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Dropping In With Mickey Muñoz

At home with the Mongoose.

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Each time I visit Mickey and Peggy Muñoz’s Capo Beach abode, I once again fall under the spell that exists there. It’s a feeling that also travels with them wherever they trek or settle for a while. Their life pattern is unique, thoughtfully crafted, and quite specific to the ocean—be it off the tip of Baja, near Dana Point, adrift in the Channel Islands, or on one of the frequent side trips to other playgrounds that attract their attention.

Their circuit continues pretty much nonstop. It represents an absolute and eccentric lifestyle design that serves their values unimpeached. The Mongoose has generally lived life close within the sphere of his friends—wealthy surf aficionados—and, to a large extent, has remained not formally employed, conducting a parallel life without the baggage of the others’ endeavors. 

And, if that isn’t enough, Muñoz very well might be the greatest living waterman of North American origin. If not the, he’s certainly one of a scant uppermost handful. He is observant, analytical, unprejudiced, interested in everything, highly and broadly skilled, enthusiastic, wise, and inspirational, with more than 70 years in the water under his belt. To casually ponder platitudes and pick away at his viewpoints changes me in various increments every time I invest in it. The treat is so accessible that I too-often pass it up—except every now and then, driving by the Muñoz house, I realize I must pull over before it evaporates. 

Our conversation first began in the spring of 1963. Freshly returned from what I viewed as a conquering stint on the North Shore, I went to work for Mickey as his left-hand boy, he being the manager of Ole Surfboards in Seal Beach, California. Thirty years later, when Deb and I started the Journal in 1992 with myself as co-publisher and editor, I was tasked with inventing a different mode of populating the pages that would define which differences in content our magazine was intent on creating. One of the fruits that quickly came to my mind was an article about Mickey that would give us a chance to tap into who he was, mainly by demonstrating his personal value of forging one’s own relationship with surfing rather than doing the cookie-cutter thing. To accomplish that, I used the ploy of visiting his house and showcasing its character through images taken by Leo Hetzel.

With this issue being the first in our 30th year of publishing, this piece is not only a revisitation of that story from all those years ago, but also a way to display—again by enlisting Hetzel and his camera—how both Mickey and his home have evolved. 

The Muñoz house is still one of a kind and eclectic. It defines who and what interests Mickey and his wife, how their minds work, and how they lead their life. Everyone’s home does that to a certain extent, but Mickey’s is more offbeat than normal. Here, as in our first issue, Mickey takes us on a tour of his home, examining the minute collections of various oceanic flotsams that he and Peggy have accumulated throughout their days. 

Our walk-through begins at the front gate, then progresses through the yard, porch, inside, and out back, all endowed with the richest, most perceptive of their discoveries. Take, for instance, the backyard tree adorned with surfboards, all of which Mickey, at one time or another, shaped and surfed. There is a plethora of bizarre expressions and unconventional inspirations—some sleek, but all being totems to his life. Also on display is their sense of humor, noticeable in various nooks. You could spend a week having Mickey tell you about everything that’s visible just from his dining table, and at one point I considered focusing this whole article on his front yard and porch, because they both elaborately and dramatically change from year to year, just as Mickey does. 

And while the photographs here display Mickey’s curiosities on land, our conversation, which began nearly 60 years ago, focuses mostly on his thoughts about and interests in the water. With his train of experience unmatched—and him being who he is—Mickey’s home, his perspective on surfing, and his views on life are all truly something to celebrate.

SP Mickey, since I first talked to you for that story 30 years ago, surfing has continued to change dramatically, at least in terms of how I see it. Do you feel the same?

MM No, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think it really has. I think surfing is surfing, no matter what. But of course what we do—being into it a few generations before the present—is probably, by the current kids’ standards, not really surfing. But people who have surfed over all those years haven’t changed, it’s just that equipment has gotten better. With the age of digital photography and video, you are able to go out and surf and monitor every ride. Consequently, you can improve quicker. That being said, it doesn’t mitigate all those times that we didn’t have a leash and the boards were heavier than we were, and when you lost your board you had to spend all that time swimming in to retrieve it. Or being able to see a photograph of yourself if you were lucky enough to have somebody on the beach with a camera and they were not too stingy with their film. Then you could review where you’d been a week or two in the past. Now it could be just a minute or two later. That’s changed the game a lot.

SP Do you think the gist of the experience has changed?

MM Well, yes and no. I mean, here we are in San Clemente, one of the centers of surfing. And there was one kid the other day at San Onofre who just reached my waist, and he was just ripping on a shortboard in waves that were probably better for longboarding. He was shredding with a shit-eating grin on his face. You could tell how much he loved to surf. His dad was out there on a longboard. I loved the contrast of that. Sure, there is a future in surfing now. There’s actually some reasonable dollars involved, plus the experience of traveling the world, absorbing different cultures and environments. But, at times, the hype of it represents the syndrome of parents pushing their kids too much, and, consequently, if the kid doesn’t excel and achieve their parents’ dream, it can turn the kid off. So the ones who persevere to make it through and surf because they love to, that’s why it hasn’t changed. It has been there ever since the first human caught a wave and rode it in. It’s just something that’s ingrained and embedded. Consequently, no matter where you are, how good you are or are not, what kind of equipment you are riding, or how good the wave is, it doesn’t matter as long as you come in with a grin on your face.

