First Peak

ON THOSE CROWDED BLUEBIRD DAYS AT FIRST PEAK—a clean, pulsing north swell in the water, a gentle west wind kissing the wedging peak’s pencil-thin lips—you could hear a sound—pop pop pop pop—as sets approached the viper-pit pack, pinballing through the jetty’s pilings. The East Coast’s best surfers knew it well, heard it in their dreams. Ask Kelly Slater; he remembers. Or Jeff Crawford, if you can find him. Mike Tabeling probably heard it on his way out.

For nearly 40 years, Sebastian Inlet groomed more champion surfers than perhaps any wave on the planet, responsible for eight Pipe Masters wins, 16 world titles, and countless major East Coast, national, and World Championship event wins, not to mention dozens and dozens of local, underground, world-class surfers filling in the gaps. Then, in the early 2000s, repairs and renovations to the jetty caused the wave to disappear almost overnight. In its absence, Florida hasn’t produced a single World Tour surfer, let alone a world-title threat.

“I miss Sebastian, truly,” says Slater, First Peak’s prodigal son. “I’d do anything to bring it back to its glory.”

Overlay Photo: Mike Tabeling leaping off the jetty, pre-railing, late ‘60s. Tabeling stumbled across Sebastian Inlet’s hollow, punchy, high-performance wave just as surfers were shelving logs in favor of shorter equipment. One of the best surfers in the world in 1968, Tabeling was First Peak’s radical pater familias. Photo by Pope; Above Photo: Kelly Slater, Photo by Mez

ON A BLAZING AFTERNOON in July 1968, the Shortboard Revolution in full swing, a 19-year-old Mike Tabeling walked up to his Cocoa Beach High schoolmate, Larry Pope, carrying a photograph. Pope and close friend Greg Loehr had just been complaining about how miserable Florida summers were, plagued by weeks-long flat spells.

“The surf was terrible,” Pope recalls. “And here comes Tabeling with a picture of this wave, and I said, ‘When was that?’”

“Yesterday,” Tabeling told him.

“In the early ’80s, Pat Mulhern was easily one of the best surfers in the world,” Inlet standout Bill Hartley says. “I remember Mulhern paddled out at the Stubbies one year and just started doing these incredible figure-eight cutbacks. I looked over at Rabbit and Simon Anderson and they were looking at each other, going, ‘Whoa. We’re in trouble.’” Pat Mulhern, 1982. Photo by Mez

Pope couldn’t believe it. Didn’t believe it, actually: There was no way the wave breaking in that photo—a hollow, thin-lipped, emerald peeler—was in the same ocean as the gutless, muddy brown mush lapping upon Cocoa Beach’s sandy shores. Tabeling said he’d take him, but he couldn’t tell a soul.

“He would have killed me,” Pope says. “That’s the kind of guy Tabeling was.”

For the previous year, the Army Corps of Engineers had been working on extending the small jetties that jutted out from nearby Sebastian Inlet, at the mouth of the Indian River Lagoon, hoping to curb beach erosion and prevent the busy boat channel from filling in. As the jetty was extended, sand began to slowly fill in alongside it, forming a pristine sandbank. The jetty’s peculiar angle also seemed to be contributing something.

“When we got down to Sebastian Inlet, we figured out real fast that it was a different wave,” Tabeling, who passed away in 2014, recalled to Eastern Surf Magazine a few years before his death. “If you go out and surf that wave after surfing Cocoa Beach your whole life, you’re blown away. It’s a real hollow wave with form. It didn’t exist anywhere else in the county or the state. It was just phenomenal to find that we had such a great wave right there.”

“I must have driven by there a million times and just never went and looked,” Pope says. “When Tabeling took me down there, it was flat everywhere, and here it was, 3, 4 feet and just bouncing off the jetty.”

As construction continued, the wave got better and better. An odd bend in the jetty caused a refraction, especially on north swells, creating a delicious wedge that would double and sometimes triple the wave’s size at its peak: a heaving, mutant A-frame surrounded by hundreds of miles of straight, drifty, unremarkable sandbars. It was a miracle.

