California’s Golden Boy David Eggers had it all, until he didn’t. Now he’s found something like grace in the desert.

From TSJ 16.5. Something of an investigative profile, the author delivered this long-form “where are they now?” at precisely the right moment. The subject, once the hottest competitive prospect in the yard, had all but faded from surfing’s collective consciousness. All but. The subject’s brother—himself a surfer and photographer—made it all happen. Including the article’s haunting opening shot: Dave Eggers en nocturne, wading through a chum-line of dead tilapia in the Salton Sea.

It’s a California tale, sure. But it does a yeoman’s job in summing up the trouble with modern competitive surfing. Entitlement. Little League parenting. Pre-chewed, utterly false narratives. Boxing surfing like children’s feet in wooden shoes. Big promises, dead-end realities. Hard drugs. You know where it goes from there. 

Eggers doesn’t surf much these days. But he’s alive, and pouring drinks at the family business out by the Coachella Valley. Kick up a stool and tell him what you’re having.

—Scott Hulet


David Eggers is anxious.

Just yards from the water, longboard in hand, he stops short and gazes out at the lineup at WindanSea in La Jolla, his old stomping grounds. It’s been years since he’s surfed here, surfed at all for that matter, and decades since he tore the place apart as a young grom.

I look over at him and ask him if he’s ready, but he isn’t listening—he’s too consumed by the surreal nature of the moment. I jump in the water and begin paddling, but Eggers doesn’t follow. About 20 yards offshore, I look back to see him still standing on the beach with the board under his arm, staring out at the ocean, a look of trepidation on his face. He doesn’t want to go into the water.

Reluctantly, he finally drags the 9’0″ Stewart into the shallows (a longboard, he must be thinking, what has it come to?) and wades through the shorebreak, as though afraid to get wet. He eases himself onto the board and begins paddling methodically out toward the peak. I’m no longer sure that bringing him back here was a good idea.

Whatever is going through Eggers’ head—and it is likely a lot—suddenly gets pushed aside as a wide swinging right rolls past me and directly at him. He whips the board around and forcefully paddles into the sloping wall. His aggressiveness startles me; what hesitation there was has been replaced by pure instinct, and just like that, Eggers is up and riding in perfect trim, backside, and he milks the wave all the way to the beach before kicking out.

You remember David Eggers: child surfing prodigy in the ’80s, freakish talent, one of the greatest amateur surfing records ever, turned pro at age 16, touted as the next world champion, and so forth. He was truly The Golden Child, as he was then dubbed, The Grom Who Would Be King. But by age 17, he had already dropped off the pro tour and began a downward spiral of drug abuse, mental illness, and chaos that he wouldn’t emerge from for over 15 years. Once the poster child of the modern pro surfing movement, Eggers quickly became the symbol of the pitfalls of child surf stardom.

Today, at age 37, Eggers lives a bizarre sort of existence that might be described as Peter Pan meets Alice in Wonderland, eternal youth corrupted by the excesses of modern living, with a dose of anarchy thrown in. His young life has taken more unusual twists and turns than most see in an entire lifetime, from child prodigy to substance abuser to religious zealot to middle-aged recovering addict just trying to get by. “I’m clean and sober now, have been for three-and-a-half years,” he says today. “I want people to know that. I’m just living my life now.”

But Eggers’ story is much more than simply one of a high- flying star celebrating in excess. It’s a complex tale of psychological struggles combined with the hard-partying surf culture of La Jolla, all wrapped within surfing’s obsession with the cult of youth: too much, too fast, too young, too fragile.

Golden Child

Eggers was born in Mountain View, California, in 1970, but his parents, Jim and Patti, moved the family back to San Diego a year later, where they both had gone to high school. They settled in Clairemont, then a mostly blue-collar neighborhood about three miles inland from Pacific Beach. Jim was a self-proclaimed greaser, into cars and motorcycles, while his wife, Patti, was a beach girl, having grown up along the shores of Pacific Beach.

Jim Eggers, a.k.a. Captain Jim, was a tuna boat captain who spent the better part of four months a year out at sea, which left David’s mom, Patti, who worked full time as a beautician, at home with their three kids, Scott, Tim, and David. While Tim took after their father and his interests in motorsports, Scott and his little brother, David, gravitated toward the ocean. “The beach was our day care,” says Scott today. “My mom used to drop us off early in the morning and pick us up at dusk.”

Patti wasn’t much of a disciplinarian (and a bit of an anarchist according to the kids), which left Scott and David to run wild around the neighborhood. The Clairemont Surf Shop was down the street from their house, and the two used to ride their skateboards there and hang out. “I remember when Scott first walked into my shop with his skateboard,” says Jeff Le Maitre, then the shop manager, who would become a seminal figure in both Scott and David’s lives. “I think he was 10 or 11 years old, and his eyes were all red—he was stoned out of his mind. I was like, ‘You kids need something else to do.’”

That something else became surfing, as Le Maitre started taking the two brothers to the beach, first getting Scott into the water. David, four years Scott’s junior, would soon follow. “David would tag along with Scott,” says Le Maitre, “always trying to keep up with his older brother. That influenced a lot of what he did.”

In typical sibling fashion, Scott didn’t make things easy for his younger brother. “I think surfing was really good for David’s self esteem,” says Le Maitre. “Scott and his friends were pretty hard on him. I think it really fueled David, that was how he got back at Scott, by surfing better.”

It didn’t take long for his extraordinary talent to emerge. Le Maitre recalls an early day at Torrey Pines: “We watched David take off late on this wave and then disappear as the wave went inside us. We were sure he ate it. Then out of nowhere his board comes flying up, and he does this huge lip carve and throws spray. He’d only been surfing for maybe a month at that point. As soon as I saw that I thought, ‘This kid is a natural.’”

Everything accelerated quickly from there. David surfed his first contest at age 10, a WSA contest at Black’s. He made the finals and placed sixth in the 15-and-under bracket, which began a five-year amateur contest tear that to this day has rarely been rivaled.

A then little-known shaper for Canyon Surfboards named Rusty Preisendorfer picked up David and his older brother Scott. “David was just this skinny, freckled little surf rat,” says Rusty today. “But I could see he had a lot of potential as a 10-year-old.”

David’s father, who had grown up in Tennessee and North Carolina, wasn’t originally a big fan of his two sons surfing. He was more inclined to hot rods, hunting, and fishing and thought surfers were mostly bums. When David began doing well in contests, however, Jim and the Eggers family took interest. “My dad became the original Little League dad for surfing,” says Scott.

The family would travel up and down the coast by motor- home, going from contest site to contest site, where David and Scott would compete in WSA and NSSA competitions. “We wore that Winnebago out taking him to contests,” Jim says today. “We really got involved.”

Some have accused the family of pushing David too hard at an early age. “I think his parents’ intentions were good, but in my opinion it wasn’t the right environment,” says Peter Townend, who along with Ian Cairns was then coach of the NSSA. “Also, we just didn’t have that in surfing yet, it hadn’t evolved to that point. You see a lot more of it today, there’s a big Little League syndrome in surfing now because kids are making lots of money at a really young age.”

Others disagree on the family involve- ment. “That whole contest thing I think that was what really united the Eggers family,” says Le Maitre. “They would pack up in the Winnebago and all go camp out at the contest sites, so I think it was a great thing for them.”

Eggers was a competitive machine in the amateur ranks, regularly disposing of surfers many years his senior. In one particularly memorable contest in 1981, the G&S San Diego Surf Classic, Eggers placed third, the only amateur to make the finals. To get there he trounced former world champ RabbitBartholomew, who, at age 27, was still in the top five in the world at the time. “That was really something,” Eggers says today. “Rabbit and Chappy [Jennings] turning to me on the beach afterward—I was an 11-year-old kid —and yelling, ‘F*** you.’”

In 1982, at just 12 years old, he shocked the surfing world by winning the menehunes division at the U.S. Amateur Surfing Championships and then placing fifth overall against a slew of older surfers. He quickly became known as the Giant Killer. In addition to his exceptional talent, he was also fiercely competitive in the water, an attitude that rubbed some of his fellow surfers the wrong way. “He was vicious, man,” recalls Dino Andino, who competed often against Eggers. “There was a point when he was younger when he just beat everybody and everything.”

“I was a hassler,” Eggers says in response to his competitive nature. “I had some natural ability, but I also fought to get waves. Guys like Tom Curren, Kelly Slater, and some others were naturals who more or less free surfed their heats. I wasn’t like that. I had to hassle.”

By 1985, Eggers had amassed a staggering competitive record. At the amateur level, he was virtually unbeatable. He had defeated surfers at all levels and at all age groups, from Rabbit Bartholomew to Kelly Slater. Eggers’ amateur career peaked that year when he won the overall U.S. Amateur Surfing Championships from within the boys’ division, defeating both Slater and Jeff Booth.

“I think when he became the U.S. Champion, that’s when his ego got huge,” says Le Maitre. “From then on David was putting on a show every time he paddled out.”

Eggers’ attitude shocked and angered fellow competitors. They weren’t thrilled to have some cocky Southern California kid get in their face, not to mention beat them in heats. He also at times exhibited bizarre behavior. “He was almost evil, he was so weird about how he competed,” says Andino, who was good friends with Eggers. “He’d paddle out past us like a hundred yards, put his arms up in the air, and yell and scream at the sky, and then all of a sudden a wave would come to him. Really weird shit.”

While David’s intensity fueled his competitive surfing success, it also drove him toward extreme behavior. He was a wild child by all counts, and as a young San Diego grom without much parental supervision, he was exposed to a lot at an early age. Scott remembers his brother getting caught at school with pot as early as the first grade. “David was the ultimate grom,” says Scott. “He always hung out with guys who were much older than him. He always had something to prove.”

“I was exposed to a lot at a very early age,” says David today. “I was with a much older crowd, and I was always the grom they were beating on and abusing. But I also made conscious decisions; I was accountable.” Just how accountable, however, was open to question.

Pro Tour

At the beginning of 1986, having just turned 16, Eggers made the decision to turn professional. His parents backed his decision. “When he got into high school, we couldn’t keep him in school,” says his father, Jim. “He was surfing all the time, that’s all he wanted to do. He wanted to turn pro.”

His father had been serving as his pseudo manager and negotiated sponsorship deals with Gotcha, Body Glove, and Rusty, among others. Gotcha agreed to pay Eggers a salary while he was on tour. His parents went to the courts and had him emancipated, essentially giving him the authority to make decisions as an adult.

“I think his parents were so wrapped up in him winning all these contests that they got caught up in it all,” says Jeff Le Maitre. “The sponsors started waving all this money at them and they forgot that he was only a sophomore in high school.”

In a manner of months, Eggers was off and running on the pro tour, initially with good results. His sponsors featured him in full-page ads, hyping him at every turn. Competitors feared him in heats. Almost overnight The Golden Child was a star.

But underneath all the hype, Eggers’ life had already begun unraveling.

At age 16, and emotionally immature, he had problems coping with the rigors of tour life. “Back then it [the pro tour] was far less organized. I think people were left to their own devices to get around,” says Rusty. “I’m not sure David ever had a mentor. I don’t think there was ever a voice of reason.”

It was a wild time, the go-go days of the ’80s. The surf industry and pro tour were a bit of a free-for-all, and rebellious upstart Gotcha was at the forefront. Led by Martin Potter, known then simply as “the animal,” and featuring young rebels like Matt Archbold and David Eggers, the Gotcha surf team pushed the envelope. This was Eggers’ new family while on tour. “Back then, the whole tour was partying and having a good time,” says Garth Tarlow, who traveled with Eggers that year and now serves as marketing director for O’Neill. “He was just this young kid right in the middle of it all.”

“I think he got a great opportunity when Gotcha signed him, but the infrastructure wasn’t in place to protect him from the environment,” says Peter Townend. “You’re at a time when it was all still evolving. Now there’s more of a road map in place for that sort of thing. It’s more structured.”

Eggers’ attitude as an amateur hadn’t won him any friends. Both teammates and rivals alike regularly hazed him. By the second half of his first year on tour, he had commenced a downward slide, and at the end of the year Eggers quit despite ranking as high as 17th in the world halfway through the season.

“He didn’t really like the tour, the travel was really demanding for him,” says his father, Jim. “He was too young. He got too much money, too much notoriety, and he was too immature to handle it.”

Eggers returned home to San Diego and, by his own account, partied the better part of the next several years in La Jolla. “A limo would pull up, and he and his friends would go out all night,” says Jim. “The drugs and the alcohol started to take their toll. At a certain point, he thought he was good enough to get away with all that stuff.”

Big Rock, Big Partying

Back at home, Eggers went about the job of destroying the local waves in the water and destroying the town out of the water. Drinking and freebasing binges became common, as he partied with a fast crowd. “I terrorized La Jolla with the boys, we tore up that town,” he says. “Driving down Nautilus at 3 a.m., going 100 mph, throwing beer bottles out of the car, smashing mailboxes. It was full on.”

“You have to understand, when he came back to San Diego from a year on the pro tour, he was a god. He was the man,” says Jeff Le Maitre. “He had the surf world by the cajones, so everyone was throwing all kinds of shit at him wanting to be his friend.”

La Jolla surf prodigy Richard Kenvin, who at the time was right in the thick of things, remembers the antics both in and out of the water. “When David came back, it was pretty bad. I mean, I knew what I was up to was bad, and hanging out with me for 48 hours getting loaded was not good.”

While Eggers was partying hard, he was also putting on performances in the water. His aggressive, reckless style during that period remains the stuff of La Jolla legend. “He was doing some amazing things at that time [from around 1989 to 1994] at Big Rock, at least when he’d get it together to surf,” says Kenvin. “David was taking off behind the rock, under the ledge and doing these crazy airdrops—and making it. I didn’t really see that kind of surfing, even in the pro ranks, until many years later.”

Eggers’ behavior in the water though became increasingly aggressive, almost manic at times. “David was so full-on back then,” says John Bowling, who grew up surfing the La Jolla reefs. “He’d be out in the water just screaming, his face beet red. He’d paddle out, and guys would paddle in, they couldn’t deal with it. But he could walk on water; an amazing surfer.”

Eggers showed glimpses of wanting off the drugs, oscillating between periods of hard-core partying and brief stints of sobriety. He also went through a religious phase that saw him seek help from friends, including fellow WindanSea son Peter King. “I just found solace in some of the people and the environment at that time,” Eggers says about his involvement with the church: “I made friends there, there were a lot of good people.”

But it didn’t stick, and every time he went off the wagon things seemed to get worse. Eggers says the low point came in his late 20s, during a six-month stint that saw him smoking heroin daily, along with continued freebasing. “At one point, it was like yesterday was gone, we didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow, and all my friends and I cared about was the here and now. We went as hard as we possibly could, and we didn’t care if we lived or died.”

Illness

Eggers’ behavior, going back to when he was an amateur competitor, had always bordered on the bizarre. While some claimed it was simply a product of his hyper-competitive nature, others sensed there were deeper problems.

Although his drug and alcohol abuse was getting worse, something else was lurking deep within the Eggers psyche. His behavior became increasingly erratic, both on and off the substances. His brother Scott recalls times when they and their friends would party all night, and David would get increasingly paranoid as the night went on. In one particular episode he remembers David hiding under the bed, thinking there were helicopters coming to get him. From within their already altered states, Scott and his friends dismissed the paranoia as nothing more than a reaction to the heavy drug use.

That would change one day in the mid-’90s when Jim Eggers came home to find his son lying on top of the washing machine in the garage. He had tennis shoes running in the dryer, and they were making an incredible racket. David was trying to drown out the voices that were inside his head.

Eggers was diagnosed as schizophrenic and initially spent a month in the hospital. While at first he was in denial and refused to stay on his medication, he eventually settled into a regimen that got his mental illness in check, one that he continues today. “I think if it wasn’t for the schizophrenia, David would be living in La Jolla, working some normal job, and surfing,” says his father. “The mental health issues are probably why he’s not surfing today.”

Eggers’ eventual recovery happened in stages. Getting his mental illness under control was key. As for substance abuse, first he kicked the heroin via methadone, calling it the hardest thing he’s ever done. “That’s when I truly knew what pain was,” he says. When his father moved from San Diego to the SaltonSea, Eggers began spending more time there, away from the temptations of La Jolla. The seminal moment, however, came in 2003 when his mother passed away due to alcoholism. “We were pretty close when I was younger,” he says. “She was an enduring mom, and we put her through a lot, but she never gave up on us.” Eggers sought to honor his mother and change his life. At the same time, his father also gave him an ultimatum: Sober up and come live with him, or hit the road.

Youth Cult

In many ways David Eggers helped pave the way for today’s child surf stars. With no clear path to follow, he went out and suffered the pitfalls and exploitation that can befall a young athlete without much support. “He was an anomaly for his age then,” says Peter Townend, who now coaches the USA Junior Surf Team.“Back then it wasn’t like it is now. In those days there was him and that was it. I was just at the NSSA westerns last weekend. You should see the under 10 division. My god! I hadn’t even thought of surfing at that age, and these kids are just unbelievable already.”

Two teenage surfers today who epitomize this phenomenon are 13-year-old Kolohe Andino and 15-year-old John John Florence, both of whom have been heavily marketed by their respective sponsors, Billabong and O’Neill since their pre-teen years. “Some of these kids are making nearly six figures already,” says Townend. “It’s crazy.”

Dino Andino, Kolohe’s father, serves double duty as both parent and Billabong employee and worries about his son. “Kolohe is a fanatic, he thinks about surfing so much,” he says. “That’s the part that concerns me, that he doesn’t have that balance. I think that’s my job, to try to create more balance. I make sure I always keep that in mind.”

Garth Tarlow, marketing director at O’Neill, claims they normally assign a chaperone to the younger surfers when traveling, and that the emphasis today is on keeping surfers amateurs until they’re age 18. In Jon Jon’s case, his mother travels with him everywhere. But Tarlow admits that there are no hard and fast rules in place to enforce any of that. “If Kolohe Andino so chose,” says Townend, one of his coaches, “he could go out today at age 13 and compete in the WQS and try to qualify for the WCT.”

Today

Eggers lives with his father and stepmother, Barbara, at the Salton Sea, in the middle of the Sonoran desert, over 100 miles inland from San Diego. He doesn’t own a driver’s license—he never has. Instead, he rides an electric bike to his father’s bar, Capt’n Jim’s, where he works each day. While the environment might seem an odd choice for a recovering addict, he’s kept it on the straight and narrow going on four years now. It’s hard to imagine a life that could be further away from surfing, both literally and metaphorically. This is by design. “I’m over the whole surf scene,” he says solemnly. “I’ve finally grown up. It’s taken me awhile, but I’m more mature now.”

In many ways Eggers does seem more mature. Recognizing his shortcomings, speaking with humility, he deconstructs his life with a critical eye. “I disappointed a lot of people who were trying to help me,” he laments. “I got caught up in the whole Southern California party scene, and for that I’m sorry.”

Speaking with him, watching him interact with others here, it’s difficult to imagine the brash young hellion he once was. “Everybody likes him here,” says his father. “He goes and shoots pool and just hangs out with everyone.” It’s as if he’s become the sweet little kid he was never able to be—or perhaps never allowed to be. “I feel like happy little David again,” he says, “and I’m not going to screw that up.”

Occasionally, Eggers shows glimpses of his old self, speaking as though in the present. “The reefs from Big Rock to Black’s, I own them,” he says. “Nobody takes off as deep as I do at Big Rock—nobody.” Just as quickly, he catches himself. “I mean, I used to own them,” he says sheepishly. His associations with the sport are clearly still painful. “I don’t really care about surfing or if I ever do it again,” he says. “I’m just glad to be happy again.”

For the most part, Eggers is living his life one day at a time. But he does have plans for the future. His goal is to reach five years of sobriety and then “flip the script”—help others avoid what he went through. “I’ve been through an incredible amount of pain, really endured a lot,” he says emotionally, through tears. “But there is no shame or guilt anymore. My life can be used as a tool to save another. If it saves one little 13-year-old kid, then I’m happy. That’s my whole trip.”

 

 

An interview with Greg Noll and Brock Little.

For the very first issue of TSJ, Steve Pezman (with all the quiet guile of Zatoichi, the Blind Samurai) arranged for a sit-down with proto ball-swinger Greg Noll and youngblood Brock Little. It was like a TED talk, but not canned and lame.

The two chargers had never met. Their age disparity kept them from pacing the cage and snarling at one another. That, and respect. Pezman was the ultimate foil: informed, savvy, and experienced in the terrain. 

You’ll find the read holds up remarkably well. Poignantly, the younger man has passed on, felled by cancer. Noll abides. Enjoy. 


Out of the millions of surfers in the world since the early 1960s, at any given time there are maybe only two or three who live for riding the really huge one. The wave that comes along maybe once or twice during a man’s prime. 

Twenty-four-year-old Brock Little and fifty-four-year-old Greg Noll are two of that kind from different eras. Each, in his own style, has been the man who went for the epic wave during his period in the window of life which allows that rarified pursuit. 

Little and Noll had never met prior to this occasion, but they knew of each other. They sensed that a special bond existed and knew that a time would come when they would meet. It was destiny. It happened, somewhat ironically, during a surf industry trade show in San Diego on September 7, 1991, in a hotel room next to the convention center. It should have been at the Seaview Inn in Haleiwa over pitchers and puu puus, but that was not to be. As it turned out, Brock waited in the room for over 45 minutes while I went to extract Greg from his Da Bull booth at the trade show. Greg and I went up in the elevator and I opened the door. Brock stood up, they looked and self-consciously grinned at each other, then Noll said something like, “Aww shit,” and gave Brock a bear hug.

What is presented here is essentially a transcript of the two-hour conversation that followed, eavesdropping on a first-ever meeting between two classic archetypes of a rare breed. They were, at first, uneasy with the scene…

Brock Little: This is weak, you know. What I originally wanted to do was someday just drive up to your house and knock. 

Greg Noll: Honest to God, is there a big rush for this? Here I am at this show talking to all these people who don’t know…you know, and my mind’s just turning into diarrhea. And then suddenly, I’m sittin’ here talkin’ to a guy that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, like it’s a fast-food deal or something.

Steve Pezman: Well, relax. We’ll get some beers…

Greg Noll: Naw…

Brock Little: Yeah, not now. But I’m into hanging out and drinking beers. 

Greg Noll: (Grinning) I’ve done my share of that. 

Steve Pezman: What’s the difference between your days and now?

Greg Noll: What’s the difference? There is no difference! Somehow or other, the genes get messed up so that there’s a few guys over the years, for whatever their reasons, that want to catch a wave at Waimea that’s maybe a little bigger than somebody else catches. Whether it’s Brock Little or Buzzy Trent or Greg Noll, the time period doesn’t count. We’ve just got different bodies. Mine’s all old and used up. His is fresh and ready to go. 

Brock Little: Yeah, but I think I’m different from the other guys. There’s different breeds. Bradshaw and Foo live their own life. Roger and Darrick, live it, worship it, you know what I mean, it is their life. And then I’m doing it just because I get kicks out of it. I think that’s what you said about the first time you surfed Waimea, you were just a bunch of kids. Hanging out, you know, it was huge, the waves looked fun. I mean, you can’t surf anywhere else, and so you’re out there. That’s how it was the first time I surfed it. I was riding my bicycle home from school everyday, and it was like I was so tired of surfing those stupid little whitewaters. And Waimea kept on breaking and I went, “Well, why can’t I ride Waimea?” So I rode my bike to a friends house, borrowed a board, and just went surfing. And it hasn’t changed much. Except now, I gotta truck that my sponsors bought me. I can drive down in that. But you’re still just going surfing. 

Greg Noll: Same deal. Same deal. Everybody wants to make something out of it and talk about some magical moment. And it really was the same thing. I mean, there we were trying to get the balls to get in the water for two years. Buzzy calling me a “pied piper” saying, “You’re going to drown like rats if you follow Greg Noll.” And then one day the surf was bitchin’—like some naked gal with her tits in the wind. You just wanted to pounce on it, you know? So we get our boards and went surfin’. Now, a whole bunch of years later, it’s a mystique deal. It was just a place that needed to be surfed, and just happened to be there in that time period. 

Steve Pezman: But back then it was a thing that hadn’t been done, and now, how many? Five hundred guys have ridden there?

Brock Little: I don’t think that many…

Greg Noll: Yeah, but there’s only eight or ten that are riding it. That’s the thing people don’t realize. There’s all kinds of guys that want to go out in the water and clog everything up, but there’s only eight or ten guys…

Brock Little: That want it! You gotta want it. 

Greg Noll: That have the mindset. That’s why he and I are having a little trouble right now. I’ve never met the guy before…

Brock Little: I know…

Greg Noll: But we have something in common. And he knows it and I know it. My deal just took place a long time ago and his is taking place now. 

Brock Little: It’s not a big deal. It’s not! I don’t get off on going, “Yeah (growling), I rode Waimea.” It’s not that kinda shit. I mean it’s out there. I love it! I might catch a big wave and I might not. I don’t know, the only thing I wanna know is how big was that fucker at Makaha you went on?

Greg Noll: (Laughing) I don’t know.

Brock Little: Yeah I know. I don’t want to ask you because you can’t know. I mean I’ve caught some big waves too, but you don’t know how big it is. It was as big as this, as big as that. What?

Greg Noll: Talk about that day at Makaha, I really don’t know. I mean in that situation everything starts to go in real slow motion mode. Your mind goes into a haze and you go into another dimension. 

Steve Pezman: You feel like you’re in danger?

Greg Noll: Oh, fuck yes. Some guys say they’re not afraid. I always was. In fact, in my  case, I always felt a little fear was healthy. It’s probably what kept me alive. 

Brock Little: When you’re young, you’re not…I don’t think.

Greg Noll: Yeah (grinning) that’s neat, cause you think you’re invincible.

Brock Little: That’s it!

Greg Noll: Then you get old and fat. You’ve won a few fights, ya know, and you think, “Ah, bitchin’, nobody can put me in the hole.” But when you get a little older, you can just get the shit beat outta ya.

Steve Pezman: Hey, you guys are both willing fighters. 

Brock Little: A little bit, I guess. He’s “Da Bull” and that’s his style, and I’m a matador. 

Greg Noll: I’ll tell you the difference. We’ve both got the balls, he’s just smarter than me. I did my fighting in the bar, he does his in the ring. It took me til I was 35 to figure out Waimea. He’s done it when he was 24. He’s just way ahead on the whole deal. He’s got ten years on me from when I was his age. What’s he gonna be like in ten more years if he’s at this stage now?

Steve Pezman: Is the line riding big waves different now than it was?

It was so bad. I had to sit in the channel for 20 minutes with my hands folded, going What are we going to do about this?” —Greg Noll

Brock Little: Ah, for sure it’s different for me. No doubt. If you’re going to catch a 26-foot wave, you don’t pick a different line. You just take off, cause there’s no time to turn. But on twenty footers you can take off on a 9’6” now and turn at the top of the wave and have a way better angle than those guys used to have. 

Steve Pezman: Greg, can you describe your big-wave board? You know, length, width, weight? Did you even know?

Greg Noll: A good big-wave board is like a classic lady. You never forget either of them. 11’6’ by 22½” wide, 3⅝” at the thickest point, but it was just an old hunk of shit compared to what you guys are riding today. 

Steve Pezman: What did it weigh?

Greg Noll: I was the first one to start using aircraft-grade spruce for center strips. I could put a ⅜” strip of that down the center of the board and it was like and inch and a half piece of redwood, strength-wise. So I could reduce the formula of the foam, and for a board that size, I could get it down to 32 pounds, which was unheard of, however, my earlier boards were in the 40 to 45 pound category. 

Brock Little: My boards are totally different.

Greg Noll: What does one of your big-wave boards weigh?

Brock Little: I don’t know. I know they’re 9’6” and they’re about 3” thick, between 20” and 21”, and the thing is they’re always changing because at Waimea you break a board every other session practically, cause they’re so light now. Whereas those guys rode the same board for years. 

Greg Noll: He’s right. I had a board for about three years one time. 

Brock Little: With my boards, I get new ones like it’s going out of style. I mean, like you never even learn your measurements cause you’re always trying to improve and you say, “Hey Gabe, make this one a little thinner.” Or whatever. So it’s not like we’re trying to get variable.

Steve Pezman: What are they glassed with?

Brock Little: Just two sixes on top, two sixes on the bottom, and somethings a gloss coat, sometimes unfinished. 

Steve Pezman: The economics are different now. 

Greg Noll: The mindset is different now. In the old days, if you were a surfboard manufacturer and you broke a board in half it was a real burr on your record. I mean it was heavy. Now, nobody gives a shit. I really don’t want to get into this, but I got into a major altercation with another board manufacturer and had to leave the island over a broken board in the window of his shop, and that’s how serious it was in those days. Now, guys are smart. Now, they’re after the board that’s gonna do the best job, and if they have to go through two or three…

Brock Little: We’re so bad, we’re so spoiled now. I guess it’s not really bad, it’s just how it is. We’re lucky. I do the same thing he did, but now I get paid for it. It’s my trip. I really don’t give a shit. I’d do it all anyway but…I’ll take it. 

Greg Noll: (Cracking up) Hey man, I’d have taken it too!

Brock Little: I mean I always think that if something happened to me tomorrow, man, I killed it. But then I go, God, I’ve killed it for just a while. Look at him (indicating Greg), he’s still living it!

Steve Pezman: The places Greg rode in the 50s were basically Makaha, Waimea, Outside Pipe…

Greg Noll: Outside Pipe was a freak deal. It probably doesn’t even count. You know it takes such a special swell to hit that thing. Where I got it once almost doesn’t even count as a surf spot. Bradshaw tells me he’s been waiting for it for ten years. He’s been out there diving and located the spot. He went down to the reef and slid off the backside into blue water. Ten years, is that worth waiting for a spot? I mean it just happened to break that day, and Mike Stang and I decided, “Hey, let’s go surf it.” In fact, I always felt like the real challenge in the future would be the outer reefs, away from the cameras and all the bullshit. I guess there’s a whole bunch of reefs out there that can break on different swells. 

Brock Little: Yeah. You never surfed Himalayas? Man, there’s some waves out there that break when it’s huge. And it’s pretty good cause there’s a channel. 

Greg Noll: It looks to me like you can just wait for a big old day and go pick your spot. 

Brock Little: To this day you can do that. I mean, Waimea sucks. You go to Waimea, it’s like putting on a show. It’s the money thing. And you know, I’ve gotta show up. Instead of surfing some killer outside reef, which is what it’s all about. Which is what you guys did. You know, the reefs that no people surf. It’s so much more fun when you’re out there alone, where it’s unexplored. There’s reefs all around out there. 

Steve Pezman: There’s just a few guys chasing those spots?

Brock Little: When it’s big, there’s hardly any. Where I go out, I don’t see anyone. I go out a lot by myself. And then there’s a couple of my friends that say the same thing, “You’re always dragging me out.” The pied piper bit. Whatever. You can drag some guys out that you just hang out with. You know, like Todd Chesser, Shane Dorian, or somebody. I’ll drag them out, but it’s not like they’re all big-wave riders. I’ll twist their arms—“Come on!” And they’re going, “Aw geez,” you know, and I go, “You’re gonna blow it, you’re gonna feel so bad if you don’t go out.” And they go, “It’s stupid, it’s stupid.” And I go, “Look, you know you want to go, just go.” They’re guys I feel confident in. I’ve also sworn at guys, “Fuck you, you’re not gonna go out. I don’t give a shit, you’re not going out with me, kook! You’re not coming with me, I don’t like you, you’re not going out.”

Sometimes I have to fight my brain. Like, “C’mon Brock, get real here. You know what, you’re gonna live!” —Brock Little

Greg Noll: You get an asshole out there and you gotta worry about ’em.

Brock Little: Yeah, exactly! You only take whoever you trust. I mean on the outside reefs we’re two miles out—Waimea’s nothing compared to it, it’s different, the way the rips run—but you gotta have someone with you who’s in control of his emotions. If you lose your board and you’ve gotta swim two miles, you don’t want some guy panicking who doesn’t have it together. You want a guy who’s out there two miles and says, “Oh well, I’ve gotta swim two miles. Fuck! Right-on Brock, you asshole.” Not, “Brock! Brock! What do I do? Where do I go?”

Greg Noll: I’ve got a story that sort of a detail of what he’s talking about. You know, funny things happen when you’re on the beach. Guys can work out when they’re in California and psyche themselves all up thinking they’re gonna do this and that, and they kinda believe it. So they get themselves worked up and go to the Islands and all of a sudden all of this shit changes. When you get outside and this thing starts going (Noll makes sucking noises and big, feathering movements with his hands). One time we were going out at Pipeline, Mike and I, and it was breaking big, and we were with this kid who had been working out for it. And this guy was running back and forth between Mike and me, kinda keying off both of us. He says, “I’m gonna do it! Shit, I’ve been working out for 12 months. I can handle this. I’m going with you guys.” And we’re going, “Well, okay.”

Brock Little: Hey, you can’t really care. He paddled out, you know.

Greg Noll: So somehow this guys made it out through the shorebreak, and we got out and it was a Second Reef, and it was in the afternoon and the light was bouncing off the waves, and you could see Kaena Point off in the background. And this guys was just right on our ass talkin’, you know, trying to talk so fast he didn’t have to think about anything else. And this set came. And these big lines started (Greg imitates a feathering lip bouncing with his fingers), and these waves started making funny noises when they broke, growling and spitting and everything. And this guy sat on his board and said, “What am I doing out here?” He just snapped and started saying, “You guys are crazy, what are you doing out here?” And he turned around and paddled in. I think where he hit the goddamned beach you could see stroke marks right up to Pupukea Road there, and we never saw the guy again. 

Brock Little: Yeah, in Hawaii, I’ve been surfin’ with these guys all summer long that say, “Brock, I’m after it, I’m gonna rush it this winter.” Even big, local, psycho guys that you think they’re not bullshitting. “Yeah no problem, see ya out there!” But you never see ’em. I swear to God they think they’re gonna. 

Greg Noll: Well, the point is that it’s just a whole lot different in the water. I mean you can sit in a corporate office and figure out your profit and loss and all the shit that makes sense on paper, but when you get in the water, man, your brain goes into a mental freeze and the whole thing goes into slow motion, and these things start suckin’ out and it’s just a different world. And unless you’re had enough waves like he has (indicating Brock), and you’ve got that shit behind you, your stuff kicks out of gear and the brain just goes beserk.

Brock Little: There you go. Sometimes, and I dunno if you do, but I have to fight my brain. I just have to go, “C’mon Brock, get real here. You know, you’re gonna live! You’re gonna make it!” You’re just in the middle of nowhere, you know. Fuck it if those waves are breaking on you! You know what I mean? You just start being rational on yourself. That’s what I do.

Greg Noll: What he’s saying is the key to the whole deal because if you blow it and allow yourself to go nuts, there goes your oxygen, there goes your cool, there goes your ability to get the most out of your body, so that when you go down, if you’re in a frenzy, man, the wave can kill you. If you’re comfortable and relaxed…

Brock Little: Comfortable and relaxed is the whole deal…

Greg Noll: That’s the whole deal! Just keepin’ it cool upstairs. 

