MSW's Top 50 Trending Surfers of 2020

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 633d ago

What a weird year 2020 was—both for the world at large, and for the surf world in particular. Thanks to a once-per-century pandemic, basically everything shut down, which meant no world tour, no travel, and, in many places, no surfing whatsoever.

Many of the biggest names that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the media faded into relative obscurity with no events to contest and no swells to chase, leaving behind a content vacuum that was filled by those with creative vision, enduring talent, or the simple luck of being stuck in the right place at the right time.

As this challenging year comes to an end and we look forward with hope to a new start in 2021, we’ve curated a list of surfers who were able to remain relevant while the rest of the world burned over the past 12 months. Here’s our list of the 50 most trending surfers in 2020. (And here's 2018 and 2019's list for reference.)

50. Yago Dora

With the world tour on hiatus all year, not much was heard of Yago Dora in 2020—until mid-December, that is, when COVID-19 struck down the Pipe Masters and rumours began circulating that the Brazilian had tested positive on the way to Hawaii, then finagled his way out of quarantine with the help of the WSL. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Yago was the one who infected the Pipe Masters crew or not—that’s what people on the North Shore believe, and in this post-truth era, the court of public opinion is what’s most important.

49. Kalani Latanzi
If you want to make your mark on the world, the trick is to do something both radical and unique. Kalani Latanzi has been doing precisely that for years—although those who know him will tell you that the decade he’s spent bodysurfing enormous Nazare alone was never about publicity. Regardless, Kalani’s craziness continues to captivate us every time he straps on a pair of fins and swims out into the death zone.

48. Ben Gravy
After riding 50 waves in 50 US states in 2019, you’d think Ben Gravy would have run out of novelty surfing experiences to document. But after a quick perusal of Gravy’s YouTube channel it’s clear that there is no shortage of weird waves to be uncovered. And for those who think Gravy only rides river waves on soft-tops—well, he arrived in Hawaii a few days ago, and he was paddling into monsters at Nelscott Reef in early December.

47. Keahi DeAboitiz
While many people go to great lengths to gain followers and garner publicity, others just quietly go about their business, but do so with such excellence that people can’t help but pay attention. Keahi DeAboitiz is in the latter category. He’s quiet, humble, and unassuming—but so damned talented that he puts the world on notice anytime he paddles out, no matter what he paddles out on. A four-time kiteboarding world champ, Keahi recently showed the world what he could do outside of the jersey with his barrel-heavy edit “Tunnel Vision.”

46. Erin Mitchell
Yet another rising star who has been turning heads, Erin Mitchell is a 13-year-old talent that will almost certainly do battle with the next generation of women on the world tour. Perfecting her air reverses in the Waco pool and studying under inspirational mentor Bethany Hamilton, Mitchell is on the fast-track to a breakthrough year—she’s just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up and take notice.

45. Sky Brown

Better known for her skating than her surfing, Sky Brown is a pre-teen phenom who has already qualified for the British Olympic team at the age of 12. She took a brutal wipeout mid-year, suffering a severe head trauma and a number of broken bones, but bounced back and has been putting in time at the various wave pools between skate sessions and winning Dancing with the Stars: Junior.

44. Caroline Marks
It was a long 12 months without competitive surfing to geek out on, and in that amount of time it’s easy to forget that 18-year-old Caroline Marks finished 2019 ranked second in the world. While she came up short against Sage Erickson in the round of 16 at Honolua Bay, she’s still a solid favorite to make the top five by season’s end—and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone betting against her at Trestles.

43. Betty Lou Sakura Johnson
If you want to see the future, you have to be willing to talk to the kids—and the kids we’ve been talking to have only one name on their lips: Bettylou. While Carissa and Tyler and Steph are the current queens of the women’s world tour (with Carissa narrowly beating the young wild card at Honolua), Bettylou Sakura Johnson is on her way to making them all irrelevant. By the time she’s out of high school and full-time on the world tour, rumor has it she’ll be untouchable.

42. Moana Jones
Ask anyone on the North Shore, and they’ll tell you that Moana Jones is the future of surfing at Pipeline. She has arguably spent more time in the barrel there than any other woman alive—and now that the women have contested heats Hawaii’s most infamous reef, that means a lot. Expect to see more of her over the next few years, particularly if the women continue to get a chance to surf Pipe in jerseys.

41. Brett Barley
Coming into 2020, there were a lot of guys putting out a lot of content on a regular basis. But after COVID-19 shut things down, the majority of them went silent, unable to travel and stack clips. Brett Barely, on the other hand, seemed to have the pandemic dialed, always managing to be at the right place at the right time. Whether it was firing East Coast barrels or early season Hawaii, Brett found a way to keep the content coming—and in a year like this one, that’s what keeps you relevant.

