Flipping through Surfer Magazine goes something like this: blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, shocking lime green, blue, blue, blue.
There in each issue, jumping out from Surfer’s sea of epic waves and countless board short ads, is a rusty but glowing, chartreuse 1972 VW camper van, the icon and motorized doppleganger of Curious Gabe, Gabe Sullivan, who, every month, poses to ten complete strangers the kind of existential questions you’d expect to be asked in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly or in a dorm room at 1 a.m. Questions like, Does surfing improve with age? Would you rather be an East- or West-Coast surfer? And, a real brain scrambler, What’s worse—being a hoser or a poser?
The queries are always filtered through the prism of the mother ocean, but Sullivan tackles more topical subjects, too. How green are you? What’s your take on sustainable surfboards? And which presidential candidate would you rather paddle out with? (Best answer: “Bush, so I could snake him.” Creepiest: “Hillary Clinton. She might look good in a bathing suit.”)
The Curious Gabe column has run in Surfer for almost 11 years. Each one features headshots of the ten respondents and a snapshot of Gabe, the bus, or Gabe and the bus. The age range is huge, with groms and long-time AARP members puzzling over the questions. Both sexes are represented and there’s almost always eye candy in the form of a hot dude and cute girl.
Photographs by Gabe Sullivan
Sullivan, 36, finds his people on beaches, boardwalks, and streets, often traveling by the impossible to overlook bus as he works on assignment as a freelance writer, photographer, and model. The answers can be silly, or deep, but over time Gabe’s body of work has revealed a kind of people’s philosophy that is uniquely fun to read and compelling to ponder. And as isn’t always the case with surfers or surfing, Curious makes you think.
Gabe lives just a few miles away from me in Laguna Beach, but I caught up with him via email and Skype in Bali, where he’s currently doing, um, wave research.
When did you start Curious?
July 30th will mark 11 years. Since I started, there was only one issue of Surfer that didn’t have a Curious Gabe column. It was around December 2000 when I interviewed people on the North Shore of Oahu. I asked what it takes to get a wave at Pipeline—a spot known for its viciously protective pecking order. Several of the people I interviewed were professional surfers, including Rob Machado, who won the Pipe Masters that year. The editor of Surfer was Sam George and he chose not to run the column because he felt I interviewed too many pros and not enough regular "civilian" surfers.
Where did the idea come from?
I first did a similar column for a ‘zine I ran called R.age—that’s capital "R" dot "age"—while working at Rusty, where I managed their advertising creative. I’d interview a bunch of kids while snowboarding—asking where they think snow comes from. A couple of years later, while working as a contributing editor at Surfer, I was inspired by a similar format article in Details magazine. The Details piece wasn’t about board sports, but it had portrait photos and interviews with people on the street asking what their favorite summer song was. At the time, Surfer was doing a theme issue that posed the question: Is now the best time to be a surfer? I called then editor Steve Hawk and pitched the idea of going down to the beach and interviewing surfers on the topic. Hawk gave me the green light and that was the first Curious Gabe column.
How many have you done?
Well, let’s see. 10 years and 8 months equals, hold on, I need a calculator for this, 10 years and 8 months equals 128 months, minus one for the column that never ran, equals 127 columns.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
How many people have you interviewed?
On average I interview about 15 people per month. Okay, back to the calculator, 127 columns times 15 people equals… about 1,905 people total. My only regret is not being more diligent about getting each person’s email address. It would’ve been fun to keep in better touch with everyone I’ve interviewed and invite them to the Curious Gabe retrospective movie and book launch party we’re planning. Maybe some of those 1,905 alumni will be reading this interview, if so feel free to email me an RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org. The date is TBD.
What have you learned about people? About surfing?
I’ve learned not to judge people on appearances. Sometimes the most average and unassuming person will come up with the most brilliant response. I’ve learned that surfers get excited about the chance to get into Surfer. Even though most dream of getting a cover or spread, being in my column still fulfills a dream for some who otherwise would probably never have a chance to appear in the magazine. I’ve also been especially fascinated with the evolution of surf-speak. I’ve learned the most ubiquitous bit of surf lingo is ‘yew.’ It’s pronounced like a high pitched ‘you’ with a shorter ‘o’ part. It’s not so much a word, but more of a hoot, and expresses recognition of a fellow surfer scoring a great wave.
What’s your favorite question?
Hmm, out of 128 questions, just off the top of my head, maybe: ‘Do you pee in your wetsuit?’ I remember I got some funny answers while conducting the interviews in Malibu. One guy said he loves to pee in his suit before paddling out and let it collect inside the lower leg of his wetsuit, then kick it on his friends. Another favorite was conceived by former Surfer art director, Tim McCaig: ‘Would you rather surf every wave perfectly, or surf perfect waves forever?’ I asked the question down in Baja and remember people were really perplexed by that one.
What’s your favorite response?
Probably in Hawaii when I asked my then future wife Sierra if she could remember her first wave. Her response was pretty good; she said something about learning to surf at her uncle’s surf school in Western Australia. But my favorite part of her response was when she gave me her email address. I was so excited until I realized later that I’d written it down wrong and had no way of contacting her. But as fate would have it, I happened to see her again five months later at a mutual friend’s place in Venice Beach, California. But it wasn’t until I saw her yet another five months later on the sidewalk in Santa Monica that we went out on our first date the next evening.
Most insightful response?
I get loads of insightful responses. The challenge is condensing them down to 40 words, which is all the format allows. It’s difficult when someone goes into this fantastic yet long-winded story and somehow I have to cram the best stuff into 40 measly words. For example, I recently interviewed a guy in Margaret River, Australia, and he spewed out 557 words in response to my question: ‘What priority is surfing?’ By necessity I’ve learned to be a ruthless deleter of extraneous words. The delete button is always the first thing to wear out on all my computers.
How do you pick your subjects?
It varies. If I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll interview the first person I see. Other times I look for people I’d like to photograph. Sometimes I interview friends or friends of friends of friends, and so on. I’ve haven’t had to resort to putting an ad on Craigslist yet, but that might be funny to try sometime. I could do a whole column with people from Craigslist. Maybe I could even interview Craig himself? I could ask him how he feels about being such a major accomplice in the crime of stealing the word "surf" from us actual wave riders. Not that I have anything against the Internet. In fact, I end up spending more time in front of my Mac than I do at the beach on most days.