When thinking about how to put together an article about aerials in surfing, it didn’t take me long to make a list of the different people I wanted to contact. In the late ‘70s, Herb would throw Christian and Nathan in the car with Jason Jessee to go to the Big O Skatepark to practice landing tricks, and Christian credits Jason with teaching him how to do a stalefish. Jason says now, “Well, yeah, just grab here, is probably all I did.”

By the mid ‘80s, we were making the Wave Warriors series and spending time filming many of the great surfers of the era. These were the days of explosive tube riding at Pipe, the beginnings of what would turn out to be modern tow-in, and the first efforts to launch functional aerials. Editors from Surfing Magazine, like Australian Nick Carroll, were being paid to write about the infamous brawls between Martin Potter and Brad Gerlach, the first, in a heat in Japan during Martin’s run for the world title in 1989.

By the late ‘80s, we were not only making Astrodeck for surfboards, we were also doing finger-tip grip for skateboards so skaters could get a firm grip on the underside of their board while launching big airs. We were working with a lot of the guys on the Alva team, like Eddie Reategui and Dave Duncan, and as entrenched in surf as we were at the time, it was very cool to spend afternoons at Christian Hosoi’s house watching what was going on in vert skating. Matt “Archy” Archbold, started the tour young, but burned out early to find his real passion in free surfing, along with Nathan and Christian, who seem to be a sort of bridge between the old and new and have been able to carve out unique careers in modern surfing.

“These were the days of explosive tube riding at Pipe, the beginnings of what would turn out to be modern tow-in, and the first efforts to launch functional aerials.”

Fast forward to today, and you’ve got Kelly Slater, who will probably be considered the greatest professional in surfing’s relatively short history. Then you have the young guns like John John, who I saw a clip of doing the most mind blowing alley-oop, to Julian Wilson, Kolohe Andino and Nathan Florence who have never known a wave that wasn’t a perfect set up to get air. I appreciate their input and hope their comments tell the unique history of aerial surfing.

Before getting airborne, I think a brief timeline of surfing history will help set the stage so we can look at aerial surfing as a part of the natural evolution. The early days of surfing were about trimming, standing in one position on the redwood board gliding high on the face of the wave out in front of the curl, perfect for waves like Queens or Malibu in the era of the Aloha shirt and Waikiki Beach Boy. With the technical advances brought from the aviation industry after the Korean War, board building changed dramatically. With the lighter more progressive shapes, the turn was made possible. From there, the boards were on an ever more progressive arch to get smaller and faster and that allowed the surfer to get farther back in the tube than possible before. As the equipment progressed, so did the desire to push the experience into ever more radical maneuvers by some of the young surfing enthusiasts. By the end of the ‘80s, surfing had witnessed the future as the aerial was launched and landed on transition as a complete functional maneuver.

In the April 1990 edition of Surfer Magazine, in the letters to the editor section, a letter, “Pros Take A Stand,” written by a surfer on the ASP tour stating his displeasure of the magazine running pictures of “second-rate” surfers instead of the “world’s best” on the tour, stated; “It’s quite unfair to dedicate yourself to the sport, train hard and travel around the world, only to pick up a magazine and see a guy who spent his summer at Trestles (Christian Fletcher) on the cover and in the center spread.” Most interesting was the fact that the letter was signed by 27 of the top pros. To Surfer Magazine’s credit, they said: “While everyone here at Surfer has a great deal of respect for the valiant surfers on the ASP Tour, it is our readers who really dictate the content of the magazine.” They then asked for reader feedback.

It seems like ancient history now, but it’s very interesting to piece together the difficult beginnings of aerial surfing that has become part of the modern surfer’s competitive arsenal. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to some of the more seasoned surfers and skaters and asking how aware they were of the aerial surf scene in the late ‘80s to get a glimpse of their point of view. Then I was able to get a few quotes from some of the hottest young surfers who never knew surfing before aerials.

