Ultimate Renegades | Tom Curren & The Strange Story of The Greatest Surf Photo Ever

The enigmatic tale of the maverick behind one of surfing's greatest moments

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. Tom Curren’s name will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in surfing. Yet despite his many years in the limelight, there is still an air of mystery about the man. Beyond his habit of winning every contest he entered and his unimpeachable style, few people know really much about him. Which, Billy Wilson believes, is exactly how he’d want it. 

It was November of 1991, the world tour was gathered on the North Shore of Oahu, and Tom Curren, not for the first time in his career, was causing a stir.

For a start, he had turned up at Haleiwa for the first event of the winter with a quiver of blank surfboards bearing no logos. He then proceeded to surf them brilliantly, even by his own high standards. Curren won the contest, and several days later was photographed at Backdoor burying the length of his 7’8” pintail’s yellow rail, halfway through a truly heroic cutback. Many have declared the resultant image to be the greatest surf photo of all time.

Tom Curren, looking as stoked as ever to have his photo taken. Photo: Kolesky / Red Bull

Quite why the reigning world champion’s surfboards, shaped by Australian maverick Maurice Cole, had no logos on them wasn’t entirely clear. Perhaps Curren was fed up of his surfboards doubling up as billboards, or perhaps, as he later claimed, he had been having “a hard time finding stickers”. Perhaps he had forgotten about stickers altogether. The Californian was certainly absent-minded, and so intensely focussed on surfing that more prosaic considerations often failed to compute.

“There are millions of stories of Tom leaving uncashed contest checks under car seats, getting on planes but not arriving at the destination, walking off of photo shoots after someone’s flown around the world to shoot him,” wrote Kelly Slater in Surfer magazine’s recent countdown of the 50 greatest surfers of all time, in which Curren placed third.

He gave the impression, both in the way he surfed (graceful, instinctive, effortless) and the way he carried himself on land (withdrawn, pensive, awkward) that he was operating on some other, higher plane. He was also acutely aware of the contradictions inherent to his profession.

“It is a bit of a scam,” he told Matt Warshaw in a 1996 interview. “We’re all polluted and perverted to one degree or another by being pro surfers, or working in the surf industry… It’s kind of like a big polyp. You have to ask, ‘Can I live with the polyp?’” The surf industry as an abnormal growth, a benign tumour — Warshaw couldn’t believe his luck: as interviews with pro surfers go, that was gold.

Curren reconciled with the polyp, but he’s repeatedly redefined the terms of the cohabitation agreement. After winning his second world title in 1986, aged just 22, he tired of competitive surfing, allowed himself to drop down the rankings, eventually left the tour entirely to spend time with his new family in France… then decided that, actually, he wasn’t quite finished. He returned to the pro circuit in 1990, qualifying for every event via the preliminary trials, and became world champion again.

In 1993, following another hiatus, he reappeared as if out of nowhere at a pro event in France, surfing a 1970s twin fin he’d picked up secondhand at a New Jersey surf shop (he duly humiliated Matt Hoy, ranked in the top 10 at the time). A year later — again, for no other reason than because he felt like it — he surfed a 5’7″ fish at a formidable barrelling right-hander in Indonesia, a feat which, in Slater’s words, “redefined big wave surfing”. Both moments contributed greatly to the subsequent revival of the fish. More recently he’s insisted on surfing a variety of bizarre, often finless craft, much to the puzzlement of fans who would rather watch him ride a normal surfboard.

Sometimes he refused to play ball altogether. He was one of several high-profile surfers who boycotted the South African leg of the tour during the apartheid era, even as surfing’s governing body fined them for doing so. A more trivial but equally revealing example came at a Japanese event in ’91, shortly before Haleiwa. A huge typhoon swell was breaking perfectly up and down the coast, but the contest was held at a subpar beach break. When he paddled out for his first heat, Curren showed his dissatisfaction by not catching a single wave, a silent protest which keen observers of today’s world tour might recognise as an “inverse Toledo”. This was in the days when heats were scored out of 100, and the final scorecard read: Michael Rommelse: 48.5. Tom Curren: 0.

Typically, he gave no public explanation for this bizarre performance — never for show, his rebelliousness was understated, almost private, and all the more pure for being so. And now out of the event, he spent the next few days surfing some of the best and biggest waves of his life, putting on a particularly memorable display at what’s now known, in its honour, as Curren’s Point.

But back to that photo. Tom Servais, the photographer, felt lucky to have gotten a photo of Tom at all. “He almost seemed like he was making it difficult to get photos of him, although I don’t think he was doing that on purpose. He just wasn’t comfortable with people taking his picture all the time.” Servais soon began to realise, however, that he hadn’t just managed to take a Tom Curren picture; he had taken the Tom Curren picture.

Photo: A-Frame/Tom Servais

“I just went, ‘that is the most perfect turn that’s ever been done,’” says Taylor Knox of the first time he saw the corresponding footage, which was used as the opening wave in the opening sequence of the generation-defining movie Momentum. The best photo ever, the best turn ever; it’s even been suggested that the Maurice Cole 7’8″ might be the best surfboard ever. (Curren misremembers it as a 7’3″ in the video above.) The board was itself something of a renegade, sporting a “vee” bottom contour under the front foot rather than the back, an inversion of contemporary board design theory.

“I just went, ‘that is the most perfect turn that’s ever been done’”

This innovation was in fact the product of a happy — and distinctly Currenesque — accident, stemming from a slightly disfigured foam blank and some poor craftsmanship on Cole’s part. Curren liked the resultant board so much that he got Cole to make all his boards in that way. The fact that Cole was even shaping boards for Curren in the first place was likewise coincidental: the pair of them — one from Santa Barbara, the other from Victoria, Australia — had been sharing a sandbank in southwest France several years earlier, and Curren was so impressed by the look of Cole’s board that, on one of his many whims, he asked Cole to make one for him.

The quiver that Curren took with him to Hawaii that year was thus the first batch of boards like it, and every one of them went like a dream. But they had no stickers on them, and so to longtime sponsors Ocean Pacific they were worthless, as was anything Curren did on them. “I didn’t really think about it too much at [the] time,” Curren later said, no doubt truthfully, but his sponsors were unimpressed, and within several weeks of the Haleiwa contest Curren had parted ways with OP.

There’s an exquisite irony in the fact that the image stuck to more surfers’ bedroom walls than any other in the last 25 years not only depicts a surfer desperate to escape the media spotlight, but depicts him upon a surfboard with nothing stuck on it at all: bare as the day it was lovingly crafted, stripped of its monetary value.

Tom Curren, adding a grip – not a sticker – to his board. Photo: Kolesky / Red Bull

Another irony: the photo was effectively banished from the cover of Surfer magazine, its dissemination jeopardised for one of the very reasons that has since made it so iconic. “I thought it should have been a cover shot,” said Servais recently, “and I think most everybody on the [Surfer] staff thought it should have been a cover shot. But I think because Curren didn’t have the logos on his board the magazine didn’t want to put it on the cover. They didn’t want to piss off the advertisers and put out a cover shot of a guy with no logos.”

And one last irony to be getting on with, although no doubt we could find more: last year the board was put up for auction, and fetched $16,500, which is rather a lot for a board worth nothing at all.

The Jeep Ultimate Renegades

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.

Renegades of Surfing

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