The nation’s surfing population rose at an incredible clip through the ’60s, climbing around 25-percent a year in some areas. Which meant North America’s continental elastic could only hold for so long before surfing stretched, both through intentional promotion and by chance encounters, to populations in South America, Western Europe, and across the world. Matt Warshaw’s latest History of Surfing chapter introduces us to some of the expats, explorers, and nomads who wrote the sport’s first global migration story — like Torquay, Australia-born Peter Troy, whom Warshaw describes as “Shackleton meets Bodhi, as written by John le Carré.” More from Warshaw:
In 1963, [Troy] began a four-year journey that took him from Great Britain, where he introduced stand-up surfing to the English Channel Islands, to the Continent, across the Atlantic to the United States, and down to South America. Broke in Peru, Troy shaved his head and sold his long blond surfer locks to a wigmaker for $200. In Argentina, after an informal seminar with local lifeguards on the latest Aussie surf club rescue techniques, he was given a private audience with the President.
While in Brazil, strolling along Rio’s Copacobana boardwalk, Troy looked across the sand to see a gangly teenager holding a board. "I'd just spent three months in the jungle traveling down the Amazon," Troy later recalled. "I had no idea anyone on this side of the country had even seen a surfboard before. But here's this boy, the son of the French ambassador to Brazil, who'd just had the board shipped over for the kid's 15th birthday. He's standing on the beach looking kind of lost, so I told him I'd take the board out and show him how to ride it—there was a nice little left-hander peeling off just down the beach. Off I go. After a few waves, I figured it was time to head in and give the kid his board back. I looked up and there were 2,000 people on the beach, watching me. That little surf session made all the papers. I was a 'god walking on water.' I was feted, wined, and dined; they took me to see Pele play football. It was the most amazing experience of my life."
We asked Warshaw more about the Founding Fathers of surf travel, and about surfing’s worldwide expansion in the ’60s.
You wrote that Peter Troy turned more people on to surfing than anyone, except Duke. What made Troy different from every other traveling surfer?
Stamnia. He'd go on the road for years at a time. In the 1960s and '70s, Peter's travel needs were insatiable, he could not get enough. And just as important, he liked being in the center of things, he was charming and talkative, and people were attracted to him. So instead of just quietly surfing around Latin America, for instance, he's dining with Presidents, giving interviews, romancing the daughters of the one-percent, and, in general, finding himself at the center of every crowd. And if you're paying attention to Peter, you're paying attention to surfing—he had the chops in the water, and totally looked the part, with his perfect tan and sun-blond hair.
How did U.S. military troops' relationship with surfing change from immediately after the war to the '60s?
It probably didn't change much at all. If you're a surfer in the military, you're going to fantasize on the regular about the beach and riding waves. If you were stationed overseas, near a coast, and had a weekend pass and a burning desire to get in the water—you could become an accidental surfing pioneer. My guess is that very few of those guys on far-flung bases were giving much thought about being the first to surf in their area. You just want to get wet, same as when you're home. And that would be no different in the '40s, '50s, '60s, right up to now.
Absolutely. But they had different styles. Joel was Sean Connery, suave and urbane and wicked smart, while Arnaud was more Mick Jagger, with all the sexy right up front.
After gaining popularity in Brazil, Troy commented on how unusual it felt to travel the world with a surfboard – "like traveling the world with a grand piano."
Little know fact, but until the late '60s, people who traveled with a grand piano used to always say that it felt "like traveling with a surfboard."
When did surf non-profits and Semester At Sea surf programs take off? Kimball Taylor has this thoughtful line in one of his feature pieces, that he never thought surfing and public service fit very well together. "They're not quite opposites," he writes, "but they are incongruent."
Nat Young—OG Nat Young—once said something like "surfing is about as selfish a thing as a person can do," and I agree. Which means I agree with Kimball. Which means I laugh and practically sprain my face eye-rolling every time somebody says or writes anything about how surfing is "religious" or "enlightened." Surfing is like when you're six years old, and you roll down a grass hill, play on the slide, run back up the hill and do it again and again—which is fantastic, that's all it needs to be. There's no public service in surfing. Except, of course, for the Encyclopedia of Surfing.