Twilight interview with Yvon Chouinard on the bow of the M/V Cascade, February 9, 2003, at Tikehau Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia.
MICHAEL KEW: What draws you to the South Seas?
YVON CHOUINARD: The romance of it. For the same reasons guys like Gauguin…these romantics who disappeared down here.
How has this trip been for you?
It’s a great surf trip—one of the best I’ve been on. It’s good being here with your kid, you know.
Obviously, this isn’t your first trip together.
Yeah, we’ve been on a few surf trips…Indonesia, Costa Rica…we lived in France for three months.
What makes this trip good for you?
It’s a good group of people. It’s not like you’re stuck in here with a bunch of strangers. They’re all good guys; people sharing waves and stuff. It’s good.
What about the region itself?
This is paradise for me. When I was a kid, I read every book I could find on the South Pacific, and this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to disappear out here someday (laughs). My wife doesn’t like the tropics, though. Otherwise, I’d be here all the time. Go with my flyrod and my surfboard; find some island that had good surf on it, good bonefishing….
What's the allure of bonefishing?
It’s one of the two favorites of flyfishing for me. It’s like a combination of hunting and fishing—you’re just searching all day. Your perception gets real acute looking for these fish. When you finally get one, they’re so strong…they’re just amazing fish.
What do you go home with from a trip like this?
I guess just memories. You learn a little more about something. I mean, I was freaked out when we first got here about the reefs and the shallowness. But you get more and more comfortable with it, you know—you start taking off deeper. You don’t get these kinds of waves in California. That’s for sure.
Oh, yeah. There’s no fish here compared to…I mean, you can go all day trolling and you don’t catch a fish sometimes. Well, if you were at a place like Christmas Island or some of the less-inhabited places—or some places that haven’t been fished out—you can’t go a quarter-mile without hooking up with something. There’s still some pelagic fish here and stuff, but it’s pretty well fished-out, especially the closer you get to Tahiti.
And beach litter? It’s not any worse than anywhere else. The Caribbean has the most litter on the beaches of any place I’ve seen. France…I mean, God. The Spanish just take dump trucks to the edge of a cliff and just dump it over, and it all flows over to France. It’s horrible.
I take very little stuff with me, so it has to be real practical. Like these shirts, when they get dirty, I wash them out with a bar of soap; they’re dry in an hour. They don’t wrinkle…you know that fishing shirt I have? Not a wrinkle on it. It’s really practical for traveling. Guys show up with, like, six pairs of surf shorts; I’ve got one (laughs). But, you know, it’s got to be a good pair.
Your first travel experience was….
When I was 16. My summers from school, I’d be out somewhere. I think when I was 16, I went to Wyoming; spent the summer in Wyoming, climbing mountains. When I was18, I spent three months in Mexico, just traveling and surfing. Living on 50 cents a day.
What is it about traveling?
It’s about education. That’s the way I educate myself. The best education is learning about the world, you know, instead about some abstract concept or something. Learning about the world is the most important thing. Everywhere I travel, it’s a learning experience.
Would the world be a better place if everyone traveled?
Absolutely. First of all, you’d realize that we’re screwing everything up, that’s for sure. All you have to do is go to Africa now—it’s pretty grim. The whole continent is being written off by the rest of the world. When I first went there, Kenya was a pretty cool place. Now Kenya is a desperate place. That’s the value of traveling: you get a pretty good idea of where things are these days. Americans are so naïve—they’re running around with their finger in the air saying We’re Number One and everything. That’s absolute bullshit. I’ve seen studies that say for the quality of life, we’re like 14th in the world. Maybe for quantity of life, we’re number one, but for quality of life, we’re 14th. And that includes safe drinking water, safe streets to walk on, railroads that work instead of going 30 miles an hour…being able to afford a house.
What nation is number one?
I think it’s Norway or Italy. Italy’s right up there, but Norway is probably the highest quality of life in the world. A lot of the Scandinavian countries, they’ve got their shit together. It’s amazing. You go to places like Iceland or Finland—it’s amazing. There’s no poor people, there’s no ghettos, no beggars on the streets. Everybody’s pretty middle-class. There’s no super rich, either, but there’s no super poor. They’ve got a good quality of life.
And that is directly government-driven?
Well, the government is a reflection of its people. Everybody has a government they deserve. Right now, that’s exactly what we have. On its way to being a totalitarian dictatorship—taking away all our rights, destroying the environment for the sake of maintaining a consumptive lifestyle. It’s backed up by the American people. They’re the ones who are giving the president 70 percent approval, or whatever he has these days. He’s worse than Clinton. I mean, Clinton would go either way, too, you know, depending on what people wanted from him. You push him hard enough in one direction, and he’d go in that direction. Push him another way, he’d go that way.
Was the environment in better hands with the Clinton administration?
Yeah, certainly. It couldn’t be in worse hands right now.
What is your #1 priority?
