The Great Unrest: Reconstructing the Life of a Feral Surfer

"Travel implies misadventure. And we went out of our way for travel." —Kevin Naughton.

1977. Craig Peterson, 21-year-old Huntington Beach kneeboarder, SURFER Magazine staff photographer and recently commissioned supply-boat captain, sat sweltering below decks 350 miles up the Congo River. It was still early, just past midnight, too hot to sleep. His boat, a squat 70-foot oilrig tender owned by Tidewater of Louisiana, was tied off at a dilapidated dock fronting Kinsasha's notorious cutthroat waterfront. As officer on watch, Peterson was charged with the safety of his crew and protecting Tidewater's property—for the most part a collection of rusty, clapped-out drilling equipment remaindered to the third-world oil fields that Tidewater serviced.

Peterson was just back on duty after downing a brace of cold Belgian beers at a grubby portside bar where he had seen an argument over a bar tab suddenly erupt into a deadly knife fight. Par for the course in this lawless Wild West corner of Africa.

Dead men no longer frightened Peterson. He'd become quite blas about it, in fact. Just last month, while locked down under martial law at Point Noire in Cabinda, armed militia came round the boat carting bullet-ridden bodies in the back of their truck, asking Peterson if he could identify any of his crewmen who had gone ashore the evening before. He didn't flinch as they pulled back the tarp.

Down below Peterson sucked in the thick, diesel-tainted air and succumbed to the equatorial torpor. His khaki work-clothes were grease-stained and embalmed with stale sweat. He was exhausted, his baby face unshaven and haggard from endless days ferrying supplies out to the rigs and sleepless nights fending off petty thieves or quelling fights among his sullen crew of large Congolese tribesmen. There had been reports of marauding bands of natives boarding boats, killing all aboard and looting at will. As matter of course Peterson had taken to sleeping with a large knife under his pillow.

Port rubbish and the occasional bloated wharf rat swirled in the putrid black waters lapping against the boat's fantail. Arc lights blazed down of the small fleet of oilrig supply boats, giving the dock the aura of a concentration camp. Security was makeshift and deadly. Coils of vicious razor wire topped the marina fence and the crew of a neighboring oil tug had electrified their metal boat rail with 10,000 volts to fry any would-be thieves attempting to paddle their canoes up to the ship and climb over the transom.

Lashed to a corner of his cabin was his little orange kneeboard and fins. Unused for months now. Craig contemplated just how far surfing had taken him this time—how far he'd drifted from the genteel suburban shores of Southern California. He recalled the groomed beaches and junior lifeguards, freeways and malls, pretty girls driving up PCH in convertible Mustangs, high-school football, McDonalds, Disneyland and little sprinklers spritzing arcs of imported water across perfectly manicured lawns fronting the tidy pastel beach bungalows off Main Street.

Lately, however, he'd begun to have doubts about ever going home again. After a year and a half in West Africa Peterson was struggling to maintain a tenuous hold on the niceties of civilized behavior. Day by day he felt he was falling into a shadowy grey zone where a white man with a bit of money and position could indulge any appetite, even murder, and likely get away with it. Life was proverbially cheap in these stifling equatorial climes, where, surfer or not, he'd become another white overlord in a long succession of bloody colonialism.

Four years earlier Peterson had quietly embarked on a mission to explore and document the blank spaces that lay beyond the late '70s surf frontier. Shortly after Craig's high school graduation in 1973, he and partner Kevin Naughton packed up Peterson's VW bug with surf wax, cameras and camping gear and headed south—destination to be determined.