Death is in the hall waiting, but Mike Tabeling is as sharp, funny, honest and cool as ever. Despite advanced stage cancer. He casually interrupted our phone interview two days ago for a morphine break, called back half an hour later and picked up right where we’d left off. A month earlier, he posted this fucked-up little black pearl of a video. “Indomitable spirit” has a face, and it is hatchet-nosed and high-cheekboned and resolute.
You and Gary Propper and Bruce Valluzzi and Claude Codgen all grew up in Cocoa Beach. What’s the age difference between you guys?
So the Cocoa Beach High School class of ’66 had Gary, Claudie, and Bruce—all three graduated the same year. I was a grade behind.
Propper was the first to get a lot of attention.
Well, he was the best surfer. He was just on his own planet, he was so good. And so ambitious. Just…Gary wanted to take over the world, you know?
Was Gary your friend, your rival, both?
Totally both. I’d rag him so hard, but I loved him a lot. He was the center of the whole deal. He was our leader. We all did whatever he told us to do. Apart from everything else, he was super intelligent. The brightest guy in the room, always.
I love those stories of him throwing trophies in the bushes or whatever, if he got anything other than first place. Did you ever see him chuck a trophy?
Of course. I mean, Gary was so much our hero that that became a thing to do. People started chucking their trophies all the time!
Did you chuck a trophy?
Maybe. Yeah, I might have chucked a trophy.
Seemed like Gary was a fairly intense guy to be around.
Oh, he really was. Still is. But he was also super funny, like everybody around him would be watching to see what came next. In was kind of our Corky Carroll, you know? So much energy. Except Gary was actually a more talented surfer than Corky. I’ve never seen anybody pull tricks out of the bag like Gary could. But yeah, he was a great guy to joke around with.
Did you give him shit for not riding big waves?
No. Never. I never went there. I’ve got a fear of the water, too. Not like Gary. I kept pushing my limits, and ended up riding some pretty big waves. But it was never really my thing. Gary’s fear of drowning—I totally get it. The fact that he chose not to ride big surf, and didn’t make excuses for it, I always actually really admired him for that.
You were closer to Bruce than you were with Gary or Claude, right?
I was. We were best friends for years.
He was such a different guy. Not a typical Florida surfer. Not a typical surfer at all, actually.
He was thinking way ahead of the rest of us, for sure. People were attracted to him. Like, Bruce never really wanted to be the top surfer. But he was always the top player. He hung with Nat, and all the other main guys. His confidence was off the charts. The rest of us, I think we were all caught up in where we were from, you know? Florida guy, Malibu guy, North Shore guy. Bruce kind of floated above all that. Like, to give you an example, he spoke fluent French. How many surfers learn how to speak French, you know? So I was looking at Bruce, and I wanted to be like Bruce. He was probably my biggest influence.
Maybe its because he died early, but Bruce never really drew as much attention as you, Gary and Claude.
He wasn’t much of a contest surfer. That’s a big part of it. Bruce was really more of a big-wave guy. Once it got overhead, he'd get better and better as the size went up. He was kind of our BK [Barry Kanaiaupuni], you know? But in shitty little waves he wasn't going to paddle out and try to hang heels or whatever to get a trophy, like the rest of us. Now and then he'd do OK in contests, but that was never what it was about with him. Not like it was with me for a while, or Gary or Claudie. Bruce surfed on his own terms. Hell, he did everything on his terms.
The two of you traveled a lot together.
While Naughton and Peterson were out there exploring Central America, Bruce and I were doing our thing in Morocco and Spain and Portugal and places like that. But our philosophy was totally different from Kevin and Craig. We didn't want to bag it and bring it home for SURFER Magazine. I mean, like, not at all. The whole point for me and Bruce was to not tell anybody.
But that had something to do with what you had going on the side.
Yeah, well. We got a bit of drug trafficking in there too. But even if that hadn’t been the case, believe me, the point was to get away from the mags, from the crowds, from the surf movies. This is the early ’70s. Nat Young was still king, and he’s telling everybody that contests don’t mean anything, and Bruce and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah!” We were happy to drop out of that whole scene. So we just went off for months at time, chasing waves and doing drug deals.
Bruce pushed things pretty hard. Like he had a thing for danger.
I loved the guy so much, but yeah, there were some scary times. Mostly good times, but a lot of scary times too. Just driving with the guy was crazy.
You think he was destined to die young, the way he did [in 1987, at age 39]?
Do you know how it happened?
More or less, yeah. Yes. Or no, to be more specific, he had a heart attack after doing coke. But let me say this about Bruce. Was he destined to go down early? No. Bruce was in great shape. He swam laps every day, or he’d go into the ocean and swim. He was really tuned to his body. What I’m trying to say is, yeah, the guy had a fast streak in him for sure, a dangerous streak. But he went out by accident. I can’t even begin to count how many times he told me, almost like an older brother, “Listen, Mike, don’t do coke. It’s not a good drug.” Now, Bruce himself didn’t always stay away from it. I didn’t always stay away from it. But coke was never high on the list of things we did. I knew Bruce as well as anybody, and I was just shocked when I heard about his death. He wasn’t pushing things that hard at that point. Bruce dying the way he die was just a terrible accident. My sense is that he was getting to the end of his coke period, like everybody else was at the end of the ’80s.
Bringing it back to Cocoa Beach. Claude seemed very much like the opposite of Bruce in a lot of ways.
Well, Claudie for sure did not partake in the drugs. Never. So, you know, once that was in play, it really reduced the amount of time we spent with him. But even before that, Claude was always kind of separate from the rest of us.
Total style-master in the water.
Oh my God, yes. Such good style. He was kind of our Phil Edwards. Shoot a picture of Claudie at any time, any place on the wave, and he'd look good. Head-to-toe good style. His fingertips had style.
I always though Claude surfed more like Nuuhiwa than Edwards.
Mmmm…you know, that doesn’t work for me, just ’cause David and Claude were such totally different personalities. You couldn’t have had two people as opposite as those guys.
You’ve answered this question a thousand times, but why were so many good surfers coming out of Cocoa Beach?
Well, obviously it had nothing to do with the waves. We were just hungry. We were eating, living, dreaming, dying for surf. We’d ride anything. California surfers didn’t do that. Hawaiian surfers didn’t do that. You just have more stoke when there actually isn’t any surf. You get where I’m coming from?
I do. I grew up in Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach, which were more or less the two worst breaks in California. But South Bay guys surfed better than the Malibu guys, or most San Diego guys. Just ’cause, like you say, we were so hungry for waves. Manhattan Beach was almost like the East Coast of the West Coast, if that makes sense.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I remember hanging out with Dewey Weber in Manhattan and surfing shit waves down at the pier.
But also, in the mid-’60s, the four of you had each other to bounce off of. Small town, four really good surfers, you end up creating your own momentum.
That’s right. That’s just how it happens. Every now and then you get this time and place where things come together like that. I was lucky enough to grow up in one of those places.