Life in Salt: Professional Surfer and Filmmaker Cyrus Sutton on Living in a Van Down by the Sea, and Giving up His Iconic Surfmobile

by Owen James Burke

Editor’s Note: 

About a week ago, I learned that #vanlife icon Cyrus Sutton was seriously considering selling his iconic wood-roofed, high-top Ford Econoline van. I suggested to my nomadic maritime scribe Owen Burke, who has been strongly considering a #vanlife shift since moving to New Zealand, that he reach out to Sutton and write up a piece on the possible sale of VanHalen. The conversation between the two nomads (Sutton’s wandering somewhere near San Diego), took a decidedly more interesting turn, when Owen began hitting up Sutton for wisdom on vans, while Sutton began to seriously query Owen on life in New Zealand. In the end, it seems Owen will indeed end up in a van, while Sutton will also end up a Kiwi. To top it off, Sutton’s good buddy, Scuttlefish friend and #vanlife founder Foster Huntington, just ended up on the homepage of the New York Times. Strange days indeed. — Chris Dixon

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“It’s scary, giving up a traditional roof over your head. You’re giving up a lot of security, but what you’re getting is reality. Cut down your expenses and you can live the new American Dream.” Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

10 years ago, professional surfer and filmmaker Cyrus Sutton was sick of paying rent and being confined to his Southern Californian residence because of it. Free, single, and disengaged, he bought a used Ford Econoline–an electrician’s van.

He stripped it, extended the roof, installed a bunk, storage, a workspace and a kitchen area, and called it home. Since then, he and his surf-chariot/film-studio have roamed north as far as the Washington Straits, and south to Oaxaca, Mexico where he spent months surfing and making films.

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“VanHalen” in Baja, Mexico, before the makeover. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Now, because he’s been given an offer he couldn’t refuse, his dream home on wheels “VanHalen” is soon to be looking for a new pilot. There’s only one condition: if you decide to buy her, you’ll have to allow Cyrus to come by once a year so he can drive around the block to reminisce.


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VanHalen somewhere in Mexico, blending right in. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Scut: How long have you been traveling and living in your van?

Cyrus Sutton: 10 years.

Where are you now?

I’m in San Diego right now during meetings; I’m kinda homeless. The plan is to get out of Southern California, be remote, and in prettier places. Like you, but less extreme.

You say your modifications didn’t cost much; how much are we talking? Clearly you put a lot of your own elbow grease into it.

It was just a stock electrician’s van with a metal cage in the back. I bought it off a guy who had bought as a support vehicle for the Baja 1,000. He beefed it up with some heavy-duty leafs and coils, and put some off-road tires on it. He was a pretty white-collar guy; he didn’t use it much and kept it in good condition. It had only about 30,000 miles on it.

As far as modifications went, I think it was about seven grand, but most of the work was done by me. The guy that built out the inside, Glen, did it as a favor, just as a friend. (He was in Stoked and Broke with the big red bullhorn milk truck.)

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Six surfboards fit inside VanHalen, and that still leaves room for a berth. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Most of the money went into the roof. I hired a metal worker who has this amazing workshop in San Diego. His dad is an artist and sculptor, and he has this dream workshop of welders and cold saws and really amazing equipment, so a lot of it was paying for his time and the materials.

We did it all out of tube steel, and welded it to the frame of the car. We used aerospace grade aluminum on the top—that was Glen’s suggestion—because it never rusts. Then we insulated the inside, covered it with wood and spar varnished the outside. That was an expensive project. It took us two weeks all day, every day.

Then I put in a couple grand before I went on this trip called ‘Compassing’, a film I made for REEF (watch here). Since then, I just put money into preventative maintenance.

That seems worth it. It’s your portable life support system. 

That far down, you don’t want anything happening.

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Now, what’s going on inside the roof addition?

That’s my main sleeping quarter. Half of it retracts so you can stand up and walk through the main body of the van. That’s where the kitchen area is, so you don’t have to kneel over. It’s amazing how much more livable it makes it when you can stand up. Before I converted it, it was all metal and not very tall. It literally felt like a dungeon and I was a prisoner or something. It frees up space, but then it can easily fold out into a nice full size bed. You can put boards up there, up to 9’8” longboards. You can keep two on one side and sleep next to them as a single or sleep below and keep 6 up there. Then there’s subfloor storage and it’s got a secret compartment for camera equipment and stuff.

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So you’re giving up your beloved abode of ten years for a Mercedes Sprinter? Why give up the classic for modern technology?

I’ve always wanted a Sprinter van, it’s twice as big and gets twice as good gas mileage. It’s just functional for me, for somebody who lives in their van full time, it’s nice to have a really big ride and be able to travel. I’m sure if I were a weekend warrior and just liked to go on surf trips and wanted to have a good van in the driveway, my van would be fine. But, because I’m a full-timer, and they were selling the Sprinter for such a good price, I couldn’t say no.

