For a few years back in the '60s, Mike Doyle was the hottest surfer in the world. With an unusual combination of power on big waves and stylistic grace on small waves, he became one of the sport's first professionals — meaning somebody who actually made his living from surfing. But in those days top surfers weren't handed paychecks after winning a contest, because there weren’t any sponsors. The surf industry hadn't been invented yet, and those who wanted to stay close to the sport had to make up their lifestyles as they went along.
The following story is excerpted from Mike Doyle’s recently published autobiography, Morning Glass (Manzanita Press).
During the spring of 1962, I was hanging out in Santa Cruz, surfing at Steamer Lane and sleeping in my car, when I happened to run into Mike Zuetell, an old friend I knew from Hermosa Beach. Zuetell, who was in the Army at Fort Ord now, introduced me to a chubby-faced Army buddy of his, Don Hansen. Hansen, who’d been surfing in California for a few years before he’d joined the Army, was originally from Redfield, South Dakota, where his father had owned a car dealership. I remember his teeth were stained brown from some mineral they had in the water back there.
Zuetell and Hansen told me they had a crash pad in Santa Cruz and that almost every night they would go AWOL, jump the fence at Fort Ord, party at their house, and be back on base by reveille. They’d never been caught. “Hey,” they said, “we’re having a big party at the house tonight. Why don’t you come over?”
That turned out to be one of the craziest parties I’ve ever seen. The house was packed full of people getting drunk and wild, and as the evening went on it got more and more out of control. At one point Hansen took a ceramic mixing bowl, threw it as hard as he could at Zuetell, and hit him square in the forehead. Zuetell had a crescent-shaped scar on his head for the rest of his life.
When I saw things were really getting out of hand, I retired to one of the bedrooms to get some sleep. But I’d only been asleep for a few minutes when I heard a terrible commotion in the front room. All of a sudden the door swung open, Hansen ran through the room, dived over the bed, through the screened window, hit the ground outside, and kept on running into the night. Then, not far behind Hansen, came a great big cop. He looked around, but when he couldn’t see Hansen, he became furious; he came over to the bed and started hitting me over the head with his flashlight. I tried to protect myself with my arms, saying, “What’s going on?”
Somebody turned on the lights, and I saw that the cop was even bigger than I’d thought. Then a woman ran in and stopped the cop from beating on me. I looked up long enough to glance at his name tag. I’ll never forget it — Wablinsky.
I recognized the woman. She’d been with Hansen earlier that evening. Now I found out she also happened to be Officer Wablinsky’s wife. As I understood it, earlier that evening two police officers had been beaten up, supposedly by out-of-towners who had thrown one of the officers over a cliff. The officer was in the hospital in serious condition. So the cops were on the rampage, and Wablinsky was using that as an excuse to go after Hansen. I just happened to have been caught in the middle of it.
Later on that year, in the summer of 1962, I was at a big Surfarama trade show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It was for surfboard manufacturers and others in the surfing industry to show off their latest products. The surfing craze hadn’t really hit the country yet, but surfing was getting to be a big sport in Southern California and the surf industry was starting to become aware of its influence.
As I walked around the trade show, I saw that filmmakers Bud Browne and Bruce Brown were there showing their movies, and Dick Dale and the Deltones were there playing a lusty rock ’n’ roll some were calling surf music. I saw that Tom Morey had a booth at the trade show, too, so I went over to say hello.
I knew Morey from surfing at Malibu in the late ’50s. The first time I ever saw him, he drove up to the beach in a new car and stepped out wearing a shirt and tie. He was very clean-cut but carried himself in a relaxed, slump-shouldered way. He pulled out a board he’d made himself, stripped off his suit and tie, and pulled on a pair of trunks.
He was all white, like he didn’t get out in the sun enough, and we expected him to be a real kook in the water. But Morey surprised us. He was a very smooth surfer, with a relaxed style and a light touch. He did beautiful cutbacks and had perfected a move called the standing island pullout, which some of us had never seen before.
We found out later that Morey worked for Douglas Aircraft as some kind of aeronautical engineer and he liked to play the drums in jazz bands on the side. He never really mixed with the Malibu crowd. He was kind of quiet and only showed up once in a while. But almost every time he came to the beach, Morey had a different surfboard — always something experimental, always something we had never seen before.
