INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTO BY ART BREWER
Some do what they love. Mickey Munoz is that … surfing, sailing, doing it… Starting until one is finished… A man of the Sea, and much, much more…. Around longer than most can even remember… Seen it, done it, been there, from when others weren’t even around… Interesting things happen when you want. Sometimes you have to make them happen. Others just get in at the right time… This is none other than MICKEY MUNOZ.
Mickey, how are you?
Fine, thank you.
Good. So I’m just going to go all over the place and if you’re not having fun, just say, “This is not fun, buddy.”
Where were you born?
East Coast. New Rochelle, NY, outside of the city, but in New York.
Did you have any intentions of surfing in New York?
No. I was really young and my dad had gotten drafted during the Second World War. Because he was a college graduate, they put him in officers training, so he didn’t have to go overseas, but they did move him around a bit on the East Coast. We moved to Long Island when he was stationed down that way. My mom’s family had gravitated to California and my mom wanted to come to California, so the day after the war was over, we came here to California. I consider myself a Californian because I was six or seven when I came out here.
Where did you move to in California?
We rented a house in between Ocean Park and Venice. I was in grammar school in Santa Monica. Then they found a house in a place called the Uplifters Ranch, in Rustic Canyon below the Pacific Palisades. It was a very interesting area. They bought a seven-bedroom, redwood house on an acre lot. Most of the houses there were on acre lots. We were sandwiched between two real log cabins. Across the street there was a country club with tennis courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, polo grounds and an outdoor theatre. It was dirt roads when we first moved up there, yet you could walk to the beach at Will Rogers State Beach, which was at the mouth of Rustic Canyon.
The name of the street is Chautauqua, right?
We were up above Chautauqua. I went to school at Canyon School, which consisted of a little old wooden church building and a little one-room schoolroom. At that school, I met Ricky Grigg, in the third grade, and Ricky had just started surfing. My mom got me into swimming, so I was swimming and so was Ricky.
What was your stroke? What did you race?
I raced everything, but I was better at distance than I was in sprints. I did individual medley. Ricky was a really good swimmer, and his mom had a house next to Muscle Beach, Gorilla Park, right on the boardwalk. I’m swimming with Ricky and then I got into ocean swimming, bodysurfing, belly-boarding and surf mats.
What year was this?
It was 1946. Then I bought my first board, which was called The Surf King Jr. It was a hollow paddleboard, or what they called a kookbox. There was a Surf King Jr. and the Surf King. The Surf King Jr. was 10’6” long and the Surf King was 12’ long, which was the lifeguard standard.
Did it have the box rails?
Yes. The lifeguard at State Beach, Bob Burns, showed me how to make a fin for it out of the back of an apple crate. I shaped a fin and he showed me how to screw the fin on and plug the screw holes. I screwed it and glued it on and that made it a little more do-able for surfing. It still weighed as much as I did and I had to drag it down to the beach. I’d be so tired when I’d come in that I’d have to end for end it to get it up the beach, or get somebody to help me carry it.
I first stood up in ‘47 or ‘48. I struggled and borrowed boards and I was riding that kookbox. Ricky’s mom let us keep our boards down there so, in the summer, we’d surf down there. In the winter of 1950, I talked my mom into loaning me enough money to buy my first real surfboard from Joe Quigg. He had just made this board for his wife, Aggie, so it was a real light balsa board, 8’10” 24-inches wide with a 16” tail block. It was $55 brand new, so that really launched my surfing. In the winter, the lifeguards would let you keep a board in the lifeguard station at State Beach, so I could go surf before school or after school, and not have to schlep the board around because I was riding a bike or walking. I definitely started surfing a lot when I got my board. In the summer of ‘50 and ‘51, I was surfing Malibu.
Were there other guys surfing with you there?
No. Malibu was so different then.
How many guys were in the line up there or at State Beach? I’m just curious as to what the conditions were and the waves and the set-up of the boardwalk and all of that. I find it fascinating.
Well, Santa Monica is pretty much a beach break, and each break would change when the sand would change and the south swell or the west swell or north swells or whatever storm would shift the sand around. If it got big, we’d surf inside the breakwater because the breakwater had big gaps in it and the waves would be half the size that they were outside the breakwater, so it was
do-able for us little kids. That was the Santa Monica/Ocean Park area that we surfed. State Beach on the inside was a beach break, but outside there was a shelf-like reef. In fact, they used to get a lot of lobsters out there because it was a series of shelves with caves and the lobsters liked it in there. At minus tide and low tide situations, it would break on smaller days, even waist-high to shoulder-high days. At higher tide, you’d have bigger waves breaking out there and it was a pretty decent break. You could call it a reef break, but it wasn’t like a Malibu Point wave. It was a lot of lefts and rights depending on the direction of the swell.
How far out were these shelves from the regular break at State?
I would say 50 yards. A lot of times it wouldn’t break because it would be too small or high tide, but it broke consistently enough that it was considered a surfable surf break. I could ride my bike or walk there and get my board there, so that was my first home break.
Could you ride from the second and third reefs all the way into the shore break then?
Yes. It could connect. There was a trough inside before it hit the actual beach break, but there were times when the tide was right and the size was right and you could connect all the way through into the shore break. State Beach, on the other side, was a very interesting place. In Santa Monica Canyon, because of its location from Hollywood, there were a lot of movie people there. There were a lot of characters. There was sort of a gay community.
