Honoring Florida’s Original Surf Legend

Hundreds gather at Sebastian Inlet for Dick Catri paddle-out

On Saturday, June 10th, after a week of ruthless floods and thunderstorms, Sebastian Inlet awoke to a blue and windless sky. The cars came pouring down the bridge and overfilled the parking lot. Hundreds of pilgrims gathered on the south side of the jetty to honor the life of Florida’s original surf legend, and the chieftain of this barrier island: Dick Catri.

Catri––the first Florida boy to charge Pipeline and Waimea, first to deliver Hawaii savvy to the east coast, first to coach immortals like Gary Propper and Kelly Slater––asked that his ashes be cast into Monster Hole, a sharky, deep-water mysto left that breaks a quarter mile past the jetty, and where, 60 years ago, during a massive storm swell, he and Jack “Murf the Surf” Murphy were the first to paddle out and ride the waves over the outer sandbar.

“This was a shark channel,” Murphy said. “Loaded with 13-foot hammerheads and leopard sharks.” Murphy––robust and upright, 80 years old, aristocratic, infamous for his jewel heist of one of the world’s largest sapphires, the Star of India––raised an eyebrow at the Atlantic. “But we had a deal with the sharks. They stayed under the water and we stayed on top.”

One by one, surfers stood up to hallow their captain. They painted the young Catri as a wild man, driving bare-ass naked across Texas in a ’57 Chevrolet, charging Pipe with Jock Sutherland and Butch Van Artsdalen, dropping in on Sunset bombs in the Duke Invitational. But the tales of his Florida exploits stirred the pilgrims the most. Mimi Munro, the youngest member of Catri’s ’67 Hobie team, described him as a brilliant coach, an innovative promoter, and father figure to a group of young, budding surf stars––including Propper, Mike Tabeling, Fletcher Sharpe, Sam Gornto, and Bruce Valluzzi––who went on to become the winningest surf team in history.

The day got steamy, sweaty, spiritual. The tide was dropping, and waves began to break in earnest on the outside. Hundreds of surfboards lay on the grass, many of them mementos to Catri’s legacy: his Nuuhiwa models, experimental ’70s boards, pin-tails, twin-fins, thrusters. Rock star shapers like Ricky Carroll got up to profess their undying debt to the Captain, conjured a Catri covered in foam dust, mentoring the likes of Jim Phillips, Johnny Rice, and Greg Loehr.

Clouds piled up on the western horizon. Some of the younger generation stood on the sidelines and expounded on the older, bearded Catri, who famously taught a ten-year-old protégé by the name Kelly Slater, to “keep your eyes open in the barrel.”

“He taught us how to barrel-ride, how to handle heavy current,” said Todd Holland, another Catri disciple turned Pipe charger. “We surfed the high tide shorepound at Indialantic, and he got us prepared for faster, more powerful waves. He built me my first Hawaii board, a 5’9″ balsa twin fin.”

The clouds rolled up over the bridge, casting cool shadows on the ceremony, softening the heat of the day, and the Florida surfers, who know better than to take any surfing conditions for granted, picked up their boards and ventured out past the wrack line.

This pristine stretch of beach, this place called Sebastian Inlet, training ground of champions, will forever belong to Dick Catri, who fought for the right of surfers on First Peak, who once threw a fisherman off the jetty for casting a sinker through the nose of his board, and who came to be called the Godfather of East Coast surfing.

The pilgrims cast their flowers into the sea. Set waves came rolling up from the outside and sent whitewater fizzling through the inner circle. When Dick Catri’s ashes dissolved into the blue, moving waters, the surfers paddled out to the outside, hoping to catch one last ride with the Captain at Monster Hole.

[Above Photo: NPI Productions / Kadeem Cobham]

Photo: NPI Productions / Nathan Adams