Case Hardened: Derek Dunfee

Jason Murray

Dunfee is known to chase waves in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, regardless of whether the photographers follow.

La Jolla's Windansea beach is hallowed ground in the surf realm. The sport took root here in the forties, with surfers like Peter Parkin, Bob Simmons, and Woody Ekstrom. The next generation made their presence known at Waimea, Sunset, and Pipeline. You've heard the names: Butch Van Artsdalen. Pat Curren. Mike Hynson.

The latest personification of the Windan' vibe is 28-year-old Derek Dunfee. He's a big wave paddle-in specialist; talks softly, carries a big stick, rolls solo -- all of the markers of the big wave Bushido code.

In the last few years, he's racked up an enviable batch of bona fides: XXL winner. A Surfer Poll award. Magazine spreads. Profiles. Video clips. What has stuck to his ribs, though, is the sponsorship his exploits have yielded. He's now free to focus purely on his path, putting himself directly in the path of the most out of hand waves he can find. It's heady space to occupy, but his home grounds provide emotional ballast. And the support of area locals like Richard Kenvin.

Jason Murray

Dunfee hits Maverick's at dawn on a solo mission to get sized up without the crowd.

"He's definitely aware of Windansea's roots and what those guys did in the 50s and 60s, says Kenvin. "About 10 years ago I saw Derek paddle sideways under the ledge on a triple overhead wave and pull the airdrop perfectly, which took a lot of balls and composure for a kid his age. He was pretty young at the time. I remember thinking to myself 'Wow, that kid's serious about charging.' Low-key guys from La Jolla/SD, like John Bowling and Colin Brown, have been quietly charging big waves elsewhere for years. Derek's generation is a little more high profile, and connected to the rest of the world as far big waves go, I suppose. That being said, Derek is super humble and just a really stoked surfer."

Rank and file surfers might struggle with the idea of being "really stoked" to ride quad-overhead Maverick's. Dunfee matched simple exuberance with a disciplined approach. "Zach Wormhoudt was super helpful and inspired me to come up and take [Mavericks] on," says Dunfee. Other Half Moon Bay surfers -- like Mav's rider and Surfing Magazine staffer Taylor Paul --quickly noted Derek's attitude and attack angle.

"He'll drive up to Maverick's solo, get a hotel, paddle out from the beach by himself before sunrise, get some bombs and then bail," notes Paul. "He's just always on his own program and I think when you're not rolling with the boys, on the boats, with the photogs, etc. you can get left out of the spotlight."

"The thing with big waves," Paul continues, "is that nearly anyone can shine for a day or two, or for one swell, if they're in rhythm or get lucky. And since there are usually only a few days a year, it's easy to get tricked into thinking there's some hot shot new guy. Which is why you have to look at who is doing well year after year, swell after swell. Derek is one of those guys, he consistently gets bombs at Maverick's and Todos. I think the reason that he's a bit lesser known than some of the others, like the Longs and Ian Walsh and that whole crew, is that he's sort of a one-man wolf pack."

That lone wolf ethos is just what drives Derek. In his own words: "Butch and Curren ... their stories and legacy have had a huge influence on me. I hope to inspire La Jolla kids in the future. To have them feel the joy of seeking out new places. I've been lucky lately, getting to surf huge, raw waves in Ireland and in Eastern Canada. Places where there's no one around."

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