In the spring of 1960, a tall skinny kid with sun-bleached hair, a nose his body hadn't yet grown into, and a tan that could only have come from Hawaii, parked his ’47 woody (nicknamed the Trestle Special, after the famous surf spot just north of San Onofre) in the alley behind Curren's Surf Shop in Encinitas. He shut off the ignition and sat there hunched over the wheel, staring out into the overcast day. He had come all the way from his home in Inglewood that morning, only to have second thoughts now.
He kept repeating in his mind the words he had heard over and over that winter on the north shore of Oahu: “Curren's coming! Curren’s coming!" It had started to sound like the obsessed chant of madmen. “Curren’s coming! Curren’s coming!" And God knows they were madmen, he thought. Rash, excitable, easily unhinged, addicted to the rush that comes from placing your life in jeopardy. But for madmen he had found them to be mostly harmless, even kind, and at their best, wildly entertaining.
Not Curren, though. There was something dark and menacing about him, some unspeakable thing the kid couldn't understand, and which made his journey here to Curren’s shop seem more reckless and foolish than anything he had done on the North Shore.
At age nineteen, less than a year out of high school, Mike Doyle had already established a reputation as one of the most talented and versatile surfers in the world — first in California, then in Hawaii. He had started surfing when he was thirteen, after spending several weekends at the Manhattan Beach pier. He had watched the surfers from the beach many times, but somehow it never made sense — were they sliding, falling, being pushed? What was the mystery that moved them and their boards?
But from the vantage point of the pier, looking down, he could see the swells welling up and the surfers gliding along on the incline in front of the waves; he could see how they threw their weight to turn their boards, and how they ran back and forth to keep the boards in trim; and most of all, he could see the expressions of delight on the surfers’ faces, so close. Now the whole thing made sense; it fascinated him.
Mike started serving his apprenticeship by shagging boards for the older surfers. He would wait on the beach until one of them fell off his board, then he would wade out to meet it. The board would come at him sideways and knock him off his feet, then he would scramble back up, turn the board around, hop onto it, and paddle two or three strokes before he met the surfer coming in. “Thanks, kid,” the surfer would say, leaving him standing there with bruises across his thighs, watching in awe.
One day Mike managed to talk the owner of a fourteen-foot “kukebox” into letting him borrow his board..The guy had a reputation for never letting anyone use his board, and he warned the kid to be careful. Mike paddled out with the hollow, square-railed board and after a few tries managed to get the awkward thing going left on his first wave. For a few brief, glorious seconds he was surfing. Then the wave began to break... he’d never thought about that ... what do you do now?
He panicked and bailed off the nose, the hundred-pound board hit him in the groin, and he washed up on the beach like a dying seal. He was afraid to look and see what sort of damage he had done to himself, but when he reached down, he could feel it. One blood- filled testicle was swollen up to the size of a grapefruit.
Mike could hear the doctor whispering to his mother: “I think we’re going to have to take it off,” he said with a tone of indifference. Horrified, Mike began to imagine what it would be like showing up at gym class with just one. He begged the doctor not to cut. “You know,” the doctor said, “you can still have children. You only need one. Besides, it’ll never work right anyway.”
“I don’t care,” Mike insisted. “I want both of them.” And eventually he talked the doctor into sparing him. The testicle never again retracted properly in cold water, but to Mike it somehow seemed like more than just dead weight.
With that first unkind lesson, Mike had learned that surfing can be dangerous, but he kept trying, still using borrowed boards, and before long he was pestering his mother to buy him a surfboard of his own. His mother’s first response was that ancient answer mothers always give: “I know if I buy you this, you'll use it for about a week then you’ll want something else.” And usually they’re right. But not this time.
Mike’s first board was a nine-foot- six-inch, custom-made balsa wood board from Velzy and Jacobs of Hermosa Beach — the first surf shop in California. “Where do you surf, kid?” Dale Velzy asked.
“I don't, yet,” he answered.
“I see... Well, we'll fix you up with just the thing.” And together they planned the dimensions of the “custom” board.