Steve Pezman: So what’s the payoff? 

Greg Noll: The payoff, for me? Better let him answer that (laughing). 

Brock Little: What’s the payoff? (Cracking up) Just the greatest high! The greatest! It’s the ultimate high!

Greg Noll: The other big thing to me was always being in a situation where I was around the guys I respected the most. The guys who surfed good-sized waves. And you know, like I’d never met him, but that respect just goes right on through (nodding at Brock). Those special eight or ten guys. The magazines don’t have to tell you who you are. To know you’re in that group, and to know that you’re part of that deal…

Brock Little: Oh, it’s such a bond. The real guys can feel it. It’s such a strong thing. Another thing I wanted to say: I heard that if you didn’t catch the biggest wave, well, you felt bad when you came in. I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t. I’ve seen Darrick on lots of waves that were bigger than mine on that day and come in high as a kite and just said, “I couldn’t believe you went for that wave.” You know what I’m saying? Just paddling over it, I thought, “Oh my God, that was insane.” Because I don’t get that competitive with whoever I’m surfing with. It sounds more like they (referring to Greg and his era) were way more competitive, way more hear-headed about who’s boss for the day. It seems like ego clashing, I dunno. What? (Looking at Greg).

Okay, this is it. And if I don’t catch one of these, I’m gonna be an old man going, “God, I wished I’d done it.” —Greg Noll

Brock Little: Yeah!

Greg Noll: Four months later, I came back to the Islands. I paddle out—Waimea was breaking. I don’t even have a chance to say, “Good to see you,” before he goes, “What the fuck happened to you on that wave.” (Cracking up) It’s been workin’ on him all that timGreg Noll: I’ve gotta be honest. I’ve just got to say that I have sensed that same thing that you felt, with Mike Stang or Jose, or when Ricky or Peter got a big wave. But the biggest high, the ultimate high, was to go away known’ that…

Brock Little: You rode it!

Greg Noll: Yeah! There’s only one thing better than watching your friend catching it.

Brock Little: (Laughing) Okay, okay. Yeah.

Greg Noll: The biggest wave of the day. And it’s when you go away with it in your pocket. That’s the way I always felt.

Brock Little: But when somebody I respect does it, I feel good about it. 

Steve Pezman: Is big-wave riding really going anywhere? There’s just a few people who really have a passion for it. Are there young kids in line to replace you guys, or are you the last of a breed?

Brock Little: They’re coming up. But it’s not that changed now. Okay, maybe there’s a different line, but we haven’t really changed anything from when (pointing to Greg)…

Greg Noll: I think they’re better. 

Brock Little: Ah, not much.

Greg Noll: I think it’s hard for him to talk about, but my day has come and gone.

Brock Little: I’ll argue with that.

Greg Noll: I think that the equipment’s better, they’re catching bigger waves, and they’re doing more with those waves.

Brock Little: I dunno. I’ve heard a lotta shit about him (indicating Greg). This guy was a fuckin’ “looney tune” from what I’ve heard! The people on the North Shore talk about you, and they talk about Jose Angel, you know, the older guys hanging out talking’ big waves.

Greg Noll: The deal with Jose was that he lived there day and night. I mean I couldn’t take the Islands full deal because my whole thing was intensity. And I felt like if I lived there all the time, I couldn’t maintain the intensity. So what I had to do was get away from it. Get all worked up and then take all this intensity out over a short period of months, and then get outta there and work up to the thing again. And Jose just there, and he didn’t have the same mindset. But he was out everyday, grabbing a turtle, or doing something when the crowds weren’t there and there were no cameras. And the guy was just in incredible shape. And he had a—God, who knows what’s in another guys mind—a very quiet, deep, burning competitive side to him. Never a chest thumping deal, which was bitchin’ about him. It was always a super quiet deal. But we’d play little games on each other. Like one time I went surfin’ with Jose , and I had to catch a plane at one o’clock. It was sort of right at the last minute and I had it all figured out when I could go in and get my shit, get on the plane, and get outta there. Anyway, this big closeout comes, and I knew I was going to get fuckin’ pasted on this thing. We’re the only two guys in the water. And this wave came and it was just feathering from outside, and we’re both sittin’ there kind of looking at each other, and who’s gonna chicken shit out and paddle over it. Well, right at the last instant I just blew him out by spinning around and saying, “I’ll see you next year.” And I dropped into this fuckin’ pit and somehow the wave hit a hole and backed off a little bit, and I managed to dig my fingers into the rails and belly slide the soup all the way to the beach. e. Why I did it was to psyche him out. If he wasn’t there, I woulda never done it. And he’d do things like that to me. We were playing with each other’s brains. 

Brock Little: Have you ever met Darrick?

Greg Noll: I met him for just a short period of time. He came to my daughters birthday party. 

Brock Little: He’s an intense, driven guy. 

Greg Noll: Like he looks at the world through different binoculars. 

Brock Little: He does. He’s the kind of guy who won’t ever say anything. Like, he caught this closeout one year. 1988, you know, you’ve seen the pictures of it. And he just paddled back out with, like, this little smirk on his face. And I was going, “What the fuck did you do? What the…How could you go on that?” You know, it was insane. It was one of those waves that was ugly and gross and it was just, like, you know, no problem. He just went. 

Greg Noll: So having the respect of the people I respect is almost as important as a relationship with a woman or something. I mean, I almost take it as important as my family relationship. 

Brock Little: Well, they’re you peers. You gotta have the respect of your peers. 

Greg Noll: And there’s guys that I may not go drink a beer with or that I don’t particularly care to socialize with, but having their respect and them mine is real important. I don’t know what the fuck that’s got to do with anything, but there it is. You know? You know what it is? We’re sitting around together in this room trying to explain what it is that motivates a big-wave rider, and it’s never gonna happen. It’s never gonna come out on this tape. I’m never gonna get it across to you. He knows what I’m talking about. I know what I’m talking about, like it’s thick as butter. But you can’t put it into words. 

Steve Pezman: Well, it’s as close as most people who read this will ever get. What’s Waimea, the wave, like now compared to the 1950s and 60s. 

Greg Noll: Well, the question I’ve been asked is, “Does it wall up across the whole bay now?”

Steve Pezman: We used to think maybe you could ride a 30-foot wave there. 

It all narrows down to one wave every two or three years that you’re right there for. But it’s the wave.”—Brock Little

Brock Little: Thirty-feet is such a relative thing, you know.

Steve Pezman: Well, I think of the size categories as 15 to 18 feet, 18 to 20 feet, 20 to 25 feet, 25 to 30 feet. Like, when you talk about Darrick’s wave, I think of that one, just from the photo, in a 25-foot-plus category. 

Brock Little: I call that one 28-feet. That’s my little story. 

Greg Noll: You know, this wave size is a funny deal. Like to me, it’s not so much feet. They get to a certain point and everybody’s taking off on ’em, and I guess they’ve got some height, and then all of a sudden…big sets. And they look a little different—did you ever see an elephant that’s just old, gnarly, and it’s got kinda ratty looking hair on it—and they come around the point…

Brock Little: Yeah, yeah…

Greg Noll: And they’re black and nasty! All of a sudden some of you go, “Geez,” and you don’t want any part of ’em. They want to leave ’em alone a little bit. 

Brock Little: (In an excited voice) That’s the one, you know. If you don’t have it all here (pointing to his noggin), you just go, “Oh, missed it!” You know (laughing).

Steve Pezman: Of the real big waves that have been ridden, maybe there’s a dozen or so over the years that stand out in the lore of the sport as the biggest. And they’re all in a similar category. Probably in that 25 to 30 foot range, somewhere in there. I just wonder if it’s physically possible to ride a bigger wave than that? I mean what do you need? You need a…

Brock Little: A boat. Twelve foot.

Steve Pezman: Yeah. You need to paddle to get down across so much water, get so much speed, that it seems like, with the size deal, it’s not like someone’s gonna go out and ride a quantum leap above what’s been done.

Greg Noll: I don’t think so. 

Brock Little: They don’t break. If that wave ever broke, it’d be five miles out.

Steve Pezman: I men, guys talk about Kaena Point…

Brock Little: You can’t get out there. (To Greg) What’s the Kaena Point story? Give me that.

Greg Noll: I’ll tell you what I think about Kaena Point. Over the years, we’ve always had, and I’m gonna step on someone’s toes here, some Kaena Point rider who was gonna do it. But was more hype than anything else. For the most part, on those very rare big days that you get, there’s still all kinds of waves going unridden at Waimea and the outer reefs. I mean, why go out to Kaena Point? It’s all hype. The big waves right here in front of our noses are still going unridden on the massive days, am I wrong? I mean, let’s get those suckers ridden, then talk about Kaena Point, ya know?

Steve Pezman: Does Makaha still get as big as it was in the stories we hear about the old days?

Brock Little: I dunno.

Greg Noll: Really big Makaha is a white elephant break. I mean, when you say huge Makaha, it’s those very few days that, for the most part, the way I look at it, are about 12 years apart. And, that’s just about how often the come. But those days have nothing to do with normal Makaha. 

Brock Little: 1982 was the last one. 

Greg Noll: Was it?

Brock Little: Yeah! That was the year it was so huge, Waimea was closing out so they’d go surf Makaha. 

Steve Pezman: So as far as a big-wave career goes, you might do your whole career and really big Makaha would never be one of those days, if your timing just happened to be that way. 

Greg Noll: That’s what happened to me. I went out on the water and I realized that, you know, this is it man. If it didn’t happen for me here and now.

Steve Pezan: You realized that at the time?

Greg Noll: Oh, yeah! And it was like, “Okay, this is it. This is the time in my life that it’s gonna happen, and if you don’t catch on of these fuckin’ things, you’re gonna be an old man sittin’ in a chair some place going, ‘God, I wished I’d done it.’” That was probably the thing that put me over the edge. You had to just go crazy on the thing and just go into a different brain-set. I mean, like he’s talking about this brain-set that you have on the outer reefs, and the big days and everything. You have to go into a brain-set for those days, and this day at Makaha was like one step above that. 

Brock Little: God!

Greg Noll: It was so bad Brock, and I don’t talk about this, that I had to actually paddle over to the channel for about 20 minutes and just sit with my hands folded and go, “What are we going to do about this?” You know?

Brock Little: Wow! That’s so fun!

Greg Noll: (Chuckles).

Steve Pezman: Well you two guys come to it from different places, but when you’re actually doing it, your heads in the same place. 

Brock Little: Well, he’s in the Doerner, Erickson league. 

Greg Noll: Know what I think? I think guys explain it differently, but I think it’s a narcotic—the high is the same for all of us. It’s the best natural high that I’ve ever experienced. 

Brock Little: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. 

Greg Noll: And, I think what happens is that over a period of time, there are only eight to ten guys in the world that are willing to commit themselves to this high. Like in my case, it ain’t being anything exceptional, it’s just that I love the feeling. 

Steve Pezman: Well, only a few people are in position to have access to that high, and then just a few of those even try to take advantage of it.

Oh yeah, I love it. Right now it’s like I’m paddling out. I got a little heart thing going. Because you’re living it. Right now he’s flashing on big waves and I am too. I’m flashing on the big fucking elephant. —Brock Little

Brock Little: It’s just fun. That’s the whole thing. 

Greg Noll: Fun? Here I am, 54 years old, and I get to talkin’ to a guy like this, and I can feel fucking feel my skin crawling right now, you know? And, I mean when you’re an old guy and you’ve been away from it for a long time, and it comes back to you like it was yesterday! I don’t know anything else on the face of God’s earth that could be like that. Do you?

Brock Little: Oh yeah, I love it. Right now it’s like I’m paddling out. I got a little heart thing going. Because you’re living it. Right now he’s flashing on big waves and I am too. I’m flashing on the big fucking elephant. 

Greg Noll: Yeah, like you catch all the 6 footers when you’re a little kid, then you want an 8 foter, then you want a 10 footer, then a 12 footer, then a 15 footer. And you want and 18 footer. And then, pretty soon, you surf enough 20 footers, you can’t really give a shit about a 15 or an 18 foot wave other than to just go out and keep in shape. So when that elephant—that big, black fucker—comes winding around the point, you’re ready. But then, like you’re talking about, somewhere along the line, man, all the shit starts coming together to where you can’t catch the thing cause of the board. You know, how big a board are you gonna go for? Then the physical impossibility thing starts to come in, and you start splitting hairs on those big buggers, you know.

Steve Pezman: Then there’s those guys that do the outside reefs on those big, long gliders.

Greg Noll: When you cheat at cards, do you ever feel like you’ve really won the game?

Brock Little: Hey, let’s put it this way, all those Outside Reefs guys who are gliding, they haven’t ridden anything close to what Darrick or whoever have ridden at Waimea. They haven’t!

Greg Noll: But those guys who do it on a sailboard ot a jet ski, I dunno, I give those guys a tremendous amount of credit. But in my eyes, there’s nothing like the feeling of going out there under your steam and not having a helicopter there or whatever. You know, you’ve gotta pay the bill if things don’t work out. You start cheatin’ with all those little deals, and when it comes time to pay the bill, the tab ain’t so high. But we’ve never (nodding to Brock) about taking advantage of all the easy ways out. 

Brock Little: What?

Steve Pezman. The safety nets. 

Brock Little: Right. Right. I don’t give a shit. I’ll take ’em if they’re there. If they’re not, I don’t take ’em. 

Greg Noll: Well, the final deal is, man, that the big tab is your life. You give that up, who knows what’s on the other side. Nobody’s been there and back to tell me about it, anyway.

Steve Pezman: (To Brock) Have you ever felt in grave danger?

Brock Little: Yeah. It was at Waimea, a big closeout set. I got caught inside by about seven waves. Finally, by the fifth wave, I was just going, “C’mon Brock, this isn’t working.” I started seeing stars, you know, red stars. And, basically my body just totally relaxed. It was like, “Wow, all right.” I mean it was weird. And if you just stop fighting, you go, “Okay, this is what it’s like to die.” Then you say, “God, you’re in trouble here. What are you thinking that way for? Start making it to the surface, you idiot!” So I said, “Okay,” and popped to the surface. And there was like two more waves. But I think after that close experience, I could feel what it was to go soft and I just quit doing it. I didn’t even come close on the next two waves. Another time, just totally different from that one, was at an outside reef on a really big wave on par with the one I caught at Waimea, the closeout one that I fell on. On both of those waves, just eating it and falling, I sort of had the sense of my life passing before my eyes, even though, actually, the Waimea wave wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. And the one at the outside reef, the big wave, it caught me with the lip right on my head, and it was just huge. Right before it caught me I was going, “Fuck, I’m gonna die.” It hit me like a punch and it gave me red stars because it kind of landed behind me on my head. And it was cool, because I was all dazed from the punch. I had that high. 

Greg Noll: (Laughing) That ain’t so bad.

Brock Little: Yeah! I was, like, buzzing. Know what I mean. You know, you get popped up and go, like, “Whew.” I must of been under for a hell of a long time, because the next one was right there, but I wasn’t really fighting—like the ultimate relaxed state of mind was being punched. I came up still buzzing from the hit. Another wave? “Whew, okay!” Those are the kind that give you your flash of life. 

Greg Noll: I got hit one time at Waimea. The board went down and I hit my head. I hit so hard, I put a big pressure ding in it. And when the board washed in, there was hair stuck in the thing. I completely went out under water. And I remember when I was a kid, I used to have bad nightmares, and I could wake myself up from ’em. So I remember being underwater and starting to come around, and I’m going, “I’m having a nightmare, it’s time to wake yourself up.” And as I started coming out of it, I realized that I was in the water, that it wasn’t a nightmare. It was a reality situation. It was really a bad wipeout. I had a concussion. Later I went to the doctor and asked him, “Hey, why didn’t I drown?” And he said it was just a conditioned reflex, that I’d done this thing so many times. But that was a shitty deal. I’ve got the board with the ding hanging in the garage. Every once in a while I go out and look at it. The hair’s not there, but the ding’s there. 

It was as big as the wave I took off on, and I’m trying to pump up, you know, get ready for the big dive. I was pumping so much adrenaline that I could taste it in my mouth! —Greg Noll

Brock Little: That’s heavy!

Greg Noll: But as far as actual wipeouts, that wave at Makaha, from the psyche thing? The heart was just ready to jump out of the body when I went down, took a dump, and the set behind the thing…

Brock Little: Yeah…

Greg Noll: It was as big as the wave I took off on, and I’m trying to pump up, you know, get ready for the big dive. I was pumping so much adrenaline that I could taste it in my mouth!

Brock Little: Plus, it was even heavier because you gave that wave so much power by sitting out there for 20 minutes, and when you caught it, you’re going, “This is it, this is it!” And when you went you had everything going through you. And that was it! So you’re giving that wave so much power that you’re so adrenelated, so amped on it, that once you ate it, it was just like, “This could be it!”

Greg Noll: Well, I remember the thing going over the top of me, and I remember what hit me right away was there was no movement or anything. I mean when I felt the thing go over, it went, “Whomp!” Like it was a fuckin’ truck or something, and then there was no movement or nothin’. But my ears were ready to pop, and I had to clear my fuckin’ ears. 

Brock Little: I remember reading about that. I liked that. 

Greg Noll: And then slowly the goddamned grind started, and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And by that time I’d probably gotten pulled in close to 200 yards and the next set had dissipated, pretty much. But that first one was a bitch. That feeling—you ever go by a big fuckin’ truck really close? And you feel that wind thing? That’s how that wave went by me. 

Brock Little: Gosh. Wish I was alive. Wish I coulda seen that!

Steve Pezman: And you’d only get that situation maybe a couple times in you whole big-wave career?

Greg Noll: Once! If you’re lucky! I’m not coming on or anything. I’m just saying that the misconception is that Waimea or Makaha break big all the time. I mean, shit, really good Waimea only occurs, what, every couple of years?

Brock Little: Well, once a year if you’re lucky!

Greg Noll: Once a year, if you’re really lucky! It just doesn’t happen very often. These big-wave days are rare. 

Brock Little: I’ve kind of started keeping track of the really big waves each year. Last year there were two sets. The year before that was the Eddie Aikau—there were two. Then the year before that, there were four. So there were two plus two plus four rideable closeout sets where there was a really big old wave. So that’s like eight closeout sets with maybe three waves each, and you ain’t going for the first one cause there’s always two behind it! So that leaves only like 12 to 16 huge waves a year that are even rideable. And to even catch one of those, you got to be on it. You got to be fuckin’ there! You got to want it. You’re a little bit out of place and you just go, “Whoops, missed it.” I mean, you just got to be, “Grr, I’m going to be in the right place!” And do that narrows down to like one wave a year that you’re actually right there for—not even one wave a year! One wave every two or three years, but it’s the wave, the closeout set wave that they go, “Man, he went for it!”

Steve Pezman: So, you’re whole deal is aimed at this one wave. 

Greg Noll: And then you’ve got to have the right sized board. 

Brock Little: Oh yeah, all the variables. 

Greg Noll: That question you were asking earlier, what’s it going to take to make this next move? It’s gonna take a guy like him, to have the right board that’s going to catch a big wave to begin with. If you don’t catch the fuckin’ wave to begin with, everything else doesn’t count. Then, you’re gonna have to be in position—this is in my mind anyway—where you’re gonna have to commit to staying outside. Because when those big sets are coming, you can’t try and scramble out to them. You’ve wasted your oxygen. You’re never right on “the spot” anyway. So to make all that shit happen, first, you’ve got to have the commitment up here (taps his head). Then you’ve got to have the equipment to do the job. Then you’ve got to make a commitment to sit, maybe thirty years outside of everybody, on this so called fuckin’ spot that many never happen that whole day. And, you may have blown off an entire day of surfing at Waimea while all your friends are catching big waves and never catch the goddamned thing. 

Brock Little: I haven’t done that. I haven’t grown that much. I’m still a little rat catching all the waves. But about what I said, and this happens to me all the time, I’ll catch like the first 20 footer of the set and I’ll be paddling out and there’s a 25 footer. I mean, I’m moving in a circle. So that means my odds are worse. I mean, if I’m going in circles, I’m having a session, you know, and it’s like, well actually, I’m out there to catch a really big wave, but, fuck, i hate sitting. I hate sitting. I mean, when you get older you sit. That’s the rumor. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The thing about Waimea now, I dunno if it was different them, it’s almost like there’s one takeoff spot, know what I mean? And the big waves, the way you catch those is that there’s still those guys and they’re paddling way the fuck out there. And the way you catch the big one is sitting right here (pointing down), know what I mean? The guys now all shoot outside cause they don’t really want any part of it, and if you keep you position inside, that’s how you catch ’em. I don’t know, maybe in the old days you sat out there, but nowadays, it’s like, “Okay, hold back, hold back.” Cause everybody’s headed for the horizon. But the thing now is there’s a lot more pretending. You know they’re going to be as far out of the picture as possible. So when those guys are paddling out and we’re all holding our position, I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna be okay.” I mean, I’m the furthest one in by, like, ten yards when the big waves come. Just cause almost everyone else is paddling out over ’em. 

Greg Noll: Well, maybe the lineup has changed these days but it still seems to me like the bigger waves break further out. 

Steve Pezman: Maybe the equipment difference has changed the lineup a bit. Either way it’s that rare rogue wave that’s the cornerstone of both your careers. And if the truth be known, your favorite hunting ground is on…

Brock Little: Outer reefs. And there are way more waves than that one out there, but there’s only one place that gets any credit. Only one place where there’s photographers. You know, there’s only one place where the media concentrates on. 

Greg Noll: Nowadays the narcotic is on the outer Reefs. 

Brock Little: Yeah! Totally!

A moment of silence ensues—the hotel room is charged with the energy of the rap that’s come down. It could go on and on but we can feel the end of this session. After a bit we all leave the room, go down the elevator, and walk back towards the convention center. It’s a reentry into the hype and jive of the surf market but an afterglow exists in each of us that will take some time to fade. 

 

Echoes and the magical pairing of Pink Floyd and George Greenough. A revisitation from TSJ 23.6.

While the pairing of surfing’s first tubular POVs with the late-stage psychedelia of Pink Floyd stands up to all sorts of scrutiny, George Greenough and Roger Waters made for strange bedfellows.

Both sides brought inarguable genius to the table when Echoes, Greenough’s mind-bending back-mounted surf reel, was merged with Britain’s headiest band. But for those who thought they knew George, it was a shocker. He was nobody’s hepcat. Oh, he may have the shag cut with resin shears and the famous dearth of shoes, but it ended there. What with his surfing, shaping, fishing, go-carting, sailing, and filmmaking, he was simply too busy for music. Right?

This 2014 feature tells, for the first time, what really happened when Echoes nailed the biggest musical coup in surf film history.


“It is art that makes life,” wrote Anglo-American author Henry James to fellow bard, H.G. Wells, at the end of the 19th Century. More than 70 years later, a young filmmaker named George Greenough confirmed the sentiment by capturing the ocean as only a surfer could.

His experimental short of 1972—titled Echoes—remains a singular piece in the history of surf cinema, both for its breakthrough disembodied portraits from deep inside the tube and for being the sole surf documentary soundtracked by psychedelic super gods Pink Floyd.

When the film first screened, Greenough was just 30 and, to those who’d followed his rapid ascent, the creative spark seemed limitless. It would, however, be the last film he’d ever release. How Greenough, a relative unknown, came to work with one of rock music’s biggest acts has long been a mystery.

Greenough now resides near Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia, where he maintains a low-profile existence. At 5′ 9″ and 135 pounds, he lives up to his reputation as a great eccentric. Whether he’s decrying the profit-zapping effects of the Internet or launching into a highly technical monologue on film equipment, fact checking even the basics of his life proves a difficult task—with one iconic exception.

By 1965, Greenough had his first creative breakthrough with a design unlike anything that came before. Taking a cue from pioneering 1940s-boardmaker Bob Simmons—who applied aeronautical design to advances in surfboard materials and fin shapes—Greenough filled a kneeboard with foam around the rail section only, leaving the middle both flexible and so completely hollowed out that it barely floated. He called the board Velo.

“I decided to make it flex like my fins,” Greenough recalls of the board’s impetus. “Fish moved when they swam, so why not make a whole board that moved when it rode waves?” The distinctive spoon soon became the catalyst for his experiments in surf photography and film. Greenough’s photograph of Australian surfer Russell Hughes completely covered up in the tube in 1966 was the first of its kind. It proved the breakthrough needed to solidify his reputation as an innovator. Clips of Greenough’s jaw-dropping rides appeared in popular surf documentaries, including The Endless Summer (1965), Children of the Sun (1967), The Hot Generation (1968), Evolution (1969), and Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969). By 1968, Nat Young had already dubbed Greenough “the greatest surfer in the world today.” That same year, he began shooting his first movie.

The transition, however, that surf culture made from its pop version in the early 60s to the more psychedelic waters of 1968 was not exactly fluid. By 1965, with the Civil Rights movement on the advance and the Vietnam War raging, the innocuous version of surfing best known from the Beach Party film series, seemed an anodyne diversion few cared to perpetuate. The purveyors of surf paraphernalia made feeble attempts to integrate surfwear with mod and paisley designs, indicative of the counter culture taking root in Los Angeles and San Francisco, though such attempts by Jantzen, Cole of California, and others proved largely pastiche. True surfers themselves never much cared for the pop side of things anyway and were more than glad to see the media attention shift elsewhere.

As a result, surfers began drawing again on their natural bohemia to bring the culture in accord with the larger movement. With the creation of the Surfrider Foundation in 1971, as well as an underground shift in editorial at Surfer magazine, the early 70s became a golden era for surfing in terms of relevance.

Much of the guiding light for these counter culture experiments originated across the Atlantic, where, during the mid 60s, colorful explosions in fashion, film, and music zoomed in from Paris, Rome, and especially London. By spring 1966, Time magazine had already declared “Swingin’ London” the city of the decade. What is less known is the number of major epiphanies experienced in Los Angeles by the most popular British acts of the day. The Beatles had played the Hollywood Bowl in 1964 and, upon their return in August of 1965, took their first voluntary hits of LSD with actor Peter Fonda and L.A. folk rock icons, the Byrds. (George Harrison memorialized the dropout on the Beatles 1967 tune, “Blue Jay Way.”)

To those who didn’t know better, such bizarre behavior was easily confused for stage fright or avant-garde posturing. Barrett’s bandmates knew better. Having earlier that year consumed LSD for a month straight, Barrett was becoming mentally unglued.

The Rolling Stones practically transformed themselves from regency dandies to full-blown flower children in L.A., where they cut the albums Aftermath and Between the Buttons, as well as the singles “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black” in Hollywood studios.

Van Morrison’s Them played eighteen nights at the Whiskey a Go Go in June 1966 due to the local popularity of their single “Gloria,” which was banned elsewhere in the U.S. for lewdness. The Yardbirds, Donovan, and The Animals had all played to heady psychedelic crowds in L.A. prior to the debut of Pink Floyd from Cambridge, who played Bandstand for the first time in November of 1967.

To be sure, the trans-Atlantic inspiration did not flow in just one direction. The Beach Boys first toured England in 1964, with leader Brian Wilson still playing bass. He’d leave the band to tour without him later that year, focusing instead on advancing their recorded materials. This arrangement led to Wilson’s magnum opus in 1966—the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Though the album failed to reach much of an audience in the U.S., enthusiasm for Pet Sounds reached a climax in the U.K., where the album sparked something of a competitive race to find ever-stranger, more glorious ways of producing rock music. (The Beatles created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in response.)

By the spring of 1967, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile was reviewed in Hit Parader magazine next to another new album by EMI’s most mysterious underground act—Pink Floyd and their much-anticipated debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The group had grown out of the UFO Club in Central London, where they became house band to the city’s wildest in sound, art, and drug experimentation. Within a year, both Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd’s mercurial leader,

Syd Barrett, would be forever linked as rock’s most tragic acid casualties. Yet in 1967 the two men’s quirkiness was matched by an immense dynamism for studio craft. Barrett’s magnetism translated also to the stage, where the high coiffed psychedelic dandy was the sex symbol the band would never regain in his absence.

Pink Floyd preceded their lip-synced performance of Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” on Bandstand with a brief trek up to San Francisco, where they played the Fillmore Auditorium on Geary Boulevard. At the absolute epicenter of the psychedelic explosion, Barrett stood frozen on-stage, strumming the same chord all night long. To those who didn’t know better, such bizarre behavior was easily confused for stage fright or avant-garde posturing. Barrett’s bandmates knew better. Having earlier that year consumed LSD for a month straight, Barrett was becoming mentally unglued.

In L.A. the next week, Pink Floyd played the Cheetah Club at Pacific Ocean Park in Venice, where, according to several attendees, Barrett performed energetically and the crowd responded enthusiastically. An anonymous writer for the Los Angeles Free Press described it as “a hurricane of color, bringing total sensual involvement of audience and performers, each involved in the creation of [an] aural/visual experience. The creation belonged to Pink Floyd, but there was ample room for all of us to share their visions. At the end, [however,] the audience might have been another creation of the facile, collective mind of Pink Floyd.”

The band returned to L.A. in 1968 to play the Shrine Auditorium, near USC. The old Shiners ballroom hosted the Academy Awards in 1947-48, though by the mid 60s, Frank Zappa and other counter culture acts had rechristened it the newest home for psychedelic freak-outs. By summer 1968, a young George Lucas was the in-house projectionist of the ballroom’s acid light shows, while Endless Summer poster artist, John Van Hamersveld, became the designer for the popular Shrine/Pinnacle concert series. Syd Barrett, however, did not make the trip, having been kicked out of Pink Floyd earlier in the year.

As the band went through the process of reinvention following the departure of their charismatic leader, 27-year-old George Greenough was busy cruising the Channel Islands in Central California with his modified 16-foot Boston Whaler. The coupe-style boat was cut from surfboards, re-shaped, and glassed into a shell that allowed him to set lobster traps and go shark fishing along the way to esoteric surf spots. He also continued experimenting with motion pictures, having modified a 16mm camera inside a waterproof casing that he’d mount to his back. The results would comprise his first film as director, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970).

In the nine minutes that closed Innermost Limits, Greenough’s unparalleled skill as an aquatic athlete, as well as his clandestine ability to invent, proved otherworldly.

“It was a no-money project,” reflects Greenough from his home today. He claims no more than twelve hours of total footage was shot over a two-year period. Edited free of dialogue and narration, Innermost Limits featured only the sound of a band who called themselves Farm. Its members included brothers Daryl, Dennis, and Doug Dragon, who’d also played as The Dragons on the soundtrack for Dale Davis’ DIY surf documentary, Strictly Hot, in 1964.

Combining stock surf instrumentals with soulful organ and jazzy vibraphone, both soundtracks prefigured the liquid progressive sound that ran through cosmic surf films of the early-to-mid 70s and set the stage for Greenough’s collaboration with Pink Floyd.

One underground magazine likened Innermost Limits’ slow-motion shots from deep inside the curl to Stanley Kubrick’s fisheye lensing of interstellar space, describing it as “a surfing version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” The closing sequence of Innermost Limits—titled “The Coming of the Dawn”—boasted nine minutes of close-cropped, slow motion shots of tumbling waves in a kaleidoscope of colors without a single human crossing the screen. Aussie surf photographer John Witzig described it as, “forms and patterns of water… [the] sort of personal experience that’s usually beyond communication.”

Greenough himself surmised its impact in a 1970 interview, saying: “The answer to my identity lies in ‘The Coming of the Dawn.’ All answers lie within yourself. The mind is such a powerful thing with several different planes of thought below the consciousness. The further down you go, the more power there is.”

There were, in fact, a number of skillful cinematographers working in surf documentaries by this time,not to mention the esoteric video installations of Bill Viola, whose footage of oceanic bodies and vast lakes captured the strange subtleties of water as only modern technology could have allowed. And yet, in those nine minutes that closed Innermost Limits, Greenough’s unparalleled skill as an aquatic athlete, as well as his clandestine ability to invent, proved otherworldly.

It is perhaps this rare combination that brought Greenough to the attention of Pink Floyd. By 1970, the band—under the new leadership of bassist Roger Waters—had shored up their reputation as one of the best live acts on the planet. When they saw Greenough’s movie at the legendary Big Yellow House in Sydney, they were so impressed they offered to donate music to his as-yet untitled next work. According to Greenough, Oz filmmaker David Elfick worked out the details, which gave Greenough permission to use Pink Floyd’s music on the condition that his experimental footage be projected behind them during their next tour. With a commitment in place, Greenough set about crafting a longer, more fully realized version of what he’d started with “Coming of the Dawn.” He would title it, simply, Echoes.

To be sure, the film did not feature original music. The title song originally took up the entire second side of Pink Floyd’s 1971 album, Meddle. Originally titled “The Sons of Nothing, Pts. 1-24,” “Echoes” was sewn together from six individual sequences, condensing the band’s signature trance-like drums, droning basslines, ethereal organ, soaring slide-guitar figures, and airy vocal harmonies into what Waters described as an “epic sound poem.” Drummer Nick Mason says it was simply an “attempt to do something by a slightly different method.” In fact, “Echoes” represents the full maturity of the band’s post-Barrett sound and musically set the stage for their breakout success with Dark Side of the Moon (1973).

Echoes begins underwater in the quiet rumble of the ocean’s blue/green undertow, where a series of heavily processed piano notes match the mysterious visuals perfectly. A hand-drawn font of the title soars in from the left corner through the forming wave at center-screen and off into the distance. When David Gilmour’s languorous guitar filters in, a fish-eye view of the first giant swell cascades in super-slow-motion toward the lens, beckoning the viewer unto its shared experience.

“I’m always looking for swells that tell stories,” notes Greenough of the secluded Australian sets he captured over a two-month period. “Most of what was in Echoes came from the kind of winter swells that you get every ten years or so. I can count ’em on one hand. The whole time I was shooting, I was the only one out there.”

As a mix of green algae and white foamy bubbles dance across the screen like abstract marionettes, Pink Floyd captures the ecological romanticism with cryptically poetic lines like, “rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves…echo of a distant tide,” where “everything is green and submarine.” Greenough synchronizes as the sun spikes the lens, leaving glistening sparkles to glow across the surface of the black water. When the music veers into a funky instrumental cadence, waves crash from all directions, water dripping in a cinematic montage that is both disorienting and invigorating.

“It looks fluid,” quips Greenough of the experience capturing these sets, “but you got punished out there. The camera would just fall off my back, the power of the swells would rip the bolts of the casing right off.”

Like a gaseous nebula being born around an exploded constellation, Greenough shows the primordial ocean to be made of the same mitochondrial stardust that began the self-cloning process, which eventually yielded each and every one of us.

Midway through, the music descends into an echoey sequence of whale sounds, droney keyboards, wind effects, and distorted seagull squawks. These were created by guitarist David Gilmour, who’d reversed his guitar tone through a wah-wah pedal in between session-takes and found the effect exhilarating. The Byrds had previously created a similar ecological tone-poem on “Dolphin’s Smile” from their proto-progressive Notorious Byrd Brothers album of late 1967. What was a brief experiment within a short rock song for the Byrds is expanded here by Pink Floyd into a fully realized structure that transforms Greenough’s wildest shots into a kind of visual raga junket.