It’s still got that. From living over there, there is a community. There are a couple of bars over there like The Fellowship.
That’s a famous bar for 50 years or so.
Right, but it was gay back then?
Yeah. It was Doc Law’s and the bar that I hung around was called the Sip n Surf, on Amalfi. Two guys owned it and one of the guys was Pat Dorian. My first job as a teenager was working in that kitchen washing pots and pans and scrubbing the floors and then I graduated to busing tables.
Do you remember Patrick’s Roadhouse?
Yes, I do. It was on the same street. Sip n Surf was up towards the Seventh Street hill. Across the street, there was a famous steakhouse that may still be there. The Sip n Surf was well-known with the in-crowd. I watched Gerry Mulligan come out of the parking lot blowing his horn when all of the musicians would come out. Ray Brown used to play there. There were a lot of famous jazz musicians, so it was the local ‘in’ hangout.
Mickey, why do you think that area had all that activity happening in it, with the bars and the restaurants and all that?
It’s because it was at the end of Sunset. For anyone living in Hollywood or West L.A., you’d come down Sunset Boulevard or San Vicente and it all led down into the canyon. You could go to Santa Monica, but this was more intimate than Santa Monica or Ocean Park. It was more condensed. The beach had volleyball courts, and it was one of the places that sand volleyball really got going. Some of the best beach volleyball players in the world came out of State Beach. There were surfers. There were movie stars. There were characters. There were all kinds of people there. I think that was the attraction. I grew up in that area and, by the time I was 21, Pat had taught me how to tend bar. He was a master bartender. He thought of bartending as show biz, and he was show biz personified. He was a fantastic talker, a handsome guy and very adept at tending bar. Consequently, that bar and restaurant were very successful. Pat and his partner eventually broke up their partnership and Pat ended up moving to Hawaii. I was going to Hawaii every winter and I would always go and see Pat wherever he was working. Some years later, Pat says to me, “Hey, I’ve got this son and he’s turning out to be a really good surfer. Would you write him a little letter or a note? I’d love to have you guys meet because you’re a surfer.” It turns out that his son became one of the best surfers in the world, Shane Dorian.
In fact, Pat, is no longer on the planet. He ended up on Maui and had a real tragedy. He was heading to work and he was driving his car with his arm out of the car, and a bus sideswiped him and took his arm off, so he became a one-armed bartender. We kept in touch all through the years until shortly before he died. Anyway, that was Santa Monica Canyon in ‘52.
What was the action like down there, with everyone funneling down to the beach? You have surfers and movie stars and all of that and the glamour behind it. Did they have beach clubs and the chairs and that whole thing?
No, they didn’t, not at Will Rogers State Beach. There was a big parking lot adjacent to the beach and there were really high quality volleyball courts there. It was a broad big sand beach and there were women, and there were surfers. There was this mix of water-oriented people and beach people. Consequently, the Sip n Surf was there and that was a very ‘in’ bar. Doc Law’s was a very famous bar at the turn of the century where Will Rogers and all the Spanish land grab people and very wealthy people hung out. It was the place to be. That’s where I grew up until I was in my early twenties.
Did it have an effect on you, as a kid, growing up in that area?
Oh yeah. I got exposed to all these different things. It was an eclectic gathering place of all kinds of people. You had movie actors and people in the film business and they’re all unique characters and of all genres, and surfers are pretty much the same thing.
Were there many surfers back then?
When I was in junior high school, there was only a handful. By the time I was in high school, there was 10 or 15 max that surfed. A lot of the lifeguards surfed. We had Peter Lawford and Richard Jaeckel and movie people like that who surfed. They didn’t just hang out in Malibu. They hung out at State Beach also because it was a melting pot and an interesting place to be. It had a broad spectrum and was attractive in that way. It was a big beach and a lot of women.
What do you mean by a lot of women? Was it a lot of starlets? If that’s where the movie stars were going, then you have that whole world of people there. It seems like it’s always like that.
That’s right. Growing up in that environment, you’re exposed to sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. If you were to take a percentage of the beach-goers there on a typical summer day, probably 80% of the beach-goers were there because they enjoyed the beach. They brought their beach chairs, coolers and beach towels and hung out and soaked up the sun. They used to sell these aluminum foil things that you unfold and hold and focus the sun on your face, and you rubbed your face with baby oil and fried yourself. People hadn’t figured out that too much sun wasn’t worth it.
What was the fashion like back then with the swimwear and beachwear?
Well, across the street there was Patrick’s Roadhouse and his wife made shorts and custom swimwear. I started going to Hawaii in 1954, and got introduced to M. Nii and he custom-made swim trunks for the surfers. He’d make them any way you wanted them and he kept your measurements, so you could just call in or write in and get more.
How was it going to Hawaii back then? You guys were some of the first surfers to make that trip, yeah?
Well, there were guys there before us. I got there in ‘54, and there were people who surfed Malibu that got there in the late ‘40s. Some people got there in the ‘30s. We were in the first wave of surfers to sort of colonize the North Shore.
Where did you guys set up camp?
Well, there wasn’t much out there at Sunset proper. There were a few houses and, if you knew somebody, you could rent a house. We didn’t have that kind of money. My first trip in ‘57, in the winter, we stayed in Haleiwa. I rented a room with Del Canon. I think our room rent was $14 a month, split two ways.
