How Santa Cruz surfer Kyle Thiermann is making a difference
Words by Neil Pearlberg • Photos by Nelly

Kyle tubed in Mexico. Photo: Nelly

Kyle tubed in Mexico. Photo: Nelly

If you walk up to a group of young surfers at a popular California surf break and ask them about change, more than likely you’ll get a blank stare and maybe a few dirty coins.

On the other hand, if 24-year-old professional surfer and filmmaker Kyle Thiermann happens to be in the group, be prepared for a much different response.

In fact, backed by sponsors Patagonia, Sector Nine, and Clif Bar, Thiermann’s self-narrated YouTube video series Surfing For Change, makes it clear that the Santa Cruz native is miles away from the vapid surfer stereotype epitomized by Sean Penn in the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

While Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli famously claimed that all surfers need are some “tasty waves and cool buds,” Thiermann is part of a growing number of high profile surfers who actually care about the future of our planet as well. This commitment puts Kyle much more in line with activist/filmmaker Sean Penn than with the Jeff Spicoli character he played in the iconic 1980’s comedy.

This desire to effect change makes Kyle perfect for companies like Patagonia. Along with Chris, Dan, and Keith Malloy, Kyle has become perhaps Patagonia’s most visible surf ambassador, and in this capacity he embodies the company’s mission statement to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

“Kyle is positively psychotic about influencing positive change. I can’t think of a better example of someone who has created a working lifestyle to incite change through education and awareness,” said the company’s Director of Surf Jason McCaffrey when asked about working with Kyle.

The Young and the Restless

Kyle in his element.  Photo: Kyle Thiermann collection

Kyle in his element. Photo: Kyle Thiermann collection

Athletic and talented, Kyle’s surfing skills were apparent as he worked his way through the hometown lineup at Santa Cruz’s more competitive surf breaks like the Hook, 26th Ave, and the Lane. Raised in a household of critical thinkers who taught him to question the status quo, Kyle came to see surfing as more than just winning heats and collecting trophies. Inspired by the opportunity of using YouTube to reach a large audience, at some point Kyle decided to use the ever-popular sport of surfing as a vehicle to pursue a career as a filmmaker looking to make a difference.

Thiermann brings his skate influence to the water. Photo: Nelly

Thiermann brings his skate influence to the water. Photo: Nelly

Like every other Santa Cruz surfer, young Kyle Thiermann was immersed in a boiling cauldron of influences, and not all of them positive. While such influences can easily sway a person in one direction or another, through conscious personal choices young Thiermann gravitated towards a long list of cool, positive role models.

“Adam Replogle for one, is the least selfish person I know, and such a supporter of young up and coming talent,” Kyle is also quick to mention his good friend, big wave surfer Tyler Fox. “It helps having a housemate, who if you ever have a goal to surf Mavericks, is the best person to talk to.”

Sitting down with Kyle Thiermann, what’s immediately apparent is that just under the surface of his casual personality is a high level of intelligence and ambition. As it turns out, this is a potent combination, because while his demeanor and background give him instant credibility with 18-25 year-old surfers, his willingness to tackle difficult issues and mobilize this demographic is causing corporate decision makers to stand up and take notice as well.

True to his generation, Kyle is not quite willing to call himself an environmentalist. “People love to cut down environmentalists–they are constantly under a microscope and if they do something that isn’t ‘green’ then they get called out,” explains Thiermann, who describes himself as a filmmaker and storyteller.

Pro Surfers vs. Monsanto

Kyle gearing up while his friends practice their lasso skills.  Photo: Nelly

Kyle gearing up while his friends practice their lasso skills. Photo: Nelly

Thiermann’s latest YouTube video, Pro Surfers vs. GMOs was released in March. For someone who shies away from being labeled an environmental crusader, Kyle sure has become adept at asking hard-hitting questions that are less than flattering for a company like Monsanto doing genetic and biochemical research on the North Shore of Oahu. The seventeen-minute video follows professional surfers Kelly Slater, Dustin Barca and concerned Hawaiians as they participate in a rainy protest of the multinational company.

At first it sounds a bit funny to hear someone like Kelly Slater talk about genetically modified organisms, but that’s what makes Kyle’s Surfing for Change videos so compelling.

Thiermann feeling comfortable in the barrel on a large bar wave. Photo: Nelly

Thiermann feeling comfortable in the barrel on a large bar wave. Photo: Nelly

“A professional surfer like Slater is simply tired of being asked about cutbacks and aerials,” explains Thiermann. “He is happy to engage in an intelligent conversation about something bigger and more meaningful.”

Even though he is reluctant to call himself an environmentalist, Thiermann truly is a product of Santa Cruz. Immersed in a culture of questioning authority, Kyle has taken on the issues of his hometown just like everyone else who lives there. At the same time, he has little patience for the opinionated debate that characterizes much of the local discourse.

“I have no interest in typical local politics, it doesn’t sound fun–in fact it sounds lame.”

Kyle working on an interview for one of his videos. Photo: Kyle Thiermann collection

Kyle working on an interview for one of his videos. Photo: Kyle Thiermann collection

At the same time, Kyle is getting more involved at the local level. “I am into Surfing for Change having a bigger presence within Santa Cruz, and to begin covering local issues, and highlighting organizations.”

This may sound like a contradiction, but Thiermann is a walking contradiction in the best sense of the word. He refuses to be labeled an environmentalist, yet he has the potential to make a huge difference for the planet. He hates local politics, but he has a bright future as a public servant in Santa Cruz if he chooses to go that route.

Maybe the best description for Kyle is the one he uses himself: storyteller. When you think about it, shying away from traditional labels is a smart move. Those labels come with baggage, and through Surfing for Change, Kyle is looking at traditional problems through a completely different lens.