mark cj nelson

Interview by Glenn Sakamoto

Mark CJ Nelson is a talented surfer from Santa Cruz, California who possesses an uncanny ability to stay on the nose of his board for an extraordinary amount of time. A standout in surfing films, he's appeared in such titles as Sprout, The Present, and A Paradigm Shift. We spoke with CJ to learn more.

Where are you from and what was your childhood like?      
My childhood was strange. I was a quiet kid who spent a lot of time alone. My folks got divorced when I was just a baby. I lived with my mom and we moved around a lot, mostly in the Stockton area. It wasn't until my father took over custody of me when I was in 1st grade that I really discovered the ocean and even then we still lived 50 miles inland. I actually didn't live close to the beach until after high school.

When did you get your first surfboard?    
I got my first surfboard shortly after moving in with my father. It was a 5'0 "Loco" from Portola Surf Shop in Santa Cruz. Even before I had my "own" board I always had boards to ride. Dad always had our garage packed with boards of all shapes and sizes. The first board I ever stood up on was a 7'2''Croteau that was opaque white. My dad always had a lot of Hauts, too, so I have great memories riding them. I learned to bottom turn on a Haut.

What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?    
I don't actually remember the first time I stood up but I know it was at the little jetty in Capitola. It’s kind of a blur. I remember going on a surf trip that same winter with my father to Rincon around 1983. The afternoon we got there, the tide was super low and the sand was perfect. My dad put me on a 7'11" Haut egg. That was the first time I ever trimmed down a point. I remember the cold clear water rushing under the nose of that red Haut. I remember feeling real speed for the first time. My father and I slid tiny peelers in the cove at Rincon all afternoon. That was the day that I started to really understand surfing.

Who did you look up to and admire when you were a child?    
When I was super young, all I really knew was my dad’s surfing so he was a major influence on me. He would switch from a 5'2" fish to a 9'6" D fin pig all in one session. He definitely kept my mind open to all boards and kept "fun” the number one priority in surfing. I was sent to the Paskowitz Surf Camp when I was 12 years old after winning a couple longboard contests to get coaching from Israel and Jonathan. After that first summer in San Clemente, those guys and Herbie Fletcher, Christian, Archy and basically anyone who hung around the camp, or was in Wave Warriors, was pretty much my hero. I also looked up to a lot of Santa Cruz guys like Adam Repogle, Marcel Soros, Dan Roman, Mark Machado, and Tony Roberts. I watched the Tony Roberts movie "No Limits" until the tape turned into dust. That’s the best movie that was shot mostly in Santa Cruz. Tony Roberts documented the Santa Cruz surfing scene through the ‘80s and ‘90s better than anyone.

Joel Tudor describes your abilities at noseriding as being from another level. Tell us about that.    
I always had a knack for noseriding. I grew up riding all of Dad’s old logs so I learned about inertia and glide when I was young. I think the pivotal time for me was when I was learning how to skate switch in the late ‘90s. That’s when I started to apply my switch skate approach to noseriding. I learned how to do it in Santa Cruz, but perfected it at Malibu. It was weird because I had never seen anyone do it so I had nobody to look at or learn from. I just did it over and over until I got it. It wasn't pretty at first, but after I learned it, noseriding in general and in my regular stance was really easy. I think it was my skateboarding mentality and skateboarding work ethic that made it possible. Try something over and over until you get your trick and get it clean.

Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?     
Definitely New Zealand during the filming of Thomas Campbell’s The Present stands out in my mind. It was the first time I really got to connect with left points. I also have a real connection with Mexico. My brother Adam and I bought a home on one of my favorite longboard waves there last year. I will be spending a lot of time at our new home. I think Mexico has everything you need as a surfer and my last few trips there have been spiritual and life changing. They really stand out in my mind.

Who/what inspires you?   
I'm inspired by a lot of people. I like people who do their own thing. Thomas Campbell is amazing as a human – a peaceful, artistic, and a good surfer. Al Knost is really coming into his own. He's paving the way for a generation of surfers who surf for fun. It’s a cool niche he's got going. If you put him on a Nuuhiwa nose rider he surfs it like Nuuhiwa then throw him on a 5'11" MP and he surfs like MP. It’s amazing and he's also a good person as well. I like good people who are peaceful and friendly.  Buddhism and the Dalai Lama are both major influences in my life and constantly inspire me. Random acts of kindness can change the world.

What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
There is a lot of great lessons I've learned. I guess one of my most valued lessons would be to think before I act. To be mindful and care about people. I used to be pretty impulsive which got me into trouble. I learned how to process information or situations before I react to them. It seems simple, but really applying this process to your every move is actually quite hard. It’s a lifelong path of learning and evolving to be the people we want to be. I want to be considerate and see everyone around me as an equal.  