Was that a lot back then?
Well, yeah. My first trip to Hawaii, the plane trip was quite expensive. It was $125 one-way.
That was a lot of money back then.
That was a lot of money, and I landed with $6 in my pocket on a one-way ticket. Four of us rented a place the day we landed that was $25 a month, so that took most of my money, so I had to go to work right away, which I did.
What kind of work did you get?
I worked at The Embers restaurant. There were four major hotels in Waikiki at that time, and they had rented a sidewalk in between the hotel and a house. They put up canopies over it and put out card tables and draped it with aloha shirt clothes and wove some coconut covers for the lights hanging under the canopy. They rented a garage at the back of the walkway and they had a big fridge back there and I washed dishes there. They had a big open display grill and coolers with steaks, meat and fish and you could grill your own steak or fish or we would do it for you. They had a license that allowed you to drink on the premises, but we couldn’t sell liquor, so we’d send them down to the liquor store to buy wine or beer. That place killed it. There would be a block long line every single night. I was washing dishes and I cooked and did everything. It was the precursor to Buzz’s Steak and Lobster, which became the precursor to The Chart House chain. Joey and Buzzy went to work for Buzz’s Steak and Lobster in ‘55, and then they opened the first Chart House in Aspen. That winter they made enough to come down to Southern California and open the first Chart House on the coast in Newport Beach. I helped him build the bar for it and became the opening bartender. The Chart House was where you wanted to be partying and surfing. That was the philosophy at the time and it worked.
When I was a kid growing up in the Seal Beach area, going to The Chart House was a big deal. We were going to go have steak at the Chart House. It had a great vibe. So you lived in Haleiwa and worked in town?
No. In the summer, we went right to Waikiki. We lived about three blocks up from Queens, on Kalani Street. In the room behind us, it was Buzzy Trent, Carter Pyle and Walter Hoffman. Walter was in the Navy, but he would stay there occasionally. We had one of the other units. I had flown over there with a guy named Mike Donovan-Donahue. He went by two last names. His real father was an amazing Santa Monica character who was in the film business as a Second Unit Director and was also a commercial diver. He was a fearless diver. He was an amazing water guy and boat guy. Mike was his legitimate son. Later on, another film and water guy adopted him. The reason I bring that up is because he proceeded to help me get into SAG.
The Screen Actors Guild, right?
Yeah. I knew a lot of these guys through surfing. Finally, I got work as a stunt person. It was Mike, myself, Miki Dora and a guy named Jimmy Fisher, who was a totally nuts big wave rider. The four of us flew over and lived together for the summer.
Would you surf town and Queens and Threes?
Yep. Queens was my favorite break, so I surfed Queens every single day.
Why was Queens your favorite break, just out of curiosity?
It was right at the end of the street where we lived and there were some really good surfers out there. Joey Cabell was the king of Queens. Squirrely Carvalho, Richard Kauo and a couple other guys were really good surfers. Queens just had that magic wave.
I’ve surfed Queens a lot since I was a little kid and I’ve always thought it was an amazing wave. I surfed from the longboard era into the short board era in the early ‘70s. As a kid, you could ride that whole little section by Queens over to Kaisers. It was an amazing place to figure it out. How was the overall performance of surfers in Hawaii at that time? Were the Hawaiians psyched to see you or not?
Well, Joey was very aloof. He wouldn’t pay much attention to me until, one day, I was walking back home and I was two blocks off Kawakawa Avenue walking back to our place. There was Joey sitting on the curb and he had a Model-T, pretty cherry, all spiffed out, and he’d gotten into a fender bender and he was sitting on the curb in tears. I consoled him and, from then on, we became fast friends. We surfed Queens every day for hours and hours.
He wouldn’t talk to you at first?
Right. Richard Kauo and Squirrely did. Richard was a wild surfer. He was really good and he was a very interesting guy.
How many guys were in the lineup at Queens then?
It was three or four, maybe.
Wow. What a crowd.
Yeah. Well, the Beach Boys were giving lessons over at Canoe’s and there were other contingencies outside at different breaks. That was what was so wonderful about Waikiki. There were so many different waves that it spread the crowd out, so it was rarely crowded at Queens. Plus, I’m riding every day so I’m riding whatever wave will break there to when it’s too big to ride. You’d get days and days of just surfing with your buddy or surfing alone. In the first two weeks after I got there, I had to work my way into the line up.
Working your way into the line up over at Queens back then must have been something.
You had to prove yourself and be respectful of the locals in the line up. Usually, the more waves you get there, the better you get, and you get a certain amount of respect. One day, I’d just come in from surfing and this Hawaiian kid, about my size, comes up and introduces himself. It was Allen Golf. He asked me if I’d ever been in an outrigger canoe? I said no and he asked if I’d like to go out and surf one day. I said, “Sure.” So we rode a bunch of waves in his outrigger and we became really good friends and then Allen introduced me to other people. Before I went to Hawaii that year, another Hawaiian had moved to Southern California, Bobby Patterson, ‘The Flea’. Bobby was there at the Uplifters Ranch where we had this 7-bedroom house with five kids in our family. I had my own room with my own bathroom and my own entrance, so it was like I had my own little spot. My parents liked Bobby, and Bobby had been staying with Matt Kivlin and his new wife and he felt like he was kind of imposing, so Bobby moved in with us. Bobby was a year or two older than me, so he ended up with his driver’s license before me and he got a car. We were working together and going to school and surfing all the time together. Bobby grew up in Manoa Valley. He had two other brothers, Ronald and Raymond, who were still in Hawaii. Raymond was considered one of the best ukulele players and one of the best surfers. I’m over on Kawakawa Avenue and I’m getting ready to go somewhere and this lowrider comes up with four Hawaiians in it. I was like, “Uh, oh. What’s this?” Raymond introduces himself, so it went like that. Steamboat and all the famous Beach Boys were accessible. After a couple of months of being there, they see you there every day and they see you’re a water person and you can handle yourself in the water and you’re accepted. My dad wanted me to come back to go to college, so he sent me the money to get back so I could finish school, otherwise I’d probably still be there.
