The 25 Most Influential Surfers of all Time
It's not as simple as it sounds creating a list of the most influential surfers on the planet. We're not talking about the outright best ever surfers either, we're talking about the men and women who have influenced generations, re-wrote the rule books, changed surfing forever.
Because of that it is all a little subjective, you may not agree with some of the list, and we hope you don't. If you think we've missed someone or you feel strongly that someone has influenced your surfing life, then leave a comment, tell us what you think
[part title="25. Taj Burrow"]
The best surfer never to have won a world title. He’s also one of the most consistent competitors of all time, finishing in the top ten on tour year after year. But whilst this obviously makes him a very influential character it's what he did in his early career which means he makes our list.
At a time when surfing was dominated by the momentum generation in California, Taj came along and added some Aussie flair and total unpredictability which helped shift surfing into a genuinely aerial sport. He also really kicked off the signature movie, where working on clips were more important than contests, and it is this which influenced an entire generation of surfers and fuelled the fire of many groms to start filming and putting clips online as we see today.
[part title="24.Lisa Anderson"]
In the nineties women’s surfing was nowhere, it was barely even on the radar within surfing let alone the world at large. But when a young girl from the East Coast of the US left home with a one way ticket to LA everything changed. Lisa Anderson waited tables, slept on the Beach and just scraped by in Huntington Beach before she won the US Champs and turned pro.
She went on to win four world titles and inspired a generation. Anderson was beautiful but a powerful surfer, and it was her surfing that got her really noticed. As she said, she wanted to surf like a guy, and she did, powerfully and unlike anyone before. She was the first women to transcend that gap between core surfing athlete and mainstream and she set in motion a series of events which grew women’s surfing to where it is now.
[part title="23. Layne Beachley"]
Where Anderson left off Layne Beachley took on the baton of inspirational women’s surfing. The bubbly Australia started slowly by world tour standards but her powerful, uncompromising style soon saw her at the top of women’s game.
She went on to win five consecutive world titles from 1998 totally dominating the sport. She also made massive leaps for Women’s big wave surfing pushing it to sizes unheard of before. She has become an ambassador for the sport and an inspiration for the next generation of women.
[part title="22.Stephanie Gilmore "]
The third in a line of three inspirational women in surfing is Stephanie Gilmore. Following straight on from Layne, Steph arrived in surfing with an incredible style, a ruthless competitive streak and a burning desire to push surfing to the next level.
She proceeded to win five world titles matching Layne’s feet, but upped the performance level again and has inspired a crew of girls around her to take women’s surfing to a whole new level.
[part title="21. Shane Dorian"]
When Shane Dorian dropped off the tour it seemed likely he would star in some films, show up in his native Hawaii every winter and shred, but that is about it. What No one guessed was he would disappear, train and reinvent himself as arguably the greatest big wave surfer of our time. He took small wave surfing techniques and took it to big waves, charging everything from huge Teahupo’o to giant Jaws, he pushed performance levels on big waves to a point no one thought possible.
But that was not enough. Not content with towing into these waves he started pushing the barriers with what is possible paddling into giant surf. He transcended the realm from contest surfer to big wave legend, and now in his mid forties is the greatest big wave rider alive.
[part title="20. Nick Galbadon"]
In 1940s America racial segregation was still rife and white only beaches were common meaning that any African-American wanting to learn to surf had a tough job. Nick though lived just a block from the beach near Santa Monica and got a board and taught himself to surf in the poor waves. When he heard about the waves at Malibu 10 miles up the coast he knew he had to surf them. But the area was white only, so he would paddle 12 miles up the coast when the swell was good and ride the legendary right point without going on the beach.
This tale of triumph over adversity became legendary in the local community, and soon Malibu locals would flout the law and give him a lift to surf the waves regardless of potential prosecution. His willingness to break the law to catch the perfect wave has made him a surfing hero and installed a spirit of adventure in surfing which is still prevalent today. Sadly Nick died when he hit the pier surfing a huge swell in Malibu in 1951.