On your Facebook page, you describe a kind of shift in the way you are now approaching life. Can you tell us more?      
I have made a lot of mistakes and I've taken a lot of things for granted. I spent my whole surfing career drunk with a cigarette in my hand. I did stupid things, set terrible examples for kids, and offended a lot of people. It’s weird when you are in the depths of your ego because you can't see past it. My life changed with the death of my father. I was drunk on a bar stool at 9:30 in the morning about a year after his death and it kinda dawned on me that my actions from that point forward could determine my dad’s death a tragedy or a miracle. I got up and went home. That was the day I got sober and my life changed forever.

What are you most proud of?
It’s a funny thing because I'm ashamed of my behavior while doing the things I should be most proud of. My surfing career is bittersweet. I’m just now learning how to accept my actions and still be proud of everything I've accomplished. Without my sobriety I wouldn't even be able to look at my life with capable eyes, so I guess I'm most proud of that. I’m proud of being able to admit my faults and I'm happy to be able to learn from them. For the first time in my life I'm on the path to be who I wanted to be as a child. It feels good.

What meaning does surfing hold for you?
Surfing means everything to me now. It’s the only constant in my life besides change. It’s like an old friend that I fought, stole from, and repeatedly disrespected who still loves me. Now all I want to do is love him back. I want to fix my wrongs and enjoy surfing’s friendship forever.

What brings you the most happiness in the world?   
Surfing and sobriety are good things in my life, but I'm just learning the true meaning of happiness. In Buddhism, the meaning of happiness is the end of suffering and by definition I'm suffering now and I've suffered my whole life. I’ve been a walking contradiction in a zombie-like state. I would like to know true happiness. Not financial or material or happiness attached to victories or ego – I want to know happiness that comes from within. It’s out there and obtainable, but for now I wake up every morning knowing where I stand and knowing that happiness is in my future. Let’s just say that I'm content and in the pursuit of true happiness. I’m okay with that.

Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
There are too many to really mention. Joel Tudor’s gifts to surfing are pretty remarkable. In my life a lot in surfing has changed. It’s moved out of bars and into the gym. People take it seriously now. I think surfing as a whole is heading in a great direction. The surfing community should be proud of itself for making the healthy changes. Slater has obviously helped push surfing in a healthy direction. I feel that both John John Florence and Alex Knost are also taking surfing to good places and have a lot of positivity to give.

What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?    
I’m riding the best boards of my life these days. Ian Chisholm and I have created a range of models through South Coast Surfboards. I’ve recently been connecting with a 9'8'' Involvement-style log we call the "Australian Slasher". It’s like the "Magic Sam" that Nat Young rode in the ‘66 world championship, but more refined. It’s opened up a whole side of longboarding I have not touched on. I am extremely inspired. As far as spots are concerned Its Mexico and Malibu or anything hollow.

What's your favorite meal?    
I’m a healthy eater these days. I like simple clean food. A lot of greens and nuts. I get this great chicken salad from New Leaf Market here in Santa Cruz almost every day I'm home. That with a nice vegetable juice from their juice bar and I'm happy. Green tea and water are key as well. When I'm on the road I will eat whatever because I eat so well when I'm home.

What are you currently listening to on your iPod?  
I’ve been on a Pandora kick. These days, I like to hear stuff I've never heard before. I get turned on to so much good music that way. Mark Kozelek and Sun Kill Moon have been in heavy rotation these last few years. Some more names are Pentagram, The Magnetic Fields, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sebedoh, Beach Fossils, The Cure, The Stone Roses, Randy Newman and Wilco. A lot of my friend have really good bands too – Light Fantastic, Beachwood Sparks, The Tide, Tomorrows Tulips, Farmer Dave Scher, Groop Love and The Allah-las, to mention a few. They all are amazing. I’ve been blown away by the Allah-las lately. Really good dudes who surf good too. Love them. I like all kinds of music. I will lay on my living room floor and listen to Beethoven's 9th in its entirety or a Buddhist chanting. I'm open to whatever.

What are you most grateful for?   
I’m grateful for so much. Every breath I take. I’m grateful to wake up every morning knowing that I'm loved. Im grateful to know who my real friends are. I’m grateful every time I can say "I don't know" because I'm about to learn something. I’m grateful to be able to get to know my family after years of abusing them. I’m grateful to have a woman in my life who gets me and I'm grateful to be mindful enough to enjoy it. I’m grateful surfing has given me a second chance and I'm so grateful for everyone who supported me through the good and bad – I love you guys and think about you every day. I’m grateful to be sober and on the path to happiness.

What’s next for Mark CJ Nelson?
One foot in front of the other with a focus on breathing.

Photography by: Justin Bowers, James Perry, Geoff Wilson Taka, and Candra Jordan.