Since the old days when I used to see him surfing at Malibu, Tom had gotten out of aircraft engineering, had teamed up with Carl Pope, and had opened a surfboard shop in Ventura. Together they started coming out with a lot of innovative products: They invented Slip Check, an abrasive material in a spray can that you could spray on your board for traction. They came out with the first molded polypropylene fin and fin-mounting system — until then fins had always been made of wood, which was much less flexible. And they came out with Tri Sec, a collapsible three-part surfboard that folded down into a suitcase. (In those days surfboards were 11 feet long, and some airlines refused to accept them as baggage.)
When I stopped at his booth, Tom Morey was standing in front of a small crowd describing a new surfboard he’d designed. At that time the rails on all surfboards were rounded symmetrically, what we used to call “egg rails,” and the nose always turned up so the board wouldn't pearl. But on Tom’s board the rails turned down and were flat on the bottom, and the nose turned down as well.
It didn’t make any sense to me, but Tom, who still looked more like an engineer than a surfer, was whooshing his hands through the air like a little kid flying a paper airplane, trying to explain how his surfboard worked. “See, if the top of the nose curves down, while the bottom of the nose is flat, then the water has to travel farther and faster over the top, and that creates a vacuum which automatically lifts the nose, just like an airplane wing. The same theory applies to turned-down rails as well.”
At the time, I didn’t really understand everything Tom was saying, but he definitely stretched my mind. We were used to making surfboards in the same old way, and if we experimented at all, it was more in the outline of the board, rather than with the rocker or the rails. And rather than working from theoretical concepts, we were still plodding along with trial and error, which was a lot of fun but slow. We didn’t even realize that nobody knew how to design a surfboard. Tom Morey at least understood that when it came to surfboard design, the whole thing was still wide open.
And he was certainly correct about the turned-down rails, because that’s the way all surfboards are made today.
In the winter of 1965, I was in Hawaii competing in the Makaha International, which at that time was the most important international surfing contest. For the last five or six years I’d spent every winter in Hawaii, surfing on the North Shore of Oahu, competing in the Makaha, and starring in surf movies made by Bud Browne.
Another surfer in Hawaii that winter was Don Hansen, the AWOL soldier who had nearly gotten me killed by a jealous Santa Cruz cop. Don was married now and living at Kawela Bay, where I liked to stay when I was in Hawaii. Don told me that when the winter surfing season in Hawaii was over, he was thinking about moving to northern San Diego County, to Encinitas or Cardiff, and opening up a surf shop. He’d spent some time there living in his panel truck and surfing at Swami’s, and he’d grown to love the place. He’d gotten to know another North County surfer. Bob Driver, whose father owned a big insurance company in San Diego. Driver had promised Don $1500 in start-up money, in exchange for a partnership in the surf shop. Don thought it sounded like a pretty good deal and asked me if I would be interested in going to work for him, shaping and promoting my own signature-model surfboard. “Why don’t you come in with me?’’ he said. “We’ll join forces.”
I knew that San Diego’s North County offered more choice surfing spots than anywhere in California. When I was a teenager growing up in Inglewood in the ’50s, it was nothing for my friends and me to drive 200 miles looking for good surf. Gas was 25 cents a gallon, and the highways weren’t crowded. We used to drive from LA. to Santa Barbara and back down to La Jolla on the old highway, all in one day, just checking out the surf. There were only a few hundred really active surfers on the whole coast, and you knew most of them, so if you passed a car with a surfboard on top, that was a brother. You’d both pull over to the side of the road and exchange information: Where you been? How was the surf? Who’d you see? Who’s hot this week? Even if you didn’t know them, you’d still pull over and chat, exchange phone numbers, and end up being friends.
One of our favorite places to surf in those days was Swami’s, in north San Diego County. It got its name after an Indian spiritual leader, Paramahansa Yogananda, who built one of his Self-Realization Fellowship retreats on the bluff there overlooking the ocean. The place had a pair of big gold domes out in front that gave it a kind of goofy, mystical quality.
Swami’s was a thrill to surf because the swell came out of deep water, then jacked up on a reef 300 yards off the beach. It had a steep drop at the peak and a long, fast shoulder. On a good day, Swami’s would get up to 12 feet. It was more of a Hawaiian-type wave than anything I’d surfed before.