Having a healthy planet. David Brower says there’s no business to be done on a dead planet. Well, there’s no anything to be done on a dead planet, and that’s what we’re doing—we’re killing the planet. That’s the bottom line. All these other social issues that we have are just symptoms of how we have to live because of how desperate things are. Just go to Indonesia, go to Africa, go to a lot of places in Asia, and you’ll see what a desperate life people have, trying to scratch a little livelihood out of a patch of ground. It’s pretty desperate. We’re immune to seeing all that stuff in America. We don’t want to see it.
We see it in ghettos.
Yeah, but even the guys living in the ghettos have an easy time compared to some little Indonesian scratch farmer. The guy in the ghetto could always go to the mission and get a free meal, or he can go to the hospital and, yeah, they have to take him in. But these other people, they can’t go to a doctor or anything. If anybody gets sick, there’s nothing they can do about it.
Where does Patagonia fit into all of this?
Well, I’m trying to run the company as if it’s going to be here 100 years from now, because a responsible government would be making decisions based on being here 100 years from now instead of these short-term decisions. We expect the government to act that way, but then we don’t act that way. So every decision I make for my company is as if it’s going to be 100 years from now. I don’t go for the big growth; I have it set up so that it’s profitable, with no growth at all. I try to keep it a natural size. Our mission statement is to make the best quality product and cause no unncessary harm, so we’re constantly trying to figure out how to make a product with the least amount of harm.
The environment, to people.
Have you been successful thus far?
It’s a process, you know? You get better and better at it. As you educate yourself to what you’re actually doing, you’re left with choices, and you have to make the right choice. So we’re basically in the business of trying to make the right choices. As soon as you find out how evil it is to be making clothing out of industrially grown cotton, you stop using it. Let’s say you’re in the business of making landmines, and one day you go out and find out what these landmines do and you come back and say, Well, hey, these are bad. So you can either stop making landmines or continue doing it knowing what the results are. Once I find out that I’m doing something bad, I stop doing it. And we don’t make ourselves martyrs. So we stay in business, we stay healthy, and we keep our people employed
Well, traveling and seeing what’s happening with the world. As an individual, I’m helpless like everybody else, but as owner of a company like this—a pretty visible company—I have a lot more power, so I can use that power to try to change other companies and stuff; show other companies that we can do the right thing and still be profitable. Look at the surf industry—it gives absolutely nothing back to the environment. Nothing. That’s not good. They’re strictly out to make a whole bunch of money.
Not the 100-year ideal.
No. Most companies exist to…well, the product is the company itself. You build a company, and then you really want to cash out and sell the company, or go public. Same thing. I’m not interested in doing that. For me, the product is the goods that we’re making.
Your greatest inspirations?
My heros have always been explorers and stuff like that. The guys on the fringes of exploration…mountain climbers, arctic explorers.
Well, I just like to surf. It’s the simplest sport there is. It’s just a surfboard and a wave. Yeah, you need a wetsuit in California, but we used to surf without wetsuits. When I first started surfing, there were no leashes, no wetsuits. It’s more comfortable now, but there’s no way to cheat except maybe with tow-in surfing, or something like that. But that’s a different game. You could have the best surfboard or just an average surfboard and do just as well, probably.
Any inspirational characters from surfing?
God, I don’t know. (pause) I’ve got a lot of old friends, like Mickey Muñoz and stuff. Somebody’s got to write a book on this guy, because he’s an unbelievable waterman. He dives, he’s a sailor…one of the first guys to ride Waimea, still surfing every day. Great guy. He’s a year older than I am. There’s a book to be written. He’s a real waterman, you know. A lot of the pro surfers, that’s all they do—they do absolutely nothing else (but surf). Or maybe they golf or something. That doesn’t tell me much.
You love golfing, don’t you?
(laughs) Well, that’s a symbol of America, just like McDonald’s is a symbol of fast food. That’s why it gets attacked all over the world. The symbol of American sport is golf.
It’s not a sport.
No, it’s not. It’s a hobby. It’s a game, actually. It’s not a sport. It shouldn’t be in the sports pages at all.
You don’t like games.
I hate games. (laughs)
What are some of your favorite activities besides surfing?
Well, climbing, playing tennis, skindive…I try to eat as much from what I gather. I eat a lot out of the ocean that I gather. I eat a lot of game. I whitewater-kayak…done a whole bunch of different things, all non-motorized.
Sailboat over motorboat?
Yeah…I mean, the real adventure…this (Tuamotus trip) is no adventure. This is just a catered trip, you know. A real adventure would be…you know that one island way down in the south that has the best left and right in Polynesia? There’s a boat that goes twice a month. That would be the trip. Get on that freighter from Papeete, go 650 miles, or whatever it is, get dumped off, have your backpack and your surfboard. That would be a story. That would be the adventure. I really enjoy doing stuff like that. That’s why I took that one sailing trip a few years ago to Fanning Island. Just hitchhiked on the boat
That was an adventure?