“I got to watch the inlet be built stone by stone,” says Pope. “They were putting in rocks and finishing the end and top of the jetty. Frankly, I think it saved surfing on the East Coast. It was the training ground for Tabeling, Claude Codgen, Jeff Crawford, Greg Loehr, Gary Proper—all these incredible surfers. It gave them a little taste of California or Hawaiian speed—not size, but speed. And we had it to ourselves. I know it sounds tired, but it was a golden era. It was Camelot.”

Kechele

LOCATED ON A narrow finger of barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon, Sebastian Inlet State Park starts just south of the mouth of the river and stretches nearly three miles north, spanning over a thousand acres of Brevard and Indian River counties. Known for some of the best fishing in the country, the park boasts one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the state.

Overlay Photo: Though Matt Kechele was fond of the lefts down the beach—using the lumps careening north off the jetty as ramps for airs—his place at the top of the First Peak pecking order was never questioned. On all-time days you could count on Kechele pig-dogging pits just off the jetty. Photo by Mez; Above Photo: Jeff Klugel. Photo by Mez

Situated along the Great Florida Bird Trail, it includes Pelican Island, the country’s first National Wildlife Refuge, with more than 130 species of birds. Often you can see gannets, shearwaters, migratory songbirds, and, of course, pelicans. Manatees, dolphins, snook, and redfish can be found along the river’s mangrove-laden shores. Loggerhead sea turtles make their nests in the lagoon, and baby sea turtles make their home in the sea grass and reefs just off the park’s southernmost beaches.

During the winter, right whales—the most endangered whale on Earth—birth their calves just off the coast. Bobcats, panthers, river otters, and alligators all make appearances. And lots of sharks—nearly everyone who put their time in at Inlet has a shark story.

But for the first generation of surfers to establish, or attempt to establish, themselves, sharks were the least of their worries. For one, it was illegal to surf near the jetty.

“It was sort of rolling the dice,” says Pope. “You’d see the conservation officers, who were armed so they could deal with poachers or whatever. And they’d come walking out in their little gray uniforms and arrest you, which was such a bummer because they’d drag your ass all the way up to Titusville, which might as well have been a million miles away.”

Word of the wave got out nationwide after Tabeling, Kiwi White, and Gary Hook were arrested for surfing First Peak.

The local fishermen were even less hospitable, tossing chum into the water, snagging surfers with alligator hooks, releasing sharks they’d caught into the lineup. Surfer-on-fisherman brawls were commonplace. Occasionally an angler was tossed from the jetty.

The park at the time was yet to institute fees, largely because there wasn’t much to charge for. The parking lot often had potholes deep enough to snap a car’s axle. In the relentless summer heat and humidity, the first bathrooms under the bridge were, according to Pope, “like the surface of Venus, just indescribably bad.” The jetty’s walkway was often covered in algae, sending visitors careening through the air, sliding off the edge of the jetty and into the inlet’s swirling waters.

“If you had to think of one guy who was there every session, it was Jeff Crawford,” says Kelly Slater. Pipe Master, exotic animal (and other commodities) dealer, and world-class bully in the water, Crawford ruled First Peak off and on for the better part of three decades. Photo by Dugan

But none of that kept the surfers away. “My dad would take me fishing down there,” says Inlet standout Bill Hartley. “I remember, even as a young boy, I could see that the wave was incredible. Even though I wasn’t a good surfer at that time, I could tell it was just so different from anything in the area.”

AS WORD OF Sebastian Inlet got around, a fierce pecking order was quickly and firmly established. Outsiders were unwelcome, and even guests of locals, especially groms, were hazed and barred from First Peak, forced to earn their way up the ranks surfing down the beach at the weaker and smaller Second and Third Peaks.

