With the support of family, sponsors, and an irreproachable answer to “Where are you from?” Conner Coffin awaited his destiny: to compete at the highest level of professional surfing. Capricious currents yanked him around in his quest until, midway through this year, he figured it out. On December 3 at Sunset Beach in Oahu, by finishing fifth in the last event of the World Surf League Men’s Qualifying Series, Coffin moved into the top-10 rankings, a ticket to the 2016 Championship Tour (CT).
It’s like a golfer qualifying for the Masters and British Open, only more exclusive. Coffin will join 33 others — including the 22 top finishers on this year’s CT and two wildcards — on a tour that will take him to 11 of the world’s prime surfing spots on four continents.
He’s not the first Santa Barbara surfer to get there — just the latest in a span of decades. Tom Curren was a three-time world champion, winning his first in 1985. Chris Brown and Bobby Martinez followed in the wake of Curren on the men’s tour. Kim Mearig won a women’s world title in 1984, and Lakey Peterson is currently ranked No. 6 on the women’s CT.
Conner, 22, might not be the last Coffin to carve waves with the sport’s elite athletes. Parker Coffin, 20, will be looking to qualify like his older brother in coming years.
Surfing has been a family thing for the Coffins from the days they could first stand up. The boys grew up near the beach in Montecito. “I’d wake mom or dad up to take me surfing before school,” Conner said. “We’d go down and freeze our butts off.” Rich and Krista Coffin, their parents, later took them to contests and surfing vacations.
“What defines the Coffins is family,” said Chris Keet, the director of the Surf Happens camps that count the Coffins and Peterson among their alumni. “Their parents and grandparents would take them to contests and spend all day with them. They’ve had generations of support.”
Their family extends to Dave Letinsky, a Carpinteria surfing mentor, whom the boys call “Uncle Dave.” He first saw 6-year-old Conner on a wave at Refugio Beach. “Absolutely, I knew he was going to be this good,” said Letinsky, 64. “I could see it in his approach to the waves. You have to be in rhythm with the ocean. He has it.”
While Coffin unquestionably has advantages in pursuing his career as a surfer, both Keet and Letinsky say he’s earned his way. “There’s glitz in Santa Barbara, but the Coffin kids are humble and hard-working,” Keet said. “They have the passion to excel when hundreds of other kids are pursuing this dream at the same time.”
Letinsky said, “[Conner]’s a grounded young man. In my world, I’d say he’s not a punk. He’s super smart. He had Plan A — to get on the World Championship Tour — and another Plan A: to get an education.” Homeschooled to free him up for surfing exploits, Coffin has been taking college courses at SBCC. He also has an aptitude for music, spending hours with his guitar.
“You have to have a strong base outside of surfing,” Conner said last week. “It’s not who I am.”
While conceding he’s long had “a big ambition” to compete on the Championship Tour, he said, “The hard part is wondering if this contest thing is taking away the love I have for surfing; I look at it that I’m bringing my love to the tour. I love good waves.” That affection was nurtured in his backyard at Rincon, a premier destination for long rides on winter waves. During the 2016 professional tour, Coffin will take on such iconic breaks as Jeffreys Bay in South Africa and Banzai Pipeline in Hawai‘i. The only stop in North America will be at Trestles near San Diego in September. The tour starts March 10, 2016, at the Gold Coast in Australia.
“Conner surfs well on waves of consequence,” Letinsky said. “Some guys are all over the place. He’s very fluid and relaxed. The timing is right for him. An 18- or 19-year-old may be ready ability-wise, but they don’t have the composure. You have to have the inner game.”
Coffin resorted to his inner game when, after struggling through the 2014 qualifying contests, he got off to another frustrating start this year. “I thought, know what? This sucks; maybe I’ll quit,” he said. He examined his approach and realized that he’d been departing from his natural style to impress the judges. “I decided to surf the way I surf when I paddle out at the Rincon,” he said. “You have to be super true to yourself. With that shift in emphasis, everything became simple and clear. I was having fun. All the pieces fell into place.”
When he came to the decisive contest at Sunset Beach, his father was there and his brother was his caddy in the water with a backup board. “He stuck to his strengths,” Parker said. “He doesn’t do aerials. He has a traditional style. He stays on the face of the wave. He moves well on bigger, powerful waves. He won’t have to perform out of his skin to do well on the World Tour.”
Conner explained it: “There’s a mystique to the waves, and I try to get on the same wavelength as the waves that are coming to me.”
RINCON CLASSIC: For the 33rd time, the Rincon Classic will bring together contestants from the Santa Barbara community and beyond. Conner Coffin, the men’s champion in 2013 and last year, is unsure of his participation because of World Surf League obligations. It is scheduled for January 16-17, 2016, depending on the conditions. Keet, whose Surf Happens produces the event, said the weather and the waves are as unpredictable as ever because of the anticipated El Niño. “It’s like a sleeping child,” he said. “It could wake up cranky or in a good mood.”