When you got your license, you were making the drive from the Palisades to Malibu every day to surf?
Yeah. Bobby and I were driving all over the coast. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was flying out of the nest. In the winter, we were riding Rincon. In the summer, we were driving south to Laguna, Trestles, La Jolla and Mexico. We were branching out all over the coast and surfing was coming of age.
Were there a lot of surfers when you were branching out or was this before the popularity of surfing started to come on?
It was just eclectic groups and pockets of surfers. You could say La Jolla and Windansea was one area where there were surfers. You come up the coast and you had the Encinitas area and there was another pocket in Oceanside and Laguna.
Was Dana Point happening then, like Killer Dana?
Oh, sure. When I moved down here in the late ‘50s, the breakwater wasn’t there, so I got to experience Dana Point, Capo Beach, San Clemente, Trestles and all of that. When Bobby and I were still living in Santa Monica Canyon, we were branching out to these different areas where there were pockets of surfing. In those days, if you had a surfboard and another surfer saw you, they’d flag you down and take you to their best surf spot, right?
Right. It’s the complete polar opposite of what goes on now with the secret spots.
Yeah. About the time that Gidget came out and the surf movies and The Endless Summer and all that is when the next wave of surfers came to being. The San Fernando Valley guys were coming to the beach and wanting to be surfers and wanting that lifestyle. L.A. to Redondo Beach became another huge pocket, and it just spread. By that time, my other Hawaiian friend, Bunny Kahanamoku, who is one of the Duke Kahanamoku clan, moved back to Santa Monica Canyon. It attracted a lot of Hawaiian people. Because that’s where I hung out, I met a whole bunch of Hawaiian people pre-going to Hawaii, so I had contacts in Hawaii from those people.
That isn’t a bad set of contacts to have.
Yeah. Bunny and I were really good friends. About ‘57 or ‘58, Bunny decided we should move to Laguna, so we packed up and went to Laguna. That summer we went through six or seven houses in Laguna. The deal was that you’d rent a house and then be so outrageous that they’d kick you out and refund your rent.
Yeah. We were partying.
Yeah. I ended up with a girl from Laguna and we got married at a very early age. I was back and forth between Laguna and San Clemente. I had completely flown out of the nest, but when we got married, we moved up to Santa Monica Canyon. We lived in a friend’s little tiny house and she was pregnant and we had our kid there. It was a tiny place, and I ended up at the Sip n Surf and they had some rooms up above there, so I rented one and I was fixing it up for the two of us. Diane had gone back to Laguna with our son Miguel, while I fixed up this bigger apartment. I ended up coming down to Laguna to see her and a friend of mine told me about some work. It was this guy that I had met in Hawaii in 1954, Carter Pyle. He was building catamarans and he needed some help. I called him and he said, “Yeah, come on up and let’s talk.” So I drove up to Costa Mesa where he had his place and he said, “I’ll hire you if you want to come to work.” So I packed my bags from Santa Monica and moved to Costa Mesa and went to work for Carter. I ended up building and racing and selling and sailing boats. That’s how I got into the boat thing. Even though I had sailed some Malibu outriggers and I had some other sailing experiences on catamarans, this really solidified it because this was building from the ground floor up. The other designer guru in that immediate area was Joe Quigg. He made the first surfboard that I bought, so I’d always known Joe and respected him. Joe was building a catamaran around the same time that Carter was designing and building what was later called the Pacific Catamaran or the P-Cat, so that was a big deal. During our lunch breaks, we’d have board meetings at the Wedge. All of us loved to bodysurf, so we’d all meet at the Wedge and spend our two-hour lunch breaks bodysurfing. We did that for eight years.
What year was this?
It was in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s.
Being a swimmer and a surfer and a lover of the ocean, bodysurfing seems to go hand in hand with that.
Oh, I always loved to bodysurf. When I lived in Laguna, they always had the Brooks Street contest and there was a bodysurfing component of that. I ended up bodysurfing Brooks Street in the contest. I just love bodysurfing. In fact, I had some pretty fantastic bodysurfing experiences on the West Shore of Oahu at Makaha. Makaha is a great bodysurfing spot.
Would you bodysurf the shore break at Makaha or would you go out?
I’d go out and ride the point. There was this whole Hawaiian bodysurfing contingency out there. Again, that was a big deal to get in the line up. Finally, I got in after hours and hours of being in the water and bodysurfing there. Noah Kalama, who is Ilima Kalama’s dad and David Kalama’s grandfather, was one of the best bodysurfers there and he helped me polish my techniques and showed me tricks in bodysurfing. That was always a very special thing for me.
