clayton nienaber ricky bassnett interview
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Save The Rail. Ep 1 Ricky Bassnett

I sat down with fellow surfer and mate Ricky Bassnett, and we had a wonderful chat about a number of topics, including surfboards, the flow state of being, mindfulness, surfing heritage, and more.

On How Ricky Bassnett Figured Out So Much, So Young: The Flow State of Being…

When I was a teenager, I had a poster of a young Ricky Bassnett busting a massive air on a red surfboard. Back in those days, even though he was quite young, he seemed to have figured out almost everything about surfing. I am 48 now, and I cannot tell you that I know as much about surfing as he did back then. So, what’s the magic here?

Like most of us, Ricky had his own crew, too. They’d acquire VHS tapes of surfing competitions and famous surf crews of the time, get together, and watch them. They would study the new moves they saw for the first time by constantly pausing and rewinding. Then, they’d try those moves on the ocean.

However, for Rick, trying didn’t mean trying to replicate the move he’d just seen on the screen of his TV set. Once he took off on a wave, the concept of time as we know it seemed to have disassembled, and everything started to move in slow-mo, so such replication was impossible for him anyway.

Instead, it was more a matter of flow. No thinking was possible, no move he had studied held influence, no premeditation concerning what his next move was going to be took place in his mind. His mind was one with the water, and his actions were determined by what the waves deemed possible or necessary—or in his words: “There’s no mind. You’re in a pure state of flow. You know what I mean?”

The Importance of Slowing Down

The opposite of trying doesn’t always have to yield spiritual results that require you to delve into the psyche of a surfer or a direct intervention from the humbly almighty Buddha. Once you achieve being there, you’ll realize that there are more down-to-earth, concrete, and substantial consequences to it as well. That’s what Ricky Bassnett realized.

He was young, he wanted to impress people by busting airs, and to that end, he had to reach the relevant sections of the wave. When you have such a drive to impress others, you unwittingly turn it into a race between you and the wave. You start straining your body unnecessarily, riding as fast as you can, and in the end, disconnecting from the wave.

For most of us, understanding why these are wrong and what we can do instead takes quite a bit of time. For Ricky, not so much, and it’s one of the reasons why he’s such a good surfer.

He realized that the waves had their power points in their pockets (pocket in both literal and figurative sense), and once you slowed down and channeled the power of the wave to your ride, you didn't have to do much: “Instead of trying to generate speed yourself, you let the wave generate the speed for you.” That way, you could reach the section you want with more power and drive.

Of course, you can still spiritualize the process. In my experience, when you slow down, you start hearing the wave talk to you, understanding what it says and wants you to do, and interpreting its energy. Yes, it’s not an easy state to achieve, but once you’re there, there’s no going back either: you’ll be surfing on another level, on another… wavelength.

How to Identify Power Zones and How to Make Use of Them

Ricky admits to having wasted thousands of waves trying to impress and improve as a surfer instead of just being there and seizing the moment. But, as I said, it’s not easy to just listen to the waves. Moreover, you can listen to the waves as much as you like, but if you’re not capable of doing what they tell you, they’re still going to be wasted.

So, how do you make sure you do what the wave tells you? How do you tap into the energy reserved in its power zones? You can spend hundreds, even thousands of hours practicing, go to therapy to cleanse your mind, or set out on a pilgrimage to Tibet to reach a higher state of being. Or you can watch the pros like Mick Fanning and see how they’re placing and angling their boards before takeoffs as Ricky did.

Yet, that’s the technical side of the issue. Without fully comprehending why you’re doing it or without feeling the lift of the wave before popping up, it will count for nothing. Furthermore, no matter how perfect you are in placing and angling the board, unless you do away with misconceptions about speed and body movements, it’ll be of no use.

Misconceptions? You probably heard people saying that speed is everything and that you have to generate it by moving your body like a cowboy trying to move his unsettled horse in a popcorn western. Somewhat contrary to common sense, the two keys to proper surfer movement are compression and subtlety.

To generate speed when you’re in a power zone, you need to compress your body; make yourself as small as possible while standing up by slightly bending the knees and subtle weight shifts. In Ricky’s experience, such subtle compression resulted in more speed than racing down the line. It’ll be the same for you, too.

Bottom Turns and Surfing on the Rail

If you’re an avid follower of the OMBE, if you ever watched a video of me talking about surfing, or if you ever listened to a podcast I was a guest of, you probably know how much I hate flat surfing. It’s like the main surfing disease of our times: flat surfers who can only go fast and lack any aesthetic appeal during turns.

