How Did All These Surfers Get Their Surf Nicknames?
Many great surfers have had puzzling nicknames throughout surf history. Learn about their origin with our list below.
You probably heard your fair share of the language of seafaring folks. They have certain terms that would come across as incomprehensible to some but mean a specific thing to others, like shivering a seadog timbers or shaking the crow’s nest.
The world of surf slang is no different than the world of other community activities that grows and expands its own language after a while. The reason behind the emergence of such internal language is actually quite simple: a wave means much more to a surfer than it does to a layperson. So, a surfer gets to call a massive wave bitchin’ or bomb, an unsurfable wave chunder, a big wave surfboard gun, and sharks men in grey suits.
Yet, surfer slang isn’t limited to giving names to waves, wave breaks, boards, and sharks. More often than not, famous surfers or at least prominent local surfers also have their fair share of surf slang monikers. Not all these nicknames are comprehensible at first look, either, so you wonder what they might mean and how these surfers earned these names.
Although we cannot thoroughly analyze the origin of all surfing slang or specific terms, we can at least give you an idea of why a certain legendary surfer is associated with a certain phrase.
18 Great Surf Nicknames and Their Origins
Of course, the number of great nicknames cannot really be limited to eighteen, but the ones you’re going to find in the list below are must-know for anyone who’s interested in surfing.
Bethany “Soul Surfer” Hamilton
At the age of 13, young American surfer Bethany Hamilton survived a shark attack when surfing, as a result of which she lost her left arm. This terrifying incident took place in 2003, and in 2004, she published a book titled Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. And, as you can guess, she realized the lattermost part of the title of her book: she fought to get back on the board and went on to win a national title afterward. The book also gave her a great nickname.
So, hers is an inspiring story, and even if you were to only take a brief look into her book, there’s a good chance that you’d be inspired, as it’s full of passages that teach and urge you to get back up no matter how much and how hard you fall: “Life is a lot like surfing…. When you get caught in the impact zone, you’ve got to just get back up. Because you never know what may be over the next wave.”
That’s also why we thought that it would be great to kick off this list with that basic tenet of surf psychology.
Duke “Big Kahuna” Kahanamoku
The history of surfing goes back to times when stories could only be inscribed on the walls of caves with the help of sharp objects. Therefore, who invented surfing, who made the first surfboard, and who was hailed as a god when they stood up on it and, in a sense, strolled on the waves is still a mystery.
However, there’s a certain consensus in the surfing world: Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku is the father of modern surfing. At least, he was the one that made the sport Hawaiians had been performing as a ritual known to the whole world when he took his surfboard to Australia at the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, he probably blew the minds of people on shores that had only seen body-surfers up until that day with his ground-breaking skills and charisma.
So, if there’s any surfer in the world who deserves the Hawaiian nickname “Big Kahuna,” which can loosely translate into cool stuff like boss, expert, leader, and even pioneer, it’s surely the great Duke Kahanamoku. Without him, we might not have existed.
Gerry “Mr. Pipeline” Lopez
Even when he was only a kid and living in East Honolulu, Gerry Lopez was interested in surfing on shallow reefs. So, when the Pipeline was discovered thanks to the efforts of Phil Edwards and Bruce Brown and rendered surfable due to the advance in surfboard technology witnessed during the 1960s and 1970s, he had no other alternative than to move to the North Shore.
On the magnificent breaking waves of the North Shore, there was always at least one surfing legend. He watched them all, and once the surfboard designs started accommodating tube rides, he found himself in the Pipe, and it’s no wonder he’s still considered one of the best tube riders of all time.
Yet, his real achievements came in the late 60s and early 70s when his graceful style truly became unprecedented and his cool on waves unmatched. Now, even though there are other surfers who have won more Pipeline contests, he’s still the Mr. Pipeline.
Mick “White Lightning” Fanning
Australian pro surfer Mick Fanning is a surfing legend who left his mark on many aspects of life, including surf clothing through his collaboration with Rip Curl and fin design through his collaboration with FCS’ innovative fin systems. His only interaction with fins wasn’t about helping FCS design great fins either, as he’s also known for having to ward off a shark attack by throwing a couple of punches at it while waiting for a breaking wave during the J-Bay Open in Johannesburg.
All these considered, whatever great nickname he may be given, it would probably be a worthy one, but to this day, he came to be known as “white lightning” because he’s as fast as a lightning on water, and his blond hair shining under the sun also contributes to his moniker.