Greenough saved some of his most ominous tube shots for the final third of the film. Herein, Pink Floyd’s music emerges from the drone of the whale sequence with a progressive instrumental buildup, matched visually by a wave that seems to climb up the right side of the screen. Like a gaseous nebula being born around an exploded constellation, Greenough shows the primordial ocean to be made of the same mitochondrial stardust that began the self-cloning process, which eventually yielded each and every one of us.

It may be difficult today to understand what an absolute seismic shift Echoes was in surf filmmaking during the early 70s. Yet, sensing that the film’s strangeness might alienate the average viewer, Elfick suggested he and Greenough put a frame around Echoes.

Elfick’s Crystal Voyager (1973) is a 78-minute travelogue of Greenough’s many adventures and innovations, with Echoes bumped onto the end, just as “Coming of the Dawn” had done for Innermost Limits. If such efforts in straight narrative seemed a step backwards after the cosmic abstraction achieved by Echoes, Crystal Voyager proved a savvy business move. It went on to become one of the top-earning Australian surf films of all-time. It also screened at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and later shared a doublebill with Rene Laloux’s animated classic, Fantastic Planet, for a record-breaking six-month run in London’s West End.

Pink Floyd themselves screened Echoes to massive audiences in the U.S., projecting the film during live performances of the title song. Greenough, on the basis of Innermost Limits and Echoes, was suddenly in demand as a water photographer for Hollywood commercials and films.

He would serve as cameraman for a number of popular water sequences, most notably on Big Wednesday (1975), which served as an antidote of sorts to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a film that instilled mass hysteria toward the mysterious sea. Alas, the progressivism of the early 70s would soon fade, exemplified by heroes like the rifle-toting beach ranger who, in blasting a carnivorous Great White into oblivion, brought the natural world back under the control of the establishment. Out of touch with this changing tide of anti-hippie tropes in pop culture, Greenough continued right on making short films that were never released.

By the late 80s, he was working on a documentary about dolphins, for which he crafted a camera housing shaped like the sea mammal to keep pace underwater. Titled Dolphin Glide, the 35mm film would consume his creative time for the better part of fifteen years, where the perfectionist Greenough struggled to bring the production to a proper conclusion, claiming, “lately the water hasn’t been clear—too much pollution.” An edit was sequenced in 2003, though, to this day, few have seen it. Doubtless, it is hard to imagine a film more aloof to the capitalist greed of the late 80s or the disillusionment of the 90s.

In the end, it comes as little surprise that such ideological withdrawal would underpin Greenough’s later work. He came out of a period of spirited descent, where those of affluent background—including the middle-class Cambridge boys of Pink Floyd—became wholly devoted to such liberal prescriptions of unrestrained hedonism. Moreover, what he most presciently shared was a penchant for anonymity. In Greenough, especially, the work is rarely apocalyptic, like that of George Orwell, or preachy like the Beat Generation. Instead, like Courbet’s “The Wave”—a close-cropped, disembodied painting from 1850—Greenough’s films remind us that the great romance we have with the natural world is in its promise of temporality and insignificance. They can be dismissed as anarchical, overly arty, or even pious, but only if you start by taking them seriously. In so doing, one discovers that what is new in Greenough is his execution rather than his theory.

Our finless traveler communes with the “lighthouse keepers” of surfing authenticity—Italian style. Pulled from TSJ 21.1.

In a totally stacked issue (a few single copies still available here) which included profiles of Ryan Burch, “Pal” Al Nelson, and Ozzie Wright, as well as unseen John Severson sketchbooks and likely the last print feature ever on the kinky world of kneeboarding (plus a “wow factor” foldout of San Diego shapers by John Durant), TSJ 21.1 also harbored this pulsating little treatise on modern Italian surfing by Derek Hynd.

It was, of course, a writerly scam.

Hynd simply wanted to spend a month in Italy. Who doesn’t? And what reading surfer wouldn’t like to hear a Hyndian breakdown of a thoroughly understudied coastline? One of the more gripping surprises was the revelation of an intense brand of localism, occasionally boiling over into a famous Sicilian intensity. Hynd put his surfing stamp on the whole affair by riding finless during the whole campaign. Wouldn’t he, though? —Scott Hulet


Five thousand miles of coastline for 5,000 core surfers who surf 50 base spots on 50 decent days of the year. Dedicated Italian surfers form a collective time capsule, their attitudes aligned to early 1970s Australia and America. An arcane flame taps the last national surfing subculture.

They speak well, very well, the best of any nation, being done by the contemporary invasion of global surf culture, of the inevitable conflicts posed by exponential lifts in participation rates against the base of distinctly finite resources.

The surfers of varied means at the top and the tail in this short ode to the Italian surfer repeat their voice on all coasts, though perhaps not as colorfully as havoc-riddled Davide Pecchi (Pek-kee). In the scheme of world surfing, this seemingly inconsequential surf zone is like the mouse that roared. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

Philosophical power is innate in the oldest printed reflections of sea subculture, from the age of Homer’s Odyssey 2,800 years ago: “There is nothing like the sea for making havoc with a man, no matter how strong he is.”

I came to Italy for three weeks in high summer after three weeks in deep winter South Africa. The purpose was twofold: part research, part favor. My partner was doing thesis work on comparisons between Australian and Italian surfing. For my part, I intended to recycle a board to free friction for cyber gnat Davide Pecchi, whose stream of emails over two years had piqued some interest. If there’s one thing learned this last year, it’s that there’s more discovery past and present than meets the shallow eye. Taylor’s trawling today produced the hitherto unknown Bondi tabloid The Surf from 1917, print run 5,000, with surf-stoke-influenced penmanship best described as Steampunk Beat. “Did you take a feast on Captain Stroud shooting the huge combers with the surfboard on Sunday? He fairly winded beachites with his startling and hair-raising exhibition and through our telescope we saw Bill Smythe out in the blue waters. He was doing a shoot, and the wake he left behind was like the streak of a falling star.”

Pecchi had his own Latin Beat going on. One email in particular had me wondering if he was the exception or rule of a new style surfer speak. From June 2009:

Mr. Hynd, I think about you more than my girlfriend. It’s more easy dreaming than face your dream. She under- stands me. I no fashionista or pumping guy, I just have a little bit awareness to be a respectful okay Mr. Hynd? I don’t want blending money and surf. I don’t understand the contrast of new soul surfer. Making the money and keeping the secret. I like evolution, longboard has the best teacher, but long it’s not the only way to glide. I want to be a beginner all my life not a fake pro in a land without culture and give a false evidence. I did not like the small Italian contest cyrcus, another toys for solding more apparel, still lonely money. I don’t know was ugly double of real surfing machine.

I sold my small surf shop, I felt like no fun, my soul was harmed. Mr. Hynd, I lost bearings and escape in Australia two years (mamma mia che bello). I read the old surfer journal see litmus and glasslove. I looking for you and Mr. Kidman, but I was no lucky, big country. I always try to grow my roots and culture through the history with a real surfers, bring in my village this way of life, something they never seen before. I talking about lighthouse, I mean sailing enveloped in darkness but sure to somebody let the light on. Any lighthouse have its unique light. Lighthouse didn’t come to you and show the way, it was many swells and adventures. I don’t know apologize sorry the wishing and my English, is a labyrinth also for me.

Meeting Pecchi indeed presented a labyrinth. He repeatedly watched Big Wednesdayon VHS as a young man adapting to surfing after windsurfing. His real-life character was close to par for the film—the induction center in particular. Without changing a thing, he may have been deemed too deviant to draft. He is perhaps closer, however, to one of the great roles in 60s cinema, that of far-out beatnik stage actor “L.S.D.” in Mel Brooks’ The Producers: “I dream of a time machine going back 40 years to ride my point alone.”

I smoke marijuana. I get psychedelic. The trip isn’t always to go overseas and experience new culture. It is to change the mind, change the attitude. I give advice against fashion in a country where fashion comes before anything. I could be a chef for money other than working on a beach, but to be in a kitchen for 12 hours of working to perfection and not being able to smoke joints—I would escape and run and try to swim to Elba (large distant island). The times in the kitchen are bad, bad. You feel like it is Dracula hours.

As with many Italian surfers, he works seasonally—the summer trade off in order to escape winter temperatures dropping as low as 38-degree water and 14-degree air.

“My friend from Torino, small-time Mafia, took car from a man who owed him. It is the Volvo that I am driving now. He sold it down to me for half price to get rid of it. Now I know that I owe him a favor because of it. But Mafia is Italy. And the Volvo that I drive is my dream car. It is the most secure against thieves or in a crash and I can fit in all my boards.”

His role as lifeguard paid less than as a chef, but as a surfer he was a natural.

My father could float after a stomach full of red wine so my mother taught me to swim. Now I work on my stretch of beach for the tourists. I listen to their problems. I fix their chairs. I stop their fighting for the first row of chairs five meters from the water, and I listen to their lies about their ill child or sick mamma. I tell them it’s not my fault the shadows move with the sun when they complain that their shade has gone. I say it’s not cool to throw their cigarettes away like they’re in a movie. When the waves come, 30 centimeters high, I surf for them, entertain them, give them free rides that they remember forever, take them on my board, even the Russian pigs.

Self-proclaimed “stone surfer,” “pastor of the beach,” and “lover of the mamma,” his psychographic has been tattooed in small and big-wave pro surfing for 35 years as a mix of self love and self loathing, heroic figure worship, and drug induced psychosis. His physiology has the look of a young George Clooney, severely taut of build like the compulsive cannabis “thrivers” that defined the subcultural face of Australian and American surfing through the 1970s (if not the minority block of the pro tour through the 1980s in the group colloquially tagged The Lions for its part in holy conflicts with polar opposites, The Christians).

The Lions featured two geographically focal groups— one from a suburb in southern Orange County at the core of developing the ramp style of surfing we see on tour today, and the other from a similar two-mile pocket in southern Sydney that culminated in its two most gifted members obliterating their careers through drug-induced psychoses with both in the Top 5. The Lions were often beatable if heavily “sedated,” one setting a world record three- wave total of 30/30—with zero recall upon returning to shore.

The example is mentioned because the reader meets Davide paddling out on a fish without fins with a lit joint between his teeth. His penchant for weed is compulsive through day and much of the night. He smokes as 90 percent of Italian surfing smokes albeit at the far end of the scale. As one of the nation’s greatest surfers, his great competitive moment before going into semi-retirement sat over the course of a day on the North Shore of Italy, Sardinia, when under the progressive influence of 13 reefers, all of them kept to himself, he out scored traditional nemesis Alessandro Ponzanelli in a blur of superlatives, the only thing left to memory being one soul-arching bottom turn that he felt was the complete Davide Pecchi. The next day saw the reverse: In attempting to surf “straight,” he lost all sense of balance.

I’d worked the small hours the previous night in a suburban Tuscan street ripping apart his favorite fish, a parting gift from the girlfriend who never came back. He’d provided the grinder at midnight, inviting me to cut the thick keels and strip half the glass. This I did—90 to 120 decibels for 15 minutes. In the early dawn, with perhaps 50 sleeping citizens tucked in around the town square, Davide pulled in for coffee en route to the test ground. Nowhere open. He went to a vending machine in a rock alcove with a big echo. Out of order. He murmured, then spoke, then shouted, kicked, stomped into the rattled object for 30 seconds. Traumatized, he walked off then walked back and stomped it again. The performance was no longer in the costume of “L.S.D.” but of “Little Alex” in A Clockwork Orange. In the latest cacophony, again the citizenry stayed quiet.

We drove into the morning in a late-model, all-optioned diesel Volvo. My friend from Torino, small-time Mafia, took car from a man who owed him. It is the Volvo that I am driving now. He sold it down to me for half price to get rid of it. Now I know that I owe him a favor because of it. But Mafia is Italy. And the Volvo that I drive is my dream car. It is the most secure against thieves or in a crash and I can fit in all my boards.

His plan is to make it dry through the foam, blow through a tight pack on the button of the left-hand boulder point, rob the first wave, then toke for 20 seconds down the line.

Well aware of the effect of an ebbing though marginal Mediterranean tide on fading swells, last drinks for the next week are at hand. The paddle out is ruined when an unwanted two-foot foam wets the joint. Another meltdown is possible. He gets outside and past the patient throng.

Gesticulations start with one longboarder in particular. Both have cupped, stabbing hands as voices suddenly rise. From 100 yards away on the rocks it looks like a classic fight brew, but nothing happens. It’s only the long-held Italian tradition of hand-driven expression, in this case the call and response of friends.

The wave comes, first of a final two-foot set. He takes it and manages to do what most first-timers of free-friction surfing cannot, certainly on the backhand, riding it through with the keys realized—low center of gravity, body weight shifting, hand lifting the outer rail. Over the course of the next 40 minutes, he works up speed and gives the impression of a surfer able to ride anything. The surf dies further. The surfers retire. They wait out the day in case of a freak last pulse. They smoke. At day’s end, perhaps more excitedly than normal, Davide lights up a fat one, devours it, then under grip of the munchies in the safest car in all of Italy, we return to his Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia and late-night supper with his mamma. He reflects on his attitude of going to the inside for the first ride on his deconstructed board. Crocodiles fight for the meat. It is like this here. In Italy there is a culture of trying to be better than the next person in the water and on the road. As we veer across the center of the road and back the other way, we nearly hit the guardrail doing 150 on the long trip home.

Research by Taylor Claire Miller

Pablo Miller on 4k a year. From TSJ 23.4.

In the brief history of modern surfing, one of our more unimpeachable archetypes is that of the hunkered expat. Those poverty-vowed hardest-of-core. Those focused ascetics. Rob Service’s “the breed that don’t fit in.”

Meet Pablo Miller, called the “most barreled man on earth” at one of the earth’s most barreling waves, Desert Point. You’ll find this interview a master class if you read between the lines. But the subject doesn’t seem to care if you read it at all. True to type, he’d prefer to keep his cards to his chest. Our author had his work cut out for him: “You don’t wanna interview me, man,” said the subject. “I’m pretty boring…” —Scott Hulet


I’m hiking to the top of a hill overlooking the longest tube in Indo. I’m hoping to find my Buddha, the Most Barreled Man On Earth. A monastic tube seeker who spent the past quarter century camped out on this barren coast for months at a time. Forgoing all worldly pleasures in order to surf every blessed swell that greets this miracle stretch of reef. Untold hours meditating deep within the spinning blue womb of this wave, perfectly balanced between Nirvana and destruction.

My Buddha’s name is Pablo. Actually, his real name is Paul Miller—the “Pablo” thing just stuck after so many years surfing down in Mexico. The only son of Southern Baptist missionaries who migrated to South America to spread the Lord’s word, Pablo grew up in Brazil before finding his way to Indonesia in the early 80s in search of perfect waves. Then he stumbled upon this place. Back when there was no one here.

I was told to look for Pablo in a little wood hut at the top of the hill during high tide, when the assembly-line barrels vanish beneath the blanket of the Indian Ocean. When I reach the lookout, I find Pablo and a fellow seeker, Darren, reclining against the posts of the hut, lazily watching the afternoon tide make its retreat. Pablo is wearing a pair of ancient O’Neill boardies that look like they were hand stitched by Jack O’Neill himself. Discolored reef scars crisscross his leathery back. His baldhead and grey beard are framed by a pair of broken sunglasses that still serve their purpose. He is the most peaceful being I have ever laid eyes upon.

Surely my Buddha has much to teach me now that I’ve reached the top of the mountain. My questions for him are boundless: What has he discovered on his path to enlightenment? What has he sacrificed for a lifetime of barrels? There’s just one problem: my Buddha doesn’t want to talk to me.

*

LEO MAXAM: I just have a few questions.

PABLO MILLER: You don’t wanna interview me, man. I’m pretty boring.

LM: What about the time you got stabbed out here?

PM: Nobody wants to read about that.

LM: What do I do if a bunch of Lombok pirates come out here tonight with machetes and rob us while we’re sleeping?

PM: In general, if you give them your money you’re good. That’s the difference between here and somewhere like Mexico.

LM: Yeah, Mexico is kinda gnarly.

PM: That’s the key to the whole getting robbed thing—just give ’em your stuff. Like when I got stabbed, I had a hut right down on the beach and I was sleeping. And I wake up and there’s a guy going out of my hut. So I get up out of bed and I look out, and it’s pretty bright from the moon, and I can see the one guy’s sitting there with some of my stuff. It was just one guy and I thought, Shit, I can handle one guy. So I take off after him—like a dumb ass. Never do that. You get robbed, you give ’em your shit. Whatever you have, whatever it is—laptop, camera, whatever—it ain’t worth getting killed over. But I was young—well, at least I was younger than I am now. So I run after the guy and reach out and grab the back of his shirt and something just slams my shoulder. And I look down and there’s all these flashlights in my face and I’m covered in blood. I look up and there’s ten guys there. And I’m like, “Oh shit!” So I run back and wake up my buddy Nick who was staying in the hut next to me, and he lays me down and we get a look at this big puncture wound in my shoulder from the guy’s knife. Then the dudes come back—ten guys all with knives—and they’re screaming, “Money! Money!” So Nick’s freaking out trying to dig up our money, because we used to bury all our money and passports in the sand. They’re going through all our shit. And I’m lying there bleeding.

LM: Shit.

PM: In the end, they were actually kinda cool. They started joking around and then they asked Nick, “How’s your buddy?” And then one guy came over and looked at my cut and he’s all, “I help you, I help you.” He got some kinda tobacco leaves or something and he started doing this chant thing on me. And he puts the leaves on my wound and then he spits on it like three times. He’s spitting on me, and I’m like, “Oh, thanks” [laughing]. In the end, they left all stoked and happy cause they got some shit and everything was all good.

“When I got stabbed, I had a hut right down on the beach. And I wake up and there’s a guy going out of my hut. It was just one guy and I thought, shit, I can handle one guy. So I take off after him—like a dumb ass. Never do that.”

LM: And you all took a group photo together.

PM: Yeah [laughing]. We got robbed a few times out here in the early days. One time a friend of ours got hacked up really bad by these guys with machetes who were trying to rob us. It was the middle of the night and he was bleeding really bad. We had to put him on this little bamboo table and swim him around the point at high tide during a big swell in the dark. He almost lost his arm. It was hanging by a thread. He could have died really easily. But he made it.

LM: I heard this year there’s been more robberies at Deserts.

PM: Yeah, kinda the same scenario, except this year they had guns. I wasn’t here because I don’t sleep on the beach anymore. I sleep back at my place over the hill.

LM: When did you first come out here?

PM: Umm, that was…shit…[thinking]. I came here on a boat with some friends in like ’87 or ’88. ’Cause back then overland was really hard. So we got together on some shitty little boat and came over here. And then once I figured out where it was, I came back like two years after that by land.

LM: It took you two years to come back to the best wave in the world when there was no one here?

PM: Well, when I came on the boat that first time it was kinda shitty. If it had been going off, yeah, that would have been it right there. But a good friend of mine used to surf it by boat, this guy Bill Hike from Northern Cal. He’s probably like the first guy who really surfed here. He used to have an old Indo fishing boat and go to G-Land and come over here. He had it dialed. He was really the pioneer here. There might have been guys before him that surfed it, but he was really the first guy who really was on it, who was consistently surfing here all the time.

LM: Does he ever surf here anymore?

PM: Man, he came a few years ago. He’s got a kid that surfs. But it’s kinda sad, you know. He gets here and it’s crowded and everybody’s dropping in on him and they don’t give a shit, you know.

LM: Back when you first found out about this place, was it like a tightly guarded secret? Like you meet some guy in a bar and he’s a little drunk and has loose lips and he draws you a map on a bar napkin.

PM: Back then there was actually some…you know, back then everybody wasn’t like, “Dude, look at my video, look where I’ve been!” Back then everybody was a bit more like, “Oh, I got a place, I’m not telling.” Someone would ask you, “How was it?” And you’d say, “Nah, it was shitty, it was no good.” That doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s like, [rabid voice] “Duuude, it was going off! Look at my video!” So back then it was all kinda hush hush and nobody was really advertising.

LM: How do you find out about a wave like this back then?

PM: You’d tell your friends and shit, but it’s not like it is today where you’re telling the whole world. You know, you’d hear whispers here and there. I think I actually first heard about this place from a guy I used to travel with down in Mex. So I came and checked it out. And back then it was a good call because there was no one here. I said, “Man, I’m gonna hang here and milk it ’til it’s done.” And it’s about done [laughing].

LM: That’s what I always think about, if only I could have been around during that era in surfing. Like, I was born in 1984, three years after you first came to Indonesia [Pablo laughs]. Why couldn’t I have been born 20 years earlier!

PM: Yeah, that was a good era. But then again, it wasn’t easy, man. I’ll tell you what, if everybody had to do what we did back then to get here, there wouldn’t be two thirds of the people surfing out here now. I’m telling you, 95 percent of the people wouldn’t do that these days. It took hours to hike out here. It took forever just to get from the ferry down to where you hiked out. The road was just a mess of potholes. And then you had to carry your boards, your backpack, your tent, your food, your water. I mean it was hard work. There were times where I would have to bury all my shit in the sand!

“It took hours to hike out here. It took forever just to get from the ferry down to where you hiked out. The road was just a mess of potholes. And then you had to carry your boards, your backpack, your tent, your food, your water. I mean it was hard work.”

LM: Bury your shit?

PM: Yeah, because I wanted to leave but I wasn’t gonna carry all my shit out. Like if I needed to leave for a visa run and there was no one here to leave my shit with. We’d look after each other’s stuff. There were these two Kiwi guys, Nick and Chris, they were some of the original guys who were around here forever. But sometimes there was no one around to watch your stuff. There weren’t any Indos living here at the time, and fishermen would come in and out occasionally, so I actually buried my boards and my food in a big ole hole in the sand so I wouldn’t have to lug it all out.

LM: That’s hardcore.

PM: And back then there was no Internet, so you would come out here and it could be flat for weeks. I’ve sat here plenty of weeks with nothing! People now, they go one day here with no waves and say, “Oh fuck it’s flat, ahhh! Back to Bali!” It’s like, dude, are you serious?

LM: Do you ever surf any other waves in Indo?

PM: Not really. I cruised around. I went up to One Palm and camped out there on the beach for a while, like in ’93 or something. But it’s so isolated there and a pretty dangerous wave to be camping on. If you get hurt out there you could really get in trouble. I was never one to really run around and chase swells. I’d rather just hang here and wait for a window here and there.

LM: What would you guys eat out here back then?

PM: You’d bring out your basics, like rice and noodles. You didn’t have a real good diet, but you don’t need too much to survive. I spearfish, so every day I could always eat fish, pretty much. But it was funny because there would be other guys showing up sometimes—it wasn’t like nobody else was showing up—and be like, “Yeah, we’re gonna stay here for two weeks.” And we’d be looking at ’em like, yeah right. After two days of it being flat they’d be like, “Dude, we’re out of here, you want this stuff?” So you basically had guys bringing in food for you [laughing]. We used to get all kinds of stuff from those guys.

LM: How did you get your water?

PM: We had a well out the back here. So that was a daily ritual, you’d go to the well and boil your water for the day. The water was ok, it was drinkable. But you definitely had to boil it. Every night you would boil your big thing of water so you had water for the next day. There was all kinds of shit to do. It wasn’t like you were sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

LM: Have you ever been up to the Mentawai?

PM: Never been up there. I have some friends who have boats and shit up there, but I’ve never been. Maybe one day [laughs]. This friend of mine was trying to get me on a boat trip. He said, “I’ll pay the 800-dollar deposit and all you have to do is come up with two grand.” [Laughing]. Like I got two grand to spend for ten days on a boat. I don’t think so [more laughter]. So I didn’t go. Maybe one day I’ll go up there, but…nah, when I’m done I’ll just pack it and leave.

LM: How do you know when you’re done?

PM: It’ll be the crowds. It won’t be because I want to go or I’m over it or anything. It’s more because of the whole atmosphere of being in the water. Guys talking shit and getting dropped in on and shit like that. I don’t need to deal with that. I don’t need to be stressing about getting waves.

LM: Other than the crowds, what has been the biggest change you’ve noticed here?

PM: Oh, this place was beautiful out here, man. All over these hills it was trees. Years ago I’d never been up here. You literally couldn’t walk up this hill, the forest was that thick. That road that you drive in on now was just a little footpath that was actually made by the Japanese. The Japanese had a post out by the lighthouse there where they had cannons pointing out to the straits [dating back to the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II]. The cannons are still there, way out past that far lighthouse.

“I basically hang here. I don’t go to Bali much. I did for a while. I had a few girlfriends in Bali, where I’m running back and forth, but that kinda never works out. And before you know it they want you getting a job and staying over there more, and that’s not gonna happen.”

LM: So why does this place look like a dust bowl now?

PM: When the local people came in that first year—I never understood how they allowed the people to come in [Deserts is located in what is ostensibly a national park]—it looked like complete Armageddon. They chopped down everything, every living tree that was here. All these coconut and banana trees are new. Everything you see growing here now wasn’t there before. There used to be big beautiful trees and they just hacked it and sold the wood and burned it. It looked like a battlefield. It was sad. Now they farm peanuts, tobacco, beans, and stuff.

LM: Are you married?

PM: Nope, just me.

LM: Ever been married?

PM: No [laughing]. Ain’t nobody gonna put up with me. I got my family. Somehow they all ended up in Austin, Texas, so I’ll go down there and visit them for a few months every year and then head down to Mex. It’s pretty trippy going to Texas after being here for six months. I would rather not, but you gotta do your family obligations. I’d rather be by the beach, but it’s alright. I used to do more time in Mexico because I used to fix dings down there to make money. So I used to go straight from here down to Mex and go fix dings there. But I taught a couple of the local kids how to fix dings, so now I don’t have a job there anymore [laughing]. Same like here. But that’s okay, I can work other ways, no problem.

LM: How else do you make money?

PM: I have a thing with my sister. We make jewelry and stuff. I take some stuff back from here and sell it there [Texas].

LM: Are you on Facebook?

PM: Mmm, sorry [chuckling].

LM: Social media has become really popular in the surfing world.

PM: Yeah, like I said, I’d rather just catch my waves and not worry about that stuff. It’s just a different mindset, I guess. I’m not getting a wave and posting anywhere and showing everybody. I’m from a different school. Back in the day my friends used to joke that they’d always ask me how the surf’s been over here, and I’d tell them, “Oh, it’s been shitty.” And they’d say, “Dude, the surf is always shitty, huh!” So I’m more that school where I’m not too much on advertising. It’s the complete opposite now. And it’s kinda strange to me because the guys are complaining that it’s crowded. You can’t have it both ways, posting all your shit and showing everybody and then you wonder why there’s 100 guys in the lineup (laughing).

LM: Have you ever worked a nine-to-five job?

PM: Man, I did teach school for a while in Brazil. It didn’t last too long, probably a year and a half. I pretty much haven’t been back to Brazil since I’ve been coming here. Basically, my work the first ten to 12 years I was here was fixing boards. And I made a good living off it. There was guys coming in and if you broke your board, you had no option, I was the only repair guy around. No Indonesians anywhere. I never got rich, but it was plenty. I always left Indonesia with more money than I got here with.

LM: I wish I could say that. Bali is expensive now.

PM: I mean, what can you spend out here, you know? There’s no rent. You’re buying some veggies and rice. And then I went to Mexico and fixed boards down there too. So in that way I was avoiding a real job. Fixing dings is kind of a pain in the ass, but it paid the bills for a lot of years and it was a good thing. But there comes a time when the Indo kids are out here, and I’m not gonna sit here competing with the Indo kids.

LM: How much money do you need a year to get by?

PM: I’m pretty well known for getting by on not much [laughing]. I can do a year on probably like…(thinking) four grand, five grand tops.

LM: Shut up.

PM: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t really party. And I basically hang here. So where are you gonna waste money here? I don’t go to Bali much. I did for a while. I had a few girlfriends in Bali, where I’m running back and forth, but that kinda never works out. And before you know it they want you getting a job and staying over there more, and that’s not gonna happen.

LM: Was there ever a girl where you thought, Oh man, I might end up marrying this one?

PM: A little bit. Yeah, I had a Mexican girlfriend and she was pretty special. But that meant that I was basically gonna stay in Mexico and I wasn’t gonna do that.

“They’ll probably build a huge resort here someday. Probably with an infinity pool. I can see it happening. Hopefully they let me stick around and be the janitor or something, groundskeeper. Hopefully someone will put in a good word for me.”

LM: What does your family think of your lifestyle?

PM: You wonder, because they’re pretty conservative. They’re Southern Baptist missionaries, but they’re really good people. My mom for a while, you know, she wanted grandkids, she wanted me to get married. And then all my friends, they all got married and had kids, and then before you know it they’re all getting divorced. So in the end she was like, maybe you did know what you were doing. They never really gave me too much grief. They’ve been pretty supportive of my choices. We’re a pretty close family. I just got two sisters. They don’t surf. I think in the end they’re pretty good with it. And I always come home with some pretty good stories so it keeps things entertaining.

LM: Do you have any regrets?

PM: Me? Nah, I had a great time [laughing]. I’d do it all over for a joke. It was a good call. The shame about surfing now is that what we had here, what I experienced, it doesn’t exist anymore. It might kind of exist somewhere, there are still some undiscovered spots or whatever. But for a wave of this quality, to be able to surf it with just your friends for months on end, for years on end…it doesn’t exist. I’m not sure exactly how productive I’ve been, contributing to the world or whatever [laughing], but I had lots of fun.

LM: When you get a really good barrel now, is it still just as fun?

PM: Obviously, you get jaded. You get used to such a high level of a wave. When I go to Mexico I gotta remember that. And here too. Sometimes you get kinda bummed because you see a guy just get kind of a shitty little one and the guy is stoked and he’s yelling and he’s screaming. Sometimes you’re like, What a kook. But then you think, Man, I wish I could be like that. If I could get stoked on a wave like that it would be great. But, obviously, after getting so many waves here you do get jaded.

LM: Is there one barrel that stands out in your memory?

PM: Man, there actually is one, yeah. There’s a whole bunch of ‘em that are pretty good, but there’s one that stands out that I don’t think I’ll get a much better one than that [laughing]. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

LM: What do you think this place will look like in another 20 years?

PM: That’s anybody’s guess. Lombok right now is pretty much just blowing up. Bali is so crowded and so overdeveloped and Lombok is just starting. They just opened the new airport last year in Kuta Lombok. And there’s a beach right down here called Makaki where they’ve already kicked everybody out for a development. Because a lot of the land around here is government land.

LM: This is actually a national park, right?

PM: It’s supposed to be. These people came in probably like ten or 11 years ago. And there’s been rumors over the years that the government was going to kick the people out and they were going to build a big development here. It’s sad to say for these people. They’re farmers, they’re poor people. They don’t have anything. They came out here farming the land and then they realized they could make money by renting little rooms and making food for the surfers.

LM: Think there will be a Blue Point Hotel here some day? Or another Dreamland?

PM: Who knows what’s going to happen, but if I had to guess I’d say the local people here aren’t going to win over the big money. Some big hotel or something will come in and kick them out. They’ll get compensated, I would imagine. But they’re fighting. They’re trying to get their titles to the land. They’re convinced they’re gonna get titles, and hey, maybe they will. But there’s a lot of big projects going up around here. This one around the corner is supposed to have a golf course, and there’s another one up at Sekotong that’s supposed to be huge. So the government’s got big plans for Lombok. Who knows what will happen and when it will happen. I mean, this [the warung/losmen village] could go on for another five years.

LM: I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried to build a luxury surf camp here already.

PM: They’ll probably build a huge resort here. Probably with an infinity pool. I can see it happening. Hopefully they let me stick around and be the janitor or something [laughing], groundskeeper. Hopefully someone will put in a good word for me.

Dave Parmenter and Andrew Kidman discuss the art, science, craft, and romance of the traditional handmade surfboard. From TSJ 19.6.

In just the kind of exercise TSJ has engaged in since the early 90s, this remarkably exploratory and uniquely down-home conversation reveals and edifies. A young shaper might be especially well served by a careful reading. Likewise, keen design hounds—from the latent to the applied—will find clues on how one might best pursue the “magic” surfboard. Enjoy. —Scott Hulet 


 Andrew: What’s the relevance of shaping surfboards today?

Dave: I give this a lot of thought. What is building surfboards nowadays in the 21st century? First and foremost it’s a craft. Craftsmanship is what it’s all about. It’s not art and it’s not a science—it’s a craft. It’s like art, but it’s functional. Although I think a lot of the craftsmanship has gone out of it, because once commercialization comes along, it’s politicized. There’s people advertising, people competing for the market, and pretty soon you have all these people that aren’t involved in it—people that don’t have calluses on their hands—telling you what a surfboard is, how to build them, and what they’re about. People in the media that have never fixed a fucking ding telling you that they’re a talisman of this, and it means this…That’s why people like Mick Mackie and Wayne Lynch are people I love to talk about surfboards with—we’re still doing it on that level and we’re still craftsmen. Craftsmanship is the ethos. It’s being proud of something you built with your hands. It’s therapeutic to do. It’s something you look forward to. You’re incredibly enthusiastic about getting out there and cutting something out with a saw and going through the whole process. I built my first board in 1975, like a lot of guys, from a stripped-down long board. I didn’t get into it commercially until 1988, but I’ve never not enthusiastically gone into the shaping room and pursued it. The business side of it drains you. You get tired of dealing with glassers and knucklehead customers and the whole political bullshit of people trying to divide it and say, “This type of surfboard is the thing, this type of surfboard is not. This is progressive, this is retro….” It’s a functional thing—they’re all beautiful and they all work—but I think I would like to marshal it all back into the shaping room, where craftsman go back to being like the Kahuna. Where we are the people that decide what a surfboard is, how you build them, and what is the best way. I’m tired of commercial interests telling me what a surfboard is and that you can build them by computers. I think that one of the biggest things that has happened is computer shaping. And by that I don’t mean the machine, that’s a whole other thing. I mean this whole new thing of this dustless environment that everybody’s talking about. That you can design a surfboard with a keyboard, change rocker, change outlines, and feed it into a computer and have a robotic router shape it out. That’s not shaping—it’s refining. It means that, no matter how brilliant of a board you turn out or how great of a shaper you are, if you’re doing a board like that, all you’re doing is building on someone else’s work, because at some point there has to be a feedstock of design data to go in there to start with. You don’t just design a board from the keel up, like a boat, on a computer screen. You have to start with a board that goes back in time, to a board that Tom Curren rode or Nat Young rode or Phil Edwards rode.

A lot of the ancient Hawaiian curves came from organic sources, from being around fish, seedpods, and coconut fronds—things that would curl up into these certain rockers—and thereby they designed their canoes.

