Ricky Grigg | Mike Doyle | Miki Dora | Willem de Kooning| Shaun Tomson
Big Surf, Deep Dives and the Islands
My Life in the Ocean
Editition Limited, Honolulu 1998
Unique among the many books on surfing history that I have read is Ricky Grigg’s Big Surf, Deep Dives and the Islands: My Life in the Ocean. Following the life story of one of the legendary big wave surfers who were models of manhood for me growing up in California, I am deeply moved by this poetic tribute to the Ocean, friends and life itself. The many photographs of big waves, ocean depths beyond 1,000 feet, pioneer surfers and the following generations of surfing champions are a vivid compliment to the eloquence of this extraordinary man, scientist, big wave surfer and philosopher. After purchasing this book directly from the author, I didn’t begin reading it immedately. After thumbing through it I sensed that it would require “the right moment” to begin reading it, considering the in-depth treatment Grigg gives not only surfing, but oceanography and philosophy. The latter endeavor historically attempts to confront the illusive concept “wisdom”, with varying results. In Grigg’s case it is the real thing. He has two distinct personas: scientist and big wave surfer. Richard/ Ricky Grigg’s love affair with the Pacific Ocean began as a small boy growing up in Santa Monica on the coast of southern California. His life was shaped by the Ocean in every way –emotionally, athletically, professionally, and spritually:
Through surfing, and later in my life by studying the sea, the ocean became a consummate teacher. It shaped my body and mind, my personality, my philosophy, my view of life, my persona. To me, the ocean represents truth… To seek the truth is to search for the essence of life… In the ocean, the truth is all that there is.
The Tongva people of coastal southern California had an ancient tradition of paddling plank canoes to and from the offshore islands. The most trafficked stretch was between Pimu (Santa Catalina Island) and Swa’anga, located on Palos Verdes peninsula, near the port of San Pedro, the largest and most populous Tongva village. (This village was seen by Cabrillo when he sailed past in 1542.) This maritime tradition died out, but was unknowingly revived by hardy surfers on paddleboards who established a short-lived tradition of a 33-mile open-ocean race between Santa Catalina and Manhattan Beach between 1955 and 1960. The first race in 1955 was on a foggy day with low visibility. One contestant paddled 11 miles too far in the fog. First to shore, Tommy Zahn was disqualified because he missed Manhattan Beach, the finish line. The 17-year-old future big wave surfer and oceanographer Ricky Grigg was declared the winner before a crowd of 100,000 people. In September 1995, descendants of the Tongva revived their maritime tradition and paddled the first ti’at constructed in two hundred years from Two Harbors on Santa Catalina to the port of Avalon. This link between Californian surfers and Native Californian watermen evokes that between modern Hawaiian and Tahitian surfers and their Polynesian predecessors.
The Californian Ricky Grigg has after decades become the Hawaiian Ricky Grigg, the 75-year-old surfing patriarch who has been intimately involved with the tragedies and triumphs of surfing and diving comrades on Oahu and the other islands. Chapter 20 of his book, the last, entitled “Life at the End of the Tunnel” begins opposite a full-page, blurry, black and white photo of the young Ricky Grigg riding probably one of the biggest waves of his life, a frightening “tunnel” at what could be Waimea. Looking at this photo I am reminded how stunned I was as a fourteen-year-old subscriber of Surfer Magazine looking in awe at such photos of bold-hearted surfers like Grigg, Noll, Dora, Curren, Pomar and others. (left: Ricky Grigg on the cover of Surfer Magazine) Almost fifty years later, I am still stunned. My admiration remains intact. I understand why surfers were considered as possibilities for the first men to be launched into space – for their calm, steady, unflinching courage and impeccable judgment in the face of danger. An added attribute in the case of Ricky Grigg is his deep scientific and philosophic knowledge of the Ocean, which he sees as the embodiment of truth.
The scientist Richard Grigg is quite a contrast to the surfer Ricky Grigg, and provides interesting information on oceanography in his book. In very clear terms he describes how the Hawaiian islands are gradually “drowning” in the Pacific as the tectonic plate carries them northwest over the volcanic "hot spot" which formed each island one after the other over tens of millions of years, and then deep into the trench off Kamchatka. Evidence of this "drowning" comes from the conclusions Grigg reached about the Darwin Point, the latitude where the islands begin to "drown". It took him five years to prove this hypothesis. The fossilized coral reefs which he saw and photographed at 1,200 feet are the proof, since coral grows only at much shallower depths. Now I know that coral atolls are round because they were formed on the rims of drowning extinct volcanoes. From the crest of a huge Waimea wave as he makes the plunge "over the edge", to 1,200 feet down on the ocean floor, Richard/Ricky Grigg has a knowledge of the Ocean like few other people.
