Last August, during the U.S. Open of surfing in Huntington Beach, California (one of two Cali cities laying claim to the title of Surf City, U.S.A.), as Oceanside’s Ryan Burch (Instagram-famous as bobbersandsinkers) and Malibu’s notorious first-peak-hog Chad “Nightsnake” Marshall struggled to connect the outside and inside sections of the mediocre afternoon surf, Jacksonville’s Justin Quintal confidently glided across the best waves of the day on his way to a first-place finish in 2014’s Duct Tape Invitational.
Quintal and his brethren share a counterculture vision that some say stands juxtaposed to what surfing has become: a bunch of multimillion-dollar corporations inflating profits on the backs of Thai sweatshop labor, hawking the “surf lifestyle” through shitty T-shirts sold to tweeners and mid-life-crisis cool dads who love to tell people they surf. The revolution has a sponsor — the Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational is brought to you by Vans, so go figure.
Here at home, Quintal is easy to spot. He drives around the beaches in his absurdly tricked-out adventure van, with several of his single-fin options (and fishing poles) strapped to the roof. In the water, among the crowds kicking and thrashing their potato-chip-thin thrusters into Northeast Florida’s fickle, tiny peaks, he walks effortlessly from tail to nose and back again on heavy longboards — again, hard to miss. Quintal is 25. He’s got a ton of sponsors, and among his age group, he is arguably the most recognized professional surfer from Florida.
As he travels the globe — and hits the prime years of his surf career — the sight of said absurd surf-utility vehicle is becoming less and less frequent around these parts. In a stroke of luck, Folio Weekly was able to catch up with him as he took a break from paddling into the heaving, scary, 15-foot seas of Waimea Bay, Hawaii.
Folio Weekly: What are you up to, dude?
Justin Quintal: I’m in Hawaii for three-and-a-half weeks and basically I’m just here to surf, try and get some good video clips, and work with a few photographers. I’m going to be trying to surf all conditions, from the flat days on my longboard to some of the bigger days at Waimea. I brought a 10-foot-four gun [a big-wave board] with me. I’ll try and get some barrels at Pipe, too.
Is it an annual thing for you now where you feel like you have to go out to Hawaii in order to be seen?
Yeah, sort of. I came out here last year and got a couple [waves] at Pipe and Off-the-Wall. It’s just when the waves get big here, it’s just so much different than everywhere else. You know, it’s crowded and sometimes the crowds can be aggro, but there is also a lot of positivity out here. A lot of revolutionary surfing has gone down out here. It’s still the proving grounds.
When you’re in Hawaii, is there pressure to charge big waves? Or is that just fun for you?
Not necessarily pressure. As a surfer, you always just want to get the best barrel of your life, biggest wave of your life, or do the longest noseride, biggest air, best turn. I just want to see how far I can take it.
As you’ve been traveling and charging bigger surf, have you run into any sketchy or dangerous situations?
Last year, I took off way deep at Pipe on a seven-to-eight-foot Hawaiian — [Hawaiians cut wave sizes in half when they measure] — so, 16-foot wave. Someone cut me off, so I had to straighten out and my nose poked in the flats. I just started skidding on my back and I could look up and see the whole wave fold over me. It felt super-violent. Like being in a car wreck. [Laughs.]
You’re a pro surfer, but you’re not on the World Surf League pro tour, and you’re not competing too often. What’s a misconception you think people might have about the life of a pro surfer?
I can’t speak for everybody, but when I’m out in our community, I think people assume that I’m, like, raking in the dough. Or I’m just chilling all the time. Almost like [surfing] is not really a job or something. I could see where that would be the case, when people see me getting a coffee and checking the waves first thing in the morning. But I’m checking to see where it’s going to be best
that day, and I’m gonna get a photographer or get someone involved where I can get some kind of content to market for the companies I surf for. The way the surf industry is now, if you are a professional surfer, you’re a marketing guy for those companies.
It’s almost like, especially if you’re a longboarder, you have to have your own cult of personality to be successful. Is your biggest challenge to get folks to know who you are and to like your surfing?
Yeah, kind of. Especially being from Florida, we’re not in the heart of the surf industry and there’s no brand headquarters here. Basically, you have to find ways to make yourself stay relevant. It’s hard. Especially with the kind of surfing I’m into. Just like the Duct Tape at the U.S. Open. I’m standing next to the guy who won 100 grand [Felipe Toledo, winner of the Men’s Prime event] and I’m a longboarder so I won 4 grand. He’s gonna go buy his chick another diamond ring and ball out tonight. I’m gonna fill my tank up and drive back to Florida.
Compared to California, there’s not much of an experimental surfing vibe here. How did you get into riding longboards, single fins and other experimental surf craft?
I moved from Canaveral to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when I was 7. We lived there for, like, six years. There was only one surf shop on the island, Sunny Days Surf Shop, and this guy John Folly owned it and shaped boards out of there. He was really into longboarding and he shaped eggs, little retro fishes, single fins. I wanted to be a little grom shortboarder, but the waves were really small there. I’d surf with [John] and my dad. John was, like, “I don’t know why he’s out there messin’ around on that shortboard when it’s knee-high!” So Johnny shaped me a mini-longboard and from that point on, I’d longboard when it was small.
Though there’s a really vibrant surf culture locally, we’re always importing trends from California and Australia. Why do you think Florida, in general, doesn’t export much surf culture?
I definitely want to change that because I think we have a lot to offer. I think the Southeast is a pretty unique region, kind of a raw region. We have waves as good as anywhere, just not as consistent, maybe. North Florida, especially Indiatlantic and Melbourne get bigger, but Jacksonville [beaches] gets more perfect. We have these setups where we have perfect sandbars. You can surf some of the best longboard waves ever, or you can go get barreled. That produces a lot of talent. Maybe no one’s doing their own thing enough to really get us noticed, I guess. I want to change that. There is a budding scene, I think. I’m getting some equipment and materials together, because I want to make some rad shit myself. I’m going to take my experience and try some experimental fin design and apply that to some board design. I want to do it in a way that highlights the culture of the South. So, we’ll see how it turns out.
You’ve traveled to all these places, surfed all these waves. What keeps you coming back to Northeast Florida?
It’s hard. Part of me feels like I should be moving somewhere where I can be surfing consistently perfect waves all the time, but also if you move somewhere like Southern California, cost of living is so high, I might not be able to travel as much and chase waves. It’s easy to be in Southern California and be in this little bubble and feel like the world revolves around you. But a lot of those people don’t really know what’s going on because they aren’t getting a chance to travel. Living in Florida, to me, is this little slice of heaven. I have my own spots. I don’t feel bothered. I can drive on the beach, surf by myself, go fishing, have a blast, see the people that I grew up with that I love and care about. And sometimes it’s good to get away from surfing, step back for a bit. I can get enough surf here to keep me going and keep me hungry.