At some point, you have to start with those basic mother curves and plot it out and deviate from that. That’s all that computer shaping is: deviations from things that people started by hand. One of the things that I do, being a surfboard builder, is I use a lot of templates. These templates all work through a tremendous range: from 5’2″ fishes, all the way up to 16- to 18-foot racing boards, and everything in between. I have a huge collection of curves. I take them from any source I can get including non-surfboard sources, and this includes rockers too. One of the things that you start to see when you begin piecing together hybrid designs is that curves all the way through the design continuum—going all the way back to the George Downing era, and then all the way back to the ancient Hawaiian boards that are in the Bishop Museum—these certain mother curves come together and fit. Like, I can overlap a 1975 fish curve with the nose curve of a Dick Brewer-Buzzy Trent-Pipeline gun, and the curve of a modern tow board, and they all fit within 1/8 of an inch tolerance at certain times. It’s extraordinary. Only the people that work with surfboards on this level will understand this. You can really see the continuum, this certain DNA strand that goes all the way back to pre-contact Hawaii. It could be 1,500 years or more of certain curves. A lot of the ancient Hawaiian curves came from organic sources, from being around fish and seeing organic forms that they had: seed pods and coconut fronds—things that would curl up into these certain rockers—and thereby they designed their canoes, which were all displacement hulls— round, convex things. Their surfboards were like that as well. The amas on the canoes, the outriggers, the same kind of design, all convexity, parabolic rocker. You can see that design go all the way up into the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, until probably the biggest thing that ever happened to surfboards is they were turned upside down. They all used to be round bottoms and flat decks, and then with the Hynson/Brewer downrail, they were flipped upside down with basically flat bottoms and rounder decks. That was the big continental divide in surfboard design right there. The templates still remained pretty similar. You can see boards in the Bishop Museum that, without too many alterations and using the same basic template, would put a guy on a good Pipeline gun today, because templates are made to be moved around, altered, pulled this way, pulled that way. They are just like French curves—they are not designated to one design.

Andrew: I have a handful of old templates from you and Skip Frye, and they all kind of fit. When I first began shaping, I didn’t realize you could just move your curves around to service a certain area.

Dave: Rusty Preisendorfer taught me to use full templates. I think that was a huge influence on me because templating, to me, is my favorite part of shaping the board. I’ll take a long time to do a prototype board, messing around with it, taking it out in

the yard and looking at it from every direction, and if it’s a really, really critical board I’ll wait until the next day to look at it with a fresh eye before I commit to cutting it out. After you’ve been collecting these templates for 20 years and you look at them stacked on the shelf, as I stack them like books, the tolerances and variances on them, even on the widely diverse designs, isn’t that great. In some places it’s less than an inch, and when you get into critical areas like the nose, it’s pretty similar. Surfboard curves are not as divergent as people would think.

 

Andrew: When I started moving the templates around, I could start exploring different widths with the same curve. For me, life just exploded right there. And I’ve been told that you can do all this on a computer, but I don’t think it’s true. Because you’re not doing it with your hand, and you’re not doing it with your eye.

Dave: When I talk about computers, I’m talking about designing a board on a screen, with a keypad, with a program. That is akin to homogenizing something. It’s a great sterilizer. It doesn’t really let you get in there and shift those templates around. I mean, you can do all this stuff, but you really don’t need any knowledge. All you need is that whole feedstock of design data and the whole continuum that other real shapers have fed in over the last 50 years, or even longer if we’re going back to the ancient times. So, in a way, you’re basically being a remora, some sort of a parasite. I don’t care who you are, you might be some guy that won shaper of the year for Surfing magazine last year, but at that point you have stopped being a craftsman. You have to get in there and work with these things on a three-dimensional level and build them with your hands. If you’re doing production work, or you’re working with pro surfers with 16th-of-an-inch tolerances, fine, go and work on refining them on the computer, because it is a valuable tool for that kind of thing. But it’s the great sterilizer. The boards that come out of them are beautiful-looking boards, but they’re incredibly sterile. It also leads people to a certain laziness where, if they have to build a board that is out of their design field—if they’re making 6’1″ thrusters and someone comes in and says to them they want an 8′ gun—the temptation is too great for them to want to blow it up. Then you’re just creating this Frankenstein of weird curves and straights and things that just don’t work. A true craftsman would be able to go into his shaping bay and go through all his templates and probably pull three separate full templates together, from maybe 30 years apart, to make a brand new high-performance gun or shortboard. I quite often do very progressive modern surfboards using templates from three different eras of surfboard designs. It’s just the curves. You’ve got to know the curves, and a computer will never replace that. In fact, in a way, it will end up stultifying that. The further you get enmeshed in that, the further you get away from the craftsmanship.

 

Andrew: Do you find there’s a certain thrill or romance in pulling those templates out and messing around?

Dave: Romance isn’t functional, but it’s what I get off on. But, as far as craftsmanship goes, I like to try to keep the sentiment out of it. But for me, there’s all the sentiment and romance in the world in shaping—it’s there. I feel if I take a Brewer Pipeliner from 1965 and use a section of that, and then, say, something from a board that Diffenderfer made on Kauai way back when, and then there’s a production Lightning Bolt Parrish, and I put them altogether and I blend it with a tail I might have gotten from Rusty Preisendorfer back in the 80s, and it all fits and, you know, it fits immediately the first time you look at it. It’s an unbelievable feeling to piece all those things together. I feel that I’m part of that continuum. It’s almost like being a horticulturist, where you can start splicing together genes to make the most unbelievable rose or the best apple, and that kind of grafting of superior features comes from people that have a green thumb. They get out there and put their hands in the soil and work. You don’t do it in your lab. I think that shaping a board on a keyboard is a cop-out. It totally sterilizes the seedbed of any future design. No great leaps will ever come out of it. Great leaps come from the backyard, from mistakes, from passion, from wanting to get out in the water the next day. It will never come from a sterile, dust-free environment—never. It will always be the backyarder. I think we’re heading back into another backyard revival, and I think we’ll see some exciting things come out of it, probably from people that have very little shaping ability. I think some of the neatest boards I have ever seen have been from crude environs. I remember sitting at the OP Pro, in the bleachers when I used to compete, and watching this endless line of people, all the inland surfers coming down, walking back and forth along the sand in front of the OP Pro.

That’s what I was after, this ultimate single-fin…this one board I could take anywhere in the world and ride and be able to express myself.

Thousands of surfboards a day, every conceivable shape, stuff pulled out from garages in Downey or Buena Park or wherever, and I used to love looking at all these boards. The bad ones were more interesting because in certain lights or shadows they could take on certain characteristics. I was always trying to invent boards in my mind. Riding a thruster as a pro surfer was so boring. The first thing I did when I got off tour, or had a break, was go and get a single-fin to try and cleanse the palate. I’ve always been a single-fin surfer and thrusters bore the hell out of me. They are great boards technically, but you have to ride them in a real set pattern to make them work. You can’t be a jazz [player] and go off on these riffs, these Michael Peterson-style riffs. So, I used to look at all these really bad boards and think, “If I grafted this with this, I could have this unbelievable single-fin.” That’s what I was after, this ultimate single-fin. I could take this 6’9″ or 6’10” board anywhere in the world and ride and be able to express myself and be very spontaneous on it.

 

Andrew: What do you mean by shaping skill?

Dave: There are a lot of really great craftsman out there using tools with a set routine. But there’s another kind of skill, which is design, knowing templates and knowing the entire continuum of surfboard design, from paipo boards to tandem boards. That’s another thing. I think that anyone that has gone out into the backyard shed and put ten boards under their belt is just as capable of coming up with the most exciting board they’ve ever ridden as anybody that has shaped 20,000 of them. Probably more so, because now the production shapers are finishing most of their boards with machines, and the boards have become sterilized. I think a lot of really good boards need some wacky component to work against: some straight spot or some weird little kink or bump that kind of lets you work against it. Some of the best boards I’ve ever ridden were boards with aberrations or twists, and the most boring boards I’ve ever surfed have been the most technically perfect.

 

Andrew: That’s interesting, because I know Greenough never made a lot of boards, and I know Simmons didn’t make a lot of boards either, but their contributions to the evolution of design have been remarkable.

Dave: Well, you’re talking about times when things were moving fast and the design field was pretty much wide open. Today it’s harder to do, because ever since Simon came out with his thruster over 25 years ago, it’s all just been a period of refinement. There’s nothing new yet. Really, the only new kinds of surfing are tow-surfing or stand-up surfing, and even those surfboards are hybrids of other surf craft. There’s nothing new yet. The Simmons’ and the Greenoughs’ get to a point where you get your ten boards under your belt and you can control your tools, and you can put out a board within a 20- or 30-percent variance of what’s in your mind’s eye, that’s the important thing. Some people can do it after ten boards. Some it takes 100. Some never get it. I’ve worked with a lot of people that are in that first dozen or so boards, and with the right discipline and blanks being as good as they are today, they can hit it. It’s tremendously exciting. I try to tell people, as much soul as we try to impart, it’s still plastic, not in a negative way, but in the fact that the very word plastic used to mean malleable, shapeable. The thing can be glassed and ten years later you can go back in and grind it down, reshape it, rebuild it, re-glass it, change the fins. That’s the good part of plastic.

 

Andrew: I’ve seen a lot of older guys that aren’t really interested in anything else other than feeling how their boards go, grinding their fins down, knocking them out.

Dave: You can’t be afraid or impose these boundaries or limitations on what you think the surfboard is or what you can do to it. You can take a grinder to it and do almost anything to it, even after it’s been built. For me, it’s easier to start from scratch and build a new board, but for a lot of people it’s easier to go and Frankenstein something from an existing board, and that’s how you learn a lot. That’s what I like a lot about the removable fin systems that you see today. I wish I had them when I was younger because I spent so much time trying to learn about fins and fin configurations. But with the removable fin systems today, you can learn so much about one board even in one surf. Where before, with fixed fins, it used to take years.

 

Andrew: How did the Widow Maker come about?

Dave: I remember seeing Crystal Voyager and really following the whole mantra that Greenough was after. He was after this neutral feeling in the boards, whereas thrusters are built in overdrive. They are like a Maserati, built to go straight to a super high speed. I like a single-fin because whatever you put into it, it gives back. If you want to go fast, you can go fast. If you want to slow it down, you can slow it down immediately. When I would go to Jeffrey’s Bay—being a down-the-line surfer—that was my ultimate wave. And I would try to ride a thruster and it was so frustrating because, in my mind, I had these lines of Terry Fitzgerald, Jonathan Paarman, and Reno. That’s how I wanted to surf, and I would try to do that on my thruster. I could not control the thing. It didn’t respond to the upper part of the wave when you were going Mach 2. So the next year I came back with a real forward center, single-fin outline—wide point up, bladed out. I had a single-fin with little side fins that I’d seen on Reno Abellira, Brewer, and Owl Chapman’s boards back in the early 70s. I reasoned that you’d have a single-fin feeling off the bottom, a neutrality and power—that single-fin power.

There’s a heap of components out there that you can put together in an infinite amount of combinations and just enjoy messing with that for the rest of your life, and that’s kind of what surfboards are all about for me.

And, since the genie was out of the bottle on thrusters and we already knew what it felt like with that kind of turning axis, I figured that, off the top of the wave, having those little winglets or finlets would give you that little bit of Thruster bite, but it wouldn’t override the single-fin. Sure enough, I went to Jeffrey’s Bay and it was one of the greatest surfing experiences I’d ever had in my life: to be able to surf that wave the way I wanted to surf it, to be doing full Fitzy speed runs and, at the same time, the minute I came into Supertubes and it got hollow, I could do the classic Cheyne Horan pit stall and just stop dead and not get sucked up the face like on a thruster. It was just like playing jazz riffs. That was in 1988, so all my guns have always had that fin configuration. I’ve never gone back to riding a thruster in big waves. There’s too much drag.

 

Andrew: How did you come up with putting the single-fin up into the cluster of the side fins? I’ve seen some of these 70s versions and it seemed like the side fins were way forward of the back fin, with the back fin more toward the tail.

Dave: It was strictly neutrality. I had the rear base of the side fins even with the leading edge of the center fin, and I figured that was the perfect arrangement for the thing to always behave like a single-fin when I wanted it to. But then, in the upper part of the wave when there’s a lot of speed, there’d be just that little bit of that thruster claw-like turning axis. I really never had to change it much. I think it works well. It’s just been perfect.

 

Andrew: So that design came out of your knowledge of surfboards?

Dave: It came out of a frustration with surfing what I consider the world’s greatest down-the-line wave, for somebody that considers themselves a speed surfer, finally getting to a wave like that and wanting to surf like Terry Fitzgerald and not being able to do it on modern equipment. It’s certainly nothing new. Back in the 70s we had these little fins called control fins. They were like these plastic Lexan fins they sold with two-sided adhesive tape on the base and you’d just plunk them on your single-fin. This is back in 1974. So we had tri-fins back then. I remember seeing Owl Chapman riding one of those with two little half-moon keel fins in Morning of The Earth, but they were behind the center fin. For me, it just seemed like the perfect thing. I still have that original Widow Maker. It’s incredibly crude, but it worked better than any of the surfboards I was riding from mainstream shapers or boards I was riding on the tour. It was the first board in a long time that let me surf how I wanted to surf. That might have been in the first 15 or 20 boards I’d ever shaped.

 

Andrew: Shaping it yourself got you closer to what you were trying to feel than what you could have gotten from a master shaper.

Dave: Rusty Preisendorfer made me the best high-performance thrusters. I still think about the surfing we did on those things. They’re just fantastic boards. But when it came to wanting to go on my own path and this fixation on single-fins (it’s almost like Michael Mackie and his real desire to follow the path on these split-tail boards he’s making), it was an absolute obsession with me. A lot of it was a reaction to the stale surfing on the tour and the whole four-to-the-beach thing, but I just loved single-fins. I’ve always been a single-fin surfer. I went through the twin-fin era. I went through the thruster era. I loved thrusters. I loved getting on them and rocking and rolling, but I just loved single-fin surfboards. I think they’re the best all-around boards. They do need a bit of power. I come from an area on the central coast of California where the waves are terrible, just closeouts. So, to finally get to places like Margaret River, Sunset Beach, Jeffrey’s Bay, Cape Town, and all of a sudden realizing I’m not surfing the way I want to surf, I was able to go into the shaping room and make boards to surf the way I wanted to surf.

 

Andrew: Purely from an observational point of view, the equipment really determines the way a surfer is going to surf. I look at the tour and the majority of the surfers look to be riding very similar equipment and there’s very little difference in the surfing that I can see.

Dave: Well, today, athletically and performance-wise, it’s unbelievable. We didn’t even have guys in the cartoons in the surf movies in the 70s and 80s that could surf the way these guys do. But you know what? It just bores the hell out of me. The surfboards, the surfers—it just bores me. The boards are so gutless and so underpowered. To get power and speed out of them they have to follow body kinetics where they all have to be the same. To get the utmost out of the boards, they all have to use their bodies to behave in a certain way, and it’s boring.

The word “waterman” is used so frequently now that it’s lost its meaning. But I like the idea of frontiersmen, the outdoorsmen that could handle themselves in any conditions, any element—practice self-rescue.

It’s insane to watch it, but after watching about five minutes of all the highlights from the last year, I look at it and think, “That’s incredible, but you know what? Put on MP in Morning of the Earth, put on Fitzy….” It’s not because I’m from that generation, a lot of that surfing was done before I was ever formed as a surfer. I just consider it better. Just like I would rather listen to classical music than hip-hop. I wasn’t alive when Mozart was making the music, so it’s not like I can claim that it came from my time. I just think it’s better. And I think that single-fin surfing, to me, is the classical music or jazz. It’s something that’s timeless. To me, it’s better. I’ve done all my best surfing on single-fins.

 

Andrew: Is that just the feeling of it? Because really, it doesn’t matter what it looks like if it feels good.

Dave: If you’re lucky enough to grow up in Hawaii as a menehune on the beach, if you start surfing before you become self-conscious or self-aware and it’s still play, you get that. Where you’re surfing for a feeling, for it to be fun, to be radical. Then you go through that phase where it’s a write-off. You just surf for a look—you surf to be fashionable, surf to be considered hot. Then, maybe after that, when you’re in your thirties, you can walk away from it and say, “I don’t give a shit. I surf the way I want to surf. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I don’t care what the hot kids think if I’m an old cruiser. I surf how I want to surf and for what I want to feel.” We also have certain values. People that have surfed at our level have certain values. It goes back to people that we admire, like the Fitzgerald’s and the Ian Cairns’s and the Shaun Tomson’s and the M.R.’s—I still think M.R. is the greatest surfer that’s ever lived. I watch that surfing, and those are my values: good off-the-bottom, off-the-top surfing. It’s a bottom turn at Sunset, not three wiggles and then an off-the-top. Maybe you’re prejudiced when you get older, but you have to hold true to that. But within those values, you still want to go off and rip, like a jazz maestro, if you’re confronted with a perfect point wave and you’ve built your own equipment and there’s been no mediator, no middle-man. You’re transferring your vision through your hands, to the board, to that wave, say Jeffrey’s Bay or Bells. That’s pure surfing. That’s not a cliché, or pseudo-nouveaux, retro, hippie, or whatever—that’s the real thing. That’s when you can go out, and if you want to attack you attack, if you want to trim you trim—it’s whatever you want to do. Reacting to the wave, riding the wave not the board, not doing what you think Surfing magazine or Surfer magazine want you to surf like. Once you get beyond where you care what people think, you can build components into the boards that work rather than being fashionable. There’s too much fashion in boards now. Tom Morey once said, “Your boards are rubbish. You’re all just trashmen riding garbage.” Those boards bore the hell out of me. They are fun to shape. I love shaping modern boards, but they are boring. There’s a heap of components out there that you can put together in an infinite amount of combinations and just enjoy messing with that for the rest of your life, and that’s kind of what surfboards are all about for me.

 

Andrew: For me that’s what you get from the whole shaping experience.

Dave: Well, that’s what I’m trying to explain. You don’t have to shape a thousand boards to get that. Whatever it takes to get a little bit of control, that shaping experience—even if it’s in a garden shed with just a Surform—it blurs into that surfing experience. There’s no difference. It’s like that great sequence with David Treloar in Morning of the Earth: The whole time you’re in the shaping room you’re anticipating jumping off the rocks at Angourie and surfing it. Then, when you’re actually in the water, you’re thinking about being in the shaping room again. It’s such an unbelievably, positive feedback loop. For guys like us, we go into places where there’s really good collections of boards and it starts everything effervescing and popping. You just want to get back in the shaping room. A lot of the time, for me, it’s a toss-up. I’d rather go in the shaping bay than surf. There are no crowds. There’s no surf rage.

 

Andrew: It was fun the other night. I was in the shaping bay with Mackie and we were messing around with this design, and mentally we were already surfing.

Dave: Well, yes. Getting back to what we were talking about before, it’s a lonely thing as well. That’s why I like coming down and hanging out with you or Wayne or Mackie. It’s hard to share that passion about shaping nowadays. Not to be an elitist or anything, but when you do try to share it you get guys edging away, maybe a little bit contrite, like: “I haven’t picked up a Skil 100 in years. I just do everything on a machine.” Or they say, “I could probably do that if I used my 1002 program and maybe blow it up a little bit….” But that’s not shaping. You can’t share passion for surfboards and creating with people where it’s just become a business thing, and surfboards have become a unit to produce.

 

Andrew: What do you think about what Wayne Lynch has been doing with his quiver, going back and revisiting some of his older designs from the 70s and then modernizing them?

People that get into shaping now, they just want to be rock stars, and amass some sort of a cult following—and they do it via computers and logos.

Dave: The guys that I looked up to when I was in the garden shed in Cayucos, California, going at it with a Surform and a Hamilton Beach turkey carver were Wayne Lynch, Simon Anderson, and Terry Fitzgerald. Terry’s idea of being the total surfer, a world citizen that traveled everywhere, may or may not have been a professional surfer, but he shaped his own equipment, learned to read weather maps, was the guy on the spot. That, to me, was the ideal thing. The word “waterman” is used so frequently now that it’s lost its meaning. But I like the idea of frontiersmen, the outdoorsmen that could handle themselves in any conditions, any element, and practice self-rescue. I think that was the model for what surfing was for me. And one of the key things for me was to have control over your equipment. Wayne Lynch, the ultimate surfing outdoorsman—he’s the only surfer-shaper-designer that I’ve talked to that understands certain key things about the energy boards have, when they have a certain foil and a complementary deck line. Nobody else that I’ve talked to, not that they don’t know, but I’ve never had anybody understand that, and it’s something that I’ve only understood intuitively as a surfer-shaper. I just think he makes the most beautiful boards. The single-fins that he’s making right now are probably the most beautiful boards I’ve seen since the Lightning Bolt era. I’m a huge fan of the Parrish Lightning Bolts and Reno Abellira’s boards. I still get chicken skin when I see those things. Wayne is just one of those guys—and this is the ultimate compliment—when some disinterested party will see a board that you’ve built and they’ll say, “I can just tell a really good surfer made that board.” You see it with Simon Anderson’s boards, but Wayne’s especially. There’s something in the DNA of a board that you can tell that the board came from the very best surfer-shapers. You look at other boards that are on the market, from guys that are just really good shapers that are maybe working with pros, and it just doesn’t have that. I don’t know what the quality is, but it just doesn’t exist. I look at Wayne’s boards, and I see all those decades of surfing incredible barrels down in Victoria. All the years in the shaping room and all those lines that he has in his head that he wants to draw on the wave. It’s hard to put it into words. There are so few surfer/shapers left—it’s a dying breed. We’re almost like blacksmiths. People that get into shaping now, they just want to be rock stars and amass some sort of a cult following—and they do it via computers and logos. Precious few people want to do it because they love to just build surfboards with their hands. Wayne, Simon Anderson, guys like Mick Mackie, it gives you heart to see it. I’ve ridden some of Mick Mackie’s boards and they’re just beautiful. There’s an element in there, something you can work off of to make the board go. Oftentimes, I will switch some of the boards that I ride with other surfers that are riding conventional, modern, progressive shortboards, and I’ll get a wave on it, and it just bores me. I’ll end up just sitting on it, waiting for my board to come back. It’s not because I can’t ride them—I can still ride those boards they just bore me. There’s too much curve. They’re all drag components, the hips are in the wrong place, everything is to make the board incredibly submissive. I still dream of those days when guys like Terry Fitzgerald would take off on a ten-foot wave, almost at Centreside at Bells, and their first turn would cover more area than Kelly Slater’s do now on the whole wave—their first turn eats up more green. Nowadays, when the guys do a turn on a modern board, it has to lead immediately into the next turn. In our day, you could pump down the line for four or five strokes and then down a big roundy, or break it up with some enormous Michael Peterson like….you can’t do that now. It’s almost like the difference between pelicans and barn swallows flying.

 

Andrew: Do you have any advice for people that are interested in shaping?

Dave: Be interested in everything. Try every surfboard you can get your hands on—if it’s a modern alaia, a paipo board, a bodyboard. I rode every single surfboard I could get my hands on. I was always interested in it, and I’ve never been incurious about them. Take templates off them—it’s easy to do start amassing a library of curves and seeing where they vary and where they don’t. There are no rules. You’ll be surprised. You can turn templates around and use the tail for the nose and the nose for the tail to get a certain curve. With the blanks we have available today, anything is possible.

 

Andrew: There are some amazing materials to build boards with these days.

Dave: I love polyurethane foam. Good polyurethane foam is a dream to work with. People that want to get into this dustless environment and sit in the glass cubicle and tap away at their computer, it’s tired, it bugs. It really bugs. You can be a businessman, an industrialist, the captain of the surfboard industry, whatever you want to call yourself, but you’re not a craftsman. It’s that simple.

A clinical account of six shark scares personally experienced over a six-month span in Byron Bay Shire.

Have you ever fielded a phone call from Greenough? They’re really quite something. The cadence is hot and heavy. The density of information is alarming. He’ll typically discuss board design, hand-lining for jewfish, his antipathy for SUP, and his continual battles with antipodean garden vermin. But always, always he’ll end up talking about sharks. And his firsthand accounts are as shocking as they are true. I could break it down for you, but why pursue that fool’s errand when he did such a fine job for our subscribers in 2009? Enjoy this edition of The Archivist. —Scott Hulet


When I first went to Australia in 1964, there were lots of stories about people getting taken or attacked by sharks. Everybody else was surfing on big longboards that you could pull your feet onto. I was riding a spoon that would barely float. I wasn’t in Australia long before a guy behind me said, “God, it must be 15-feet long.” I’ll never forget those words.

I usually average about one shark encounter per year. During the spring and summer of 2007 alone, I had six encounters with sharks. The reason was a small dead whale that drifted into Byron Bay. It had been dead for a few days and was being hammered by sharks. You can imagine the chum trail from it. Byron Bay is a marine preserve but the Marine Park authority did nothing, the surf club did nothing, and the Cape Byron Trust did nothing. If they had called me or Sea Rescue One (located at Brunswick Heads) or the dive shop boats, we could have easily towed it a couple of miles out to sea, and the sharks would have followed it. The north wind and currents would have carried it south—end of problem. Instead, they did not deal with it until the chewed-up carcass washed up on the beach.

Next day the Byron Council came to the beach with a truck, loaded it, and took it to the dump. Although the whale was gone, the sharks were not—there was now a chum trail that ended at Byron Bay. I wasn’t the only one who got hassled by sharks—two people were attacked, and there were many sightings. Earlier in the year, three people disappeared in the ocean. One person went missing at Lennox Head. The only thing recovered was his surfboard and broken leg rope. A tourist at Belongil Beach vanished without a trace, as did a swimmer at Brunswick Heads. All that was recovered were some body parts.

Sharks are interesting fish. When you are in the sea, you must be very aware. Your head should be moving about constantly, watching birds, fish, dolphins—generally alert for any type of swirls, boils, or moving shadows. Usually it is nothing more than turtles, rays, or dolphins. If you can see a shark coming, you have a chance. If you don’t, good luck.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 1

Place: Wategoes (Cape Byron)

Time: 11:00 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun

Surf: Waist to shoulder high with occasional larger peaks

Water Visibility: Poor. Cold, greenish, impossible to see the bottom with any detail—what I call “Death Water”

Season: Spring

I was the farthest person out. The edge of the sandbar dropped off into deeper water about 30 feet away. My eyes had moved across the edge of the drop-off many times. This was the most likely area that something could come from. This time, as my eyes moved along the edge of the drop-off, I noticed a dark area. Approximately 6 feet across, it was moving slowly toward me along the bottom. I wasn’t worried, probably just a big ray. At a distance of 15 feet or so, it turned slightly, and I could see that it had length. Now I was very focused on the shape. Its new course would take it between the sun and me. Just before I lost visibility, I could see what was giving it the width: side fins. Sticking my head underwater, looking down at a 45-degree angle, I could just make out a back and large dorsal fin.

Your head should be moving about constantly, watching birds, fish, dolphins—generally alert for any type of swirls, boils, or moving shadows. Usually it is nothing more than turtles, rays, or dolphins. If you can see a shark coming, you have a chance. If you don’t, good luck.

As it came out of my blind spot, it began to head away. I waited about ten seconds to be sure that it wasn’t coming back before slowly heading toward the beach using only 35 percent power. (In the shark encounters, I’ll refer to 75 or 50 percent. This is power output from my fins. If I have ridden a wave and am paddling back at normal speed, this is 100 percent. Fifty percent will move you forward about half as fast, but makes a much smaller acoustic profile.)

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 2

Place: Broken Head Point, on a sandbar that had formed off of the first island

Time: Late afternoon, less than an hour before sunset

Conditions: Overcast, light rain. Underwater visibility of 2 to 3 feet

Surf: A few feet overhead, nobody out with seven or eight dolphins hanging about doing what dolphins do

Season: Late winter

Several dolphins joined me on the first wave I caught and rode in a tight group just beneath me. They must have called a friend who launched through the wave face into the air. As soon as its head and front flippers were clear of the water, we were on a collision course. We had good eye contact as I rolled hard into a cutback to give it space. At this point, it was fully airborne and, although it landed close by, it was no problem. At the end of the wave, the group of dolphins came back to the takeoff with me. For the next half hour or so, we surfed together. While waiting for the next set, I felt pressure under me as something big passed under my legs. I thought, dolphin for sure. It wasn’t. Suddenly, four of the dolphins closest to me rushed over and surrounded me—two were underneath me and one was pressing against me on each side. The other dolphins took off and began to chase something. After a minute or so things returned to normal. The group around me broke up, and I had a big smile. The light was fading so I took the next wave and headed for the beach. After crossing a narrow channel, I was back on solid ground.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 3

Place: Seven Mile Beach, 1.5 miles north of Lennox Head Surf Club

Time: 11:00 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun with scattered clouds. Water clarity was good: 18 to 20 feet of visibility

Surf: Head high

Season: Spring

Earlier I had picked up Martin Splichal who had arrived the night before from New York City. A friend of Peter Maguire’s, Martin was over to help me complete the surf rescue boat that I was building. Martin is 6’2″ and a former semi-pro fighter. He is very good with his hands and was a great help building my new rescue boat. I had picked up Martin in Byron Bay, and we drove up Seven Mile Beach. We rubbered up and went out on air mats. At about the same time, 1.5 miles south, someone spotted a white shark cruising near the Lennox Head Surf Club, so the lifeguards cleared the water as the shark headed north.

We had been out for an hour-and-a-half, and the incoming tide had just about stopped the surf. We were just floating around having a chat. I was farther out over the shallow sandbar. Martin was facing me, a little closer in, right on the edge of the drop-off into deep water. Although it was a beautiful day, my eyes still scanned the area. At this point, I saw a dark mass behind Martin and said, “Martin, there is something big behind you.” Martin moved over next to me, and both of us faced the shark as it passed in the channel between us and the beach, only about 15 feet away. I couldn’t make out any details because it stayed just beneath the surface and never showed its fins. The thickness and depth of the shape were impressive. “Big shark,” I said to Martin. I thought it would just keep going—it didn’t. It was like there was a piece of string attached to its nose as it turned to the right keeping the same distance and carving an arc of 80 degrees. It was on a new course: east-northeast.

Its new course headed across the sand bank toward deeper water, right on the edge of visibility. I could just make out a dark area that was moving away. Next, the shadow began to elongate as it started a slow turn toward the left and settled on another new course. It was now headed southwest, almost right at me, still moving at the same pace.

At this point, I was intensely focused. Its new course headed across the sandbank toward deeper water, right on the edge of visibility. I could just make out a dark area that was moving away. Next, the shadow began to elongate as it started a slow turn toward the left and settled on another new course. It was now headed southwest, almost right at me, still moving at the same pace.

Now, it was coming out of the sun, and I could just make it out due to the swirls left on the surface by its tail. The new course meant that it would pass two to three feet away. At a distance of 18 to 20 feet, I got underway at 30 percent power and began to move toward it. I wanted a little momentum on my side. I could now see the thickness of it—two feet across the back. A slight course change meant that it could only see me with one eye. At a distance of 8 to 10 feet, less than two seconds from contact, it turned away, swam northeast and kept going. Martin’s martial arts training did not fail him—like a wingman, he remained on my left, slightly behind me. He was backing me up, but also leaving me room to maneuver. When the shark was out of sight, we headed across the deep water for the beach. We were both going about 75 percent, watching our backs the entire time. I was glad to reach the beach. I bet Martin was too. We walked up to the car, and as we changed I told Martin, “Well, you haven’t even been here 24 hours and already had a full life-and-death experience.” On the way to lunch, we stopped at the Lennox Head Surf Club to warn them about the shark. They said they had cleared the water earlier. It was probably the same shark.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 4

Place: Wategoes

Time: 10:30 a.m.

Conditions: Water visibility poor, only 4 to5 feet, and light overcast

Surf: Head high with a few larger peaks

Season: Spring. Eight days after the shark encounter with Martin

I was with Wardie Ward who was riding a boogie board. He was about 25 feet away when he said, “There is something big and black here.”

“Waaawaaawhat is it?” I stuttered.

“Shark!” Wardie replied.

I could now see the swirls from its tail. The shark cut a tight circle around Wardie who was now using his boogie as a shield, turning with the shark as it circled. I headed toward him at about 50 percent power. At this point he lost sight of it, but I could see the swirls left by its tail. It was now headed out to sea on a northwest course, taking it clear of me. Suddenly, the swirls started to turn toward me. I was desperately trying to get eye contact with it, but could see nothing. The last swirl was 18 to 20 feet away moving toward me faster than the shark I encountered with Martin. I had stopped moving and was facing the incoming threat. At this time, two waves combined to form a peak. It was right on top of us, a one-kick takeoff.

“Go,” I yelled to Wardie who was ten feet away from me. I spun and snapped my fins together. With one hard kick we were on the way to the beach. I never saw the shark. From Wardie’s description, it was a white shark about 10 feet in length, similar in size to the one Martin and I had encountered. Four to five days later, the same shark or a similar-sized one attacked Linda Whitehurst while she was on a surf ski off Wategoes.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 5

Place: Wategoes

Time: 11 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun, water visibility poor, only 12 to18 inches

Surf: 3- to 4-feet, overhead on the sets, only two others out: one guy on a shortboard, 75 feet inside, and Boyd Kellner on his mat 250 feet farther outside

Season: Spring

This one was short but scary. About four weeks after the previous shark encounter. I was going at about 75 percent to keep the underwater noise factor down. Reaching the landmarks near where I wanted to be, I stopped kicking, gliding forward five to six feet. About three seconds later, right where I had stopped kicking, the water lifted up in a big boil about four to six feet in diameter with a “whoosh” you could hear. This shark was 12 feet-plus and was moving at a running pace. I was cloaked by the dirty water and could see the tail swirls as it headed away toward the beach.

I had eye contact with it. At this point it stopped, hovering there: a 10-foot white. I lost sight of it as a bit of chop broke between us leaving a white slick on the surface. Every second I sat there the current was taking me farther out, giving the shark a better advantage.

I was approximately 120 yards from the beach. I saw a second large swirl as it changed course, no further sightings. I yelled at the surfer farther in, “Big shark!” He was gone on the next wave. Boyd was farther out but heard me yell and caught the next wave he could get. When I saw him, I pointed at the beach and gestured with my arms—BIG! He was gone. My wave luck was bad. At a very slow pace, 20 to 25 percent, I headed for the nearest land. Finally, a wave came, and I was in. It was a long, scary, slow paddle.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 6

Place: Wategoes

Time: 10:30 a.m.

Conditions: Sunny

Surf: Shoulder high

Water Visibility: Fair, 10 to 15 feet

Season: Spring

I was out on the outside corner of the sand bank inside Cape Byron. Same place as “Shark Encounter 1.” Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, I had sighted a 10 foot white shark. At first I wasn’t sure what it was as it was coming right at me around 300 feet out, the dorsal fin moving back and forth a bit. Could be a stick bobbing around. Then it disappeared. I didn’t have a good feeling about what it was and kept a close watch on that area. Fifteen to 20 seconds later it appeared again. This time the shark changed course and was closer. A good foot of fin appeared along with the tip of the tail a couple of feet behind. I knew what it was. Told two longboarders. Took the next catchable wave in. In the next couple of weeks there were a couple other sightings, two attacks, one resulting in damage to a surfer’s surfboard, the other fouling a person’s leg rope. I knew there was a good chance our paths would cross at some time.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, I had been out a little over an hour. There was current running toward deeper water. Being on the outer edge of a triangle-shaped sand bank, there was deeper water on both sides, producing a nice A-framed peak. I was under way at 30 percent power to hold position waiting for the next wave. As my back was toward the deeper water, I was keeping a sharp eye out behind me, as this was the most likely place something would come from with the water visibility and coming out of the sun. I would have little warning of its approach. As my head turned toward the left, looking back, I saw it coming from below and behind.

