Scott Hulet: The Surfer's Journalist
["Goofing on a glassy morning in Baja Sur with a pal. Don’t need much more than that."]
The Surfer's Journal editor Scott Hulet rarely grants interviews but like the best therapists will nevertheless hop on the couch and let someone else do the grilling every once in a while. Very little is known about the third generation San Diego native and quintessential curator of literary surf cool. What kind of boards does Hulet ride? What books is he reading? I was stoked to hear that the guy, who founded Longboard magazine and famed Longboard Grotto Surf Shop, rides a 6’8 quad and digs rock critic Richard Meltzer. Hulet’s swagger, his parlance and maneuverability as a writer and editor make more sense now. He’s been TSJ’s connection to contemporary youth culture, what’s hip in the shorebreak and relates it to surfing’s foundation. In the late '80s, Hulet put down his twin fins and thrusters for a Skip Frye tanker and focused on surfing waves three feet and under (refreshing for an East Coaster to hear, I’ve seen Californians walk away from head high surf because it was overcast). While others either didn’t surf or flapped around on thrusters, Hulet and his crew were getting over on equipment that most considered outdated and uncool. In a SURFER magazine interview from the early '70s, San Diego shaper Steve Lis talks about ‘staying high and dry’ on his Skip Frye longboard when the waves are small and everybody else is ‘in a funk.’ Usually you think of surf rats carrying 6’0 thrusters but not this one. Hulet’s approach to surfing had him sharing waves with pioneering '60s legends who still frequented the spots he sought out. He became a self-proclaimed Miki Dora authority and was well-versed in the lives of many historic surfers while keen to up and coming talents like Joel Tudor. In 1993, before Hulet became editor of TSJ, he wrote a seminal piece on the then 16 year old Tudor’s San Diego reef style of surfing, something Hulet knew all too well. In that piece, he asked Tudor about any Miki Dora stories he had and as homage, I did the same in this interview.
Hulet is careful to give his own role in surf history any weight, citing TSJ readers and contributors as the real heroes of the magazine. Still, it’s Hulet who gets word first and then tells us. I asked San Diego surfer historian Richard Kenvin what Hulet’s deal is, 'he’s in the trenches' responds RK. This interview was conducted over the phone in late April of 2014.
MM: What boards have you been riding lately?
SH: I’ve been battling with this little plug of a 6’8 Mitsven with canard quad glass on marine plies. A high volume board for a high volume dude. My go-to is an iteration of boards I’ve been doing with Larry Mabile since I was 19 and this is probably my fourteenth one. They started out as 9’0 x 17.5” x 22.5” x 14.5” round pin single fin longboards and my most recent one is 9’8. That’s kind of my go-to utility surf-riding board for out of the way southern California C+ beach breaks. The boards realize their potential in a place I really like to surf that’s twelve hours from here in Mexico, but I don't get down there often and there’s another place up by Point Conception that suits my interests. I get to surf quality waves maybe twenty days a year and the rest of the time I'm slugging it out in craphouse beach break. In the summer I body surf a lot.
MM: What was your first board?
SH: The first real board I had was a no name horrifying blue tint kneeboard that I found in the grease-trap dumpster behind what used to be called George’s restaurant in Cardiff by the Sea, which is now the Chart House. I was maybe 13, kind of late, and goofed around on that.
MM: Growing up in San Diego, were you aware of the underground fish scene with Lis, Geppy et al?
SH: No, when you’re starting out you’re only self-aware, trying to learn your way into the program without being a kook. You’re not studied enough to recognize the nuance of superior surfing. I wasn’t aware of the Cliffs crew until college. You have to matriculate up to places like that. For the most part I was surfing funny little beach breaks like Torrey Pines and Pacific Beach, usual San Diego places. When I became a surfer-surfer and started wanting real waves I started surfing the Cliffs. You need diplomacy, angles of attack and sort of how you fit or don’t fit into a hierarchy. You’d be surfing Chasm and look across the channel to the meat eaters’ wave in that area, which was heavily on lockdown. In the eighties the unique regional character of surf zones was, to my mind, far more honest and creative than what you were being told was cool by the surf magazines. You’d be sitting with your back against the cliff getting warm having a smoke or some water, surveying the scene, and you could learn so much from the older crew. Like how they’d walk on wet sand, Indian-style, so they wouldn’t leave footprints. Or how the no-cord protocol led to clean, accomplished surfing and kept a rotation in place.