Other surfers have written books (see below) but I have not yet encountered a writer/surfer with the philosophical depth and scope of Grigg. As a scientist and a surfer, he is preoccupied with distinguishing fact from fiction. Understanding reality is the main focus of taoist sages, and it has been the focus of Ricky Grigg his whole life: “The truth for me must be based on more than ideas – there must be some solid evidence. This rule has been vital to my survival riding big waves. It is also vital to conducting good science.” I surmise that he nonetheless acknowledges “soul” and “spirit” as truths, despite the fact that there is no “solid evidence” that would satisfy the demands of a not-so-spiritual scientist like, say, Richard Dawkins. Despite the lack of scientific “solid evidence”, I am convinced by his book that Richard Grigg, as opposed to Richard Dawkins, believes in Spirit and Soul.
Death is another fact that science cannot explain and which is the subject of an entire chapter in Grigg’s book. He regards Death as not only a possibility surfing big waves and diving to the limits of what humans can endure, but an inevitability for us all, whether one dies in a wipeout on a big wave, as did Mark Foo, or in one’s bed. Foo was one of several of Grigg’s friends and colleagues who perished in the Ocean. Foo’s body was recovered, but the bodies of Eddie Aikau and Jose Angel were never found. He writes: “There have been many other stories like Jose [Angel]’s over the years of lost black coral divers: Danson Nakaima, Larry Windley, Tim Lebalaster, and Tim’s son Beau, to mention a few.” Larry Windley, partially paralyzed with the bends, “sailed out to sea in a 15-foot catamaran, never to be seen again.” On April 5, 1951 at Malibu, surfer/poet Nick Gabalon rode an 8-foot wave straight into the pilings of the pier and was killed, six days after writing a poem called “Lost Lives”. Grigg’s recollection is hair-raising:
Three days later his body was spotted floating offshore. I remember paddling out, not knowing exactly why – probably to be sure it was Nick. After paddling 400 or 500 yards out, I could see his body floating face-down A seagull sat perched on his bloated back, which had turned white after three days’ immersion in the ocean. [Gabalon was African American] The bird was pecking at his flesh. I remember thinking then how fleeting life is, how it can be snatched away in an instant. How insignificant we all are. Death contradicts human importance. It shatters the ego. The sight was devastating to me, but somehow it helped me grow stronger.
He quotes a magnificent verse by Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.
The Poet touches on realities which the scientist passes by because he can find no “solid evidence” for them. The fact that the scientist Richard Grigg cites Dickinson, Shakespeare and other poets reveals a kinship with Art, whereas the mighty Isaac Newton thought Art not to be worth his consideration. It is likely that Grigg’s profound closeness to the Ocean gives his scientific scrutiny an artistic bent. The possible union of Art and science has been a major theme of my writing, as it was for Goethe, but I do not believe that it will ever be realized.
Purchase this book from the author here
Another legendary surfer from California who captivated me as a teenager scrutinizing Surfer Magazine is Mike Doyle. His book Morning Glass, co-authored by Steve Sorensen, is great reading, and reveals quite a different personality than Ricky Grigg above. Grigg, who is seven years older, was a sort of mentor to the young Doyle when he was a lifeguard at Manhattan Beach and when he first began surfing the big waves of Oahu’s north shore. Mike Doyle, like Greg Noll in Da Bull: Life Over the Edge, tells his story with ribald humor, and it took only a few pages before I broke out laughing. But he went too far at times. The story of his first wave as a boy at Manhattan Beach reveals a quirky accident that, although marking him for the rest of his life, is pure comedy. The humor comes from recalling at times painful moments in his youth, whether crushing his testicle after bailing out of his first wave, or being ridiculed and mobbed: “No matter where I was, at school or at the beach, I just didn’t fit in.” This led to Doyle longing for “camaraderie,” which he indeed found. And now he was making newcomers feel like fools, mocking them with his comrades when they came down the steps at Malibu.
Reading about the demented pranks by some of these comrades, not only in Doyle’s book but in other surfing chronicles, reminds me all too well of the hooligans I grew up with in southern California. How could I fit in with young men who were either sexually depraved enough to drop their pants in public, cheerily displaying their anus or erect penis, or applaud these demented pranks as does Doyle: “I thought it was beautiful – a kind of performance art that made a mockery of people’s fear of nudity… He was years ahead of his time.” As for me, solitude is preferable to such “camaraderie”. Good character is simply not on the radar of these “performance artists.” However, receiving his induction notice from the US military Doyle’s reaction was identical to mine: “As far as I was concerned, the military was the enemy.”
Doyle’s first trip to Hawaii liberates the reader (as it liberated him) from the pettiness of southern California (despite its proximity to the grandeur of the Pacific Ocean). As in other surfing chronicles, the reader is feasted on the epic poem of the North Shore of Oahu. As with Homer’s epic, I have read and re-read this Hawaiian saga many times from many viewpoints. Despite the profound differences of writing style between Mike Doyle and Ricky Grigg (above), this epic sensation emerges into the same awe in both cases. His first day surfing the North Shore was at Pipeline, although he was unaware of this fact when he paddled out alone as a gullible 18-year old and made his first wave. Waiting onshore were his older mentors: Ricky Grigg, Buzzy Trent and Peter Cole: “They really took me under their wing that day." Back in southern California after a 5-month adventure in Hawaii, the young Doyle again confronted the routine depravity of the City of Angels. As a lifeguard for Los Angeles County, there were few rescues in summer when the surf is not so big. The lifeguards got bored and amused themselves in various ways. Doyle refused to be a part of a homosexual orgy in one of the lifeguard towers. (It later became a courtroom scandal in which they were publicly humilated and fired.) This type of “camaraderie” was perhaps more usual than one can imagine, judging from the next account Doyle wrote of.