Ten to 12 feet away, coming off the bottom, angling up toward my legs, I spun and faced it. At six feet, I had eye contact with it. At this point it stopped, hovering there: a 10-foot white. In the meantime, the current I was paddling against to hold station was carrying me farther out into deeper water. The shark turned toward the left, arcing its body, rolling slightly on its side before slowly moving back toward the bottom. At this point, I could not see the bottom anymore and could just make out a dark area 15 feet away farther out. I lost sight of it as a bit of chop broke between us leaving a white slick on the surface.

Every second I sat there the current was taking me farther out, giving the shark a better advantage. Turning away from the last point, I saw it. I got under way toward the beach. Moving across the current at 50 percent power, my head turning from side to side watching my back. Dick Ash was on his belly board 30 meters farther in. I headed toward him. At 20 meters from him, I could see the bottom again. After telling him about the shark, I headed in.

The shark always maintained the same speed. It was in no rush. It knew that there was deeper water between us and the beach. It moved with confidence through the water headed across the sand bank.

There was a guy on a shortboard headed out toward the area of the encounter. I moved to intercept him, yelled, but he was wearing earplugs. Being on a mat, they do not paddle well. Swim fins make a lot of underwater noise if you go hard. At 50 percent power, however, they’re fairly quiet. He stopped 30 meters short of the peak where the encounter had happened. I caught up to him, told him, picked up a nice peak, and headed in. Warned two other people on the way. On the beach later on I saw the guy I had warned on the outside. He thanked me for coming back out and telling him about the shark.

*

THE FEAR FACTOR

If you think Jaws was scary, wait until you experience the real thing. All six encounters were scary. All six were life and death. “Shark Encounter 3” in The Fear Factor rates as the all-time best I’ve had. “Shark Encounter 3” had three different levels of fear. “The sighting” of the slow approach below and behind Martin. I didn’t wait for a positive ID.

I said, “Martin, there’s something big behind you.” He moved quickly out of its way. The rush of fear, now that we knew what it was. A bit of hope that it would keep going.

“The turn” shattered that hope. Now I knew it was interested in us. The shark always maintained the same speed. It was in no rush. It knew that there was deeper water between us and the beach. It moved with confidence through the water headed across the sand bank toward deeper water. I could just see it headed away.

Confidence was high it would keep going. I was just about to say to Martin, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” when the shadow began to elongate.

“The final approach:” As the shark turned onto its final approach, the shadow turned into a smaller blob. I knew it was headed almost right at us. No waves in sight. No escape, no time. The shadow is getting bigger. The situation is getting worse. I am on an intercepting course, looking into the sun as we close on each other. Slight course change on my part meant it could see me with one eye.

The shark maintained its course and speed. Moving up on the mat to lengthen my reach over the front. If it touched or scraped the mat it would probably pop. I’ll be swimming with it. Beginning to see details on the shark: outline of the nose, bits of white around the jaw, very close to eye contact, the grayish-black shape gliding like a submarine. Still closing on each other. Then the nose started to swing away. The wait to see if it was going to come back. Then the paddle across the deep water of the gutter to the beach kept the fear factor up there.

A profile of underground legend Eric Haas. From the back-files of TSJ 9.1.

Eric Haas is a mystery. Regularly short-listed for “best all around big-wave charger on the North Shore” during the 80s and 90s by connected insiders, he has remained all but unknown outside of the 808 area code. Had he cared about such things, he might have been perturbed by the willful ignorance on the part of the surf media. But Haas has never really been media friendly.

A troubled fellow, he operates outside of any bureaucratic considerations. There have been difficulties with family, and the law. He lives between the seams, and catches his waves where he can find them. Variously, he lives with an uncle near Ala Moana, in the kiawe bushes of Kalalau Valley, or (reportedly) in a storm culvert near Makaha.

Regular TSJ contrib and ex-North Shore lifeguard Jeff Johnson related Eric’s vibe, if not his life story, in our pages back in 2000. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, reacquaint yourself with one of the practice’s most sideways and legit participants. —Scott Hulet


He’s one of the best surfers in the world and you’ve probably never heard of him. With a legendary reputation and high praise from world-renowned watermen, he remains an enigma, a single soul drifting through a life of countless waves. His name: Walter Eric Haas. His age: 33. His home: anywhere in Hawaii.

Brian Keaulana: “One of the most talented surfers ever. When I think of true watermen, only a few guys come to mind and Eric’s one of them. Like my father or George Downing or guys like that who pioneered big waves and lived the ocean lifestyle, he lives that life of a waterman. He can fish, dive, and surf anything you throw at him. Nowadays, the attention seems to be focused on equipment instead of ability, and Eric’s ability is to utilize his surroundings to the fullest, to use what’s available. The equipment is the guy, not the board. At the lifeguard run- swims, where you’ve got well-trained guys in Speedos and all the right gear, Eric will show up in pants or whatever and no goggles and smoke ’em. Never been taught, just his own style—hot.”

Haas won’t be seen on the North Shore for months, but on the best day of the year you’ll overhear guys that night at Foodland or Sugar Bar talking about him getting the wave of the day and pulling off the heaviest maneuvers. Like the time he paddled out at perfect 15-foot Hanalei Bay and got the tube of the year, soul arching and stroking the roof of the barrel with both hands, only to return that evening to do it again under a full moon. Or at 12-foot Sunset riding a lifeguard rescue board fully clothed and getting big barrels, spinner drops at the Eddie Aikau contest on a borrowed board, windsurfing on a rescue board using a trash bag as a sail, and fin-first takeoffs at nasty Haleiwa. He’s surfed tube after tube beneath huge cliffs on the Napali Coast alone and with no leash—never a leash. And his boards? Mostly borrowed or taken from countless stashes in the bush, always beat up and usually ancient. Longboards, shortboards, big guns, rescue boards, single-fin, twin-fin, thruster, or no fins. Frontside, backside, switch foot or headstands, in 2- to 20-foot surf, he does it all.

Nowadays, the attention seems to be focused on equipment instead of ability, and Eric’s ability is to utilize his surroundings to the fullest, to use what’s available. The equipment is the guy, not the board.

Eric was born in San Diego and moved to Oahu when he was three months old. His parents, busy dealing with their own lives, were at times unable to keep him within close range, thus leaving it up to the Waikiki beach boys to help raise him. He a lived various backstreet dwellings, and learned to surf at the Waikiki Wall using whatever flotsam he could find. While spending endless hours in the water, his skills were sharpened by watching guys like Buttons, Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, and many seasoned beach boys. By that point, several father figures had taken Eric under their wing, one of them being Ben Aipa, who gave him free boards and encouraged him to compete in local contests.

Brock Little: “He was the king, the best kid. We used to surf in the Menehune division (under 12) and he was way ahead of his time doing frontside and backside 360s. He rode for Aipa, getting free boards and stuff. You were bummed if he was in your heat ’cos you knew you were gonna lose. He used to win ‘super heats’ where you take all the winners from each division and throw them in a heat. He’d take them all. He’d even take down guys like Derek Ho, who was quite a bit older than him. Just phenomenal.”

After blowing minds as a youngster in the competitive world, Eric dropped out—a blessing for the other kids who now had a chance in the contests. He then began a life as a vagabond islander, living anywhere possible, dividing his time between Oahu and the outer islands. It wasn’t until the winter of ’88 that he surfaced, sending a wild buzz through the Hanalei community. Ripping the Bay with power and style reminiscent of earlier standouts like Bill Hamilton and Joey Cabell, Eric made a name for himself.

“Brudda Waltah” (as some people call him) is difficult to find. You just don’t call him or stop by. You put the word out and through a bizarre chain of events you’ll eventually connect. A friend of mine received an assignment to interview Haas, and knowing how I’ve always wanted to write about the elusive legend, he asked for my assistance. We told the lifeguards at Ehukai about our plan and immediately the coconut wireless was clogged with rumors of Eric’s whereabouts, and consciousness. (Depending on who you talk to, his state of consciousness is often in question.) Since all our leads seemed fruitless, we simply waited. Weeks later, we received a phone call claiming Eric would be at the Sunset Beach lifeguard tower before dusk. Classic Eric Haas. Mysterious yet punctual on his own terms, a complex man borrowing time from his simple life to commit to a scheduled meeting. We were lucky it only took two weeks.

His parents, busy dealing with their own lives, were at times unable to keep him within close range, thus leaving it up to the Waikiki beach boys to help raise him. He lived in various backstreet dwellings and learned to surf at the Waikiki Wall using whatever flotsam he could find.

Haas showed up at Sunset Beach as planned. He looked as healthy and clean-cut as I had ever seen him. He was freshly shaven, hair-trimmed and combed, and was sporting a new gingham-patterned outfit, shirted tucked in, of course. He was excited, a bit nervous, and you could tell he didn’t really know why we wanted to interview him. Extremely humble, he doesn’t even realize how incredible he is. And because of this lack of ego, it was difficult to get detailed replies from our self-inflating questions. In turn, this left us with a less than desirable outcome. Like his surfing, it’s not always what he does, but how he does it.

Because of his bouts with certain controlled substances and other related difficulties, it is sometimes hard to understand where Eric is coming from. It is apparent he lives in his own world but will occasionally step into ours. Some might say he’s a little off, or a bit spacey. But I feel that beyond the crazy sımile and confusing speech lives an intelligent man way ahead of his time, laughing at the outside world. Needless to say, one cannot help but notice Eric’s abounding humility, inflexible respect, and genuine compassion for others.

The interview became more of a “you had to be there” thing than a piece to write about. So I took it upon myself to tell some of the many legendary stories that have circulated throughout the Hawaiian Islands. I researched the ones that are not of my own account, getting firsthand information so that I wouldn’t be spreading myths.

On an overcrowded day at Sunset, 10 to 12 feet, Eric was seen in the channel paddling a lifeguard rescue board with a canoe paddle while standing up. Designed only for rescues, this board is difficult to ride in 2-foot surf, let alone huge Sunset. He casually stroked past the bewildered crowd and in one swooping turn connected with a giant wave outside the pack. With paddle in hand, he began a deep fade. Negotiating the large crowd and movement of water, he drew out a long bottom turn, stuffed his paddle in the face, and pulled himself into a gaping, stand-up barrel. Gliding into the channel, he simply paddled to the sand, stepped off his board, and walked to the tower leaving the hardcore arena in awe.

Eric has the habit of training in unorthodox fashions, including running, swimming, and surfing fully clothed. His theory? “Doing these things with all my clothes on is very difficult, so when I just have trunks on, I’m that much faster.”

During another big day at Sunset, he was seen swimming in the turbulent rip wearing a jacket, an aloha shirt, and jeans. Upon coming in, he took off the jacket, grabbed a rescue board, and paddled back out. Again, guys not knowing who he was likely wrote him off as a kook. But to everybody’s surprise, he caught a few bombs and pulled into huge barrels wearing his aloha shirt and jeans.

His most pronounced attribute is his ability to have an every-day surf in the ugliest and most adverse conditions. You’ll drive by Rockpiles (a dangerous stretch of beach even at 3 feet) and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a tiny dot streaking across a lumpy, outer reef beast. It’ll be Haas, just getting a few all by himself.

Joe Golonka (veteran North Shore lifeguard): “Super waterman, as good as it gets. He has some weird ways of training—swimming in his clothes, stuff like that. But when it comes down to his water knowledge, he’s as good as any. He’s strong, fearless…a little different. I was working water patrol at the Eddie Aikau contest and he was doing switch-stance spinner take-offs. Everyone else was taking off at the same spot and just making the wave—pretty impressive. I wish he was still working with us, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Eric’s most pronounced attribute is his ability to have an every-day surf in the ugliest and most adverse conditions. The surf could be 20 feet with howling north winds and rain…a day when any kind of surfing is out of the question. You’ll drive by Rockpiles (a dangerous stretch of beach even at 3 feet), and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a tiny dot streaking across a lumpy outer reef beast. It’ll be Haas out there just getting a few all by himself.

November 17, 1996. Rain poured all night long accompanied by thunder and lightning. Certain parts of the North Shore were completely flooded. The following morning gave way to one of the biggest and ugliest days I’d ever seen. Chocolate brown water, a thick lingering mist, and storm surf clouding the horizon—25 to 30 feet. As a part-time lifeguard, I was called to work Waimea Bay, not thinking of this day as even being ride-able. Eric had been up all night partying at a friend’s house at Sunset Beach. At the crack of dawn, he paddled out through the channel between Phantoms and Backyards with a swim fin tucked into his trunks. A mile outside he realized how big it was. Being so far out, and with the mist so thick, he was unsure of his whereabouts so he decided to paddle the three-or-so miles down to Waimea. To insure his safety, he set a course way outside the deadly outer reefs. Once he got to Waimea, he was out to sea. The handful of guys that surfed that day saw him paddling in from the haze outside of the bay, looking as if he had come from Kauai. They shook their heads realizing it was Haas.

A few moments later, Eric took off on what he claims to be one of the biggest waves of his life, easily making it into the channel. Then, suddenly the horizon darkened, the cars lining the bay began honking their horns, and the lifeguards yelled through their megaphones as an enormous closeout engulfed the bay. Of the ten or 12 guys out, not one had a chance. From one end of the bay to the other, a giant wall of immeasurable height proceeded to jack, boil, and hurl forth the thickest of lips.

Once he got to Waimea, he was out to sea. The handful of guys that surfed that day saw him paddling in from the haze outside of the bay, looking as if he had come from Kauai. They shook their heads, realizing it was Haas. A few moments later, he took off on the biggest wave of his life.

The wave bulldozed everything in its path, thrashing men like rag dolls, crushing boards, and snapping leashes. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, just scared shitless, as the wave surged up the river and into the beach park. Only a few guys still had their boards as the rescue jet ski helped the others in. One of the guys that swam in on his own accord was Eric.

Because of the heavy rains, the river mouth in the accessible corner of the bay collided with the shore pound displaying a frightening force of nature. Swimming with sheer animalistic force, he battled the confusion for some time and finally made in. I watched from the road as he casually sauntered up to the tower to chat with the guards. After a few minutes, he noticed his board had washed up to the park bathrooms a good 100 yards from the waterline.

Glad to see it hadn’t disappeared, he grabbed it and ran back to the corner. Amazed, I asked him what he was doing and he softly replied, “Look, no crowd, gotta take advantage.” He jumped back into the turmoil and squeaked past the shorebreak unscathed (a maneuver that earlier took some Waimea regulars 20 to 40 minutes of multiple tries). For the next few hours he surfed the bay, his actions seeming effortless and his attitude equal to that of a boy riding 2-foot Chuns.

Owl Chapman: “Probably the most underrated surfer there is. There’s a lot of guys making a lot of money, and he’s twice as good as they are—makin’ nothing. He’s ridden a lot of my boards. I tell him to keep his chin up, to have faith, but that only carries you so far, you know? We haven’t seen the last of Eric Haas. He’s the best big-wave rider in the world…”

Eric embodies the very essence of surfing: a free spirit, totally natural amongst all elements. His innocent approach is virtually unaffected by the outside world, allowing him complete freedom of self-expression. Even the acts of purists these days seem quite intentional— well-planned and thought out. He doesn’t know these things, and why should he? To him, surfing is as innate as eating and breathing, the ocean is his life and he lives it well. Many people like to go surfing, whereas Walter Eric Haas, well…he is surfing.

Lately he has been working as a beach boy giving surf lessons in Waikiki. He might be found near the Duke Kahanamoku statue in front of stacks of rental boards. If you are lucky enough, you might get to learn from a legend. Just ask around, put the word out. I can’t guarantee you’ll find him within two weeks.

Al Nelson’s arc from early Waimea with Pat Curren to building homemade airframes in Baja.

Founding publisher Steve Pezman has a knack for connecting with friends of friends. Basically, he makes contact with a legendary figure from our world, and asks them who they would like to hear from. It’s simple and sly. Not only does he find out who the subject holds dear, but he IDs future personalities for the magazine. That process not only infuses TSJ with understudied and surprising voices, but also serves to record a history that might otherwise go begging.

The Nelson brothers—Al and Fleet—are well-camouflaged insiders from surfing’s 1960s-1980s trade routes, and suitable examples of such referenced-by-the-bigs hidden treasures. Interacting, variously, with Pat Curren, Danny Fowley, and Mike Diffenderfer (among others), Fleet and Al have been favored collaborators of the cognoscenti. From Windansea to Hawaii, and from Costa Rica to Cabo, the two made Zelig-like appearances during the sport’s most character-checkered era.

Al Nelson, a surfboard and airplane designer and unapologetically peripatetic, eventually settled on Baja’s West Cape. In 2010, Pez tracked him down, hit “record,” and summoned the good oil. —Scott Hulet


The Windansea crew of the 1950s was fearsome and storied—if you came from another beach. You usually didn’t, unless invited. Almost uniformly alcoholic and rowdy, it comprised individualists, attracted there like radiator Stop Leak, with a sprinkle of Mensa intellects amongst the bad-asses and goof-offs. Amongst them, Ekstrom and Nelson—futurists—while rough-hewn Pat Curren exuded a quiet savvy of unknowable depth. Curren, the Ekstroms, Nelson, Graham, Van Artsdalen, Hasley, the Pattersons, Diffenderfer, Tiny Brain….

Curren and Nelson’s wave-fear tolerance was weaned over Windansea’s outside reef, the peak being of enough size and consequence that when the two migrated to the North Shore heavies it was a somewhat preconditioned transition. Also, Windansea’s proximity to Tijuana’s Plaza de Toros resulted in that crew’s perception that in both riding a wave and fighting a bull, the point was to “exhibit grace and control while operating within the circle of death.” As surfing became more and more absorbed by the mainstream they loathed, both became less and less enamored of it, ultimately seeking remote wave zones where they continued to surf unfettered.

“Pal” Al Nelson, the name rolls off your tongue. He and Pat Curren were core Windansea members during those scant few discovery years spent confronting the reality of big waves. Pat and Al’s synthesis of the big-wave board was based on the discoveries of Froiseth, Downing, Quigg, Trent, etcetera, which were made over the prior decade at Makaha. Their interpretations became the benchmark at that moment, when big waves were becoming a big deal in a fast-growing sport.

“Pal” Al has succeeded in remaining in the shadows relative to Pat, who, having fathered Tommy—the savior of American surfing— was kept uncomfortably in the spotlight, though Al did pretty much all the same stuff, both men being historically significant and masters at making artful things. Al prefers it that way. In brief, here is his story. —S.P.

*

It all turned for me when I started surfing back in ’52. I lived in La Jolla, and Windansea was the spot. But I had to learn somewhere else. I moved to Windansea when I was 13 years old, and Pat (Curren) was one of the gurus there. He was older than me, probably 20. I became friendly with Pat, started shaping surfboards at 13, and by the time I was 14 or so, people started asking me to make them—the locals—because there were few manufacturers then: Velzy, Hobie, not too many others. That was about ’54 or ’55. In 1956, I actually opened my first surf shop. I was in junior high school and a friend had a garage in La Jolla. We decided he would glass and I would be the shaper—balsa boards, of course. We started at $55 for a shaped blank and $70 for a finished board. We made like 20 surfboards that summer, which was huge. No power tools, just grinding them out with the old hand plane. That was my beginning. I learned how to shape a reasonable surfboard that summer.

In the afternoons, we’d all shut down and hit the evening glass-off at Trestles. We’d sleep in the shop. There was a balsa loft above the shaping area and there’d be a whole bunch of guys up there, half drunk, sacked out, getting some sleep before going back to work the next morning.

About that time, 1955, I was traveling up and down the coast surfing quite a bit, and somehow I met Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs when they had their shop in Venice. Dale was always working an angle, and somehow or another he knew I was a so-called shaper, so he invited me into his shop and asked me to shape a couple for him, you know, so I just started on the spot, right then. Of course, I had to go to school in the winter because I was a teenage kid, so that slowed me down. But, the next summer, 1956, I started working for Dale again, right here in San Clemente. It was one of the first retail surfboard shops. He would bring his boards down from Venice and stick them in there. There wasn’t any building going on there, yet. He was still in business with Hap. Jim Fisher and I ran the shop. Crazy! Dale taught me all the things, about when someone had ordered a 9’4″ and there was only a 9’6″ in the racks, how to have them hold the hook end of the tape at the tail, then you’d stretch it out to the nose and go, “9’4″, right?” I also learned a little bit about shaping from him. He was one of the only guys around that I could actually watch in action. When he moved to San Clemente, I started working for him. Del Cannon and Renny Yater were both shaping there then. God, there were so many crazy people, all the Patterson brothers were glassing and sanding.

Those were the good old days. We always had money because we worked building surfboards and the demand for them was starting to exceed the supply. The East Coast was just figuring it out and they had no manufacturers. Those were the real golden days for orders—not always for producing them, and still, we were into balsa boards. I got up to shaping eight balsa boards a day, which I can’t even believe now. It takes me eight weeks to shape one today, you know, one! But we’d just grind those babies out, sawdust flying. I’d see Robert Patterson in the glassing room cleaning his brushes in a 55-gallon barrel of acetone, smoking a cigarette. One day, Dorian Paskowitz came in there, and he just shut the place down and really got on Dale’s case. Anyway, that one summer was crazy, the summer of ’59. In the afternoons, we’d all shut down and hit the evening glass-off at Trestles. We’d sleep in the shop. There was a balsa loft above the shaping area and there’d be a whole bunch of guys up there, half drunk, sacked out, getting some sleep before going back to work the next morning—fun days, though.

Jim Fisher was a good friend of mine. He was always a little bit different than the rest of us, hung out in La Jolla at Windansea, lived there off and on. I idolized him because of “Fisher’s Wave.” That picture really stimulated everybody. They couldn’t believe people rode waves that big.

The Meade Hall gang would have been the winter of 1959/1960. I had gone over there in ’57 and lived with Pat. That was the year we first rode Waimea. Then we came back and the word spread. I didn’t go in ’58. There were some other Windansea guys that did, but in ’59 a whole group went over there, seven or eight of us. It was back and forth between the North Shore in winter and Windansea in the summer. We were still pretty young.

I had good luck at Waimea Bay. I always did well there, never had a problem. Waimea’s a takeoff, a dramatic takeoff, but there’s not much after that. Sunset gets you all the way in. You never know what’s going to happen with that wave.

Pat stayed there more than anybody. Nineteen fifty-nine was a great year. We had so much surf because we were there early and there weren’t a lot of surfers there in those days. We’d get everything pretty much to ourselves—Sunset, Laniakea. Sunset was my favorite. I had good luck at Waimea Bay. I always did well there, never had a problem. Waimea’s a takeoff, a dramatic takeoff! A thrilling takeoff, but there’s not much after that. Sunset gets you all the way in. You never know what’s going to happen with that wave. It’s a beautiful spot. You can always get out. The waves take getting used to, but I got a little jump-start on it. I quit school. Well, “ran away from home” would be a more accurate phrase, when I was a junior in high school, the second semester, about 16 years old. I ran away and went to Hawaii.

I was living over there with the Patterson brothers and there was a late swell. We were living in Manoa Valley and surfing Waikiki every day, and we heard a rumor there were waves on the North Shore, so we went out there, not even knowing anything about it. None of us had been there. We didn’t know where Sunset was, but we found it. “This has to be Sunset! There’s waves out there,” and we went out. Whoa! At first, I thought the waves were probably 12 feet, but, my god, they were bigger and faster and thicker, but by the end of the day I had ridden a few and gotten a feeling for it. So, when I went over in ’57 after I graduated high school, I had a clue about the waves, and I had a better surfboard that I found out wasn’t nearly good enough. But I was prepared for the waves, and by ’59 I had a real surfboard. We had a real elephant gun by then.

There had been boards that Jim Fisher brought back from Hawaii, and Wayne Land brought a board back. Wally Froiseth had shaped Wayne’s board, and it was a big-wave board, an elephant-gun-type board. Pat took a look at it and said, “That’s the way to go!” He said he was going to make one. Wally’s had a very drawn-in tail, like they all are today. They were long, with a scoop in the nose, and with a little belly. He’d actually slice wood off the bottom of the nose and laminate it onto the top so he could get more kick in them. The back was very flat. The rail line transitioned from “up” in the nose to straight-down, breakaway rails in the tail. He made the big-wave boards in those early, early days. It was his boards that influenced me, and they influenced Pat. I know that. So, our boards reflected his, maybe a little more refined. We didn’t glue wood on the decks. We just started with 6-inch-thick balsa blanks so we could carve whatever we wanted out of them. We made two boards together in the summer of ’59 and took them to Hawaii that winter, and they worked very, very well. By the next year, everybody had one. That’s just my take on it. I’m sure some other people came up with the same idea on their own.

I practiced law for a few years as a member of the California Bar, joined a firm. I was Mr. Young Lawyer. I’d be sitting in my office at 2:00 in the afternoon, and it would be hot and glassy and I’d know there was a swell running. But I couldn’t fake it and just get up and leave, so it was... troubling. One day I got up and did leave, and once I walked away, I walked away completely.

Here’s my take on Pat’s boards, ’cause I’ve ridden every one of them. I can’t stand them! Pat is a very stiff surfer. I’ve never seen him do a roundhouse cutback in my life. He’s a one-way Corrigan! He’s a very talented surfer, knows how to take off in the right spot, and he gets the best wave—maybe the wave of the day goes to him 80 percent of the time—but he’s not a versatile surfer, and his boards are stiff. I could never ride them. Way too much belly. I’m more interested in turning and most of his [big-wave] boards don’t do that very well, but he could surf them. They suited his style. My boards look like his boards except the rails aren’t as radical. I never put as much belly in the front of the board. I liked it a little flatter. To this day, he makes his replica boards like his old boards. He doesn’t compromise. But damn, they were hard to ride, even his personal, smaller-wave board.

*

Nineteen fifty-nine was it for me, as far as going to the North Shore to surf. I had been to Hawaii in ’56, ’57, and ’59, and I was just determined to graduate from college. So, I thought, hell, I’ve got to put in a couple of semesters, so I blasted through college in a quick nine years [laughter]. It took me no time at all. I ended up going all over the place. I started at UC Santa Barbara. I just surfed and realized right away that I was in over my head. I wasn’t that smart. So I went back to San Diego City College then State, and finally graduated in zoology. I didn’t have a major and just picked zoology, which was a terrible decision because it turned out to be extremely hard—labs and everything. I could have been an art major—something simple to get a damn degree, but I kind of went the wrong way. I never used the zoology.

I surfed and did a lot of shaping all through those years. That was when I was a power shaper. I’d shaped for Renny. After he left Hobie we stayed friends, up in Santa Barbara, earlier, while I was in school up there. It was his little shop on State Street—really a fun place. And, of course, we had a key to the Ranch. After that, I shaped for Hap in Hermosa Beach and Bing for a while. I shaped for Gordon & Smith, and I shaped for Hobie for quite a while. I shaped my way through school. I’d get into my car, drive up to these places, and lock myself in the shaping room for two or three days. It was go-go-go, but the pay was good. Even when I went to law school, in the summer I’d really grind it out. Getting my law degree was really a strange thing. My grandfather was a successful lawyer. My father was a very successful lawyer, and he took me aside one day and said, “Son, I’ll shoot you if you ever become a lawyer!” I had sand in my shoes at that point and I told him, “Don’t worry, Pops, I won’t ever, ever become a lawyer.” And then, as fate would have it, when I was graduating from college, I got married, and out of nowhere the new wife said she wanted to become a vet. She was going to go to school at UC Davis. I said, “Fine, you’re married to me. Do I have any say in it?” And of course she answered, “No!” So I looked to see if they had anything that would interest me and saw they had a new law school. I took the aptitude test, and, as genetics would have it, I was very good at the test, whatever it tested, and I could be accepted pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. So I said, “Let’s go!”

I’ve always been into airplanes, my brother and me. Early on we built models. Then I got interested in full-size, home-built airplanes. I always thought I could design and build one using surfboard technology—foam fiberglass, shaping the thing, because that was where my skill lay.

I loved law school. Actually loved it! It was fantastic. It was the one schooling that fit my type of intellect—one of those weird things. I thought it would be a good profession. Unfortunately, the schooling and the world of being a lawyer are two entirely different things that I never, ever accepted. I practiced for a few years as a member of the California Bar, joined a firm, Mr. Young Lawyer. I’d be sitting in my office at 2:00 in the afternoon, and it would be hot and glassy and I’d know there was a swell running. But I worked for a firm and I couldn’t fake it and just get up and leave, so it was… troubling [laughter]. One day I got up and did leave, and once I walked away, I walked away completely. I’ve always enjoyed my education. It never hurt me.

But that had been quite a departure from Windansea. Law is mostly about money. Wayne Land used to burn money. I’d say, “I don’t know, Wayne, what are you doing? I could use that five dollar bill.” So, I had a house in Cardiff and life was good, but I didn’t really have much direction, so I figured I’d build an airplane: a full-sized one. I’d built airplanes for a hobby. I’m just finishing my fifth one right now. That’s something I’m proud of. I’ve always felt I did it well. I’ve always been into airplanes, my brother and me. Early on we built models. Then I got interested in full-size, home-built airplanes. I always thought I could design and build one using surfboard technology—foam fiberglass, shaping the thing, because that was where my skill lay. Back in 1980, I had a friend who was a pilot and out of work. He had some money, and I had the time and skill. So we sat down and designed and built a very interesting airplane, then flew it to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Did the whole thing in six months, which is incredible, from sketching on the back of a napkin to flying it to the world’s biggest air show and winning Outstanding New Design for that year. It’s been on the cover of Air Progress. I could send you a copy. It was a two-place fiberglass airplane powered by a Volkswagen engine. It’d cruise at 135 mph with a 36-horse- power engine. We flew it over 200 mph a couple of times. It was super slick aerodynamically, molded really nice. That was a proud moment. We sold plans after that. I think there are over 700 of them flying today.

Here’s my latest project. You’ll like it. I’m building this ultra-light down in my garage in Cabo. Here’s a shot of it with my surfboard. See, here’s the scam: I strap the surfboard underneath it, take off from the two-mile beach in front of my house, and go to my secret spot up the coast at a place where nobody can get to by car. I just land on the beach and finally get a wave by myself, then strap that board back under the belly of the plane and fly home.

Is it a right or a left you ask? I’m sorry, I’d have to kill you. It’s just that the beach goes for 700 miles, all the way from my house to Ensenada…and there are breaks up there, little sand breaks and points and stuff. I need waves to myself. I’m too old to compete with 18-year-olds. I don’t mind doing things alone. Where I live is still very isolated. There are no footprints on the beach in the morning. I can walk miles in any direction.

*

Pat Curren was living in Costa Rica in the early 80s when he stopped by my house in California and told me I had to come down. We’ve got an old buddy that owns half of Costa Rica, and he’s got everything we need. He wanted his old friends to come on down and enjoy life with him. I was in a “doing nothing” stage of my life, so I was on it. I flew down there and spent the next few years there, on and off, with Pat. We did a lot of surfing down there—a real good surf area.

I don’t need the good waves anymore. I don’t like crowds, and crowds are generally at the best waves. I just want to ride into a white sand beach where there’s a palapa on the sand with a cold beer in the cooler. You know, a guy who started ten years ago and is an average surfer will never see what I have seen. I can’t say I’ve been deprived of my fair share.

Then, for some reason, in 1985, we moved out of there to where I am today in Baja California. Pat and I settled in separate corners. Pat on the East Cape behind Renny’s place, and I stayed where I was on the Pacific side. I built a home and I’ve been there for 25 years. I live by myself. Well, I’ve got two dogs and a cat and neighbors, so I’m not alone. But being alone doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll go three or four days without talking to another human being. And, of course, I build my own boards. If the world only knew how good they are.

No, actually, I continue to build surfboards because I love to build them. I’m into technology, not reinventing shapes, but how to build a board that will last more than a week. I’ve been into that the whole time. I’ll do something new, then, years later I’ll come up here [California] and see several surfboard builders using that same technique, so that tells me I was on the right track. Wherever I live, I have a workshop. I was starting my fifth boat when I noticed I had four boats out in the backyard and told myself to stop. They are all oar-powered, Swampscott-type dories, all surf boats up to 16 feet long—something like that. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of them out of foam.

In Costa Rica, I didn’t have foam so I used balsa wood as the sandwich material. All my stuff—boards, boats, planes—end up with resin on them. They’re always fiberglassed. The last couple of boats have been made out of quarter-inch plywood. I can get beautiful pine plywood down there [tip of Baja] for $13 a sheet at Home Depot. I like to work with my hands. Give me a project and I don’t care about the outside world. It’s not like I need five boats. Last time I counted I had 15 surfboards.

I’ve ridden really good waves in my life. For me, I don’t need the good waves anymore. It’s about did I have a good time? Not, did you see my wave? I don’t like crowds, and crowds are generally at the best waves. I just want to ride into a white sand beach where there’s a palapa on the sand with a cold beer in the cooler. You know, a guy who started ten years ago and is an average surfer will never see what I have seen. I can’t say I’ve been deprived of my fair share.

If I look back at the time I’ve been involved with surfboards—60 years almost—I really most enjoyed shaping for every one of those guys I worked with, because they were really neat people. Hap Jacobs. Velzy. We had a great time. There weren’t any giant rivalries. Like with Hobie and Velzy in the same basic area, but they would help each other out if one or the other ran out of something. Of course, my whole career was a fantastic time for the evolution of the surfboard. I started off making varnished balsa/redwoods, then balsa boards by the hundreds, and then foam by the thousands. I’m still going, only now it’s at my pace. It gets in your blood.

Uncovering the spirit of evocation in Chile.

When you assemble surfer-historian Richard Kenvin, filmmaker Ryan Thomas, and two of our pastime’s most creative performers, you’re talking Surfer’s Journal DNA all the way. Two years back, we followed this crew to Central Chile during the production of Ryan Thomas’s feature film, Psychic Migrations.

Little did we know that the trip would produce perhaps the most resonant and defining surf action segment of the modern era. Timed perfectly to the arrival of a major swell and deluxe conditions, Thomas captured Ryan Burch going to town on a self-made board, perfectly scored with the Thee Oh Sees’ “Web.”

Regular TSJ contributor Kenvin was present for all of the sessions—which included the effervescent Ozzie Wright—and drafted a comprehensive breakdown of the venture. If you’ve seen Psychic, delve into this story for the context. If you have yet to indulge, put it on your watch list. This long-form report will make you all the more informed when you push play. —Scott Hulet


The ocean temperature at Windansea was already in the low 70s, the water a faux Hawaiian shade of ultra-marine. Out on the reef, a long period south swell, born at the bottom of the Pacific, crossed with local wind swell, wedging into enticing lefts that shifted across the shallow sandstone ledge. A light offshore wind added to the subtropical ambience. Normally I would have been indulging in the joys of surfing in trunks at home, but not this year. I was scheduled to leave the comfort of summer behind in twenty-fours hours to fly east through three time zones, drop south over the equator, and enter the heart of the Southern Hemisphere winter.