[Hulet and Mike Hynson. Hulet receives hard-won wisdom from Mike Hynson, WindanSea shack, 1991.]
MM: Were you studying journalism in college? When did you get into writing?
SH: I was writing when I was 13 or 14, also about the time I started surfing and got hip to surf magazines. Always in the back of my head was, “if I could merge these two things it would be better than a job.” I was a product of the UC system. I went to UC Santa Barbara but I was in love with this girl and only lasted one quarter up there. I did that and had a great time surfing the points there for the three and half to four months that it lasted and then backdoored into UC San Diego. Moved back to town and got back with my girl and I’m still with her, we’ve been married almost thirty years. So, that stuck to the wall. Set up shop in La Jolla and milked that student pose. I had no business being there, it’s a very serious science based school and I was in their lit/writing program. I was focused manically on surfing and going ape shit at night. I was far from a serious student and managed to stay together there on academic probation year after year. My problem was I wouldn’t take all the general upper division classes that they wanted me to. I was overwhelmed and disinterested in things like statistics that you had to take even as a liberal arts student. So I just found myself haunting writing workshops like some weird Ghost of Christmas Past. Alice McDermott is doing a workshop for two weeks, boom, I’d be there every day. James Dickey is here for a month, boom, I’m there just soaking it, loving it and surfing. Finally they came to their senses and ejected me. This would’ve been 1986 or 1987. The surf magazine deal for me went to hell in the late '80s, SURFER was still a big deal when it came to the mailbox but it wasn’t reporting the surfing I was interested in. The mags of the day made surfing look incredibly garish and neon and star-driven. They also had a sort of L.A. aftertaste, which is anathema to anyone from north or south of there.
MM: What were you interested in back then?
SH: In the mid-eighties my crew was entranced with riding eggs and longboards. They worked better on day-to-day waves in town. It was also the least cool thing you could do. In local southern California beach communities, especially in San Diego County, everybody kept an old tanker, as they called them, laying around for small goof-off days. Local reef waves under chest high then were not being surfed. So if you had a 9’6 you could make a feast out of it and that was really interesting.
MM: So, have you ever ridden a thruster?
SH: Absolutely, I loved them. When I first started surfing, making a life around it, I was riding a twin fin, pre-thruster era, surfing twice a day, every day, just a burnt-nosed rat. When I was 19 I moved to the North Shore and lived there for a year, I bring this up because that year Simon Anderson unveiled the 3-fin on the North Shore and everyone got an eyeful. I found out I was never going to be a big wave guy. But I nibbled around the edges, had a good day and a good drubbing at Sunset and lots of eye opening and invigorating sessions at places like Lani’s. I lived at this house at Three Tables at Waimea that Mark Foo had just bought. His plan at the time was to turn it into a hostel and he eventually did, but I was there the year before that happened. He did have some renters living there and I got to know Mark pretty well, surfed with him a fair bit and he hauled me out to Sunset a couple times, and armed me with a good board. He was a very focused, insanely precocious, serious young guy. He definitely contained multitudes, he was a business man, a hard worker, liked to have a good time and was very keen on being a professional, with a capital "P," surfer.
MM: How old was Foo at the time?
SH: Foo would’ve been in his early to mid-twenties, very young to be busting real estate deals. He was a kind of an interesting study and attracted lots of surf hero types to the house.
MM: When did you start editing TSJ?
SH: 1999, it’s been sixteen years.
MM: Had you been doing surf journalism prior?
SH: Bits and pieces, I was doing fiction, arts and entertainment writing, no surf writing really. I was the founding editor of Longboard magazine which I did from 1992-1999.
