On the aft wall of the wheelhouse of a boat named Milo, facing forward into all oncoming seas, hangs a large framed photograph of an American naval officer in dinner dress blues: short jacket, stiff bowtie, gold cummerbund. The officer is Captain J. Denver McCune, USN (Ret.), who once skippered nuclear submarines during wars hot and cold, first near Vietnam and later near the Soviet Union. In the photo, Captain McCune displays none of the death-stare swagger found in most military portraits. His smile is bright and true, as if he’s just heard, or is about to tell, a good joke.
Captain McCune’s son, Mike, who owns and runs the Milo and who is also sometimes known as Captain McCune, says the photo provides cautionary guidance when he’s nosing into corners of the Alaskan coastline where no surfer has gone before, in seas that can mutate from reflection-pool glass to 50-knot shitshow in the time it takes to pull anchor.
“It’s always good to have your dad looking over your shoulder,” McCune says, “especially if you’re about to do something really fucking stupid.”
Mike’s mother, Patty, also retains a presence on the Milo, although hers is invisible and seems to be less about safety than grace. “She could get along with anybody,” Mike says when asked what his mother was like. “She had tea with the Queen of England, and she worked on soup lines in the ghetto. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like my mom.”
The last time Mike saw his mother was in July 2004. She was battling cancer, and she and J. Denver had flown north to Anchorage from their home in Carlsbad to watch Mike’s daughter run a marathon.
Mike pulled his mom aside and said he was thinking about getting back into surfing, the sport that had defined his life as a young man, but that he’d left behind decades before. He told her he planned to visit her soon and asked, “Will you take me surfing when I come?” as she had done so often when he was a kid in Hawaii. She said she would love to.
It never happened. Two days after she returned to California, the cancer won.
After his mother’s funeral, Mike’s dad and sister bought him a new surfboard, knowing Patty would have liked the idea. He was 50 years old. Mike paddled out at Sunset Cliffs in San Diego and caught his first real wave in 25 years. The session reignited his surf excitement to a degree—and in a form—that would come to change the lives of many surfers. I’m one of them.
Twenty Islands Dangling
The first time I talked to McCune, in early 2019, I wanted to feel him out about booking a trip aboard the Milo, the only boat in Alaska offering multi-day charters to unexplored shores with the singular goal of finding surf. McCune later told me he was feeling me out as well—making sure, as he put it, that he wasn’t going to spend a week on his boat with an asshole.
After our call, he emailed a confirmation: “We’ll travel and surf the Shumagin Islands. I, and others who have experienced it, feel that this is one of the ‘surf gems’ of the planet: 20 islands dangling in the North Pacific below the Western Alaskan Peninsula, offering a variety of world-class surf, plus much more potential still to uncover.”
I’d never heard of the Shumagins, but I had been on surf trips to Alaska: once to Yakutat and once to the Aleutian Islands. This had been back in the 1990s, with Mark Renneker, the pioneering cold-water surf explorer from San Francisco. Both times we camped, and I learned a few things.
I learned that the water was not nearly as icy as people assume, especially in summer and fall. On our trip to Yakutat, in July, the water had been in the low 50s—warmer at that moment than the ocean I’d left behind in Northern California.
I learned that Alaska has clean, well-shaped waves and countless untapped breaks. To this day, no coastline on Earth ignites my imagination more than the 1,500-mile arc from the eastern Aleutians to Alaska’s border with Canada. It’s the same distance as the reach from San Diego to Vancouver (or Miami to Maine), but with very few locals and much more of the littoral chaos that creates good waves. I’ve wasted untold hours Google-mapping the many headlands, islands, points, coves, inlets, fjords, and river mouths that make up Alaska’s Pacific fringe. Most of them have yet to be surfed.
I learned that camping—even car camping—is a damp and inefficient way to find surf in Alaska. There’s almost no land-based access to the wave zones, and the few coastal roads that do exist quickly dead-end. Imagine living in Huntington Beach and not being able to drive beyond Newport. Want to surf Trestles? Book a floatplane.