Christian Fletcher

 Interview 1990:

“People only like to see what fits into society and, if it doesn’t fit, they think it’s wrong. They don’t give things a second look. That’s why I skate with the pros ‘cause surfing with the pros doesn’t do anything for me. But if I skate with them (professional skaters), now that does something for me. That inspires me. That’s what gets me off, going skating with those guys and then trying to bring the maneuvers they do out into the water. That’s the future. I think I have more of a futuristic style. I’m doing stalefishes, alley-oops, liens, indies, mutes, all that stuff and they don’t even know what that’s called. Pure skate. Not radical, just not conservative. After I surf for awhile, I start getting stagnant ‘cause I can’t really think of any new maneuvers ‘cause I’ve been concentrating on a certain few and I don’t think about the other ones, so I’d rather go skateboarding or snowboarding a little bit. That gets me all warmed up for surfing again. Maybe the fact that I haven’t done good in contests is because I haven’t changed my style to fit their curriculum. I wanna go out and get as rad as I possibly can, but still be smooth at the same time. Now I’m ready to surf some contests. I’d like to do good, but it’s just a matter of time before the judges make up their mind what they want to see. I think Expression Sessions are the best things about contests. Everybody goes out and tries to get radical. The judges are gonna get used to seeing more radical surfing, so they’re gonna know how to judge some of the more radical maneuvers, but they’ve all got their heads up their asses and don’t have a clue what’s going on. The reason I surf the way I surf is because that’s the way I surf. I think surfing is digressing. I think most of the surfers nowadays are a bunch of pussies. They don’t know how to surf waves over three feet. They don’t have any style. I’d rather watch surfers from the ‘70s and ‘60s that had some style and rode longer boards. Maybe they didn’t get as radical, but it sure looked a lot prettier. Competition has ruined style. That’s why you get most of the guys in the Top 30, you know? Boring.”

Tony Hawk: Surfline

 Interview 2011

“In the ‘80s, you’d see these photos of guys posing huge airs, clearly bailing, like upside down, diving into the mush. They weren’t even trying to land on their board and I would get so frustrated. Why would you promote that? That’s not even a trick. That’s just a big dismount! When I first saw Christian Fletcher doing ollies in the line-up, I thought that was incredible. I thought, “Finally, somebody figured it out!” Someone figured out how to do these airs and actually land them. To me, that was a huge breakthrough in surfing, in terms of what tricks are possible.”

Brad Gerlach: Pro surfer

“I think it’s because a lot of things with surfing have been that way. Anything new to them that comes into surfing, people always sit on the fence for a little while because they don’t want to be perceived as a kook. It’s the natural tendency of the conservatives and a lot of surfers are very conservative. It seems really odd because surfing comes across as this subculture and, in the ‘60s, it was a way to drop out and go be creative and do whatever you wanted. Create your own life. There are so many surfer-artists and musicians, and surfing is so creative and you’ve got these creative people making these surfboards, but the community at large is so fucking conservative. If somebody comes up with something new, they’re just automatically, “No, no.” They want to stay away from it. In a way, I just thank God for people like Christian Fletcher, Nathan Fletcher, Herbie Fletcher and Archy. There are so many of us that have really had to speak out and not be afraid to say, “Well, I think that’s cool and I like that right there. I’m into this!” I don’t give a shit what the guys at my local break that are all wearing black wetsuits and white boards say because those guys are stuck right there. What the fuck do they know anyway? I guess it’s just the conservative nature of it. I wish it wasn’t so conservative. I guess it’s because surfing is a small community. It’s gotten a lot bigger now, but it’s still a cottage sort of sport, you know?”