["In 1982, when this was taken, you could still catch the night train from Mexicali to Tepic, then hitch down the mountain to San Blas and Santa Cruz. That was sort of our little milk run, and small fishes tucked nicely into the overhead storage. I spent a good portion of my twenties in Mexico. My gal would tell you, “So what’s changed?”]
["At my old La Jolla Cove home—the Cave Store and Shell Shop, 1985. Fryes for the reefs, tanks for throwing off the cliff in the background and paddling to the Shores. 100 feet below the yard is Sunny Jim sea cave, the site of legendary full moon celebrations."]
MM: How’d you and Pezman link up?
SH: I met Pezman in France probably in 1995 or something. I was on some kind of junket in Biarritz as was he. He was standing up on the malecon looking over the Cote de Basque surveying the beach plumage and I sidled up next to him and we started joking. Then, a couple years later in Costa Rica, I hung out with him and Miki Dora at some Greg Noll party, another junket type thing. Pez was just at the point then, seeing the writing on the wall, he didn’t want to do all the grunt work of editing the book and there’s a fair amount of work involved. He was looking for an editor and I had been touted to him by Matt Warshaw, Art Brewer and maybe Steyck, all unbeknownst to me. They had all said “get this Hulet guy.” He started kind of scouting me secretly and one day called to see if I wanted to have lunch. He offered me the gig and I said “yeah let’s go” and it’s been sixteen years. I was in many ways an unlikely selection for that role, but there was something about my points of reference, my writing or scope that helped me in. I don’t know.
MM: As an editor, how do you deal with the challenges of print surf journalism and staying relevant in the digital era?
SH: One way to is to maintain the old Bruce Brown credo, “I’m just going to film who I think is interesting and hope enough people agree with me.” So there’s a little of that, you’re your own first filter. You don’t need constipated focus groups and surveys and all the other crap that leads to committee-think and milquetoast. You’re writing and curating to your own interests and history and aesthetics and trusting that enough people will find that attractive enough to lay down sixty dollars a year. You have to be schooled and broad enough in your interests to see how things relate to surfing and then put them in. That’s just where you have to trust your instincts while trusting that your readers are smarter than you are. I’m just an unlettered bohunk compared to this kind of composite reader I have in my head that I’m editing for and as long as you do that and don’t miss the opportunities over the course of the year you’re going to build really good issues. At our worst we’re predictable and we’re at our best when we find surprises. Being really catholic in our take and open minded in our weirdness allows us to surprise. Keeping a broad set of contributors is crucial. Travel is so integral to the surf experience that in a way every issue is a travel issue. We always like to have a couple such pieces, one surprising or an old place rendered new or a discovery or a deeper look at some subset of interest in Indonesia or something just straight bizarre. That’s our challenge. We’re not terrified by the prospect of new media. We can afford to be a little nonplused as we don’t cover events, news, contests. If you’re in print and that’s your beat, you’re getting your ass handed to you by dozens of websites. I’m still a magaziner at heart, both as a maker and as a reader and I really cherish the pacing, the temporal awareness you get with a tangible product. I think the Journal pays tribute to that tradition in a way other magazines can’t or won’t. We really play to the strong hand that print has—the physicality of it. The construction has to be the best in the game; the photos have to be utterly print-worthy. We pay particular attention, as does every magazine worth its salt, to the reads. You trust that your understanding of surfing’s cultural significance and its historical context will color your understanding of the contemporary landscape and you let those blend together and become what you trust will be a beautiful, living, vibrant thing that others will enjoy.
MM: For a minute it seemed like you guys were going for a stronger online presence, are you still continuing in that direction?
SH: We chased our tails around for a few years especially in the early to mid-2000's, in an ‘everyone’s doing it’ kind of way. One of my favorite publications is The Paris Review and I look at what they do, they’re such a print standard to my mind. Their website is a perfect representation of their print organ. We decided the Journal’s website just wants to be an accurate representation of what we do in print. We launched a new plan that expanded pieces of each article from the current issue of the Journal. We just did a piece on Nathan Fletcher and Cole Christiansen in Chile riding this never before surfed mongo left that almost took Nathan’s life. It is one thing to read the recount and see the photos but to have the video online at the same time adds a new color to the palette for us. We’re finally seating our valves in that way. But we’re not going to be something we’re not and we’re going to continue to put our focus into being the ultimate print representation of the topic.