[part title="19. Christian Fletcher"]
Christian Fletcher is the archetypal surfing rebel. Incredibly naturally talented, he marked the transition from power and rail to rail surfing and ushered in the radical aerial movement that is more common today. It was not a change that was entirely welcomed however, the heavily tattooed rebel came in for a lot of stick from the surf community and he was frozen out of contests; primarily because the judges didn’t get what he was up to.
By being pushed aside the legend just grew and he led a group of aerial surfers who were to change surfing forever. Christian has gone down in history as a bit of a hell raiser, in and out of the water. He has battled drug addiction, authority and himself at times, but he is the anti hero that helped drag surfing into the place we have it now.
[part title="18. Mark Occhilupo"]
Occy, the hero of of all Goofy footed surfers, is not only one of the most influential surfers of all time but also one of the most iconic. In the early eighties he was a teenage sensation, dropping out of school and immediately placing in the top 16 on the tour. He contested the world title for the next 7 years, going up against the dominant duo of Tom Carroll and Tom Curren but never quite beating them. His super powerful approach won him Pipe masters titles but when it came to grovelling in mush he didn’t quite cut it.
He starred in a string of classic films and created an aura of legend around him. But the wheels fell off, a minor breakdown saw him pile on 50 pounds and drop off tour, he came back but had a meltdown in France, burying his boards in the sand before disappearing, gaining even more weight, drinking and developing a drug habit. Then came a comeback straight out a Hollywood movie. He got fit, got clean and in 1999 came storming back to take the world title that had evaded him for so long. A true legend of surfing.
[part title="17. Greg Noll"]
Hailing from San Diego Greg Noll was part of a post war exodus of surfers to The North Shore of Oahu. There he slowly pushed big wave riding into the unknown realm. At first surfing breaks like Sunset at new sizes and then riding Waimea bay for the first time, and then charging it for years that followed thus opening up the greatest big wave spot of all time.
He also surfed the biggest wave ever attempted at Makaha, during the legendary 1969 swell, setting new levels of what could be achieved in huge surf. Simply put he set an early bar in giant swells and from this modern day big wave surfing grew.
[part title="16.Gerry Lopez"]
Mr Pipeline, the absolute epitome of style. He is without a shadow of a doubt the most stylish surfer ever to have surfed the Pipeline on Oahu’s north shore. Despite growing up on the south shore of Hawaii, Gerry started hitting the North Shore when he got to High School, and in particular Pipeline.
By 1970 he led the performance revolution in surfing and he was doing things at pipe previously thought impossible, drawing lines which were simple, stylish but impossibly deep and he dominated the most challenging wave in the world. He went on to win back to back Pipe masters and led the way in what could be achieved in super hollow waves.
[part title="15. Martin Potter"]
Born in Blyth, Northumberland, in England Martin ‘Pottz’ Potter moved to Durban South Africa when he was just two.It was here he learnt and developed his surfing and by the time he was 15 he won his first pro event. He became one of the first super kids of world surfing and whilst his peers, Tom Carroll and Tom Curren were well known for their smooth stylish approach, he was a ball of energy and all together more radical.
The younger generation worshipped him and his aggressive approach paved the way for more powerful cutting edge surfing including airs. Whilst he wasn’t the first to start doing airs, he was the first to make them truly functional and in 1989 he put this to good use and became the only European born surfer to win a world title, representing Great Britain.
[part title="14.Michael Peterson "]
As the new school revolution was being ushered in in the early 1970’s one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. Michael Peterson was recognised by his peers as the best surfer in the world, yet he never got it together enough to claim the title officially.
He was fast and radical in the water, surfing at a level way beyond anyone else, but like so many great talents he carried demons which would affect his whole life. At contests you never quite knew how he would behave, in some he would destroy all comers then vanish at the prize giving; at others he would surf a heat spectacularly and then simply go home. He was without much doubt the high performance surfer of his time, and changed a generation, but dogged him constantly and marred what could have been a massive career.
[part title="13. Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew"]
Wayne Bartholomew, Rabbit to his friends, is the godfather of pro surfing. Contests existed in the 70’s, but no one made any money, in fact no one believed you could, except for Rabbit. He saw that surfing was athletic theatre which could be exploited by companies in the form of sponsorship and with his flamboyant style.
