At 28, Reno Abellira is physically much the same as the serious teenager who crouched low and drew long lines off the bottom in 1968, at the World Contest in Puerto Rico, when surfing’s mainstream was off on a different tangent. His surfing is simple, concise and direct; and if he no longer stands out from the pack as much as he used to, that is because the rest of the world is now moving in the same direction. It’s a strange situation for Reno. Still a competitor, the surfers who are most likely to beat him are those who have been most influenced by his singular approach to riding waves. Reno, of course, realizes this only too well. Nearing the end of his third decade on this planet, he knows the score and he is not above using his seniority to his own advantage. He’s tough, he gives no quarter, and young kids on the way up don’t like to draw him in a heat. Of all the surfers who arrived with the ’70s and are still competing as the decade draws to its man-on-man, gimme-the-money, everybody-but-me-is-an-arsehole conclusion, Reno is still the one. He can still win in Florida, Brazil, Sydney, Durban, Sunset or Phoenix, Arizona. And the kids know it. And he knows they know it. And he loves it.
Reno is, oh, five-feet-seven, muscle-toned and slim of hip. He dresses elegantly and carries himself with what his friends call confidence and his enemies call arrogance. On a recent trip to the mainland he had his thick black hair permed and it now falls in ringlets around his face and sets off his well-trimmed moustache. He’s a bit of a dandy and he could teach most surfers a thing or two about color coordination. He speaks softly, and when he’s not smiling, he appears to be frowning. There is no middle ground. You hear Reno described as arrogant, aloof and intense. He’s all of that, but he’s also a warm and genuine human being with a positively wicked sense of humor and a streak of dementia deep within. He is sometimes misunderstood. There are surfers who have associated with him for years but confess they don’t really know or understand him. By his own admission he is “a complex person.” He wondered whether this interviewer knew enough about him to present the big picture. The answer is yes and no. Reno revels in his own complexity, and this much is for sure: any interview that laid him bare, that left no questions unanswered, he would regard as a misrepresentation.
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I’ve watched Reno surf in many contests over the past five years. I’ve seen him pour over the judges’ sheets, get mad, calm down and get mad again. I’ve watched him surf brilliantly and lose, surf just okay and win. But the lasting impression is of a competitor who methodically plans his game. I once wrote that Reno was a chess player’s surfer, and I still hold that view. In 1976 he brought a 5’7″ fish to Australia to surf the junk. He first put it into the water at Rincon, the section that peels off the point at Bells Beach, on a no-contest dribbly, mushy day. The strategy became obvious after his first few waves. He planted a foot on the wide front section of the board, got way down low and skated under crumbling sections. All he needed was a little air under the white water and he was away. It wasn’t the first junk board that ever worked, but Reno had taken the wide-board-for-slop theory to the nth degree. A week later he rode it in similar conditions at Narrabeen in the Surfabout, and it enabled him to sneak up to fourth place. I recall standing next to Rusty Miller, the one-time U S. champ, while Reno skated miles along the beach in front of us, hands held above his head, his body arched for maximum trim. “This is the best hot-dogging I’ve ever seen,” Rusty said, shaking his head in disbelief. On another occasion, faced with the prospect of ankle-high waves to conclude the contest, he borrowed a shaping bay and built himself a fat-railed 7′ 10″ Stretch with cutesy little tail blocks at either end. Obviously he’d been a student of Mike Hynson and Skip Frye at one time, too. The board enabled him to pick off his waves early, walk the plank, and generally ham it up in a contest which had degenerated to farce anyway. In bigger waves, his penchant for innovation creates less attention, but it is there nonetheless. Reno can rarely blame his equipment; he is almost never caught short.
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The increasingly political vibes on the North Shore these past few winters have taken their toll on a number of friendships between locals and haoles. There often seems to be a reluctance to appear overtly friendly to visiting surfers But this petty politicking has barely touched Reno and his wife Joanne. Living in the midst of the action, they remain a remarkably private family. Reno seems to choose his friends carefully, and what goes on in the contest circus ring has very little bearing on his relationships with them. There is a padlocked gate around his house (ostensibly to keep the dogs in), and Reno seems almost disinterested in the verbal mud fights that go on beyond it. He does, of course, have enemies within surfing, largely stemming from what others see as his arrogance. One top pro can’t stand him “I’ve always admired Reno’s surfing,” he says. “But how long can you go on saying hello and being ignored?” For his part, Reno says he is simply not interested in being false with people, nor is he interested in the little sub-plots which surround the surfing scene on the North Shore. When such matters are brought to his attention, his first reaction is to feign ignorance. His second reaction is to tear them into tiny pieces with his own special brand of humor. He will make surfing politics and infighting sound so ridiculous, and he’s right. It is. If there were more Renos in surfing, there mightn’t be any less friction, but there’d certainly be more laughs.
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We have talked long into the night, and Reno has to be on the beach early the following morning for the start of the Pipeline Masters. I am tempted to call a halt while we are still laughing, but, bearing in mind the contribution Reno has made to surfing, it doesn’t seem fitting to me to go out on a frivolous note. This has been Reno’s tenth year in surfing’s public eye, and he feels it is the end of a ten-year cycle—one in which he rose to the highest echelon of his sport and stayed there. He kind of feels the time is right to sum up his surfing life. He thinks for a bit, then slides forward to talk directly into the tape recorder: “If there is one thing that I would like people to say about my surfing, it is this—that it’s always been intelligent.”
I think he can safely assume people will say that and more.