Rincon, near the small town of Carpinteria (“the carpinter’s shop”) is one of the best surfing spots in California. But its splendor offers a serene oceanic environment to non-surfers as well, a veritable sacred place – to the Chumash people first and foremost. Doyle relates how he enrolled in a junior college at nearby Santa Barbara. He rented a house in Summerland “with four other guys” and the landlord lived undoubtedly to regret it (especially after their boisterous party with 200 people). Doyle rejoiced at being so near Rincon for surfing, which before had meant a long drive for him. It is odd however that the writer Doyle did not leave his reader with the splendor of Rincon as the focal point of his memories living nearby. Descending the long wooden stairway down the bushy cliff to the beach, feeling the cool sand under one’s bare feet, the weight of the surfboard under one’s arm, the glassy waves rolling through the kelp beds and peeling off the point, the sun rising over the Ventura rivermouth – this is not the main impression with which he leaves the reader about his memories near Syukhtun (the Chumash town occupying the site of Santa Barbara for 8,000 years.)
The splendid point at Rincon was not the main focus of these memories, but (believe it or not) the anus of one of his deranged latent-homosexual surfing buddies whose delight was to pull down his pants in public and expose not only his butt, but the interior of his anus. A writer might possibly mention such a memory in passing as a sort of psychologist observing the pathological behavior of a young hooligan in need of professional help, who had previously that night trashed the house in Summerland in a drunken rage. But to celebrate this type of behavior and leave this in the mind of the unfortunate reader instead of the splendor of Rincon is a strange priority. Poetic reverence for the Ocean as expressed so eloquently by Ricky Grigg in his book above, comes to a tragic halt here, despite the poetic title Morning Glass.
Doyle's humor again emerges when he relates a promotional tour for Catalina beach wear which took him to New York and other eastern cities and finally Galveston, Texas. His job was to demonstrate surfing in his jim-dandy Catalina surfing trunks to the large crowd gathered on the beach. He walked about 150 yards into the Gulf of Mexico and the depth was still only three or four feet. The water was ”the color of chocolate milk” and flat. The legendary big wave surfer finally paddled into a wave as his brand new Catalina Big-Wave Rider's trunks ”ripped from the crotch, through the seat, clear around to the waistband.” Nonetheless he jubilantly rose to his feet on ”a cleanly shaped twelve-inch wave, with my bare ass hanging out,” showing the large crowd of Texans the fine art of surfing. As in Shaun Tomson's autobiographical book below, as well as in other surfing narratives, the subject of ”the clothing market” is given very much attention. In most cases it is a rather boring digression from their noble art, and I feel like I must hurry past these narratives like thumbing through glossy ads in a magazine looking for text with substance.
Newly married and living in Leucadia, California, Doyle bought a run-down house which he repaired, especially pleased with the dark rich soil which was perfect for a vegetable garden. Loving liberty, he wished to grow as much food as possible for his needs, and be dependent on society as little as possible. Unfortunately, his bride did not share this dream and they separated. After another brief marriage and other brief relationships, Doyle met a female New Age guru in La Jolla who was very famous and who impressed him with her skill at public speaking. He began still another brief relationship with her and helped her in marketing her image and tapes of her seminars. One tape on “relationships” was Doyle’s idea (despite his lack of competence in this area) and he outlined the thoughts in it, which he admitted was “ironic”, adding: “I’m the first to admit I’ve never figured out relationships myself and have only had succeess with them on a temporary basis. But then its possible that nobody ever does any better than that.” It is a shame that he would deceive himself to this degree, especially when he had friends committed to wives and children, and when there are plenty of loving couples who live together their entire lives. One can be a skillful speaker and have nothing of value to say. It is called hypocrisy.
Mike Doyle belongs to a long tradition of highly skilled watermen in California that is part of a coastal tradition of several generations. Most of these ultra-athletes grew up on the coast and were trained by fathers, older brothers and friends. The watermen of California leave behind epic stories of courageous and intelligent confrontations with the Pacific Ocean. They were and are thoroughly at ease in the Ocean, even with a killer whale passing directly under one’s board in 15 feet of water, as happened to Allen “Dempsey” Holder at the Tijuana Sloughs in the early 1940s. Dempsey remained as quiet as the black and white spots on the huge killer whale gliding beneath him, when Bob Simmons let out a loud curse ‒ two different approaches. They were riding some of the biggest most dangerous waves ever surfed. The intense freedom which has marked Doyle's adventurous life is truly admirable in our civilization of slaves
The most memorable moments of surfing history have not been captured on film, like Miki Dora’s 0.7 km ride on a wave at Jeffreys Bay described below, or Greg Noll’s legendary wipeout on a record big wave at close-out Makaha. In the same respect, the highlight of Mike Doyle’s surfing career was on the island of Kauai at Hanalei Bay – far from hectic competitions and video cameras. I was captured by his narration of that splendid day surfing with his friend Joey Cabell and a few other surfers who had discovered this virtually unknown surfing spot. In spite of our high-tech society such moments are best preserved in books, as it has been for thousands of years of history.
