Wave Ki founder Brad Gerlach is my girlfriend’s favourite surfer…
It would be easy to jump to conclusions about why, with Gerrs’ chiseled good looks, flowing hair, and cheeky grin. But let me explain a little further.
My girlfriend is a student of both dance and fashion. She first saw Brad surfing in the 2014 Lower Trestles heritage heat against 1989 World Champion Martin Potter. “Who’s that?” she loudly exclaimed as soon as he took off on a wave. “Look how he moves; his body English is incredible!”
My girlfriend is not a surfer. She couldn’t name any surfing moves and wouldn’t even know the difference between goofy and regular foot. She knows who Kelly Slater is, and might recognise John-John at a push, but there is a generally nonplussed reaction to the activity on the screen when I watch surf contests or surfing movies.
My girlfriend saw something in the wave riding of Bradley Gerlach, at 48 years of age, that triggered a response. A response based on her appreciation of the fluidity and grace of human movement. She recognised the beauty of surfing style without knowing what surfing style really was.
Gerr’s surfing tends to do that. In fact, his whole persona tends to have a profound effect on people.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Brad Gerlach
Brad Gerlach was born in Miami, Florida, in 1966. He grew up surfing in Encinitas, California, during the 1970s. Gerr burst onto the pro surf scene in 1985 at age 19 when he won the Stubbies Pro at Oceanside.
World Tour Wild Man
In the 80s and 90s, he was one of the most exciting wild men of pro surfing, at a time when surfing had some of the finest wild men the sport has seen. Brad wore his heart on his sleeve, emanating a level of honesty (and comedy) that endeared him to his peers and fans alike.
A stellar competitive career included five world tour victories, the 1985 Stubbies, 1989 Gunston in South Africa, 1990 Rio de Janiero Brazil, 1991 Coke Classic Narrabeen Australia, and the 1991 Gunston in South Africa.
Gerlach recalls his most memorable heat as his 1990 encounter with the G.O.A.T, Kelly Slater, at Hossegor France, in pumping waves. A young Slater had burst onto the scene, already setting the tone for a career that would bag him eleven world titles. Gerr and Kelly went ballistic in this heat. Neither surfer gave an inch, and the performance level was futuristic. Brad got the nod over KS that day, further cementing himself as one of the world’s best surfers.
Former ASP Rankings Leader
Undoubtedly Brad’s most outstanding world tour result was leading the ASP rankings, and ultimately finishing the year second overall in the 1991 ASP World Surfing Championships. His battles with Tommy Curren that year are legendary.
The following year Gerlach unexpectedly quit the circuit mid-tour at age 25. He took a pioneering route, opting to travel the world, experiment with equipment, and seek out better waves than he was getting as a professional contest surfer.
Big Wave Charger
Brad reinvented his career in the early 2000s, becoming a big-wave surfer. He charged on the epic first-strike mission to Cortes Bank in 2001, filmed for the Billabong Odyssey project. The big wave conquest culminated in winning the XXL Biggest Wave Award for successfully towing into and successfully riding a 68-foot wave at Todos Santos, Mexico, in 2006.
Free Thinking Pioneer
Along the way, he freshened up pro surfing’s thirty-year-old competitive format by creating his team-based “The Game” concept. The Game brought fun and excitement back to otherwise staid surf contests. It was used exclusively at the ESPN X-Games by the top pros and later by Quiksilver and Red Bull for regional and amateur events. The WSL has also implemented many of the innovative concepts from The Game into its current format.
High Praise Indeed
Legendary and infamous surfer/journalist Derek Hynd’s critique of the top echelon of surfing had even veteran world champs ducking for cover. However, Derek has always praised Brad Gerlach, the surfer, and Brad Gerlach, the man.
Hynd recognised the raw talent in Brad. He also recognised the need for natural talent to be coached, offering his mentorship to Gerlach. Gerr is a huge fan of Derek. In fact, he talks openly about modeling his bottom turn on the fluid Australian. At the time, he didn’t take DH up on the offer, but years later, while reflecting on his career, he came to a realisation that would shape the rest of his life.