In those days we parked our cars on Highway 101, then walked through a big vegetable garden to a rickety old stairway that led down the bluff to the beach. The devotees at the retreat grew their own organic food, and they were always out there working quietly in the garden. To raise money for the retreat, they had a little stand on the highway where they sold mushroom burgers. We used to surf all day, then buy a bag of mushroom burgers for the drive home.
The local star at Swami’s in those days was a freckle-faced kid named Rusty Miller, and he and I eventually became friends. Rusty lived with his parents on the bluff in Encinitas, and I remember it was always kind of strange going to his house. Rusty’s father was extremely overweight, and every time I saw him he was sitting in a chair in the living room smoking cigarettes. Rusty’s mother had a deep, raspy voice, and she chain-smoked, too. The ceiling in their house was stained brown from all the cigarette smoke.
Another North County surf spot we loved in those days was San Onofre, just north of Camp Pendleton. The older guys who had learned to surf in Hawaii favored San Onofre because they thought it was a lot like Waikiki, with really long rides. What I loved most about San Onofre, though, was the creative energy there. The older surfers made tiki huts out of driftwood and bamboo so they could get out of the sun. It was great to park there and lie in the shade of the tiki huts with rows of colorful surfboards lined up against their sides. There were guys living in old panel trucks they’d furnished in Polynesian style, with tapa cloth glued to the ceilings and sea shells glued to the dashboards; even their beer can openers were carved from wood, wrapped with string and varnished. They made their own canvas hats and reinforced them with big brass grommets, then decorated them with bottle caps. Some of the guys stitched big corks to the tops of their hats and wore them surfing; if they fell off their boards, the hats floated. And anything that washed up on the beach would find its way into some kind of sculpture: carved tikis hacked out with an ax, huge seagulls and little windmills made out of driftwood and mounted on long poles. When you were at San Onofre, you felt as if you were part of an ocean culture that had its roots in Polynesia.
Anyway, Don Hansen got me thinking about North County again. After spending so many winters in lush, green Hawaii, the prospect of going back to overcrowded and smoggy L.A. County, where I grew up, didn’t look good to me. But North County still had a quiet, laid-back country lifestyle. It was mostly retired people living there. The pace was too slow for young people, so as soon as they graduated from high school, they got out. The area still had wide-open spaces, plenty of room to move, miles and miles of empty beaches, lots of good waves, and hardly any surfers.
So I told Hansen I would go to work for him, and that spring I moved to North County.
Hansen’s Surf Shop — the first real surf shop in North County — was in a small building on the Coast Highway, just across the street from Cardiff Reef. That stretch of beach was practically deserted except for one restaurant and one big pink, two-story house with white trim. Along with a few other surfers, I rented the pink house for $150 a month. It was just a funky board-and-batten beach house — so old the plumbing had been added onto the exterior walls — but upstairs there was a long panel of windows that looked out over the ocean and a long white sandy beach.
Every morning my friends and I would get up early and surf at Swami’s, Cardiff Reef, or else the shorebreak right in front of our house, which we called the Proving Grounds. (To work for Hansen you first had to “prove” yourself.) After surfing, I would walk across the street to Hansen’s shop, where I would shape four or five of my signature-model boards. Don paid me 25 bucks a board, which was good money then. I could make about $100 in just a few hours of work.
Later on, in 1966, after I’d saved up some money, I started thinking I’d like to buy a house. My thought was that if I could own my own place free and clear and grow as much of my own food as possible, I could surf whenever the waves were good, have fun with my friends, and be as free as I could be in a world where freedom was rare.
I heard about a small house that was going to be auctioned off at an estate sale. It was up the road a couple of miles in Leucadia, which at that time was rural funk — nothing but avocado orchards and nurseries.
I stopped by and looked at the house, which was on Hermes Street. It was a clapboard shack, only 700 square feet. The glass in all the windows had been broken out, and the place was badly run down. But it was on three-quarters of an acre, in a section of Leucadia that had deep, black soil that was perfect for an organic garden. There were some large fruit trees on the property, as well as some great shade trees. Best of all, the house was only a couple blocks from a good surf spot at Beacons and about a mile from a great surf spot at Swami’s.
