"Hello" and High Water
Grunting curses over a generator and pumping apparatus, my landlord Andy fights the most ghastly cascade this side of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in our driveway.
"Yeah, now's probably not the best time," I say to Patagonia's East Coast Surf Sales Manager, Rob Zseleczky.
He and Dan Malloy catch my drift, already pulling their car out of the driveway, the water rising with every gust. Colorful weather personalities are calling it "Nor'Ida," this super low formed by Hurricane Ida's fourth meal another coastal low, abnormally bloated tides, and God's sick sense of humor.
Very few Outer Banks residents were around for the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, so the only thing we really have to compare to this is '91's Halloween Storm (tourists call it "The Perfect Storm") and Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Suffice to say, both of those were devastating to this island. And this beast is no different. In other words, it's the perfect time for Patagonia's A-Team to dig in at Nags Head for their first-ever East Coast Dealer Camp and say "hello" to East Coast surfing's soul. And definitely the right place.
"Those guys are stoked being here," laughs my buddy Justin, who is dealing with his own Nor'Ida woes. "Isn't that their deal? Finding big, crappy waves to surf?
He jests, but that is exactly the kind of image I conjure up when thinking about Patagonia's surf demographic. A fully-neoprened and bearded cavalier who prefers to remain anonymous (but it's probably a Malloy brother) depth charging some nauseating, victory-at-sea cathedral, a five-foot piece of cross-chop rushing towards him, an ice-bleeding evergreen forest coloring the backdrop.
But after talking shop over the past few weeks with Zseleczky before doing the whole dinner, drinks, and presentation thing at Patagonia's rental house, "Big Mama's," I'm now seeing that Patagonia's motives here are quite noble and their waveriding image far more controlled than contrived.
The company's official Mission Statement is simple, yet nonetheless ambitious: "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
Unofficially, they're here to show us their rubber. A friendly invasion of company bigwigs that includes Fletcher Chouinard, son of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and shaper/owner of Fletcher Chouinard Designs, surfing ambassadors Chris, Keith, and Dan Malloy, wetsuit and pack designer Glen Morden, and director of surf Jason McCaffrey brings Patagonia's complete 2010 wetsuit line, shipping to shops next July.
"The Outer Banks being such an obviously huge East Coast surfing destination, it makes sense to do it here," says Zseleczky (who is from Forked River, New Jersey, but lives on the Banks now). "We want to make people feel like they're a part of Patagonia and what we're trying to do, see us for who we are without the smoke and mirrors, and get the dealers behind us in an authentic way."
With Zseleczky's good friend Chris Sanchez from Small Potatoes Catering cooking the week's meals, the wetsuit presentation is attended by revered shaper and Outer Banks Boarding Company owner Lynn Shell, as well as local pro surfer Jesse Hines and his wife Whitney, among various other Curious Georges like myself. To my surprise, the rap is thick on honesty and frankness and thin on propaganda. The Patagonia guys come off more like old school conservationists rather than apocalyptic zealots, which surfing's green movement certainly has its share of, for better or for worse.
The key to the company's entire wetsuit technology is this: Wool. More specifically, like the pattented grid patterns on their Alpine jackets, Patagonia's wool-inlay increases dead air space, creating a suit that, in theory, gets warmer while you wear it, and allowing one to wear less neoprene in colder conditions. Furthermore, instead of going to outside conglomerates to make the product, a fairly common business practice, Patagonia uses their own fabric developed solely for these wetsuits, but with reasonable expectations, examining all the available information on the capabilities of wetsuits in comparison to existing technologies in the surf market.
"Whenever companies set out to build a 'green' product, it seems like they fail," Zseleczky levels, "but when we start out making it for the right reasons as a strong piece of equipment for the sport, it succeeds. We're not trying to monopolize the wetsuit market, but develop a better product for all the companies to use to make their wetsuits better. And we don't want to claim these suits. We want people to find out for themselves."
I must admit I have yet to try out Patagonia's neoprene for myself. I'm waiting to bum a sample off Rob once it gets a little colder around here and there isn't tetanus and E. Coli threatening my every stroke. But I was lucky enough to get Chris and Keith's take before they split town, leaving in their wake destroyed (but conservatively destroyed) waves from S-Turns to Nags Head Pier. Dan even made a brief head-dip at Lucky 12 Tavern before being kidnapped by Sanchez and local photographer Matt Lusk. Not to find big, crappy waves to surf, but to play a part in the best swell to grace New York in five years.
Which makes me really consider Patagonia's place in the East Coast surfing microcosm. In an industry choked with so many shamelessly pretentious marketing strategies, Patagonia can go ahead and invite any attack on their image. They're not pulling their specific wool over anyone's eyes. I look at the Malloy brothers with their beards and their flannels and their toboggans and a Field And Stream burliness that could've easily been spawned in Colington Harbor and the first thing that comes to my mind is, "Wow, these dudes look just like the guys I surf with everyday."
-ESPN Surfing is proud to welcome Matt Pruett as its newest contributor. Pruett, who is making up for lost time on his beloved Outer Banks after cracking the editorial whip at Eastern Surf Mag in Florida, is a contributor for Surfer, assignment writer for Surfing and Transworld, and now ESM's Editor At Large.
ESPN Surfing isn't just on the East Coast. We're on west, south, and north coasts, too.