Who is Brad Gerlach Today?
Brad Gerlach is a dedicated father, husband, professional surfer, and world-class surfing coach.
Brad teaches, surfs, trains, and lives in Australia with his beautiful wife Anna and their sons Zeppelin and Zsigmond. His mission in life is to give back to the sport that has given him so much by helping people of all ages and abilities enjoy their surfing more. He truly believes, as Phil Edwards once said,
“The best surfer in the world is the one having the most fun.”
He is also the founder and brainchild of Wave Ki, the world’s most comprehensive, land-based, sensory surf discipline.
Wave Ki involves martial art–like focus on slow, precise movements that embed a powerful surfing pattern deep within you. It trains your body and mind to extract every ounce of energy from the ocean, enhancing every part of your surfing.
The Wave Ki Approach
Wave Ki training has a point of difference to all other surf related systems. You do not practice Wave Ki in the water. The land-based approach enables you to achieve a heightened level of focus on the individual move, practicing in your own space, in your own time. Practitioners of Wave Ki soon begin to see improvements in body awareness subliminally occurring in their surfing. As the human nervous system adapts to Wave Ki, a surfer’s performance can infinitely improve.
When you talk to the surfers that work with Brad Gerlach and his Wave Ki discipline, there is a common theme throughout each conversation. They consistently report surfing the best they ever have in their lives, regardless of age.
For Brad, the key to unlocking the fun in surfing is progression. He most enjoys working with experienced surfers who had given up hope of getting better. With Wave Ki, they learn things they never knew about surfing and fall in love with it all over again.
An Interview with Brad Gerlach
“I feel like I’m put on the earth to help people, help people improve and enjoy their surfing. When you’re improving at something, I feel like you enjoy it more, like I’m actually getting better at this thing that’s extremely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Surfd recently had the absolute pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Brad Gerlach.
Hi Brad, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule. You recently relocated to Australia with your beautiful family. What prompted the move and how is the Aussie lifestyle treating you?
I started surfing in 1976 and I would just pour over every magazine that came from Australia. I loved the water colour. Australia had the best surf movies, and the highest level of performance surfing was coming out of Australia. That was what I totally enjoyed as a kid.
At the time I was skateboarding, pretending I was Jay Adams, and it was all about skateboarding. Then I saw Mark Richards, Cheyne Horan and Rabbit Bartholomew and I didn’t want to be Jay Adams anymore.
The pictures of Burleigh Heads at the time, as a 12, 13-year-old kid had me drooling. All the people on this beautiful headland sitting on the grass, the tropical trees, everyone in trunks and the water was blue. The boards were colourful, and it just looked like the best possible place you can be.
I first started coming to Australia in the eighties. I saw the passion for surfing and their love for it.
Recently I started entering this single-fin contest they hold every year at Burleigh. They break out all the old surfboards and put them on the grass. You can just see the love, and care, and craftsmanship in the surfboards. You can see the origins of where the passion comes from. You get a sense of when high-performance surfing came centre stage.
Two years ago, I made the semis of the open division. I had Ethan Ewing, Dean Morrison, and Mitch Crews. I had a super gnarly heat so I didn’t make the final. But we had the legends division which Occy won, and I got second.
Last year I was living in Victoria, down at Bells and I couldn’t cross the border. So, I couldn’t be in last year’s event, which sucks as the waves were super good.
I moved here to the gold coast recently and it’s so good to be living in this part of the world.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to ask you about is style. As one of the most stylish surfers on the planet, in and out of the water, which surfers do you consider are modern day stylists?
I want to see critical positioning. To be frank, I don’t want to see somebody out too far away on the shoulder, even if it’s pretty, I’m sorry, like that’s too easy. You know what I mean?
There’s some amazing young stylists. Taro Watanabe, I think is one of the most stylish surfers in the world. People who’ve seen him surf will attest to that. You know, he’s still got a ton to work on though.
Michael February is beautiful to watch. I first watched Michael surf when I was coaching Conner at the world’s juniors in Bali. Mikey’s a fantastic surfer and a very polite guy.