I went to the auction in San Diego, bid $7500 on the house, and got it.
That little house on Hermes became the center of activity for my circle of friends, and at one time or another dozens of people lived there. We were vegetarians, living mostly on brown rice and veggies. We grew tons of organic fruits and vegetables, and everybody helped with the gardening. The house had a small kitchen, but we shared the cooking chores. We decorated the house with driftwood, hand-woven alpaca rugs, and secondhand furniture, including a big overstuffed couch and two great old rocking chairs. We made a fireplace from a 50-gallon drum.
I really loved that house. Not only was it the most relaxing, soulful place I’ve ever lived, but it gave us the freedom and the security to experiment with new lifestyles.
During this time I was still competing in a lot of surf contests and keeping a very strict training regimen. I would get up early in the morning, do an hour of yoga, then go surfing at Swami’s. For cross training, I would sometimes go jogging. One morning while I was jogging down the Coast Highway, a sheriff s deputy started following me. After a mile or so, he pulled up alongside and ordered me to stop. He got out of his car, sidled over to me with a suspicious look on his face, and said, “What are you running from, son?”
“Nothing! I’m just taking a workout.”
He looked at me like I was crazy — he’d never seen anybody jogging in Leucadia before.
One day I was working at Hansen’s shop in Cardiff when a guy named Hoyle Sweitzer stopped in to see us, carrying a big tandem board. I recognized the board because I’d shaped it. It was 12 feet long and 28 inches wide. But he had this flimsy sail mounted on a collapsible mast right in the middle of the board.
I’d never seen anything like that before.
He didn’t know what to call the thing. It was a big, awkward-looking monster, and he wasn’t even sure what to do with it. He wanted our opinion — would Don and I like to invest in his idea and help him develop it?
Hoyle left his board with us, and I thought about taking it out in one of the lagoons and giving it a try. But I couldn’t see how an idea like that could possibly work.
About a week later, Hoyle called the shop. “What did you think of it?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t think we’re interested.”
Later Hoyle found his investors, designed a molded polypropylene board, and improved the mast pivot and sail. Eventually it became the first sailboard.
About this same time, a guy named Jim Jenks started working for Don Hansen. He’d been the manager of an auto parts store for a long time, so he had good practical experience running a business, and he soon became Hansen’s right-hand man. He did all the ordering for the shop, organized the sales force, and kept things going smoothly.
Before long Jenks, who was really too ambitious to work for somebody else, started talking about organizing his own beachwear company.
At that time, the most successful beachwear company was Hang Ten, started by Duke Boyd, an advertising man who was one of the first to realize the whole surfing trend had marketing power. He made mass-manufactured surf trunks, advertised them in Surfer magazine, and sold them in surf shops until they’d established an identity in the surf community. Then Hang Ten expanded to bigger clothing stores, and finally to the major retailers. Surfers, of course, were into anti-fashion, and as soon as Hang Ten become popular with non-surfers, they stopped wearing their trunks. But Hang Ten didn’t care. They came out with matching tops and bottoms, which surfers wouldn’t be caught dead in, and used their surfing image to market a whole line of clothes in the Midwest and the East. Hang Ten became a pretty big company by springboarding off the surfer image.
Anyway, the idea Jim Jenks had was to start a beachwear company following the example set by Hang Ten. But when Don Hansen heard about that, he was afraid he would lose Jenks, who he’d come to rely upon; so he said to Jenks, “If you’re going to start a beachwear company, why don’t you do it right here in this office?
I’ll help you with it. Let’s do it together.”
So that’s what they did. Hansen got his old partner, Bob Driver, to throw in some start-up money, Don threw in some money, they found a fourth partner, and together they started a little beachwear company called Ocean Pacific, or OP. They started out making just a corduroy walk short, and they sold it to the surf shops. Before long they expanded their line and moved their offices out of Hansen’s shop to a factory in Oceanside. It wasn’t very many more years before OP became the most successful beachwear company of its era, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
While I was living at the Hermes house, I started thinking I’d like to try my own hand at starting a company. Two of my old buddies. Rusty Miller and Garth Murphy, had been thinking about doing the same thing, so we decided to join forces and start a company together.
