Witty pro surfer from Leucadia, California; world-ranked #2 in 1991, and one of the sport's best tow-in big-wave riders in the early and mid-'00s. Gerlach was born (1966) in Miami, Florida, the son of a stuntman and former Olympic high-diver, and began surfing in 1976, after his family moved to the north San Diego County suburb of Encinitas. From 1982 to 1984, Gerlach lived with his father in Huntington Beach, where he became the top-rated juniors division competitor in the National Scholastic Surfing Association, and was selected to compete on the national team.
Gerlach turned pro after a so-so performance in the 1984 World Amateur Surfing Championships, joined the world tour, and was proudly introduced in a Surfing magazine profile as a "class clown, cut-up, rebel and miscreant." Gerlach rode with a refinement and power beyond his years, always on the attack but never at the expense of form or style; he won the 1985 Stubbies Pro, beating reigning world champion Tom Carroll in the final, in large part by deploying a new "double-pump" bottom turn that allowed him to ricochet off the curl with added speed and torque. A diehard party-goer, celebrated as a rambunctious wit and first-rate mimic, Gerlach's athleticism didn't suffer from all the late nights out: tested by the Australian Sports Fitness Institute in 1989, the 5' 11", 165-pound surfer had the best muscle-to-body-fat ratio on record.
Gerlach finished his rookie year rated #27, then spent five seasons hovering at the lower edge of the world tour elite, always finishing between 10th and 20th. In 1991 he won two events (the Gunston 500 in South Africa, and the Coke Classic in Australia), led the standings for much of the year, then faltered near the end and placed runner-up to Australian Damien Hardman. A few months later, halfway through the 1992 season, the 25-year-old Gerlach made a surprise announcement that he was quitting the world tour, saying he wanted to rediscover "the artistic side of surfing."
The smashed-nosed regularfooter pursued the muse in his own fashion, riding in the nude for a Surfer magazine feature, traveling to exotic surf breaks, and experimenting with alternative board designs. More significantly, he turned his attention to big-wave riding and eventually became a first-rate tow-in surfer. In 2001 Gerlach was among the first surfers to ride the giant open-ocean reef waves of Cortes Bank, located 100 miles west of San Diego; the following year he and tow-in partner Mike Parsons finished second in the inaugural Tow-In World Cup, held at Jaws, Maui. He was also selected as a member of the 2001-launched Billabong Odyssey, a three-year big-wave exploration project. In 2005, Gerlach was towed into a Todos Santos wave later measured at 68 feet, earning himself a $68,000 prize as the Billabong XXL BIggest Wave winner.
In 2002, Gerlach introduced the Game, a team-based format for surfing competition, and two years later he founded the Game-based National Surf League, which caught on in a middling way but never got close to replacing the traditional non-team structure, though it was the official format during surfing's brief appearance in the X Games. Gerlach has also worked as a coach for entry-level pro surfers, most notably California's Connor Coffin.
Gerlach appeared in nearly 50 surf movies and videos, including Gone Surfin' (1987), Surfers: The Movie (1990), Fluid Combustion (1995), Thicker Than Water (1999), All Aboard (2002), and Step Into Liquid (2003).
In 2002, Gerlach was inducted into the Huntington Beach Walk of Fame.