I’ve got a lot of time for polite surfers. I feel like there’s not enough of them that I want to do everything I can to support them. So at least there’s going to be a percentage of some politeness there, you know?
Theres this young guy out of here Jai Glindeman. He’s got a real nice style. Dane Reynolds, obviously, is just incredible.
There are a few surfers in the alternative surfboard thing that I really like. I love Ryan Burch’s surfing. I’m impressed by guys like Asher Pacey, who can bring a modern, critical edge to their surfing.
That’s the thing that I want to see. I want to see critical positioning. To be frank, I don’t want to see somebody out too far away on the shoulder, even if it’s pretty, I’m sorry, like that’s too easy. You know what I mean?
It’s so interesting you say that. I think that people sometimes fall in to the trap of thinking that radical surfingcan’t be stylish. There‘s a confusion that “less is more” has to apply to stylish surfing. Would you agree?
You don’t think Larry Bertleman was stylish? Or Miki Dora? Nat Young? Some of the most radical surfers ever…
Mark Richards, MR is as radical as it gets, yet I feel like he has the coolest, coolest looking style. I love MRs style so much. Some of the styles I love the most are the guys that are almost a little over the top. You know, they do something on a wave and guys are like, that was a little over the top, they try and ridicule it a little bit at the time.
Style is based on function. Surfing style mostly, isn’t necessarily the turn. The style part of it has to do with how you approach the turn and how you finish the turn and how you take it into the next turn. People tend to only focus on the turn, which to me belittles style.
I always say, could you imagine going to the ballet, and the dancers are just slouched, and they’re just strolling in there, and then they jump into something cool, and then right before they even finished, they kind of slump again and don’t even finish, you know? Then they walk to the next thing and then they jump again and then they walk. The dancers look elegant, they look beautiful even when they are doing very little, even when they are just setting up for the next eye-catching movement.
Ultimately what you want to see is a surfer that you cannot take your eyes off because you do not know what they’re going to do. They move so elegantly that you’re going, oh, they look like they’re flying. There’s no friction, they look so free. They look like they could just accelerate at any time.
You mentioned the birth of high-performance surfing. You were always considered to be one of, if not the, most high-performance surfer of your era. How did you develop the mindset for that level of performance, and how do you now install a high-performance mindset in your students?
When you’re better than everyone else you take away the variables of the mystical playing field that is the ocean. You can catch virtually anything and beat somebody.
I lived in San Diego, Encinitas, which was cool, but I didn’t see the professional surfers very often.
Fortunately, I moved to Huntington Beach in high school. That sort of gave me an injection of life, an injection of excitement for pro surfing you know. It was actually accessible because it was right in front of me.
So, there’s a gentleman here that lives in Burleigh. His names Peter Harris and he won the 1980s Stubbies contest. He was not on tour, he was a Burleigh local, he took everybody out and I will never forget that event.
I just had a conversation with Peter. We started talking about surfing with Michael Peterson, how would Michael Peterson approach each surf. Peter got to see that first-hand, he got to experience it. We spoke about Peter Drouyn and the start of man-on-man heats, and how Drouyn explained the format to him. Peter Harris had all this information accessible to him and he used it to take out the best surfers in the world.
One of my students Taro Watanabe has been coming over to Australia since we moved here. During the Bells contest I had him waking up at 4:00 in the morning and being the first one down at the event, just to surf with all the pros. Then afterwards I’m like, okay, so, who’s ripping, who’s not ripping who looks annoyed, who’s in a good mood. What’s it going to take to be better than that guy? What do you think, can you do it?
That accessibility is so important!
I spoke about Mark Richards. The thing that is so interesting with MR is his technique. Everyone thinks oh that’s just his style, but his technique is superior to almost anyone I watch of that era of surfing, for doing a frontside snap. His technique was so, so good that he could deliver that frontside carve easier than anyone else. He was just better than the other guys
When I coach an amateur, or somebody that aspires to be a successful professional surfer, I just say, well, you gotta be better than everybody.
Imagine if you could go into the ten-year-old division, and you’re 16 years old. But they’re like, okay, go ahead and surf against the 10-year-olds. You’re winning that heat, winning that contest, whether you catch the best waves or not. You’re winning that easily, because you can do things on a wave that a 10-year-old kid just could not do.
