Big Waves, Unlikely Champs, and the “Dark Prince of the Beach”—Our Favorite Stories About Surfers

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July 8 2012 7:15 AM

The Longform Guide to Surfing

Big waves, unlikely champs, and the “dark prince of the beach”—our favorite stories about surfers.

A surfer rides a wave while surfing at Bronte Beach on May 8, 2012 in Sydney, Australia.
A surfer rides a wave at Bronte Beach in Sydney, Australia.

Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

In honor of this crazy heat—summer will end, right?—here’s a collection of our favorite stories about surfing. Hope you have the chance to read these stories somewhere cool, near water, preferably with waves.

William Finnegan • The New Yorker • August 1992

On surfing, and surfing in San Francisco, and surfing with a San Francisco surfing fanatic.

“Mark’s logbook also showed that the longest period of time he had gone without surfing since 1969 was three weeks. That happened in 1971, during a brief stint in college in Arizona. Since then, he had twice been forced out of the water for periods of slightly less than two weeks by injuries suffered at Ocean Beach. Otherwise, he had rarely gone more than a few days without surfing, and he had often surfed every day for weeks on end. Jessica Dunne, a painter, with whom Mark has lived since college, says that when he doesn’t surf for a few days he becomes odd. ‘He gets explosive, and he seems to shrink inside his clothes,’ she says. ‘And when he hears the surf start to come back up he gets so excited that he can’t sleep. You can actually see the muscles in his chest and shoulders swelling as he sits on the couch listening to the surf build through the night.’ In a sport open only to the absurdly dedicated—it takes years to master the rudiments of surfing, and constant practice to maintain even basic competence—Mark is the fanatics’ fanatic. His fanaticism carries him into realms that are literally uncharted, such as the Potato Patch. ‘One thing about Doc,’ says Bob Wise, who has been surfing in San Francisco for almost thirty years. ‘He keeps open the idea that anything is possible.’”

Susan Orlean • Outside • March 2009

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On surfer girls in Maui: the story that led to the film Blue Crush.

“The Maui surfer girls love each other's hair. It is awesome hair, long and bleached by the sun, and it falls over their shoulders straight, like water, or in squiggles, like seaweed, or in waves. They are forever playing with it--yanking it up into ponytails, or twisting handfuls and securing them with chopsticks or pencils, or dividing it as carefully as you would divide a pile of coins and then weaving it into tight yellow plaits. Not long ago I was on the beach in Maui watching the surfer girls surf, and when they came out of the water they sat in a row facing the ocean, and each girl took the hair of the girl in front of her and combed it with her fingers and crisscrossed it into braids. The Maui surfer girls even love the kind of hair that I dreaded when I was their age, 14 or so--they love that wild, knotty, bright hair, as big and stiff as carpet, the most un-straight, un-sleek, un-ordinary hair you could imagine, and they can love it, I suppose, because when you are young and on top of the world you can love anything you want, and just the fact that you love it makes it cool and fabulous. A Maui surfer girl named Gloria Madden has that kind of hair--thick red corkscrews striped orange and silver from the sun, hair that if you weren't beautiful and fearless you'd consider an affliction that you would try to iron flat or stuff under a hat. One afternoon I was driving two of the girls to Blockbuster Video in Kahului. It was the day before a surfing competition, and the girls were going to spend the night at their coach's house up the coast so they'd be ready for the contest at dawn. On contest nights, they fill their time by eating a lot of food and watching hours of surf videos, but on this particular occasion they decided they needed to rent a movie, too, in case they found themselves with 10 or 20 seconds of unoccupied time. On our way to the video store, the girls told me they admired my rental car and said that they thought rental cars totally ripped and that they each wanted to get one. My car, which until then I had sort of hated, suddenly took on a glow. I asked what else they would have if they could have anything in the world. They thought for a moment, and then the girl in the backseat said, ‘A moped and thousands of new clothes. You know, stuff like thousands of bathing suits and thousands of new board shorts.’ "

William Langewiesche • Vanity Fair • February 2011

A profile of Ken Bradshaw, who at 45 surfed the tallest wave in recorded history.

“Last winter, on the North Shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, the man who is believed to have ridden the biggest wave ever surfed, Ken Bradshaw, fell down the outside stairs of his self-built beach house while rushing to take the garbage out. The stairs do not have a handrail. The house does not seem to have been built to code. It looks like an assembly of beach shacks stacked three stories high. Bradshaw lives in parts of the second and third floors, and rents the rest out to other surfers, for income. He is 58, so no longer young, but he remains athletic and strong. This is obvious on first sight. He stands six feet tall and seems to be built of muscle and jaw. If you punched him hard enough you would break your hand. If you hit him with a bat you might break it too. History shows that he shrugs off greater punishment than that. It also suggests that having hit him you would be wise to step back. I don’t mean that Bradshaw is an especially vengeful or violent man. Actually, he is considerate, unpretentious, and polite. He does not drink. He does not eat meat. His neighbors like him a lot. But, after all, you’re the one who picked the fight. Your problem now is that Bradshaw has experience in these matters, because on the water there are rules he tries to apply.”

