Feature

AKA Stoner’s

How the original secret spot was overshadowed by time and inclination.

In the spring of 1964, Long Beach surfer and photographer Leo Hetzel scrambled up a rock balustrade in the state of Nayarit on the mainland of Mexico. Peering over the top, he copped the first surfer’s view of a setup now known popularly as Stoner’s. The lineup, as it is today, was a warm green cove infused with fresh water from the adjacent rivermouth just out of sight to the north. The atmosphere was silent, hot, and thick. Blinding white thunderheads exploded over the inland Sierra. A set of waves lurched upward like cereal boxes on a conveyor line and chased themselves toward a beach of yellow sand. Hetzel watched as the set traveled south, around the next point toward Matanchén Bay.

Later that day, he told his pals what he’d found hidden around the corner from their annual holiday hangout. The following morning, the crew logged first tracks at what would be known for the next couple of years as “the secret spot.” They didn’t hide their discovery, but neither did they broadcast it. Back home, the various members of the crew did what surfers have done ever since—and their actions probably say as much about human nature as they do about our specific culture: under direct questioning, some cast vauge obfuscations, while inevitably others offered hard intel.

What happens to a dream realized? Once discovered, does one stop at perfection? Not if our past movements count for anything. Plotted on a graph, the life cycle of a surf spot usually describes a familiar “up and to the right” motif. The line spikes skyward, spurred by increased awareness and visitation until carrying capacity is met, exceeded, and then merely endured. Many are wired to deal with it. Others complain bitterly. Some quietly move on, naively vowing that next time they’ll hold their mud.

The prime example is, of course, Malibu. Postwar population dynamics transformed that cobbled heaven into a Malthusian dystopia by the 1950s. For the first time, surfers seeking even a hint of freedom had to look elsewhere. Malibu—indeed, Southern California—became not a destination but a place you left. Many of these refugees were seeking precisely what they’d lost—a wave like First Point.

And strangely, Stoner’s—the spot that became a sort of avatar for tropical perfection in the 60s—now finds itself a forgotten backwater with relatively little surf visitation to speak of. Orphaned by a combination of new discoveries, a popular preference for hollow, performance-friendly waves, and a reputation for often unendurable living conditions, Hetzel’s baby was effectively left on the hospital steps by 1970. The cycle of Mexican surf exploration invites study.

Strangely, Stoner’s—the spot that became a sort of avatar for tropical perfection in the 1960s—now finds itself a forgotten backwater with relatively little surf visitation.

Los Angeles big-wave carnivore Greg Noll went wave-hunting in Mexico expecting cold beer, cheap living, and some adventure. “In 1954 I was living and surfing in Mazatlan by myself,” he says. “I stayed three months. It had everything I was looking for. I came in from surfing Lupe’s [a left now referred to by local surfers as “Camarones”] and an old guy came down to the shoreline to greet me. He was dressed like one of those Veracruz guys, you know, all in white, hat and all. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He had a goddamned burro on a lead. A kid translated for him, and told me the old man thought I was Jesus when he saw me standing on the water. He made the sign of the cross, and then very carefully he reached out with his goddamned hand shaking and he touched my board.

“That kid kept me company, ’cause he could speak English and Mexican [sic]. He told me if I left the beach with my shirt off the cops would haul me in. I stayed at the old Freeman Hotel at Olas Altas. I surfed out front, and at that left point with the old Spanish fort. Bing Copeland named it Cannons on his trip down there. I’d wrote to Bing and Yater and Rick Stoner, see, and they all came down the next year. Just exploring around the coast, I found San Blas. The wave at Matanchén Bay wasn’t big, but it was perfect—long, crisp rides.”

Like Malibu.

The following year, Noll returned to Mazatlan with a movie camera, documenting the Sinaloan shrimp port and its pleasant, if not world-class, lefts. The resulting footage appeared in Noll’s first Search for Surf film in 1957. Mexico, with all of its dark and colorful allure as portrayed in popular culture, found purchase in the minds of U.S. coastal youth.

The 1,300-mile run from Southern California quickly became a right of passage. Every swinging dick with decent wheels and a carny roll crossed the line, plunging south across the Sonoran desert. But this was the early 60s—and that entire diaspora numbered in the dozens. In 1961, Leo Hetzel was one of them.

“Mazatlan was where we’d go for Christmas and spring break,” says Hetzel. “Not the best time for waves, of course, but we got lucky once or twice and saw the potential. I liked Matanchén Bay enough to move there in 1965. I rented a dirt floor palapa on the point at Aticama, and made friends in the town. They were lovely people. By that time there were a couple of surfers living around San Blas. Well, they were druggies more than surfers. They’d be stoned in the morning, on speed in the afternoon, then on pills at night to go to sleep.