So, the point is, when you’re better than everyone else you take away the variables of the mystical playing field that is the ocean. You can catch virtually anything and beat somebody. My point there is, you get all these coaches that are very strategic. Strategy, strategy, strategy you know, the waves are this the waves are that, be here, be there. I’m not saying you don’t have to be savvy, you still need to have good judgement and make good decisions, but for the most part, if that’s your 100% focus, you’re blowing it. You need to be working on developing your surfing technique to the point where you have weapons that can destroy opponents.
You need to say okay, all the pros can do top turns, cutbacks, aerials. They can all do them. Every single one of them. So, it comes down to, not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it! That’s what differentiates the great surfers. You’ve got the best surfers and then you got all those guys that hover in the, you know 20th position, top 30 every year. Then there’s the guys and girls who are top 5, top 10 every year. You know why? Because they’re better!
How do you get better? To me, that’s what I do. I can look at somebody surfing and tell right away, oh, I know what they could do to get better. I’m able to do that from, from years and years and years, and years and years of using myself as a Guinea pig, as well as coaching other surfers for almost 20 years now.
Wave Ki is truly revolutionary. It blows my mind that we, as surfers, now have access to a discipline that improves our surfing through on land daily practice. Could you explain a little more about the concept of Wave Ki and where it came from?
Wave Ki is a daily practice, and it isn’t, you know, five hours a day. It’s ten minutes, 20 minutes. Ideally some 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and 10 to 15 minutes at night before you go to bed.
I have a film where I’m talking with Dave Rastavich about how he got good. I ask him did he have a lightbulb moment. Dick Van Straalen, who was Rastas mentor, told him not to surf and think about what you might look like. Feel it. You’ve gotta feel it to develop your connection to the wave. You’ve gotta completely forget about what you look like. If it feels good, it’ll probably start to look good.
I was telling this to Peter Harris yesterday, because Peter said he was inspired by Rastas surfing. DVS told Peter years ago that if you’re surfing and you’re thinking about how you look, when you do something good on a wave, you probably won’t even remember it. No one wants that.
Wave Ki is really about teaching you how to be aware of yourself. We start with the most accessible development, working on your physical self. We explore the optimum body positions, using gravity and our skeletal system to get the weight over the back foot. What is the ideal position of power you can put your body in?
Wave Ki places your body into situations that allow you to explore the position of power and adjust it until your body gives you the feedback you need. If I soften down here, or stand a bit taller there, my thigh is burning the most. You instinctively learn the optimum position of power. When you’re riding a wave and you load your back foot to do a bottom turn, you know exactly where you’re going. You move yourself right there for a hundredth of a second to turn the surfboard and drive it forward.
Turning the surfboard and driving it forward is another technical thing to learn. And that’s where the upper body comes into play. How relaxed the upper body needs to be is extremely important.
Some of the guys I’ve seen surfing in Hawaii, that are quite big, heavy-set guys, they don’t look super athletic, and they surf so much better than the really muscley guys. They use their weight totally relaxed over the top of the surfboard and stay connected to the wave. Hawaii has this, you know, “hang-loose”, “don’t be in a hurry brah” philosophy. The relaxed vibe that comes from their ancestors. That’s powerful stuff. There’s a lot to learn from the fact that the best surfing comes from one of the most relaxed, laid-back places on earth.
I think a big draw for surfing in the first place is, when you’re in the water, you can slow down from life on land. I don’t know about you, but it seems like life has been speeding up and speeding up and speeding up. You’ve got to get to there and you got to get this, and then you got this thing, and you got an email and then you got a text and then you gotta get on a zoom meeting and then you got this and then you got that.
It’s just like, okay, okay, let me try to jam it all in. But if you take that jamming it all in, and you take it into the water. You’re frustrated. It’s easy to get frustrated, but then you’re like, look, I don’t have time to wait around for a wave man!