Nick Carroll:

One of Surfing Magazine’s editors in the late ‘80s

“I think the professional establishment rejecting airs was just an exaggerated version of what was going on among a lot of older surfers at the time. They couldn’t accept such a radical style change in such a short time, so they criticized it and put it down and hoped it would go away. Because only a small handful of surfers, Pottz, Christian, Archy, a couple of other boys here and there, were pulling airs, they weren’t very well understood by the majority. For a random sport, surfing has a very conservative element. The same sort of thing happens when people come up with new ideas about surfboards, for instance. They always have to go through a period of getting criticized until enough people try the board and decide it’s good after all. It’s funny that outside deep barrels in heavy waves, air moves are the biggest point scorers in ASP contests today. The wheel has turned!”

Kelly Slater:

“Aerial surfing itself is a totally different approach to riding waves. Most of my heroes were carvers, but air surfing started taking hold when I was only about 10 or 12 years old. I think the old school idea of respecting your elders actually held surfing evolution back somewhat. Finally, we’re at a place where the influence on all the young guys is from a complete rundown of all maneuvers and surfers are becoming a great combination of power and aerial approach. It’s hard to mesh the two properly, and not many people can. When switch becomes the norm, a whole different level will be reached.”

Dave Duncan: The voice of World Cup Skateboarding

“I was working the Budweiser Surf Tour, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it seemed like they were really into traditional surfing; catching the wave on the outside, making a long ride, whereas the guys doing the radical maneuvers might not get good scores from the judges. I saw a lot of that going on. I remember I would be skateboarding at Christian Hosoi’s house, you know the one that W.C. Fields used to own? Christian Fletcher would come up and skate with Christian Hosoi and I was amazed at how good a vert ramp skater he was. He could do all these crazy aerials and crazy grabs, and then I started seeing him do them in the water. I think that’s probably the first person I’d really seen doing explosive surfing, as far as aerial maneuvers and all the different grabs, alley-oops and stalefishes. I don’t know why it didn’t catch on, but skateboarders are really creative thinkers. We encourage individualism. We want you be yourself and say what you want, do what you want, wear what you want and listen to whatever. Whereas in surfing, you look at the mags, and it’s always a traditional classic style.”

Eddie Reategui: Dagger Skateboards

“I was very aware of the aerial scene in the late ‘80s and I was wondering why they weren’t doing it. I was very aware of it. Christian Hosoi was breaking world records on heights and Christian Fletcher was one of the first pioneers to start doing airs surfing. When the guys at Thrasher Magazine told me, ‘Oh, you’re sharing the cover.” I was like, “What?” They said, “With Christian Fletcher.” I was like, “Oh, yes!” They told me that he was doing an air. When I first saw it, I was blown away. I was so stoked to not only share the cover but to share a cover with someone blasting a big old air on a surfboard. I was doing an air over the channels and Christian was doing an air in the water. It was the only skate magazine to have a surfer on the cover. It was really cool. I always tripped out on why surfers weren’t doing more airs, because being a skateboarder, I just couldn’t believe why they weren’t doing more of it, more variations. I figure it took more than 20 years and they’re finally getting it!”

Jason Jessee: Pro skateboarder

“In the ‘80s, I saw a lot of surfing and no one was doing aerials. At All. And then I watched Christian actually take skateboarding to surfing. And then the rest followed, like Justin Roberson, Archy, Nathan and the rest. You can tell the difference between surfers who skateboard and surfers that don’t skateboard, and the surfers that don’t skateboard were boring. Surfing was boring until Christian was around. It was lame. It was pump and turn and gyrate to the beach. And then Christian got involved and absolutely destroyed surfing with aerials. I loved it! He changed the world. He wasn’t just doing frontside and backside airs, he was doing absolutely the most exciting stunts and they looked perfect. They looked right. He was like if Christian Hosoi and Duane Peters had a baby. I know he may not like that, but that’s how it was. I was like, “Okay, he’s doing stuff they only do on a skateboard.” And he took it to Trestles, and then I saw him at Log Cabins, and he was doing stuff that Mark Gonzales was doing on skateboards, and it just didn’t make sense really, but it made perfect sense. And then I saw Nathan. When I saw Nathan doing 540s with no hands, I could not believe it. It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen. There were a handful of really gnarly aerial surfers. And then it did take 20 years until anyone could figure it out. I would be answering these questions exactly the way I am if Peter King or anybody else asked me. I would exactly only talk about Christian, Archy and Nathan. Okay.”