“I first went there when I was about 13,” says Matt Kechele, another Inlet mainstay. “Rich and Phil Salick brought me down in the back of their truck. And it just opened up my world. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I’d seen Larry Pope’s photos in the magazines, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is the place!’ But it was so intimidating. Back then there was no giving waves to groms. The guys were really competitive, and some really gnarly shit went down. But I can tell you this: Jeff Crawford had the key.”

Crawford, whose father was a commander at Patrick Air Force Base to the north, ruled First Peak with an iron fist, ruthlessly sending people to the beach, spearing surfers caught in the way with his board, and worse. As they did at so many precious locales in the ’70s, locals waxed windows, slashed tires, and stole cars.

“We had some pretty bad attitudes,” Pope says. “We all went to Cocoa Beach High, which was not a nice, fun place. There was a lot of ostracizing and hassling. You either got with the program or beat it. They opened the school in ’65, and they couldn’t put together a football team because we were too busy looking out the window at the flags to check the wind, ready to jump and run, wanting to go surf. But that school produced more world-class surfers than any high school I can think of.”

Drugs showed up in ’67—pot and hash, mainly. But by the mid-’70s, many of the area’s standouts had turned to less-than-honest forms of work, namely dealing and smuggling anything from marijuana and hash to cocaine and heroin, a profession perfectly suited for brazen locals well-versed in intimidation.

“It was cool to me, because we were just these long-haired, dope-smoking hippies,” Pope says. “Drugs fit our little surf community like a glove, let me tell you. And it wasn’t just nickel- and dime-bag guys. There were big guys. And some were nasty, sociopathic creeps.”

Over the years, Sebastian locals would be shadowed and interrogated by agents from the FBI, DEA, and CIA interested in the whereabouts of several of the Inlet’s standouts. Undercover agents posed as fishermen, their rods mic’ed, hoping to listen in on the pack’s small talk.

“I got questioned by the DEA,” Pope says. “‘Do you know this guy?’ And I’d say, ‘No.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, we know you know this guy, so we’re just going to keep an eye on you, how about that?’ But it was a different time. Guys got murdered, guys went to prison, or into witness protection.”

“It was that era—you know, Scarface,” Hartley says. “Blue packages would wash up by the hundreds. We thought it was cocaine that had gotten wet. But it was coca paste. Like, the purest form of cocaine. You could cut that a thousand times over; one package was worth an obscene amount. And there were hundreds of them. My friends were in high school, taking these things home. So then the Colombians came into town and found out who they were, who had the packages, and went looking for them. They took one of my friends and duct-taped a shotgun to his mouth, asking for everything we had. We just said, ‘Take it all! Take everything!’ It was a pretty radical time to grow up.”

Matt Kechele’s loud style on land was backed up in the water; the powerful goofy was widely recognized, along with John Holemann, for landing the first aerials in the late ‘70s. Photo by Mez

IN THE ’70S, Sebastian locals began getting recognition on a national and international level. In Hawaii, using what he’d learned in the ferocious First Peak pack, Jeff Crawford scratched his way to the top of the Pipeline pecking order. He was invited to the 1974 Pipe Masters and surprised the world with a win over Rory Russell and Gerry Lopez, both Pipe Masters themselves. In 1976, an upstart IPS (International Professional Surfing, later the ASP, now the WSL) hosted its first East Coast event, the Florida Pro, at the Inlet, where Crawford would beat Rabbit Bartholomew and finish in the Top 16 his first year.

But Crawford was just the tip of the talent iceberg. Coming up behind him was a pack of young rippers who’d grown up watching First Peak’s pioneer generation operate. Bill Johnson, Trip Freeman, Todd Morcom, David Speir, and Bill Hartley all began their residence at First Peak, pushing performance surfing as ferociously as any pack in the world.