40. Matt Bromley

Brom dog hit Jaws, then straight to Mav's after a 2.5 day flight from South Africa. That's dedication.

Brom dog hit Jaws, then straight to Mav's after a 2.5 day flight from South Africa. That's dedication.

© 2022 - Marco Arellano/Over The Edge Movie

Don’t let the humble, soft-spoken demeanour fool you—South Africa’s Matt Bromley is one of the gnarliest guys on the planet when it comes to heavy water. Bromley was “stuck” at home for much of the summer, and took full advantage of one of the best surf seasons in South Africa in years. When things turned on in the Northern Hemisphere in December, he made his way to Jaws and then Maverick’s, where he put in newsworthy performances during some of the heaviest sessions in years.

39. Ellie Jean Coffey
The leader of surfing’s most scandalous clan took things to a new level this year when she and her sisters started OnlyFans sites—to sell pictures and videos of themselves doing things that were markedly NSFW. Further scandal ensued when their content reportedly failed to provide the promised, shall we say “lack of inhibition,” and subscribers immediately began clamouring for either the promised peep show or their money back. Latest reports indicate that the OnlyFans accounts now include the desired nudes (and a whole lot more), temporarily placating a vocally lecherous online community. If Reddit is any measure, Eliie Jean Coffey may be the most trending surfer in the world right now.

38. Imogen Caldwell
What do you get when you mix heaps of talent, stunning good looks, an affinity for the ocean, and the rootsy ethos of a WA upbringing? One of Australia’s most accomplished, humble, gorgeous barrel riders, that’s what.

37. Bethany Hamilton
After a career full of movie productions, book releases, WSL wild cards, and tow sessions at Jaws, 2020 was actually a pretty quiet one for Bethany Hamilton. That being said, she’s still quite possibly the world’s best known surfer, so when she announced she was pregnant with her third child this year, the news was run just about everywhere. Real celebrity transcends the surf media—and Hamilton is as close to a real celebrity as we have.

36. Tom Lowe

It’s pretty hard not to love Lowey. The Englishman is as friendly and as happy as they come, sends it as hard as anyone, and isn’t afraid to take donuts. His incredible XL barrel at Mullaghmore in January was arguably the single best wave ridden in 2020.

35. Pete Mel
From big-wave hero to big wave commissioner to WSL commentator and back to big-wave hero again, 51-year-old Pete Mel came full circle in mid-December when he stroked into one of the tallest second-reefers during arguably the biggest and best paddle day in the history of Maverick’s. Anyone thinking of selling their guns because they are in their 50s needs only to look to the Condor, who proved in December that experience trumps just about anything else when the buoys go XXL. In fact, we propose a new, exclusive “50 Over 50” club for anyone over the age of 50 who has paddled into a wave bigger than 50 feet on the face. If you can think of anyone else who has accomplished this feat, feel free to comment below.

34. Emi Erickson
Widely acknowledged as the queen of both Waimea Bay and Sunset and considered by many to have been cheated out of a big wave world championship at Jaws a couple years back, Emi Erickson’s stock has continued to rise this winter, thanks in large part to the Red Bull Magnitude event, which is practically set in her backyard. This will likely be a three-way race between Emi, Keala Kennelly, and Paige Alms—and considering Emi’s reputation on the North Shore, where the majority of the action will take place, you’d have to peg her as the favourite.

33. Wade Goodall
During a year almost completely devoid of competition—and in which many were forced to shelter at home, unable to even ride waves themselves—surfers had to depend on edits from our favourite athletes to keep ourselves entertained. Unfortunately, most pro surfers were also barred from surfing and traveling, which meant that the content released throughout the year has been pretty limited, both in quantity and in scope. The notable exception to that was Wade Goodall’s much-anticipated film Pentacoastal, which more than lived up to the hype and gave us all something to be excited about during a somewhat lacklustre year.

32. Anthony Fillingim

As the rest of us hunkered down at home and began a six-month stint of third-degree FOMO, Anthony Fillingim did what the rest of us only wished we had the gumption to do and stuck it out in Indonesia. The commitment of “The Last Man in the Mentawais” was rewarded by an all-time run of swell, which we all watched on repeat, green with jealousy, until Indonesia started granting backdoor visas and the rest of us could sneak in—for a hefty price, of course. By then, Fillingim had probably snuck off to some other empty, epic zone. Gotta give credit where it’s due—his was arguably the single biggest score of the year.

