Solento Surf Festival: Embracing the Community Deli Feel

When I wrote my book, Backstreets: Living in My Truck and out of My Head, there were a few messages that I tried to bash the reader over the head with. Two of those were treat each day as an adventure to be thankful for and trust that the world is full of more good people than bad. As the months and years have passed since, I’ll admit that some of that mentality has slowly slipped away from me. Last week’s Solento Surf Festival put on by Taylor Steele at the Paloma Theatre in Encinitas was the kick in the ass that I desperately needed to bring it all back to top of mind.

Steele opened Thursday’s event talking about how, moving back from New York recently, he missed his local deli and that community feel. As someone that goes to the same local burger joint every Sunday, I know as much as anyone how incredible that local spot vibe can feel. He explained that the surf community can bring that homey, communal feel better than most, and specifically our very own surf community here in San Diego. Unfortunately, the past couple of years, it has been hard for a lot of people to want to say hi to their neighbor rather than walk right on by, to get together with a group of people that they don’t know all too well, and to be grateful for the paradise of a home that we get to live in. It was for this exact reason that he wanted to put on the festival, which had all proceeds go directly to Surf Aid, so that he could recapture that powerful unity that our surf town embodies. So, the very first thing we were asked to do was to introduce ourselves to the people around us or even just throw them a shaka. I’ll admit that most moments like this in my life have felt a little cheesy, but this one felt genuine and uplifting. For me, and I’m sure for others, it was the start of a night that felt like the booster shot that I needed to get my positive outlook back on track. 

After some music by Paul Cannon and Damien Derobbio, was the world premiere of The Color of Winter by Pat Stacy and starring Rob Machado. Before playing my favorite film of the night, Taylor sat down with those two and discussed the process. It had taken four years for Stacy to complete. It was four years well spent; the result was a beauty. Film was relatively new for Stacy when he started on the project and with his “learn by doing” method tied with his and Rob’s patience to get the perfect shots on the best winter days, it felt like he had been doing this his whole life. When asked what he most wanted people to take away from the film, Stacy said that he wanted people to just be thankful for the little things and thankful to live in this surfers’ dream town. Thankful I was. In between all the shots of Machado in the green room or doing ridiculous cutbacks was a small little subtle shot of a bench in Cardiff that I had sat the night before with my lady to watch the sunset. It was a moment that I was perfectly content in and did not think could be captured by anything other than my eyelid movie replays. Stacy brought that moment back to me and with a soundtrack that included anything from piano recital music to folksy tunes, The Color of Winter was music to my eyes and my ears.

Although I loved that Stacy and Machado captured the town that I live in so perfectly and would have the patience to not force a day of filming when the waves weren’t ideal, the next filmmaker took a very different approach on both fronts which I also loved. Dane Gudauskas and Alex Kilauano’s Explore Your Mind was filmed all over the world, from Hawaii to Africa, and was more about riding whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want. At one point Dane would be riding a little four foot board that my girlfriend couldn’t help but saying “it’s so cute!” in the first shot of him riding it. In the next shot, he would be riding a fourteen foot longboard. The main message of the film felt summed up by Dane who said that you can look at something that you’ve done your whole life and think, “I can change it up.” From a huge bomb at Cloudbreak to a half foot wave on a longboard, Explore Your Mind, showed that no matter how different the wave or the board, the one thing that would be constant was the smile on the rider’s face.

After that, Taylor sat down with three-time World Champion, Mick Fanning to relive old glory days as well as some not so great times. After a few lighthearted stories about Mick and Taylor’s adventures of running with the bulls, meeting gorillas, and surfing in Alaska with ice blocks the size of ovens as the only ones snaking Mick’s waves, they dove into one of the tougher periods of his life. All in the span of a year, he lost his brother and was attacked by a shark at the J-Bay Open in South Africa. As Taylor put it, it was a remember where you were when it happened type of moment. After it happened though, I never really thought about how it could have affected him mentally. We think of these professional surfers as invincible beings with unbreakable wills, but the truth is they are humans just like us and these traumatic events affect them just like they do us everyday people. Ignorantly, I expected that after a few months, he had just moved on from it and kept surfing like normal. Although Mick is one hundred times the badass that I will ever be, his vulnerability in talking about the attack and how he overcame it was even more inspiring than if he would have just said that the near-death experience was easy to brush off.

Instead of running from the fear, he ran into it head on and wanted to grow from it. He again teamed up with Taylor for a less fun project, but equally “dumb” as he put it. He decided to go out and learn about the sharks for himself. He swam in cages with Great Whites, kissed less dangerous sharks in the Bahamas with the Mother of Sharks, and ultimately got into the water without a cage with some absolutely massive Bull, Hammerhead, Tiger, and Lemon Sharks once he had gained some more comfortability with the apex predator. In some of his closing comments with Taylor, he said that he has always found it important to get “comfortable with the uncomfortable.” He acknowledged that he was scared as hell and thought about backing out at several points of the project and truthfully, I don’t know what was more inspiring, his honesty or his willingness to go through with it. From his willingness unlike most superstars – to help Taylor carry his film equipment to his great sense of humor to his balls of steel (kept warm by Drifties someday?), Mick Fanning became one of my favorite athletes in just a few short hours. Oh, and not to mention that he came back and won the J-Bay Open the very next year after the shark attack.

The night closed with one final film, Sprout, which was scored live by Second Harvest and narrated live by Chris Cote. Watching a film while watching artists play live music at the same time to go along with what is happening on the screen is an experience that I won’t soon forget. It was also incredible to see Cote helping out with the festival, on his birthday no less, just as all of the other legends in the surfing community had (Machado, Fanning, Steele, and Kelly Slater to join another day of the festival). In a relatively small, albeit magical theater, where tickets were only selling for twenty bucks a day and all proceeds benefiting charity, these guys were just there to be a part of it like the rest of us. That tells you all that you need to know about the surf community as well as Taylor Steele’s influence to it.

Truthfully, I had no clue what to expect walking in to the Solento Surf Festival, but I walked out inspired, content, and grateful. In the panel before Explore Your Mind, Dane, one of the founders of Positive Vibe Warriors, said “positivity is a choice.” There was no doubt in my mind from his captivating energy, that he made the right choice on that everyday.  Shortly after moving to San Diego, I asked a random guy how the surf was to which he responded, “always better than not going.” It was a statement that always stuck with me and one that I think would be a mission statement for Dane, Alex, and a lot of the other filmmakers and audience members at the festival. By the end of the night, I felt extremely grateful to be in the place that I was in, both in life and geographically. It was true that San Diego truly does have one of the greatest surf communities around. I was just thrilled to be a part of the special night celebrating the sport we love with likeminded neighbors, local legends, and of course my new favorite surfer and Australian, Mick Fanning. I hope that Taylor Steele got that warm, deli feel that he set out to create from the festival, because I know at least one other person did.