When he went that Friday to pick it up, the board he got wasn’t the same board he ordered — whoever got there first got whatever was finished — but it didn’t matter. It was called “the Island” style, had a small fin, almost no curve (or “rocker”), and had sixty- four ants embedded in the resin. Mike’s mother painted an Indian totem pole on the deck, partly to cover the ants and partly to give the board a touch of personal style.
That summer Mike’s stepfather worked for the Navy at Point Mugu, and every day he would drop off Mike at Malibu on his way up the coast. Mike would go into the grocery store, buy a half-gallon of milk and a box of Barbara Ann sweet rolls, eat the whole dough ball, then paddle out in the water and surf all day, only coming in when he saw his father was there waiting for him. Sunburned and exhausted, he would flop into the back of their station wagon and sleep the entire way home to Inglewood.
He was slow to be accepted by the local surfers. They made fun of him and called him “Tiki Mike” because of his habit of wearing wooden Hawaiian tikis around his neck. But gradually the future champion began making a name for himself.
One day in the school library Mike was flipping through a copy of National Geographic when he happened to see a picture of surfers at Waikiki. It was an aerial shot; he could see the solid redwood boards they were riding, and the clear water that was so glassy you could see every rock on the reefs below. He knew from then on that Hawaii was where it was at for a surfer, and he went back to the library again and again to stare at that picture.
By the time he was in high school, Mike had started making his own surfboards, at home in the garage. In those days, the all-around water man always made his own equipment, even if he didn’t know how, on the theory that by the time he had finished making it — whether it was a surfboard, a paddle-board, a boat, diving gear, or whatever — he would understand it, and by understanding it, he would know how to use it. That was the difference between a novice and an expert, and as soon as Mike became aware of that, he began experimenting with different designs and materials, looking for the board that would fit his own style.
During his first summer out of high school, Mike was able to use his ocean experience to get himself a job as a lifeguard for the City of Santa Monica. He worked at the tower in front of Mae West’s house, and it was there that he first met fellow lifeguard and surfer Buzzy Trent.
Right from the start he could see that Buzzy was wired a little differently than most people. Buzzy was a stocky, square-muscled, finely conditioned, indestructible little guy with short limbs and a head that looked about two sizes too large for the rest of his body. He had been part of the first generation of California thrill seekers who pioneered big-wave riding in Hawaii, had already spent five winters on the North Shore of Oahu, and planned on going back for more. When he told Mike about his adventures, his face would get red, the veins in his neck would bulge, his eyes would bug out, and he would talk himself into a frenzy: “I remember riding Makaha Point break in ’58 when the waves were twenty-five feet,” he would say, working into his own dramatic style of storytelling.
“You should have been there, Doyle. It only breaks there every one or two years, and I’d gone to bed that night after seeing it completely calm… Then I jumped up wide awake… listening…there it was again, the crack of a huge set breaking on the outer reef. I ran outside, squinted through the moonlight, and saw a giant wall leap up, then crumble, shimmering as it folded around the point… The next day I woke up with the sun, knowing I was in for the test of my life.” On the steps of the lifeguard tower, Buzzy would get into his big-wave stance and lean forward as if he were dropping into one of the twenty-five-footers, already way past the critical point. “…I was only halfway down before I got axed! I skipped across the water like a flat stone — once, twice, three times — before I could claw my way under the surface. The wall slammed me down and bounced me off the bottom in forty-five feet of water. Christ, Doyle, I was lucky I hit my leg on the coral and not my head.” And he would tum his bare leg to show Mike the scars.
All summer long Buzzy Trent and the other lifeguards who had been to the North Shore pumped Mike with stories about Hawaii. He heard how most of the native Hawaiians really didn't care too much for the North Shore. And why should they? They surfed the gentle breakers in front of the tourist hotels at Waikiki, where they could make a living teaching water sports and work as extras in the movies that were being made in Honolulu. At night they could hustle the tourist girls who seemed to adore them. The weather on the south shore was pleasant, the surf small, and life was good. But on the North Shore! That was jungle over there. The natives still lived in grass shacks, there were no women, and you couldn’t even sleep at night for the noise of the surf. At Kaena Point they said it sometimes got as big as fifty feet! A guy could get killed in surf like that. It was scary over there.