That’s why I yelled a lot at Ricky and his training mates when they were preparing for CT: “Do a bottom turn!” or “Surf tighter!” or “Put on more rail!” Ricky acknowledges that had been quite beneficial for him. Of course, I’m not telling you about this to brag. Bottom turns are crucial when generating speed on rail, and the best, most stylish way to surf is rail-surfing.

Surfboards are not made for you to stand flatly and ride in a straight line until you run ashore. They’re made for you to engage the rail. Only on rail can you feel the wave’s energy and channel it. That’s why so much innovation, design, and thinking go into making surfboard rails.

Ricky mastered his bottom turns on the rail and even on one-foot waves. That would cause many intermediate and advanced surfers to grimace, but he was able to reap the benefits. There’s a trick to it, though: if you’re the one generating the speed, you’ll never be able to complete a smooth bottom turn; if you do a slow turn, on the other hand, and let the wave do its job, you’ll see that you’re generating speed.

Needless to say, you need the right surfboard in accordance with the surfing conditions on a particular day. You cannot engage the rail on a one-foot wave with a small thruster. If you want to learn more about getting the right surfboard, we have the very program for you.

…Returning to the Flow State of Being: Only a Surfer Knows the Feeling

The beauty of having one-on-one talks with a surfer is that the conversation always revolves around the surfer feeling. We cannot exactly talk about it as we can’t express it in words, and hell, we don’t even know what it is.

But we surely feel it: it washes over you when you’re on the water. The world seems to peel away, and you’re engaged with a whole different type of energy. You’re listening to it, you’re submitting to it, and somehow inconceivably, you’re riding it. In other words, you’re vibing; you’re high on wave energy.

“It’s pure flow; it’s almost like you create a connection with the wave,” says Ricky, and I don’t think that there’s a better way to put it no matter how hard I try to bend and twist the words.

I remember Bruce Lee’s famous motto: “Be like water.” But, liquid (or flow) is not the only state of matter. There’s the solid state: the state of the novice surfer who’s just learning how to balance themselves on the board. They’re stiff and don’t know how to move.

Chemistry would suggest that the solid state of matter is followed by liquid when exposed to heat, but that’s not what happens with surfers. Once they learn the fundamentals, they sublimate: they turn into gas and think that they can do everything, move every way, become air and do all the airs in the surfing repertoire, which simply doesn’t happen.

Once they feel the surfer feeling, though, once they experience the vibe of connecting with the wave, then they become liquid. They just flow. Still, I’ve seen many aspiring surfers dissolve into thin air as gas. So, being like water is much easier said than done.

The Importance of Surfboard Experimentation

As you’re probably aware, I shape surfboards. I’ve shaped boards for almost my whole life, even for great surfers like Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds, Mikey February, and of course, Ricky.

Kelly Slater riding a Clayton Surfboard featuring spinetek

Not all of these boards were good, especially at the beginning of my career. However, whenever I shaped a board for Ricky, his feedback was: “This board is great, mate!” Nowadays, I mostly design Spine-Tek epoxy surfboards, and I’m sure Ricky’s reaction to those would be the same as well—not because my boards are great (they are); Ricky is one of those surfers who can make the most of any surfboard (mostly due to that surfer feeling we’ve been talking about).

His secret is a genuine appreciation of the waves and what he can do with different surfboards. You can see him riding a finless foamie at Jay Bay, a skimboard on another shore, or a standard shortboard whenever he feels like it. The reason for that variety is that when you ride the same board on the same wave repeatedly, nothing new can happen, and no progress can be made.

He says: “After three waves, I'm bored as hell. You know what I mean? I know exactly what's going to happen. I know what's going to go down. It's boring.” He urges people to try as many surfboards as they can if they want to improve, and I agree.

When you ride the same board all the time, it hinders progress and impacts your connection to the wave negatively since you’ll start riding solely on muscle memory after a while. Surfing will turn into a habit and not an ability. On the other hand, riding different boards will provide you with a better understanding of the waves as they’ll be the only constant in the equation.

How Your Bodily Tension Affects Your Surfboard

The board is the only piece of equipment that really matters for a surfer. Subsequently, the question of how to control it is one of the most crucial aspects of surfing. However, that question poses an impossible task for many beginner surfers.

When you’re in the beginning stages of your learning journey, it’s understandable that you want to feel in control, but feeling in control isn’t always equal to being in control. It’s not only a surfing-related issue either. Whenever we want to have control over a certain situation, we get tense as if we’re afraid that our bodies will go on and start acting by themselves without notifying our brains first.

