Telling the story of my transition from an average guy to ‘kook’

A kook and an experienced surfer try out the waves at Mondos Beach in Ventura

Tribune sports reporter and self-proclaimed "kook" Travis Gibson travels to Ventura to surf Mondos Beach with senior photographer Joe Johnston.
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Tribune sports reporter and self-proclaimed "kook" Travis Gibson travels to Ventura to surf Mondos Beach with senior photographer Joe Johnston.

This is kind of hard to write, but let me do it with pride. Hello, my name is Travis Gibson, and I am a kook.

Whew, that was harder than I thought it would be.

First, before we get started, let me explain the definition of a kook in case you’re not familiar. For nonsurfers, a kook is “one whose ideas or actions are eccentric, fantastic or insane,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. Surf culture has taken the word and shifted the meaning.

In the surf world, the word kook is usually used to describe someone who has no idea what they are doing when it comes to surfing. In other words, a noob, though I’m told some people never grow out of being a kook. There are Instagram accounts like “Kook of the Day” and “Kook Slams” that are dedicated to making fun of kooks and feature photos and videos of people wearing their wetsuits backward and taking painful spills. It might seem a little mean, but trust me, it’s hilarious. So far I haven’t been featured. Thank God.

I use these kook accounts, along with the advice of my friends and surf guides, to help me learn what not to do as I continue my quest to become a respectable surfer.

Growing up in Florida, I wasn’t too far from the Atlantic Ocean, but I chose to stick to lakes and rivers for my water recreation. When I moved to San Luis Obipso, I quickly realized fresh water isn’t exactly abundant. If I wanted to enjoy the water, I knew I better get a surfboard.

Luckily for me, Tribune senior photographer and dialed surfing veteran Joe Johnston let me borrow a wetsuit and a long board. I hit the water and, not to brag or anything, I picked it up pretty quickly, likely due to my past snowboarding and skateboarding experiences.

Over the past 10 months, I have worked hard to get better and earn the respect of my peers by charging overhead El Niño waves, abiding by the rules of the lineup, and listening and learning from those much more experienced. I have done a pretty good job of that — I even got a really cool surf photo (above) out of it — but that doesn’t mean I don’t still possess some strong kook qualities.

I still drop in on surfers who are in better wave position than me (a major surfing faux pas). I still look like a struggling octopus out of water when taking off my wetsuit. And I use a soft-top — or foam surfboard (not a Wavestorm) — instead of one made out of fiberglass, a dead giveaway of kook status. I once spent an hour surfing with my wetsuit hood on inside-out.

Though it’s meant to be slightly degrading, I don’t take offense when someone calls me a kook. I look at it as a term of endearment, actually, as long as they say it to my face. Like the way I tell my brother he’s an idiot, but, ya know, with love. My friend Nick gave me my proudest moment as a surfer so far when he dubbed me “Kook of the Year.” I tear up with joy just thinking about it.

But all of the kook slams and judgmental looks can’t take away the stoke that I get when I’m riding a wave or simply floating in the lineup. It’s a feeling you can’t replicate. And despite the stereotype that local surfers are jerks, there hasn’t been one moment I have felt unwelcome on the Central Coast.

Except once.

A couple of months ago, Joe was showing me some photos from a recent surf session at a local beach. The waves looked great, so I asked him the location of the break. He paused.

“I can’t tell you, kook.”

Learning how to surf (become a kook)

  • Start with a large beginner board — more flotation, stability
  • Start with a beginner-friendly beach with small wave conditions
  • Determine how the waves are breaking and in what direction — don’t surf beach breaks (waves that break right on the beach)
  • Start by catching white-water waves, riding them on your chest, centered and balanced with your toes at the tip of the board
  • When you’re ready to stand, paddle steady as the wave comes in, when the wave catches you, pop up and keep your knees bent and a wide stance
  • When you’re about to bail (and you will, a lot) try to jump away form your board and protect your head with your arms
  • Be aware of your surroundings — don’t cut people off just to catch a wave

Tips to avoid becoming the worst kind of kook

  • Unless you are going surfing in the next 30 seconds, take off your wetsuit.
  • Your wetsuit probably doesn’t zip down the front of your chest with a long nylon cord, unless for some reason your wetsuit is retro. Let the logo and the knee pads be your guides.
  • When mounting fins, remember they point towards the back of the board.
  • Stay far away from rocks. Like, really far away.
  • If you have to roll down your car window to fit your surfboard, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Never, ever ride a stand-up paddle board. (Just kidding, they are fine. Kook.)