I started surfing Nantucket when I was fourteen. My childhood best friend, Sean McMahon, the person who’d first introduced me to surfing, had moved out there with his mother. I’d visit him on weekends during the offseason and for entire weeks during summers. Having grown up in a working class beachfront neighborhood on Boston’s South Shore, Nantucket was a completely alternate universe, especially from fall to spring. The vibe was laid back. Older dudes cruised around in old Broncos and F-150s, almost all of them with Grateful Dead stickers on the back windows. I hadn’t even heard of the Dead at the point. As a neurotic Catholic kid, the name itself, the Grateful Dead, scared the living Jesus out of me, but it seemed to fit the people who inhabited Nantucket, especially the surfers. Everybody had that crazed philosopher look, wide-eyed as if staring into the existential void, and they weren’t frightened by what they saw. They were kind of grateful for what they had, which was silence and solitude to the backdrop of absolutely thumping beachbreak. Nantucket surfers had that die-hard persona that comes with surfing big, currenty waves by yourself on a regular basis.
Gary Kohner has always had that wide-eyed edge. Gary grew up surfing on Nantucket but now resides in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica half the year surfing the heavy reef waves of Salsa Brava. To me, Gary epitomizes the Nantucket surfer. I first met him when I was fifteen through my friend Sean. He was a year or two older and often drove us around to various breaks. Gary’s intense passion for surfing rivals anyone I’ve ever met, even my own. He charges big waves and rips in the small stuff (he was one of the first people I’d ever seen ride a fish). Over the years, Gary has done the near impossible for a New England surfer. He’s found a way to make a living at it. Gary has always had extreme foresight in regards to the surfing lifestyle. He bought property in Costa Rica before most people had ever heard of the place. He’s produced an award-winning surf film recognized by the likes of Surfer Magazine. He also runs the biggest and most-successful surf school in New England, and has been doing it long before the idea struck current opportunists. Thankfully, Gary took some time from living the dream to answer a few mundane questions from a recovering neurotic. Thanks, Gary!
Volpe: I remember first meeting you in the mid ‘80s. I was a freshman in high school. I’d been to Nantucket before visiting Sean, but this was my first trip as a surfer. It was late fall and the thing that really hit me was the starkness of not only the beaches, but the entire island. I’d spent considerable time on the Cape, but Nantucket was something altogether different. Being out at Madequecham in November was profoundly raw. I found it both intimidating and awe-inspiring. What was it like growing up as a surfer on Nantucket, especially during the off-season? In what ways did it shape you as a surfer? And coincidentally, how long have you/your family lived out there?
Kohner: I moved out to Nantucket in 1976 when I was six. When I started surfing in 1984, there were not many year round surfers. There was a crew of us groms, like Sean McMahon, Dave Ozias, Kevin Huyser, and Jeff Walsh who all started around the same time and then there was the older crew with guys such as Chris Emery, Steve Erisman, Bill Davidson, Ben Murphy Rick Kotalack, and Freddy Linquist, to name a few. Also a kid named Eric Miller moved out to Nantucket from Hawaii and he talked pidgin and ripped for a teenager in Nantucket at that time. My summers revolved around Nobadeer for the most part. It was and still is the party beach and there were always lots of interesting things going on for a teenager...parties, girls etc.. However, as soon as summer was over, the crowds of teenagers disappeared and we'd be looking for people to surf with, driving around checking Nobadeer, Cisco, Madequecham, and Madaket. It was hard back then trying to find the right spot, well before cell phones. If we found a good peak, maybe we'd be on it all day with minimal peeps, and then hear about what another break was like later on when we connected with friends. I think growing up in a uncrowded environment, I certainly dislike crowds and have tried to travel to places that are a bit off the beaten track. I think the challenge of surfing beachbreak in the winter also made me really appreciate points and reefs as I got older and started to travel.
Volpe: That's exactly how I remember Nantucket in those early years. Since you bring up crowds, maybe you can talk about your purchase of land in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. For me, you were the first person I'd ever heard of who did such a thing. Back then, maybe Todd Holland and his mom were running that surf camp, but I feel like you were already there by then, if not shortly after. What year did you buy land, and in what ways has the place changed, if at all, especially in regards to crowds?
Kohner: I bought a piece of land in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, right near Salsa Brava (I have a nice view of second peak from my house). I had actually heard about Costa Rica from Chris Frame who had been there with Steve Erisman in 1989. Then a friend of mine from Florida said he wanted to do a surf trip over the winter to CR and I decided to join him. The town has changed considerably since I bought the land in 1993. I first went there in January of 1990. It was a pretty sleepy place back then and now it’s a popular tourist/party town. It’s more crowded than it was back then in large part due to that there were only a few locals that surfed Salsa when I first went there. Now the local crew is much bigger and the kids rip. Former Costa Rican National Champ Gilbert Brown is a local ripper and there are many good local surfers who charge Salsa as well as rip small waves. It gets crowded but I know the local crew well and like to imagine I have a place in the lineup and pecking order. Over 20 years of surfing there has given me some insight in reading the waves and knowing the lineup.
Volpe: I’ve seen pics of Salsa and the place looks like it gets super hollow and heavy. Maybe you can describe the wave for us. Did growing up on the fairly shallow sandbars of Nantucket help you acclimate at all?