Which was exactly what the California thrill seekers were looking for. That summer Mike was invited to a barbecue where a bunch of them were together in the same backyard. He saw that they all had that nervous, hard-driving energy like somebody on Benzedrine. A lot of them were heavy drinkers, others were antisocial and couldn't seem to carry on a conversation without turning it into an argument. They had a big hole dug in the ground, and when it came time to cook the meat, they tore down the cyclone fence and dragged it over the coals for a grill. One of them carried out a half a cow and flopped it down on the fire, and when Mike put his own little steak next to it one of them growled, “Whatsa matter, kid? Our meat not good enough for ya?”
They only seemed to care about one thing: riding big waves. If they were doing that, or at least talking about it, they felt fine; if they weren’t, they got a little edgy. They were madmen, and something about them captivated Mike’s imagination. He knew he would have to try riding the big waves himself.
In November, after the lifeguarding season was over, Mike bought a ticket to Hawaii on flight #202 out of Burbank. The airline was the cheapest he could find — USOA, which the older surfers said stood for “Use Some Other Airline.” The DC-6 broke down on the runway and Mike had to spend two days at the YMCA while they replaced a faulty engine. The rescheduled flight left on November 17, 1959. Mike kept looking out the window the whole way, hoping to catch his first glimpse of the islands. When the plane finally passed directly over Waikiki at dusk, he looked down and saw the surfers in the perfectly clear water, just like the picture in National Geographic.
Buzzy Trent was there at the airport to pick him up, as he had promised. He grabbed Mike’s bags and tossed them in the jalopy he had bought for fifty dollars at Surf Motors in Honolulu. “How’d you like the rubber-band flight, Doyle?” Mike just smiled and held up the surfboard he had made that summer just for Hawaii. “What do you think of it?” he asked, but he could see by Buzzy’s expression that he didn't think too much of it.
“Don't worry about it,” Buzzy said, “Curren’s coming. He’ll fix you up. Christ, Doyle, you should have been here yesterday! It was twenty feet at Sunset. Peter Cole took the worst wipeout I’ve ever seen. He was under for at least fifteen seconds. We all thought he was dead.” And the war stories continued all the way to the North Shore.
Home for the hardcore surfers was a seventy-five-dollar-a-month army Quonset hut, right on the beach. It had a rusted tin roof covered with old surfboards, an outdoor cold-water shower, and an outhouse. Inside, a few mattresses were tossed around on the floor, the walls were plastered with travel posters of exotic places, and the kitchen sink was stacked high with dirty dishes. The only things polished in the place were the surfboards.
It was dark when they got there, the shack had no electricity, and Mike felt disoriented and a little ill at ease in the unfamiliar surroundings. But the other surfers, who were waxing their boards by lantern light, tried to make him feel comfortable. Not all of the Californians lived at the Quonset hut, but they all seemed to come and go as if it were their own. There was Greg Noll, nicknamed “the Bull,” who could always be spotted in the water by his boldly striped baggies; Peter Cole, who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and had a fierce talent for taking the worst wipeouts of anybody; Ricky Grigg, who was an oceanographer studying at Scripps when he wasn’t on the North Shore; Bud Browne, who was there to film their adventures; and many more. They were all older than Mike by several years, but he had already shown himself to be a candidate to play their games, so they took him in, gave him his own moldy mattress and filthy plate. They were going to help out the new kid, show him the ropes, and get him started. But they were going to work him over a little bit first.
There wasn’t much to do at night on the North Shore, so everybody went to bed after the boards were waxed, planning to get up at dawn to check the surf. Mike couldn’t sleep much that first night. Lying there in the dark, he could hear the waves breaking less than a hundred feet from his head. They sounded loud and violent, like the crack of an axe on a chopping block, and even after he dozed off he could hear them in his sleep. He would dream of himself with his arms raised over his head, dropping desperately into one of the huge, impossible waves out of Buzzy’s stories, knowing he was already far beyond the critical point and had no chance at all of making it …dropping, dropping…then — craaack! — and he would wake up to the rumbling sound of the breakers outside the shack.
In the morning he couldn’t wait to get out in the water and burn off some of the nervous energy he had been accumulating in the past few days. As soon as Buzzy was awake, Mike asked him where he could go surf, and Buzzy rolled off his mattress, motioning for Mike to follow him outside. “When Sunset isn’t breaking,” he said, “we just surf right out here in front.”
