March 10th, 2014, the Dive n’ Surf’s Oregon Pro, a stop on the Big Wave World tour, was called on by event director Gary Linden. The conditions forecasted for 20-25 foot faces with light offshore winds. 24 of the world’s best Big Wave Riders were selected to compete and surf a bombora called Nelscott Reef that breaks ¼ mile off the coast of Lincoln City, Oregon. The South Bay’s Alex Gray was one of the big wave surfers chosen to compete. Two weeks prior, he paddled into one of the gnarliest waves ridden in LA County history.
After being screwed by ASP and surf brand politics in 2009, Gray turned his back on the traditional route of competing through the WQS to get to the WCT. He rebirthed into a guaranteed performer as a free surfer. Photogenic, articulate, possessing the ability to boost airs and possessing an intricate knowledge of tube, Gray’s a perfect photo trip subject. But underneath his ability to rock a mic at an award ceremony or score the deepest turquoise barrel on a South Pacific obscure reef pass to the delight of clicking fingers, are balls and will.
Starting out as a grunt and working his way through the Volcom Pipe House from cellar floor to top shelf, Gray was called to arms to handle some of the nastiest North Shore of the season. Never to back down and mentored by some of the heaviest, he hit his stride in waves of consequence. In 2011, Gray won Surfer polls’ “Best Barrel of the Year” by being flung into a Teahupoo death pit with a mac truck sized lip, fangs, and tentacles. His overall winter performance earned him an entry to the prestigious “The Quiksilver: In Memory of Eddie Aikau” big wave event for 2012-2014, and an alternate spot for 2013-2014. With “the Eddie” only being held in ideal conditions and massive wave size (in hence in the last 30 years since the first contest, only 7 times it went off), unlucky for Gray the event was a “no-go.”
March 12th, 2014, Gray paddled out in the first heat of the contest. This also happened to be his first time ever surfing Nelscott Reef. It was a stacked heat that included current points leader Grant “Twiggy” Baker of South African, winner of last month’s Body Glove Mavericks Invitational and December’s Arnette Punta Galea Challenge: Basque Country. On top of Grant, San Clemente’s Greg Long, the only surfer to win the Quiksilver “Eddie” Big Wave Invitational, the Maverick’s Invitational, and the Red Bull Big Wave Africa event also was treading water. Gray took second in the heat, with Baker winning. Gray followed Baker into the semi where Maverick’s local Shawn Dollar won. Gray placed second with Baker taking 3rd to make it to the final.
With the cameras of Universal Sports broadcasting live for the final, the lower tide exposed the reef to take the swell head on, jacking up the set waves, and causing even the smaller waves to break. Overall, the chances were easier to get caught inside. The ruggedness of the Oregon coastline known for brutal northwest winds began to blow a disorientating chop and wobble on the ocean surface.
All though being Gray’s first BWWT contest, Gray stood his ground engaging in paddle battles and fighting for position against the seasoned pros.
“All I had to do was sit inside and take off late to get the best wave,” said Gray. “It was fun.”
Besides the conditions and the competition, his trusty Channel Islands yellow 9’6” self described as the best big board Gray had ever own, had a bit of misfortune.
“To get out to the reef, [on PWC with Gray in tow] we had to punch through a Puerto like shorebreak,” he said. “My fin broke out on the Jetski airing over a wave going out to the final, I was rattled to say the least.”
Gray had a back-up red 9’9” that he had never ridden tied to a buoy in the channel. The problem was, it had been out in the 50 degree water since the first heat.The freshly applied wax turned into ice. The ski driver had wax, but it was semi melted.
“When you try to put warm wax on a cold, wet surface it doesn’t stick at all. My head was down and I was about to curse the world for my luck,” Gray said. “The heat was starting in 5 minutes. I was about to drop into big, chunky waves on a board that I’d never ridden and may as well have had soap for wax.”
With Gray’s lack of luck he reflected on his late brother, Chris Gray.
“All of a sudden I couldn’t stop laughing. I looked up at the sky and said to my brother Chris ‘you fucker!,” Gray said. “He was messing with me like he had forever when we were kids. I put my leash on and wouldn’t let him get away with this. I told myself that I was at least going to send it on the bomb of the event whether my wax was ice or not.”