31. Sierra Kerr
The female counterpart to Jackson Dorian, Sierra Kerr is the high-flying, barrel-packing daughter of Josh Kerr—and the unofficial leader of a pack of pre-teen girls who are poised to blow the lid off the surfing world over the next five years. Her performance in proper barrels in the Mentawais last month was the final proof that Sierra has arrived—and that she’s here to stay.

30. Jackson Dorian
Is it any surprise that the most hyped pre-teen since Kelly Slater is Slater’s godson? Jackson Dorian—the son of Shane Dorian, in case you’ve been living under a rock—has grown into himself this year, and at 15 has started to add power and rail to his next-level air game. Between his pedigree, his industry support, and his virtually unlimited access to the most consistent training ground in surfing (conveniently created by his godfather), Jackson is quickly becoming surfing’s newest wunderkind.

29. Natxo Gonzalez

© 2022 - Jon Bakio

Although he has been largely confined to his home country of Spain this year due to travel restrictions and concerns over COVID-19, Natxo remains one of the most respected big wave chargers and world explorers of the current generation. While his latest video collaborations with filmer John Aspuru might not have the same gut-wrenching impact as his right-hand sandbar discovery a few years ago, he remains as relevant as ever—and you can be damned sure he’s spent the past eight months scouring Google Earth in anticipation of the world opening back up.

28. Koa Rothman
Whether at home on the north shore or chasing heavy water around the world, Koa Rothman has found the winning formula with his This Is Livin’ vlog. Averaging around 60,000 views per post, Koa’s vlog is full of barrels, big waves, and first-person commentary from the young charger.

27. Jack Robinson
When Jack Robinson earned his way onto the world tour last winter with an inspired performance at Sunset, it injected a dose of wild card excitement into a competitive scene desperately in need of some new blood. Unfortunately, the tour ended up getting cancelled before Jack ever had a chance to prove himself in the jersey—which means we’ve all spent the past year wondering what exactly he will do when competition finally resumes. Jack narrowly lost out to Slater at Pipe last week, but should be the favourite going into Sunset—and if he gets a result there, the odds are good that he’ll be in the running for the title at year’s end.

26. Jonathan Gubbins

Sometimes staying relevant is a matter of luck. Others, it’s all about talent. With Jonathan Gubbins, it’s a bit of both. Grounded by the pandemic and a world full of closed borders, Gubbins posted up in Peru—and ended up scoring crazy left-hand barrels a few miles from his doorstep. Who says you have to travel halfway around the world to surf Namibian-style mutants? Sometimes the best option is to shelter at home.

25. Sebastian Steudtner
After a summer that was largely devoid of big-wave heroics—due to both travel restrictions and a relatively quiet year in the southern hemisphere, swell-wise—Nazare kicked the big wave scene back into action in November as one of the largest swells in history buffeted the European coastline. As usual, tow-maestro Sebastian Steudtner was getting yanked into beasts the entire swell, riding some of the biggest lumps of water we’ve seen in the past year.

24. Andrew Cotton
Remember when Cotty broke his back in a horrible wipeout at Nazare in 2017? And then tore his ACL at Nazare the next year, after making a superhuman effort to get his body back in fighting shape? Most people would have given up at that point, but Cotty isn’t most people. After rehabbing all of 2019 and half of 2020, he towed what might end up being a world-record wave at Nazare during October’s Hurricane Epsilon swell, proving that you can’t keep a good man down.

23. William Allioti

A global travel shutdown pulled the rug out from under lot of freesurfer’s feet in 2020, but William Allioti had already done the hard work the previous few years, establishing himself as one of our community’s most dedicated swell chasers, so the threat of a year off didn’t worry him too much. Plus, it’s not like he stayed put for too long. While most guys were sitting at home waiting for swell, he chased a cycle to Teahupoo and got barreled on a finless board.

22. Steph Gilmore
Seven-time world champ Steph Gilmore fell out of the draw at Honolua before finals day, which means we didn’t get to see her surf at Pipe. But she remains one of the most stylish surfers on the planet and a legitimate title threat, alongside Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright. And considering her consistent performance in Australia during the COVID-19 lockdown, she probably surfed more good waves than any other woman on tour in 2020.

21. Lucas Chumbo Chianca
COVID-19 has been rough on Brazil, both in terms of infection numbers and its limiting effects on Brazilian surfers’ ability to travel. But while Chumbo hasn’t been able to chase as frenetically as he normally does, one slow season can’t dampen the effect of years of froth and an abundance of talent. Along with Kai Lenny, Chumbo is the future of big wave surfing—and that is enough to keep him relevant, pandemic or no. A potential world-record wave at Nazare in October is just the latest proof of his talent.