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Art courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Your van’s pretty iconic around California, at least along the beaches. Will you miss being instantly recognizable anywhere you go?

I’m just happy to be incognito again and not have a van that looks like it belongs to an LSD hippie-raper cult or something.

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By land or sea, it’s not hard to spot VanHalen. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Hahaha. Fair enough! How about the solitude of van life; does that ever get to you?

Yeah, but I tricked this one girl (his girlfriend) into the van life. She’s gonna rebel soon enough, but I have a plan of slipping all kinds of opiates into her sardines that’s going to quell her inevitable wander-lusting ways. Part of living in a van is that you kind of have to be a loner, unless you’re a music festival kind of guy. But I’m an only child, I grew up surfing which is a pretty solitary thing, and I like my alone time.

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Cyrus Sutton and VanHalen, somewhere south of the border, “where the cellphone towers no longer broadcast their rule.” Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

I can go into Encinitas or other coastal towns and just have a ton of people to see and things to do, and then I can get overwhelmed and go into the desert by myself for a long time. That’s what’s best about a van, you have your little ark that can take you wherever, and you have your space and things and your privacy and all that stuff. Vans are great for that. Even if people do notice you and come up to the van, you have your curtains drawn and they don’t know you’re in there. It’s a little cocoon from the world, you know?

Not only do you have a cocoon, you also have a kitchen. You can cook, soak some lentils, rice, beans or whatever, and you’ve got a nice hot meal right there. I think that’s what really turns a van into a home. It’s a hearth, a place to make food. Anybody can sleep in their vehicle. You could have a sedan and recline the seat, but once you have a kitchen area, that’s legit.

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Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

A home is never a home without a kitchen. Do you have a fridge?

No, cooler all the way. Fridges are a pain. There are no good options, they take up too much space, they’re too energy hungry to run off solar, and the propane ones are so compact, they’re useless anyway. If it’s a catalytic, you have to have a place where the exhaust goes–it’s a hassle. And, most things don’t really need refrigeration, if you think about it.

Being a fisherman, I’d need a small freezer for fish and abalone, but I think you’re right.

So you just go 10 minutes and harvest abalone off the rocks?

They’re everywhere here.

Sounds like California in the forties.

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Screenshot from Compassing by Cyrus Sutton/REEF.

Have you had any cataclysmic breakdowns?

I almost hit a pig that took out my front passenger side wheel; that would have been a massive bump in the road. But yeah, we had a wheel bearing go out on my driver side, and stranded us on a Sunday. Luckily we had a guy come out and replace it—he did it for 15 bucks. I wish I had more mechanical problems happen down there. I had to do the other one in the states, and it cost hundreds.

What’s the most important thing to have in a van, besides your surfboards?

A camping stove, I have to say, but it’s not the safest thing in the world, and you need to keep a window or door open for ventilation. You should look into a nautical stove. We’re going to put one in the Sprinter—a little cast iron wood burning stove with flashing on the floor and the sides. Nothing beats wood heat to dry heat. Propane is wet heat, it sinks to the bottom, it doesn’t rise very well, and you always have to worry about exhaust that you can’t smell.

Good to know. I think I’ll do that. It’ll be worth it for the coming winter months.

I’m gonna move down there (OJB’s latest home in New Zealand). I’ll be your neighbor pretty soon. I’ll be in Dunedin, getting shacked at the beach break. You can come down and stay.

I’ll come park my van in your yard. And any visit from me is guaranteed to come with fresh fish and paua (“abalone” in Maori).

Wow. Yeah man, you’ve got to show me. I’m a big fly fisherman.

I’ve got a few spots to take you, and a wave or two in Dunedin you might not have found yet.

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And to any interested buyers wondering, though she spends most of her time along the coast, she climbs hills too. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

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Above: VanHalen parked beneath Foster Huntington’s Cinder-Cone Treehouse. Photo courtesy: Cyrus Sutton.

Lately, Cyrus has been spending time at this secret off-the-grid hideaway in the Pacific Northwest belonging to fellow surfer, photographer and van life enthusiast Foster Huntington.


Required Materials:

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Escape to Bro-Topia.  The New York Times. June 6, 2015. 
(Cyrus Sutton’s good buddy) Foster Huntington was an up-and-comer in the New York fashion industry. Then he ditched it all and built his own personal paradise in the sky.

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Stoked and Broke chronicles Cyrus Sutton and fellow surfer Ryan Burch on an 8-day 30-mile surf trip through San Diego with no car and zero dollars.

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Tom’s Creation Plantationa film about shaping and riding Alaias, traditional, finless Hawaiian surfboards.

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The Surfmobile Devotional. An Ode to the Venerable Volkswagen Vanagon Camper. by Chris Dixon

Follow Cyrus Sutton and his adventures on Vimeo, Regressing Forward, Korduroy TV, and Instagram, and keep your eye out–we’ll be posting VanHalen for sale once Cyrus is ready to put her up on eBay. -OJB

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