My attitude is, it’s a triumph you even got in the water dude… You got yourself in the water, so just relax… I bring a lot of that to Wave Ki. Slow down… It’s okay to progress millimeter by millimeter and, you know, somedays you might progress a centimeter and be like cha-ching! But I’ll tell you what, if you progress too much too quickly, it probably won’t stick.
Wave Ki is a daily practice, and it isn’t, you know, five hours a day. It’s ten minutes, 20 minutes. Ideally some 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and 10 to 15 minutes at night before you go to bed. Those two times are excellent because you set your system in the morning, you awaken your senses at the start of the day and programme your senses before you sleep.
We’ve seen a lot of surf-fitness / surf-strength programs come on the market recently. What are your thoughts on those, and what sets Wave Ki apart?
The bigger and stronger I am – the better I surf, no-way, NO-WAY. You’ve got to be soft. You’ve gotta be soft to get close to the surfboard.
One of my students, I started with him at 11 he’s 19 now. So much of what we’ve done is soften. Softening, softening, softening. The opposite of a lot of all this physical stuff that surfers train. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for the physical stuff, especially on imbalances in the body and certain types of things. So, I’m not berating that. Some of the more jock aspects, if you’re being very intelligent about it, there’s a place for it.
But the direction surfing, going towards, you know, the bigger and stronger I am – the better I surf, no-way, NO-WAY. You’ve got to be soft. You’ve gotta be soft to get close to the surfboard.
When you can get down and get really close to the surfboard, you can do gravity defying stuff and not fall off. You can extend out from those moves and accelerate. The goal is to be able to accelerate at will so that you can get right up close to the danger, do something radical and get away from it before it gobbles you up.
That’s why I feel like there is still unchartered surfing on the face of the wave. There are parts of the wave nobody rides, nobody can ride. But if you can accelerate at will, you can ride them.
Clay Marzo does some really, incredible stuff with his ability to keep it soft. He can soften himself so easily. He does really, really great surfing and is extraordinarily talented.
So how do you get there?
That’s what Wave Ki does. It’s not like, oh, do Wave Ki for three weeks and you’ll be a black belt. You know, it’s the same as martial arts. You’ve got to make this a lifelong commitment.
You want to be a great surfer someday? From just surfing. I don’t think you can. I don’t think you can do it JUST surfing. Unless you’re just a complete phenomenon like Dane Reynolds or Clay Marzo, which I am not. Also, most people don’t have the time to commit to getting in the water as much as they need to.
I’ve been teaching Wave Ki for 12 years, and it just keeps evolving. I keep discovering more things and learning from my students. I have footage on an iPhone of training Conner Coffin when he was 17, 18 years old. The difference of what Wave Ki looked like there, compared to what it looks like now, it looks primitive.
I teach people how to harness the energy of the wave. But first they must connect to themselves. If you’re not connecting to yourself, there’s no way you’re connecting to the wave.
I want the surfer to feel the control down in their pelvis, in the center of their body. If you start to develop that awareness, you hurdle over so many things that stand in your way to becoming a good surfer.
I recently interviewed master surfboard shaper Tim Stafford. Tim spoke about how his goal is to make surfboards that allow a surfer to go to places on the wave without thinking about it. I felt that his approach was analogous with the Wave Ki philosophy. What are your thoughts on surfboards?
Yeah, what Tim said was really nice. The only thing I would expand on is that I want to feel the surfboard. I want to feel the board the same way as a samurai would want to feel his sword. Aware of its weight and aware of how to use that weight, and gravity, throughout the movements.
I think it’s the same with golf. You take the golf club back feeling the weight of the clubhead. When that weight reaches a certain point, the golfer starts their downswing. That whole complex movement is controlled by the feeling of weight.
To add to that, I use fins made from wood. The feeling of the natural material is beyond comparison. Different woods respond differently depending on the type of tree, where it’s from, and the weather conditions. Look at a tree when it’s really windy, the way it bends and flexes in the wind. It always returns to upright. A tree can be 200 years old and still have those incredible movements.
If you’re lucky enough, a piece falls off and you can build a fin out it. This is what I’ve been doing now for the last two years. It doesn’t matter what you do with fibreglass, it cannot compare.
