Author Peter Maguire

Dissecting Thai stick smuggling, military contracts, and the subjectivity of surf history with the author and historian

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Peter Maguire has written stories for The Surfer’s Journal on 70s Thai Stick smuggling and Navy SEAL Ivan Trent. Without trying to, his work uncovers the diverse micro-cultures that exist in surfing. Maguire has intersected with the subjects of his writing through his wide-ranging interests beyond surfing. He’s developed a military rescue boat with George Greenough, earned a black belt in jeet kune do, and investigated war crimes as a historian in Cambodia. These pursuits are peppered with lots of surf travel, writing books, and teaching at swanky East Coast universities. But Maguire is not in a hurry to cede the kind of editorial control required to have someone else tell his stories for him. He’s spent enough time on the writing end of history and journalism to know that the process of getting the truth down on paper is a messy one. For a glimpse at the points of interest in his surfing life—and beyond—Maguire was kind enough to entertain a conversation from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. —Kyle DeNuccio

What are the striking points of distinction between the micro-cultures in surfing that you’ve written about?

With tier-one military guys there’s very little exaggeration. If anything I’d say their stories are grossly understated. They’ll tell you the most unbelievable things you’ve ever heard about some operation and it will be in clipped, acronym-studded military speak. It’s very much frowned upon by Ivan, and most other SEALs, to brag and seek personal glory. Surfing on the other hand can get a little silly sometimes. But I’m still very impressed by guys like Shane Dorian who are paddling into giant waves.

“A sport like surfing that requires you to drop everything at a moment’s notice makes it very difficult to engage in much else,” said Maguire. (Clockwise from top left:) Maguire just north of the Santa Barbara haunts of his youth; at Scorpion Bay in 1980; on his 1984 walkabout in Byron Bay. Photos: Peter Maguire Collection

You’ve written a little bit about your early years growing up and surfing in southern California. At what point did you decide to break from surfing as a central life pursuit to begin working as a historian, investigating war crimes?

I moved to Australia in January of ’84 and stayed till about August. The most successful surfers I met there were the ones who had solid professional and family lives. Surfing was just one part of their life but it wasn’t their whole life. That was particularly illustrative for me. Even George Greenough—he surfed every day but at the same time and the same spot, no matter how good the waves were elsewhere. He didn’t go crazy about surfing. He didn’t get neurotic about it. And you really can get neurotic about it.

There was also a welcome egalitarianism to Australian surfing that I found really refreshing. I’m still good friends Ant Corrigan, Matt Ellks, and many other Aussies I met on that first trip. Friendship, or “mateship” as they call it, seemed a lot more meaningful to Australians than it was to Americans. So basically, when I went back to California in 1984, I stayed for about a week and realized that I could never live there again. I got my doctorate in history from Columbia University at 28 and immediately went to Cambodia, where I started investigating the war crimes committed at Tuol Sleng prison. It was pretty easy to go back and forth to Hawaii and Australia from Southeast Asia. I still got to surf a lot.

That process of reorganizing the way you think about surfing in order to avoid burning out seems fairly common. Were you making a conscious effort to do that or did it come naturally?

A sport like surfing that requires you to drop everything at a moment’s notice makes it very difficult to engage in much else. If you spend your 20s in such a self-indulgent endeavor it’s very hard to transition out of. When I lived on the North Shore of Oahu, I was right in front of one of the best waves in the world. And when it got good I’d lose my mind. It would be absolute perfection from sunrise to sunset and by the time the swell would die or the winds would change I would be so glad because I couldn’t even think straight. That was still fine when I had my first son, but once I had my second son I didn’t feel good about putting that much energy into surfing serious waves by myself. Big waves just take up so much psychological space. Our house was on a nature preserve and no one was allowed to park there until 7 or 8 a.m. Even then, it was a long walk and paddle-out so I knew that every single morning I had a two-hour window to surf by myself. When there was a swell, I would get up at 3:30 in the morning, have a cup of coffee, a shit, and paddle out in pitch black. There was a big deep channel where I could find my way into the lineup by using the lights on the houses. I’d usually get at least a dozen waves. It got to a point where I’d think, “How many times do you need to do this?” It was surreal. When I would come in, my wife would ask how the waves were, and I would say, “Oh, yeah, it was good.” But the voice in my head was saying, “Why don’t you quit surfing now because it’s basically all downhill from here.”