Surrounded by other legends like Shaun Thomson and Mark Richards he dragged them all along, and the fledgeling pro tour was born. They became the first celebrities of surfing with Rabbit at one point being sponsored by Smirnoff and appearing all over the globe. He won a world title, managed to annoy the whole of Hawaii with his brash style, but kickstarted pro surfing as we know it. Later to be president of the ASP world tour at a time it was faltering and revitalised the professional side of the sport once more.
[part title="12. Mark Richards"]
If Rabbit lit the touch paper for pro surfing, Mark Richards was it's first mega star. During his era of dominance in the late 70s and turn of the decade he won four consecutive world titles. In his first season in Hawaii he won the two biggest events at the time pocketing a massive $9000, a crazy sum for pro surfing at the time. He gatecrashed the iconic Free Ride movie, which was intended to showcase Rabbit and South African Shaun Thomson, but Richards’ radical style and solid tube riding stole the show.
Mark then turned his attention to board innovation when he started shaping his own sticks, tweaking the twin fin design to it’s absolute limit and employing his new design to win four back to back titles. An unassuming man, Mark is still revered today as the man who took elite surfing to the next level.
[part title="11.Sean Collins"]
It’s arguable that Sean Collins has made more of an impact on every surfer than any other that has have lived, and what’s more he was not a particularly special surfer. In fact if you ever surfed with Sean he wouldn't come even close to standing out from the crowd. But his passion for understanding waves and forecasting where they would be at exact times has meant he has touched every surfer on the planet.
In the early 80’s on missions to Mexico he would practise forecasting and faxing reports back to people who had subscribed for them. In 1984 he joined a fledgling telephone forecasting company called Surfline but he soon left and started his own company WaveTrak and eventually the two Surfline as we know it today. It went online in 1995, and has since affected every surfer’s life from pro to weekend warrior. Though Sean sadly passed away just over a year ago his legacy will outlive us all.
[part title="10. John John Florence"]
Child prodigies come and go in all sports - surfing especially - and few live up to the hype. John John Florence, so good they named him twice, is the exception. From the age of five he was in the spotlight, living on the beach at Pipeline and getting pushed into waves by the likes of Kelly Slater it’s not surprising.
As he got older he got more radical, charging Pipeline and consistently pushing aerial surfing. Now at 21 he is a force on the world tour, and surely a world champ in the next few years. He drops regular video sections that take most other pros years to assemble, he has a combination of power and aerial ability which is unrivalled except perhaps by Slater.
[part title="9. Dane Reynolds"]
There are few sports where a man who doesn’t like to compete is talked about as the best surfer in the world. Dane Reynolds qualified for the world tour but never looked like he could be bothered. He gets wild cards for events and he either shows up and loses first heat, or he goes berserk and wins or comes second.
There are only two gears in Dane’s repertoire, full throttle or idling. When he is at his best though he threads barrels like no one else in the world, he stomps airs which are seemingly unstompable and finds turns which defy the laws of physics. Is he the best surfer of all time? He’s probably in the top two, and it’s arguable that he is even more influential than Slater himself, when Dane drops a clip online, the internet stops to watch.
[part title="8. Andy Irons"]
The Kauaian is the only man who has legitimately stood up to Kelly Slater in competition and kicked his arse, not just once, but repeatedly, sometimes just on a whim. Andy is without a doubt the most successful surfer to come out of the Hawaiian Islands. His composed, almost casual style, combined with a repertoire of moves and ruthless efficiency in competition made him the most formidable of competitors.
The very fact he came on tour and took it to Kelly is one of the reasons Kelly became so great himself, the two of them ramping up the competitive level to a point where world tour was a two horse race. Sadly Andy’s life was cut short, with his death in Texan hotel room shrouded in mystery. Had he lived longer he no doubt would have been higher up the list.
[part title="7. Laird Hamilton"]
Laird has a bit of a Marmite effect on surf fans. He has at times totally ‘sold out’ but it is also undeniable that he has made some incredible contributions to surfing’s advancement and been a genuine pioneer in big wave surfing. The adopted son of Bill Hamilton, legendary Hawaiian waterman, Laird grew up in Hawaii and forged a career for himself as a model, surfer and extreme sport pioneer.