Rusty had become a fantastic waterman. Because of his experience growing up surfing at Swami’s, he had become one of the best surfers in the world on the huge waves at Sunset, on the North Shore of Oahu. Hamm’s Beer put out a great billboard of Rusty taking a huge drop at Sunset, down in a crouch with his arms out and with a monstrous wave curling up behind him. It was one of the most beautiful surf photos I’ve ever seen.
Garth Murphy, who had lived with me when I was going to college, had grown up in Hawaii and La Jolla, where his father was a marine biologist. Garth was an excellent surfer and for the past couple of years had been doing East Coast promo tours for Hansen Surfboards.
Rusty, Garth, and I hired our friend Bill Engler as our first employee. Bill had grown up in La Jolla, where he’d been a high school football star. We called him “Biceps Bill” because he had huge arms and was extremely fit.
Just across the highway from Hansen’s shop, we started what we called Surf Research, and our first product was a surfboard wax. Until then surfers had just used paraffin — the kind little old ladies used to seal their jelly jars. But paraffin didn’t always work that well on surfboards. If the water was too cold, it was just like rubbing a rock on your board, and if the water was too warm, it came right off. Steve Knorr, who was a third-generation candle maker, helped us formulate a custom surfboard wax. We fooled around with different formulations—soft waxes for cold water and harder waxes for warm, adding different elements that made the wax sticky. We added purple coloring and a scent to the wax, and just for the hell of it we put a fortune in each bar.
After our wax proved to be popular and profitable, we expanded our business. We started making surf trunks out of a stretchy, lightweight, quick-drying net material — like what Speedo swim trunks are made of. A few years earlier. I’d recommended that material to Catalina Swimwear (who I’d been working for) as a kind of sexy surf trunk, but when it got wet, the net material showed a bulge in the crotch, which greatly offended the Catalina approval committee. Surfers loved it, though. When you were in the water, it felt like you were naked. Our surf trunks were a big success from the day we put them on the market, and we were making them by the hundreds, in purple only, and shipping them all over the country.
Meanwhile, life at the Hermes house was like a peaceful dream. I’d wake up at dawn every morning, begin the day with an hour of yoga, then drive my ’57 Packard to Swami’s to surf for a couple of hours. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and granola. I’d get together with my partners. We’d pour a batch of wax or work on one of our new designs, or if the surf was good, we might spend the rest of the day surfing.
It was a perfect environment for creative thinking, and together we started coming up with a lot of new surf products. We made Spraymate, a spray-on traction that bonded to fiberglass surfboards. We made Noselifter, a polypropylene fin attachment for increasing nose-riding ability. We designed a new type of surfboard rack — most of the surfboard racks then were metal pipe racks, which were heavy and awkward, so we came up with a lighter and more portable rack. We also made a rescue device, a flexible tube a lifeguard could snap around a victim’s waist to give him flotation; it became very popular with lifeguards up and down the coast.
Although it wasn’t exactly an invention of ours, one of the most innovative marketing concepts we came up with was New Food. California at that time was just starting to become aware of health foods. The East Coast was behind the curve on that one, but they would go crazy over anything to do with the surf culture. So we packaged bulk granola into small packets, labeled it New Food, and advertised it in the surf magazines with pictures of me dumping a bowl of it over my head. A stupid ad, but it attracted a lot of attention, and we were shipping tons of this stuff to the East Coast surf shops. What we were doing, really, was selling the concept of California living.
We also had a lot of ideas that didn’t work out so well. For a long time Rusty was interested in surfboards with no fins, or small three-inch fins (he called them “finger fins”), so the board would spin out and side-slip. He liked the physical sensation of surfing on really squirrely boards. Unfortunately, that idea never caught on.
But we had so many successful products in such a very short time at Surf Research, none of us really took it very seriously. We were all excited that the business was working, that we could make a living and keep on surfing, but when the business started to cut into our playtime, we didn’t like that. Playtime was our top priority.
I remember how excited we were when the first answering machine came out. We really thought that was going to be the solution to our business problems. We wouldn’t have to hang around the office taking orders anymore. The answering machine would handle all our calls, we’d go surfing all day, then sort it all out when we got home in the evenings. The money would just come in the mail.