That was an adventure. (laughs) Turned out to be an adventure; I didn’t want an adventure, but that’s what it turned out to be.
You once said that it’s not an adventure unless something screws up.
Oh, yeah. Every definition of adventure in Webster’s has to have an element of risk, whether it’s a financial venture, or whatever. Adventure travel is an oxymoron because when you sign up for those trips, you’re guaranteed that you’re not going to be endangered. That’s why you sign up for those trips—everything is taken care of. A trip like this? You’re not in any danger. I mean, you can hit the reef and cut yourself up, but that’s your own thing. It’s not like sailing on your own—then you’re really sticking your neck out.
So if you could do it all over again, you’d sail down here?
Well, actually, no. Too much crap on a sailboat. There’s just too much going on. You just spend all your time in maintenance. I would hitch rides…you can hitch rides on sailboats everywhere. They’re always looking for crewmen and stuff. Like that trip to Fanning…when I was in Fanning, a boat came in and I could’ve hitched a ride with them over to the Marquesas, and from the Marquesas, I could’ve probably hitched a ride somewhere else. You could just keep going forever. You just offer to cook or be a deckhand. Guys are jumping ship all the time. And then you don’t have the responsibility; you get there…I mean, the act of sailing isn’t that much fun for me. I want to be there. I want to get to these islands where you can’t get to them any other way (besides by boat).
What are some of your favorite places?
I like South America, the southern part of South America—Patagonia. Southern Argentina, Chile—I could live there. Australia, New Zealand. I think Western Australia has the best surf in the world year-round. Europe; some great places in Europe. Those are all places I could live, you know. Other places are real interesting to travel to, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Well, you know…the Himalayas, Antarctica. (laughs) I’ve kind of been all over. And certainly Africa—you wouldn’t want to live there.
At one time, would Africa had been a great place to live?
Yeah, probably. A lot of these places.
I haven’t been to South Africa. I’ve been to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania.
Do you see yourself continuing to travel?
Yeah, but small trips. My wife gets lonely at home, and I do, too, so maximum three-weeks for a trip is about all I want to do these days. If I younger, I’d….well, I did. I did long trips, expeditions. Climbing was the primary focus. I’d be gone for months at a time. But not any more.
What is it about climbing?
When I was real young, it was the challenge of it. The challenge is the thing—sticking your neck out. It’s the physical feeling of moving over rock. It’s a great feeling. Tennis uses your legs and one arm, you know (laughs), but climbing uses your whole body, and it’s very balanced. It feels good to climb on rock.
Do you still climb?
Yeah, although about seven years ago, I took a bad fall and really buggered myself up, so I’ve pulled way back from climbing since then. I live in the Rockies in the summer, so I climb when I’m there. In Ventura, it’s so far away to go climbing, so I don’t do too much there.
Tell me about your beginnings.
I was born in Maine. Lived there until I was seven, then I was raised in Burbank until my early 20s. Then I moved to Ventura, just to be close to the surf. I rented a house there for $75 a month for years. I’d have to move out in the summer, but that was okay because I’d take off and go climbing all summer. There’s no waves there in the summer. I’d come back and the house would be waiting for me for $75—they never raised the rent. It was the first little house at Mondos, a little cottage there. I was there when McTavish was there in ’68. He was at Pitas, working on the shortboard. He was just down the street. We used to surf a lot. I took him out climbing.
Thoughts on so-called “extreme” sports?
Oh, I hate all that stuff. Extreme sports is such a bullshit thing. It’s extreme in that it’s…all these eco-challenges and stuff—they’re physically demanding, but they’re risk-free, pretty much. You know, when you take the element of risk out of some of these sports, it takes away from it. You’ve got to have risk in there. If you really want to grow and if you really want to prove yourself, you’ve got to put your neck on the line. Otherwise, you’re a weightlifter, right? (laughs) You bulk up, but you don’t gain spiritually too much.
What about ecotourism?
Well, it’s okay. It’s better than regular tourism, probably.
What’s “regular” tourism?
Just staying in hotels, staying in cities…things like that. Ecotourism gets you to places you wouldn’t get to otherwise, and I think it’s good. It’s good. It’s not as good as doing it on your own and getting into trouble and solving your way out of there, you know—learning and growing, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That kind of thing. When you’re young, you’ve got to go out and discover who you are. You’ve got to push yourself, find out what your limits are.
And you did.
How do you see yourself today?
I’m a happy man. Yeah, perfectly happy. I mean, I’m totally pessimistic about the future, but it doesn’t bother me because I’m kind of Buddhist about it all. But I’m as happy a person as you’ll ever find. I’m healthy, I’ve got a great family, a successful business. I’ve got everything I need, everything I want.
Which to you is not that much?
I drive a 12-year-old car, and it’s perfectly good. I don’t need anything better than that. Most of the money I make I give away, anyway, so…