Tom Curren's always been enigmatic. For decades he's shown up on foreign shores with seemingly unorthodox boards, and with his effortless style and a few mumbles under his breath, has gone about his business. And last year, when the pandemic hit, the three-time World Champ found himself down in Mainland Mexico on a quick two-week surf trip with his longtime buddy and board collector Mark "Buggs" Arico. Waves were ridden, boards tinkered with and a film made.
Staying at Bugg's pad near Salina Cruz, the borders were promptly shut and they found themselves trapped for four months in pointbreak heaven. With them was Aussie cinematographer Andy Potts, who did his best to be a fly on the wall and capture Tom simply being Tom.
From tapping back into the magic of a Merrick twin-fin, to experimenting with skimboards, to impromptu musical interludes on the beach, the new Rip Curl film "Free Scrubber" (directed by Vaughn Blakey and Nick Pollet), offers the first intimate look at the man and his craft since Sonny Miller's monumental "Searching For Tom Curren."
"It's Tom in his natural form, not scripted or staged," Buggs explains on Instagram.
And while some of the craft that Tom is riding may at first appear a little left of center, it's worth remembering that surfboard design is deeply ingrained in the Curren DNA and his experimentation is endless. His dad, Pat, one of the greatest Hawaiian gun makers of all time, built a lot of his early boards. And when Al Merrick came into his life, he blossomed on single and twin-fins at Rincon before thrusters were mainstreamed in the early ‘80s.
In a piece for The Surfer's Journal, Tom noted that watching four-time World Champ Mark Richards rips a single-fin at Sunset Beach during the winter of '81 was perhaps the best surfing he'd ever witnessed.
"The way he was able to go at it vertically, that really stands out to me. I was about 17 years old and I can still see the transitions he was making from the top to the bottom, using all of his rail, just pushing it really hard. It was probably the last gasp for the single-fin because the thruster was right around the corner, but maybe it was the best surfing ever on a single-fin. I don't know, maybe," explained Tom.
Then around '90 and '91, Tom expatriated to France for a spell and worked tightly with shaper Maurice Cole. Together they perfected the fluke that is the reverse vee design. As things go, Maurice's blanks had been packed incorrectly, and as a result they had an extra 3/4" rocker in the nose and an extra 3/4" rocker in the tail. To make matters worse, they weren't true. They were twisted and warped. Undeterred, Maurice got to work.
"I've always been one to shape from my gut. I was probably surfing more than I was shaping and figured I'd make it work somehow. The board ended up totally asymmetrical, but it was the start of the reverse vee," Cole explained.
Twist of fate or not, the ultimate result was showcased in the famous "Curren Cutback" shot at Backdoor by Tom Servais. With no logos or sponsor stickers on the board, the image elevated him to supreme anti-establishment hero status.
By the mid ‘90s, Tom had grown disenchanted with competitive surfing and followed his heart deeper into surfboard experimentation. He walked away from the pro scene, went underground and started bouncing around with luminaries and free thinkers such as George Greenough and Derek Hynd in Australia. Off the radar and able to follow his imagination, Curren sightings became a rare and special occurrence whispered about in beach parking lots around the world.
Then, when Rip Curl's "Searching For Tom Curren" dropped on VHS in '96, his mystique really took off. Capturing the surf world's collective attention riding a Tommy Peterson-shaped 5'7" Fireball Fish at flexing Bawa in Indo, all of a sudden the sterile formula of three-to-the-beach became a lot less interesting to surfing purists. Tom had once again struck a powerful chord.
Most recently, the man's been toying around on skimboards with Brad Domke and the designers of S Wing Fins in France, as well as rekindling the fire with Britt Merrick and Channel Islands.
So, when you settle in to watch "Free Scrubber" and see what the 56-year-old icon is riding today, keep in perspective that every board he puts under his feet is part of his lifelong quest for a freer, faster, more engaging ride. He doesn't really want to talk about it, he just wants to do it and live it. And you can certainly tell from his timeless bottom turns and well-placed wraps, that the old Tom Curren magic is alive and well.