Jay Adams:

“Well, in the ‘80s, it was just guys experimenting a lot. Christian Fletcher and Kevin Reed were among the first guys I remember doing airs consistently and landing ‘em. The pro guys were doing four little conservative hits to the beach. It was surprising to me that it took so long for surfers to get it down. The surfers were a bunch of lame asses back then. They were long, blonde-haired, day-glow short wearing lames that used to make fun of me for being a punk rocker. [Laughs] Too funny.”

Christian Hosoi:

“I was right in the thick of things in the late ‘80s. I would go to every premiere of every surf movie down at the Santa Monica movie theater, with Jay Adams, Block and all those guys. I remember Christian and Nathan coming over to my house, and they wanted to skate. They were skaters. Nathan was a little guy and Christian was just so into skateboarding. At that time, he was really starting to bring aerial maneuvers into the water. I remember everyone tripping out about it. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and be part of the whole era where aerials were being implemented into surfing because surfing was the root of me even wanting to skateboard in the first place. My dad was a surfer in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Hawaii. I think that’s why we all got along so well. Surfing was so old school that it was hard for them to break the mold, especially with a bunch of rowdy, radical rebellious outlaw skater punks that were coming in and just wanted to blast an air and shred and then go to the beach and start all this trouble. It was all about raging and partying. So it was kind of hard to like. It’s almost like when you started to accept airs, you were accepting another type of attitude, another type of character, another type of culture that was coming up and it was a new generation. It was kind of like us skaters with the street revolution, we had to accept it after awhile. This is it. It’s gonna take over. And now you look at all the surfers, and they’re all doing airs. It’s mandatory.”

Matt “Archy” Archbold:

“Yeah, aerials are a part of modern surfing, but now kids are doing a 360 whatever before they can do a proper cutback!”

Nathan Fletcher:

“In my life, I’ve seen aerials go from almost non-functional to functional maneuvers. To see what the kids do now, it’s almost unbelievable!”

John John Florence:

“I’d say that airs are the future of surfing. They’re just going to keep getting bigger with different flips and rotations. Christian and Nathan started doing them a while ago. That’s one of the best things that happened to the sport. There’s still so far to go with aerials in surfing. It’s not near snowboarding or skating, but it’s still progressing really fast.”

Nathan Florence:

“I think airs in surfing are completely random, a split second where everything comes together (wind, board, balance, surfer, confidence) to create something super sick. Of course, there is the exception of people like Christian Fletcher and Nathan Fletcher. Christian pretty much created aerial surfing and Nate mastered it!”

Kolohe Andino:

“I have always wanted to be a progressive and educated surfer. For me, being educated in the fact that Christian was doing the airs of tomorrow, in the ‘80s, blows my mind. I mean the shit he was doing then (stalefishes, big straight no handers, and judos) only a handful of people do now. If someone asks me about aerials, I just have to tip my hat to Christian for starting them all.”

Julian Wilson:

I think airs are at a point where you wonder if they can go any higher? It’s the rotations and grabs that are forever going to be progressing.

Just a note:

In the April 2011 edition of Surfer Magazine, they decided to try to clear up the confusion about aerials by printing a “tricktionary” where they got the Judo Air wrong. In the February edition of Surfing, the top ASP judge Richard Porta said, “Some of the aerial guys have told us what’s more difficult and what’s less difficult in terms of grabs and stuff. I have to learn from what those guys are telling me, because they’re the guys that invented the moves.” What is a bit difficult to understand is that skaters have been doing these tricks for decades, so why not just ask them to get things straight once and for all?

A disclaimer:

I am Christian and Nathan’s Mom, but I have tried to maintain journalistic integrity when interviewing all the surfers and skaters that participated in this article.


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