I couldn’t feel summer anyway. Three days earlier, on the solstice, I’d stood by a hospital bed and watched my father take his last breath. Earl Meredith Kenvin, my dad, suffered a stomach aneurism at a family gathering and passed away at Scripps Hospital at 9:45 p.m. He had travelled 800 miles, from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to San Diego to attend the opening of a surfboard exhibit I had curated. My mom, Caroline, and my sisters, Dorothy and Betsy, had travelled from San Francisco and Durango to see the show. Along with my brother, Peter, we had all been together at the opening.

It was a happy occasion for our family, which had been a long time coming. Earl had suffered a devastating divorce from Caroline in 1978, and the opening of the exhibit was only the second time in 28 years that we had all been together. I was supposed to catch a flight south the day afterward to meet filmmaker Ryan Thomas and surfers Ryan Burch, Ozzie Wright, and Nate Tyler somewhere in the South America. My dad died 18 hours before my flight departed.

I spent the next 48 hours with my family. Though overcome by grief, we knew something miraculous had happened: Earl was with his children when he passed away, and was happy. This was the last thing any of us would have expected, given the saga of our family over the past 35 years. It certainly wasn’t in the script Earl had written for himself, which was to die alone in a dusty town in New Mexico. Instead we were all by his side and Caroline, the love of his life and the mother of his children, was there too, something we never would have thought possible. I know, without a doubt, that this was how he really wanted to go.

We passed rustic 19th-century ranchos and haciendas, some abandoned, some still being worked. It was cold and frost covered the ground in places that were still in shadow. We checked a few spots along the way: grinding left sandbars unrolled alongside dark, rocky headlands.

“I’m aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic…”

Those are the words of author Isabel Allende, who writes in the distinctly Latin American literary style known as magical realism. Allende weaves her beautifully strange tales around families over many generations. Magic happens in her stories, manifesting itself through ordinary people and places against a backdrop of day-to-day life.

I’ve experienced such things. My current situation, with its coincidental collision of major events involving friends and family (my fathers death, the museum exhibition, and the trip south all within 36 hours) gave me the feeling that larger forces were at play. For all I thought about the significance of the exhibit, and my excitement about the trip, something far more profound had happened. A bigger plan had unfolded, one that neither my dad, nor me, nor my family could foresee. It was tragic, dramatic, and yet miraculously, magically beautiful.

Talking it over with my family, the consensus was that I should take the trip south that I had cancelled. I was extremely conflicted about leaving, but everyone encouraged me to go. We would have a memorial service for Earl in New Mexico the following month. I contacted Ryan and Burch and told them I was coming after all. Burch’s dad, Jerry, who taught him how to surf, had passed away a few years ago. Ryan had gone into the trip with a nagging fear that his father, Vincent, who taught him how to expose film, might lose a long, cruel battle with malignant melanoma at any time. Maybe spending some time with them right now wasn’t such a bad idea. I rebooked the flight for a June 25th departure.

*

I woke up 45 minutes before landing after many hours of airports and air travel. Dawn was breaking over 20,000 foot peaks to the east, a snowy massive that rose above a lead gray, opaque layer of stratus clouds. We dropped through the mist and landed in a city of 8 million people. On the ground it was cold and foggy, the light flat and disorienting. I couldn’t tell east from west, north from south. Summer was thousands of miles and many months away.

I grabbed my board bag and duffle and headed out to find the local guys who were tentatively supposed to meet me at the airport and take me to the bus station. They had followed RT’s instructions and gone to the airport to meet me, but somehow we missed each other. I caught a taxi to the station, which was located 20 miles away near the heart of the city. My phone wasn’t working. No service. Without a local escort, my instructions were minimal: find a Pullman bus at the station and get a ticket for the town where everyone was staying.

The taxi dropped me at the big, bustling terminal. I found the Pullman ticket kiosk. They’d never heard of the town I was supposed to go to, and told me I needed to try another station ten blocks away. A weathered street porter with green eyes grabbed my board bag and motioned for me to follow. He was cloaked in a gray and black poncho and wore a tattered straw hat, like he’d just walked off the set of a film by Sergio Leone.

We set out on foot to the other station through the early morning hustle of the city. After several blocks we entered a labyrinthine, ramshackle market place, latticed with passageways lined with food stands and all manner of retail shops. It was too early in the morning for anything to be open and my anxiety increased as we turned corner after dark, deserted corner.

Burch had set up a little shaping room and programmed a side cut mutation into The Rainbow’s DNA. All that remained to be seen was if this latest experiment in artificial selection would help the species evolve.

Deeper and deeper into the maze we went. I went back and forth between trusting this guy and fearing he would pull a knife on me from one second to next. Finally the market alleys gave way to ticket booths for trains and buses, and we emerged in a very busy central transit station. There were dozens and dozens of ticket booths, all individually operated yet representing the same carriers. I went to every Pullman booth. None of them went to the little town. We were sent to a third station. We marched another ten blocks through winter-bleak city streets. At the station, there were another dozen Pullman booths, all containing clerks who couldn’t help me.

Finally we were sent to the booth of a different carrier, where the ticket agent assured me he had a bus leaving for my destination in two hours. I tipped the man in the poncho generously, feeling like a gringo douche bag. Then I bought a ticket for the equivalent of five bucks and waited vigilantly for the bus. It arrived a few hours later, and I settled into a seat. I had no idea how long the ride would be. We left the station and passed through miles of dingy urbanism and industry before merging onto the main highway.

*

The cabin of the bus was a bubble of climate controlled comfort rolling through a vast agricultural valley walled in by high mountains. It was reminiscent of the Salinas Valley in California, but on a much grander scale. Winter held the countryside firmly in its grasp. All was dormant, barren, waiting for spring. Sleeping vineyards hemmed in by skeletal rows of trees sat etched against mountain snows. Wood smoke drifted from the chimneys of stone farmhouses. Each rural vignette would repeat over and over as we rolled south through the endless valley: another vineyard, another farmhouse, another row of naked trees. The repetition of the landscape was hypnotic, lulling me into a trancelike, haunted sleep. Memories of my dad transformed themselves into mournful dreams.

I woke up as we went through a large town. I hadn’t eaten anything in many hours. I opened the box of crackers I’d stashed in my backpack and forced a few down. Twenty-three hours of travel relieved only by a few hours of sleep left me physically and emotionally exhausted. The events of the past few days slammed into my consciousness with brutal clarity.

My father was dead. The isolation of my circumstances suddenly felt overwhelming. I had no way of communicating with anyone. I pondered how strange it was that, at a time when I should be surrounded with friends and family, I was suddenly thousands of miles away from them. I didn’t even know exactly where Ryan and Burch were staying, and I had no way to reach them. All I could think about was my dad. There was no filter, no buffer, no one to talk to.

Later I realized that this was a blessing. I was able to mourn, alone, in a completely strange and unfamiliar place, free of any pre-existing emotional or sentimental triggers. All I had were thoughts and memories, and the brooding desolation of winter. More words from Allende floated through my mind: “Roots are not in a landscape or a country or a people, they are inside you.”

Many hours later the bus turned off the main highway and headed west. A faint, watery sun hung low on the horizon, barely visible behind a veil of cirrus cloud. We went through little villages and past more farms and vineyards. Then we started up a grade into the coastal mountains, thickly forested with pines. We topped a high pass and began descending though a rugged gorge, emerging high on a ridge. In the distance I could see the ocean, ribbed with long, dark lines of groundswell. In an instant, the setting sun broke fully clear of the clouds and flooded the world with golden, radiant light.

Waves spun down the point, shimmering like liquid jewels set against the deeper velvet of the bay. Jetlagged and light-headed, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I concluded that the only thing left for me to do now was get in the water.

Night fell as we reached the coast. We passed through fishing villages and more farm towns. By this time I was so hungry and tired I’d given up hope that my town would ever appear. Finally I asked the driver if we were still going to my destination. He assured me we were and, about an hour later, we came to the end of the line.

It was a dark little station. The night was bitter cold and getting even colder. There was no moon, but a billion winking diamonds lay strewn across an inky black tapestry in the sky. I’d never seen so many stars. I ate the last of my crackers and prepared to sleep on the ground in my board bag. I had no plan other than to somehow try to get some sleep and find some food in the morning. I’d abandoned all hope of connecting with my friends that evening.

Ten minutes later headlights appeared in the darkness and an SUV stuffed with boards and people rolled up. It was Ryan and Ryan with Ozzie Wright, fresh out of the water from an evening session. Suddenly I was angry about everything I’d gone through to find them here under terrible circumstances. I barked and vented at RT and immediately felt like an ungrateful asshole and apologized for my rudeness. I’d wrongly judged them as being callously lighthearted and surf-drunk in the face of my loss, but that wasn’t the case.

RT hugged me and gave his condolences. I didn’t know how to respond and realized that circumstances beyond any of our control had conspired to isolate me during the trip. It wasn’t anyone’s fault and RT and the rest of the crew, especially those who had already dealt with the deaths of their fathers, would go out of their way over the coming days to help me.

As we loaded my stuff in the vehicle, RT handed me some empanadas stuffed with meat and cheese and I devoured them. A few minutes later we arrived at the house and before long I was warm and fed and showered.

*

The swell was on the rise and these guys were stoked, plain and simple. It was contagious and I felt a hell of a lot better. Burch selflessly set me up with his bedroom. He slept upstairs in a tent so I could have some privacy and get some rest. I crashed hard and woke up before dawn the next morning. Seven hours of sleep passed in what felt like minutes.

I made some coffee and went outside as the sun rose. The house was perched on a hillside a few hundred feet above the ocean. As the dawn brightened I could see dark bands of swell crashing against a rocky coast. The rest of the crew emerged from their sleeping quarters. Nate, Ozzie, and Burch scoped the lines coming in and could hardly contain their excitement.

Milton has spent years living in a beachcomber shack in one of the nearby coves, living off the land and the sea, diving, fishing, and surfing. He is a natural inhabitant of the headland, as much a part of this place as the rocks, the trees, the sea, and the sky.

RT had been planning this trip for years. He was directing a new film, working hard to document the three goofy-footers in a way that would not only do justice to their abilities, but also capture in their surfing that intangible quality that has the power to inspire people, to move them emotionally. Waves were required to make this possible and it looked like today RT was going to be blessed with all the necessary ingredients.

Matt Shuster and Nate Leal, his trusted cameramen, were there to help him realize his vision. Brian Bielmann had also flown down from Oahu to shoot stills. RT is a detail-oriented perfectionist with total commitment to his artistic and aesthetic standards. To achieve the desired aesthetic, RT, Shuster, and Leal would be shooting a mix of RED and super-16mm Bolex cameras. Stakes were high today for the film crew.

We jumped in the vehicle and headed up a dirt track leading to the coast road, which we followed through forested hills and shady canyons. We passed rustic 19th-century ranchos and haciendas, some abandoned, some still being worked. It was cold and frost covered the ground in places that were still in shadow. We checked a few spots along the way: grinding left sandbars unrolled alongside dark, rocky headlands. They seemed to want a little less swell and cleaner conditions. We kept going until we came to a large headland that bent the southerly swell around a natural rock breakwater and down into a beautiful, cobalt bay.

It would have been a breathtaking sight even on a flat day, let alone seeing it under solid swell. One blank wall after another stretched down the point, ready for painting. Burch, Ozzie, and Nate prepared to get creative. Ozzie grabbed a 6’4″ channel-bottom shaped by Joel Fitzgerald, Nate a trusty looking 6’2″ Channel Islands thruster, and Burch a self-shaped 5’3″fish.

Burch was on his third extended trip to the area, and had already been down here for a month, surfing and making boards for his local friends. Hardly a show-up-blow-up photo pro, he’d taken things slow, quietly getting to know the surf and the locals. He’d set up a little shaping and glassing room at a friend’s house, where a few days earlier he and Ozzie had given the little fish a rather gaudy color job and dubbed it “The Rainbow.” The board was a fairly conventional, Lis-inspired fish, but with a few noticeable twists. It had a slight side cut above the pins, something I’d seen in La Jolla for many years in boards built by the Mirandon family and by an old-time Windansea guy named Hugh Duckworth. I’d also seen some made by Mick Mackie down in Ulladulla, Australia. I knew it was functional, I’d ridden some myself, and I’d seen Mackie and Eli Mirandon lay down some amazing surfing on fishy double-pinned side cuts.

For the past few years, Burch had been on a surf and design pilgrimage, riding self-shaped asymmetrics and, more recently, fishes at G-Land, Gnaraloo, Uluwatu, Mundaka, and small Teahupoo. He learned something from each wave and each board he built and rode. He’d programmed the side cut mutation into The Rainbow’s DNA for very specific reasons. All that remained to be seen was if this latest experiment in artificial selection would help the species evolve.

We came to a large headland that bent the southerly swell around a natural rock breakwater and down into a beautiful, cobalt bay. One blank wall after another stretched down the point, ready for painting.

The crew ran down the grassy path that led to the paddle-out spot near the top of the point. Just then three or four locals paddled into position during a brief lull, using the serious longshore drift to squeak out from a keyhole cove behind the rocks at the top of the point. One after another they caught waves and rode them perfectly. The back-siders slipped into deep barrels and gouged the lip with state of the art, stylish precision. The goofy-footers pulled graceful carves and snaps before casually backdooring long tube sections. Every ride was an impressive display of surfing. It was obvious these guys were familiar with good waves, and they knew how to ride them.

At this point I began suffering from sensory overload. For the past few days I’d gone through one extreme experience after another, coming in relentless, rapid-fire succession. This particular instance involved being plopped down in front of a pumping left point break. I watched as Burch caught his first wave and drove the little fish through a series of blistering highline carves and blow-tail snaps before driving through two barrel sections. The garish rainbow board contrasted beautifully with the azure wall he was flying across.

Waves spun down the point, shimmering like liquid jewels set against the deeper velvet of the bay. Jetlagged and light-headed, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I concluded that the only thing left for me to do now was get in the water.

To simplify travel, I’d brought only one board with me, a 5’8″ modern planing hull shaped by Daniel Thomson. Looking at the lineup, the no-brainer solution for an aging back-sider like myself would have been a 6’6″ conventional thruster or quad. But I was so used to the 5’8″ that I was reluctant to borrow a step-up and go through relearning how to ride it, especially in my frazzled state. I figured better to ride what I was familiar with. I might learn something, like what a step-up version of this board would need.

One thing I already knew: planing hulls are difficult to slow down in fast, backside barrels, and hard to pivot-stall with precision. They tend to run too fast and low in the flats while waiting for a section to throw. This means that, when you finally pull in, you’ll sometimes find yourself too high on the face, over-correct, and then get too low again. Conventional boards handle that kind of stuff better and make it easier to get slotted in the sweet spot of the tube on your backhand.

Regardless I put on my full suit and booties and set off down the little path up the headland. The sets now coming in behind the top of the point were pushing triple overhead, smashing up against the rocks in an intimidating display of raw power. By the time they wrapped into the bay they’d lost more than a third of their energy, but were still pretty hefty by pointbreak standards. It looked as if there were multiple ways to get worked out there. The most obvious was an ill-timed paddle though the keyhole, which would leave you right in the impact zone if a ten wave set rolled through, which meant getting swept down the point into oblivion at best, and dashed against the rocks at worst.

When I reached the little cove at the top of the point, a local in his late teens was about to paddle out. The ferocity of the sweep through the keyhole and down the point was no joke. We stood there trying to time a lull. For a moment the horizon looked quiet, and the local turned and motioned me to follow as he jumped in and instantly got swept sideways in the current.

The birth of something original arises from one person and affects others, not only mentally but also emotionally, transforming reality because it has never existed before. I’ve seen Burch do it—no, I’ve felt Burch do it, more than once. And he’d just done it again.

I followed, put my head down, and paddled as hard as I could, feeling the sting of cold water. We were behind the protective rock barrier, getting swept sideways toward the impact zone. As we emerged from the safety of the rock’s shadow a big set appeared. I proceeded to duck dive one steam-rolling wall of whitewater after another, getting thoroughly rag dolled and thrashed by seven or eight waves before I was finally able to paddle wide into the channel near the bottom of the point.

The current wasn’t too bad in the channel so I caught my breath and started paddling slowly back up to the takeoff section. The morning sun illuminated the clear water, fusing the blues and greens into a subtle, cool palate. A large pack of seals broke the surface next to me and headed quickly out to sea. I tried not to think about the things I usually think about when I’m paddling near a pack of seals in deep water.

I spent the next few hours dodging wide sets and riding waves when I could. My board felt good on the open face but was definitely hard to slow down and weirdly unpredictable on the barrel sections. During the long paddles back up the point, I watched everyone ripping, locals and guests alike.

Burch was taking the little rainbow fish to an absurdly high level of performance, a spontaneously radical outburst of creative expression. I watched as he repeatedly blew the split-tail and keels through the back of the wave, throwing huge fans of spray. He’d taken on a new nickname, the Greyhound, for the way he speed-paddled against the current, wave after wave, hour after hour, never slowing down. Ozzie, on the longer Fitz channel-bottom, power-hacked and carved with dramatic little style-flares thrown in for good measure. Nate was fast, radical, and precise, taking full advantage of the refinements built into his little thruster. Everyone was also getting barreled.

After a while I was too tired to continue paddling and I caught a wave down the point and all the way in through the bay. I forded a little river and scrambled along the cliff path back to the little grassy knoll where we’d left our stuff. I sat in the sun and watched the rest of the session.

A local goofy foot named Fabian Farias, aka El Conejo, (the Rabbit, “because he’s always hiding in a hole,”) locked into some amazing tube rides, as did Leo Acevedo, another goofy-foot. I learned that the backside guys I’d seen first thing in the morning were two brothers named Maximiliano and Esteban Cross. The Cross family had emigrated from Scotland to this country six generations ago.

An older regular-footer riding a bigger board got some beautiful rides, assuming a tube stance reminiscent of Owl Chapman’s. This was Milton, the guy who had pioneered local surfing in this area. The son of a fisherman, Milton’s family has lived nearby for four generations. Milton is the gatekeeper, the steward, the shaman, the environmental protection agency, and the judge and jury for what goes on in the area. His culinary skills are also legendary, from seafood empanadas to fire-roasted potatoes. He’d spent years living in a beachcomber shack in one of the nearby coves, living off the land and the sea, diving, fishing, and surfing. He is a natural inhabitant of the headland, as much a part of this place as the rocks, the trees, the sea, and the sky.

The surf community here is basking in an idyllic golden age, like California in the early 1950s. Keeping paradise was a prevalent theme among the locals: Beware the serpent and his trickery when he enters Eden, lest you lose paradise forever.

*

The tide dropped in the afternoon and the surf got cleaner. The next day was a slightly smaller version of the first. Ozzie paddled out on The Rainbow. I watched him take off deep on his first wave and pump through three tube sections, his dark silhouette visible through the curtain all the way down the point, emerging from time to time to throw a gouging carve or full speed floater. Ozzie is a big guy, and it was a testament to his intuitive board sense that he could jump on Burch’s experiment and stitch together a ride like that immediately. Once again Milton, Conejo, Leo, the Cross brothers, and local youngsters Daniel and Lucas put on a fine display of surfing, as did Nate and Burch.

The swell dropped a little in the coming days, and we surfed a few playful lefts. Burch and Ozzie continually swapped between The Rainbow and another fish named “Licorice All Sorts” that Burch had made down in Australia. While they skated and flew all over the place on the little craft, Nate put on a hyper-stylish and innovative display of aerial surfing. His airs were explosive and unpredictable. From the launch to the landing something different always happened, the hang time so extended that he’d make adjustments mid-flight to tweak it. His board control in the air was pure artistry, especially when seen backlit against the setting sun.

Over the next few days we were able to spend time with the locals. “We are the first generation of surfers here,” Conejo told me. “We know who we are and what we have. We don’t want to lose it. We want to conserve it.”

In some ways, the surf community here is basking in an idyllic golden age, like California in the early 1950s, made even sweeter perhaps because of the more-advanced boards and the collective progression of surfing. In other ways they are flirting with 70s-style localism bent on repelling outsiders by any means necessary. They are firmly planted in the present, however, global citizens of surfing, wired and connected, embracing the surf industry and media, watching webcasts and emulating their favorite athletes. In the midst of these somewhat conflicting realities and attitudes, they are united as a community, as an independent nation of surfers. They have their own identity, and they are dedicated to protecting and preserving their lifestyle and surf spots.

I was struck by the reverence and respect the younger surfers had for Milton. One night Maximiliano and Milton had more than a few beers together. They locked eyes and arms and swore eternal oaths of brotherly respect and soulful honor. They sang the praises of their home. Maximiliano is one of the most successful competitive surfers in the country, an absolute ripper, but it was clear that he felt his accomplishments were secondary compared to Milton’s seniority and his pure dedication to surfing this coast. Milton had founded a sort of paradise here and, in keeping with the coincidental circumstances of my journey, I couldn’t help but associate his situation with the work of another Milton, the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost in the 17th century. “A mind not to be changed by place or time,” wrote Milton “…is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Keeping paradise, not losing it, was a prevalent theme among the locals here: Beware the serpent and his trickery when he enters Eden, lest you lose paradise forever.

The endless baptism of freshly created things. What better way to describe surfing, when every ride, every board, becomes part of an endless procession of creation.

They call Maximiliano “El Duende.” In Spanish mythology a duende is an elfish, goblin-like creature that possesses magical powers. But duende has another, deeper meaning associated with human emotion, the soul, and creative expression. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca first developed the aesthetics of duende in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933. As Lorca put it, “Duende is that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.” It is a feeling that wells up deep inside us, an emotional and physical response to a work of art, a performance, or a piece of music. Duende is what gives us chills, makes us smile or cry as a bodily reaction to such things. Duende is the spirit of evocation.

Flamenco critic and aficionado Brook Zern wrote that when someone with duende performs, “there is a quality of first-time-ness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”

The birth of something original arises from one person and affects others, not only mentally but also emotionally, transforming reality because it has never existed before. Steve Lis achieved this in 1967, when he was 15 years old, with his little twin-keeled kneeboard, forever changing the minds of those who watched him ride it. I’ve seen Burch do it—no, I’ve felt Burch do it, more than once, and he’d just done it again. I’ve felt RT do it with music and film, weaving the two together until the duende is conjured and sound and vision are transformed into that feeling. That was why RT was down here, to capture the visitations of the duende in the surfing of Nate, Burch, Ozzie, and the locals. Through the craft of editing he would reveal it yet again in a new, and perhaps even more powerful, form.

Lorca concluded his lecture with these words: “The duende…where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s spit, crushed grass, and Medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”

The endless baptism of freshly created things. What better way to describe surfing, when every ride, every board, becomes part of an endless procession of creation, the greatest of which are anointed by the duende.

The day before we left a new round of swell pushed up from Antarctica. It had a different character, gray and somber with a stiff offshore wind. We surfed in the morning and, for an hour or so, the conditions were epic. Then the cold front passed over us and the wind turned onshore. We whiled away the rest of the morning around a campfire that blazed in a ring of stones on the grassy hillock above the waves. We watched the swell building, torn to pieces by the wind, gaining ferocity with every set. Milton threw potatoes in the embers, and we ate them with salt and chilli powder. Ozzie strummed his little guitar, and before long he and Milton broke into song, a spontaneous serenade whose lyrics and chorus were dedicated to the magic and beauty of the headland.

We left the next morning. Snowflakes fell as we drove through the great valley on our way to the airport in the city. The swell we’d been riding was traveling up to the northern hemisphere. I would surf it at Windansea after I got home, seven or eight days of excellent summer sessions. But I’d known these swells in winter, too, in another place, one I will forever remember in the context of my father’s death. Among many other things, he was a flamenco guitar player and I know the duende found him in the end.

Conversational excerpts selected from “The Life and Work of Richard Brewer.”

When this 24-page profile/interview combine was published in 1999, readers were accustomed to such full-throated portraiture in the TSJ editorial well. Few could ignore the significance of a cradle-to-now look at pinnacle gunsmith Dick Brewer as interpreted by writer Drew Kampion. The piece stands as a lively and crucial archival document, fully illustrated with appropriate period photography from the likes of Grannis, Stoner, Brewer, and Divine.

The roughly 10,000-word feature was neatly bisected with a traditional narrative anchoring the front half and a Q/A component stapled onto the back. Brewer, private if not secretive, allowed Kampion “unprecedented access” (to leverage a journalistic cliché), and the through-line of a shaper’s life provides a variety of launch points.

The end result was akin to sitting at a patio with the two, eavesdropping as Brewer drops science, history, and humble-brags. There’s gold here, if you’re into that sort of thing. You are, aren’t you?

Below, we’ve excerpted the interview portion. The full feature is, of course, available in our archives for download, free to subscribers. —Scott Hulet


Cheap kensho, that’s what the Roshi told him. You’ve had cheap kensho because you didn’t have to work for it the way we work for it. You ate the mushrooms or dropped the acid or whatever, and that prepared you, and now you’ve come here and seen the white light. You are the first man from the West to wake up. We have been wondering if a western man could wake up.

*

Drew Kampion: What sticks out in your mind from that winter of 1967-1968?

Dick Brewer: That was a big year at Honolua. Hakman was perfect on a 7’8″ board at the Bay. Jimmy Lewis and Larry Strada were glassing. Strada was creative. He had me shape their tails à la Greenough for flex, but they weren’t foiled. Les Potts shaped the first 11-inch nose on a 7’10”. Before that we were hung up on bigger noses. I lived in an apartment on Prison Street in Lahaina or in a camper at Honolua. I remember smokin’ in the camper with Reno and the rest of us, and McTavish comes up and goes, “Hey, y’goin’ out, mate?”

 

DK: How did what McTavish show you blend with what you were doing with the guns at Bing’s and at LSD?

DB: I put roll in the Bing Pipeliners because I’d already been into concaves since the Surfboards Hawaii days. I’d already established that the most positive bottom is a concave—it’ll bite better—and that the fastest is a flat bottom and the loosest is a slight roll. We incorporated the vee in November of ’67, when McTavish and Nat showed up on Maui, which then took the place of the roll. I played with concaves again then.

“Duke Kahanamoku came to my shaping room one time and he said, ‘You have great powers, my son. Don’t abuse your powers.’”

DK: Have you been involved in an equally creative and intense time since?

DB: Definitely. That Maui time was intense, but when Lopez and I got to Kauai right after the Maui thing, we’d already gotten boards down to 6’4″, so we weren’t choppin’ six or eight inches off the nose. Then we really got started getting into trying thick tails, thin tails, boxy tails. I had a 7’6″ pintail, kind of a radical-looking pintail, a single-fin, and it drew long, round lines. Then we chopped the tail off to about a six-inch squaretail, put a contemporary-looking fin a little further up, and we surfed it, and it squared the corners. It wasn’t round or concentric like the pintail. But up front it still felt the same. Then we rounded off the corners of the squaretail, and it still squared the comers, but it was a little looser in between. So then we rounded ’em more and more. The more we rounded ’em, the looser and S-ier the board got. When we finally got to a round tail, it had no square, and it actually slid in between the moves. So, we suddenly knew the difference—how it felt all the way from a pintail to a squaretail to a rounded squaretail to a full round tail—on the same board. Anyway, once we knew all that, Gerry Lopez decided he wanted to cut the tail at two angles and leave that little point back there. And so, right after that, Gerry invented the diamond tail.

 

DK: Can you run the same test with today’s thruster configurations?

DB: Yes, you could. We were moving the single fin. Al Merrick used to move his fins three times on the same board on the same day and try ’em. I remember me and Gary Linden, we’d find an Al Merrick with the four fins and measure ’em and put ’em on like that and check ’em out, then we’d measure somebody else’s and put them on like that. It was the same thing when the thrusters came. Simon Anderson laid the whole thing out, but people were riding small thrusters. When it finally came to building big thrusters, where do the fins go? And, now we have a formula that basically works for anything from a 4’6″ up to a 12’6″. And it’s actually a linear equation.

 

DK: So things have evolved.

DB: Down through the years, the evolution of the modern board is—we went through the flat deck, the boxy rail, the bottoms essentially flat with vees during that period. When Simon Anderson brought in the thruster, the flat deck and boxy rail was still kind of a state-of-the-art, however, shortly after that, Al Merrick, Gary Linden, and a few others started doming the decks, and we were finding out that with a really light board, you didn’t need that much foam once the surfer got the board planning—and a pro surfer has enough energy to keep the board planing in a skim, despite the small amount of float. It’s not a matter of float, it’s a matter of skimming power, and that is essentially what the pro’s doing when he catches a big wave—he’s already planing on top of the water, and he’s got a lot less drag once he catches the wave.

“When it finally came to building big thrusters, the question was where do the fins go? Now we have a formula that basically works for anything from a 4-footer up to a 13-footer. And it’s actually a linear equation.”

DK: But not me.

DB: Right, he’s actually pulling it onto a plane with horsepower, and it’s not floating. When you start getting into float, that’s when you start getting into 19 1/2″ and 3 1/4″ for a decent Waimea float, and everybody finds it out. They’ll start out at 18 1/4″ and 2 1/4″, like their shortboard, but by the time they’ve ridden Waimea four or five times, they’ll be up to 19 1/2″ and 3 1/4″. Believe me! [Laughter.]

DK: And lovin’ every quarter inch of it. So what’s the minimum board? We were riding five-sixes and five-tens in 1970, but they were fatter.

DB: Reno was the first one that said, “Dick, what’s the minimum board?” And I said, “Reno, it’s you.” So, we drew around Reno on a blank, and it came out 5’4″ and around 16 1/4″, maybe close to 17″ wide, and then he stayed up all night shaping it after we cut it out. This is before he went to the World Contest in Puerto Rico in ’68. It was less than two inches thick and later on we found out—after seeing him ride it—that it was the minimum board. But it was a matter of finding reality

 

DK: Then you went on to tri-fins.

DB: Right. Back in 1971, Alden Kaikaka was down to a 6’0″, and I think he reached a peak of mobility in surfing that I’ve never seen reached since, and he used a three-fin shape that was 19-inches wide and 6-feet long, and he put one small fin in the center, and in the finals at that Ala Moana contest, he did thirteen 360s and helicopters and made the wave! At that contest, I won the Seniors, Gerry Lopez won the Pros (the 4As they called it), Reno got second, and Alden Kaikaka got first in the 3As. So, it was a clean sweep for Brewer. But shortly after that, Reno and Gerry Lopez went off with Jack Shipley and started Lightning Bolt, and I went off and started Dick Brewer Surfboards.

 

DK: This was about the time you were working on those three-fin boards with Reno?

DB: Right. I knew there was something there, and we got into it, but I suddenly realized I was already five or ten years ahead of the surfing world in development. So I put it aside until I had time and money to work on it. You needed time and money to work on these projects in research and development, because there were so many gray areas in design, so at that point, I decided to get into my single-fin Waimea boards, which eventually evolved into the modern, single-fin Roger Erickson-type boards. In the last four or five years the noses have gotten narrower, but that basic thing was evolved quite a while ago. And after that, I got into the gun thruster with Darrick Doerner, and we did a lot of “evolvement.” That would have been around the late 80s or early 90s.

“I suddenly realized I was already five or ten years ahead of the surfing world in development. So I put it aside until I had time and money to work on it. You needed time and money to work on these projects in research and development.”

DK: Speaking of guns, have you ever considered restarting Surfboards Hawaii?

DB: With the right investors and the right lawyers, we could put Surfboards Hawaii back together. However, I do have a business partner now who is an attorney—Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wineries—and he’s a very, very generous person. Duke Kahanamoku taught him to surf back in the 50s, and Jess has given me a lot of personal advice on how to do this thing, and we do have a new logo. It’s gonna be the lei—so it’s called Plumeria. And, basically, we’re starting out to work with Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox on tow boards with the Plumeria lei.

 

DK: Kind of a new beginning on the cutting edge?

DB: The people I’m working with have kept me there. And all my ideas from the past, the work I did with concaves and different kinds of bottoms and skurfers, has finally come together in tow boards. The hard-core guns are still gonna be Dick Brewer Surfboards. Y’know, it’s a fact that Brewer guns have dominated the North Shore of Oahu for 40 years. My trips to the North Shore are rewarding, even though all kinds of labels go on what I shape. I get good money for it. And I also do balsa boards on Oahu because I have a cabinet shop there with every kind of woodworking tool you can imagine at my disposal. I work with Erik “Bones” Forgerson, who glues up and chambers the balsa, and he rides ’em good at Waimea. What we’re doing is the basic Brewer bottom, which is “tried and true” for 30 years or more on big waves, but there are little things being done to make ’em behave better. Jack Reeves, the glasser at Sunset Beach that I’ve worked with for the last 30 years, is still there, and he’s definitely one of the best in the world.

 

DK: Have you felt ahead of the curve over the years?

DB: Oh, yeah. There’s been five and ten years at a time when I felt like I was on hold—where you felt like you’d plateaued and passed up the surfing world, and now you had to sit back and just do the status quo for a while. Even I have done that. And those were boring times, when surfing was stagnant. As far as research and development went—you were already past the market. You just didn’t see any sense in going anywhere else.

 

DK: Somewhere along the line you got into windsurfing and shaping sailboards.

DB: Everybody on the North Shore was windsurfing in 1979 and ’80, and I just got caught up in it like everybody else. And what I learned making windsurfers taught me more about speed for surfboards.

“I want to build your board. Don’t be afraid to talk to Brewer. Cause when you get to Sunset and Waimea, you’re gonna need a Brewer, and you guys are afraid to come and talk to me, a lot of you.”

DK: You also got into making Skurfers, right?

DB: Rick Holt and I worked on this skurfer thing about ten years ago with a young pro down at the Waialua River—Eric Perez. We actually started out shaping little foam surfboards and got to the point where Rick was clamping high-tech materials to a small board with the rocker shaped into the bottom, and things we started learning helped me when I made the first tow boards for Laird, cause I knew that the back foot should be less than an inch thick, and it is—it’s only 5/8 of an inch thick where Laird’s back foot is on this board, and it seems to be an important part of effective planing on a real big wave. It has to do with being too high above the water and that creates too much torque. You’re basically better off standing right on the water. Picture yourself being six inches up and how much torque your forward or backward forces would have on tipping the board versus being right on the surface. And there’s a lot less foam to absorb the shock when you land. But we’re actually into something called “reverse camber’ on tow boards now, which came from snowboards, and makes them more alive and gives you spring. So I’m into that with Laird and Darrick Doerner right now.

 

DK: How is Laird’s tow board different from your conventional big-wave gun?

DB: It’s narrower. It’s essentially a ten-foot thruster template with two feet cut out of the middle. It’s 7’5″, 15 1/2″ wide, and 2 1/8″thick—for Laird.

 

DK: And he’s riding a wave how big?

DB: Fifty to 60 feet. But he’s had boards down to 6’1″. In fact, he’s got a 6’8″, less than 2″ thick for small waves, and he’s really a big boy. But he’s riding a 7’5″ on the biggest waves—full concaves. Laird has boiled it down to where the real points are going rail-to-rail, which are slalom waterski moves and on a big wave—dig your rail, rail-to-rail pump power. He says that inside a giant tube, there’s no way to compare the bite that you get with a full concave under your back foot—with a strap. There’s no way you can compare any kind of vee or flat bottom with what a concave feels like. That is the bottom line—that once you’re inside a giant tube, you want this tip-down concave sitting right under your toes.

