The Easy Riders of Rincon Point

At 19, the Texan-born photographer Jimmy Metyko arrived in Santa Barbara. As he releases a new book celebrating Santa Barbara’s surfing heroes of the 1980s, he shares his first impressions of the legendary break

Words and Photography by JIMMY METYKO


A view of Santa Barbara from a Brooks Institute parking lot.


It was a sunny Saturday in January 1980 when, camera in hand, I made my way down the well-worn trail from the parking lot to the beach at Rincon del Mar, the world-renowned surf break located some fifteen miles south of Santa Barbara, California. I had traveled a long way to get there, both literally and figuratively. Nineteen years old at the time, I had grown up chasing waves along the Texas coast; calling yourself a surfer in those swell-challenged barrier islands meant that you spent a lot more time dreaming about surfing than actually surfing. We craved imagery especially, poring over and memorizing the period’s surf magazines until their pages grew thin and tattered. Unlike a lot of my friends, however, I not only studied the pictures of famous surfers like Jeff Hakman, Gerry Lopez, and Shaun Tomson, but also followed the exploits of the era’s best surf photographers, with top lensmen like Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, Larry Moore, and Aaron Chang firing my imagination as much as their star subjects did.


The waves, clean and green, and folding uniformly were like something out of a dream…or maybe going back in time



Shaun Tomson, 1983 (Jimmy Metyko “could not believe my luck to have a surfer of Shaun’s caliber in Santa Barbara through the early ’80s”).


I had been around cameras almost my entire life. The sons of world travelers, my brothers and I often were pulled from school for months at a time in order to accompany our parents on their far-flung voyages. By age nine, I had graduated from holding my father’s camera bag to taking charge of shooting the family’s travel images, mastering on the go many of the important basics of photography. With all that exposure, my passion for making photographs grew more personal, to be taken much more seriously at home between trips abroad. I even began to bring my camera along to the beach, fostering the unlikely notion that a guy from Texas could someday become a successful surf photographer. It was a crazy idea, but one that I pursued over the years with all my youthful optimism. It led to me applying to and being accepted at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara — and eventually finding myself walking down the trail to the waves of Rincon.


The Channel Islands camp, assembled to watch Tom Curren’s heat: Matt George, Shaun Tomson, Al Merrick, Soren Hansen, Sam George, Jeanine Curren, and David Pu’u.


Al Merrick shaping a board.


I distinctly remember it being one of those beautiful, sunny winter afternoons, the waves clean and green and folding uniformly around this “corner of the sea”— nothing exceptional for this stretch of coast, but for a surfer/photographer from Texas, like something out of a dream…or maybe like going back in time. The first wave I saw was being ridden by a surfer on a longboard, in a manner reminiscent of stylists Reynolds Yater and Kemp Aaberg, both of whom were standouts at Rincon in the 1960s. The next wave had two riders jockeying with each other for dominance in the pocket, both riding early 1970s surfboard shapes and sporting “soulful” all-black wetsuits, outdated beaver-tail jackets flapping. The surfer on the third wave, however, was something else entirely, something completely of this time — or, more accurately, of the future. Clad in red-and-blue neoprene, riding a short twin-fin surfboard, this diminutive young performer already stood out from the crowd of older surfers. But it was the manner in which he rode across a clean set wave that commanded the most attention, gliding from turn to turn so precisely, so smoothly, with effortlessness beyond his years. Watching him, you almost felt as if you were riding along with him, anticipating and experiencing every crisp maneuver as he carved his way through the crowd, from the top of the point all the way to the inside shorebreak at the base of Highway 101.


It was the manner in which he rode across a cleanset wave that commanded the most attention, gliding from turn to turn so effortlessly



The young surfer was fifteen-year-old Tommy Curren, son of legendary big-wave pioneer Pat Curren, US Boys Amateur Champion, and Santa Barbara High sophomore. He was also the surfer I had come to Santa Barbara — and, more specifically, Rincon — to photograph. And here he was, on the very first set of waves I saw that day. Excerpted from Shaping Surf History (Rizzoli, $55).

Tom Curren holding an airbrushed board with art by Bernie Tsao.




Feature image: World-champion surfer Tom Curren.


This story originally appeared in the Fall Men’s Edition 2023 issue of C Magazine.

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