When you say techniques are you talking about positioning your body for a longer ride?
Yeah. He showed me how to roll your body up into the wave and reduce drag and hold yourself into places in the wave, which was difficult to do without that knowledge, conventionally. I don’t know how many bodysurfers there were. Here on the coast, a lot of the lifeguards bodysurfed. To be on a wave like Malibu or Rincon or even Windansea, where there’s a real surf-able wave, bodysurfing is a huge thing. To have Makaha with warm water, that wave was really perfect for bodysurfing. You could get fantastic rides there. The technique that he taught me really came into play when we were bodysurfing the Wedge. Joe was this intuitive incredible water person. He was very observant of what was going on in the water with fish and dolphin and sea lions. He’d watch how boards and boats went through the water. He was a real artist. Carter was more of a numbers guy. He was a math guy and more of an engineer kind of person. He looked at bodysurfing a little differently. He wasn’t as good a surfer as Joe, but he was a reasonably good surfer. He was a big guy, he played tackle for S.C. He was 210 to 220 pounds buff, so he was physically more than capable. He was more of an artist. I was just this fish taking it all in. We really did use bodysurfing as a tool to try to understand more about wave dynamics and surf dynamics. How, what and why does it go through the water and how to make it better? The consequences at the Wedge were equally as devastating as North Shore Hawaii. It’s a serious wave.
I’ve surfed and bodysurfed that wave. I know it well. The Wedge is right there with Hawaii.
It takes judgment and technique to survive there. That was a great time period for me. Joe had his surfboard shop in Newport at that time. He moved in and about six months in, he painted all the windows black and locked the door and ripped the phone off the wall and threw it over in the corner. I helped him tack his shop up ten years later and that phone was still in the corner. He never took it out of that corner. [Laughs.] That was my real intro into boats. I used to collect wrecked boats and boxes of fittings and stuff. I thought, “Hey, I have enough stuff here to build a boat.”
Were you a craftsman with your hands and woodworking and all that?
No. My first job in the surfboard business was being a paper-weight. There were only a few people who shaped boards when I first started surfing. Joe Quigg was one. Matt Kivlin was one. Buzzy Bent shaped some boards. In Laguna to San Clemente, there were some people who made boards, but they were a little bit behind. Malibu was more progressive. Joe would bring blanks to Malibu and set up his horses on the beach. There were no power tools in those days, so you kind of hacked the board and got the rocker into it and got the big chunks out of it. It’s a lot of resistance, so my job would be to sit on the blank and watch him plane the balsa off with a drawknife. At the end of the day, my paycheck would be a bonfire and a few beers; burning the balsa chips on the beach. They’d go down to The Malibu Inn and get a couple of quarts of beer and we’d sit around and talk story and drink beer. That’s how I got into shaping because I was fascinated by the technique and dynamics of it. I shaped my first board in the ‘50s and I just stayed with it. Building boats, back to Carter, he was a very contemporary engineer. Joe Quigg was the artist. He was building race boards. He built a 24-foot race board that was 24 pounds. That’s pretty good. Carbon fiber.
Yeah. They were hollow balsa wood boards. They looked like model airplanes. They were gorgeous. Using techniques like that, when fiberglass started becoming more universal for covering the boards, we were learning how to make lightweight strong structures. When you got into production, where you could mold boats, we were into composite structures. In the early days, it was wood glassed over, lightweight plywood with lots of frames inside the structure.
When you guys were doing this, it was state of the art for back then, right?
Yeah. I think that’s why surfing is a very significant part of design. Joe Quigg or someone like that has shaped thousands and thousands of hulls. Then you get feedback on them. You ride them. I’ve ridden thousands of my boards, so I get my own personal feedback and I get feedback from the people who I make them for. A boat designer doesn’t get that privilege. They might do 50 designs in their lifetime.
The design concept of making a surfboard, to make a man stand up on a wave and actually cut across it is such an important thing for understanding the ocean and how it all works together. I think it’s overlooked.
Yeah. That’s why, for us, it’s been amazing to be able to do thousands of hull shapes and transpose that into a boat, where you can take your friends and kids and pets at the same time and use a lot of the same techniques. Look what George Greenough has done with boats. He’s so water-wise, besides being an artist and engineer. He’s multi-talented and he’s a multi-talented rider. Combine all that and it makes him light years ahead of the pack. To grow up in that environment, around craftsmen, artists, designers, riders and athletes, I’m a lucky pup.
It’s insane. Tell me a little bit about how Malibu was in the early ‘60s.
By then, it was crowded and I was living in Laguna and not getting up there quite as often. Those endless summer days, where I’d spend eight hours a day in the water and living there, those days were behind me. I was down here doing the same thing here. I still go up to Malibu. I love that wave.
I was thinking about something you said about Queens and I was reflecting back to my deal at Queens. I surf Malibu all the time, and for some reason, when I think about Malibu and Queens, there’s some similarity to the wave at First Point.
There could be. Malibu changes year to year depending on the winters and what happens under the water, but for the most part, Malibu is one of the most consistent waves, and one of the easiest fun waves to ride in the world. I often say that San Onofre is the same thing. It’s one of the easiest waves in the world to ride and one of the most difficult. Anybody can ride Malibu, but not just anybody can really rip Malibu. You had to be a really good surfer.