Though his Gulf Coast roots runs deep, Shea Lopez (pictured) and his younger brother Cory, cut their teeth at First Peak, their father Pete dragging the featherweights across State Road 70 or I-4 at even the slightest hint of swell. Photo by Mez

Many of the top young Inlet surfers ended up on Ocean Avenue’s prestigious surf and skate team. Owned by Lewis Graves and professional skateboarder Bruce Walker, the shop was the Zephyr of the East Coast, world-class surfers inspired by the skateboarding they were seeing on land, trying to recreate those lines on the steep, blowing faces of First Peak.

“I was maybe 14 when I started really going down there a lot,” Hartley says. “We had the best team on the East Coast for a while. Every day we’d go surf, head back and hang out at the surf shop, go back to the Inlet, come back to the shop. And we had a factory right behind the shop where our boards were built, so we had this little surf city.”

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, some of the best high-performance surfing in the world was being done by Pat Mulhern, Charlie Kuhn, Kechele, and Hartley. While Santa Barbara’s Davey Smith is often considered surfing’s first aerialist, both Kechele and John Holeman were sending it above the lip regularly by the early ’80s.

“Bruce Walker started talking about Alan Gelfand, who invented the ollie,” Kechele says. “I’d heard about him doing them down in Hollywood, Florida, at one of the first skate parks. Bruce was describing how he’d hit the ramp with this pop, into the transition. And at that time I was starting to figure it out with the First Peak wedge, and trying to time it and hit it. Once I started finally making some, Bruce was super stoked about it and started trying to document it. But people were kind of tripping on it; they weren’t really sure about it.”

Someone unhappy about the attention Kechele was getting for his strange maneuvers tagged the Inlet’s bathrooms with a little personal ribbing: “Kech, tricks are for kids.”

[Left to right, from top to bottom: Four generations of Sebastian Inlet standouts: Bill Hartley, CJ Hobgood, Lisa Anderson, Todd Kline, Damien Hobgood, David Spier, Lewis Graves, Todd Morcom, Charlie Kuhn, Shea Lopez, Kelly Slater, John Valentine. And that's just scratching the surface. "We had such a depth of telent," says Slater. "There were so many good guys. Going back to the Valuzzi's and the Tabeling's, Claude Codgen, then Trip Freeman, Danny Melhado, Paul Reineke - this remarkably talented group of guys. And then there's a whole bunch of guys younger than me, even younger than the Hobgoods. It was just the place." (1,3,4,7,8,11,12) Photos by Dugan; (2,5,6,9,10) Photos by Mez.]

AS A YOUNG BOY, Kelly Slater would spend the weekends at Sebastian Inlet fishing with his family. He and his brothers would dive for stone crabs, bum old bait and fish for rockfish. They’d wade out into the lagoon and dig their feet in the sand until they found clams.

“I have nothing but fond memories from growing up there,” Slater says. “We had a van we’d drive down, and we’d pitch a tent under the bridge, before there was a parking lot. There were no fees. You just pulled off on the side of the road and parked wherever you wanted.”

Slater would sit and watch the pack take First Peak apart, mesmerized by the ferocity of the crowds, the radical surfing, the violence. Intimidated by the older generation, it would be years before Slater would muster up the courage to enter the lineup.

“I actually don’t think I surfed Inlet until I was 10 years old,” Slater says. “At First Peak, if it was a crowded day, you were really lucky to even scavenge a wave as a kid. There’d be 70 or 80 guys out. You had to move down to Second or Third Peak. It was a very similar pecking order to Pipeline.”

The first time Kechele ever met Slater, he was stuck under an old woman’s station wagon, his hair caught in the exhaust pipe. “One of the neighborhood kids came down yelling, ‘Hey, some kid got ran over by a car!’” Kechele says. “So we were like, ‘Cool, let’s check it out!’” [Laughs]

Kechele would take Slater under his wing, piling him, Slater’s brother Sean, and David Speir into his VW Beetle and driving down to Inlet any chance they could. Kechele started making Slater’s boards, which were small enough to fit inside the VW’s hood. Around the same time, a photographer named Tom Dugan, an accomplished surfer himself, began shooting the Inlet, taking Pope’s place on the jetty after he stepped away from his camera in 1980.

