You may not believe this, but I used to be better, far better, than local surfing legend Rob Machado.
The year was 1976, and for those who want to split hairs, he was 3 years old at the time. It was about a decade later, when he was in his early teens that I surfed against him for the first and only time. It was in a homegrown contest near Beacons. I was winning the heat, bound for glory, until he caught his first wave and streaked past me like a lightning bolt. I took second place in that heat and watched as the last rays of my delusion flickered out.
That event occurred over 20 years ago, and since then I and the entire North County community have watched in awe as our favorite son has moved to and stayed at the top.
By the early 1990s Rob was a highly rated touring professional, capable of winning nearly any event at nearly any time. Around that same time, longboarding legend Joel Tudor and I were seated in the sand watching Rob tear into the peaky Seaside Reef lefts with the flawless style and speed of light reflexes that would soon become his trademark. His only real competition, a kid who would go on to win 11 World Championships, Kelly Slater, was in the water free-surfing with him. While neither had seen their 18th birthday, they were, nonetheless, redefining surfing.
Rob snapped hard off the top, fell beneath the curtain and exited with a hard cutback before racing the inside section. Slater countered with his soon-to-become-famous backside attack. Without turning away, Tudor commented, “I think Rob’s actually better.” I agreed, realizing that if that was true, our own Rob Machado was the best surfer in the world at that moment.
Over the years Rob would do well in competition, winning the world’s most prestigious contest, the Pipeline Masters, once and once finishing second on the world tour.
He would have done better competitively had it not been for his close friend Slater, who was on his way to becoming the most winning surfer of all time. Still, many observers believe Machado could have taken at least one of those World Championships. He certainly had the talent. So, why didn’t he? The short answer is that he lacked what is known as the “killer instinct.” He was simply too nice a guy.
He was somewhere near midway through his competitive career and in a close heat with Slater at Huntington Beach’s U.S. Open. Slater went for a 360, pearled and plowed the nose of his board into the sand and snapped it off. This should have ended Kelly’s drive, but, instead of pressing his advantage, Rob removed his leash and pushed his own board to Kelly. Slater caught a wave or two and went on to win the heat and the event while Machado lost the heat but earned the undying respect of surfers everywhere.
While about a decade past his competitive retirement, Rob remains one of the best surfers in the world, and one of its finest ambassadors.
He gives freely of his time to young surfers and environmental causes through his Rob Machado Foundation. Those and his many other contributions toward a better world have helped heal that old wound when he beat me in that heat all those years ago.
A memorial paddle-out/celebration of life is planned for surfer Chris Olivas at 9 a.m. Aug. 6 at the Oceanside band shell. Olivas, a very popular local surfer, was killed in a car accident in June. He is survived by his mother, Annette Winkley, and his sister, Delia Olivas Comito. All are welcome to attend.