An example: On our 1997 trip to the Aleutians, we discovered two epic setups, including a machine-like left that resembled Restaurants in Fiji, only shorter, colder, and greener. I’m pretty sure no one else surfed those spots again until 2014, when filmmakers Chris Burkard and Ben Weiland went there with pros Alex Gray, Josh Mulcoy, and Pete Devries. They surfed the same places we did, but rented ATVs and traveled farther afield, where they found a slabbing right that might be the best barrel yet discovered in Alaska. I later learned that the slab was only 5 miles from our camp. We had no idea it was there.
The other downside to surf-camping in Alaska is, of course, the bears, which grow big up that way and are often on your mind.
But bears and beach access are of no concern when you’re bobbing on a boat offshore. Nor is rain, nor even snow—especially if the boat, like the Milo, is well-sealed and toasty.
Here’s the thing: I’m in my sixties now. I plan to surf—and travel to surf—for as long as my body will let me. But I no longer have interest in trips where success is measured solely by the quality and number of waves ridden. You can have Indo. Give me the Gulf of Alaska, a leakless 5 mil, a sturdy boat, and a kind and competent skipper.
Show Up and Be Kind
September 26, 2019: The Milo is nestled in for the night on the east side of Nagai Island, in a bay so securely protected by landforms as to appear manmade. This turns out to be one of the best things about sailing around the Shumagins: Safe anchorages abound.
I’m aboard with three friends from my hometown of Half Moon Bay: Kevin Judice, Oliver Keeton, and Tom Feix. We’re excited to be exploring such an exotic coast, but there’s a healing aspect to the trip as well: A year earlier, Tom’s 20-year-old son, Malcolm, drowned while surfing at one of our local beachbreaks.
That night at dinner, for the first time since I’ve known him, Tom talks at length and through tears about his late son. How Malcolm had run the local junior lifeguard program for years. How he had a creed that he shared daily with the kids: “Show up and be kind.” How the local surf community had come together after his death in a way that Tom and his wife never could’ve imagined.
It’s a heavy moment for a surf trip, but also beautiful in its way.
The next morning, as we’re cruising the coast, McCune throttles down just outside a triangular reef near Nagai’s southwestern corner. He’s motored past it on prior trips and thinks it has potential. McCune’s charts of Alaska’s coast are dotted with little hand-drawn stars. Each star indicates a surf break that someone from the Milo has been first to ride. All in, he says, the boat has discovered more than 100 spots. There are 37 stars on the Shumagins chart alone. This wave would be number 38.
It’s hard to tell if the break is any good, because we’re a quarter-mile offshore and eyeballing it from behind. McCune’s method is to watch through binoculars and count while the shoulder peels: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… If he gets to eight before it fizzles or closes out, it’s probably worth a sniff. The reef has a left and a right, and they both pass the eight-second test. Time to suit up and see.
McCune is usually first in the water, but this time he lets Tom lead. The rest of us watch from the boat as Tom gets the first wave—a head-high left in howling offshores—which means he’ll get to name it. It’s longer and faster and hollower than expected, and soon we’re all scrambling for our boards. The right is shorter, but both waves get better with the incoming tide. Everyone surfs to exhaustion.
That night, at dinner, Tom says he’s pondering a few names for the break. McCune weighs in with a suggestion: “The left is ‘Show Up’ and the right is ‘Be Kind.’” That essentially ends the debate, and we all raise our glasses to Tom and Malcolm and the spot newly named.
“I came up to Alaska to work in the canneries,” McCune says. He’s in his captain’s chair, wearing PJ bottoms and flip-flops and steering with his feet.
“My second summer up here, we were in Bristol Bay. The company had what’s called a tender, which is a bigger boat that goes out to the fishing grounds and buys the fish from the fishermen, then transports it back to the processing plant. I got 50 bucks a day to go out on that. I’d come back and help offload, then go to work in the cannery for my hourly wage. It was just a way to get extra money. An old Native fella, John—I can’t remember his last name—he was the skipper. About two-thirds of the way through the season, he was having heart problems and had to fly to Seattle. The owner came up to me and asked, ‘Can you run this?’ I said, ‘Of course I can. [Laughs.] How much does it pay?’ I think it paid, like, 150 bucks. So that was my first command. It was a 55-foot tender. The cabin was aft. That was 1977. I was 21.”