I was up on the jetty,” Dugan says. “Kechele comes up and says, ‘Hey, check out this kid. He’s going to be good.’”

Overlay Photo: Kelly Slater, 1985, showing signs of his prodigious talent at just 13. “Kelly, Sean [Slater], Kechele, and Charlie Kuhn were coming down, scratching together whatever gas money they could to get there,” says photographer Tom Dugan. “The four of them would show up and just tear the place apart. And of course Kelly’s talent just took over.” Photo by Dugan; Above Photo: Kelly Slater, Photo by Dugan

BY THE EARLY 1980S, the talent level at First Peak reached all-time highs. Pro surfers from around the world came to Sebastian for the Stubbies Pro events.

“I watched the Stubbies every year,” Slater says. “Klugel won it one year. I think Kech won it one year. Ross Pell won it. Mulhern made the final every year. I don’t think people have a sense for just how good Pat Mulhern was.”

“In the early ’80s, Pat Mulhern was easily one of the best surfers in the world,” Hartley says. “I remember Mulhern paddled out at the Stubbies one year and just started doing these incredible figure-eight cutbacks. I looked over at Rabbit and Simon Anderson and they were looking at each other, going, ‘Whoa. We’re in trouble.’”

Talented as Slater was, he wasn’t exempt from the Inlet’s hierarchical pecking order. “I remember Mulhern one time—it was a crowded day, the waves were really good, it was super hot, but I just couldn’t get a wave—and this set came, probably six, seven, eight waves, and everyone got a wave,” Slater recalls. “I was the last guy sitting out at the peak. Mulhern had caught the first wave, and, by the time the last wave came, he was back out the back. I went to go for it and he paddled for the shoulder, looked at me, and said, ‘Don’t even think about it, kid.’

While much has been made of Slater’s raw, natural talent, observers have acknowledged the bits and pieces of Sebastian locals’ approaches found in Slater’s brilliant surfing: some Hartley in his bottom turn, a little John Futch in his blow-tails, Mulhern in his positioning, Kechele in his backside tube-riding, Holeman in his air reverses. But if Slater adopted traits, he provided just as much inspiration to the old guard, nipping at their heels every step of the way, keeping them on their toes.

“I’ve known Kelly since he was, like, knee high,” Hartley says. “It was so incredible to watch him grow up and just keep getting better and better and better. I loved it, because Kelly became one of those guys that it didn’t matter if you were on the golf course, or First Peak, or Backdoor, he was going to try to make you look like a fool if you weren’t at the top of your game. And at that time, the talent level just went off the charts. It became the focal spot—not just on the East Coast, but nationally. I can’t think of a spot that produced more talent than Sebastian Inlet.”

“It was as important a wave to East Coast surfing as Lower Trestles is to West Coast surfing,” Slater says. “It had this power that allowed you to get up and do something, and usually something radical, on a three- to five-second wave. You could bust big airs, you could do big hacks, you could pull into the barrel. You could hone these skills that you needed everywhere else in the world.”

Some of First Peak’s royalty at the height of Inlet’s talent explosion. Look closely and you’ll find Glenn Klugel, Matt Kechele, Kelly Slater, Todd Morcom, Danny Melhado, Jeff Klugel, Charlie Kuhn, Steve Lenches, and Sean Slater. Astrodek shoot, 1987. Photo by Mez

THOUGH INLET’S FIERCELY competitive lineup pushed progression forward tremendously, innovations in surfboard design by a handful of local Sebastian surfer/shapers contributed greatly. Mike Tabeling had spent time in San Diego under the tutelage of Steve Lis and brought what he’d learned of twin-fin fish designs back to First Peak. With First Peak as their testing ground, Klugel, Kechele, Mulhern, Johnson, and especially Greg Loehr pushed board design as much as any shapers at the time, anywhere. As early as 1981, Loehr was building boards from Styrofoam blanks and epoxy resin under his Resin Research label. Naming him one of the top 10 shapers of all time, Surfing Magazine would claim “nobody’s done more for the future of surfboard design” than Loehr, largely due to his uncompromising pursuit of better materials and constructions.