There are pictures of you doing the Quasimoto and I know the surf films from back then. As a kid, how was it going through that experience of doing something that you loved and then seeing your photos in the magazines or surfing First Point on the big screen?
Well, Malibu is this beautiful wave, and we were kids in the water for hours and hours at a time, surfing this perfect wave. It was almost like a wave pool. It lends itself to becoming creative. Part of the creative part of it was putting each other on and trying to do something that the other person hadn’t seen or wasn’t doing. I think that’s why that area was so progressive, especially in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Style seemed extremely important then too. You had to look cool.
Well, the way I visualize how surfing went, is that when it gained popularity and expanded, all the best breaks were taken up by the best surfers, so the beginners to intermediates were pushed out to the edges. A lot of the places that have waves we never really considered riding because we had the best wave to ride. Why would we go somewhere else? We did ride a lot of different places for the variety of different waves, but the majority of surfing was done on the point breaks and reef breaks that were consistent. Consequently, the beginners to the intermediates were getting pushed out of the waves to the edges and the edges tended to be the beach breaks. The point breaks had all the turns and all the poses and stances and fun stuff. In the beach break, we were doing all kinds of stalling maneuvers to let the wave catch up with you before it closed out. If you put it in bull fighting vernacular, you want to come as close to the horns as you can without getting gored. It’s getting into the tube and being as far back as you can and still making it. The inevitable thing about the beach breaks was that they were going to close out. Rarely, would you ever make the wave, so the game was to get as many maneuvers as you could get before the wave closed out. As a designer and shaper, you’ve got people coming in that ride beach breaks and they want a different kind of board than a point break board, so designs started changing. This is the constant conflict that I see in professional surfing. It became the new age air surfing as opposed to power and flow surfing. In my mind, it’s a combination of both. When that first occurred, I happened to be judging a contest at Zippers in Baja, which is a pretty good wave. Some of the best surfers in the world were invited to it, both longboarders and shortboarders. It was loose. You had some of the best surfers and a lot of creative surfing going on. The short board contest ended up with Christian Fletcher and Kelly Slater in the finals. Christian was boosting air and getting higher, but blowing the wave. Kelly was doing air, not as high, but he was able to complete the dance and make it down the line. The controversy in judging was, “Who gets more points? Somebody who tries an air and kind of makes it and blows the rest of the wave, or somebody that doesn’t go as high but completes the wave down the line?” There’s always this imbalance. Anyway, surfers today can do it all really good.
What about style and your mention of the bullfighter against the bull and the surfer against the wave? You’d see guys taunting the lip with their hands while they were nose riding. You’re doing a Quasimoto and another guy is doing a coffin, and everything is somehow involved with the tube.
Those were all put-ons and gestures and fun stuff to put your friends on. They were stalling maneuvers, but the ultimate goal was getting in the tube, and coming as close to the horns as possible without dying. I don’t think it is man against the bull or man against the wave. I think both fighters are true artists and both have won in the dance against the bull or the dance with the wave. It’s true. When you see somebody out there abusing the wave, you can see it. That’s why I think Kelly is so good. Kelly knows how to play the game better than anybody. Kelly loves the wave and loves to dance with the wave and he is a genius at it. That’s why he’s the best in the world, bar none.
He seems as though he understands the wave.
Of course he does because he’s not killing the wave. He’s dancing with the wave. That metaphor absolutely works.
How was it for you guys to be some of the first guys riding giant waves with these designed boards you had to ride them with?
One of my mentors was Buzzy Trent. Buzzy was a fabulous athlete and a pretty darn good waterman and fearless. Buzzy rode as big of waves as anybody has ever ridden, especially on the equipment that he had. He took me under his wing and I’d surf Overhead with him. Overhead was a pretty scary wave when it got big. Buzzy loved big waves. That’s where he had fun. Now back to Ricky and I being competitive swimmers, we didn’t have leashes. We didn’t have jet skis. Mommy wasn’t out there to save you.
You had to work your way into the water and become a water person. You had to be comfortable in the water. You had to read the water. You had to understand the rips and the dynamics of what was going on. The more time you put in the water, the more you studied that because of the repetitions and the thousands of waves you ride and the thousands of times you swim. You get more and more comfortable in that situation. The first day we rode Waimea was kind of a big deal in surfing. People ask me how I felt out there. You’re so tuned in and so adrenalined out that you don’t have time to get scared. It’s not that you’re not scared.
You don’t have time to work in fear. You’re in survival mode.
You’re calculating and weighing the odds all the time.
As a human being in the ocean, you have to know what the ocean has up its sleeve to be able to make it.
That’s right. As soon as you leave the beach and you start to paddle out, you’ve committed yourself to that. You sit on the beach and you calculate what you can do and where you can do it and if you can do it. What are the percentages and what are the chances? You’ve made the decision to go out there. It’s not that you’re not afraid. You don’t have time to be afraid. Your only mission is to survive, so that’s what you’re doing. I think that first day at Waimea, we paddled out and I don’t know who rode the first wave. I don’t think it was Greg Noll, but maybe it was. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter really. It was just the fact that we were all out there. Really, for me, the real heart of that day came in the afternoon when Mike Stange and I paddled out. It was just the two of us and it had gotten a lot bigger and a lot gnarlier. They had just let the river out because it had backed up and it was a lot bigger than the morning.
What were the conditions on the water? Was it offshore?