“We’d come down in VW buses, and the year I lived there, John Fletcher—Herbie’s brother—was with me. After I found the wave, we walked the animal trail through the jungle and surfed “the secret spot” for the first time. It was head high and good, but we were afraid of the rocks and rode conservatively. The waves were long and clean. The only people we saw were locals fishing from hollowed out logs.”

Driving south through miles of mango and blue agave fields, we crossed the river. There were crocodiles in assorted sizes lolling in the mangrove breaks.

Hetzel couldn’t have envisioned any sort of surf invasion taking place. The distance and expense, in time and treasure, were the first filters. The language barrier and parochialism were the others. And then there were the jejenes. And the mosquitoes. And the no-see-ums. Matanchén Bay is surrounded by an exquisite wetland, latticed with lagoons, creeks, and oxbows teeming with all manner of life. Indeed, the bulk of area tourism comprises bird fetishists and crocodile voyeurs. But insects are the state flower. Cumulus swarms descend at gray light, back off to tolerable in the midday heat, and then find their tallest gear in the evening. The place is defined by them.

As a surf resource, it’s also defined by a narrow swell window. One could sit, steaming and scratching, for months on end waiting for something—anything—to wrap in. Which is just what a handful of early ferals did, especially during the draft years. For those lucky or stalwart enough to score swell, the main wave at Matanchén—Las Islitas—was the sort of experience one didn’t soon forget. On a well-foiled period point-tanker, one could stall and dance around the pocket for upwards of a mile, milking it until the perfect little crackler committed seppuku somewhere down near the Jalisco border.

Factor in a local per diem of five bucks a day, including all of the rotgut Orendain tequila and liberally seeded Sierra sativa one could handle, and San Blas took on a certain Graham Greene-on-food-stamps appeal.

The weed, in particular, became a raison d’etre for many early surf travelers. Grown in the mountains by Huichol farmers, it was affordable enough as to be nearly free. One hundred dollars worth would scarcely fit in the trunk of a ’49 Plymouth. As such, early surf scammers beat their way north packed to the rocker panels with low grade tonnage. At L.A. street prices for ounce-lids, a successful run could net a surfer enough cash to float him for two years. A lot of bosses got fired, and a lot of surfers got to play all day.

By the mid to late 60s, San Blas found itself a waypoint on the hippie trail, discussed in the same ecstatic manner as Goa, Kandahar, and Cuzco. In California, surfing was revved up, feeling its oats as a bona fide countercultural indicator. Surfer magazine, hungry to feed its audience’s voracious appetite for new discoveries, dispatched ace photographer Ron Stoner to head south. While other surf travelers—Ron Pierrot, Peter Troy—had pushed away from the predictable California/Oz/Hawaii taxi ranks, Stoner’s photos from Mazatlan and San Blas were lush and evocative enough to instantly become visual shorthand for surf exploration.

In a bullpen move that dollared out as a master stroke, Surfer editor Patrick McNulty paired the images with narrative illustrations from staff hippie/Rasputin, Rick Griffin. McNulty wrote the words himself. Despite Stoner and Griffin never having been to mainland Mexico together—and the author never at all—the issue was a global hit. Stoner’s ’63 Mercury Comet wagon, stacked with signature models and a crew of attractive vagabonds, became an archetype for the wayfaring wave rider, and readers didn’t have to squint to see Matanchén Bay as some sort of tropical First Point—an impossibly sexy and relatable proposition.

Interest piqued by the project, Griffin himself made a trip to San Blas a personal quest. That opportunity presented itself soon enough.

“This is a favorite strike for us,” said Diego Cadena. “There’s a handful of surfers, mostly from Tepic, who know what it takes to work. They’re the only guys we really surf with.”

“In 1966,” says Griffin biographer Steve Barilotti, “Rick’s wife, Ida, became pregnant. Rick fled fatherhood, sold his studio, and took off to Mexico. He went to Mazatlán first, ending up, of course, in San Blas. He sent postcards back with depictions of himself dodging crocodiles and bandidos. Ida reacted by giving birth, getting on a bus out of Tijuana, and presenting Rick with his daughter, Flavin, right there in his hammock.”

Griffin, it seems, managed to pull it all off—with the intrepid assistance of Ida. He came home to California with sketchbooks brimming, fueling his future work with imagery redolent with Huichol shamans and stoic campesinos.

