History of Surfing gets the least views of the three sites. Encyclopedia by far gets the most, then Above the Roar, then History. Still, History is the pacesetter. I'm uploading one History section each week, in chronological order. There will eventually be 156 sections total, and as of tomorrow’s post ("Kook Straps, Cadillacs, and Sex Wax") we’re at number 87—putting us into the bleary-eyed 1970s. Point being, my head gets stuck in whatever History section I’m piecing together each Sunday, which in turn inspires the upcoming Encyclopedia and Roar posts. “No Contest,” from a week before last, set up the Tiger Espere post, and while scrolling through the Tiger clips I realized I had way more Ryan Dotson footage than I thought, which in turn spun me into a four-day journey through the brief light and lingering darkness of Dotson’s life.
Ryan Dotson was a first-rank Sunset Beach surfer-shaper turned small-time bank robber. Sounds cool in a Dora-meets-Bonnie-and-Clyde way, but no. There’s more to the story than what I’ve presented—here’s a 1969 Dotson interview, and here's a long-read profile written by Dotson’s friend Richard Dowdy—but really it comes down to putting everything you have into one thing, all your focus and attention and energy, achieving mastery, realizing that your mastery counts for pretty much nothing in the marketplace, and . . . then what? Nearly every surfer I admired as a kid (meaning Dotson’s contemporaries) faced the same dilemma. A few pushed on and helped create the foundation for our present-day surf industry. Others sold drugs. Others scrambled for a career in fields that in 1970 they would have scorned as “Establishment.”
Surfing still does that to a lot of people. “Surfing is life, the rest is details.” People actually believe that nonsense. I did. But 99.993% of all-in surfers, at about 26—Dotson’s age when a slow-healing injury took him out of surfing’s first rank—will find themselves floating midair like Wile E. Coyote. Suddenly facing the great existential Now What? There are good choices, and bad choices, horrible choices. I’m not judging. Or rather, I’m not judging in this particular paragraph. I’m saying that’s a hard moment, as hard as it gets this side of death or divorce, when the best thing in your life leaves you suspended a couple hundred feet above ground without a parachute. You probably won’t die upon landing. But land hard enough, and you might end up robbing banks, like Dotson.
Ryan Dotson died in 2015, at age 69. People who I know and respect think highly of him. Randy Rarick loved Dotson’s high-line drive at Sunset, as well as the beautiful high-end guns Dotson shaped from his shack at Sunset point. Rarick paid Dotson’s way to come to Hawaii for one last visit in 2011.
Dotson is remembered today, if he’s remembered at all, as the surfing bank robber. But watch this video, forget what’s in Dotson’s future, and celebrate a man doing what he loves most, on a board made by his own hands, fully and perfectly in the moment.
Thanks everybody, and see you next week.
[Photos: Art Brewer, Richard Dowdy]