“Magazines, Christ, they’ll kill you,” former Surfing Magazine Nick Carroll lamented in his heartfelt eulogy to the shuttered magazine to which he once served as editor. In the piece, published in The Surfers Journal, Carroll, who had a twenty year relationship to Surfing, added a quote from his famous father, who was also a surf mag editor, “Every issue you do, you die a little.”
The last editor of Surfing, North Florida native Zander Morton, would likely agree with Carroll’s father. Morton, who surfed for St. Augustine’s Surf-Station and won an ESA Junior Men’s title in 2002 before embarking on a writing career that took him from Eastern Surfing Magazine to Transworld Surf to the top job at one of the most iconic magazines in all of action sports, spent three years running the show at Surfing. Together with photo editor and fellow North Florida native Jimmy “Jimmicane” Wilson, Morton continued to keep the magazine’s proverbial finger on the pulse of the progressive surfing, doing relevant, culture-defining work in the face of the declining page counts and ad revenues that have plagued the entire print media landscape for the last decade.
“We went down swinging,” Morton says of the final chapter of Surfing. “We were doing some of our best work right up to the very last day. But everyone in that office cared so much — maybe even too much at times — and we never once ‘sent’ anything in.”
After 33-years, Surfing’s final issue was sent to subscribers in January of 2017. But despite his shock and disappointment, Morton didn’t waste much time mourning the loss of his dream job. He parlayed his experience into a remote gig—Editor at Large with one-time rival Surfer Magazine—then decamped to Bali, Indonesia, which has served as a sort of home base from which he’s taken extended sojourns to South Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore and elsewhere. All the while, Morton’s been sending dispatches back to California to be published in Surfer.
“I took the opportunity to kind of make this new opportunity for myself,” Morton says of his nomadic ramblings. “On a personal level, [Surfing’s closure] forced a change that resulted in one of the best years of my life. And in some ways has changed the trajectory of my career.”
We recently caught up with Morton, who was entertaining family in Indo before taking off again, and asked him about the death of Surfing and the impetus for his whirlwind journey. While we had him, we took the opportunity to the noted surf scribe’s hot take on the current state of surfdom.
So, done anything interesting in the last couple of years?
I left California in May of 2017, and in the 12 months since have traveled through 10 countries: Indonesia, South Africa, England, France, Portugal, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore, while keeping a place in Bali as homebase.
Sounds amazing. Any highlights? Anything stand out?
While I’ve gotten some of the best waves of my life this year, one surf stands above the rest. I was in South Africa during last year’s J-Bay Open because my sister was getting married just outside of Cape Town. After the wedding I headed straight to J-Bay for the contest, as the forecast was all-time. The final day was flawless: 6-foot Supertubes, howling offshores. With 15 minutes left in the final between Frederico Morais and Filipe Toledo, I left the beach to get ready for a surf, determined to be one of the first people in the water after the final ended, while totally expecting 100 other people to have the same plan. I ran down the steps and into the keyhole just as the clock hit double zero, and for some reason, the only other surfers jumping in were John Florence and Jordy Smith. It was as though everyone was so caught up in the euphoria of the final they totally forgot they could actually go surfing. While the lineup did eventually get busy, it was never out of control, and I shared two sets at perfect Supers with Jordy and John before another surfer even hit the water. I’ll never be able to recreate that.
Legendary! Was the closure of Surfing the impetus for your travels?
Surfing’s closure was 100% the impetus for this trip. As much as I loved the office process at [Transworld] and Surfing, I just wanted to try something new. For years I’d managed nearly every facet of magazine production, and wanted to explore the world — and my own writing — a bit further. My girlfriend was able to convince her work to allow her to go freelance, and we already had good friends in Bali, which made it an easy decision, and destination.
The shuttering of Surfing was surprising I think to a lot of people, not because people were oblivious to the challenges of making print lucrative, but because Surfing still seemed to be doing relevant work. Were you surprised when it came to an end?
I was definitely surprised, and really disappointed, but we went down swinging, doing some of our best work right up to the very last day.
You and Jimmy were doing such a fine job there—your hometown (state/coast) was quite proud. What was that experience like for you, running the show at such an iconic magazine, with a good friend?
Man, it was special, and I never took it for granted, not even for a second. When I was a kid growing up in Saint Augustine with Jimmy, Surfing and Surfer were my bible. I consumed every line and photo on every page, and to this day I can still picture countless covers and blurbs going back to the early ’90s. So when I came into the role of editor, I definitely felt the weight of 50 years of top-notch work and wanted to make sure I lived up to the standards of editors past. In that sense, the job was actually more stressful than it should have been. We discussed and analyzed everything ten times over. We’d rip photos off the wall and rewrite captions and features at the eleventh hour, but it was always in the pursuit of putting out an inspiring product. And a lot of that was because of Jimmy. Anyone that knows Jimmy knows he’s passionate and he’s a perfectionist, and he definitely brought out the best in the rest of us.
Surfing is in a weird place right now, with wave pools, the WSL’s mainstream ambitions, young kids riding everything, lineups more crowded than ever. We’d love your hot take on the current state of surfdom. What’s the most interesting thing happening right now in surfing?
Whether as a sport, lifestyle, hobby…however you choose define it, surfing is definitely in a period of transition. With the upcoming Olympics, wavepools in Lemoore and Texas, the end of print, the power of social media, there are a lot of polarizing things going on right now. But wavepools would have to be the most interesting. I mean, it’s now possible to get both an 18-second tube and the best air section of your life in a pool, and the technology is only going to get bigger and better. So what does that look like in ten years? How about 20? Will we have recreated all of the world’s best waves, and made them all accessible at the touch of a button in pools all over the world? And at that point, is it even still really surfing? Or will it have morphed into something else?
Personally, it’s been cool to watch it all unfold from afar. I’m really excited about the technology, as it’s going to allow surfers to progress and learn new moves at the same rate as skaters and snowboarders, and it’ll also give kids from landlocked areas a chance to pick up the sport. But that’s the thing: to me, riding waves in a pool isn’t really the same thing as surfing, or at least it’s not the same surfing I fell in love with when I was five years old. In a pool, surfing is defined by riding a wave. It’s as simple as that. There are no intangibles. Traveling for a year has reaffirmed my love for everything that happens before and after riding an actual wave, because at this point in my life, I’m less interested in my own performance, and more excited than ever to spend as much time as I can in the ocean.
You’ve done quite a bit of traveling I’m sure, both as a pro surfer and as a surf journalist. But this last year seems next-level—particularly nomadic. What’s been unique about your current expedition? Have you learned anything about yourself? Any paradigm shifts in regards to surfing, traveling, humanity, spirituality?
This trip has been full of firsts: First time living abroad, and first time living with a girlfriend, for starters. I won’t say this year has been necessarily life changing in any profound or spiritual way, but I do think there’s been a general paradigm shift. It’s allowed me the opportunity to slow everything down, and it’s opened by eyes to just how many different routes you can take in life, so long as you recognize the opportunities when they present themselves. Being the editor at Surfing was a childhood dream that lived up to all of my expectations. But, it was still a job that required corporate oversight, 40-plus hour weeks in front of a computer, and less flexibility than you might imagine. This year has been a totally different challenge, but I’m at a point now where I want to continue to build a life that allows fluidity and flexibility, where nothing feels permanent and I can move around and continue to change things up. People are always telling me: “Enjoy it while you can, before you have to get back to reality.” But who’s to say this can’t continue to be my reality?
This feature originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Void Magazine.