Photos — Maurice Haas, Illustration by Berto Martinez/Unit.NL Date — 1 September, 2011
Most mornings he is still to be seen on the beach in his wetsuit: board and man silhoutted agains the rising sun
It was John Milius who made his life choice for him. Until the late 1970s he was just another aimless Californian teen, the child of easygoing yippies (or huppies), with a penchant for smoking pot and skateboarding. If you watch carefully you will catch a fleeting glimpse of him as a scrawny kid in scuffed Vans®*, cut-off Levi’s®* with a long floppy fringe obscuring half his face in some of the archive footage used by Stacy Peralta in his 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys”.
Then in the summer of ’78 he experienced a moment of epiphany. He was on a date with a high school girlfriend and he asked her out for a night at the movies. When they turned up at the cinema he bought his tickets not caring what film he saw, confidently expecting to be engrossed in what, in those far-off days, was known as “heavy petting”. Had it been a few months later he would have been escorting his inamorata to the latest avant-garde arthouse film by Messrs Cheech and Chong: “Up In Smoke”. But that was not out until September so they wound up settling into their seats in front of John Milius’s rites of passage/Vietnam/surfer flick, “Big Wednesday”.
To her disappointment the girlfriend went unmolested as, from the opening strains of Basil Poledouris’s haunting soundtrack, he was gripped by what was happening on the screen, rather than getting to grips with the person sitting next to him. Even today, over thirty years later, he cannot hear the opening voiceover that begins “In the old days I remember a wind that would blow down to the canyons …’” without experiencing gooseflesh.
He walked into the cinema a boy and came out a man. It was a religious experience, there is no other way to describe it, and it supplied a code by which he has lived his life ever since. From then on, girls, school, even his beloved “bong hits” became subsidiary to his passion for surfing. When the waves called he would skip school to hang around the jetties, piers and harbours of California, which, as he says now and again in interviews with surfing magazines and on numerous film clips, became his classrooms.
To say that he graduated from high school is to ascribe too much in the way of academic achievement to the day that he and formal education parted company. Thereafter he started chasing waves around the world, he lived for a time in Hawaii, flipping burgers when he needed the money, sleeping on beaches, and surfing, surfing, surfing. He then went to Bell’s Beach in Australia, Jeffrey’s Beach in South Africa, Teahupo’o in Polynesia and all the other hallowed sites of surfing.
He let nothing stand in his pursuit of the perfect wave, he surfed La Libertad in El Salvador during the 1980s, when the Central American country was tearing itself apart in one of the region’s most brutal civil wars. And while surfing the waves off the then wild and untamed coastline of the Rivas peninsula in Nicaragua at the height of the Contra insurgency, he was asked by Surfer Magazine why he persisted in surfing in what was one of the most dangerous parts of the world. He shrugged and uttered the deathless maxim, “Sandinistas don’t surf.”
He only returned to the US at the end of the 1980s when he heard of the legendary big wave off Half Moon Bay in Northern California; and he surfed Mavericks in the winter of 89/90 with the legendary Jeff Clark. His fame was cemented in the early 1990s when he filmed some of the surfing sequences in the Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze surfing and skydiving thriller “Point Break”, and it is part of surfing lore that pictures of him inspired Swayze’s hairdo in the film.
Today, he is one of the grand old men of the surfing world, a position that has left him remarkably unchanged, most mornings he is still to be seen on the beach in his wetsuit: board and man silhouetted against the rising sun. However he has settled down a little: the last decade has seen him acquire a pair of twins (who could surf before they could walk), a surf shop (north of San Francisco just off Highway 1), a wife (he eventually got around to marrying the mother of the twins), and an IWC Aquatimer Deep Two, which hasn’t left his wrist since he bought it. He was rather taken by the integral depth gauge, remarking with the trademark dry wit that it helps him know which way to swim when he wipes out … not something that happens all that often.
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Nicholas Foulkes is an author, historian and journalist. His most recent book, Gentlemen and Blackguards – Gambling Mania and the Plost to Steal the Derby of 1844, is publishedy by Orion.