No. It was rain squally and a little stormy. It wasn’t hot and glassy. It was the other side of that.
It’s that spooky scary gray zone.
It was. We stoked each other up on it and we were both supremely confident in each other’s ability and our own abilities. We just felt like we could do it, and it was a magic hour or two in the water.
What was it like dropping in on the wave, the first couple of times, because it’s such a mass amount of water moving?
Well, I was more afraid of the sharks than I was of the waves. My first wave I had to straighten out and I didn’t want to let my board go, so I just held on. There was a guy that I believe rode the first wave, in front of me, not in the channel, but inside where it backs off a little bit. I was like, “Well, it’s either him or me. I’m going over him or through him.” I just went for it and, luckily, I bounced over him and managed to prone the wave out and get out before shore break. I only made two or three waves to the bottom that day.
What do you mean about the shark thing?
It was supposedly a breeding ground for sharks and tiger sharks. That legend was there.
So that’s in the back of your head as well as these massive waves coming at you.
Yeah. Buzzy had always said, “No matter what, always take off on the inside. Sit further over than anybody.” That’s what I did. I paddled over into the pit. I learned early on at Pipeline, that you’re way better off being further over and you’re way better off if you commit and go for it, even if you know you’ve made a mistake. You’re better off trying to go for it than trying to pull back.
Why do you think that is?
It’s because those are the worst wipeouts. Also, if you take off on the edge, by the time it gets to the edge, it’s really steep. You’re better off taking off where it’s going to be breaking first usually.
I learned that from Buzzy. You get spanked so severely at Pipeline that you learn that. This is how audacious I was. My first day at Sunset, it was a medium plus size day. It wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t small. It was triple overhead. Hawaiians would call it five feet where Californians would say it’s 15 foot plus.
I love how the Hawaiians claim that it’s five feet, but the face is 15 feet.
I know. I’m like, “Take a tape measure out there and tell me how big it is.”
You’re not riding the backs of the waves, you’re riding the face. I just always thought that was funny. Tell me about Sunset.
There were five or six guys sitting in this really tight group. I was like, “What are they sitting there for?” I was looking at the point where all the waves were. It looked like Malibu out there. I jump in the water and paddle out in the rip and then I paddled out diagonally across the bay inside of these guys that are all sitting outside. They’re watching me paddle and going, “Where the hell is he going?” I paddled about 1,500 feet away from them and now I’m equal to how far out they were sitting.
You’re just closer to the impact zone.
Yeah, and this great wave comes along. It was a great left. I turn around and paddle into this wave and just get launched airborne. Not compensating for the offshore wind and all that, I got pitched over the falls. By the time I swam all the way in and found my board and paddled back out again, I’m going, “Well, maybe I better sit with these guys. Maybe they know something I don’t.” That day I got pitched three times, totally airborne. I never made it to the bottom. I swam, got my board and paddled back out. If you get three of those swims, in one session, that’s a pretty full day.
Personally, I never really hunted big waves. I’d take a waist-high to head-high plus wave at Malibu over just about anything anywhere, but because I was a reasonably good water person, I wasn’t afraid to ride big waves. If the opportunity arose, I did. I started getting equipment that worked better for big waves and that made it better. If you start going to the North Shore and spending the winter there, you’re going to ride big waves. You get from waist-high to quadruple overhead.
That’s just crazy.
I’m hanging around with big wave riders too, and some of them are really fond of big waves. They loved it and that was their forte in surfing. I shaped a lot of guns and made a lot of big wave boards. I could understand the dynamics of riding a good-sized wave. I’ve had incredible experiences riding mid-ocean waves, again when mommy is not there. No helicopters. Nobody is there and you’re totally responsible for yourself and you’re riding waves with big boats.
Explain to me about riding big waves mid-ocean.
Well, most of them aren’t breaking top to bottom. Most of them are breaking top to middle, if they’re really breaking. A lot of them are steep enough and big enough though. One of the catamarans that I sailed over there was a 78-foot double bullet with no cabin, trampoline boat. It was quite fast. If you take off on a good size wave, with a boat like that, it’s pretty thrilling.
I’ll bet. So you would take trips from California to Hawaii on catamaran boats?
Yes. We were sailing and doing TransPac.
When did you start doing that?
I got my first chance to do it in the ‘50s, when Waikiki Surf, which was a Woody Brown designed catamaran, was the first catamaran to sail from Hawaii to the mainland in modern times, and maybe ever. They had a lot of crew problems when they got here. I had done a little sailing on Malibu Outriggers, and had a little bit of sailing experience, so they asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. I said “Yeah, sure.” So I started training with their crew. They were going to sail back to Hawaii on the TransPac, so I packed my bags, and we were getting towed out to the starting line. The owner’s lawyer was on the towboat and I had gotten a letter signed by my parents. They had both signed it saying it was okay for me to do this and they weren’t responsible. I think Dave Rochlen, Buzzy Trent, Pete Brinkman and John Honl were on the boat. I’m on the way out to the starting line, and the lawyer said, “No, it’s just too much responsibility.” They wouldn’t let me go. As it turns out, they had a really rough trip on the way over. It blew like hell and there were big waves and everyone was scared shitless the whole time.