As a result of the need to feel in control, the body of the novice surfer becomes stiff, and the tension in the body inevitably reflects on the surfboard: it doesn’t do what you want it to do. When you’re tense, it’s as if the board is the surfer, and you’re its piece of equipment. In that case, it’s just going to dump you the first opportunity it gets.

For Ricky, the key to overcoming that tension is to listen to the board in the first place: “Feel what the board wants to do first. Does the board feel like it's wanting to slip out? Okay, stop pushing so hard. Let the board do the work.”

After all, the board is only a mediator between your body and the wave, and it relays what it gets from the wave to you. Your job is to interpret that feedback and act on it without trying to control the board and ruling the wave. In that sense, you can be in control only when you let go. And remember, you’re surfing the wave, not the board.

Connecting the Dots

When you let go of your board and allow it to become a true mediator between the wave and your body, you start listening to the wave. In other words, you open yourself up to the playfulness of the wave and just learn how to go along with it.

Regarding this playfulness, Ricky recalls seeing Jordy Smith surfing at Jay Bay and how chill he seemed in between turns: not going fast at all, but always being at the important junction of the wave at the right time. It was as if “the wave wanted to be surfed.”

But of course, there’s no such intrinsic quality to waves; it’s mostly about how a surfer relates to a particular wave: “He's in sync with the wave because he's not fighting the wave, all he's doing is connecting dots on a wave.” What does Ricky mean by that?

There are two main dots on a wave, which you can also call drawing lines: the bottom and the top. While the bottom dot provides you with power and energy, the top dot will help you generate speed. And the trick to a good performance lies in the proximity of these two dots to each other: as the distance decreases, the time you’ll spend between turns will also lessen, and in a competition, that means you’ll score more points.

You might ask where those dots are. Well, the bottom dot is where the flat white foam starts to bend. The top dot is where the lip of the wave starts to curl. As long as you angle your ride in a way to tighten those dots, and with the help of figure eights (cutbacks, roundhouse or not) and leaning on either the toe rail or the heel one, your turns will be smoother, and your performance will be better.

Flow and Body Positioning

Flow is a fundamental aspect of surfing. At least that’s what I teach and what I want to see when I’m watching pros compete. In my book, surfing without style is one of the major sins.

In my coaching years, I observed that there are a couple of mistakes that lead to the absence of style in an aspiring surfer. One of them is the flat surfing we already ranted about with Ricky, and the other is weird body positioning.

Some surfers will just stand like a cowboy who’s about to draw his gun on the surfboard: their kneecaps will point in different directions, while their arms and upper body are as tense as possible. It’s quite an awkward way to position your body, and it restricts your peripheral vision by a fair amount. Imagine running a marathon like a crab; that’s the equivalent of surfing in such a position.

For more peripheral vision and flow, you need to surf with your knees facing the front. If you want more evidence, just watch Ethan Ewing, whom Ricky and I admire almost equally, and see how he flows and how great a technique he has.

Undoubtedly, starting to surf with your knees facing forward just because I say so won’t help either. You need to know which parts of your body are good for what. Ricky says: “Your top half is about the twist. Think about the bottom half of your body as your shock absorbance.” And you absorb shock by compressing and extending your knees.

You can think of it as riding a bike. Knees compress and extend while the back is straight. Yes, the upper body twists and leans during turns, but these are only subtle adjustments. You can also think of it as jumping on a trampoline where the knees do all the work through bounces.

The Surfing Heritage

How do you learn about flow? How do you master style? Yes, in the end, most of it comes down to the surfer feeling we cannot stop talking about, but nobody is really born with that feeling. Luckily, though, it’s out there in the world; it’s the heritage the all-time greats left us, and most of us acquaint ourselves with it by watching their performances.

Ricky recognized style and mastered flow at a young age, and he credits the heritage of surfing greats like Tom Curren for that. When it came to flow, Curren was like the greatest artist of his time: “I think I got lucky having people that influenced me.”

Now, however, the question is, what’s the surfing heritage of our generation going to be? Ricky rightfully complains about the current generation’s obsession with busting airs, doing flicks and spins, and their general disregard for rail-surfing. Sure, there are also stylish youngsters like Ethan I mentioned above, but they are quite the minority, and the surfing world seems to be dominated by tricksters these days.

Ricky was a pioneer of busting airs back in his day, but his airs weren't necessarily cheap flicks. He’d do them based on rail-surfing and bottom turns, which are musts for surfing with style. The new surfers, he observes, don’t do any bottom turns; what they do is basically hitting the lip and turning quite sharply, and bafflingly, that’s considered an air.

It’s strange how bottom turns became such an underrated aspect of surfing, but if we’re going to leave our mark for the next generations, one thing’s quite certain for us: “Flow surfing needs to come back.”