If you want to see him for yourself and judge whether he deserves his nickname or not, you can head to our video analysis of his performances. In that Coaches Eye entry, OMBE head coach Clayton Nienaber offers a breakdown of his speed and explosive power in great detail.
Laura Louise “Lakey Legend” Peterson
American surfer Lakey Peterson is one of the most successful names in women’s surfing. She ranked as high as the number one in World Surf League rankings, and she’s so far won many prestigious competitions all around the world. Yet, she was already a “legend” before she started winning competitions. Even better, she was already a “legend” before she started surfing.
How? Well, when she was six, she and her family were having a vacation on Manly Beach, Australia—a beach with a well-established surf culture. All the members of her family were surfers, but she, the youngest member of the family, was the one who caught the eye of the locals: she was catching wave after wave with her boogie board without even breaking a sweat, and that earned her the nickname “lakey legend.”
Although she showed no interest in surfing until she was 12, she already had a nickname that would suit her throughout her career.
Andrew “Droid” Doheny
For those who have a sad interest in puns, the name Andrew Doheny and his nickname is like heaven. “Andrew D.” can easily turn into “android,” but as we keep telling our pupils here at OMBE, surfing is a subtle sport, and our pun game should be better than such blatant abbreviations. So, we believe that whoever made the decision to go with “droid” instead of “android” did really well.
That being said, there’s no other surfer who deserved to be called “droid” than Andrew Doheny. His surfing style definitely merited it. He was as stable on his board as a quake-proof skyscraper in Tokyo, and his turns, twists, and tricks were as accurate as the marksmanship of an Olympic archer.
Yet, being called “droid” didn’t help him in the end. As he tells his own story, his surfing career was full of stress, anxiety, and even “a few trips to the psych ward.” Even though he quit professional surfing, still, whenever he surfs, “a lot of these old feelings resurface.”. So, as far as nicknames go, we can say that “droid” was more of a curse than a blessing, but we sure as hell hope that his music career can give him more joy.
Peter “the Condor” Mel
It might be unnecessary to say, but big wave surfing is not at all like easing your surfboard into a wave on your chill point break. Just take a look at the history of big wave surfing and at the list of the biggest waves ever surfed, and you’ll feel a shiver going down your spine. It’s even impossible to keep your cool watching gargantuan waves let alone maintaining your balance on one.
But there are many brave surfers among us who are able to tame the massive power intrinsic to those waves, and Peter Mel is one of them. Up until now, he’s managed to handle famous big wave spots like Mavericks and won the Big Wave World Tour in 2012.
His trick to keeping his balance when chasing those waves was assuming the flight stature of a condor: arms reaching far and wide like that of a tightrope walker and legs bent. That body shape earned him the nickname “the Condor.”
Considering that a big wave surfer looks like a predator bird diving into a field of mice, it’s quite fitting, too.
Kelly “Jimmy” Slater
In the intro above, we said that, more often than not, the nicknames given to the surfers were based on their achievements on the ocean. So, who’s better equipped to have the greatest surf nickname of all time than Kelly Slater, who’s been hailed as the greatest surfer of all time by almost everybody who knows a thing or two about surfing and who’s the longest-serving competitor of the World Surf League?
Surely, the fact that he’s also a great environmentalist, philanthropist, and even a golfer should render him worthy of a cool nickname, right? Well, you’ll be surprised to know that Kelly doesn’t have a cool nickname based on his surfing achievements. The only nicknames he has are variations on his surname like “Slats,” and yes, he’s called the GOAT every now and then, but nowadays, who isn’t?
Then, where does “Jimmy” come from? Well, it’s from his appearance on one of the most infamous American TV shows of the 1990s, Baywatch. His character Jimmy Slade had only appeared 27 times throughout the show, but it was enough for him to be called “Jimmy.”
Adrian “Ace” Buchan
We don’t know whether the query of “jack of all trades vs. ace of one” is a philosophical question that inevitably has an Ancient Greek origin or not, but Australian surfer Adrian Buchan surely changes our perspective. He asks, “what if you can be an ace of all trades?”
The only place he comes after Kelly Slater isn’t only on this list as he’s also the second longest-serving competitor of the World Surf League. What’s more, is that he had once even beaten Kelly Slater. In addition, he’s a revered climate activist, fights for the preservation of indigenous cultures, and he’s a WSL brand ambassador.
Besides being an ace of all trades, he had an impeccable record as a grom (a young person who can only enter under-18 competitions in surfing). So, we believe that the nickname “Ace” fits him like a well-tailored suit.
