laird tuel strikes a balance between his professional surfing career and his loyalty to the fiercely protective community of the oregon coast.
Words by Lindsay Rossmiller & Photos by Will Saunders
Oregon’s coastal landscape is a palette of gray in the early morning light. As water surges into the rocks sending explosions of sea spray into the air, a man stands alone on the beach looking out over the waves. His eyes sweep back and forth in a routine he has done for almost as long as he can remember.
While most of his college friends were still passed out in bed, he packed up his wetsuit and board to drive over an hour through the darkness, arriving in the morning mist. The briny breeze stirs as he stares out at the water, not thinking about homework or bills. He just watches the swells.
Few people brave the surfing conditions on the Oregon coast and those who pursue a competitive, professional career can be counted on a couple fingers. Laird Tuel is one.
Despite pleas for him to remain local and under the radar, Tuel won’t treat surfing as a simple pastime. But even now, as he humbly collects sponsorships from the likes of Reef, Von Zipper and RVCA, he maintains loyalty to his home state.
“In Oregon, it’s a mission… It’s not easy,” Tuel says. “If people actually surf, that’s what they do. It’s not a hobby. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Here, forested cliffs of volcanic rock make it difficult to access certain beaches. The best waves are often ones that only locals know about and are not keen on sharing. Dedicated surfers must carry their boards as they scramble over rocks and through trees toward the ocean.
Training here means navigating not only the rough environment, but a tough community as well. However, Tuel has been dealing with both for most of his life and these elements have shaped his competitive career.
“I grew up at the beach and it’s just in my family,” Tuel says. “My dad surfed a bunch and I was always at the beach... It was just kind of what you do.” Even out of the water, the surf spirit was ingrained in his childhood as he played with toy cars in the dust of his father’s surfboard shaping workshop.
Tuel’s family moved from Hawaii to Oregon early in his childhood, trading the warm water of Kauai for wetsuits in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was a little cold for him at first,” says Tuel’s father Mike, but regardless of the conditions, the family tradition survived. It took time, but Tuel embraced the frigid learning curve and was hooked.
“I kind of hated surfing until I was 12. I would throw temper tantrums because I didn’t want to go to the beach because we were just always there,” he says. “Then something clicked.”
At the time, his friend Maya Sacks was also learning to surf. “We’d wake up pretty early and either my dad or his mom or someone would drop us off at the beach. And it’s a beach you have to hike into,” he said. “We’d just be there all day everyday...building forts and surfing all day so it was just pure fun.”
When Mike got off work, he would return and surf with the two boys. Tuel and Sacks were usually the only young surfers in the water.
“No one in my town surfed at all really except for my dad and his friends,” says Tuel, who grew up in the Nehalem Valley area just east of Cannon Beach. As the youngest, the two teenagers had to earn the respect of surfers at least twice their age. “Luckily I had my friend Maya. We were both the same age so we started at the same time and had each other to surf with,” Tuel says. “You need someone to push you and someone to guide you into things.”
At 14, Tuel received his first sponsorship from Seaside Surf Shop. Dennis Smith, the owner, compares his shop to a family and says, “Once we take you in, you’re in.” And the sentiment goes both ways. Even though Tuel has since gained additional sponsorships, he has remained loyal and the partnership continues today. He even returns to the shop to pick up shifts throughout the summer.
For the next few years, Tuel entered contests up and down the West coast, driving as far south as Santa Cruz and north to British Columbia to compete, and expanding his web of connections with other athletes and companies. At 16, Tuel gained sponsorships from Reef and Von Zipper, who were both seeking a younger surfer to represent the Northwest.
On those long car rides, some of which were 20 hours long, Tuel and his dad would talk about contest strategy and conditions. The mutual obsession with surfing preserved that relationship even after Mike Tuel moved back to Kauai. Following each contest, Tuel sends his dad film so they can review it together and identify what he needs to work on.
The Oregon coast is a harsh environment for improvement, as good conditions come and go and surfers must work around limited daylight during winter when the waves are largest. When Tuel was finally able to drive himself, every spare moment of daylight was spent in the water.
“Once I had my license, I went anywhere from Lincoln City to Seaside every day. My mom would always be like ‘Check in, check in!’” Tuel says, “But I would just go wherever the best waves were.”
Tuel’s parents supported his passion for surfing, trusting their network of friends along the coast if anything were to happen. The only issue was keeping him home for family events.
“The surf always ends up being really really good on holidays and birthdays,” Tuel admits. “I’ve gotten in trouble quite a few times for that.”
His passion may have gotten him in trouble with his family, but it helped him succeed in a place where surfing isn’t as prevalent.
“It’s not like other surfing communities,” Tuel says. “It’s regular communities with a couple people who surf so there aren’t surf towns or anything.”
Many of the older guys Tuel grew up surfing around are blue collar Oregonians—commercial fishermen and construction workers. These surfers are fiercely protective of their favorite spots and extremely wary of overcrowding.
“There are certain spots in Oregon with great waves, but the older generation is not open to bringing people who don’t live there, preaching that you have to ‘pay your dues,’” Tuel says.
Tuel is well aware of any publicity’s potential impact on the community. “I have seen a lot of crazy stuff happen,” he admits, referencing physical fights and smashed cameras that resulted from fear that a photo would expose a secret place.
“The Northwest is one spot you can still go and surf by yourself,” Mike Tuel explains. Gaining exposure and growing a professional career usually requires going elsewhere in order to protect your favorite spots. While traveling can be tiring and expensive, Mike says, “the reward is when you come back home and it’s just you and your buddies.”
Tuel understands both the benefits and downfalls. “It’s really nice to not have crowds when you surf,” he says, “but it’s kind of hard to have progression when there aren’t many people pushing you.”
Tuel estimates there are only 8-10 truly competitive surfers under 20 in Oregon. His experience as one of these young surfers offers something unique to companies who want to sponsor him. However, breaking further into the industry requires a bit more, including a significant increase in film production and sponsorships, which is difficult within this intensely loyal and protective community.
“They don’t like that. One of the guys, who is probably 40, is the best surfer in the Northwest and he is absolutely against sponsors and filming... I get where he is coming from because we have really good waves and no one surfs them,” Tuel says. “People just don’t want it to turn into California.”
Over time, Tuel earned his right to share these spaces and now tries to balance his respect for the local culture with the publicity of pro surfing. He is very cautious of where to film, often with his friend Maya who is now a photographer. When surfing with others, they have to be mindful of places on the coast where people who have not grown up there are not welcome.
For now, travelling beyond Oregon’s shores is a reality for Tuel as he juggles work, contests and full-time studies at the University of Oregon. As he makes his way back to campus after a day of surfing, his mind never actually leaves the coast. Motivation for his advertising degree is supported by a goal of working in the surf industry after graduation, either as a professional athlete or for a surf company.
His father always told him, “Find what you love to do and find a way to get paid for it.”
The look in Tuel’s green eyes is convincing. He is discovering ways to pursue that motto as he continues to travel, capitalize on opportunities to film and secure sponsorships to add to his more recent one from apparel giant, RVCA, in 2015.
If all else fails, Tuel can continue as the West coast’s unofficial Mexican food expert — conducting extensive research on every surf trip. He grins and says, “I know all the good burrito shacks from San Francisco to Canada.”