Merv Larson’s Strange Trip

Wave-ski hero talks about his mind-blowing waveriding

Merv Larson was holding down the No. 10 spot last week on my Most Advanced Wave-Riders of All Time list, but having just rewatched Larson’s part in Pacific Vibrations, filmed at Rincon in 1969, I must reassess. The most progressive high-performance surfers at this point—Lynch, Young, Aurness, Spencer, Abellira—were still very much in the process of knocking off rough edges. Choppy turns were the rule. Body dynamics were all over the place. Dudes were bending at the waist to ride the tube. Counter-twisting their cutbacks. Hell, Lynch was still cross-stepping to the nose. Meanwhile, Larson’s first ride here, everything, every turn and adjustment, from the opening fade, to the cheeky side-slip, to the big money top-turn-bottom-turn combination, is calibrated, linked and balanced. Then yes of course there’s all the cool freaky stuff. Multiple spins, riding backwards (only person to not make it look cheap and tricky), fully controlled whitewater bounces, and whatever that bugged-out Euclidiean fourth-dimension shit is in the final shot—some kind of tailpick flip or whatnot. John John will nail one of those in 2015. Merv stomped it in 1969.

I sent a Facebook friend request to Merv Larson a few days before posting this space-age clip of him at Rincon in 1969, but didn’t hear back, and figured he was in his workshop inventing cold fusion out of castoff Ikea parts, or something like that, genius that he is. But last Friday Merv got in touch, and graciously agreed to an interview, and off we went!

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You were living in the Santa Barbara area in the late ’60s. Did you know George Greenough?

Oh sure. We were friends. We talked a lot in the water at Rincon. I went to the Ranch with George once, and we had a good time.

The two of you were both working so far outside and beyond what was happening with standard surfing at that point…

I don’t know if we really thought of it that way. But yes, George was going really deep into his own thing, and I guess I was too.

George ended up become sort of the Godfather of shortboard surfing, where you kind of ended up being more of a cult hero.

I think people really took notice of George because he was riding in a way that made more sense to regular surfers. His boards were so small, and he was able to get higher and tighter in the curl than I could. He was just amazing to watch. People looked at George and realized that what he was doing was the way forward.

George’s kneeboard wouldn’t have scared people off the way your ski must have.

And it wasn’t just that. With a ski, you had the ability to catch more waves than anything else in the water, and that gave us some bad press. I mean, surfers here in California didn't like skis, right from the beginning. It was that simple. Same thing you're seeing today, with surfers not liking the SUP guys. Anyway, there were a lot of ski riders out there who didn't know the rules, or didn't care, and were taking too many waves, and the ski never really recovered from that.

You started surfing on a regular board. How did you end up changing over to the ski?

I was in a lifeguard competition with a bunch of Australians, and that’s where I first saw the ski. I ended up ordering one, and while I was waiting for it to be sent over from Australia, I just went ahead and converted a paddleboard of mine into a ski. Meanwhile, I drove out to Kern River one weekend and saw my first whitewater kayaking, and I was just so impressed with how those guys handled river turbulence, and right away I starting thinking, “Hmmmm, that might be neat to try something like that in the surf.” This was 1964.

The Aussie skis had fins, right?

They did. So did that first one I built on my own. So anyway, I was riding it in the surf, paddling around, catching waves, nothing fancy. Then one day I broke the skeg off, and realized almost right away that I didn’t really need it.

Because of the paddle?

Right. You don’t need a skeg on the board when you’ve basically got one on each hand.

That also freed you up to do all kinds of different moves.

Exactly. It was clear to me that going sideways and backwards was kind of fun.

How did you end up doing the segment for Pacific Vibrations?

What I’ve been told is that John Severson drove up to Rincon to watch this ski competition, with the idea that he’d film a comedy sequence. You know, laughing at these clowns in the surf on their big skis. But instead [pause] he saw something that excited him.

What John really captured in that sequence was just how smooth and flowing your approach was.

That was something I worked really hard at. It was important for all the moves to fit together. It wasn't supposed to be just a series of tricks.

As far as the trick stuff went…the thing that blew everybody’s mind when I posted the clip last week is that move at the end, where you jam the tail into the water and cartwheel over with the lip. How did that move come about?

I should first say that lot of stuff I invented was accidental. I'd go out and crash, but somehow pop up still on the wave, and then I'd think, "Well, maybe I can do that again, but on purpose." But that move in particular, it started out as something I’d do while paddling out. A broken wave would approach, and I’d stop paddling, lean back and raise the nose, let the wave flip me over backwards, then just roll back up after it passed. And at some point I just figure out I could probably do while riding a wave as well.

Drew Kampion also talked about you being able to do a barrel roll.

Just a few times. That one was really difficult. I remember going up and over with the lip, and not making it, and it would just ruin my sinuses for three weeks. What I really wanted to do get up enough speed so that I could flip all the way round without getting my hair wet. And I think I only managed that a time or two.

You also came up with some kind of remote control system for playing music while you surfed?

No, it wasn’t remote control. I had a portable battery-powered tape recorder, and I also had a radio—just a regular FM transistor ratio. I made a waterproof case for each one. Then I had a chest harness, and I’d strap either the taper player or the radio into that, then hook up this little tube with a wire inside that ran up to a headset inside my helmet—I had a motorcycle helmet that I customized.

You had a tape player attached to your chest?

The tape player I didn’t use much. It was about as big as a phone answering machine, so yeah, it was a little awkward. The radio I used more often. You were kind of at the mercy of the DJ was playing, but sometimes that was great because you'd get a song that you'd never expect, and it would just change the whole mood of the session. The other thing was that I had it all set up so no outside noise got in whatsoever. It was almost weird. If I turned the music off, it was just total silence. But when the right song came on, wow, it was like a dance. Just me and the ski, the wave, and the music. It was so neat. I'd surf Rincon with a 100 guys in the water, and it didn't matter. I was in my own world.