The two sides of Doyle – “contest junkie” and “soul surfer” – are very well delineated in his book. He began to feel that something was warped with competitions: “My reputation was influencing the judges, and sometimes it was embarassing for me to see that I had placed higher than somebody who had outperformed me.” Even though he was a highly acclaimed champion surfer, he did not take this aspect of surfing seriously. Mike Doyle is an artist who regards surfing as an art, not a sport. Competing in art is meaningless. Trophies and prizes are illusions: “Surf stardom interferes with your development as a human being.” Of much more value to Doyle are the secret moments like that day at Hanalei Bay.
After terminating his career as a professional surfer, he proceeded with his ingenuity and entrepreneur skills to make new inovations in the areas that interested him. He is the first to design and produce a single ski based on his knowledge of surfboard design and a gut-feeling that double skis were awkward on a downhill slope, since they were originally conceived for cross-country treks, not as sport equipment. Although his well-tested product never went into production, it was the precursor of the snowboard. Mike Doyle is also a painter and writes that art was his favorite subject in school. He has his studio and gallery in Cabo San Lucas where he lives and runs a surfing school.
Mike Doyle Surf School
Mike Doyle Artist
All for a Few Perfect Waves
The Audacious Life and Legend
of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora
HarperCollins, NY, 2008
A theme on this commentary page (see below) has been good character, and how rare it is in our culture. Miki Dora, Greg Noll and their surfing companions regarded good character as something a bit stupid, something that they felt their duty to avoid in order to be a “rebel”. Noll said, “I have difficulty making people understand this,” that is, that he and his companions regarded bad character as desirable, and good character as undesirable. That is the Dora legend: good surfing combined with bad character. There are people from whom you should not buy a used car, and others from whom you should not buy a used surfboard. According to surfer Mickey Muñoz, Dora’s attitude, after mixing graham cracker crumbs in the resin of a surfboard he was repairing, was, “Do it half-ass, get it done, get the money, and run.” Miki Dora’s teacher in good surfing and bad character was his step-father Gard Chapin. He could have learned more good character from his Hungarian father, Miklos Dora, Sr., as he himself admitted: “One father showed me how to atone for indiscretions and the other demonstrated how to commit them.” (Unfortunately, Dora’s father, a military man, had the extreme bad judgement of placing his little son in a military academy - a good way to foster hatred of all authority in a boy.)
However, unlike the disillusionment I experienced reading the Willem de Kooning biography below, David Rensin’s Dora biography does not cause disillusionment, for Dora’s reputation as a thief and con-man was equally as well-known as his reputation as a master surfer to those of us who have followed his audacious life. The present biography flows along nicely through the commentaries of people who knew Dora. But the flow is at times interrupted by Rensin’s own personal style of journalistic writing. (The English language has now been blessed with a brand new word coined by Rensin: “sentimelancholia”.) Although the “I” who is the author of a biography can enhance the narrative with his or her own background, the purpose still remains to provide a clear window through which the life story appears in highest resolution. In the first few pages, the unique Miki Dora is compared to a tediously long list of celebrities: Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes, Muhammed Ali, Flying Wallenda, Cary Grant, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Sid Vicious, Andy Warhol, etc. Is this comparison needed? Is any comparison needed?
Admitting that Dora “notoriously disliked ‘surf music’”, Rensin nonetheless insisted on quoting a long passage from a Beach Boys’ song to dubiously illustrate a point. Having grown up in southern California, I feel that the Beach Boys were not really connected to the intrinsic mystery of the Pacific Ocean and its coasts, as was Dora. I had to keep it a secret that I never liked their music. They represented the commercialization which Dora detested. If indeed I were obliged to make a comparison, it would not be with movie and rock stars, but with another legendary alumnus of Hollywood High School, Everret Ruess, who disappeared in the year of Dora’s birth, 1934. The former lived an uncompromising life committed to the most audacious personal freedom, like Dora, before disappearing into a Utah desert at the age of 20. (Unlike Dora, Everett Ruess displayed the integrity and good character of a sage.)
Following the life of Miki Dora over the decades I have encountered an astonishing and unique homo erectus, as seen in his classic surfboard ad (below) showing the evolution of surfing as human evolution, from primordial apes to Dora riding a Malibu wave – the “aquatic ape”. Despite the wit in this ad, supposedly conceived by his friend Darryl Stolper, it also reveals Dora with a pathological ego - as the culmination of human and surfing evolution. It also reveals a latent fascist who was extremely cruel to his younger friend and protegé Johnny Fain (“Pygmio Phainas”, the next to the lowest rung in Dora’s theory of evolution), who adored Dora like an older brother. Despite beating Dora in one Malibu competition, and Greg Noll calling him a “great surfer”, Fain (“Pygmio Phainas”) was “uncoordinated”, with “little ability” in Dora’s surfboard ad. Fain was humiliated and crushed: “He (Dora) withdrew his affection from me entirely. It broke my heart and hurt me very badly.”