That first answering machine was about the size of a typewriter. It was called Answer Phone. You’d slip the phone into a slot inside the machine; when the phone rang, the machine would turn on, two arms would slide under the receiver and lift the whole thing up. But it never worked right. Sometimes it would flip the receiver about two feet in the air, and when we came back from surfing the receiver would be lying on the floor going “Beep! Beep! Beep!” The salesman who had talked us into trying the thing came back so many times to fix it, we finally just threw it at him and said, “Here, it doesn’t work, we don’t want it, we’re not paying for it!”
We used to make all our own advertisements for the surf magazines. They were simple and crude, but they were always fun and creative, and they usually brought a good response. For one of our ads in Surfer, we ran a picture of me with a T-shirt pulled over my head — like an Egyptian pharaoh’s hood — blowing smoke over a bar of our surf wax. I don’t even know what it was supposed to mean, some goofy, mystical notion we had.
Not long after that ad appeared, Bill Engler was making wax bars in the back yard under a big mulberry tree, pouring the hot wax into the molds. While he was working, mulberry leaves kept falling into the molds. Bill didn’t let that slow him down, though — he had to get to Swami’s in time for the morning glass.
Later that spring when I flew back to Florida on a promo tour for Hansen Surfboards, I took along some of our wax, thinking I would give out free samples to the surf shops. But apparently some redneck surf shop owner in south Florida had seen the ad of me blowing smoke over the wax, and when the bars arrived at his shop, he’d seen Bill’s leaves embedded in them. He was sure we were putting marijuana leaves in the wax so kids could scrape it out and smoke it. He informed the Florida police that I was smuggling marijuana, and on his tip I was stopped at the airport in Miami.
The police were convinced I was from some California-Egyptian marijuana surf cult. One of the cops whipped out a bar of our purple surf wax, pointed to the leaves, and said, “What’s this?”
I looked at the bar, shrugged and said, “It looks like mulberry leaves.” After I finally figured out what they were talking about, I started laughing so hard I couldn't answer their questions.
The cop gave me a long cynical stare, then said, “Well, we’re going to have it tested in our crime lab, and we’ll let you know how it comes out. Now get outta here."
I never heard from them again.
I came back to Leucadia to find that a huge storm had dumped tons of driftwood along our beach. What a bonanza that was. Garth Murphy and I gathered up truckloads of the wood and started building a fantastic tree house in my back yard.
Garth, a quiet and resourceful person, supplied most of the inspiration for our tree house. He would come back after a morning surf session and announce that there was a telephone pole lying on the beach. We would all march down there like a band of scavengers and drag it home. We used that pole as a kind of flying buttress to support one whole section of the tree house, which was about 30 feet in the air. We made it split-level, with a big bed about three feet higher than the main salon, and we added a ladder that could be pulled up after us so we could take our girls up there and not worry about being disturbed.
One day Tom Morey stopped by. He had a big grin on his face as he opened up his trunk and pulled out a chunk of blue foam. It was about two feet wide, three feet long, and two inches thick —the size of a belly board. Tom waved the chunk of foam at me and said, “Look at this, Mike.” He bent it, twisted it, punched it. “This is the neatest thing. You can ride waves on it, skimboard on it, paddle on it, sleep on it.”
I looked at his piece of foam and couldn’t make any sense out of it. “First of all, Tom, it’s upside down,” I said. He had the rails (the edges) beveled up from the bottom. A few years ago he’d convinced everybody in the industry that a surfboard’s rails should be turned down. Now here he was doing the exact opposite.
“No, no,” he said. “See, it doesn’t have a fin. Without a fin, the turned-up rails hold it in the wave. I call them Vacuum-Track rails.”
I should have known right then that Tom was onto something. Besides being a design genius, he had a natural knack for marketing. “Okay, so it’s got Vacuum-Track rails,” I said. “But what is it?” “Well, I think I’m gonna call it a Boogie Board. I’m looking for three investors to help me get it off the ground. A couple ' thousand dollars, and you’re in.”
I knew that you couldn’t ever dismiss any of Tom’s ideas, but I also knew he’d spent a lot of time on Kauai, and maybe his thinking had gotten a little too fantastic. Gravity really concerned Tom a lot — mostly how to get released from it, how to fly or skim over the water. As long as I’d known Tom, he’d been working on the design of a spaceship he called “the space driver." Once Tom made a surfboard that was air-lubricated; it had holes on the deck and a step effect on the bottom, so when you moved over the water you would suck air down and shoot bubbles out the bottom to reduce the friction. Another time Tom designed a car made out of foam so you could crash without getting hurt. He also developed his own universal language, with his own alphabet, so people could travel to foreign countries and be able to communicate. Tom always had a bunch of theories about how this or that worked, and he could wear you out talking about things most of us can barely conceive of. So I always tried to keep our conversations on a level I could deal with.