That was around ‘57. Then I went to work for Carter and started building P-Cats and racing them. We raced a P-Cat four different times to Ensenada in the Ensenada race. I raced Hobie cats four times to Ensenada. I raced my own boat four times. I raced Stars and Stripes, which was a 60-foot catamaran, with Dennis Connor six times. I was probably on the first to finish boat I don’t know how many times in that race. I had gained a lot of experience, so when these TransPac things would come up, I got to go on them. I raced a 45-foot trimaran over there. I raced another 45-foot Wind Warrior and Double Bullet and a couple other boats. I delivered boats back, so I gained a lot of TransPac ocean experience and I did the Mexico races and stuff. There is a real parallel to adventure surfing. People around the world are surfing slabs and getting towed into some amazing waves that make me sick to my stomach, but I totally understand why and what they’re doing. With speed, comes control. A lot of times, if you can control it, speed is your friend in waves. Phil Edwards and I rode Sunset almost closed out in a Hobie 16. We rode a couple pretty good size waves with that, racing waves.
Explain the difference of danger between surfing and sailing Sunset as compared to mid-ocean.
Well, when we did Sunset, we were taking off way outside and, after the wave would flatten out a little bit, we could get in it as it went into the impact zone. That’s the real commitment. With some speed and control, you can do it. In mid-ocean, the waves are not breaking top to bottom, but the commitment is huge, because there is no one there to save you. If you blow it, it’s a long swim back.
It’s a whole different consequence.
Yeah. The consequences are really high. You have to be a little bit conservative, but it’s hard to be conservative when the waves are that big and thrilling, so you go for it.
Have you ever been pitched on a catamaran surfing impact zone waves?
Yep. End over end. That was one of the problems that we thought might occur with riding Sunset because once you’re committed to it you’re in it. You’re not getting out of it. If the hulls would load up, one of the problems with the older big wave boards was that we would put kick in the nose and belly in the nose to give it an entry. The problem is that halfway down the face, if you weren’t in perfect trim, the water would suck up around that nose and load up and you’d virtually stop in the middle of the wave and get pitched over the nose of the board, end over end, tumbling down the face of a gigantor wave. That was one of the downfalls. We learned that you had to narrow the nose and get rid of the lot of that belly and you still get the same cutting effect to part the water. Part of the thing in riding big waves, because they’re moving faster, is it’s much more difficult to be in the right place in the line up at the right place at the right time. Paddling is of the essence, so you had to make boards that would paddle fast and as well as be able to accelerate to ten times the speed you could paddle, in order to be able to control that speed. It was a learning curve. We weren’t sure about the boat at that time, and that was one of the fears. If the hulls filled up, we’d get pitched poled and we’d be going really fast, and then you’ve got all the rigging to deal with and there were 1/8-inch wires that would cut you. There was an iffy zone there, but it worked out that the hulls did not load up and it was a controllable situation and you could ride some really big waves. It’s the same in the America’s Cup. These guys are up on these foils and it’s a delicate balance between being on those foils and getting the wrong angle to tack. Instead of lifting, they get sucked under and now suddenly, you pitchpole and they already had one guy die because he got trapped under the boat and couldn’t get out. These are all things you’re taking into account, whether you’re in mid-ocean or riding Sunset.
Gnarly. How did you get onto the America Cup?
Well, it was because I had boat building experience. I had built my own boat, which was a composite structure. The boat I built was 32-feet long and 17-feet wide with two tubes and a trampoline and fully rotating masts. It was ready to race. It was fully compliant with race rules and it was under 2,000 pounds. It was a reasonably light structure and a very fast boat. Because of that experience, I got to build more exotic boats with more exotic materials. The guy that got the contract to build the America’s Cup boats was here in Capo Beach and we’re friends. He knew of my experience and he asked me if I’d be interested. I said, “Yes.” I started at the very beginning and we delivered two 60-foot boats start to finish. We made the mock-up and made the molds off the mockups and put them together and put them on a truck and delivered them to San Diego in three months and one week. We had crews working around the clock, 24-7. The rumor was that the boats were built by a bunch of dumb surfers. It turns out that actually maybe we overbuilt them. They probably should have fallen apart after you crossed the finish line of the last race.
[Laughs] The dumb surfers weren’t so dumb after all.
[Laughs] Yeah. Exactly. We built two boats. We built a soft rig and a hard rig. The hard rig was a wing like the present day America’s Cup catamarans. That one was sold to a Mexican and it was shipped to Acapulco and he used it as an attraction for his hotel there. They actually sailed that boat up on its own bottom over 3,000 miles to San Diego. Dennis kept the soft rig after the Cup and we raced that seven times to Ensenada and each time it broke its own record. The last time I did it with them, we started at noon and 135 miles and we just about finished before dark. It was a pretty fast boat. We could triple wind speed and we could fly a hull in six knots of wind, so it was a very fast boat. In fact, two days before the America’s Cup, all the rock stars were on the hard rig with Dennis Connor steering and I was with the enlisted swine on the soft rig and we beat Dennis by two and a half minutes.
[Laughs] Haha! That’s so excellent.
[Laughs] Yeah. The soft rig was more versatile. With the hard rig, you had to keep it attached. I was very lucky and I had the opportunity to sail and build some pretty exotic boats.
Well, it was really incredible to see Oracle go from being down by eight races and go on to win the next nine races against the Kiwis to bring home the America’s Cup. It seemed like they were up against impossible odds.
It was pretty amazing. It was exciting. You couldn’t have written the script for it.