There is an irony about the pop Malibu fairy-tale not touched on by Rensin. Although he briefly mentions that the name is Chumash in origin, Rensin no longer is concerned with this deeper, more meaningful Malibu past, much much older than than the golden age of Miki Dora and Bob Simmons having the perfect waves and the beach almost uniquely for themselves. Dora’s classic complaint over the “imbeciles” who took over his sacred place can be made by the modern Chumash people with much more authority. Dora’s grievance is nothing by comparison. He too becomes one of the “imbeciles” who invaded and usurped a sacred place. Dora’s grievance is well-known. The Chumash grievance is unknown. Those people today swarming on the beaches and the waves of Malibu are able to do so only because of the genocide inflicted on the Chumash people.
When Miki Dora went to Oahu’s North Shore in 1963 to surf the huge waves as a stuntman for a commercial surfing movie, he too came as a “kook from the valley”. To established big-wave surfers like Ricky Grigg, Dora’s arrival in Hawaii was a “nonevent”. However, his achievement was very admirable, since he learned to surf the twenty-foot waves at Waimea in one day. As his lifelong friend and big-wave surfer Greg Noll put it: “He was stiff, but he made the transition from the king of small surf to twenty-foot Waimea like nobody I’d ever seen or can think of even now. Miki did it in just one day.” Dora, like all the other big-wave surfers, had to overcome his fear to paddle out at Waimea. When he asked one big-wave surfer if he was afraid, the answer was: “Well, I’m afraid to be afraid.” Both Noll and Dora took off on one big wave that is in the movie. Dora appears hunched over and stiff since it was nearly his first time. Noll recalled that he came from behind and realized he was not going to make the wave. He came beneath Dora, put his hand on the small of his back, and gave him a helpful shove that allowed Dora to make the wave while Noll wiped out. “He probably thought I was going to push him off his board, like he’d done to a thousand people at Malibu.” This sudden display of good character surprised both of them. When Noll paddled out a half hour after his wipeout, Dora said to him: “That was the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me. Why did you do that?”
Dora’s bad character was balanced by his poetry on the waves. Every once and a while one hears about surfers who are veritable artists, having ascended to a higher level than that prevalent in professional surfing. They do not surf for judges sitting comfortably in tribunals on the beach, nor for TV and movie cameras, nor for the fans. They surf because of an “inner necessity”, and solitude is more favorable to them than cheering crowds on the beach. It is when the cameras and crowds are absent that the poet-surfer has his most intimate contact with the Ocean. Miki Dora has written about such experiences on the isolated wild coast of Namibia. Dora was totally alone with the ocean – and the sharks, unseen reefs and strong currents – risking his life in solitude with no TV cameras or adoring crowds.
Miki Dora bought his freedom at the price of being remembered as a thief, con-man and utter scoundrel. Apparently he didn’t care. One of Dora’s most disgraceful deeds revealed in Rensin’s book is assuming the identity of a dead surfing friend, Richard Roche (who died a violent death in a car crash), in order to commit further credit card scams. After the funeral of his friend, Dora went to his widow’s house in order to “console“ her, telling her, “I’m sorry about this.” Meanwhile, he milked all the information he could about Roche’s successful company from his grieving wife. Dora became Richard Roche, applied for a passport in his name, and charged $58,000 to the estate of his dead friend in forged credit cards.
Dora’s inexplicable combination of courage and cowardice, intelligence and stupidity, evokes another legendary thief who roamed the hills of Malibu long before it was invaded by Europeans: the Chumash trickster Coyote. Like Coyote, Dora could be a good companion and then steal from friends who generously opened their homes to him, or invent a brazen lie as he did in New Zealand that he never broke a single one of the ten commandments. He could adapt to all social groups, wore disguises, was sneaky, spoke in riddles, intentionally misled, was spooked by people - just like Coyote.We had made and saved a lot of money. One afternoon, while reading on the beach, I looked up at our apartment and saw Miki on our veranda. When I went home that afternoon, our money was gone.
- Australian surfer Rhonda Chagourie remembering her stay in France, 1979
After paying for his “indiscretions” with two years in different prisons, and strictly controlled probation in California after his release, Dora returned to the Atlantic coast of France, where a surfing culture has evolved similar to California’s. (At Hossegor and other coastal towns there are regular international surfing competitions.) Again Dora felt the need to depart for less crowded places. Parking his van at a friend’s place in France, he took his surfboard and his spaniel Scooter Boy (“my half-wit son”) and flew to South Africa in 1986. Having surfed Jeffreys Bay in 1971, he returned to the perfect waves there, near Cape Saint Francis made famous in Bruce Brown’s classic film Endless Summer. Dora’s legend is completed here in an amazing way. He had surfed the point break at Malibu in near isolation until Malibu deteriorated into a world famous amusement park for the rich and famous and cafe latte enthusiasts.