Anyway, at that time I had enough ideas of my own to work on. I was looking for ways to simplify my life, not complicate it. Besides, I didn’t have $2,000 to invest. So I looked at his Boogie Board and said, “Good luck with it, Tom.”
But Tom wasn’t discouraged. He took that chunk of foam back to his garage and went to work. He made a few Boogie Boards by hand, gluing the skins on himself; he sold those, made a few more and sold those, until eventually he had to hire his first employee.
In the meantime, my deal with Don Hansen, shaping my signature-model board, had gradually diminished to a minimum level. Surfers on the East Coast had finally gotten smart and started making their own surfboards, so the orders for all the shops in California dropped way off. Hansen talked to me about taking a cut in pay, but I was tired of mass-producing surfboards, so I suggested we just stop making my signature-model altogether.
Rusty, Garth, and I knew we could easily double or triple the sales on almost every product we had at Surf Research. We could have sold 20 times as much purple wax. We couldn’t keep up with the orders on our surf trunks, and that could have easily been expanded into a whole clothing line. But we didn’t want to become victims of our own success. We’d watched Don Hansen go from a fun, fit, happy surfer living in his panel truck to a...well, a businessman. We used Hansen as an example of what we didn't want to become. We didn’t want to be surf moguls; we wanted to get our water time, be healthy and happy. Running a big business had no appeal for us.
To be fair to Don, though, he worked very hard and deserved the success he achieved. He would look at our business and wonder what in the world held the thing together. He used us as an example of what he didn’t want his business to become.
We hired a general manager for a while, John Baker, thinking he would take care of business for us. It was a pretty shrewd decision, really. John already had a wife and kids, so we figured he had no choice — he had to work.
That fall Rusty Miller moved to Australia. After Rusty left, the synergy of our little group fell apart, and Surf Research just wasn’t that much fun anymore. We sold the wax works to a guy in Colorado who wanted to make ski wax. He changed the name from Surf Research to Wax Research, and it was over.
Tom Morey had gone into full production on his Boogie Board by now and was selling something like 100,000 Boogie Boards a year, making it one of the most successful inventions ever to come off the beach. I think a reporter once wrote that every garage in Orange County has a Boogie Board in it. It’s one of those inventions that’s so simple, it’s hard to believe somebody didn’t come up with it sooner. But I think those are exactly the inventions that require a visionary like Tom.
I really believe Tom Morey did something quite fantastic with the Boogie Board — I mean, more than just make a lot of money. He turned hundreds of thousands of people on to the simple joy of riding a wave. Not just athletic young men, but little children, middle-aged mothers, senior citizens — people who might never have touched a surfboard.
Tom’s Boogie Board factory was in Carlsbad, just a few minutes from Encinitas, and I liked to stop by and see him from time to time. Over the years, Tom had become a big influence on my thinking. As an example, not long after the first tri-fin surfboard came out, Tom and I were talking about what made the tri-fin work. He told me, “If you want to think a design feature all the way through, imagine it to an absurd extreme, then back it up to the point where it becomes practical. For example, if you can imagine three fins on a surfboard, why not a hundred fins? What would be its advantages and disadvantages?”
Tom actually built a hundred-fin surfboard just for the fun of it, and it worked terrible. But I’ve used his simple formula ever since — not just designing surf toys, but in all types of thinking. Tom showed me how to make the absurd practical.
Over the years I’d taught a lot of people how to surf, and I had a pretty good idea of what it took to overcome the difficulties of the beginning surfer. Besides the obvious element of balance, you have to learn wave judgment, paddling, timing — a lot of people give up surfing before they ever enjoy the satisfaction of riding one good wave. So I started thinking that a soft surfboard, made from the material Tom was using for his Boogie Board, would be a great learning tool. It would be soft enough that a beginner wouldn’t get hurt, it would have smooth edges that would be forgiving, and it would just look and feel fun.