Miki “the Black Knight” Dora
Miki Dora, born Miklos Sandor Dora III, is an interesting name in surfing. First of all, he’s Hungarian, and Hungary doesn’t have access to any ocean or sea. Although we know that Hungarians are particularly skilled as writers, film directors, or resolute avant-gardists, coming across a skilled Hungarian surfer is still surprising.
Yet, his stepfather was a free-spirited surfing pioneer called Gard Chapin, and thanks to his influence, Miki Dora became one of the most notable surfers ever to hail from Malibu, California, and thanks to his unique personality blending free-spiritedness with mindfulness, he shone like a black knight:
If you took James Dean’s cool, Muhammad Ali’s poetics, Harry Houdini’s slipperiness, James Bond’s jet-setting, George Carlin’s irony, and Kwai Chang Caine’s Zen, and rolled them into one man with a longboard under his arm, you’d come up with something like Miki Dora, surfing’s mythical antihero, otherwise known as the Black Knight of Malibu.
“The Black Knight” wasn’t his only nickname either. He was also called “Da Cat” because of both his movement on water (quick and agile) and moodiness in his personal life. Other nicknames he had include “the Fiasco Kid,” “the Gypsy Darling,” and “Kung’Bu.”
Greg “Da Bull” Noll
We talked about the exploits of Peter Mel on big waves. Before him, we hosted Gerry Lopez and talked about how he benefited from the surfboard revolution of the 1960s when conquering the Banzai Pipeline, which was deemed unsurfable before. Greg Noll, on the other hand, preceded Gerry Lopez and Peter Mel, and even before surfboards were on par with big waves, he was challenging himself on 30-foot waves of Waimea Bay, North Shore, Hawaii.
In that sense, he was a real pioneer of the big wave discipline and was one of the most prominent longboard shapers of his day. Unfortunately, though, his nickname wasn’t a result of his achievements. Rather, it was simply referring to his body shape and how he charged through the surf line on those big waves. Also, it’s said that he had a bull-headed approach in his quest for riding giant waves.
Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani
Although aerial maneuvers and surfing tricks seem like an essential part of the sport nowadays, the introduction of most of these tricks and maneuvers to the surfing world dates back only to the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, though, most of them were a result of the rich surf culture of Hawaii.
In this context, Hawaiian surfer Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani emerges as one of the most influential names of his time, and considering the importance of tricks in the contemporary surfing scene, he should be hailed as a pioneer. He was the first to perform switch-foot, and his switch-foot skills remain unmatched, for the most part, even today. Moreover, he was the first to do a backside 360 air.
Against his best efforts to earn a better nickname, though, he’s known as “Buttons.” His grandmother thought that the curls of his hair looked like somebody had sewed buttons to his head. We don’t think that he had ever wanted to lose his buttons.
Layne “Gidget” Beachley
Australian surfer Layne Beachley, who was born very close to Manly Beach, New South Wales, is often revered as the most successful woman surfer of all time. That reverence isn’t founded on nothing either, as she won seven world championships in the span of eight years (1998-2006), and she’s the only surfer (male or female) to have ever won six championships in a row.
Now, there are ample opportunities for various puns for a woman becoming successful on a beach called Manly and her surname being Beachley. Moreover, she has obviously had enough achievements throughout her career to deserve many amazing nicknames. Yet, that wasn’t the thinking of her friends and family.
They just went on and called her “Gidget,” probably as a reference to the famous surf novel Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas (1957) written by Frederick Kohner, or at least to its Hollywood adaptation (1959), as Layne was merely 1.65 meters tall (5’5”).
Mick “Keg on Legs” Lowe
The surfing journey of goofy-footed Australian surfer Mick Lowe was one of many ups and downs. He kicked off in the 1990s as a very promising junior but suffered a few setbacks due to the unique character of the learning curve of professional surfing and the overwhelming essence of expectations (which you might be familiar with through the story of Ricky Bassnett). Nevertheless, he recollected himself and went on to challenge big names like Rob Machado in 2012 (he came up only a runner-up) and won against Taylor Knox in 2014.
As winning against Taylor Knox would be for any surfer, Mick Lowe had enough cause for celebration, and celebrate he did. His life following his achievements in 2014 has become one full of partying and drinking beer. As a result of excessive beer drinking, his body started to change, and since that body was conceived to be full of beer, he was awarded the nickname “Keg on Legs.”