I’m not the only one saying that. I learned a lot from the Surf Splendor podcast, an interview with a guy called Bert Burger who makes Sunova Surfboards.
I listened to that podcast and there was this serendipity because this guy had just come over to my house in Torquay, he’s a handyman, a really likeable guy, and he’s telling me how he makes wooden fins. I’m like, ok, I’m always open, I’ll try some. So, I’m flying to Bali, I’m listening to Bert Burger on the plane, listening to his thoughts on wood. I’m thinking this is pretty cool, but I put my normal fins in my board when I arrive. Then one day I think what the hell I’ll try them, and I’m like WOW! They feel INSANE! The feeling I had, I never forgot that feeling. I’ve been pretty much riding them ever since.
Finally, I would love to hear your thoughts on modern day professional surfing.
My dad summed it up the best. He said it’s like when you have a beautiful, expensive steak. But it’s surrounded by all this shit. Potatoes, rice, beans salad all that stuff. All you want to do is eat that steak, but you’re filled up with all the other shit. You can’t even taste how good the steak is.
I think it’s a very good time for surfing in general. Kind of a unique time for the history of surfing. You’ve got a guy like Kelly Slater, who’s still surfing so good, still so impressive to watch, and he’s approaching 50!
But pro surfing is in a strange space where all we care about is the next aerial, the next turn. I hate it when the commentators come out with shit like “see the surfer biding their time on the wave.” Why do I want to watch somebody “biding their time?” Why do I, as a surf fan, want to do that?
That is belittling the brilliance of riding a wave. Every single part of the wave has an opportunity to accelerate or decelerate or express yourself.
That’s why the alternative guys slightly scoff at professional competition.
Yet there’s some brilliance that goes down in professional surfing. My dad summed it up the best. He said it’s like when you have a beautiful, expensive steak. But it’s surrounded by all this shit. Potatoes, rice, beans salad all that stuff. All you want to do is eat that steak, but you’re filled up with all the other shit. You can’t even taste how good the steak is.
I think there’s a huge void for someone who has a beautiful style but surfs extremely critically. They might not have the 360 air, but let’s look at where most pros place those 360 airs. Here comes the section, when I’m watching I kinda know what’s coming. The boost looks impressive and, I’m like yeah, I can’t do that. But is it a bit inevitable?
Now imagine a surfer accelerates from the way out in the flats, turns back around and goes right back up, right underneath it and does a full engaged rail turn without losing any speed and finishes the turn at the bottom of the wave to come back up into a rock and roll floater.
Picture something like John John’s carve at Margaret river. That’s the kind of acceleration through the turn. Look at the excitement that surfers feel when they see that, because the person is not disengaged from the wave, they’re connected to the power, which is riskier because when you’re connected the wave can have its way with you.
Once you’re in the air you don’t get messed with anymore by the wave, it’s all about using the wind. Once you know how to use the wind, it becomes reliable.
I’m not saying those airs aren’t difficult. What I’m saying is, that what I’m talking about is more difficult because you don’t see it very often. You see these aerials over and over and over again.
Now we’re starting to see 12- and 13-year-old girls and boys boosting these airs at wave pools. I’m going, well, how hard could they possibly be? I saw a 10-year-old kid do like something I’ve never been able to do. You know what I mean? So I’m going okay.
But I have never, ever seen a young surfer do like a Richard Cram type cutback or carve. I’ve never ever seen it. I have barely ever seen it by adults. It begs the question, what is more difficult and what is more exciting to watch?
You know, some of the best judging I saw this year was a QS that Taro won. The judges were all former professional surfers. You could see in their scores they were going “that was seriously hard to do, I know that was hard to do, so I’m scoring it well.”
The event commentators, a lot of them are just regurgitating stats you know. Then the other guy over there is just slathering on the butter.
We need a Charles Barkley. We need somebody that can come in that could say, “Hey, that wasn’t that great. Sorry.” You know what I mean? “That was all right, but it didn’t raise my pulse.” That’s probably why Dana white could come in and do UFC and kill it. He could speak straight to the athletes. Be completely straight with them.
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