20. Keala Kennelly
With the Big Wave Tour a thing of the past and most chargers stuck at home for the season, Red Bull has stepped up with a new, online contest for Hawaii’s best big wave women. Opening day of the Magnitude event saw Keala Kennelly head to an outer reef and snag one of the biggest waves of the day—a great way to start her winter campaign.

19. Jamie Mitchell
Like a lot of professional surfers during the year of the pandemic, Jamie Mitchell was forced to slow down and enjoy the waves at home for much of 2020. But that all changed in the first half of December, when the North Pacific went into overdrive and Jamie responded with a whirlwind tour of big wave surfing’s most radical venues. A solid performance at the Jaws season opener followed by one of the biggest waves paddled on the day of all days at Maverick’s has put him squarely back in the limelight. Meanwhile, his new big wave podcast and other forward-thinking ideas have established him as a central figure in the big wave scene for years to come.

18. Torren Martyn

Emerging over the past few years as the freesurfing antithesis to cookie-cutter world tour performance, Torren Martyn’s frequent edits never cease to amaze and entertain. Unlike some other retro-board enthusiasts who are heavy on aesthetic but light on talent, Torren’s style is matched by his high-performance capabilities—he just chooses to get radical on a crazy quiver of twin fins. His backside barrel approach in particular is something to behold.

17. Justine Dupont
The other woman in the running for the biggest wave ever ridden world record, Justine Dupont also rode her wave during the Nazare tow event—and when Maya was awarded top honours, Dupont made it clear that she was unhappy with the ruling. Both women’s waves were enormous, and it’s difficult to tell at a glance whose was bigger. One thing is for sure, though—there was no bigger controversy in 2020 than Justine and Maya’s world record showdown.

16. Maya Gabeira

© 2022 - WSL

The WSL’s team tow event at Nazare was looking a bit anticlimactic after a few years of paddle carnage, but a monumental swell made short work of the boredom and breathed life back into a dying tow-surfing scene. A wave ridden by Maya Gabeira that day was deemed the biggest ridden by anyone the entire year, and earned her a closely contested world record.

15. Nathan Florence
No longer “John John’s little brother,” Nathan Florence has firmly established himself as one of the world’s best big wave surfers over the past two years, and spent the COVID season continuing his pursuit of big-ass barrels whenever the opportunity presented itself. 2020 wasn’t the most active year for any big wave surfer, due to travel restrictions, but considering what was possible, Nathan Florence got after it as much as anyone.

14. Billy Kemper
You’d think that a year without contests and a potentially career-ending injury would slow a guy down, but after recovering from a broken hip in Morocco at the end of last winter, Billy Kemper has picked up right where he left off. He was a standout during the first Jaws swell of the season, and after winning four of the past five events there, he’s the obvious favourite to take out the event if it ends up running this winter.

13. Jamie O’Brien
JOB figured out a winning strategy years ago, and will continue to ride that wave of success until kids stop surfing and shenanigans stop being funny—which is to say never. Equal parts comedy, chaos, and preternatural talent, Jamie’s was the original surf vlog, and inspired an entire generation of imitators. These days he’s as busy as he’s ever been, yet still manages to maintain his status as one of the top three surfers at Pipeline, which is still arguably the most important lineup in all of surfing.

12. Nic Von Rupp

While most professional surfers live Instagram post to Instagram post, Nic Von Rupp spends months stacking clips and making sure that his edits are top-notch productions. This strategy paid dividends during a year when most freesurfers were unable to travel and chase swells. Rather than sitting at home sulking after being deprived of his spot on a cancelled Big Wave Tour, Von Rupp released the Von Froth series of edits, maintaining his relevance until the world opens back up and he can get back to chasing the heaviest barrels in Europe and abroad.

11. Carissa Moore
Carissa may have come up just short against Wright in the first event of the year, but she’s the only woman who made a proper barrel once the event shifted to Pipeline—and that says a lot about where her level of surfing is compared with the rest of the field. While Tyler may be out to an early lead and Steph Gilmore might have more world titles to her name, Carissa is arguably the best female surfer on the planet.

10. Tyler Wright
After dominating the world tour for a couple of years, Tyler Wright was struck down with a terrible case of post-viral syndrome, which led her to miss half of the 2018 season and the majority of the 2019 season. When she made her successful return to competition at the final event of the year at Honolua last season, surf fans breathed a sigh of relief at the knowledge that one of the world’s best was finally healed up and back in form. But Tyler’s return to the world title race was derailed by a virus yet again in 2020 when COVID-19 cancelled the world tour. Fortunately, she picked up right where she left off this year, winning the first event of the 2021 season at Honolua/Pipe after narrowly beating a rampaging Carissa Moore in the final.