Although, at first, he managed to use the extra volume to his advantage by putting in powerhouse performances, he had to retire at the age of 30. Considering his early retirement, the nickname surely sounds a bit sad, but still, it has heartwarming values as well.
Gary “Kong” Elkerton
Apparently, when you build a career chasing the giant waves of the ocean, you get to be likened to other sorts of giants: Peter Mel becomes the condor, Greg Noll becomes da bull, and Gary Elkerton, another big wave legend from Australia, becomes King Kong, or shortly, just “Kong.” However, unlike Peter or Greg, Gary earned his nickname during high school because of his large body.
Let’s hope that his surfing never disturbs Godzilla from its radiation-lacking sleep. Such fictional wishes aside, though, we should also admit that there’s something quite reminiscent of King Kong in Gary Elkerton’s surfing style: he’s unique, he’s powerful, and he looks civilized yet untameable once he’s on a big wave.
Thanks to his skills, he showed up in many professional competitions, won the Hawaiian Triple Crown twice, and was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 2009.
Glen “Mr. X” Winton
Almost in every discipline, every niche, every distinct path of life, some skilled people who should have gotten more recognition are somehow overlooked. Sometimes, it’s due to others turning a blind eye to them, and sometimes, it’s because these skilled people don’t enjoy the attention. In the case of Glen Winton, the case was the latter, and his enigmatic personality earned him the nickname “Mr. X.”
Yet, we should at least give him a nod that indicates, “We see you, Mr. Winton, and we know what you did!” What did he do? Well, before FCS came up with their ground-breaking fin systems we were telling you about when mentioning Mick Fanning above, Glen Winton broke the fins on his twin-fin board into two, attached the broken parts back on the board, and came up with a four-fin system later to be known as quad. He also conducted lots of experiments with resin on the edges of his boards.
Later, though, he managed to turn both his board re-shaping faculties and his enigma into a business: he founded a surfboard brand called Mr. X.
Rob “Mr. Smoothy” Machado
All the nickname origins listed above are considered, “Mr. Smoothy” might mean anything, right?
It might signify a guy who likes his drinks to be as smooth as the top deck of a newly-glassed high-performance longboard. It might signify a smooth-talking gentleman who can find his way out of every conflict and controversy just by uttering a few well-placed words.
Well, none of the above is the case for American surfer Rob Machado. Although his personality can also be labeled as smooth, since he’s a cool, humble, chill, and laid-back guy, he earned his reputation solely through his surfing style.
Moreover, despite the fact that he showed up in many WSL competitions throughout his surfing journey, he still remains to be a free-spirited athlete, and he does his best on the front of climate activism. So, he’s a top bloke who totally deserves this cute nickname.
If you want to learn more about his surfing style, we can also help you with that, too: in our video guide, Rob Machado's Masterclass on How to Be Stylish in the Surf, OMBE head coach Clayton Nienaber and our presenter Anthony provides an in-depth breakdown of Rob’s unique surfing style.
John “John John” Florence
One of the most puzzling facts in the history of surfing might be why a guy who’s already named John is nicknamed “John John,” making it three “John”s in quick succession as if a spoiled kid called John is driving his mom crazy.
Luckily for us surfers, however, John Florence isn’t the first person in history to go under such an ordeal, and the surfers aren’t at all to blame for this phonetic misfortune. In fact, as can be said for the majority of problems in the world, politics is to blame.
See, John Florence was named after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Junior, the son of the 35th president of the United States. While Kennedy the Senior was in the oval office, people started calling Kennedy the Junior John-John to prevent confusion. Since John Florence was already named after Kennedy the Junior, why shouldn’t he have been nicknamed after him as well?
This interesting story aside, John Florence is a great surfer who conquered the Banzai Pipeline more than enough times. And we also happen to have a video guide in which Clayton and Anthony put JJF under the microscope.
If you’re an aspiring surfer, you’re probably contemplating your life at the end of this article, or you might even be contemplating life in general. After all, a nickname that gets stuck on you when you’re in high school might not come unstuck no matter what you achieve throughout your career. That’s surely a fate to avoid, right?
So, what can you do to prevent that from happening to you? Pay your friends or family to grant you cool nicknames like Rocky Raccoon, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Sonic the Hedgehog? Live an exemplary life, so nobody finds any other option but to call you by your name? Or welcome whatever comes as it comes because you’re already too cool to care about inconsequential stuff like this?
Well, that decision is yours and only yours.