Mike looked at the shorebreak Buzzy was pointing to — it was the hollowest wave Mike had ever seen, and big enough that you could have stood up inside of it. He could see that it was breaking over a shallow reef, and every time the waves sucked out, the dark underwater pinnacles jutted up within a few feet of the surface, “You gotta be kidding me,” Mike said.
“No,” Buzzy shrugged, “we surf it all the time. Since this is your first day, why don’t you go out alone while we watch you from the beach and see how you do — we’ll come out in a little while and join you.”
Mike paddled out, figuring that whatever wave judgment he had brought with him from California didn’t mean much here, and he’d better do what the older guys advised. On the way out, he got a chance to look down the barrel of one of those waves — it was like looking into a kaleidoscope, a spinning green vision — and he was left with the uneasy feeling that he had seen something he wasn’t meant to see.
When he reached the take-off point, he sat there waiting for a set, thinking it was impossible for a ten-foot board to fit into a wave as fast and tight as that. They came out of deep water, hit the reef, and pitched up so quickly there was no way to get into them early, and he knew that if he tried to drop straight in and do a bottom turn, the way he did back at Malibu, he’d get thrashed around inside that tube and ground up on the coral bottom like a soggy lump of meat.
He took off at an angle, going left, hoping the board would be fast enough to get him down the line. He took the drop in good control, and using the speed he had gained, swung even harder into the wall. As he crouched low, in that second of ultimate power, he knew he had defied the ominous dreams of the night before: he could do this; it was scary as hell, but he could do it. And he actually rode a couple of more waves before he noticed that the others weren’t coming out to join him. They were just standing there on the beach, watching.
He paddled back in, thinking maybe they wanted to go somewhere else. But nobody said anything to him; they just stood there yawning and scratching and pretending to look at the sky. It wasn’t until later that somebody told him that the place he had surfed was called the Banzai Pipeline; and in those days, with those boards, it was considered an impossible wave. Suicide. Banzai.
After breakfast they all went over to Sunset, about a mile away. Mike had already passed test number one, so this time Buzzy went out with him and showed him the line-up. “It’s a big ocean out here,” Buzzy said, shouting over the roar of the fifteen-foot waves. “See that palm tree on the beach? See that house on the point? Those are your bearings. If you get too far out, you'll get caught in the rip and we'll never see you again. If you get too far in, you’ll get caught by a sneak set. Right here’s where you want to sit.”
Mike sat astride his board and watched the other surfers ride a few waves. It was a different style of surfing from what he was used to; all the hot-dogging and nose-riding, all the goofy nose tweaks, bell-ringings, and Quasimodos had been left back in California. The big-wave riders did only one thing: get down in their broadest stance and go like hell, driving for their lives.
When he thought he was ready, Mike swung his board around and dropped into one of the peaks. It was so steep he had to tromp on the tail-block to keep from pearling the nose into the bottom: he carved a long turn and angled right down a long, wildly shifting wall; within seconds he had traveled more than a hundred yards to a point where the more experienced surfers pulled out. But they forgot to tell Mike that, and he kept going until the wave began to wrap around on both sides of him like a giant horseshoe. As it passed over a shallow, inside section, the bottom of the wave suddenly sucked out, the shoulders closed in, and seeing that he had nowhere to go, Mike bailed off the front of his board — the same unfortunate error which several years before had nearly cost him one of his testicles.
The board flew up and hit him in the back just before the wave pulled him in and threw him over the falls, helpless as a jellyfish. He hit the bottom hard and thrashed around for a few seconds before he was able to get his feet on something solid. He pushed off the bottom as hard as he could and fought toward the surface, but the water was so light and frothy from the turbulence that he couldn't get anywhere. Just when he knew he was moving close to the top, he got hit by the second wave of the set, and suddenly found himself on the bottom again. At this point he remembered what the experienced water men always said: “Relax. Go with it. Don’t use your air fighting it.” So he tried relaxing… for about a second and a half… when he realized he was going to black out if he didn't get air right now. In complete panic, he flailed his way to the surface.