So I stopped by Tom’s factory one day. He brought me into his office, then listened patiently while I told him what was on my mind. I explained how you could use a foam core with a fiberglass stringer for rigidity, but instead of covering the thing with fiberglass, like a standard surfboard, you could cover it with soft foam. I said, “It’s never going to be a high-performance board, but not everybody needs that. It would be a tool for helping beginners get started.” After Tom had heard me out, he smiled, then shrugged and said, “Hey, Mike, ideas are like assholes — everybody’s got one. The hard part isn’t coming up with new ideas, but making the ideas work.” He pointed out the door of his office and said, “There’s my factory, there’s the materials. Use whatever you want.”
So I’d go down to Tom’s Boogie Board factory at night and experiment with laminating the first soft surfboard. I tried several different templates, trying to find a shape that was both functional in the water and easy to laminate. Eventually, with the help of Tom’s people, I put the skin on the first prototype, which looked and felt like a big blob of foam. But I took the thing down to the beach and tested it in the water, and right away I thought. Hey, this thing works. We called it the Morey-Doyle, put it on the market, and sold about 3,000 units that first year.
After a while, Tom Morey became disgruntled with the burden of running his Boogie Board manufacturing company, which by now was doing millions of dollars a year in sales. Like me, he loved inventing new toys, but he just didn’t care for the day-to-day drudgery of running a company. Tom talked about getting back to work on his universal language, and most of all, he wanted to begin designing a new swim fin. He was already collecting ducks’ feet.
Tom asked me what I thought about his plans, and I told him, “Go invent new toys, Tom. That’s what you’re good at. Let somebody else run the business.”
Tom offered me the job of managing his factory, but I told him that job didn’t appeal to me any more than it did to him. I did agree to look after things for a while, though, until he could figure out what to do with the place.
Eventually, Tom got an offer from the Kransco Corporation to buy the Boogie Board and the soft surfboard, and he decided to take it. He and I flew up to San Francisco to sign the papers.
Tom Morey moved with his family up to Bainbridge, Washington, but he and I stayed in touch. One day he asked me what I thought of an idea a friend of his had come up with. The idea was to make little nine-inch surfboards, take them down to the edge of a lake or even a bathtub, and when the waves come lapping in, you shove your little board into the waves and watch it surf. They called it “finger surfing.”
I really missed Tom. Over the years we’d never had a business argument, and we’d never signed a contract — we never felt we needed to. I’d always appreciated his honesty, even though it stung at times. But I hated the idea of finger surfing. I said, “Morey, I think that idea stinks. I think it’s for people who let themselves get too old and too fat to really surf. They can sit back in their armchairs, stick their little boards in their blubber rolls and pretend they’re surfing."
Maybe I was a bit harsh, but Tom didn’t get offended. Doyle, he said, what you’re talking about is the difference between me and you. I’m a maker, you’re a doer. You don’t want to talk about things, you don’t want to fantasize about things, you want to do things.... But me, I like ideas, and I like tools, and I like to think about how to get them both to do what I want. Who knows, maybe finger surfing will be the next big craze.
Over the years, a lot of people have tried to tell me how many opportunities I’ve missed out on, how rich I would be if only I’d had the good sense to invest in this or that project. But I don’t look at it that way. Most people have to choose between money and freedom, and I made my choice a long time ago.
Surfing affects your lifestyle like no other sport I know of. It’s not like bowling, where you can go any night of the week. The surf is only good at certain times — maybe three or four days a month. If you’re a serious surfer, you have to design your life around it. You have to make the time to be there when the surf is good.
There used to be a construction company in La Jolla called Not When the Surf s Up Construction Company. When the surf was good, they hung up their nail bags and did what they had to do. Those guys were serious surfers.
I’ve lived my whole life around the patterns of the ocean, and I’ve taken a lot of criticism for that. I’ve made a few women unhappy, I’ve made some employers unhappy, and at times I’ve made myself unhappy. But I can’t help it, I’ve always known what my priorities are.
When I see a car full of surfers going down the highway with a rack of surfboards, my heart still leaps out and goes with them. Probably no man alive has gone on more surf adventures than I have, yet I still haven’t had enough. If the conditions are right, I’ll walk away from anything to spend a day in the water with my friends.