 

DK: This tow-in thing is a new universe.

DB: That is a new universe, and I’m here to build your board. And you pros out there, I want to build your board. Don’t be afraid to talk to Brewer! Cause when you get to Sunset and Waimea, you’re gonna need a Brewer, and you guys are afraid to come and talk to me, a lot of you. I don’t care, you can put any sticker on it you want, just paint it and glass it. But I want to build your board, cause you guys’ll need Brewers when you get there.

“Butch Van Artsdalen had some vials of ‘purple hat’ Owsley, so me and Jackie Eberle dropped and paddled out at Waimea Bay. For the first year of the psychedelic thing, that was what we all took when Waimea broke, or big Honolua.”

DK: Your surfing and shaping career has spanned eras—from elephant guns and prehistoric adventures on the North Shore to the thin blades and tow boards of today. Where have you found your maximum resonance?

DB: I would say, right now. Because I’ve got all of my understanding of fluid flow and aerodynamics and knowledge available to me. I’ve got Al Merrick and Pat Rawson and Rusty helping to do the groundwork, whereas back in the Dark Ages, I didn’t really have anybody else that was at my level trying new things. My goal in reaching out is to be involved in the research and development of the modern surfboard, and it’s an ongoing thing. It’s not boring. Really getting involved in my gun thrusters with Darrick Doerner and others took all my interest for the last couple years, but, at the same time, young surfers like Myles Padaca, Elija Young, and Joel Fitzgerald have really stimulated me to upgrade my shortboards and my mini-guns, and to bring in some of the new ideas that Al Merrick and Rusty and Simon Anderson have brought into surfboard design. So, my shortboards and even my guns are all a blend of what everybody else is doing. But they’re also a blend of everything that I’ve done for the last 40 years.

 

DK: You’re still associated with the late 60s—the era of acid and other psychotropic substances. How did you first get exposed to that, and when was your first trip?

DB: You know, I didn’t really trip out as much as a lot of people. My first acid trip was when Butch Van Artsdalen had some vials of “purple hat” Owsley, so me and Jackie Eberle dropped and paddled out at Waimea Bay. For the first year of the psychedelic thing, that was what we all took when Waimea broke, or big Honolua.

 

DK: A vile of acid at Waimea Bay. What was that like?

DB: Well, you either find reality or you don’t find anything. I saw Jackie Eberle lose it and never come back. And that’s when I started slowing down on the stuff.

 

DK: Everybody I knew who took it had a few breathtaking moments, but overall it just woke us up to the world again.

DB: And that’s what made me finally go to a temple with a real Buddhist priest on this island, and he told me, “Mr. Brewer, just you come every morning at 6 o’clock. We sit.” And I came and sat for an hour every morning for a year with the priest in a little temple in a plantation town called Wahiawa. It’s gone now. I drove from Hanapepe where my surf shop was, up the hill a couple miles to the temple every morning, and then I’d go surfing. It became a real religious thing.

“I’d flicker in and out of that consciousness. Afterwards, the roshi led me out into the garden and just left me out there behind the zendo, and I remember I felt so light. I felt like a gazelle.”

DK: When you encountered this man, what did you think?

DB: You know, you couldn’t tell when you were sitting there in the zendo. You’d see him across the room…and it wasn’t until I had kensho

 

DK: What’s kensho?

DB: That’s enlightenment. He said I had “cheap kensho.” I took the drugs, cheap kensho.

 

DK: So you didn’t have to go through the process. You swallowed a pill, so to speak.

DB: Well, I had this religious experience sitting there, right? You’re at the place where it’s like a white light? I was at the white light. It was very beautiful. Then when they rang the bell—they rang the bell every hour, and everybody followed each other around the room, because you get into this state of consciousness where you’re not even thinking, for days—and when the bell rang, a crack went through the beautiful white light. And I wanted back there. They said I started crying like a little baby. Someone told me that. They heard me cry, and they went, “A baby!” I wanted to be back there. And, y’know, I’d flicker in and out of that consciousness. Afterwards, Dr. King led me out into the garden and just left me out there behind the zendo, and I remember I felt so light. I felt like a gazelle—y’know, how when you get high you’re so light? I could hear the trucks driving way down the hill on Ala Moana Boulevard. I was aware. But I remember when they brought me in to sit in front of the Roshi, he was sitting here right in front of me with this light garment on, and the wind was blowing, and he was like a python snake. He was so loose! His joints were just all stacked up on top of each other—like they say, no tight muscles—where the wind would blow his consciousness, and I was right there with him. Just for a short time. Maybe it only lasted a month, but I was there. I know I was.

 

DK: But it’s gone away?

DB: Yeah, but they want me to find enlightenment. They want some Western man to find it. To them, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary couldn’t sit in front of the Roshi at a high level of consciousness like I did. To them I was the first Western man that had enlightenment, as far as they knew. This was the real deal, y’know what I mean?

 

DK: They told you this?

DB: Yeah. They weren’t even sure that Western man could even get there. The priest that taught me, Khomi, said that you’re born enlightened, that your parents hang you up. He made me aware—that we don’t have to go sit or do some thing to reach it, that all you can be is yourself.

“When I’m at Sunset Beach making boards for Waimea and Pipeline and Sunset, it puts me right on the cutting edge every time. And I go there about once a month.”

DK: Do you find shaping in itself is a kind of alternative state?

DB: There was a time when I thought I was making shaping a Zen discipline, but I don’t make it that any more—that everything we do we should try to do perfect, and do it right, which is really the Zen way of doing things, that you need to pay attention and cut aside distracting thoughts. I find my attention span is shorter as I get older. I do need to sit and meditate again. After I had my experiences and my life went into such chaos, maybe I hesitated to go back and try to do a meditation thing until my life gets in such perfect order that I won’t have any outside disturbances to bother my meditation. And then it’s kind of like, hey, it’s gonna come together…for 20 years! I think maybe I should start meditating again, whether or not everything’s in order.

 

DK: Then it will be in order.

DB: Then it will be in order.

 

DK: Speaking of order, you’ve almost always worked “underground,” as if posing an alternative paradigm to how the surfboard industry works.

DB: And it’s still going on. It makes the guy on the beach at Sunset, who gets a Brewer and pays for a shape job, feel like he’s real close to the source. It keeps me close to my customers—right on the cutting edge. When I’m at Sunset Beach making boards for Waimea and Pipeline and Sunset, it puts me right on the cutting edge every time I go there. And I go there about once a month.

 

DK: That’s the way the Hawaiians would have done it, a thousand years ago—if there was a shaper, he’d be a part of the community.

DB: Duke Kahanamoku came to my shaping room one time. It was 1967, and Jock Sutherland had won the Duke on a Brewer with the Duke label on it. He said he was very proud that one of his boards had won the Duke meet, and he said that in the old days a surfboard builder was considered a kahuna. He said, “You have great powers, my son. Don’t abuse your powers.”

 

DK: So if a shaper is a kahuna, you’d have to be a kahuna.

DB: Which is considered a holy man in the Hawaiian culture. But I never tried to play that role. My thing is, I’m not playing any role. I’m just a designer and to still be communicating and contributing to humanity at this time in history makes my life worthwhile.

“Nobody was perceptive enough to see that there was something at the end of the rainbow. Whereas I was then, and still am totally, committed to the design aspect of the modern surfboard.”

DK: So you communicate through your shaping, and you’ve trained a lot of other shapers.

DB: Yeah. Gerry Lopez was my first real student. He was a natural. The first board he shaped was an excellent surfboard. With Owl Chapman, it took some time, but Owl stuck with it, and he’s got a big-wave board thing together that works. Reno, it took some time, but Reno did learn how to shape. Sammy Hawk was a natural. Mark Anderson on Maui was a natural. Jimmy Lewis was a natural. These were all my students. When Mark Richards came to me, I was not actually wanting students, so I charged him [$2,700]. He came back a year later and said his Dad had paid for the shaping lessons and said that when he left he was a hacker, and when he came back he was a shaper. He became creative on his own, and he was one of the best, just like Terry Fitzgerald when he came along—he was one of the best surfers I’d ever seen. I knew they were talented.

 

DK: If somebody came around right now and wanted to learn how to shape, would you teach him?

DB: Only if he had some experience. It’s just too hard to start from the beginning. They have to fundamentally know what they’re doing.

 

DK: What’re your observations of Gerry Lopez as a student?

DB: Gerry was my best student, and Gerry Lopez taught me how to do yoga. I recognized Gerry as being a very talented young man. You know, he was number one Junior in Honolulu on Brewers. So was Reno and Jimmy Lucas, Michael Ho, Mark Foo—they were all number one Juniors on Brewers, at a time in history when I was totally giving my energies to the young surfers as well as the North Shore regulars, which the surfing world didn’t seem to know about. I spent a lot of time at Ala Moana, and I remember having a meeting with Rochlen and Schwartz at Surfline and telling them, “Hey, these young dudes I got are gonna be the future of surfing.” And I was talking about Reno and Hakman and Gerry Lopez. And I remember Fred going, “Well, Gerry Lopez is unproven at this time in history.” He was a real mouthy kind of guy. But my problem at that time was, just like every other time—with Hobie, with Bing, that nobody was perceptive enough to see where surfing was going, that only me and Hakman, we perceived it. But none of these people could see that there was hundreds of millions of dollars a year of “groupie” clothing and accessories that eventually were going to be involved in this surf industry.

 

DK: So, how has it gone?

DB: But nobody believed in me enough to stick with it more than a year. They’re going, “Well, we didn’t make a bundle of money this year, so why do it another year?” That was kind of what I was putting up with for about ten or fifteen years there. Surfline couldn’t see the light, and then Shipley went off and did his Lightning Bolt thing, and it was the first big-time thing, right? Instead of all them (getting together). Hakman was there, Sutherland was there, David Nuuhiwa was even there—we could have put this whole thing together under Jams and Surfline Hawaii, or under Hobie, and it wouldn’t have been all Australian money, like Quiksilver and Billabong and Rip Curl. You know what I’m telling you? It could have been American clothing companies. But Hakman took all his energy and went down to Quiksilver because the Americans weren’t enlightened enough to see that there was an opening there. And every time I’d end one of these years getting screwed by some investor that bought Dick Brewer or something—go ahead and print all this—nobody was perceptive enough to see that there was something at the end of the rainbow. Whereas I was then, and still am totally, committed to the design aspect of the modern surfboard. And if I’d sat back and become a businessman any time in that era, I’d have a lot more assets right now, there’s no doubt about it.

“We’re the first free souls. We’re looking for our real selves, cause the enlightened you is the best surfer in you. That’s what we’re really all looking for.”

DK: Have you had periods when you actually hung up shaping and thought that part of your life was over and set off on a different path?

DB: Yeah. There was a time when I was studying Zen with my teacher; I thought about going back into engineering or selling real estate. I didn’t realize my teacher realized all these things, but he started talking about all these little things I’d done with fins and bottoms and things, and he says, “Mr. Brewer, this surfboard design thing, you must finish what you start.” And this was one of the few pieces of advice that I got from a real Zen person, that since I started this surfboard design thing, I must finish it.

 

DK: You’ve had great success as a shaper. What events in your life have brought you a sense of failure?

DB: In my relationships in business, things have not been perfect. If I had to do things over, when Nat Young came to Maui in ’67, I would have given him my board—if I had to do it over—and let my own surfing become “back seat” on Maui at that time in history, because he would have really come alive if he’d had my 9′ pintail.

 

DK: Anything else that comes to mind where you feel you’ve failed?

DB: You know, I’ve given my whole life to this sport, and I make a good living, and so I’m content. But I somehow feel deep inside like I should put the Surfboards Hawaii thing back together the way I started out.

 

DK: The surfing world has created a pretty unique niche for its elder statesmen and artisans. It seems to reinforce what Nat talks about—that surfing is a tribe, that it has tribal qualities to it.

DB: It does have tribal qualities. Chuck Shipman [longtime Sunset Beach resident and sometime event organizer] told me several years ago about a meeting of the world’s philosophers at the Ilikai Hotel in Waikiki, and this philosopher got up and gave a talk and said that the only people fit to rule the world were the surfers. Cause they could paddle out in the ocean and forget about everything. And there’s something to that—that we’re the first free souls, that we’re really looking for our real self, cause the enlightened you is the best surfer in you, that’s what we’re really all looking for, and that’s why we were looking at so many different lifestyles and what-not, to find the real us. The Barry Kanaiaupuni that’s in us. The Hawaiians, when they first got here, were natural, relaxed. There was something about their being when they surf. The people surf just the way they are, and that…the surfers are enlightened people.

How Rick Griffin, South Bay surfer and artist, became the unlikely herald of the Psychedelic Revolution.

In the summer of 2002, I fielded a phone call from contributor Steve Barilotti. Nobody’s time bandit, Barlo only reached out when he had a slam-dunk of an editorial pitch. Being one of the very finest straight-ahead surf writers in the game, such calls were met with relief, as they invariably led to a successful long-form feature article.

On that particular day, Barlo pointed out a glaring deficiency in surf magazineland—no title had yet gone hammer-and-tongs with the Rick Griffin story. It seemed absurd, the equivalent of a guitar title ignoring Django Reinhardt.

We went to print within the year, and it became a keystone in TSJ’s surf art archive. While it would seem best delivered as a visual display piece, Barlo’s long-form profile is plenty worthy of a surf-tuned reader’s attention. And if you do happen to be keen on seeing the visuals, remember that every feature in our archives is available to download, free of charge for our subscribers. —Scott Hulet


“Having transcended the seven evolutionary superuniverses of time and space which circle the never-beginning, never-ending creation of divine perfection, Murphy arrives at the heart of the eternal and central universe of universes on the stationary isle of paradise, the geographic center of infinity, and the dwelling place of the eternal living God! It is here that our story opens…” —MURPHY, SURFER, MAY 1969

*

Indian Summer, 1963. Dawn. Crow caw, smell of onions. Highway 101, a shoulder-less two-lane blacktop, snakes its way through the wind-cowed Salinas Valley. To the east, the morning sun throws a few lackadaisical red rays over misty tracts of broccoli and iceberg lettuce. Near the packing sheds, sleepy braceros stamp chilled feet like horses and gingerly sip steaming cowboy coffee from blue metal cups. The bucolic hush is punctuated by the occasional scree of a red-tailed hawk nesting the gnarled eucalyptus windbreaks overlooking the highway north of King City, population 894.

From the distance, a deep-throated grumble of a 1950 Plymouth coupe gunning down the highway. The sound builds, thundering crescendo, a sudden squeal, the sharp pop of a door latch releasing and fat Goodyear whitewalls skid by, trailing a slipstream of dust and cheap gaudy carnival trinkets. Floating in the haze is a surreal tableau of vintage 10-cent gimcracks: kazoos, Kewpie dolls, Groucho glasses, tin cricket clickers, hula girls, piggy banks, Chinese finger traps, whoopee cushions, Bakelite puzzles, and little grinning see-no-evil smoking monkeys.

A small wooden artist’s sketch box spins through the toys, revolving end-over-end, in slow motion. It strikes the asphalt and explodes. Brushes, paints, and charcoal pencils cascade in lovely chaos across the highway. A single, silver, double-aught Rapidograph drafting pen hovers in space, spinning like a propeller.

Rick Griffin, handsome, towheaded 19-year-old surfer from Palos Verdes, sails through the air. He’s wearing regulation early 60s surfing garb: Levis, white Jack Purcell low-cut tennis sneakers, and a gray plaid Pendleton over a road-stained JC Penny t-shirt. He is suspended, caught in this moment forever. Beardless youth, shock, arresting blue eyes bulge in horror.

Click…a house party back in Torrance. Lots of kids, surfers, greasers, girls, a keg. “Mr. Moto” pulses from the portable Symphonic 45. He’s laughing, dancing. A flash of sunburned thighs, a girl’s delighted high-pitched squeal. His girl, a honey-skinned Mexican beauty, across the room, sulking, glaring.

Click…his mother, Jackie, stern and German, shouts at him as he tears out the door. “If you stay out all night again, don’t bother coming home!”

Click…the party’s over. His buddy Tom and him finish off the keg, sit in the ochre light at the kitchen table. A recent issue of Surfer opened to blue warm waves. Australia, a new land. A finger traces a line of longitude on a borrowed globe. A plan: hitchhike to San Francisco, catch a freighter, working passage, why not? A defiant slosh to freedom.

A small artist’s sketch box revolves end-over-end, in slow motion. It strikes the asphalt and explodes. Brushes, paints, and charcoal pencils cascade in lovely chaos across the highway. A single, silver, double-aught Rapidograph drafting pen hovers in space, spinning like a propeller. Rick Griffin, handsome, towheaded 19-year-old surfer from Palos Verdes, sails through the air. In the darkness, gliding, speeding along the edge of a vortex. He feels his fingers drag along a spinning wet wall. Wraithlike wail of the tube, a hollow exhalation. He knows this place. A faint light ahead, grows stronger, a roaring hiss.

Click…evening, Malibu, Pacific Coast Highway. Clammy sea mist, no ride since sundown, exhaustion, hangover. Tom sleeps in the bushes. Rick squints at a set of headlights, a rumble, a crunch of gravel, a resting gap-toothed grille. Roy Orbison wails through the dashboard. A whiskey-soaked voice beckons: “Hop in boys!”

Click…a small wiry man, hard used, chain smoking, stained teeth, a carny. Runs the ring toss and the shooting gallery. Boxes of prizes piled on the seat and floorboard. Nonstop amphetamine chatter, carny talk. “Heezoly sheezit!” Loves Kentucky bourbon, loves poozle, loves sweet delta blues, you see. Driving all night to make an afternoon show in Petaluma. “Gotta sweet little thing going up there…she’s a midget, you understand…”

Click…Rick riding shotgun, finally warm, lulled to sleep. Daybreak, farm fields, hears the carny, ratcheting on: “Yessir, this Special Dee-lux version is one of the finest machines ever built…a Chrysler L-Head straight-six with crackerjack suspension. Why I could take my hands off the wheel and this baby would steer itself straight as an arrow…”

Click…a sickening lurch to the left, over-correction to the right, the carny cursing. “Jay-sus!” The car goes into a long arcing skid, irresistible tendrils of centrifugal force pulling at him…

Click…Rick floats over the highway, wind billowing his Pendleton, a blur of picketing white lines, a whirring black grindstone, bearing down, stringy-bark eucalyptus, smell of onions…

Searing flames on his cheek, flesh rendering, then darkness.

In the darkness, gliding, speeding along the edge of a vortex. He feels his fingers drag along a spinning wet wall. Wraithlike wail of the tube, a hollow exhalation. He knows this place. A faint light ahead, grows stronger, a roaring hiss…

Click.

Rick awakes swaddled in a pink morphine cloud. A young woman’s voice, clear and monotonous, reads the 23rd Psalm. His left eye is taped closed. He opens his right and sees only a gauzy red veil. Sounds of a hospital. Muzak, sharp clink of polished sterilized steel dropping into a metal pan. A man’s voice, tired, plaintive: “C’mon Bill, let’s go to lunch. That kid’s a goner.” Rick, panicked, aghast at the prospect of being buried alive, tries to scream but finds his jaw is wired shut.

Click…

That’s one version. Over the years, Rick’s accident has become a sort of Chinese chain letter. Some versions have him hitchhiking solo, some with a high-school friend named Tom. Others have him driving the car and picking up a mysterious hitchhiker whom he lets drive. Others have him rolling the car, this time a 1954 Ford station wagon. Another variation has him going through the windshield and the car rolling over him. Another has him in a friend’s Corvair hitting a bridge abutment in Rosarito. Yet another has his friend, frying on acid and driving a sports car at night, swerving to avoid a ghost child standing in the road.

This isn’t surprising. Griffin actively cultivated conflicting, often warring personas throughout his life, not unlike his cartoon alter ego Murphy. Both were open to creative embellishment or wholesale editing by others until they were ready for print. Each of his family and friends nurture a cherished rendering of Rick that they protect jealously from dissenting accounts.

“Griffin was never into moderation,” says Steve Pezman, who knew Griffin from the mid-60s. “He kept trying on answers and assumed that persona. When he’d come into Surfer when I was the publisher, I never knew which Rick Griffin was coming in. He’d ride up on a Harley and all the secretaries in the building would be looking out the windows going, ‘God, who’s this guy?’ It was just a sight to behold.”

Various descriptions include, but aren’t limited to: gas-huffing Lakewood pachuco, guileless pretty-boy gremmie, Haight-Ashbury charismatic, goofball Christian dad, beatnik art student, underground-comic pioneer, clueless womanizer, middle-aged punk rocker, psychedelic poster art legend, ill-tempered prima donna, luckless good guy, hog-riding-crack-smoking-rock-star-wannabe.

But mostly, it seems, Rick Griffin was a surfer. And an artist.

Over the years, his accident has become a sort of Chinese chain letter. Some versions have Rick hitchhiking solo, some with a high-school friend named Tom. Others have him driving the car and picking up a mysterious hitchhiker whom he lets drive. Another has him in a friend’s Corvair hitting a bridge abutment in Rosarito. Yet another has his friend, frying on acid and driving a sports car at night, swerving to avoid a ghost child standing in the road.

This much of the accident, however, can be triangulated from a short bulletin published in the “Surf Spots” gossip column of the December-January 1963 issue of Surfer: “On Monday October 7, Surfer cartoonist Rick Griffin was seriously injured in an automobile accident while traveling through King City. Rick’s situation was extremely critical for several days with his life hanging in the balance. As we go to press, it appears that he will live.”

There are no further details. But the note, almost certainly written by Surfer’s then publisher John Severson, signs off with a heartfelt get-well and a subliminal challenge for Griffin. “It’s going to take a lot of courage for Rick to make a full recovery,” writes the 29-year old Severson to his young friend. “The courage it will take to pull through all of this will far surpass that needed to take off on any wave.”

A quick scan of Surfer’s contents pages from 1961-63 show no break in the Murphy strips over a span of 14 issues. Prior to the accident, Griffin had apparently stockpiled at least one Murphy. The two-page cartoon, entitled “Murphy’s Adventure in Down Underland,” shows Murphy reading the “Down Under” section of Surfer, hopping a freighter and working off his passage as coal stoker. A get-well letter to Griffin from Severson dated November 13, 1963, confirms he’s holding the strip for publication.

Twenty-eight years later, Griffin would contribute an illustration to San Francisco’s The City of an artist, presumably a grown-up Murphy, on his knees about to enter the gates of heaven. Two weeks after the piece ran, Griffin would be dead of a motorcycle accident suffered while speeding his Harley Heritage Softail down a narrow country road outside of Petaluma, California. He was 47.

*

“I noticed Rick Griffin was wearing a patch over one eye and had a beard in the photo on page three of the April-May issue. Has he turned into a Bohemian or Beatnik?”—A MURPHY FAN, LAGUNA BEACH, CALIFORNIA

*

As early as 1963, Griffin, at age 19, was already a cultural surf star. His Murphy comic strips, which debuted in the second issue of Surfer in early 1961, had proven wildly popular among the magazine’s 50,000 avid subscribers. As John Severson’s teenage protégé, Griffin’s career arc was steep and seemingly effortless. A certain degree of rarified notoriety followed.

Griffin’s cartoons more or less defined Surfer’s early look and, to a large extent, its voice. Whereas John Severson’s characters were whimsical, mute ciphers, Murphy spoke directly to the young, mostly male audience of the era in a polite but defiantly cheeky tone. Murphy hit his apogee as a surfing cultural hero early on when he snagged the cover shot of the August/September 1962 issue.

With a shock of shaggy bleached hair, perpetually cockeyed grin, and size 14 prehensile feet (always bare), Murphy became an overnight sensation. The early strips, drawn when Griffin was still a sophomore at Palos Verdes High, were crude but strongly rendered. They had a ramshackle “Our Gang” charm to them, complete with a “club howse” and a lizard mascot. The language was gee-whiz exuberant: “neat-o,” “really nifty,” and “huzzawhewy!” It was also Boy’s Life maudlin at times.

But in many respects, Murphy was the teenage Griffin who grew up hopelessly middle class and affected a rather stay-pressed, fresh-scrubbed approximation of a surfer while in high school.

“I think that the early Griffin epitomized the naive stoke of the 60s, the sense of the discovery in the first hula-hoop explosion of the sport,” says Pezman, who captained Surfer as editor and publisher from 1971 to 1991. “He took things like, ‘Murphy versus the Marines’—all the cute, naive underpinnings of what later would become this intensely rebellious thing. At the time, it was an act that the general audience of our world didn’t understand. But surfers regaled in the fact that they were misunderstood.”

Rick was tapped to be Surfer’s staff cartoonist in late 1960 after Severson met Griffin while screening his film Surf Fever at Torrance High. John Severson, who at the time was still primarily a filmmaker, had noted Rick’s shop posters for Greg Noll and was suitably impressed with the 16-year-old’s precocious grasp of line and rhythm.

Griffin actively cultivated conflicting, often warring personas throughout his life. Various descriptions include, but aren’t limited to: gas-huffing Lakewood pachuco, guileless pretty-boy gremmie, Haight-Ashbury charismatic, goofball Christian dad, beatnik art student, underground-comic pioneer, clueless womanizer, middle-aged punk rocker, psychedelic poster art legend, ill-tempered prima donna, luckless good guy, hog-riding-crack-smoking-rock-star-wannabe. But mostly, it seems, Rick Griffin was a surfer. And an artist.

Over the next two years, Griffin produced an affluence of illustrations for the fledgling surf magazine. Severson, an art teacher turned publisher who was 10 years Rick’s senior, served as employer, friend, mentor, agent, and erstwhile hero. Rick, whose classic surfer boy good looks embodied the California ideal, was vetted as Surfer’s unofficial mascot. Readers wrote in each issue to congratulate Griffin or debate the finer points of Murphy’s performance. Severson spun off Murphy mags, decals, t-shirts, and beer stains.

After graduating from Palos Verdes High in June of 1962, Griffin devoted himself full time to surfing, drawing for Surfer, and partying. By the early 1960s, L.A.’s South Bay had suddenly become the center of the cool universe as the first wave of post-WWII boomer kids reached adolescence. Teenagers, flush with disposable cash, drove a huge youth market of clothes, cars, and music. Mainstream interest in surfing, as a sport and a pose, skyrocketed. Rick suddenly found himself at the eye of a cultural hurricane.

Surf music, a danceable, reverb-heavy instrumental rock that evoked the surging rush and exoticism of surfing, had seemingly sprung up overnight. Dick Dale, playing a deafening “wet” version of the traditional Greek standard “Miserlou” was drawing capacity crowds of 4,000 or more at the Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Peninsula. A Redondo Beach garage band, The Belairs, had scored a runaway local hit with “Mr. Moto” the previous summer and became the first music group to marquee themselves exclusively as a “surf band.”

Paul Johnson, one of the founding members of The Belairs, recalls that nobody saw it coming: “What made it exciting was that it was larger than all of us,” says Johnson, who went on to become Griffin’s lifelong friend and spiritual copilot through a later Christian conversion. “It was one of those serendipitous things where you get caught up in this thing and you’re just on for the ride. We rented the Hermosa Biltmore and had to turn people away after we got 1,500 kids in there, all slapping their huaraches on the floor. The noise was deafening. That summer was an explosion.”

Randy Nauert, Rick’s high school surf buddy and best friend, was a guitarist who had played bass with The Belairs and later joined The Challengers surf band in 1962. He invited Rick to several of their local gigs. Rick, who loved music but lacked talent, was irresistibly drawn to the growing surf music scene. He envied Randy the immediate feedback, the instant adulation, and most of all, the girls.

“Rick was always a frustrated rock star,” says Nauert, who got Rick surfing in the ninth grade and originally introduced Griffin to John Severson. “He’d work these all-nighters in a little room listening to music with nobody there. Then his stuff would come out and nobody would recognize him. Whereas for us musicians, we’d play this poetry and music and rhythm all together with all of the hormones of a generation raging through the audience.”

Although the Murphy comics were still in demand, by the end of 1963, Rick was approaching burnout. Having little life experience to draw on, Griffin had quickly run out of plotlines and had to be spoon-fed story ideas from Severson. Still living at home and unable to get into a four-year college because of his abysmal grades, Griffin spent a pointless semester at Harbor Community College in San Pedro taking bonehead prerequisites. He’d begun dating a beautiful Mexican-American girl named Elia but outside of his bi-monthly Murphy strip, he seemed to have no interest in advancing his career or himself.

Conditions at home had reached a breaking point as well. Rick’s parents, Jackie and Jim Griffin, were authoritarian and obsessively status quo. And while they approved of Rick’s prestige as a magazine illustrator, they frowned heavily on Rick’s late-night partying and general lack of direction. House rules were strictly enforced and relations, especially between Rick and Jackie, had grown increasingly rancorous.

As John Severson’s teenage protégé, Griffin’s career arc was steep and seemingly effortless. A certain degree of rarified notoriety followed. His cartoons more or less defined Surfer’s early look, and to a large extent, its voice. Whereas John Severson’s characters were whimsical, mute ciphers, Murphy spoke directly to the young, mostly male audience of the era in a polite but defiantly cheeky tone.

Griffin, who had once run away and hid out in a cave above Paddleboard Cove after his parents had grounded him for bad grades, decided to quietly slip away. Australia seemed like a likely refuge. His plan, which may or may not have included a high school chum named Tom, was to book a working passage on a southbound freighter out of San Francisco. Taking nothing but his sketch box, Griffin stuck out his thumb and headed north up PCH.

Details from the actual accident are sketchy but, somewhere outside the sleepy farm town of King City, Rick was reputably thrown from a speeding vehicle onto the highway. He skidded on the left side of his face for some distance, mangling his fine Anglo Saxon features. He later recalled touching his eyeball dangling on his face before falling into coma. The driver, if there was one, apparently fled the scene.

Rick was rushed to Mee Memorial Hospital in King City, where doctors, assuming that Rick was likely to die, performed a cursory patch job. Rick later told Gordon McClelland, his surf buddy and one-time art agent, that he had seen rapturous surreal visions of Christ while in the coma.

While Rick’s young, surf toughened body had suffered mostly superficial bruises and scrapes, the left side of his face had been profoundly disfigured. A crushed jaw required reconstruction and doctors removed patches of skin from under his arm to replace portions of his face erased by the asphalt. Nerve damage left three-quarters of his face without feeling, slurring his speech slightly.

“It didn’t look like Rick at all,” recalls Randy, who drove all night to visit Rick in the hospital. “His facial flesh was green and lifeless looking. I had to stare for a long time and even then, it didn’t seem like him. It was him, but, oh, what damage had been done. I was so sad.”

Rick, who had fled the hidebound confines of Palos Verdes to chase the ultimate surfer’s dream, came out of the hospital maimed and reduced to living in a near infantile state of need with his parents again. Griffin became profoundly depressed and gained weight.

Despite two years of painstaking reconstruction, however, he quit the treatments prematurely. The plastic surgeons wouldn’t allow him to surf for fear of ruining their delicate handiwork. And Griffin had grown weary of the slow painful treatments and his mother’s constant nagging to restore his youthful, innocent facade.

The resultant scarring gave his face an off-balance aspect. A missing lower eyelid left his eye perpetually open, even when he slept. The overall effect was like looking at a baleful paisley teardrop—compelling and often unnerving. Randy tells of children recoiling in horror upon seeing him without his eye patch.

In later years, Griffin would learn to use this searing Rasputin stare to great effect. People meeting Rick for the first time spoke of his quiet intensity and charismatic aspect. More often than not, however, friends say he was just being shy.

“After a while, he began to realize the effect it had on people and he played it to his advantage,” says Pezman. “He would confront you with it, watch you squirm. It wasn’t like he was horribly ugly. It was almost like a Prussian saber scar. It gave him an aura, and I suppose it drove him.”

The left side of his face had been profoundly disfigured. The resultant scarring gave his face an off-balance aspect. A missing lower eyelid left his eye perpetually open, even when he slept. The overall effect was like looking at a baleful paisley teardrop—compelling and often unnerving. Friends tell of children recoiling in horror upon seeing him without his eye patch.

*

“The day I met the Pump House Gang, a group of them had just been thrown out of ‘TOM Coman’s garage,’ as it was known. The next summer, they moved up from the garage life to a group of apartments near the beach, a complex they named ‘La Colonia Tijuana.’ But this time some were shifting from the surfing life to the advanced guard of something else—the psychedelic head world of California. That is another story.”—TOM WOLFE, THE PUMP HOUSE GANG, 1968

*

The frontispiece of Rick’s 1964 Surfertoons depicts a cast picture of at least 50 historical pop icons that include Superman, Frankenstein, the Beatles, pirates, Nero, Hitler, Sherlock Holmes, beatniks, Davy Crockett, scuba divers, Dracula, varsity jocks, a medieval axman, Old West desperados, Robin Hood, and even a subliminal flash of boob. Griffin drew himself into the mix sporting a rakish Van Dyke beard and eye patch while brandishing a giant steel-nibbed artist’s pen like a jousting lance. What’s interesting is this eclectic assemblage predates the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s cover—which did essentially the same thing in photo-collage—by two years.

Griffin dedicates his 46-page book to Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Elder. “The three greatest (sic) satirists of our time.”

Griffin’s art had evolved remarkably in the six months since the accident. Unable to surf and confined to his parents’ house, Griffin poured his energy into regaining control over his life. His rendering, which could be slapdash at times, became dense and authoritative. Murphy had chunked up as well, leading one reader to suggest a weight-loss program. By late 1964, Griffin had adopted a raucous but ornate Wild West style that defied the viewer to catch all the subliminal characters and in-jokes.

“You can watch the whole thing start to change,” says his art-school buddy Boyd Elder, himself an illustrator who went on to create album cover art for the Eagles and other 70s rock bands. “At that period of time, 1963 to 1964, it was kind of crude. All of a sudden, almost out of nowhere, he starts to refine his characters. He develops this remarkable style.”

John Severson had long encouraged Rick to polish his craft by attending art college. Rick, after weighing the options, found it preferable to working a day job at nearby TRW or Northrop. Despite his dismal grades, his art scholarship opened the door to nearby Chouinard Art Institute in downtown Los Angeles. His choice of school was based mostly on Chouinard’s relaxed dress code allowing beards and sandals. At the time, Chouinard (later Cal Arts) was the hub of a thriving art enclave that had grown up next to the Los Angeles entertainment and garment industries. Two downtown schools—Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art Institute—anchored a small village of artists and artisans living in seedy boho splendor in a genteel Victorian neighborhood (since bulldozed) that had been severed by the Ventura Freeway in the 1940s. Of the two, Chouinard, founded in 1921, was considered the more avant-garde.

At school, Rick met Ida Pfeferle, a beautiful 19-year-old Bay area girl studying historical fashion. Her dream was to do costume design for big Hollywood musicals like My Fair Lady. She was first attracted to Rick’s tanned, teddy-bear persona and the captain’s hat he wore. “My dad was in the Navy and I always lived by the ocean, so I thought, ‘Well, this guy likes boats, so he’s gotta be cool.’”

