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Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Updated: October 4, 1:14 PM ET
Undaunted: The Nathan Fletcher Interview

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When you grow up surfing a wave like Pipeline, you're prepared for most everything.

Nathan Fletcher is the guy that stays in the water after dark. He paddles out when it's windy and there are three-foot waves at State Park in San Clemente, Calif., or when it's 25-foot and freezing in Half Moon Bay. He comes from one of the most renowned families in surfing: His grandfather helped pioneer both the North Shore and the surf industry. His father, Herbie, is an acclaimed longboarder and was a test pilot in Hawaii in the 1970s. His brother, Christian, was a groundbreaking aerialist in the '90s.

He admits to keeping an address in Orange County, but confides that "mentally he doesn't live in Southern California." He winters on the North Shore, makes strikes to Maverick's when duty calls, and as of late, has added Fiji and Tahiti to his portfolio. Before Teahupoo roared in August, most were calling his wave at Tavarua's Cloudbreak, in July, the "Ride of the Year." Of course, that was before he freaked everybody out with his Teahupoo beast and established a new standard for craziness.

Talking to him, he somehow makes it all sound relatively normal, like he's just going surfing, like it's standard operating procedure. But don't believe him for a second -- his humbleness belies his accomplishments, especially this year.

Let's start with Tahiti.
Tahiti was incredible. I got there during the contest, there was a swell and I went straight out there -- got cleaned up by a closeout right away because I was paddling in the channel, then Biff [D'Esposito] came around and got me. He was on this old ski and he whipped me in, but about 100 yards too deep. I was in the worst position ever. Somehow I got exploded out the back on that one, but it turned out OK.

Strider [Wasilewski] got my board with me and we went back out. Makua [Rothman] had seen what happened with the ski not being able to get going fast enough, so he offered to tow me. We waited 10 or 15 minutes. The set came, we went. At one point it felt like I was in a bad spot but wasn't going to fall, then I was getting to the end after making it through some whitewater and realized I wasn't going to make it. I held on, tried to keep my bearings and got ragdolled like all hell. I came up, grabbed my head and couldn't believe it was on my shoulders.

I came up, tripped out, grabbed my head, and couldn't believe it was on my shoulders.

-- Nathan Fletcher

So I was thinking, "OK, I just got a good one, that was pretty incredible" -- as every wave [out there] is. The next day Bruce [Irons] texted me a picture of it and I couldn't believe it.

So you went to Tahiti and caught two waves?
Right. But the one wave was -- I don't know. At that level, I don't know.

How's that second wave rate with you?
Top two -- [that] and Tavarua. It's been a big deal lately.

How does big Cloudbreak compare to other big waves?
I've ridden some large waves, but I'd say those two days at Cloudbreak -- at certain times -- were two of the best days of surfing I've ever had. Just being out there -- for conditions, size, length, quality -- the best.

How has big-wave riding changed in recent years?
It's changed tremendously. It's gone from a very tow-oriented focus to now, everything's about paddle. There were so many huge days two years ago that it brought everybody together and we all started talking about equipment and strategy. Now all these people together have pushed it to where it is. But this is just the beginning of a new level of high performance big-wave surfing.

What's your take on big-wave safety in light of a couple of tragic deaths and Shane Dorian's new flotation invention?
I've always been a firm believer in making it as safe as you can. I've been wearing a paddle vest for the past 10 years, even when it wasn't cool and everybody was calling me names. Slowly people have evolved. The ocean will always be stronger than any human, and it's best to be safe because it's not worth dying for. I want everybody to be safe. To see Shane wear his paddle vest for the first time at Himalayas, it's incredible for somebody like that, with the name and recognition that he has to do what he's doing. It's long overdue and it's going to help push the level of progression along even quicker.

Young Nathan and brother Christian at Gerry Lopez's old digs, circa 1990.

We see you in Hawaii, Northern California, Southern California; where are you actually living these days?
Well, I guess I'm physically a resident of San Juan Capistrano. I spend the most time in Hawaii, and I travel out of Southern California in the summer. But mentally I'm not a resident of Southern California.

What does being a Fletcher mean to you?
It means everything. All I'm doing is carrying on a tradition that was given to me by my father. It was passed to him from my grandfather, my uncle, my great uncle. My brother was more of a radical surfer, but it's everything I have and all I know. So thank you to them. You have to let things go and be thankful to them. No animosity toward anyone, it's your family, it's all you have.

There was a little animosity between you and Christian there for a while, wasn't there?
It wasn't animosity, it was somebody I looked up to more than anybody, somebody that made me who I am, and nobody treated me worse in my life for a period of time. So I couldn't let down my guard anymore. It was always my fault, I felt. But he's come full circle. He lives at home with my parents and his son, and now he's ready to be part of our family. When he was ready to let some things go I was more than ready to have him back in my life. And I'm so thankful that he's given us the appreciation and acceptance that he has. He understands that we all still love him, and that'll never change. And I'm thankful that it didn't take any longer because it could have been worse.

Thoughts on being considered one of the most well-rounded surfers around?
The only reason I can do all that stuff is because I love to surf. I grew up with my elders being kind of the first big-wave pioneers, so it's upholding a family name and tradition. But it's also just loving to be in the ocean. I love to watch the kids. I look at John John [Florence] or Shane, and they're huge influences. If people want to think that, I'm more than grateful, but it just comes from wanting to be in the ocean whether it's small or big, pretty or ugly. It's the best thing you can do.

Who do you surf with the most?
Depends. If I'm in California, I'll just go to the beach with my friends. But if it's on a professional level, in the last couple of years I'd have to say Bruce. He's definitely the one who coaches me into being who I am, giving me confidence. We feed off of each other. I can be 100 percent myself, and he can be 100 percent himself, insecure or secure, whatever it is, just pushing each other. It's truly sincere when I say I want to see him catch a great one, and I know it's vice versa. I look up to him, and he pushes me to be the best, and to be the person I know I am.

What's left to accomplish?
I guess being able to surf for my whole life -- longevity. I want to keep surfing for the love of it and not get caught up in the other side of it. I don't want to have the ego of a big-wave surfer or a small-wave competitive surfer. I want to be the surfer who does it forever, as long as I can, for the love of it, in all conditions.