It’s late October in Santa Barbara, and while South Coast surfers await their paltry annual four-month surf season, Northern Californians like Randy Cone are continuing, business as usual. It’s rarely flat up there, which is why Cone left his hometown of Goleta 10 years ago, moving first to Half Moon Bay, then Pacifica, and now San Francisco, where he’s lived for the last six months. An acclaimed surfboard shaper for more than 30 years with an emphasis on big-wave boards, it was only fitting that he would land at Mavericks, California’s hub of big-wave surfing. It was at Mavericks where Cone, 44, truly made his mark, riding his own boards, charging the largest swells with aplomb, and earning respect in and out of the water.
One morning last week, Cone sat and watched the new swell fronting Taraval Street at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. He was relaxed, holding his seven-month-old daughter, marveling about how S.F.’s waves were nearly triple-overhead that day while Santa Barbara’s were knee-high. After all, it was time for the NorCal surf brethren to again wax their big-wave guns-one of Cone’s, most likely-and let another NorCal winter run its course.
Why did you leave Goleta? I’m sitting here looking at why I split [laughs]. What does Santa Barbara get? Maybe one or two days a year that are this big? I also got fed up with the changes in the crowds. When I was growing up, the older guys in the water were pretty much ruling it. It was like, “Don’t tell me what to do,” or, “Get out of my way.” You’d get dunked a few times, and it was part of growing up, like what your parents were supposed to do, to a certain extent. Have respect for parents and have respect in the lineup. But now you’re out there and you get some 13-year-old kid telling you to fuck off, and you’re like, “Whoa, wait a minute. You can barely surf and you’re getting in the way, but you’re telling me to fuck off?” I think that’s society as a whole, but in the water, I won’t put up with it.
Would you ever move back to Santa Barbara? Maybe, if I had a 30-foot boat and [Hollister] Ranch property. So at the rate I’m going, no [laughs].
Growing up in Goleta, which isn’t known for large surf, how’d you get into big-wave surfing? I started surfing Hawai’i’s North Shore in the early ’80s. Early on, around Santa Barbara, I got a couple of big days at Razorblades and I found that I was more comfortable in it. [Large swells] weeded out the crowds, too-that was a big part of it. The crowds were starting to get to me. All my favorite spots just got more and more crowded, so I figured I’d just go bigger and bigger.
Why have you been called a maverick? I’ve always gone against the grain and taken my own path; never really liked listening to what people told me I’m supposed to do. I don’t put up with much crap from surfers. All the little surfers think they deserve everything cheaper, so I tell them, “Okay, well, if I’m supposed to give you such a good deal on a board, you’d better surf better than me.”
Are there shapers who’ve never surfed Mavericks who are making boards for the wave? Yes, most of them. I mean, look at Al Merrick. Al spelled backward is L.A. He didn’t talk to me for five years when I told him that one. It was hilarious. Nothing against Al-he makes great boards and all that-but he’s never really been known as a great surfer.
Sixty to 70 percent of the guys at Mavericks are on my boards. I’m a main player there. I surf it all the time, and people trust me, especially in the big-wave arena. It goes a long way. And it didn’t hurt when Twiggy [Grant Baker] won the Mavericks Surf Contest two years ago; last year, he got second place. And being in the contest myself for five years straight-it all adds up to credibility.
You’ve lived in the Bay Area since 1998. Do you still maintain a presence in Goleta? I bring about 10 boards down every couple of months. I haven’t been that surprised about the lack of support from the surf shops, who I thought would give me some, but the local underground crew, which really is my core group, definitely still hold true as much as they can.
What’s the main difference in the surf culture between Goleta and the Bay Area? Here you see more guys who are core watermen. They’re not quite as good as surfers as they are watermen, whereas down [in Goleta] you get a lot of guys who are better surfers but they’re not quite as well-rounded as watermen. You get guys here who’ll jump in the water just to go for a 10-mile paddle, which is kind of ridiculous.
Was Santa Barbara/Goleta a good place to flourish as a young shaper? Heck yeah, because when the surf does get good, what better arena is there in which to test your boards? When it gets good there, it’s fucking perfect, so you really get to feel everything out. Here, it’s a rugged beach break that beats you up. Half of it is just trying to get out. You don’t get to feel the board as much unless you hang out down in Santa Cruz, which I try to avoid like the plague.
Why? Just the crowds and the attitudes. The waves are pretty good, though.
What about the crowds at Mavericks? They’ve gotten pretty bad during the last couple years, but we still get a lot of days where people don’t paddle out until the afternoon, or they don’t pay attention very much. I’ve pretty much notched my spot in the lineup, so I don’t have to worry so much. I kind of get to call whatever waves I want.
Lots of glory hounds out there? In the last five years, it became sort of vogue to be a big-wave guy, so a lot of guys are going out there just to try and prove their manhood, to see if it’s something they want to do. You see it in their eyes a lot-you see somebody who’s never surfed Mavericks paddle out and you can see it in their eyes, and you think, “Okay, that person won’t be back.” Or, “Okay, this guy’s going to go for it.” Some guys are just plain stupid and they launch themselves over the ledge, seeing if they can hurt themselves. Usually you don’t see them again. But the crowd comes and goes. There are also the older pro guys who are trying to hold on and make their mark and get a little bit of big-wave coverage, get their photo taken, which is something a lot of people want.
What would you like to be remembered for? That I try to hold true to the rules in the water, to what it means to actually be a surfer versus just being some agro person out there to surf. Being a shaper definitely puts you in a good position to be able to help hold order in a lineup. If you have enough people backing you, people have to listen to you. If you surf well enough and can have proper etiquette in the lineup, then people listen. That’s what I’d like to be known for. If people don’t like it, that’s fine-I don’t care. But proper etiquette in the lineup is a major priority for me.