Born in London to an American dad and British mom, Ida was much worldlier than Rick, whose genteel middle-class upbringing Ida describes as “really upright—something out of Leave it to Beaver.” Before she was 10, she had traveled through Europe and had lived in Morocco for three years. With elfin good looks and long blonde hair, Ida embodied Rick’s idealized archetype of a surfer girl, even though Ida had never surfed.

Although neither was really what the other imagined, they connected on a quaint, endearing level. “We had everything in common at the time,” recalls Ida. “I collected comic books. He collected comic books. We both liked to go into record stores and look at album covers. We both loved the ocean. He never took anything too seriously—a roguish, gentle, big guy.”

Over their tumultuous 27-year relationship—one that ended suddenly in 1991 on an anguished and unfinished minor chord—Ida became in turns his girlfriend, wife, muse, acid guide, keeper, model, and mother of four of his children. Rick would later immortalize her as a sultry guitar-strumming Beat Madonna in the Griffin-Stoner adventures. “They were soul mates, even if Dad didn’t know it,” says daughter Flaven.

A small but vibrant bohemian scene soon aggregated around a slew of spacious old Victorians and warehouses transformed into ad-hoc artist lofts. Weekend-long Dionysian wine rites and art shows soon became the norm. Rick and his art school buddies reveled in their newfound liberation. Rick, who had started smoking pot in the 12th grade, was soon experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics filtering down Highway 101 from the fomenting counterculture brewing up in San Francisco.

Rick’s fellow artist and Chouinard teacher, Rick Timberlake, had leased part of a disused tortilla factory on Temple Street and a small but vibrant bohemian scene soon aggregated around a slew of spacious old Victorians and warehouses transformed into ad-hoc artist lofts. Weekend-long Dionysian wine rites and art shows soon became the norm. Rick and his art school buddies reveled in their newfound liberation. Rick, who had     started smoking pot in the 12th grade, was soon experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics filtering down Highway 101 from the fomenting counterculture brewing up in San Francisco.

By the beginning of the second term, Rick and Ida moved into the tortilla factory. Ida recalls a charming, eclectic neighborhood that reminded her of a scaled down Greenwich Village. One of its denizens, she says, inspired a surf-cult icon.

“Above where we lived there was this little Mexican kid,” recalls Ida. “He was five years old and he loved Rick. He would come up and hang out for hours watching Rick draw. So Rick started putting him in Griffin-Stoner adventures. That’s why you see the little ‘Chine Boy’ pop up in every cartoon after that.”

By the summer of 1965, the Sunset Strip club scene was on high simmer. Back in the medieval days of rock, it was possible to see many now-legendary artists—The Byrds. Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, The Doors—for a two-drink minimum at small clubs like Gazzari’s or the Whisky a Go-Go. The British invasion had hit the year before and the hottest English groups—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and others—were funneling through the L.A. record companies weekly. Chouinard was only minutes away from Hollywood and the easy interplay between rock music and graphic arts would lead to the explosion of late 60s album art and later the MTV revolution. Griffin bridged three powerful cultures—rock, art, and surfing—effortlessly.

“The girlfriends would go out with the rock stars and then they would bring them to the gallery openings to flaunt them,” remembers John Van Hamersveld, a one time Surfer art director who designed the heraldic, day-glo Endless Summer poster in 1964 while a student at Otis Art Institute. “So then, the rock stars would take us to their kind of parties. The thing that both Rick and I had going for us was that we were surf beatniks. We were from a mystical world—the ocean—and we had stories about these things that were quite amazing.”

In mid-1965, having moved on from his adolescent surf persona, Griffin decided to kill off Murphy in spectacular melodramatic fashion. In a two-part episode entitled “Murphy Hits the Skids,” a shabby, careworn Murphy loses his job and is reduced to selling pencils on Skid Row. He’s beat up by thugs and left (tellingly) with a left black eye. In despair, he attempts suicide. Although he’s redeemed in the following issue, Murphy was mothballed indefinitely.

In the same issue (May 1965), however, Griffin in cartoon form takes over. Paired with Surfer’s new staff photographer Ron Stoner as a sort of surfing Martin and Lewis, the Griffin-Stoner adventures kicked off for a 12-issue run spanning two years.

The debut adventure opens with a mock memo from then editor Pat McNulty for the duo to drive up to San Francisco and photo-illustrate Fort Point’s mystery left breaking under the Golden Gate Bridge. Stoner is played as a gee-whiz ingénue, while Griffin is the one-eyed, skirt-chasing rogue, forever scamming McNulty out of more money, which he invariably squanders on wine and Watusi lessons.

The Griffin-Stoner adventure stories were co-written by John Severson and then-editor Pat McNulty in a madcap, often hopelessly hokey sitcom style that brought an edge of pop credibility to the magazine. They also brought Griffin out of his emotional keep. Griffin’s cartoon persona, hipster cool and confident, traveled to all the exotic surfing ports-of-call that the shy-damaged art student couldn’t.

In a meandering plot arc—told through a flurry of urgent telegrams, postcards, and chatty journal entries—the disorderly duo get into scrapes all the way up the coast. Along the way, they hire a crane to surf Big Sur, have to be rescued from hungry sharks atop Pinnacle Rock at Steamer Lane, and end up leading a North Beach protest march. They finally get the shot (by buying it from another photographer), but only after leaving a trail of frivolous expenses and steam coming out of McNulty’s ears.

Judging from the letters column in the following issue, Surfer’s readers synched in quickly. Dogtown’s Skip Engblom recalls devouring the Griffin-Stoner adventures as a young surfer growing up in Venice, California: “I remember saying, ‘Man, I really want to go with Griffin and Stoner on one of these trips.’ There was this real goopy sense of fun with it. But, at the same time, Griffin was giving you under-the-table information you really wouldn’t pick up in the newspaper.”

The stories were co-written by John Severson and then-editor Pat McNulty in a madcap, often hopelessly hokey sitcom style. But in the era of zany costume farces like The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, they brought an edge of pop credibility to the magazine. They also brought Griffin out of his emotional keep. Griffin’s cartoon persona, hipster cool and confident, traveled to all the exotic surfing ports-of-call that the shy-damaged art student couldn’t.

“If you track his first Griffin-Stoner adventure to his more mature ones, you can see incredible growth,” observes Severson. “You could give Rick a simple idea like, ‘Natchez to Mobile (With Griffin and Stoner)’ and ‘boom!’ He’s all with it, with a two-foot-wide drawing of a Mississippi paddlewheeler with Griffin riding a wave off the back of it. They are wonderful, wonderful things. By that time, he had synced his imagination with his pen and he could really go.”

Meanwhile, Chouinard, despite the extracurricular attractions, was proving a well-known drag. At a time when abstract expressionism absolutely dominated art academia, anything remotely representational was considered highly démodé. “If you even had two lines that converged, suggesting perspective, it was a no-no,” recalls Rick’s friend and Zap Comix cohort Robert Williams. “I had one hell of a time. It was a horrifying experience because you had the talent, the ability, and this urge, and it was absolutely stifled.”

Bored and artistically crabbed, Rick would cut class to go skateboarding at a nearby supermarket parking lot. The last straw came when Rick was told by a cigar-smoking pedantic: “You know, son, you can’t make art with a Rapidograph.”

Griffin dropped out after his first year and never returned.

Griffin’s 1965 output, however, was striking in its depth and volume. In a one-year span he produced comics and spot drawings not only for Surfer, but also moonlighted for Skateboarder, Surf Toons, Drag Cartoons, and Big Daddy Roth hotrod cartoons. He drew ads and album art for The Challengers. Finally, exposing Griffin’s exhibitionist streak, Griffin played preening racecar poser “Griff Murphy” in “The Big Blow” photo-toon.

Griffin’s covert need for a live audience soon translated into the Jook Savages, a ragtag jug band cum performance-art troupe made up mostly of Griffin’s art school posse. Rick played blues on a one-string zither, an arcane homemade instrument played with a beer bottle and a stick.

“The band was loosely strung together but, nonetheless, it had a real rustic charm about it,” recalled Griffin. “At that time folk music was in full bloom and the jug band was a perfect medium of expression. We were a self-styled tribe.”

Sometime that Christmas season, Ida walked into their loft and told a guitar-strumming Griffin she was pregnant with his child.

Rick, who had no interest in becoming a father or a husband, kept strumming and bluntly told Ida to get an abortion. Ida was upset but quickly came to a decision. Without giving Rick an ultimatum, she decided to keep the baby. She packed up and left to go live near her family in the Bay area, renting a room with her sister near Haight-Ashbury.

Rick, suddenly alone, pondered his future for the moment then went to the Acid Test.

Griffin began slyly infiltrating the Griffin-Stoner adventures with then-cryptic drug symbology. The ZigZag rolling-papers man shows up in the first panel and by the last scene Griffin is merrily puffing away on a hookah aboard the fantail of a sheik’s yacht. Finding the pot references in Griffin’s cartoons soon became a point of honor among a small but growing number of head surfers.

In early February 1966, the Jooks had been invited to play at one of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ celebrated Acid Tests—ecstatic communal dance rites that simulated the LSD experience by mixing kaleidoscopic light and movie projections, hallucinatory strobes, free-association rap, and a sonic wall of throbbing improvisational rock. And for those who wanted the real thing, a dose of notoriously potent Owsley Blue was freely available via a cup of specially spiked Kool-Aid. LSD would still be legal for another eight months.

The Tests were held in the Compton Youth Opportunities Center, a cavernous warehouse near Watts. It was a bold, even foolish move. Only six months before Watts had erupted in fiery race riots that left 34 people dead. Inside, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead set up and wailed all night like day-glo banshees. Rick and his buddy Boyd hooked down two cupfuls each and wailed right along with them.

Jerry Garcia, reflecting at Rick’s wake in August 1991, recalled first meeting the 21-year-old Rick at the Acid Test. “I never realized that it was the same Rick who had done Murphy,” recalled Garcia, himself a voracious comic book collector from his teens. “I’d seen his Zap stuff and ‘Tales from the Tube,’ but I never put the two together. Later on, I could relate to his art because it was very similar to my own psychedelic experiences. I’d look at those and I d say ‘Right-on, Rick—you killed it.’”

An account of the Watts Acid Test would later be immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. “It was pretty impressionable stuff,” recalled Rick. “It was just total, beautiful pandemonium inside that hut.”

Afterward. Rick, now an ecstatic acid convert, tried unsuccessfully to get his parents to turn on with him. Failing that, he turned his attentions on the surf world.

Starting with “Le Adventure Surf Francais” in March 1966, Griffin began slyly infiltrating the Griffin-Stoner adventures with then-cryptic drug symbology. The ZigZag rolling-papers man shows up in the first panel and by the last scene Griffin is merrily puffing away on a hookah aboard the fantail of a sheik’s yacht. Finding the pot references in Griffin’s cartoons soon became a point of honor among a small but growing number of head surfers.

“He was the Trojan Horse,” says Drew Kampion, Surfer’s editor from 1968 to 1972. “He made that underground connection in a more public way than any other surfer did.”

Emboldened, Griffin threw increasing numbers of psychedelic references into each succeeding issue. By “Guess Who’s Minding the Store” (Sept 1966) he’d transformed the Surfer offices into a hip disco complete with day-glo mandalas and caged go-go girls. The discerning eye will note the marijuana and magic mushrooms growing in the planter boxes.

“A lot of this stuff went by unnoticed for a while,” said Griffin. “But it was pointed out to the editors of Surfer by some of their more major and straighter advertisers that I was putting all these ‘dangerous’ references in my cartoons. So, they told Surfer if you don’t get this guy to straighten out, we’re going to pull our ads. Hobie specifically put the pressure on Surfer to get me to clean up my act.”

Relations between Severson and Griffin strained considerably. Griffin felt he was fast outgrowing the magazine, and Severson, who by mid-1966 was playing golf with Orange County Republicans, was incensed that his one-time prodigy was thoughtlessly bringing the surf establishment down on him. “I didn’t like it that Rick slipped those things in on us,” said Severson, “so I slipped one or two back at him and he stopped doing it. No, that’s wrong, he didn’t stop doing it. If you look close in the Mexico one (‘What Happened to Griffin?’ January 1967) you see they’re carrying bales of weed on those jungle rafts.”

Severson ran afoul of Griffin’s messianic eye when he subtly altered Rick’s work to skew a couple of the drug references (of which Severson had little real understanding). The changes were undetectable to all but Griffin, but to Rick it was an act of betrayal by his one-time hero. “I started getting real pissed off about this. My heart was less and less in it.”

Rock impresario Chet Helms saw Rick’s posters and asked Griffin if he would create poster art for weekly dance concerts at the Avalon Ballroom. Soon after first-time publisher Jann Wenner asked Griffin to do the cover logo for a new music magazine to be called Rolling Stone. In just under two years, Griffin went on to create a streak of mind-bending psychedelic art for the elite of 60s rock. A short list of the bands includes Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, The Doors, Canned Heat, and Santana.

Early that summer, while on a pot-buying sortie to a friend’s to house in L.A., Griffin spied an ornate, old-time poster drawn the previous summer. It advertised a show up in Virginia City, Nevada, by The Charlatans, San Francisco’s original acid-rock band. The Charlatans—who wore eclectic thrift-store fandangle and played a rambling electrified folk-rock—freely encouraged their fans to turn on with them. For three summers, 1965 through 1967, they appeared at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, an Old West ghost town turned tourist trap. It became a magnet for the embryonic head culture now well underway in San Francisco. “What the Cavern Club was to the Beatles, the Red Dog was to the psychedelic music scene,” wrote one rock historian.

Griffin was mesmerized. “It was crudely but beautifully drawn…the band members were pictured as these sort of Edwardian, art nouveau, Wild West dandies all decked out in all this finery of yesteryear. It had all these overtones of the new music and rock-and-roll and the art counterculture that was emerging in the Bay area. It was just, I think, the coolest image a band could ever have.”

Less than a week later, Griffin was up in Virginia City where he turned on and met the band. “That trip to Virginia City was the last straw,” said Griffin. “I realized that I was going to become part of this.”

*

“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded entirely by reality.” —PAUL KANTER, GAUITARIST, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE

*

Flaven Heather Highland Griffin was born in July 1966 at UCSF Hospital, making her one of the original Haight-Ashbury love children.

Flaven’s reluctant father, meanwhile, had sold his L.A. studio and slipped across the border on extended surfari to San Blas, Mexico. He’d been up to San Francisco briefly in June to look in on Ida, but had also been checking out the extraordinary new rock-concert posters being drawn by Wes Wilson and Ida’s neighbors, Stanley “Mouse” Miller and Alton Kelly. Since leaving L.A., Ida had been sending Rick handbills from recent shows to clue him in on the blossoming psychedelic music scene.

Shortly after his arrival in Mazatlan, Rick wrote Ida, blustering about his tortuous journey south braving desperados, alligators, and man-eating potholes to catch a decent wave. To Rick’s storybook sense of adventure, Mexico seemed an exotic third-world frontier teaming with cinematic danger and intrigue. Ida had a chuckle and got out her suitcase.

“I laughed because I had traveled a lot as a kid and I knew it wasn’t a big deal to go down to Mexico,” says Ida. “So I just got on a bus in Tijuana with Flaven, who was six weeks old, and my friends Gus and Mary, and we all went down to Mazatlan to see Rick. Rick didn’t know we were coming. He tried not to act surprised when we showed up on the beach out of nowhere.”

The new family set up under a beach palapa at San Blas and quietly worked it out. For the next two months, they lived an idyllic existence: surfing, sleeping in hammocks under the stars, eating fish tacos, and sipping fresh coconut juice from the husk. Rick’s surfing had tapered off to almost nothing while he was at Chouinard and he was fast rediscovering the stoke. While making no promises, he also made his first tentative steps toward fatherhood.

One day on a foray up into the nearby Sierra Madre mountains, Rick and Ida encountered the reclusive Huichol Indians, a shamanistic tribe renowned for their vibrant yarn paintings and bead design inspired by peyote-induced visions. The Huichol and their sacred art fascinated Rick and one can see wizened mescaleros begin to pop up as recurring motifs in the Griffin-Stoner adventures soon afterward.

Rick and Ida returned to California mid-November where Rick had been invited, along with the rest of the Jook Savages, to stage an art and music show commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street. The Psychedelic Shop, arguably the world’s first head shop, acted as switchboard and supply depot for the San Francisco under-ground. Rick was commissioned to draw the poster.

“The reason I liked creating an art that had the appearance of a comic was because it was a throwback to a period of time when I could care less about the status quo or what was acceptable or not acceptable or valid art,” said Griffin. “It was just pure enjoyment.”

Inspired by the Charlatan’s Red Dog Saloon poster (since dubbed “The Seed”), Griffin quickly generated his own, more finely rendered collage that bent and contorted the type into eccentric, barely legible forms that supposedly re-created the acid experience. At the printers, Griffin ran into the folks from the underground newspaper The Oracle (later called “the Rosetta Stone of the Hippies”), and the depth of Griffin’s painstaking draftsmanship blew them away.

Rick was asked immediately to contribute art to The Oracle and other head “happenings.” “They told me, ‘We’re having this big event in the park a week from now. It’s called The Gathering of the Tribes.’ They called it the ‘Human Be-In.’ That was the first of a series of events like this that happened all over the country, which ultimately led to Woodstock.”

Rick’s poster, which heralded the coming age of Aquarius, pictured an Old West Indian on horseback cradling a guitar with one arm and holding up his ceremonial blanket with the other.

On January 14, 1967, over 20,000 newly fledged freaks—drawn by radio announcements and Rick’s poster—converged on the Golden Gate Polo Grounds. (“It’s like someone lifted up a giant flat rock and we all crawled out at the same time,” quipped underground FM DJ Tom Donahue.) The joyous all-day event featured Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert as the keynote cheerleaders. The Jefferson Airplane played, everybody grooved, and an invitation went out to the youth of America that a new Oz was awaiting them in San Francisco. The Summer of Love was on.

Rock impresario Chet Helms saw Rick’s posters and asked Griffin if he would create poster art for Helms’ weekly dance concerts at the Avalon Ballroom. The deal was $100 per poster and the artist kept the original. Soon after, first-time publisher Jann Wenner asked Griffin to do the cover logo for a new music magazine to be called Rolling Stone. Griffin made $150. Griffin, who embodied a cross between Siddhartha and Forrest Gump, was nonplussed about his success.

“I just sort of stumbled into the Bay area and was drawn right into this whole scene,” admitted Griffin. “Actually it happened just about like everything else that’s happened to me in my life.”

Starting with a Michelangelo-inspired (actually, ripped-off) photo-collage for Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring a then-unknown Janis Joplin), Griffin went on, in just under two years, to create a streak of mind-bending psychedelic art for the elite of 60s rock. A short list of the bands includes Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, The Doors, Canned Heat, and Santana.

Alton Kelly, one of the “Big Five” of San Francisco poster art (together with Rick, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Wes Wilson) likes to compare the friendly but keen rivalry between the poster artists as the same creative prod that drove Toulouse-Lautrec and the other artists of the La Belle Epoque.

“In the very beginning with the five of us, there was a funny kind of competition,” said Kelly. “Everybody knew each other. We would go out on the street and look for Wes’ work, and look for Victor’s work, and look for Rick’s work. And it would be, ‘Oh my god, look what he’s done.’ It was so great because then we’d have to go back and really do something good.”

In July of 1967, during the height of the Summer of Love, the Big Five staged a showing of psychedelic poster art at the Moore Gallery downtown. Jokingly called the “Joint Show” (Rick drew a poster of fat, double-enders protruding from a cigarette pack), the event drew thousands on opening night. Janis Joplin and Big Brother jammed all night on the artists’ behalf. Life Magazine covered the opening and Rick was featured in the September issue as one of the premier artists of “The Great Poster Wave” sweeping the country. Rick’s star arced higher, even if the pay didn’t.

At Zap, he joined a small but influential crew of disaffected cartoonists who specialized in graphic sex, gory violence, drug humor, scathing socio-sexual satire, anti-establishment messages, eco-awareness, and what one underground comic expert defines as “nasty subversive fun.” Their trailblazing opened the door for the flood of “alternative” comics that today fuel a billion-dollar comic publishing industry.

Griffin turned in his last-ever Griffin-Stoner adventure, “Deep in the Heart of Texas with Griffin and Stoner,” horribly past deadline in late June 1967. Predictably, it had no photos, surf or otherwise. But it did have a now classic skull and roses Grateful Dead poster (lifted from a September 1966 Avalon Ballroom concert) drawn by fellow poster artist Stanley Mouse. It also had Rick playing the one-string zither with the Jook Savages against a vibrating op-art backdrop.

While there were no overt drug references, marooning Griffin in the middle of Texas was perhaps an indicator that both Severson and Griffin had run out of interest in continuing their professional, and even personal, relationship. Severson, who knew Griffin’s style intimately, felt that lately Griffin had been phoning in his Surfer art, not taking the time to properly finish them off.

“He just wasn’t interested anymore, and I wasn’t too thrilled with the last couple things he did,” says Severson. “He just went off to San Francisco and did his poster thing and we moved on.”

Two issues later, after a six-year run, Griffin’s name, and Griffin, quietly disappeared from the Surfer masthead.

That October, Rick was given the assignment to produce a poster for a Quicksilver Messenger Service show at the Avalon Ballroom. Having run out of time, Griffin hastily concocted a stopgap graphic solution that drew directly from his Murphy cartoon days at Surfer. He composed the poster as a mock comic strip that appeared to have logical comic strip progression. But on closer inspection (often on a street corner telephone pole), the strip transformed into a radiant visual palindrome filled with looking glass puns and quirky non-sequiturs. In the ninth panel, Murphy, wearing baggies and holding his board, pops up apropos of nothing and chirps, “OK Optimo, hoist ’er up.” Suddenly a single forgotten refrain of bitchin’ surf tremolo floated over the Haight.

“The reason I liked creating an art that had the appearance of a comic was because it was a throwback to a period of time when I could care less about the status quo or what was acceptable or not acceptable or valid art,” said Griffin. “It was just pure enjoyment.”

The poster was a huge hit with the heads and his artist peers, who viewed Rick as a kind of boy wonder from the surfing underground. Griffin had stubbed his toe on a wholly new style of non-linear storytelling that revolutionized the comic genre. Robert Crumb, then a struggling illustrator hawking his first issue of Zap Comix from a baby carriage on Haight Street, saw the poster and was over on Griffin’s front porch immediately. He wanted Griffin’s art in the second issue of Zap.

Griffin joined a small but influential crew of disaffected cartoonists who specialized in graphic sex, gory violence, drug humor, scathing socio-sexual satire, anti-establishment messages, eco-awareness, and what one underground comic expert defines as “nasty subversive fun.” Their trailblazing, however, opened the door for the flood of “alternative” comics that fuel a billion-dollar comic publishing industry these days.

The first Zap artists were Crumb, Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, and Victor Moscoso. They were joined a few issues later by Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Williams. Zap #2, published in 1968 (“Gags, Jokes, Kozmic Trooths”), featured 12 pages of Griffin’s art. He remained with Zap until the mid-1980s.

For the most part, Griffin veered away from overt pornography, although he dabbled occasionally. Griffin’s brief stabs at erotica, however, never expressed the misogynistic angst of Crumb or the twisted low-rent psychosis of S. Clay Wilson. His sexual imagery was more idealized fertility symbols than pornography or sexist satire. His “Oxo” drawing is a seething wet mandala of spurting genitalia, but it’s done with such skill and symmetry it could easily be used as a religious icon, which perhaps it is.

In later years, Rick was philosophical about the Haight’s brief renaissance: “All these things were very short-lived,” he reflected. “They were like the grass in the spring, you know? As soon as the summer sun gets on it and scorches it, it all withers away.”

“He lived in his own world, or rather his own mythology,” recalled Crumb shortly after Griffin’s death. “Even when he was a Jesus freak, it was his own crazy romantic version. He’d claim the Bible said the earth was populated with a race of giants. Stuff like that. I think he even found surfing in the Bible. Stuff nobody else ever saw.”

By the end of the summer of 1967, however, the once-vibrant Haight-Ashbury art scene had soured. The Gray Line tour buses were now bringing tourists in to gawk at the hippies and the flood of teenage runaways attracted a food chain of predators like Charles Manson. The once funky artist’s ghetto quickly succumbed to overpopulation, rip-offs, rapists, heroin, and speed epidemics. “The language was love,” writes Hunter S. Thompson, “but the style was paranoia.”

Late in 1968, after consulting the astrological charts, Griffin became convinced that come spring an earthquake of apocalyptic magnitude would cause California to snap off like a hunk of chocolate and fall into the ocean. Believing the end of California was nigh, Rick loaded his art supplies, together with Ida and Flaven, into a VW van and headed east for higher ground shortly after New Year’s 1969. Ida, who was three months pregnant with their second daughter, Adelia, at that time, rolled her eyes but got in. One morning, after a lightning-spiked night camping in Monument Valley, they threw the I Ching and decided to visit their old Chouinard buddy Boyd, now living in El Paso. They camped in a converted water tower for two months, with Rick repainting the kombi’s dashboard a shade of gold over and over until he got it perfect.

In later years, Rick was philosophical about the Haight’s brief renaissance as the Hippie Versailles: “All these things were very short-lived,” he reflected. “They were like the grass in the spring, you know? As soon as the summer sun gets on it and scorches it, it all withers away.”

*

“Surfing is kind of like the Dance of Shiva. Shiva dancing on the dwarf of ignorance…it will always be a way to keep in touch with the Earth and forget about all the bullshit and all the madness of modern life. That’s why I love it so much.” —RICK GRIFFIN, 1989

*

By 1969, Surfer magazine was for a brief time a cultural flagship, not only for the surf community but the entire American youth revolution. As much as Rolling Stone magazine, it mirrored the values and spiritual yearning of a dysfunctional generation trying to come to grips with the lies and fundamental cruelty underpinning the American Dream.

“There was an underground conspiracy at Surfer to reflect and show its support of and empathy for the peace and freedom side of the surfing thing,” says Pezman. “Surfing was a very avant-garde way to see life at that moment. A lot of people were going off to work and marching off to war and surfers were just going after shortboards and flipping off all those things.”

With the Apocalypse apparently postponed, Griffin was enticed back to California by his old mentor-employer, Severson. By late 1968. John was feeling burnt out and trapped within an upholstered prison of his own making. His life, he wrote, had devolved into, “Golf championships, member-guests, cocktails and cards, birdies and bogies, and unbelievably shallow lives drifting through the whole miserable scene.”

Moreover, Surfer’s readers had passed him by, leaving Severson horribly out of touch with his own audience. He was also at a loss relating to most of his young, turned-on staff. He became alienated and paranoid. “John basically missed the 60s and was trying hard to catch up,” says Drew Kampion.

Apparently at some point, one of his junior staff took John aside and quietly got him stoned. More importantly, perhaps, they got him out of the country club and back surfing again. He renewed his vows. A wholesale conversion followed, and Rick was asked back to the magazine. “One of the first things John realized was that Griffin wasn’t so bad after all,” recalled Rick. “So he contacted me and said ‘Rick, all is forgiven. We want you to just pull out the stops and create something really electric for the magazine.’”

Murphy’s return to Surfer in 1969 issue was unheralded and spectacular. Murphy, like Griffin himself, had come back from psychedelic crusades essentially retooled. Using the Zap-style of non-linear storytelling, he is reincarnated as a surfing Hopi demi-deity tracking across an arid Dali-esque mindscape filled with cosmic portents and paradisiacal right-handers. By the end of the cartoon, a burning-eyed Murphy awakes from a trance spouting an ancient quadrangular riddle: “Arepo the sower, holds the wheels at work.” By now, most of the surfing world had gotten a clue as to where Rick was coming from.

Murphy’s return to Surfer in the May 1969 issue was unheralded and spectacular. Murphy, like Griffin himself, had come back from psychedelic crusades essentially retooled. In an existential tone poem, using the Zap-style of non-linear storytelling, Murphy is reincarnated as a surfing Hopi demi-deity tracking across an arid Dali-esque mindscape filled with cosmic portents and paradisiacal right-handers (Griffin was a regular foot). By the end of the cartoon, a burning-eyed Murphy awakes from a trance spouting an ancient quadrangular riddle: “Arepo the sower, holds the wheels at work.” By now, most of the surfing world had gotten a clue as to where Rick was coming from.

In the wake of rampant beach development and the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill of January 1969, Severson’s dormant environmental conscious had been awakened as well. As his swan song to surfing before selling Surfer and moving to Maui, Severson felt he needed to make one last surf film that reflected surfing’s new role as cosmic teacher.

“I wanted to make a film that would jolt a lot of people awake to what was happening to the ocean and our environment and what was going on,” says Severson. “I didn’t really want to make another film to make another great surf film. I wanted to make a statement.”

Mortgaging his house for seed money, Severson started filming in late 1969 and auspiciously scored epic 15-foot Honolua Bay with Jock Sutherland and Billy Hamilton during the fabled winter swell of ’69.

Rick was brought on board to create a movie poster and to provide an overall graphic look. Griffin’s cartoon imagery and calligraphy is used liberally throughout Pacific Vibrations in powerful, near subliminal blips. One of his first tasks was to help Severson paint an old school bus in psychedelic surf mandalas, à la Ken Kesey’s venerable “Furthur.” Armed with buckets of paint and brushes, Severson, Griffin, art director Hy Moore, and a couple of ends quickly transformed the dowdy little olive-green bus (done to a bubbly raga beat provided by master Ashish Khan) into a lurid, grinning mind-machine dubbed “Motorskill.”

In the Ranch interlude of the movie, Rick is portrayed as a friendly enigmatic—the Jesus-tressed Cosmic Driver who speaks an ornate but unintelligible “Griffinesque” In Griffin-penned subtitles, he smoothly raps his way past the Hollister gate guard. In the introductory vignette, Griffin swings open the bus door with a witchy zing, beckons come ride, and presumably we all got on.

Along for the ride in early February 1970 were Severson, surfers Angie Reno, Mike Tabling, and Brad McCaul; photographers Brad Barrett and Art Brewer; and yearling editor Drew Kampion. Along the way, they picked up three hitchhiking Valley girls and the whole thing turned into an endearing three-day soul trip that captures that first exuberant rush of adolescent freedom. The Ranch footage paints a heartrending portrait of the last vestiges of the California ideal: sagebrush hills, dirt roads, eucalyptus groves, small, cold, kelpy tubes, crisp offshores, and dusty red sunsets setting in a Western sea.

Rick, who never evolved out of the longboard era, is shown cruising on an anachronistic 9’0″ at Lefts and Rights to the languid martial beat of “Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Rick’s surfing style mirrored his cartoon personas: low and fluid languid hands caressing the wave face. “I was, at that point, back into my surfing career, which had been interrupted for years with all this other stuff,” said Rick. “I hope I never go so long again in my life without riding waves.”

Despite the surf never topping three feet, Severson later wrote that the Ranch sequence came closest to what he was trying to achieve in his movie. During the first year of filming, Severson installed Rick and family (second daughter Adelia was born in July) in a Beach Road house in Capistrano Beach hoping that he would produce a poster in a couple of months. After eight months, Severson demanded Rick show him the painting. Griffin reluctantly agreed.

Griffin, at first pass, seems an unlikely avatar of the 60s. Though often drawn as a barefoot wandering mystic, at heart he was a card-carrying SoCal man: all surfboards, hotrods, Ray-Bans, drive-in cool—a modern American primitive. Rick in his day was the ultimate insider: young male, middle-class, Southern Californian, a surfer. He could have easily disappeared into the soul-chomping shark’s maw of American materialist mediocrity. Instead he became the eccentric UV-joint coupling a slew of disparate youth cults together.

“Actually there were two poster,” recalls Severson. “He finished the poster and it was fabulous—a great poster. And he said ‘Well, I’ll give it to you tomorrow.’ Then he and a friend got into something, some potion, and he decided overnight that the poster wasn’t what he wanted and he painted it white. I came the next day and the poster was gone—painted white—and he had started over.”

Two months later, however, Severson was presented with a masterpiece. The second Pacific Vibrations poster, rendered in rich orange and aquamarine tones, became an instant icon. Griffin had fused his psychedelic poster art and surf cartooning into a deep sensual tableau that heaved off-page in salty wet surrealism. The beautifully drawn tube becomes a literal womb for a growing fetus while the sky convulses in an aurora of sperm-like droplets.

The movie itself opened to lukewarm reviews and ultimately flopped at the box office. After brokering a deal with Hollywood (“I had delusions of grandeur,” says Severson), the movie fell into a miasma of compromise. In turns profound then pretentious, funny then didactic, Pacific Vibrations neither drew in the coveted mainstream audience nor totally stoked out the surf brethren.

Upon release in late 1970, American International Pictures gave it only superficial distribution and then canned it within a month. The movie has remained in limbo for over 30 years due to hassles over ownership and music copyrights.

Still, if one gets their hands on a bootleg video version, and turns the sound down on Jock Sutherland’s scripted cosmic musings, the film holds up remarkably well as pure eye candy and a quirky time capsule of West Coast pop history

A few months after Pacific Vibrations’ premiere, Severson sold Surfer at age 36 and retired to Maui to paint, surf, and grow citrus. Drew Kampion quit and Steve Pezman was tapped as the new editor-publisher.

Rick’s relationship with Surfer sputtered off and on for the next couple of years as he became a born-again Christian and began illustrating the Book of John for the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. Murphy, predictably, became a bright-eyed, scripture-spouting zealot, strangely devoid of personality.

“We always tried to have Rick reincarnate Murphy and bring him back so we could do the feel-good neat deal again,” recalls Pezman. “But he never would bring him back. Rick was never going to be the same and Murphy was never the same again. Murphy had found God. Murphy had gotten stoned. Murphy had taken acid. Murphy had a car wreck. Murphy was not Murphy anymore.”

Griffin, at first pass, seems an unlikely avatar of the 60s. Though often drawn as a barefoot wandering mystic, at heart he was a card-carrying SoCal man: all surfboards, hotrods, Ray-Bans, drive-in cool—a modern American primitive. Rick in his day was the ultimate insider: young male, middle-class, Southern Californian, a surfer. He could have easily disappeared into the soul-chomping shark’s maw of American materialist mediocrity. Instead, through dumb luck and divine timing, he became the eccentric UV-joint coupling a slew of disparate youth cults together. He translated their arcane jargon, melded them together through his own experience, and turned on the world.

And along the way, surfing.

“Griffin was the cornerstone of a whole movement that was really a way of looking at life and what’s worth doing in life,” says Pezman. “Surfers think riding a wave is really worth living life for. Rick, for a while, was the most visual dream-maker of that message.”

*

Postscript: In the fall of 1976, after traveling to Europe for an art show in London, Griffin and Gordon McClelland bought an old Morris Minor and drifted over to France where they camped at Seignosse. Griffin finally made it to the Biarritz train station so that he could say he actually lived one of his cartoon adventures. Gordon says they drove to Spain soon after, where they drank tequila with Basque terrorists and scored 12-foot Mundaka with only three people out. But that’s another story…


Special thanks to: Randy Nauert, Denis Wheary Gordon McClelland, John Grady, and Gary Burdon.