McCune had spent much of his childhood on Oahu, where his dad was stationed off and on. He learned to surf when he was 8, around the same time he became a competitive swimmer. He got good fast. In high school, he paid his dues on the North Shore. His surf heroes were Billy Hamilton and Barry Kanaiaupuni: “They didn’t have a lot of extra motion.”
But Alaska grabbed him, so he dropped out of college, moved north, and stopped surfing. He spent most of the 1980s and 90s skippering various vessels—tenders, seafood processors, tugboats, landing craft—around the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. He grew familiar with treacherous seas.
His scariest moment happened at the helm of a 250-foot processor with a crew of 90 under his command. They were headed north through Unalga Pass, a narrow channel between two Aleutian Islands, with the Pacific Ocean to stern and the Bering Sea ahead. The currents that run through Aleutian passes—funnels connecting those two massive bodies of water—are so severe that they sometimes create whirlpools, and sailors must time their entrances to coincide precisely with slack tide. On this trip, McCune was 45 minutes late.
“It was getting dark,” he recalls. “The current was smoking to the north, going the same way as us. Then the wind picked up at about 40 knots out of the north, and we’re heading right into that. We come around the corner and start going faster and faster. I want to slow down, but you’ve got to go faster than the current so you can steer. I look at the GPS and it shows that our speed over the bottom is, like, 18 knots. Ridiculous speed. Then we see on the radar these three lines ahead of us. Standing waves. We hit the first one—I’m in the helm, which is six stories up—and it’s just solid green water across the window. Hit another one and another one. Basically duck-dove all three of them in a 1,500-ton processor.”
August 2, 2021: McCune meets me and two college buds, Jeff Gill and Gary Hammerslag, at the tiny Homer airport after our jaw-dropping 45-minute flight from Anchorage. We load our bags into his soccer-mom van and head to his house to pick up a fish filet he plans to barbecue for us that night on the Milo.
When he’s not running surf charters, McCune oversees The Fish Factory, a processing plant that beheads, guts, packs, and ships about 4 million pounds of salmon, halibut, and cod each year. The filet we are to eat that night is from a Chinook salmon he cherry-picked from the plant. It’s as big as a snowshoe.
The house—which McCune rents with his wife, Wendy—is well-lighted, high-roofed, and yurt-like, somehow small and spacious at the same time. It feels, unsurprisingly, like a tidy and well-provisioned boat. Their rental is one of just two year-round residences on the Homer Spit, a low, sandy peninsula that juts 4 miles into Kachemak Bay. August traffic is thick on the spit—a nonstop flow of tourists drawn to its cluster of kitschy, salt-encrusted restaurants and bars. The Krab Shack. The Salty Dawg Saloon. Captain Pattie’s Fish House.
The spit is also home to Homer Harbor, which is where Mike and Wendy dock the vessel that disrupted their lives 12 years ago in much the same way that a newborn disrupts its parents.
We eat the salmon and sleep on the Milo, then set sail the next morning to ride out with the tide. Our plan is to meander from Homer to Seward—seven days of surfing and other nearshore shenanigans along the sawtooth coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, where mountains spike out of the water like the Tetons spike out of Jackson Hole: snow-capped, 4,000-foot peaks just a couple of miles from shore.
We anchor that afternoon in a calm unnamed bay that McCune rightfully calls Cozy Cove. We SUP to shore, paddle up a stream, and scare the bejeezus out of spawning pink salmon that mistake us for floating bears. Next morning, at first light, we race to a lurchy beachbreak that McCune says will shut down on the rising tide. He’s right. We each get one wave before the tide kills it, then paddle up-coast to a little keyhole cove called Kiddieland, which is an absolutely perfect wave…for beginners.
The surf is waist-high and weak, but it’s the prettiest place I’ve ever been on a surfboard. Thrusting out of the water all around are varnished black sea stacks, each topped with a shock of rainforest green and ringed at the waterline by iridescent kelp.
The waves break at the cove’s narrow mouth, about 75 yards wide, and as they mosey shoreward they fan out into a wide, flat black-sand beach. The inland backdrop is pure Wyoming. Riding a wave from the cove mouth to the beach at Kiddieland is like entering an ornate church, with god-sun streaming in through stained glass. We spend three hours riding gutless waves and paddle back to the boat giddy beyond measure.
