Nineteen-year-old Cheyne Magnusson sits next to me on the second-story deck of Bill and Rochelle Ballard’s kelly-green post-and-beam home that sprawls along one side of the couple’s acre-plus Sunset Beach compound. With a massive lawn that slopes gradually from one end of the property to the other, a private driveway, and few interruptions aside from the occasional early rising rooster, it’s hard to believe you’re only 100 yards or so from the busy stretch of Kam Highway that passes Sunset Beach. From where we’re sitting, we can see windblown ten-foot waves exploding at Sunset Point. It’s midday, although Cheyne’s unruly mess of red hair (turned a sort of whitish-orange by the sun) makes it look like he’s just woken up. Wearing jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt, and skate shoes, he doesn’t look like your typical sandal-and-boardshorts-wearing North Shore resident–a fact that’s further compounded by his fair skin and light-blue eyes.[IMAGE 1]
It’s hard not to like Cheyne. He’s enthusiastic, agreeable, and intelligent, and while he’s certainly a talker, he’s also a listener who doesn’t give off the self-obsessed vibe often perceivable in people who seem to be talking just to hear their own voice. I ask him what he has planned for the year, and he tells me that Quiksilver (his sponsor since he was eleven years old) has been hinting around about entering some of the domestic WQS contests, but he adds that he has a hard time knowing exactly what their plan for him is. During the past year they’ve told him not to worry about competing and to focus instead on getting photos in the magazines, which he’s worked hard to do and feels like he’s had success at. “But I really like contests,” he says with a serious note in his voice. “I’m a really competitive person.” Cheyne goes on to tell me that his goal is to one day be ranked in the top sixteen of the WCT and to be perceived by his peers, his sponsors, and surfers in general as “well-rounded.”[IMAGE 2]
I ask if he’s been skateboarding lately, and even though he says nowadays he goes for months without skating, he reminisces about how when he was younger he spent most of the summer days of his childhood skateboarding in San Diego with his dad (Tony Magnusson–an 80s skateboarding superstar who went on to start H-Street Skateboards and later Osiris Shoes). “There were summers where I surfed maybe twice,” he laughs. “Maybe twice. I’d go to my dad’s and just skate the whole time.” His dad wanted him to be a pro skater and joked with him that he should give up surfing.
But back at home on the island of Maui (where Cheyne’s mom moved the family after what he refers to as a “bad divorce” from Tony), it was surfing that earned the redheaded, fair-skinned haole respect. The major theme of the Hawai‘ian surf scene is respect–it’s hard to learn and it’s even harder to earn–and now almost twenty and still sitting at the proverbial kids table, Cheyne feels like it’s a major obstacle to furthering his surf career. While trying to avoid getting cleaned up by set waves out at Pipe in the winter of 2001, Cheyne got in the way of an older local guy (name withheld) who, while still laying on his board, kicked the seventeen year old in the chest, bruising two of his ribs. Cheyne remembers sitting there, almost unable to breathe, and feeling forced to apologize. “I could hardly get a word out of my mouth it hurt so bad,” he recalls a look of disgust. “I couldn’t believe I had to sit there and apologize for doing nothing wrong at all.”[IMAGE 3]
There’s a fundamental difference between skateboarding and surfing that has to do with attitudes about youth. In skateboarding, where youth is praised, kids in their mid-tteens like Frankie Hill, Guy Mariano, and Tom Penny started revolutions that changed the course of skateboarding forever. With little, if any, emphasis placed on the role of competition, there is less of a feeling amongst skateboarders that success and respect have to be earned over an extended period of time. Surfing, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. It’s not that surfers don’t value young people, but surfing isn’t going to hand the keys to the city to just anyone because they did something out of the norm. Young surfers who aspire to be anything beyond regional scholastic surfing association runners-up are expected to survive the hazing, tolerate the condescension, maybe take a beating or two, and accept the role of redheaded stepchild.
The incarnation of this concept is the word “grom.” Taken originally from the word “grommet”–which refers to a part of a machine or manufacturing process so tiny and simple it’s not even worth giving a technical name to–the surf industry has practically abandoned referring to young people as anything besides “groms.” (Interestingly, skateboarding has no equivalent slang term.) The word isn’t used maliciously–it’s not like surf team managers sit around discussing how to best oppress their “groms”–it exists, in large part, to try to impart the concept of respect to the new generation. In surfing, not understanding the value of respect (for both fellow surfers or the ocean) is the easiest way to get your ass kicked or worse–especially in Hawai‘i.[IMAGE 4]
Cheyne’s still a grom–he’s aware of this fact–and he’s searching for ways to earn the respect that will help him take his next steps as a professional surfer. In Hawai‘i, one of the ways you earn respect is to surf Pipeline well, and Cheyne talks passionately about his desire to start charging ten-foot-plus Pipe. He’s been surfing it for a few years now, but he’s aware of how painful it can be to master. “You gotta go out there expecting the worst,” he tells me, “and you can’t think about the consequences of what you’re doing. You have to leave everything on the beach and just focus on what you’re trying to do.” He hasn’t hit the reef hard yet, he says before knocking superstitiously on the wooden deck railing, but he’s not afraid of it. Then, in a voice so confident I’m not sure if he’s talking about making the top sixteen, getting on the same page as his sponsor, or bouncing off the reef at Pipe, he adds, “It’s not a question of if it’s gonna happen, it’s a question of when.”