Martin Potter – Biography
Professional surfing needed Martin Potter. He was an adrenaline needle that pierced the heart of a bloated 1980’s ASP schedule, a contest lineup dominated by gutless venues favoring only the most emaciated and delicate of surfers. But Potter was pure power, applying modern embellishments to Richard Cram’s gouging figure eight roundhouses and setting vertical lines that catapulted him beyond the lip. Lacking the nuanced artistry of Curren or the coiled tension of Carroll, Potter’s surfing was fully extended and obvious. His turns were marked by meat and muscle. He could fly off the shoulder of a knee high dribbler or thread the guts of a 12-foot drainer. A Pipeline prodigy at 15 and among the first to incorporate aerial surfing into a powerful carving aesthetic, Potter called to arms apprentices the likes of Matt Archbold, Christian Fletcher, and later Kelly Slater. Often described by way of “beast,” “erratic,” “explosive,” “hyperbolic,” and “unpredictable;” “Pottz” entered pro surfing like a shooting star that wouldn’t dim until reaching maximum altitude.
Martin Potter was born October 28, 1965 in Blyth, England, but fortunately for the infant, his family moved to Durban, South Africa 2 years later. Realizing destiny, he began riding waves at 10 and progressed at light speed from there. In 1981, he beat Tom Curren to win the NSSA International Team Challenge immediately followed by his first professional win (and first ever pro event) against Shaun Tomson, who would later remember an already progressive Potter: “I saw him pull off a beautiful no hands air at Rocky Point in Hawaii in 1981 and right there, right then, I could see that the future had arrived.” Potter placed second in the Gunston 500 and took another second in the Mainstay Magnum to finish the year ranked 8th.
Potter’s parents moved back to the UK a few years later while their son was on tour, at which time his status changed to that of British citizen (worthy of note mainly due to an historical dearth of Brits in the ASP top 10). But while a berth high in the rankings was stellar, Potter’s arrival on the world stage probably came on one wave in the Pipe Masters, where as a teenager with limited North Shore experience, Pottz scratched into an outer reef bomb and held tight all the way to the shoulder amid collective gasps that reverberated around the world.
Potter would find early support in sponsor and Astrodek owner Herbie Fletcher. Fletcher on his jet ski in 1987 towed Potter into a set wave at Pipeline inadvertently planting the seed for Laird Hamilton’s big wave revolution a decade later. Fletcher also offered Potter opportunity through Astrodek’s Wave Warrior video series. In high energy segments that covered the gamut from playful beachbreaks to throttling Waimea, the powerful natural footer found a new platform for global exposure beyond the contest heat. It’s obvious from viewing these segments even today that his surfing was light years ahead of his time. His star had risen, but it had yet to reach its competitive apex.
Placing in the top 10 every year, Potter was recognized as the most progressive and exciting surfer on the planet, but he won very few events. In 1983, his only win was at the Stubbies Pro. In 1985, he moved his base of operations to Sydney, Australia. But it wasn’t until 1989, when an invigorated Potter focused on an intensive non-surfing training regime that his competitive results changed dramatically. Winning 4 of the first 5 contests of the year, his time had come. Sporting webbed gloves and long hair, he looked like an apocalyptic warrior with surfing that was controlled and determined. At 24 years old, Martin Potter won 6 events and the world title with little resistance from the field, pulling in an estimated $300,000.
But the next year would signal a shift in fortune. With freshly shorn dreadlocks, a dislocated shoulder, and a bill for $300,000 in tax deficits, he fell out of the top 10 (for the first time in his career) to 15th in the rankings. He told Mike Reilley of the LA Times, “I’ve put too much importance on being the world champion. It seems like now I’m going out to defend titles. I’m letting the world-title stigma get to me.”
However, the star still had spark. In 1992, Potter handily took down a young Kelly Slater (another electric natural foot and obvious heir to Potter’s progressive throne) in the finals of the Miyazaki Pro surfing championships in Japan, and by 1993, he was sitting solidly at 5th place at year’s end. He retired from competition the following year.
For someone who had been a pro surfer since 15, “reality” didn’t come easy as Pottz weathered the failings of his own company and that of Gotcha (his longtime sponsor and later employer). He married twice and fathered 3 children and transitioned into coaching and training before finding his niche as a proverbial surfing ambassador with Quiksilver (a role reserved for legends like Miki Dora) which includes color commentary and general hobnobbing.
To remember Martin Potter surfing at his peak is to realize that performance has really only progressed by small degrees. Speed, power and risk would always be the essence. Matt Archbold would later tell Surfer Magazine, “He’d get on a wave and fly—literally fly. Other people looked like they were dragging anchors behind their boards compared to him.”He finished in the elite top 16 an insane 14 times, and his balls-to-the-wall approach led to an official raising of the competitive bar for the world championship tour. High risk and degree of difficulty would take precedence over length of ride and number of maneuvers, a move towards quality over quantity. Shaun Tomson credits Potter with inventing the “modern technique of power and release.” Surfer Magazine ranked him number 15 on the list of the greatest surfers of all time.
In the movie Surfers, Tom Curren (with a questioning sideways glance) called Potter the best surfer in the world, and although he wasn’t convinced, the rest of the world knew that Potter’s moment would mark a watershed event in the progression of the sport.