Gilbert Rogin • Sports Illustrated • October 1965

An report from the era of mass adoption.

"Joyce doesn't hang out with her competitors. ‘They think I think I'm above them,’ she says. ‘But I can't go up and talk to people. I'm a real loner. I'm shy. I never say 'hi.' I've never needed friends. I'm very self-sufficient. The other girls are always trying to get me to go to parties, drink, smoke. It's not worth my explaining it to them. It's better for me if they think I think I'm above them. It helps me psych them out. In the contests I'm always ready way ahead of time. I always have three or four bars of wax. They never have any. They're so disorganized. I drink orange juice and honey beforehand. I'm sure they think it's screwdrivers. I try and fool them. I say, 'Gee, this surf looks pretty good.' Of course, it's lousy. They're biting their nails. The worse the surf, the better I do. They always give the girls the worst surf—early in the morning, when the tide's wrong, or late in the afternoon, after it's blown out. Why waste good surf on girls? Ninety-nine percent of the surf in contests is horrible. But if you can surf a yukky beach break, you can surf anything. That's why it's ideal in front of my house.’

“The other day Joyce stood on her front porch, sipping Tiger's Milk and watching a great horde of surfers sitting on their boards upon the swells. ‘They're sheep,’ she said. ‘They're beautiful. You pay $50,000 for a house and there's 50 million idiots out there ruining it for you. You'd think in your own front yard you could have a wave to yourself. Up north they're really horrible to girls. They're friendlier down here—they sometimes give you waves. At Malibu it's dog eat dog—shoving, kicking. They're really yuks.’ When she is asked what advice she has for a youngster who wants to take up surfing, Joyce says, ‘Don't. There'll be more room.’ "

Sheila Weller • Vanity Fair • August 2006

The underground culture of big waves and wild times in 1961 Malibu, and the gang of teenage boys who worshiped at the feet of the beach’s dark prince, surfing legend and grifter Miki Dora.

“One summer day in 1961, three 16-year-old Beverly Hills boys—Mike Nader, Duane King, and Larry Shaw—got up at dawn in their separate homes and eagerly pulled on their swim trunks. The sport that was their lifeline—surfing—had been lifted from obscurity two years earlier by a Sandra Dee movie called Gidget, but it still wasn’t something young America was dying to do, the way dancing to rock ‘n’ roll and twirling Hula Hoops had been. That would start to change that day, though, when a Life-magazine photographer would sight the boys riding the waves at Malibu and make them stars of a photo spread. The seven-page article, ‘The Mad, Happy Surfers: A Way of Life on the Wavetops,; published that September in an issue with Jackie Kennedy welcoming readers to the newly redecorated White House on the cover, would loft surfing into the national consciousness just before the first Beach Boys song, ‘Surfin’,’ broke into the pop charts. These were the 1961 Beach Boys, mind you—they of the short hair, the Hawaiian shirts, and the frat-rats-in-training voices that had yet to ascend to choirboy eloquence—so the surfing fad would be pegged initially as the province of bland, spoiled sons of Leave It to Beaver parents living in the suburbs. As Tom Wolfe would soon declare of surfer culture in ‘The Pump-House Gang,’ a signature piece of New Journalism, ‘practically everybody comes from a good family.’

“Well, not everybody. Something in those Life pictures—a glint of desperation in Larry Shaw’s Tom Sawyer grin, maybe, or Mike Nader’s somber glare despite his goof of surfing in a tuxedo—betrayed a soulful undertone. Also, there was the matter of the boys’ guru, Miki Dora, who, though absent from the Life article, was a dark prince of the beach: a great surfer and a beguiling sociopath. The boys copied his every gesture. Who but Miki could have taught them to glide not just over the waves but also over their baroquely unhappy home lives? “We were a group of lost boys,” says Larry Shaw. ‘The mystique of Miki, coupled with the mystery of the ocean, saved us.’ In the process, an underground saga of surf culture—50s beach bum, California girl, hip Hollywood, and noir L.A. in equal measure—would come to be written on the salty wind of the Pacific coastline.”

Peter Heller • Outside • May 2005

Getting away from it all in Mexico.

“ ‘Almost ready?’ asks Leonel Perez, the National Masters Surf champion of Mexico. He asks me that every morning. Since I'm standing beside his two-door Chevy completely transfixed by the waves, and haven't taken off my shirt or waxed my board--and since it's still dark, and we haven't had breakfast or coffee--I take it as a metaphysical question, like, Are you ready to believe in a force much bigger than you?

“As I watch the tiers of surf near the Pacific resort town of Ixtapa, I realize that there are three things I appreciate about surfing as a near beginner: the raw beauty of waves; the anticipation of getting repeatedly thrashed; the possibility of one good ride, a kind of fleeting touch of grace. Also, my coach. I can't believe he's even standing up after last night's party.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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