In 2009, McCune heard about a decommissioned 58-foot fishing trawler, built in 1966, that was mothballed in San Francisco Bay and selling for a measly $23,000. Its name was Milo. It was all but dry-docked and had been turned into a ratty rental for college students.
McCune tracked down the original owner, a commercial fisherman who’d plied the North Pacific in it for 40 years. The fisherman assured him that the Milo was solid and reliable and worth a look. McCune took that look, sold his house, and bought the boat.
Wendy McCune often thinks of the Milo as a person, and she regards that trip to Redwood City as a rescue mission. “The Milo is always happy to untie and go somewhere,” Wendy says, “but she really seemed happy to untie and get out of that horrible harbor in California.”
Their initial plan was to bring the Milo back to Homer and live in it. But on the run north, joined by two Alaskan surf pals, Scott Dickerson and Don McNamara, they surfed so many good waves that McCune got the idea to run surf charters. Soon, he and Wendy and Dickerson began to convert it from an inhospitable seiner to a passenger-friendly yacht. McCune knew the business would never be much of a money-maker, but he embraced the idea of charging surf-hungry passengers to subsidize his expeditions.
Their first paying trip was in 2012. They vowed that after each voyage they would make at least one improvement for comfort. In the years since, they’ve installed a hot-water hose on the deck and turned the fish hold into a wetsuit-drying room with a stove that burns 24/7. They also added a second salon, called Miss Piggy, that McCune Frankensteined from a junkyard vessel and welded to the aft deck.
The one thing that remains truly rustic, and that scares away some customers, is the main sleeping cabin: a cramped cavity in the bow outfitted with two narrow bunk beds, each three beds tall. You have to go through the engine room to get to it, and once the metal door is sealed and the lights are out it’s as dark as dark can be. Claustrophobics’ heads explode when they see it.
Mason Ho did a trip on the Milo with Mick Fanning back in 2016, and he told me of the bunkroom, “All the other boat trips I’ve done in my life, you get on the boat, it looks like a hotel room. I remember when we got on the Milo and I saw the bunk beds, I was just like, ‘Wait, what? We’re doing a week on this boat? Like, at sea?’ But that first night, I was so beat from surfing that I knocked straight out and didn’t wake up once. It was like that the whole trip.”
I asked Ho and some other people who’ve done Milo trips what kind of person the boat would be if it took human form.
Ho: “Someone with a cool old-school vibe and the energy of a kid who’s ready to go anywhere.”
Mick Fanning: “A salt of the earth sort of fellow. Mellow. Doesn’t brag, but as he’s talking, you can see that the guy knows his stuff. Nothing flashy, but you know he’s gonna get you from A to B.”
Mark Renneker (who’s done ten trips on the Milo): “She’s a hard-working harlot with a story of redemption. Mike found her and rescued her and brought her back to sea, and she became a vehicle for his imagination.”
Hank Gaskell: “It would be a stocky bearded dude. Levelheaded. Chill. A little bit funny. Somebody you’d be a little bit afraid of at first, but then they turn out to be really nice.”
Steve Glover (aka Steve-O): “A distinctly blue-collar person who is very set in their ways—but who also is so frothing to surf that it inspires everyone around them.”
Taylor Paul: “Adventurous. Kind. Friendly. I picture it as an amalgam of Mike and Scott and Wendy. It’s them in metal form.”
I once gave voice to this notion with McCune. We’d just come in from an electrifying session at a throaty right near Seward. We were alone in the wheelhouse, making plans for a future trip.
I said, “I like to think of the Milo as a person.”
“For sure,” he said. “He or she or whatever it is, it’s one of the crew.”
“I wonder if she’s happy right now.”
“That we scored waves? Oh, yeah. When you’re in the lineup on a good day and you look over at her, it’s almost like she’s grinning.”
Captain McCune’s smile brightened.
“I really notice it in winter,” he said. “When it’s a late session and starting to get dark. The lights are on in the cabin—it’s like seeing a cottage out in a dark forest. It looks so inviting and comfortable and warm, patiently waiting for us to come in. Kind of like Mom would be on the beach. And we’re yelling at her, ‘Just one more wave.’”