[Scott Hulet, Derek Hynd, Jamie Brisick; Hulet trusted editorial cronies Derek Hynd and Jamie Brisick. San Clemente, California 2013.]
MM: Is subscribership up?
SH: Yeah, we’re on a little lift. You know it’s funny, I think our subscribership has sort of tracked with the US economy. We’re a bit of a luxury buy. If you want a million okay surf photos or an up-to-the-minute breakdown of the ASP power list it’s all available free right now, it’s all in your hand. If you just want to spin out and click through a hundred different directions online — which is fun as hell I grant you, I do it all the time — that’s there for you. That’s one thing, this is a different thing.
MM: Do you have a favorite TSJ issue or article?
SH: My stock answer is no, but my favorite issue of TSJ is before my time here. It was from their fourth or fifth year. The issue had two really interesting pieces to me — a mainland Mexico recount by Tim Bernardy called 'Mexico Memoirs' — the title was misspelled. It also had a Parmenter piece on Christmas Island. That issue (Volume 3, Number 3 from 1994) had amazing balance and spoke to topics I was into, adventure in Latin America and other non-pop-surfing topics.
MM: Tell me about the new fishing journal project that you’re involved in with the Pezmans.
SH: After twenty three years we’ve been watching other journal type publications pop up here and there, either with or without our blessing or assistance and we just did a saltwater magazine so it’s exciting, especially to Pezman, to see if the concept scales.
MM: What’s your fishing background like?
SH: Limited. My dad and I like to fish on the East Cape out of Rancho Leonero, and I always fish off the rocks in Mexico for calicos and halibut. It’s been steady dabbling for decades.
["White sea bass in the backyard, June 2014. My chef buddy Beeler coached me: 'Son, you always roast the head for a puttanesca base.' This kelp pig went in the high-40s, so that was a fair amount of base..."]
MM: New editing staff too?
SH: Yeah, it’s me and Brandon Hayward. He’s an ex-deckhand, second ticket skipper, charter boat captain, outdoor writer type guy. He and I hung out and traveled a little bit and got to know each other. He pitched it to the Pezmans and they were supportive. It will be literary but hard core. The Surfer’s Journal facilities will be the mother ship for it. I’m teaching Brandon the Journal mode, and he’s taking me from kookdom to decent angler.
MM: You spent time in Brooklyn during the '90s and mentioned fishing here; have you ever surfed in New York?
SH: I’ve surfed Montauk a couple times, surfed North Bar with Tony Caramanico, Joel, and Rusty Drumm, a little Ditch Plains and there was a really good left at that Trailer Park. In 1997 I went there the first time with Art Brewer for Super X magazine. That was another mag I edited with CR Stecyk and Takuji Masuda, a friend of ours. From what I gather things have changed since then. We were lucky enough to get waved into the Warhol Conservancy to spend time with Peter Beard. I can’t tell you how wonderful that was for me. I’m a lifelong devotee of Beard’s documentation of stress and density, of how any species’ ailments can be traced to overpopulation.
On that trip I also visited with one of my favorite friends, Michael Beeler, an obsessive fisherman who I used to hang with in a squat in downtown San Diego. A painter and chef, he had moved back home to Greenpoint, on India Street. He was showing me his East River fishing haunt. Mongolia might have been more foreign to a southern Californian than India Street Greenpoint in 1997, but barely. So we’re walking down the street and there was this little storefront tackle shop that’s just as roots as all get out. If they even had a new reel for sale I would’ve been surprised. It was all really specific blue-collar urban fishing crap and weird-ass bait, like eels, things we don’t use here. Then we walked down to this bombed out dock and by far the best view of Manhattan in my mind. You have to be outside of Manhattan to really see it. We ate our way through the city, partied, went berserk and didn’t sleep for four days. I enjoyed the old Polish neighborhoods. There was this epic pool hall where I saw the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life. She was probably three days out of Gdansk or something, just this icy blonde with olive skin. It was mid-summer and I still remember she was wearing a spaghetti strap, tangerine orange tank top shooting pool with her old Polish grandpa. The beauty of the moment, her, her grandpa and the place was poetic. That’s Brooklyn to me, that moment.