Winston Churchill is thought to have said that a good game of pool is the sign of a gentleman and a great game of pool is the sign of a wasted life. I don’t think the analogy is always true with surfing. But I have many friends who were great surfers and they’ve had a difficult time as we’ve grown older. I like living in North Carolina now because the surf is good, but not great. It doesn’t consume me like it did in Hawaii or other places.

As a civilian-built military prototype, the Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft called upon the skills of some of surfing’s finest craftsmen. (Top right:) Maguire and George Greenough with an early iteration of the GARC at Lennox Head in 2008. (Left and bottom right:) Military testing in North Carolina with Maguire and Stanley Pleskunas in 2011. Photos: Peter Maguire Collection

In recent years you’ve invested a lot of time and resources in building the Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft (GARC). Could you walk me through the origins of that project, how it developed, and where it stands at this point?

A guy who trains the lifeguards in Hawaii named Mike Slattery was teaching me how to drive a jet ski in the surf. Before that, I had spent a fair bit of time on boats, including George Greenough’s 14-foot skiff. I compared that to the jet ski and my conclusion was that George’s boat handled a million times better. I knew there was a 12-footer that the Australian lifeguards had been using for 25 years. So I asked George if the mold still existed. It didn’t but we both agreed that we wanted to build something to replace the jet ski. George did most of the hands-on engineering. As always, he did an amazing job, and the first boat came out almost perfectly. We thought it was going to be a surf rescue boat for lifeguards and things like that. But the amount of detail that we went into made the boat very expensive. To build and design it the way we did meant that it could never compete, price-wise, with a jet ski, which was the ghetto everyone wanted to throw us into. We didn’t compromise or dumb down the GARC to meet some stupid, arbitrary price point.

Through my connections in the military I found out what they were using for rescue and was absolutely flabbergasted by how expensive it was. A retired Air Force rescue colonel named TC Phillips immediately recognized what a unique product it was and he acted as our guide through the military industrial complex. Then other people I know through the surfing world like Stanley Pleskunas worked on the project in very significant ways as well.

What we pulled off is really unprecedented in the military industrial complex. When we actually had government purchase orders, I still couldn’t get any financing from banks. So we basically had to bootstrap it all the way. And the amount of testing we had to conduct was endless and incredibly expensive. They had to drop our boat out of C-130s with parachutes. They had to drop it from cranes with weight on the deck.

It finally got to the point where I had to let go. I had taken out loans on my house, and frankly it wasn’t fun anymore. It was just incredibly stressful and it was taking up too much of my time and energy. We sold the intellectual property and the name to a very impressive defense contractor out of Maryland called Maritime Applied Physics. They’ve taken the project to the next level in a way that we never could. George and I are still consultants on the project and are presented with every change and modification. As it stands the boat is used for combat rescue. In a funny way it’s still a lifesaving boat. It’s been very nice to see the project carry on but without the financial stress.

Do you have any interest in writing more on the topic of drug smuggling? It seems like your book Thai Stick was well received.

As a result of writing that book, I’ve had most of the major smugglers and DEA agents from the later, much more hardcore period, reach out to me. They now want to be interviewed and give me their stories. I’ll peck away at it. It’s difficult because writing books is so time consuming and not at all lucrative. And that book would require travel and a lot of research. Writing about smuggling and dealing has kind of made me want to work on a serious, scholarly book that will probably only sell 800 copies to university libraries. I like that kind of work. I like that kind of rigor. My dissertation on the Nuremberg trials became my book Law at War. It was incredibly controversial but it’s still the work I’m proudest of.

Could you try to filter some of your experience of surfing through your perspective as a historian? It’s probably impossible to comment objectively here, but what changes to the sport feel most significant in the decades since you began?

I went to Snakes [Scorpion Bay] for the first time in 1979 and it was a rough crowd down there. Now it’s unbelievable. There are people who can’t even make the wave who are saying, “Well I have a house here.” There seems to be a greater sense of entitlement among people who just buy a surfboard and can ride to the beach—especially in California. It’s an everyman’s sport. You’ll hear, “Oh, on Sundays me and the guys from the law firm go surfing and have a big breakfast afterward.” But surfing was never a social activity to me. It was always kind of clandestine. We had our secret spots and we didn’t break with them easily.

Read Peter Maguire’s profile of Ivan Trent in issue 23.3 of TSJ, and his piece on Thai Stick smuggling, available free to all subscribers in the TSJ archive.