In 1961, four of my buddies and I loaded into my ’51 Plymouth and drove to Mazatlan. I had $25 in my pocket. It took us three days, including one breakdown just north of Culican, where the mechanics somehow adapted Fiat brushes to fit my worn-out generator. When we arrived, we felt like we had traveled beyond the range of the known universe, into another reality, one with surf, at a time when riding waves was all but unknown to cultures beyond a few Southern California beach towns. When we pulled up at Loopy’s Loopers north of town, feeling so gnarly and far-flung, there in the flesh on the beach was almost everyone we knew from Seal Beach Pier.
Two years later, I shipped out in the merchant marine on a freighter to Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Little did I realize at the time, there had been rideable surf in every port. And in 1967, when Peter Troy came traipsing through California, having spread the seeds of surfing to Brazil and France, for some reason even that didn’t light the bulb on how great and far-flung the surf world would be.
By the early ’70s we still had a provincial view of the surfing world. We knew the coastline in the vicinity of Southern California had waves, at least from San Francisco to Cuatro Casas in Baja, and the Mazatlan area of the Mainland—and there had been photos of Australia by Ron Perot published in SURFER, and we had heard of surf in Peru, heard rumors of France, and knew the East Coast had waves of a sort—but by and large, other than Hawaii and our own home grounds, surf seemed exclusive to our little world. That naive bubble would soon burst.
Craig Peterson and Kevin Naughton were the first American surf travel savants. The surf world was blooming and they flung themselves out into it beyond the known edge. When they returned from a Salvador trip with startling beachbreak shots from Mainland Mexico we ran a (rare, non-action) SURFER cover than fired imaginations. In the foreground was some of their stuff hanging from a driftwood limb in the sand, and a surfer looking out at nondescript, unridden waves. The blurb read, “Discovery on the Way Home from Central America”. The break was the legendary, now extinct, Petacalco and little did I know that the cover expos had destroyed the sanctimony of a cult of Laguna/San Diego guys who had already planted their flag there, after much laborious travel exploration.
“We worked so hard to find that wave and you blow it off to sell magazines for money!”
SURFER receptionist extraordinaire Shirley Ziegler (who could remember the name attached to a voice on the phone a year later after a single call) buzzed me on Sevo’s old intercom, “Some gentlemen are here to see you.” I asked her to send them in. Pat Tobin and Pierre Michelle were two of three than stormed in holding the cover up to my face. “How could you do this?” they scolded. “We worked so hard to find that wave and you blow it off to sell magazines for money!”
This argument had not surfaced before. I was a bit taken back, as I worked hard to maintain a vestige of soul while converting the goings-on of surfing into colored dots on paper. I tried on the rationale that I hadn’t really hurt anything, that the article would be forgotten and the surfbreak would recede back into anonymity. They scoffed at me. Nothing goes back the way it was. I settled into my final defense: They were lucky it was I in the publisher’s chair. At least I could hear them, relate to what they were saying. At least I cared. What if I was some asshole who didn’t care? Years later, after their break was dead and buried, we became friendly.
For magazine editors, dealing with travel destinations was never as simple as it had been before that episode, ever again. From that point on, traveling surf photographers had to follow the code or pay the pauper.