[With Peter Hill Beard at the Andy Warhol Preserve, Montauk, NY, August 1998. Photo: Art Brewer]
MM: You mentioned hanging with Dora at a Greg Noll party in Costa Rica; I know you’ve got stories...
SH: Miki was a friend-of-a-friend and always looking to put the bite on someone for a board, and I ran a surf shop. I don’t think Miki entirely knew what he was walking into when he came in to this particular establishment because I was a lay authority on the Dora myth. I called my friend Toby (Rich Pavel) and said, “Hey I’m hanging out with my friend Miki” (I took liberty with the use of friend) and then said, "I want you to build him a board and we’ll take care of it." Toby about crapped his pants obviously and said, "can you bring him over right now?" "Yeah, of course, Miki hop in" and we did a surf check down at the Cliffs and then worked our way up to Toby’s little shop.
MM: The Green Room?
SH: This was before the Green Room shop, he used to have a little shaping atelier off Catalina Blvd. I hauled Miki up there and he ordered a board, an Ole Olson outline that he wanted, kind of a pulled nose. It was a down-the-line single fin of the type he had been riding at J-Bay.
MM: Did you guys have a chance to surf together?
SH: I surfed Cardiff Reef with him, really fun four to five foot, mid-week, midday, only a handful of guys out. His lingo, his cadence, his interests would came to the fore. I learned that his favorite actor in the world was James Mason. He was telling me chapter and verse about every James Mason movie and why it ruled.
MM: What can you say about his lingo? Dora was known for his language, especially in his writings.
SH: Erudite, a little stagey, and apologies for the rhyme, a little cagey and questioning. He had a really peculiar sort of cadence to his discourse that has been mimicked well by his friends over the years.
MM: Was he into drugs?
SH: No, he was into health food. I think even then he knew he was ill. He was a healthy cat, not a hard drinker, but he absolutely enjoyed Bordeaux no doubt about it and knew more about Bordeaux than anyone you care to meet thanks to his dad, who worked with Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Miki was heavily influential to my understanding of surfing throughout my life.
Once he was at Malibu at the behest of Oxbow, a French clothing manufacturer who was holding a world championship there. Dora had been set up with an oceanfront suite at the Malibu Beach Inn. We recognized one another and he called me over. He had no interest in hanging with me or plumbing my depths, he wanted someone to drive him to the pharmacy and such. I was only too willing to comply, just to catch up with him. It was definitely worth it. I’ll Kato Kaelin for him anytime. He hops in the car and I drive him around on the circuit and we get back to the hotel and he goes "There are some things that I need to ask you. Come up to my room." And I’m just thinking, 'what, to see his etchings?' So I cruise up there to his room, and its pitch dark, all the curtains are drawn, just this impossibly gothic scene. There were a couple wigs over by the nightstand and some pretty trippy costume changes, walking sticks, a hundred and twenty bottle of weird vitamins, like who knows what he had going on. A trunk full of odd crap, just fascinating as usual, as always. That was the last time I saw Miki, in Malibu.
[Up at the panic hole/querencia, Palomar Mountain, San Diego, 2014, a clear “no surf talk” edict in place.]
MM: What are you reading now?
SH: There are writers I’m always drawn back to as well as new discoveries. My personal canon would be Faulkner, mid-career Hemingway, William T. Vollman, James Salter, Jim Harrison, Paul Bowles and the Russians. And anyone who makes their bread with words would be a liar if they didn’t genuflect to McCarthy. I’d also give a shout to Richard Meltzer, a guy who wrote rings around the quite-worthy Lester Bangs or the apple shiners at Rolling Stone. He invented rock crit. But since you asked an honest question, I have to tell you what I’m really reading right now and not art direct some bullshit answer. It’s called Titanic Thompson, a biography of the most resourceful hustler in American history.
- words by Michael Machemer