Leif Engstrom isn't your prototypical Puerto Rican ripper. With his gangly, freckled limbs and curly blond locks, he's as caucasian as they come -- sort of an Irish-German-Swedish hybrid. But while so many American expats settle into Marias-in-the-afternoon anonymity on La Isla Encanta, this 21-year-old is steadily building a reputation as its most dynamic gringo surfer. Raised in Montauk, NY, Engstrom was regularly whisked away to delight in the same lukewarm, aqueous treasures that seduced his parents decades before. He doesn't just have a split geographic personality, either. Engstrom's competition resume can seem at odds with his dedication to progressive surfing, and both took a backseat this past February at a certain nefarious reef break that had beckoned him for years: C'mon kid. You want to really fit in with the PR boys? Surf here ... we dare you.
He answered the call, earning one more reputation for himself, that of "The Unsponsored Kid Who Charges As Hard As The Surf Stars." Add that to his previously established reputation as "Greg And Kathy's Kid Who Lives At Rincon Now" or "The Air Guy At Indicators," and it makes you wonder: Who is Leif Engstrom?
Try this for an answer: "One Of New York's Most Legit Surfers, Ever."
Briefly describe your Montauk roots.
My mom Kathleen owned Montauk T-shirts and my dad Greg owned a landscaping business in the Hamptons. They'd been going to Puerto Rico since before they dated and brought me down from the time I was born. I didn't start progressing until I was 16 and started spending winters there. Up until then, my surfing came straight from Montauk beachbreaks.
How do you consider your role as a New York surfer now that you're much more visible on the PR scene?
I now just spend the springs and summers in Montauk, maybe stay through October to get some good hurricane swells. I still consider myself a Montauk local and plan on living there when I'm older. The waves are amazing in my hometown and my friends are just crazy. They love to party and they have so much personality.
Montauk is known for having a fairly intense local scene of its own. How did that nurture you for Puerto Rican lineups?
Some of the more named New York breaks, like Ditch Plains, we never surf much at all because they're so crowded. But other spots guys try to keep a little more localized. Understanding how some Montauk locals can get prepared me for Puerto Rico, because I understood the respect thing as soon as I got there. But I was also very fortunate to meet Darren Muschett, who immediately took me under his wing. He got me on O'Neill and helped me become good friends with all the best surfers in Puerto Rico.
The white skin doesn't help, not to mention the hair, but if you give respect, you'll get respect. Most Puerto Ricans are really great people. Guys just want to hold down their lineups, that's all.
Your sisters, Alexis and Ariel, are both former ESA/NSSA standouts. Does having successful competitors in the family take some of the pressure off your own WQS aspirations?
Not really. Ariel's taken a different route, going to college at UC Santa Barbara. But over the last year, Alexis has been training with Martin Dunn, who told her he thinks she has the ability to be on the ASP Women's World Tour. I've never seen a girl do the kinds of turns I've seen her do lately. She just needs the right person to see her. But Alexis is in the same boat I'm in right now.
What boat is that?
No clothing sponsor. I've had so many problems with that over the past three years. Let me just say that I love doing contests. I didn't do so well on the WQS my first year, but I did all right the second. After I lost O'Neill as my main sponsor, it got too expensive. Then the Ergophobia thing didn't work out, and I got a few offers for the box-of-clothes thing, but I was over that. What sucks is now there are only so many WQS events in America, so if you stop surfing them and lose your points, you can't get back on. As of right now, I can't get into any WQS's in the States, no matter what.
You did, however, enjoy one bright contest moment, winning the Pro-Am division of the Volcom VQS Catfish Surf Series in March 2009 at huge, rifling Wilderness, in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. How did that win affect your confidence?
A lot of people consider me an "air guy" because all the photos I've gotten in the magazines have been airs. But the righthand pointbreaks are so good where I live in Puerto Rico, that's where I surf the most ... and shoot the least [laughs]. I actually consider my backside better than my frontside any day of the week. So going into that contest knowing the waves were just like what I surf at Tres Palmas gave me confidence. Plus, at the last Corona Cup contest at Domes, once again, it was overhead rights. I lost to Carlos Cabrero in the semis and wound up getting third. That was my best contest performance, but it also felt good to prove I'm not just another air guy.
Your real coming out party, however, was the part you played in the historic swell that hammered Puerto Rico this past February where you proved you're capable of a lot more than air-reverses off the Indicators left. Enlighten us.
When we first pulled up, it looked like Pipe. The only other big, barreling wave I'd ever surfed was on this one trip to Indonesia, so I wasn't completely ready but wanted to give it a shot. It was big, but I've surfed way heavier waves in Puerto Rico. Two years ago, when guys were doing tow-ins, Darren and I paddled out with 35-foot waves breaking in front of us. After dealing with that and getting held under for a minute at a time, I wasn't scared at all this day, even though it was my first time surfing there. There were only a few people out, but they were top guys -- [Peter] Mendia, Asher [Nolan], Gabe [Kling], Otto [Flores], [Brian] Toth. So I sat a bit underneath them, and the ones they thought weren't gonna be good were the ones I paddled for. I got some keepers but definitely paid the price. I got cleaned up and had my first two-wave hold-down. I tried paddling for one, missed it, then saw all the guys paddling out as fast as they could. It broke right in front of me, and it's really shallow there, so I just lay on the bottom. The wave picked me up, slammed me, and before I came up to the surface another wave threw me to the bottom again.
How'd you restrain the panic?
My dad's an insanely gnarly waterman. He's the most athletic man I've ever met and the biggest role model in my life. Every time the waves get huge at Tres, he's out there charging. And he's always pushing me to practice holding my breath longer, rock-running ... stuff like that. So I was ready for it mentally. And it was worth it. That day was insane.
And you got the clips to prove it.
My friend Calvin Knowlton is a filmer/photographer who just started his own company, Spoiled World, and he's been more of a sponsor to me than anyone else the past few years, paying my way to Indo and stuff. Between Calvin, my parents, and Dan Taylor helping me with boards, I've been able to keep going for it. I was actually on the verge of giving up on the whole pro scene until Peter Mendia and those guys came to town and started pushing me to go harder. That gave me a boost.
You've bagged some solid clips of rodeos, supermans, and a multitude of grab variations. Got anything else up your sleeve as far as new tricks or video segments?
Calvin and I heard about the Innersection.tv thing, and we blew it because we had already put our Indo footage on the Internet. I've been practicing airs constantly -- full rotations, no air-reverses -- and working on the superman 360, which I've come close to pulling, but those really eat your boards. And on a recent trip to Peru, we got three back-to-back rodeos on film. I wish we had known a little more in advance, but there's still some time.
The racial tension seems to have loosened a bit in the 51st State since the '90s, but have you experienced any hostility as a fair-haired gringo existing in some of the most intensely localized lineups in the world?
Not too much. I have Rincon down. I'm friends with everyone, but then again, there are more gringos there [laughs] ... I don't know everyone up in Aguadilla, and there've been a few incidents, but everything's squared away now. But if I were to go surf San Juan it would be a whole different scenario. I'd probably get yelled at. The white skin doesn't help, not to mention the hair, but if you give respect, you'll get respect. Most Puerto Ricans are really great people. Guys just want to hold down their lineups, that's all.
You're not gonna turn into one of those salty expats who tries to claim himself a full-fledged Puerto Rican, are you?
No way! I'll always claim Montauk. In PR, I'm a Rincon half-local at best. I do have my own seat at Rock Bottom, though [laughs].