9. Mason Ho

Does anyone put out more entertaining content, practically on a weekly basis, than Mason Ho? It doesn’t matter if there’s north swell, south swell, or virtually no swell hitting the island of Oahu—between crackpot interviews, bizarre board selections, phenomenal talent, and his signature dry-reef rock dance, Mason finds a way to keep us entertained without ever leaving home.

8. Matahi Drollet
Matahi has always been one of the best at Teahupoo—and that alone makes him one of the gnarliest guys in the world. But this year he decided to show us what he’s capable of outside of Tahiti as well, blowing minds by packing barrels at Ke Iki and foiling Oahu’s outer reefs on XL days. Then he went back home for the summer and took things to yet another level, riding what are likely the first-ever legit foil barrels (at Teahupoo, no less!) and breaking the Internet in the process. There’s no telling what this talented waterman will do next, but whatever it is, you can almost guarantee it will be impressive.

7. Grant “Twiggy” Baker
While Slater might be the poster child for ripping into middle age, Twiggy is proof that you can charge after 40 as well. A multiple-time big wave world champ, Twig keeps upping the bar every season. Last year it was his monolithic, 60-foot barrel at Jaws. This year—this month, in fact—it was a second-reef Mavs monster that was quite possibly the biggest ever paddled. We will leave it to the folks at Guinness to decide about world records, but one thing is for certain—Twiggy is only getting better with age.

6. Kelly Slater
The GOAT could literally walk away from competitive surfing—hell, surfing altogether—and still remain one of the most popular people to ever ride a wave, pretty much indefinitely. A year out of the jersey means nothing to a man who has already retired once, only to come back and win five more world titles. Nearing 50, he remains as relevant as ever, whether debating flat-earthers online, expanding his quiver of Slater Designs boards, or competing on tour. He proved that once again by making the semis at Pipe, where he was only stopped by an in-form John John Florence (who went on to win the event).

5. Gabriel Medina
It’s been a relatively quiet year for Gabriel Medina. He was bested by fellow Brazilian Italo Ferreira for the 2019 world title, didn't get a chance to surf in a jersey for most of 2020, and isn’t exactly known for his freesurf edits. But at Pipeline in December, Medina exploded back onto the scene with a finals appearance, facing off against John Florence for an early lead heading into 2021. While Florence ended up on top, it was a close heat and a well-fought battle—an indicator of what to expect from Medina for the rest of the coming season.

4. Connor Maguire

The defining moment of 2020, full stop?

The defining moment of 2020, full stop?

© 2022 - Conor Flanagan//Red Bull Surfing

After a summer full of lockdowns and small waves at home, the world was ready to be wowed by the first XXL swell of the winter—and Connor Maguire delivered. While the rest of the big wave world flocked to Nazare (which subsequently got shut down by the Portuguese government), McGuire got permission to surf a locked down Mully and ended up towing the biggest wave ever surfed in Ireland.

3. Italo Ferreira
For awhile there it looked like Italo Ferreira was going to be king for life—the last world champ of a dying tour. Now that the WSL is officially back in business, it appears he’ll actually have to defend his crown, but that doesn’t make him any less relevant. The edits he has consistently dropped during the gap year (while the rest of the tour has gone eerily silent) and his electric performance at the season opener at Pipeline (where he only narrowly lost to Medina in the semis after suffering multiple injuries in the quarters) make him an easy pick for a spot at the Trestles title showdown in September.

2. John Florence
The relevance of a surfer like John doesn’t change, whether he’s battling for a world title or sheltering at home. While most tour surfers faded into relative obscurity while the tour was on hiatus, John spent the year healing his knee, honing his craft, and regularly releasing jaw-dropping edits. And when the 2021 world tour sputtered back to life at Pipeline last week, it was Florence who stepped up, winning his first Pipe Masters and taking an early lead in the race for the world title.

1. Kai Lenny

Remember this? Kai Lenny treating Nazare like a toy box, way back in March which feels like a lifetime ago.

Remember this? Kai Lenny treating Nazare like a toy box, way back in March which feels like a lifetime ago.

© 2022 - Helio Antonio

360 chop hops at Nazare. Arm-barring barrels while skipping down the face at Jaws. Charging second-reefers at Mavs. Single-handedly making foil surfing cool. Kai Lenny is arguably the greatest all-around waterman we’ve ever seen, and one of the most marketable personalities in surfing today. Young, humble, frothy, good looking, accomplished, and incredibly talented—if professional surfing ends up surviving COVID-19, it will be because of Kai Lenny.