After he had washed up on the beach and collapsed in the sand next to his board, the doubts started: “I don’t think… maybe… this is too…”
“You’d have been a lot better off bailing out the back of the wave than trying to go off the nose,” Buzzy said quietly. He had seen what had happened and knew what sort of thoughts would be going through Mike's head. Maybe the new kid had paid his dues. They talked for a while, then paddled back out together.
Mike never got hit that hard again. He took his share of wipeouts that winter, but there were also certain magical days when he felt as if he had been riding big waves all his life, and nothing-could have been more natural. There was a day at Waimea Point when the surf was breaking twenty-five to thirty feet and nearly everybody in the water was getting crunched, boards were being broken, people were lining up on the rocks to watch the Californians sacrifice their bodies, and there were at least a dozen cameras with lenses a foot long mounted on the beach less than 300 feet from the peak, recording the whole thing. Everyone said they’d never seen Waimea any bigger, yet somehow, to Mike, on that special day, it seemed as though he were back at Malibu in three-foot surf. It was almost eery. He would take off on those massive mountains of water, start a relaxed turn at the top, drop down thirty feet, swing back up into the shoulder, crouch low, and drive hard across the wall. He did it over and over that day, so calmly and simply he wondered if maybe he was doing it wrong.
But he was doing it right. Bud Browne asked him to be the star of the movie he was filming that winter, of course Mike agreed, and later, when it was shown in civic auditoriums back in California, Mike Doyle became an immediate legend. Still, he knew he hadn’t put it all together yet. He was getting by on ability, but his equipment wasn’t right, and one day he complained to Buzzy about it. “When I made this board last summer, I'd never seen big waves,” he said. “I was just going on what I thought a big-wave board should look like. … I can see now that it’s all wrong. It’s too wide in the nose, too thick in the tail, too straight, and way too heavy.”
Buzzy just nodded. He had known that the first time he had seen the board at the airport. “Don’t worry about it, Doyle. Curren’s coming pretty soon.”
That was it. Mike couldn’t stand it anymore. “Everybody keeps telling me Curren’s coming! Who the hell is Curren?”
“I thought you knew,” Buzzy said. “He’s the man who makes the rhino guns.”
“Yeah. When you go hunt rhinoceros, you don’t take a cap gun. You gotta have a rhino gun. It’s the same with big waves. Curren is the man who makes the guns that ride big waves.”
Over the next few days, Mike heard more about Pat Curren from the other surfers. Curren was about thirty, they said, made his living as a deep-sea diver in La Jolla, had recently opened a surf shop in Encinitas, and had the design skills of an engineer, even though he wasn’t. Until Curren came along, it has been difficult to put rocker into the shape of a board because the balsa could only be bought in pieces four inches thick, and by the time they were glued together, carved, and shaped, the boards came out nearly straight. On big waves it was a constant struggle to keep them from nosing into the water. But Curren had developed a way to slice a three-foot scab off the bottom of the tail and glue it to the top of the nose, giving the boards rocker; he also used rounded bottoms on his boards, which made them go faster than flat-bottom boards; and most importantly, he had designed the perfectly clean rail lines which allowed his boards to slice across nearly vertical walls of water with the least resistance. He was a very talented man, everybody agreed, even if he was a little bit weird.
After hearing about Curren's reputation, Mike began to imagine all sorts of superhuman qualities about the man — a great surfer, a dynamic personality, an impressive physique — so perhaps it was inevitable that when Curren finally showed up, Mike was disappointed. Everybody went to the airport to pick him up. and Mike was shocked to see that the man waiting there was small and thin, with a gaunt, almost stark face, a military-style haircut, intense eyes, and a gnarled-up brow that gave him an angry, even bitter look. Mike thought the guy looked as if something was wrong with him.
During the drive back to the North Shore. Mike sat next to Curren, feeling confused and intimidated. Everybody in the car obviously liked and respected Curren. and they kept up their usual excited banter, apparently trying to humor the man with their stories.
But Curren never said a word. He just sat there staring straight ahead, silent and sullen.
Later, when they all went surfing at Sunset, Curren paddled out farther than everyone else and sat there by himself, sulking, while the others rode wave after wave. After an hour of that, Mike figured the guy really wasn't there to surf, he just wanted to be alone and maybe watch the swells roll in while he unwound from his trip. Then, as always, there was one set of waves that was bigger than all the others, and while everybody else had to scramble outside to keep from getting hit, Curren was sitting in perfect position. He snagged the wave of the day, while everybody else could only watch in amazement.