SP Does surfing become less special the more people that do it?

MM Not to me. Heck, no. The crowds are a catalyst for creativity. Of course, if you want to continue riding waves as you age, yes, it can be frustrating. I mean, let’s work back a little bit. It seems like places that were beautiful that we were on the periphery of discovering, they’ve changed. They want tourism dollars to create more money and more income. The hook is, “Oh, your property value is going up!” Well, you know, I am fond of responding, “Proportionately, as my property value goes up, my quality of life goes down.” I wait longer in line. I pay more for food. I pay more for gas. But do I eat in five-star hotels? I don’t think so. Maybe if somebody takes me out to one. I enjoy quality food. But Disneyland? Okay, once or twice in my life. Maybe. My Disneyland is in the water, and so I get frustrated with the crowds, and I’m frustrated with forecasters announcing every swell and all the cams everywhere.

SP You accept it, but you don’t really accept it?

MM I mean, I realize it’s inevitable. It’s like paving paradise. They can’t help it. It’s human nature. And so give me a little patch of the ocean to look at, and give me a minute or two so I can figure out my surfing for the day. I don’t need to look at my computer or my smartphone, which is way smarter than me. Look, Surfline is obviously a service for a lot of people, and the problem is that a lot of people use it as the Bible. When Surfline says there’s a swell, they are on it. But, again, those crowds then lead to more creativity. Take foiling: Foiling puts you on a whole different wave than the masses, and it’s not easy. I got into standup because it allowed me to ride waves that prone paddlers were not interested in. Consequently, I continue to get my waves, and that makes me happy.

SP Let’s talk about foiling. It’s its own thing, right?

MM No, it’s surfing. 

SP Perhaps, but you are not riding the face of the wave as you do on a surfboard. You’re riding the energy, which propels the wing. The foil is flying with that energy, and the board you are standing on is elevated above the wave, thus the shape of what you’re standing on is almost immaterial to its function. The dynamic of the whole thing is almost totally different. It’s happening in the context of an ocean wave, but tapping a different portion of the energy. The experience, the art, and the opportunity of it are different than sliding across the evolving face of a wave, navigating between gravity and upflow.

MM Yes, but the experience is still one of riding waves, whether you are riding a radiant wave or a light wave or a wind wave. While all are waves, they are different, and each is a different experience and requires equipment specifically intended for riding and tapping that energy and enjoying that ride. But it’s still riding a wave. Look, foiling is not easy to do. I’ve tried it a couple of times. I got towed in, which makes it easier to get up. And once you get up and are moving at a constant speed, it’s reasonably easy to do. But when I paddled out on a foil board to stand up on my own, I might have gotten three seconds of standing time in over an hour in the water. But there’s that challenge of it that’s similar to surfing.

SP And about the old-school escape path that surfing represented, do you think that’s changing with all these new things? Can the option of riding waves still be the meaning of someone’s life?

MM Well, we’re not riding horses much anymore. We’re driving cars, right? But we’re still going places. I don’t see much difference. 

SP Do you think that all the new forms diminish the reward of good-old paddle-in surfing?

MM Not at all. That said, I have to retell a story that I’ve probably already told you. In my throes of learning to windsurf, I had a friend take me out between Diamond Head and Koko Head. It’s windy out there and it’s real ocean, and there are real waves. When we were up there on the bluff looking down, I saw probably 25 or 30 windsurfers out there just flying—riding waves mid-ocean with all these colorful sails. They were ripping. I thought, “Wow, that’s so wonderful and dynamic.” Then I looked over and saw this little group of maybe four or five surfers sitting down the reef a bit, kind of off to the side. It wasn’t very consistent. Every once in a while they’d get a ride, but it didn’t compare to the dynamics of windsurfing—the speed and the color of the sails, the blue and green water, the whole amazing thing. So we schlepped our boards over a long trail down the cliff to the beach. Then came half an hour of rigging and getting all my shit together, and then I managed to get out. Once out, I kept falling off trying to jibe. I was out there for two hours, during which I had to concentrate on sailing and what I was doing to keep from dying. I finally got back in and got all my gear back up the bluff and tied onto the car. It was all put away, and, having looked at that little group of regular surfers again, I thought, “God, that looks stupid.” So the next day I was on the North Shore. It was summertime and no one was around. Pipeline was maybe waist-high to shoulder-high, not a soul in the water, conditions weren’t bad, the sun was going down over Kaena Point. I went out and was sitting there and thought, “Damn. You know, this is surfing.” It was beautiful, and I was content just to be there and ride a couple of waves by myself as the sun set. I thought, “Maybe I’ll leave windsurfing for another year.” And so maybe I’ll save the other stuff for another day, too. I’m having way too much fun just going out and riding a few waves that other people aren’t getting.