fiji Pro contest). Some may call this amount of travel excessive, but it does come at a price. “Your typical day-to-day life and enjoyments can't exist in a professional surfer's world. I've sacrificed everything in my life to chase waves,” Gray explains.
Though most of his time is spent on these international excursions, that travel hasn't changed his affinity for Torrance Beach, the mellow South Bay surf spot that pales in comparison to the majority of the waves Gray surfs. “I love 2-foot Torrance and 20-foot Hawaii,” he says. “The way I grew up is that you surfed the conditions. If it's onshore and shitty, you go surf. If it's 20 feet and your balls are in your throat, you go surf.”
It would seem that Gray is a surfer's surfer. While the contest circuit focuses around points, rankings and winnings, Gray's content with his wanderlust, where the only thing he's concerned with is getting barreled. “Here, you can step out your door, get on a plane, and be looking at the most perfect waves in the world within 24 hours,” he says.
Regardless of what country he's in, Gray's motivation also lies in surfing's therapeutic nature — and that sense of therapy is something that he feels every surfer knows. “It's a time for people to let go, do whatever they want. I don't think there's ever been somebody who's felt worse for going surfing.”
Follow Gray and his travels on his blog, Turkeymelt.com.