At Jeffreys Bay he again found a magnificent point break like virgin Malibu where he could surf with very few other surfers in the water. At this time he was well over 50 and still an astounding athlete. The young surfers there were fiercely territorial, as he and his companions had been at Malibu. Now he was the unwelcome intruder, but his amazing skill allowed him to often snatch the best waves from the younger surfers. This successful quest after the bliss of his youth on barren Californian beaches was at the cost of much loneliness. But after a few years, even Jeffreys Bay became crowded, like Malibu...
In 1970 Jeffreys Bay was still relatively unknown. It’s been deteriorating ever since (like everyplace else). However, the real treasure chest of waves lies somewhere else. No matter what the population of the world ejaculates into, nobody is going to venture into this world within a world, wherein the Final Destination is the ultimate solitude - madness or death.
- Miki Dora, “Million Days to Darkness”, Surfer July 1989
Miki Dora is much more meaningful to southern Californian culture than a mere movie star. A movie star becomes famous pretending to be someone else. Dora became famous being himself. A Euro-American Trickster. The aura of mystery surrounding his life is the mystery of being human. Most people ignore the mystery of who they are. The Mystery was the only reality for Dora. A tiny few of his rides on waves have been recorded on film. Most of his rides remain his private property never to be shared, or sublime memories of those people who saw him surf.
One such memory was shared by Australian surfer Derek Hynd in Rensin’s book: “I’ll never forget Dora’s great wave [at Jeffreys Bay]”. On his “blue beast of a board” Dora, paddled into the “Great Wave”, and put awe in everyone watching, performing “as well as he’d ever performed at Malibu.” Hynd continued: “He beached the wave. Disappeared. I never saw him surf seriously again.” (He did indeed continue seriously surfing.) Dora later related that after this ride of maybe half a kilometer, he picked up some shells on the beach which he always kept. In his 65th year, experiencing much turbulence in a jet plane on the way to Chile, he rubbed these shells for good luck. There were more magnificent waves in Chile all to himself, although a left point break was not to his liking. At 66 he was surfing in Australia, despite a sickness that was later diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. At 67, knowing that he had only months to live, he was surfing in France.
This sublime ending to the Dora legend was again marred by his bad character. His story does not evoke an ancient Greek tragedy nor comedy, but an ancient Greek “satyr play” - in between the two.* Dora rented a small apartment from friends in Jeffreys Bay, and enjoyed their hospitality upstairs in their larger, more comfortable home. He was 64, two years after the “Great Wave” and three years before his death. It was June, a cold winter month in South Africa, and Dora was watching a soccer match on TV with his friend and landlord. He had put an electric hotplate under his bed downstairs to warm it up. In his absence, his apartment caught on fire and was totally destroyed, killing Scooter Boy.
The young wife of his landlord recalled the frantic attempt to put out the fire: “He just sat there paralyzed while I screamed, ’Come on, you jerk! Come and help us!’ He wouldn’t move. He couldn’t talk.” For stupidly putting her husband, their children, their dog and their home in great peril, she kicked Dora out, saying, “I’m not your mother and you have to go... He cried - and it’s the only time I’d ever seen him cry...” Dora, now homeless and bereft of the one being who truly loved him, was shattered. “Where am I going to go?” Like the satyr Silenus in the satyr plays, Dora invented outrageous lies to explain away his bad behavior: his house was fire-bombed by people in Jeffreys Bay who hated him; his landlord set fire to the house in an insurance scam...
Invariably, reading an in-depth biography of an artist whom I greatly admire leads to a decrease in my admiration. (The greatest disappointment in this regard was Lord Byron.) Many critics believe that an artist’s work should be evaluated separately from his life. As an artist for the last 58 years, I do not agree. In China the arts have traditionally been more intimately linked with spiritual cultivation in the individual than in the west. If European bad character brought forth good art, so much the better. But at times good character went hand in hand with good art even in the occident:
Good [creators] are right-minded, and considering that one should rather praise the enterprise than the result, you should give the finest praise to the one who is right-minded, but little skilled as a [creator], and not to the one who is skilled as a [creator ] but lacks right-mindedness.
In the west, good poetry or painting in themselves are enough, even if they are the result of bad character. In Chinese art, however, one often sees that good art is an alchemical means of expressing good character, building upon good character to achieve better character, and maintaining it in the event that the best is beyond the artist’s grasp. This very practical use of art as a means of self-fulfillment for all individuals is absent in the occident. Poets and painters are often drunkards and licentious womanizers, while Art is coveted by the dealers and collectors who plunder the artists even in their poverty, bickering and bartering like apes over a morsel of banana. The price of Art, not its value, is paramount in western culture.
Willem de Kooning’s skill at painting was not matched by a skill for living. The fact that de Kooning’s friend and rival Jackson Pollock displayed perhaps the worst character among the abstract expressionists - repeatedly risking the lives of countless motorists and pedestrians on the roads where he indulged in his normal drunk driving, eventually killing himself in a drunken delirium along with an innocent woman - is not taken into account when he is praised for his Blue Poles or other great works. The “Pollock legend” romanticizes his alcoholism, his vulgarity, his violent self-inflicted death and his mindless murder of an innocent woman, turning his bad character into something admirable.