Throughout the event, Gray felt the presence of his brother. Never getting nerve wrecked, he was composed all the way to the end.
“When the horn of the final sounded, I looked around and thought that this was one of the most fun days of surfing I’d ever had,” Gray said. “[Event Director] Gary linden pointed over and announced I had won and goosebumps instantly covered my body. I looked up at the ski and said ‘Chris, we did it.”
March 1st-2nd, a massive swell was forecasted to explode onto LA County with the biggest surf seen in decades. With mic responsibilities that Saturday night at the film premiere of one of his longtime sponsors, Volcom’s, “True to This,” at the brand’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, Gray took an interlude between days.
“I remember just smiling and laughing the entire time that night,” he said. “I just knew how good it was going to be.”
While the first day of the swell was bigger, the second day was cleaner. Gray and a crew of local South Bay chargers, Dayton Silva, Angelo Luhrsen, Connor Beatty, Steve Howe, Will Reid, and Natalie Anzivino, and Orange County’s Timmy Reyes took the water at Torrance Beach in mostly double overhead close-outs. The chances of making a wave, 1 in 20.
If there was any doubt before, it was in this session Gray took off on “a bomb” that cemented his South Bay legacy.
“His bomb looked like Puerto Escondido and not from the South Bay,” fellow South Bay surf star Chris Wells said. “With Alex’s big wave training and experience, only he could of or wanted to pull off that wave.
While eyeballing the incoming wave, he reflected on some of his mentors and friends who passed away.
“I was thinking of Chris Gray, Jimmy Miller, and Kirk Mcnulty when I paddled for it,” he said. “It reminded me of being a little kid, when I thought, ‘please make the drop,’ during my earliest memories of surfing “Burnout” with Chris.”
One for the South Bay
South Bay pride is one thing evident for Gray, from “South Bay” stenciled across his CI surfboards next to his sponsors’ logos, to talking and giving lectures at local High Schools,to recently renting a bus and taking a squadron of local skaters to petition Palos Verdes City Hall for a local skatepark.
“I think the South Bay has the richest surf history in the world,” he said. “The late 50s and 60s are still the most influential time in surf history. Greg Noll, Mike Purpus, Hap Jacobs, David Nuuhiwa, Dewey Weber are mystical Gods to me. In the 80s, we produced surfers like Scott Daley, Joe Bark, Chris Frohoff, and Ted Robinson. In the 90s, Greg Browning and Tyler Hatzikian came from the South Bay.”
Gray feels that the South Bay motivates him to grow and further the legacy. He wants to give back the same way surfers before him did.
“My dad knew Mike Drews and his daughter, Jamie Drews bought Greg Browning to my 10th birthday party,” Gray said. “I was bouncing on my trampoline and my Mom called me to meet Greg, the first time I met a pro surfer.”
Browning came in bearing gifts of surf mags and a board board for Gray and his brother. This sparked a mentorship that continues to this day.
“I remember Greg picking up my from brother from Miraleste [Middle School] to go surf,” Gray said. “Greg said to my brother, ‘I hope you don’t mind big waves.’ My brother never told Greg he was scared shitless. Greg then put him into the scariest waves of his life. My brother was stoked. He wanted to be a pro surfer.”
Gray looks to his brother as his biggest influence and the reason he got into surfing.
“My Dad is a judge and my Mom is a Speech Therapist,” Gray said. “My brother joined the Junior Lifeguard and his instructor was Jimmy Miller. After his first day of “JG’s,” my brother thought Jimmy is the coolest person in the world and so he is now inspired to be a surfer.”
When Gray overheard his brother’s stoke, he decided it was time to become a surfer.
“Jimmy Miller introduced surfing into my family,” he said. “My family went to Torrance Beach on soft top foam boards. I envisioned ripping with my brother, but got nipple rash and cried. My dad pushed me into a wave to the sand and I was hooked for life.”
Gray is very appreciative of his place in surfing. After winning the Oregon Pro, he’s earned a place to compete on the 2014-2015 BWWT.
“Second to family, surfing means the most to me,” Gray said. “I get to spend nine months out of the year chasing the best waves around, training and surfing as much as possible. I get to dive and hang in nature’s gym and playground with the most fun thing in my life as my profession.” DZ