Is Surfing the Only Way to Be In the Moment for a Surfer?

So, by now, you know that Ricky is a guy who gets bored quite easily. After all, he opts for a different surfboard after every third or fourth ride because he “knows what’s exactly going to happen” if he keeps on with the same board. He is now at an age when he realizes that his passion for surfing has diminished as well:

You know, as I've got older as well, I found my passion for surfing got snuffed out after the tour and everything. And I ended up fucking hating surfing. But now that I'm back in it, surfing isn't my be-all and end-all. It's one part of me that I need to stay centered and whatnot.

However, everybody knows that you need to quickly substitute a dying passion with another if you want to continue enjoying life. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself under neon loneliness with motorcycle emptiness (or, in this case, surfboard emptiness, and probably in a less poetic manner than that). It’ll feel like losing your religion without anything else to cling to.

Enough with the ‘90s alt-rock references, though, as Ricky certainly didn’t replace surfboards with electric guitars. He replaced them with a camera:

Anything I can do these days is like a meditation in a way, where something that calms my mind and lets me switch off and just create is fucking fantastic. Like I'll pick up a camera, go into town and just spend hours walking around like completely in a zone. You're just looking for that next shot, and there's nothing else going on.

And he likens that feeling to that of surfing. He’s just in the moment when he’s taking photographs: “You're out there, you're just waiting, just watching. Something's going to happen.” As long as you’re in the moment without a care in the world, then it means you’re happy even if that something doesn’t necessarily happen.

Learning How to Play With Life (Again)

I remember telling Ricky that I was 48 at some point in this interview. It’s an age when others around you expect a bit of wisdom from you, regardless of whether you’re socializing in a bar or teaching kids how to paddle on the shore. I cannot say that I have many pieces of wisdom to hand out generously, but Ricky’s foray into photography and how he approaches it reminds me of old times.

When I was a young aspiring surfer, I tried impressing people; I tried to meet their (and also my) expectations if you like. I overworked my body and tried too hard to be good when I was on the waves. The result? A couple of sloppy performances, after which I saw my hungover friends rip and shred the waves. So, I needed to learn how to play again. It taught me a valuable lesson: don’t sacrifice playing for the sake of expectations.

Why do we love surfing, and why do we keep talking about that feeling when the world just peels away? Because it offers us an escape:

Whatever you can do to fucking just stop that monkey mind. We all have it. We all have that voice that's just a constant. It's always there. And if you can learn to disassociate from that and take a step back, and not listen to it…

That constant, worldly voice Ricky talks about is the exact voice that pressures you to perform well, to achieve things; it’s the archenemy of enjoying what you do, and sometimes it’s the reason you fail as well.

There’s a little movie about what overworking and abstinence from fun do to a novice, and it’s about another water sport: rowing. Trying to improve is one thing, but as people in that movie keep reminding the main character, don’t lose sight of what’s important in this brief life of ours; enjoy it:

As soon as you turn a passion into a profession, a lot of the time that can suck the joy out of it. And I think something I've learned as well is that a passion doesn't have to bring in money or fame or glory. Just let it be a passion for what it is. And if it really is something that you end up being the best at, all that shit's going to come anyway. But don't start doing it for that.

Channeling the Energy

A wave is basically a huge reserve of energy. It’s formed by wind and gravity, and it rolls towards a certain shore as its energy is multiplied from the bottom of the ocean. However, there’s nothing left to draw energy from once it's near the shore, and there’s nowhere to go. Therefore, it breaks.

Sometimes, that’s how it is with people, too. There’s too much creative energy in them, too much passion, too much desire to be good, great, excellent. However, there comes the point when you cannot transfer that energy into something tangible. As Ricky perfectly expresses, the joy is sucked out of your passion, and that’s how people break.

Ricky was and still is one of those who glares with creative energy, but he had his troubles too, and these troubles were mostly due to not knowing what to do with that energy, being crushed by the constant voice in his head that dreaded failure, and caring too much about others’ expectations.

But, nowadays, I can see that he really radiates positivity. “Creation without expectation is a fucking wonderful thing,” he says, and I stand witness to that statement as I see him close by. Yet, that statement by itself doesn’t mean much by itself, and it took Ricky to reconceptualize failure to achieve that mindset:

When you come to a point of realizing that there's no such thing as failure, that's like a really big one to learn. I guarantee you that any failure you've had in your past and you’ve learned from has been a massive lesson and pushed you to where you are now.