But Willem de Kooning always seemed more angelic to me, and before reading Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s revealing biography of him, I stupidly believed that he and his wife Elaine were happily married. As an 11-year-old I also naively believed the same thing about John and Jacqueline Kennedy, when in both cases, a pathetic and sordid melodrama lurked behind the fairy-tale façade. De Kooning, Pollock, Kline and many civilized men bequeath a long list of female conquests without commitment, like the protagonist of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, while the small carnal pleasures dissipate and leave emptiness. As a result, the women were often left to undergo the trauma of an abortion alone, with little concern by their Don Juans. A sign of the highly fashionable “sexual revolution” of our times.
Pollock, in the spirit of this “sexual revolution”, reportedly greeted unknown women with – not “hello, nice to meet you,” – but “wanna fuck?” In this very modern life-style, the most outrageous infidelities and promiscuity are regarded as hip and modern, and the fact that a man can remain faithful to his wife for decades is seen as ridiculous, unmodern. The disappointing thing about de Kooning’s relation to Elaine is that he could apparently live with the fact of being New York’s most notorious cuckold. Even while both were at the same party, Elaine was cuckolding him for the umpteenth time upstairs – with Willem’s art dealer. Once upon a time, a man could suffer no greater disgrace than this. The rage of the cuckold Menelaus was the impetus for the Trojan War. However, as a devotee of the “sexual revolution”, de Kooning apparently had no problem being cuckolded for decades (at least outwardly).
For someone who reveals such a sense of humor in his art, de Kooning was also a very tragic figure. His biographers write: “The years of failure did not turn de Kooning into an alcoholic; success did.” Constant alcohol abuse, “often from the moment he awoke,” brought with it violent rages in which he could deliver blows to his mistresses. His friend Joop Sanders, also a Dutchman, mistook de Kooning in the street for a typical drunk on the Bowery, and stated: “He had literally slept in the gutter. Covered with dirt.” It is amazing, considering the years and years of chronic alcoholism, that de Kooning lived to be 92.
Like Picasso, de Kooning placed his art above relationships with people he loved. This we learn in the chapter “Other Lives”, in which a type of self-love reminiscent of Picasso is revealed, making any commitment from the heart to another person simply too inconvenient: “[De Kooning] could not, finally, submit to the demands of other lives.” This is a common attitude among artists throughout history, whether Byron or Beethoven. But there are exceptions. Along with being one of the most prolific creators of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply committed to the people he loved, so much so that three of his sons also became prominent musicians thanks to his loving instruction. But in Picasso’s case, the master tormented his first son and disowned the second, something keenly felt by myself, who was also unjustly disowned by my father. Having emersed myself in Art my entire life, I regard Life as the highest priority, and then comes Art. A painter who seems to have felt the same is Claude Monet, whose life and art merge into a sublime whole worthy of emulation.
He didn't know what to do with me, looking back.
He wasn't a good father. He loved me very much,
but it took me years to understand that the painting
came first and would always come first.
- Lisa de Kooning on her father
To bequeath not only an opus, but a life worthy of emulation, is very obviously a good choice for an artist. But de Kooning, like some of his abstract expressionist colleagues and many artists throughout history, did not bequeath a life worthy of emulation, unless near-suicidal alcoholism, lack of commitment to loved ones, being cuckolded for decades, and neurotic self-love are worthy of emulation. There is something malfunctioning in the souls of even the artists, who bring humanity its closest contact with Harmony.
Jack London wrote about surfing in Hawaii in the 19th century. Shaun Tomson, world champion big wave surfer from Durban, South Africa, believes that although London was a great writer, he knew little about surfing. In the same respect, Tomson is a great surfer but is not equally as gifted as a writer. His book was co-authored by Patrick Moser, and the reader wonders what parts are Tomson’s, and what parts are Moser’s. The unique typography of the book, with very many different font faces and font sizes and colors is very distracting. As is also common in magazines, an important quote from the text is frequently repeated in a larger font in a colored text box, with no real necessity to do so. The reader’s hand need not be held in this manner. The overall effect the book had on me, however, is one of personal satisfaction, which Tomson also calls his main motivation for surfing. Bearing in mind that I really like Surfer’s Code and the philosophy it contains, there are certain basic disagreements I have with it.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, each one a "lesson" that is elucidated on with personal reminiscences and reflections. I would not however recommend "Lesson 1" to surfers or non-surfers as words of wisdom: "I Will Never Turn My Back on the Ocean." There are several ways to understand this, but if one takes it literally or symbolically, it is nonetheless a violation of the poet’s Code "know thyself" engraved in marble over Apollo’s temple at Delphi. For many decades, tens of thousands of surfers all over the world have driven to their favorite spots, parked their cars, surfed a good day, turned their backs on the ocean, and driven back home. Turning one’s back on the Ocean is to acknowledge that a surfer, yachtsman or oceanographer are not marine mammals, but land mammals, and however much they might love the Ocean, they must return to land, their natural habitat, their only means of survival.