It is his big wave antics which set him apart. He and friends Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner pioneered tow surfing, using straps from windsurf boards on surf boards. This opened up an incredible playground of big wave spots and Laird went on to lift the lid of Jaws on Maui and surfed the incredible ‘Millennium’ wave in Tahiti which kickstarted a big wave revolution that still continues today.
[part title="6. Miki Dora"]
Dora is an enigma, a total man of mystery yet also one of surfing’s most important figures. Born in Hungary his mother moved to the States and married a Californian surfer and Malibu local who taught Miki to surf. What followed was a life of courting attention, then lambasting it, he became the first archetypal anti hero, the very foundation of what we now see as the surfing rebel.
He surfed incredibly and became perhaps the best rider ever of the waves at legendary Californian point break, Malibu, but it was his total rejection of the Hollywood projection of surfing in the 50’s and 60’s which made him legend. The blankets and beach babes clean living side of Californian surf culture meant nothing to him and he went out of his way to become the antithesis of that. He is the original surfing rebel, influencing generations to follow.
[part title="5. Simon Anderson"]
Coming up through the ranks with Mark Richards and Rabbit was another Australian, Simon Anderson. He had a reputation by the mid seventies as one of Australia’s foremost power surfers, but despite winning events, he struggled to keep pace with Richards and co as surfing became dominated by two fin boards.
A shaper himself, he spotted a friends experiments with three fins and decided to refine and develop his own designs eventually creating what we now know as the Thruster. This single shift in surfboard fin layout changed surfing forever, and whilst twins, singles, four fins and more exist, the thruster is the go-to fin setup and Simon Anderson is the pioneer of the most important aspect of surfboard design ever.
[part title="4. Bruce Brown"]
Two words, Endless Summer. They have become synonymous with surfing and Bruce Brown’s 1966 film did more for surfing and exposed it to more people than any single movie has before or since. Shown across the United States in cinemas and then the world, it regularly outsold big budget Hollywood films and brought surfing to the masses.
What it did for surfing though was portray it in a totally new light, gone was the kooky Gidget image and the stoner sleeping on the beach. Endless summer was about regular surfers who were passionate about their sport, the people they met and the places they visited. It fuelled thousands of journeys and inspired millions. Bruce also made several more films and was the first to film the now infamous Pipeline in Hawaii.
[part title="3. Tom Curren"]
If it were not for Kelly Slater’s total dominance of surfing in the last twenty years then Tom Curren would be most peoples choice of the greatest surfer of all time. Tom, a rebel, an enigma to many but also a three time world champ is many surfer’s hero. He is anti establishment, super stylish, a free spirit, yet also a ruthless competitor.
He dominated surfing surfing in the early to mid eighties winning two world titles, before almost dropping off tour, only to come back and win an incredible 7 events in one season to claim his third title in 1990. Along the way he was profiled in Rolling Stone, went on the legendary Search trips and made several albums. For the purist Curren may be the ultimate surfer.
[part title="2. Duke Kahanamoku"]
The Duke is simply the most important surfer in the sports history. The Hawaiian wasn’t the first man to surf, or to surf in front of people from around the world, but he was surfing’s first global ambassador. He brought surfing to mainland USA and Australia, and laid the building blocks for the whole global surfing community.
His demonstrations were legendary and he wowed the average to joe on the beach right up to fully fledged royalty. One of the reasons he was able to spread the word so wide was due to his status as an Olympic champion, winning gold in swimming in Stockholm in 1912 and then two more post World War 1 in 1920. He is known as the Grandfather of modern surfing and much of the success and status of the sport can be traced back to the Duke.
[part title="1. Kelly Slater"]
He has done something that few action sports athletes have ever managed, that is to become a genuine household name around the globe. Eleven world titles, standard bearer for the new school revolution in surf, TV star, big wave charger and all round good living guy. Oh and he's also the best surfer that has ever lived, makes Kelly the most influential surfer of all time.
Hi style in and out of the water, his competitive fire, his incredible ability to still step up to be the best in the world at 41 makes him not only an incredible surfer, but one of the greatest athletes on the planet. Some have called him 'the Michael Jordan of Surfing' but we reckon MJ could learn a thing or too about one of the most dominant champions in sporting history.