Interest in the region hit a boiling point with San Blas—and its nearby alternative Mexican Malibu, Faro de Punta Mita—becoming number one on every Californian and Texan’s hit parade. For a brief moment, it almost got crowded. Almost.

Then, due mostly to the advent of the shortboard and partly to a natural urge to push south, seekers found themselves plunging deeper to hollower, more challenging waters. Almost instantly, sleepy Matanchén Bay found itself cuckolded by the waves at La Ticla, Rio Nexpa, and Petacalco. San Blas pretty much went to sleep, and Hetzel’s “secret spot” (presumptuously recast as “Stoner’s” by the unwitting Surfer staff) retreated into the vines of memory.

Was there more to the story? There usually is. Surfing never really buries its legends—it keeps them in a cool room, hits them with some makeup, and stands them up for another generation to appreciate. And there was no way the current crop of longboard hustlers would overlook a mile-long point wave, was there?

I hadn’t visited San Blas in over 30 years, and that trip had been a memory-lane rumble back when I was corrupting the girl who would become my wife. I used to spend time at Stoner’s, and had wanted to return. Somewhat sadistically, I saw it as a sort of Shit Test. Could she hang? (And how, as it turned out.)

This past summer found me in need of some plasma-warm point crumblers. Being cognizant of reports that Stoners was essentially a ghost wave only galvanized my interest. I’d put off this prodigal visit long enough. A Mexican national colleague, Mark Kronemeyer, picked me up in Mazatlán and off we went. Driving south through miles of mango and blue agave fields, we crossed the river bridge into San Blas three hours later.

There were crocodiles in assorted sizes lolling in the mangrove breaks. The old town center had weathered well. The city fathers had passed some writ that had all the shopkeepers unifying their signage. It was vaguely quaint, lending a colonial charm to the pueblo I remembered as bedraggled. Then there was the the Proustian scent of the place, the burning of damp coconut husks used to ward off the Transylvanian jejenes. Better than acceptable lodging was found in a restored hacienda.

It was three foot and cracking perfectly into the cove. Dozens of surfers were simply not there. They had been swept along with the current, down to Instagram dreams with better access, fewer bugs, and a more open swell window.

The next morning we met a clutch of Kronemeyer’s friend’s from Sayulita on the beach at the tip of Matanchén. Gathered there at dawn, swatting against the onslaught, I asked the crew what they expected to find out at the point. The waves where we had parked were utter dishwater, and did nothing to instill confidence. Twenty-five-year-old Dylan Southworth, a fisherman’s son raised in Nayarit, said they knew exactly what to expect up around the corner. Indeed, they make the trek regularly.

“We’re looking for pretty specific conditions when we come up here,” he explained. “The best deal is when a storm crosses the Sea of Cortés, and aims some energy straight and hard into the bay.”

We weren’t quite so lucky, but came properly equipped. The previous day’s surfing had shown that. The ad hoc group of surfers were well-versed in all conditions, and were far from hidebound, board-wise. Southworth launched credible airs with no evident wave energy. Log-jammer Israel Preciado chose artful, section-connecting lines. “Taquito,” Southworth’s chica, styled the joint up with some effortless runs. Their familiarity with the regional resource was expected, but still enviable.

Oscar Cadena, another ripper from Sayulita, chimed in. “This is a favorite strike for us. There’s a handful of surfers, mostly from Tepic, who know what it takes to work. They’re the only guys we really surf with here.”

The jungle track was only drivable for a portion of the way to Stoner’s proper, and even that requires four-wheel drive. We parked on the sand at Little Stoner’s, where teet-high rights whipped along a natural jetty before mushing off into a quebrada. The crew was amped and out there in an instant. I had other bones to pick.

Rock-stepping my way north, out of site of the surfers, I found my way blocked by a small rock tower: Hetzel’s perch. Clambering up the toeholds, I reached the top and peered over. It was three foot and cracking perfectly into the cove. Flawless, really. Dozens of surfers were simply not there. They were at Saladita or El Anclote or Salina Cruz. They had been swept along with the current, down to Instagram dreams with better access, fewer bugs, and a more open swell window. Better spots all around, if one needs to be honest.

Walking back down the beach to Littles, I saw another vehicle come to a stop at a respectful distance from our post. Two surfers emerged to take in the scene. Those in the lineup offered welcoming gestures as they paddled back out from their rides. The visitors took in the view, enjoyed a smoke, and started up their car. I was surprised to see them pull a U-turn in the sand, away from the empty perfection just out of sight. For an instant, “Stoner’s” was gone, and Hetzel’s jungle cove reeled off by its lonesome.