A bustling industry rose up in nearby Rockledge and Melbourne, which would eventually become the epicenter of East Coast surfboard manufacturing. By the late ’80s, Central Florida was producing more and better surfboards than the entire East Coast combined.

Throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s, Sebastian Inlet continued to foster the most talented surfers on the East Coast. Lisa Andersen, who grew up a few hours north in Ormond Beach, would turn pro after winning the 1987 U.S. Championships at Sebastian, going on to be named the ASP’s Rookie of the Year the next season. In 1991, Tom Dugan and close friend Dick Meseroll would launch Eastern Surf Magazine, setting up shop just up in the road in Melbourne, using the Inlet as the mag’s unofficial photo studio. Meanwhile, World Tour heavies like CJ and Damien Hobgood, Cory and Shea Lopez (who would drive two hours from their home on the Gulf nearly every weekend), as well as East Coast standouts like CT Taylor, Paul Reinecke, Scott Bouchard, Kyle Garson, Phillip Waters, Tommy O’Brien, Eddie Guilbeau, Eric Taylor, Blake and Justin Jones, Adam Wickwire, and a handful of others, all rose through the Inlet’s ranks.

In 1995, Quiksilver held the first King of the Peak contest. Slater conceptualized the event with Quiksilver, aiming to bring a high-stakes, homegrown event to the wave where he’d cut his teeth, while at the same time raising money for his, and most every other Sebastian local’s, alma mater, Cocoa Beach High School, which at the time was under threat of closure. Slater would of course go on to wear the crown first.

THERE’S MUCH SPECULATION as to the specific cause of First Peak’s demise. Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, a series of Army Corps of Engineers sand-replenishment projects lengthened the beach as sand built up against the north jetty, shifting the wedge’s focus.

Sometime around 2002, a large swell caused structural damage to the jetty. A Jacksonville construction company was brought in to make major renovations. In the lead-up to the renovations, almost none of the Inlet’s regulars were aware of the project’s scope. Even now, few can point to precisely which specific changes caused First Peak to disappear almost overnight. A number of public documents mention that “over 300,000 cubic yards of sand [were] placed on downdrift beaches” and that a “major renovation of North jetty [was] completed with elevated concrete cap, handrails and grate system.”

“My understanding was that they weren’t changing the pilings underneath,” Dugan says. “They put on a new walkway deck that was wider—from, say, 20 feet to 30 feet. They put some extra rocks near the beach, and some out at the end of the jetty. And that changed the current’s flow, and of course that changes the bottom.”

Regardless of the cause, by 2005 Sebastian Inlet’s First Peak was a ghost of its former self, the miraculous wedge now a gurgle of backwash, the groomed sandbank a potted, trenched mess.

“I had a guy contact me a few years ago and say that for $50,000 he could fix the wave,” Slater says. “I told him, ‘If you can fix it for 50 grand, I’ll pay you tomorrow!’ Honestly, if there was a way, I would do anything I could to get that wave back. It’s such a great spot—good fishing, good camping. Only the wave’s missing.”

Today, walking over the boardwalk and out onto the jetty, the lineup is often empty—a quiet, lonesome feeling hanging over what was once the takeoff zone. Fishermen crowd the jetty, tourists dine in the fish shack, kids play in the sand and splash in the lagoon. Whether First Peak can ever wake from its decade-long slumber is anyone’s guess, but today, standing at the base of the jetty, looking out on a windswept Atlantic, there is only its ghost and a haunting echo, much quieter now: pop pop pop pop.

Ashton Goggans is Managing Editor of SURFER Magazine.
This feature is from "Home of the Brave," our August / September 2016 Issue. Order our current Issue, available for download now.