Darrick Doerner: Too Cool

The big-wave iceman, cool to a fault

To this day, my 83-year-old mother makes fun of the way I used to worship Darrick Doerner. Lifts her eyebrows, arranges her wrinkled old dowager puss to approximate that of a know-it-all teenager, talks in a drawly early-'70s surf patois, imitating me imitating Darrick, and it is horrible. Horrible. Because it is so true.

Darrick lived a block or two north of Venice Blvd, near Lincoln, about a half-mile from my house. He didn't grow up there. Just turned up one year, probably 1970, when I was 10 and he was 13. Darrick was best surfer in the neighborhood. Maybe the best surfer for his age in all of Santa Monica Bay, or all of California, or hell, maybe all of America. Jackie Dunn was the gold standard for child-star surfers at the time, and I'd seen Dunn in Cosmic Children, and Darrick smoked him.

Not only did Darrick have the surf chops, at 13 he was already in full possession of a quiet but prodigious confidence. Years later Derek Hynd would famously match big-wave surfers with their respective motivations (Foo did it for the glory, Bradshaw did it for the machismo), and he hit a bullseye in saying that Darrick rode "for the cool." That's certainly how he earned my worship in Venice. For example: Darrick and I were sitting in his room one afternoon when his tiny French mother sent him to the backyard to shovel up dog shit. I can't remember what kind of dog they had, but the piles were huge and plentiful. He was clearly a few days behind on this chore. Darrick picked up a shovel but continued to linger, until his mother, from somewhere inside the house, yelled at him to get started, at which point he scooped up the nearest pile, gave me a flat look, and with a smooth flick of the his wrists launched the payload over his shoulder into the neighbor's yard. Simple, mindless first-stage teen rebellion. But cool as fuck.

Another example, more to the point. The Sylmar Earthquake rattled all of Los Angeles County awake on February 9, 1971, and as a safety precaution the schools in our district were closed. Mid-morning, a few of us walked down to check the surf at Venice Jetty. It was big and a little ragged, and Darrick was sitting deep—way outside, behind the rocks deep—all alone. Five minutes passed, and a set bombed through that was half-again bigger than anything we'd yet seen. Double-overhead, maybe triple, somewhere in there, and just exploding. Gnarlier waves than I'd ever seen ridden at the Jetty, or anywhere else, and Darrick, not yet 14, was out solo. Rode three or four waves over the next hour, and was still out, still alone, when I went home for lunch.

A year or so later Darrick moved out of Venice, and a year or so after that he landed in Hawaii, where he did a big-wave apprenticeship under Tiger Espere and Eddie Aikau.

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At some point along the way Darrick began to overplay his cool hand. Not the surfing part. He was the insider's pick as the best Waimea surfer of the 1980s; throughout the '90s and into the early '00s, as a pioneering tow surfer, in waves that just a decade earlier had been located on the far side of the Unridden Realm, he rode with more courage and style than anybody except Laird Hamilton. No, I'm talking his appearances in Riding Giants and Strapped and a couple other movies, where Darrick took his naturally terse and steely demeanor, poured it into the Clint Eastwood slow cooker, and let it simmer for a day or two too long. The result wasn't so much an extra-cool big-wave surfer, but something close an SNL parody of an extra-cool big-wave surfer.

Do I lash out? Maybe so. The last time I actually talked to Darrick was 1987. I deplaned in Honolulu that December as a card-carrying (God forgive me but I actually had business cards) member of the SURFER editorial staff, and rushed across the island with the rest of the slavering surf media Golden Horde for the annual North Shore clusterfuck. That very afternoon, finding out that Darrick was lifeguarding at Sunset Beach, I walked up to the orange tower, hand raised in greeting, voice perhaps a half-octave higher than normal, and said "Hey Darrick!" He looked down. Gave me that same flat look from when we were kids. A moment or two passed. I tried again. "Yeah, Darrick! It's Matt! From Venice!" No change in expression. Then one eyebrow lifted up a half-millimeter, and it hit me all at once that Darrick had in fact recognized me from before I'd said anything; that he was the world's coolest underground big-wave rider, and I was the striving glasses-wearing surf writer who he'd maybe have to pull sputtering out of the water at some point if I took three or four midsize northwest peaks on the head.

I stood at the base of the lifeguard tower. Darrick made no move to come down. There was a stilted exchange of pleasantries, then I walked back to my rented car, ears burning beneath my demi-mullet.

I won't lie. It hurt.