Curren didn’t ride it with much style. Mike saw. Not that he was a bad surfer, it was just that he seemed to be following some personal vision that nobody else could appreciate. Still, the others might have all gotten twenty or thirty waves that day to Curren’s one, but his was the one they all remembered, and to Mike it seemed that anybody with that much determination and single-mindedness was downright scary.
In the next few weeks, Mike made a timid effort to get to know Curren, hoping to approach him on the subject of his designs, which were clearly everything everybody had said they were. He knew he would never own a Curren gun, even though he admired them. It went back to that old thing about the all-around water man making his own equipment, and no matter how good somebody else’s boards were, Mike would make his own. But he did want Curren’s design, he wanted the template that would allow him to make his own guns. And he knew he couldn't come back to Hawaii again without one.
Curren never responded to Mike — or anyone else, for that matter. When asked a direct question, he would answer, “Yeah,” or “Nah,” but not a word more. In two months Mike never once saw him smile, and when Mike left Hawaii to return to California, he felt frustrated and unfulfilled, and knew there would be a future confrontation between the two of them. And it would have to be soon.
That's the situation he faced, back in Encinitas, parked around the corner from Curren's Surf Shop, trying to work up the courage to approach the man who was unapproachable and ask him for something you just didn’t ask of another man: his ideas, his inspiration, his failures, his trial-and-error experimentation, and all the day-to-day drudgery of making an idea work — asking somebody for his soul. As much as he didn't want to do it, Mike knew he couldn't go home without that template.
It was like being out in the water on a big day, thinking you would rather not be there but at the same time knowing there was only one way in; and as the first swell rolls under you, you think. “It's too big"; on the second swell you think, “I should have gone for that one"; and on the third swell you say, “It's now or never." He sucked in a deep breath, rolled out of the Trestle Special, and slammed the door behind him. This was it. Past the critical point. No turning back.
That door of Curren's shop was locked and a sign on the door said, “Closed. Be Back Sometime." Mike peeked in the window and in the dim light he could see the rack of tall new guns standing against the wall, sleek and powerful, like primitive idols. He tried desperately to memorize their lines, but when he closed his eyes they disappeared and he knew it couldn't be done. He turned to go — then stopped. He couldn't believe what he was seeing! Right there in front of him on the sidewalk, drawn in grease pencil, was the full-scale template of a Curren gun. It was a miracle. He stepped inside the magical lines, crouched into his big-wave stance, and looked down to see how the water flowed perfectly over and around Curren s brilliant design.
What was it doing there? Who knows? All he cared about was getting it into his hands. He ran down D Street, across Highway 101, and up the hill to Mayfair Market, where he bought ten feet of butcher paper and a felt pen. Then he ran back down D Street, thinking frantically that before he could get back the miracle might disappear. He unrolled the butcher paper on the sidewalk, placed rocks at all four corners, got down on his knees, and began tracing over the lines.
When he looked up, Curren was standing there at the corner, motionless. watching the theft of his soul. He had that same intense look of a madman. his brow twisted in anger and his eyes narrowed into mean little slits. Mike froze, unsure if Curren even recognized him. Should he try to explain? Or bail out? Curren stared… and stared… slowly putting it all together. The North Shore. The kid with the nose, terrified, but hanging in there just the same. He must be crazy, Curren thought. Then slowly, in spite of all he did to prevent it, Curren was amused. What truer compliment could the kid pay him than stealing his design? He was flattered.
And for the first time ever, Mike saw Curren smile.
Mike Doyle went back to Hawaii that next winter and rode a board he made from Curren's template. During the next ten years, he went on to win nearly every major surfing championship in the world. He now owns a sports clothing store in Encinitas. Curren's Surf Shop went out of business years ago. but his big-gun designs are still the fastest boards in the water. In 1981 Mike Doyle saw Pat Curren in Costa Rica. Curren was packing by horse into a remote beach where he planned to do some surfing away from the crowds. His son. Tommy Curren, is presently one of the top surfers on the professional circuit.