There is a poetic quality to Surfer’s Code that is a refreshing contrast to the excited hype prevailing in professional surfing that so disgusted Miki Dora. Tomson was able to enter this competitive commercial environment, become world champion several times, and exit gracefully: "I did not surf to compete; I competed so that I could surf." His many victories, and the resulting fame, allowed him to have the freedom to surf whenever it pleased him, wherever in the world, whether Rincon or Jeffreys Bay. The perfection he has achieved as a surfer is at certain moments transfigured into perfection of the English language. For a surfer who wants to tell his or her story, there is no where else to go than perfection of language – poetry. At this level surfing is much more than a sport. It becomes an art like music or painting. I am humbled by Shaun Tomson’s experiences in very dangerous surf from the time he was a teen-ager. In admiring the courage of fellow South African Nelson Mandela, he has achieved the same courage – not only physical courage, but spiritual courage, a much more difficult feat.
Surfing as big business took and takes up much of Shaun Tomson’s time and energy. But to encounter the Essential - everything that is sacred and good about this sport of kings - one is obliged to look elsewhere than the "surfing industry". Shaun Tomson the businessman may retort that even surfers have to pay the rent. In the history of occidental art, very often one reads of great artists who suffered enormously rather than compromise their art. Amadeo Modigliani was quite capable of surviving as a commercial artist. But he died in utter poverty with one valuable asset: the integrity beaming from his paintings.
Several times Tomson refers to the "tremendous amount of pride" he takes in calling himself a surfer. And several times I myself have referred to Pride in my books as being only detrimental to spiritual health. Leonard Peltier, the Lakota/Ojibway spiritual leader and political prisoner of over 30 years now, also refers to the first sun dancers he saw as a boy as "fiercely proud", and to the "tremendous pride" he feels as a Native American. (My Life is My Sundance) I thought this was a deadly sin? Both the oppressors and the oppressed are "fiercely proud" of their pride. Why is this universally acknowledged deadly sin universally coveted as a virtue? "Extinguish pride as quickly as you would a fire." (Herakleitos) Although ancient sages from all over the world have insisted that Pride corrupts, Shaun Tomson believes that it need not "corrupt a pure activity like surfing."
In surfing, as in thousands of other actvities practiced by the homo sapiens, Pride (one of the Seven Deadly Sins) has been magically transformed into a virtue. Strange transmigration! Making a comparison with professional golfers and baseball players, Tomson writes: "From a young age I approached surfing with the belief that it was a professional sport." This is a point of view prevalent in South African surfing that he contrasts with the "associations with drugs, drop-outs, or beach bums" of California. Now, as a former beach bum and drop-out, I am obliged to speak on behalf of another view of surfing in which Pride plays no role. Despite his criminality (like that of the medieval French burglar/poet François Villon) Miki Dora was a poet/surfer whose life demonstrates a more poetic view of surfing. Although a legend in surfing history, a veritable champion surfer, master of Jeffreys Bay before Tomson, the pride of winning a world championship meant nothing to him. A whole different vista opens up when one’s relationship with the Ocean, with Life, is not tainted by Pride, this vice of businessmen and professional athletes. (Another "drop-out" from California: Everett Ruess)
In his autobiography Morning Glass, Californian surf champion Mike Doyle wrote, "The truth is, I never felt that surfing as a competitive sport made much sense." But Doyle did become a very successful "contest junkie" as a nineteen-year-old, becoming one of the surfers who dominated the waves at Malibu in its heyday. Among this elite group of Malibu surfers were Miki Dora, Phil Edwards, Kemp Aaberg and Lance Carson. Doyle wrote that they never took the surfing competitions seriously: "If a big contest was being held at Malibu, they'd much rather go down the road some place and surf by themselves all day."
Shaun Tomson is quite aware of this unstructured side of surfing: "Outside of competition, surfing has no structure. There is no body of rules and regulations, and perhaps this is why surfers have developd their own codes. There is no ball to hit down the fairway. Surfing is all rough – everything is out of bounds. We have no lanes, no lines, no nylon nets to limit our expression. We are not aiming for par and are not aiming to beat someone." Inside of competition, however, there exists an unnatural structured hierarchy, a strict body of rules and regulations, a number tag for each contestant and a time limit. Tomson states that the Hawaiian word for surfing – he’e nalu – implies "a sport for those who compete." But the natural competitiveness in traditional native Hawaiian surfing, we can assume, was a far cry from the strictly regulated commercial surfing competitions of today.
Surfing at over-crowded Rincon one experiences this natural hierarchy of competitiveness, even when there is no organized competition. As the sets peel around the point, nature determines who gets the best waves. There are very natural groupings of surfers waiting for "their" waves as the swells surge into the Indicator farthest out, roll on to the Rivermouth and finally to the Cove. Even the nasty tempers and fights, as the one Tomson was involved in at Rincon, are a part of the natural hierarchy of competitiveness, and as much as we dislike it, you only have to watch animals in the wild on the Discovery Channel to see the same (at times violent) natural hierarchy of competitiveness in our brother mammals.
Photo gallery of poets
cited in The Whetting Stone
Photo gallery of poets