Kohner: I've had the most epic tube rides of my life at Salsa. There’s been so many days, it's hard to single out any one in particular. It has so many different moods. It can be smaller and playful, big, stormy and gnarly and everything in between. It's usually less crowded when it's really big so I really like those days. I was super intimidated by the wave when I first went there so I would say growing up on Nantucket didn't really prepare me for Salsa. It's actually not a super shallow reef. Maybe 6-8ft deep at some parts and shallower at others. I've bounced really hard off of it years ago and broke a rib. I took off on a solid 6-8 foot bomb and spun out at the bottom. I remember being on my back, getting sucked up the face, and thinking how I’d just blown a perfect barrel. Then it sucked me up and over the falls twice. The second time, it just pounded me straight into the reef on my back. Fortunately, I was wearing a shortie so I didn't get that cut up. I came in and was spitting up blood for a while.
Volpe: That sounds pretty intense. Are there any other waves in the area?
Kohner: There are some other good reef breaks on the Caribbean side and the beachbreaks can get really good too. There are also some outer reefs that can get BIG. The Caribbean can be fickle and inconsistent but it can also pump for months.
Volpe: What’s it like spending a considerable portion of your year in Costa Rica? I am sure it’s paradisiacal. I am just asking because I really enjoy feeling shitty about my year round life here in New England.
Kohner: I bought my property because I just really loved being there and it was still cheap to buy at the time. In hindsight, I wish I bought a lot more property all over Costa Rica. I usually spend about four to six months a year in CR. I was certified as a yoga teacher by the Nosara Yoga Institute in November 2009 and since then I have been spending a lot of time on the Pacific side in Playa Guiones where I’m involved with the Institute as a student. I also work and assist various teacher training programs. I do miss Salsa when I'm on the Pacific side.
When I'm at my house on the Caribbean side, I get into full surf junkie mode if the waves are good. Wake up early. Surf. Eat. Surf. Eat and sleep some more. I like hanging out with the crew on the beach and being part of the peanut gallery. I've known most of the local rippers since they were kids. I also like to stand up paddle board and hit the outer reefs and Salsa on my SUP. Lately, I have been trying to wean myself off the SUP tit. I had two years where I barely surfed prone...it was all SUP all the time, no matter what the conditions. I brought a bunch of SUPs down about four to five years ago and got a few of my friends hooked. Everyone has been breaking their SUPs so their back to surfing again. It’s a great place to paddle when the waves are flat with all the reefs and beautiful coastline. The Caribbean is pretty laid back so it's easy for me to get into a laid back groove. I'll take some of the local mini groms surfing and throw big barbeques on the beach...I guess that’s my way of contributing.
Volpe: Judging from your Facebook pics, you're clearly not the typical SUPer. You absolutely rip on that thing. You say you're weaning yourself off, what is it about SUPing that seems so shameful?
Kohner: To set the record straight, I still love SUPing and I'm not ashamed of it at all. I just want to be a complete, well-rounded surfer. Certain wave conditions are better for a surfboard than a SUP. I just noticed that if I didn't force myself to surf other boards I would tend towards the SUP. I tend to get obsessed with things for a while, like there was a period of time when I got super into longboarding and only rode longboards. Then I got super into riding a 5'6" fish and only rode that board. I love SUPing in big waves and I think there is a lot of potential for big-wave surfing on them. I think SUP's get a bad rap because you can be a total wave hog on them if you want to be and a lot of kooks ride them. I love riding different boards and I love the glide. Pulling into a double overhead barrel on a 9' SUP with a paddle is a serious rush!
Volpe: Shifting topics, in 1999 your surf video “Horny for Surf” got some serious attention from the surf industry. What was that experience like and any new films coming out soon?
Kohner: I edited “Horny for Surf” on a VCR. My friend Steve Tag helped me put music to it. As a joke, I sent it in to Surfer Magazine because they had reviewed a couple of homemade videos. It was reviewed in their big issue and got a great review. Then I got a phone call from Ben Marcus saying I should come out to the Surfer Poll Awards. It won Best Underground Surf Video at the Surfer Poll/Video awards. My friend Josh was also nominated for Best Performance by a Male Surfer for his goofy antics in the video. Occy ended up winning that year for his performance in the Occumentary. It was so classic because they announced all the nominees and then showed a little video montage. It was like Occy, Bruce Irons, and a couple other pros just killing it in epic surf, and then my friend Josh surfing all awkwardly in knee-high surf and throwing up. I flew out to LA for the ceremony...I was pretty star-struck by all the pros actually. I made a couple more and edited them on iMovie. I enjoy the creative process of editing the footage and putting music in. I haven't done much lately though.
Volpe: Aside from buying property in Costa Rica before it was popular, you also started running a surf school long before other surf schools here on the mainland started, at least to the size and scope you’re doing. How did you get started?
Kohner: I was actually in Santa Cruz with Chris Frame the winter of 1998/99 and we started talking about how a surf school could work on Nantucket in the summer. I decided to give it a shot. It was right when Soft-Top surfboards came out. So I went to the guys at Surftech (based in Santa Cruz) and ordered half a dozen boards and then got a dozen or so shorties from Rip Curl. I started giving surfing lessons in the summer of 1999. The first summer it started off as a part-time thing because I was also landscaping, but by the end of the summer I decided to sell the landscaping business and do the surf school full time the following summer. I now have about a half-dozen instructors. Most are local kids that have been surfing and hanging around the surf school since they were groms. We give hundreds of lessons a summer and do a weekly surf camp for kids. I also rent boards and SUP's and give SUP lessons.
Volpe: From buying land in CR, to producing surf films and teaching surf lessons, is it safe to say that you have found a way to make a living from surfing? Do you look upon your life in that way? And what if any do attribute to this success?
Kohner: I think I've been very lucky. I'm very grateful to be able to make a living from something I enjoy. I think being passionate about what I do has helped. I love surfing and it's had a huge impact on my life.