There indeed is a lesson here for the novice surfer: you’re going to fail, you’re going to get wiped out a lot, you’re going to return to the shore downtrodden. However, don’t let the fear of failure wipe out your creative or passionate energy. Instead, just channel it into learning from your failures. That is the way.

Mindfulness of the Surfer

One of the first things any surf coach should teach to their pupils is surfing etiquette. It entails respect for fellow surfers when you’re lined up for a wave and for locals of the surf spots we visit as well as the local culture. But, maybe most importantly, surfing etiquette means respecting our beautiful planet, the majestic force of the ocean, and the environment in all its full glory.

As I mentioned in the introduction of this interview, Ricky Bassnett is also an environmentally conscious activist, and he does his best to help preserve the natural habitat of our beloved surf spots. So, his answer to my question about what instigated his interest for surfing as a kid shouldn’t come as a surprise:

I don't want to sound like a fucking hippie, but it's being in touch with nature and being in tune. When you stand up on a wave and you feel nature, the whole of the fucking ocean pushing you, how do you describe it? You know what I mean? You just want more of that feeling.

“Oh,” you might object skeptically, “You were just a little kid when you started surfing, and you were aware of all that?” Well, Ricky would like to remind you that a child perceives the world in a less mediated way than an adult. Therefore, they have a more direct relationship with feelings. After all, you don’t need to understand it to feel it:

Obviously when you're a kid, you don't really have an understanding of it. But that feeling is presence. Because there's nothing else happening. You are in complete awareness and presence. And as a kid, you're getting a taste of that without even knowing it.

When you don’t forget that feeling, presence, and taste of being there, you’ll likely become a mindful surfer who’s always in touch with what they’re riding… Like Ricky.

What Kills the Surfer’s Passion

What sucked the surfing joy out of Ricky? What killed his passion, dragged him into a bad place (although he eventually found his way out thanks to his new passions), and urged him to reconsider surfing as not a “be-all and end-all”?

His questioning and doubts coincided with his second year on the Championship Tour - a period I remember very well. He was a mind-blowingly promising young surfer with quite a heightened level of understanding back then, his body was in great shape, and he moved on the water as amazingly as he’d never done before. But in the end, he was like: “Screw this, I’m out!”

When I ask the inevitable why question, his answer is perfectly in line with the image of Ricky present in the sections above: a free-spirited surfer. The CT happened to be “everyone else’s expectations,” not Ricky’s, and it was everything a free surfer didn’t like:

Realizing, "Jesus, this is like an old boys club with a whole bunch of politics that I don't give a shit for," almost immediately just sucked it out. And then I did pretty good the first year. I ended up coming like 23rd or something overall. And the next year I just didn't have it in me. I couldn't care at all. I didn't want to be there. I was going around to the most exotic locations in the world, and I'd just sit in my room and drink. And I wanted it to be gone. I hated being there. Hated it.

Just from the way he’s saying it, you can understand how strong his feelings are and how crushing the weight of expectations can be for a surfer who values their freedom more than anything else. Fortunately for him, Ricky found a peaceful way out, and fortunately for us, I can now chat with him.

What Does Surfing Mean for Ricky Now?

Whether you want it or not, whether you lose your passion or not, whether it’s your profession or just a hobby, you cannot help attributing meaning to surfing.

I’ve done lots of surf-related stuff my whole life. I surfed, I shaped boards, and I coached people. Only now am I able to recognize the main meaning I attribute to it, the main motivation I have, and it’s related to coaching: when I see a surfer understand a certain concept with my help, when I see a lightbulb go boom in their eyes, I feel joy. I feel as if my existence meets its meaning at that moment.

So, Ricky hated being a pro, he hated competing, he avoided surfing for a while focusing on photography, but he’s surfing again. And I wonder what new meanings he now finds in surfing.

I have no goals in surfing now, at all. All I want to do is stay young through surfing. You know what I mean? It's not a stress in my life anymore that I have to be this dude that's doing this maneuver and achieving this whatever. I just want to fucking surf for as long as I can. And that's it.

Wrapping Up…

Ricky Bassnett has always been one of my favorite surfers and is one of the guys with an unprecedented understanding of surfing. He had gone through some rough patches due to expectations that can easily kill the passion of a surfer, but he rediscovered himself through the ocean, surfing without expectation, and tapping into interests and arts outside of surfing

In the process, he also learned how to enjoy life again and how to silence the voices that burden us with unnecessary projections of failure and achievement, which is honestly the ultimate goal of everyone who knows a thing or two about life. So, let’s raise our glasses with a big cheers for him and every surfer who’s on a rough patch but will surely prevail more greatly than ever.

Written by
Clayton Neinaber
surf coaching