Equal parts eccentric genius and humble introvert, Tom Curren is surfing’s most mythic figure. Because he does so few interviews — in fact, we tried to talk with him for this piece, to no avail — he’s strangely unknowable, despite being one of the most popular surfers in history. To shed some light on the legend, we asked some of his contemporaries and friends to share their favorite Curren stories. They didn’t disappoint.
1977 World Champion
I first surfed against Tom in a contest at the 1981 Katin Pro/Am in Huntington Beach. He was 16. A lot of top competitors were in the event and Tom was still surfing as an amateur. I remember coming against him in the final, and the surf was perfect, 4 to 6 feet. I just—just—scraped out the win. I was a hardcore competitor, ranked in the top two or three in the world then, and I just scraped by. I thought, "Wow, this kid has got unbelievable talent." Tom declined the prize money because he wanted to maintain his amateur status.
A year later, we're in Japan, at the Marui Pro. The surf's 8-foot-plus and solid, with maybe a couple of 10-foot sets. And I'm thinking, "There is no way that this little kid is going to beat me." I paddle out and I have a brilliant heat. I smoked the dude. In those days you couldn't always hear the results, and you couldn't see what the results were. You had to walk up the beach after the heat and catch someone's eye, and if they gave you the thumbs up, you knew: You smoked the guy!
As I'm walking up the beach, I'm trying to catch people's eyes, but they all turn away. Finally someone asks me, "Did you see Curren's right-hander?" We'd been surfing the wave for a week, not one competitor had ridden a right, and he got a 10-point ride on one! That was the relationship with the ocean he had for the rest of his time on the pro tour. If every contestant is going left, Tom Curren would find a 10-point ride going right.
Tom was staying with me in Australia a couple years ago, and at the time he was reading this book about barefoot running. From the day he showed up at my place, he didn't care about surfing. All he wanted to do was go buy some booties he could wear while he was running. We ended up at a Target store walking around together, and he couldn't find booties in his size. So he bought some anyway and cut the toes out of them, and then he just started running around in the country near my house.
One day during his run, he just disappeared completely for about four hours and I had no idea where he was. It was starting to get dark, and I was thinking, "Oh, shit, where's Tom?" I drove for a little while in both directions along the road to my house, but saw nothing. Soon it was after dark, and I really thought he was lost. Finally, my phone rang, and it was Tom. He had run all the way to a town near my place, a town that's a 20-minute drive away; it's a marathon distance away. And this is a country road with nowhere to actually run, so he was running on the side of the road with just those booties on. He asked me, "Can you come and get me?" I said, "Why didn't you just stop and turn around?" Tom thought for a moment and said, "I got so far away I thought it was better to just keep on running to town." When I got there he was sitting at a bus stop eating a ton of chocolate bars. Not at all embarrassed. When I pulled up, he just said, "Yeah, thanks."
I remember when Tom first surfed against Kelly Slater—a semifinal at Lacanau in 1990. Kelly was just playing games and paddled out late. I was sitting there with all the Quiksilver crew and they kept saying, "Wait until you see this Kelly Slater guy." I was saying, "Oh yeah? We'll see." Right when Tom paddled out, this head-high right-hander came through and Tom tore the shit out of it. Just as he was about to flick off, it doubled up and he did another five turns. As Tom was paddling back out, a left came right to him, and there hadn't been a left all day. Kelly didn't even hassle for it and just let Tom go, probably out of respect. So in the first five minutes Tom had a heat score of 17 or 18. That fucking rattled Kelly, and he spent the rest of the heat just trying to do airs. I turned to one of the Quiksilver guys and said, "Yeah, I wouldn't give Tom Curren a wave in any more heats."
Two-Time World Champion
In January 1984, we were over in Florida surfing an event and Tom didn't have a place to stay, so he stayed in the room with a couple of us for a few nights. One evening, he just disappeared in the bathroom for a while. I wondered what he was doing in there, and was hoping he was all right; maybe he had diarrhea or some sort of issue going on. He was in there for an hour, two hours maybe. It was ages. Eventually he came out; there was hair everywhere and he had the full bowl haircut going on. He just gave himself a haircut in our hotel room! It was epic, like blonde hair everywhere in the bathroom and this whole crazy kind of fringe thing happening on his head. I'll never forget that moment.
One year, as a grom on Rip Curl's Search program, I was staying with Tom and his family on the North Shore. It was at one of Mark Foo's places at the cul-de-sac near Waimea Bay. I would have been about 14. The main thing I remember about that trip was when we found out that Tom hadn't been invited to do the Eddie, he was pretty bummed. I didn't know Tom that well, but I could tell he was upset about it.
The next morning, we woke up really early while it was still dark. We looked out to the Bay and it was giant, like 25 feet. Tom was the first guy out. I saw him take off on this huge wave. I'd never really seen that fiery side of him before. I'd been out on sessions with him, just freesurfing and on magazine trips, but seeing him at huge Waimea was insane. You've got this mellow, humble guy and then you get him out in the water and he's just like an animal.
Former Pro Surfer
One winter in the early '90s, I was living at Sunset Beach, just a couple doors down from Randy Rarick. I had a 600-square-foot studio with a little upstairs loft above the bathroom. You walked in and it was wide open with a kitchenette. In the front room I had inherited Bernie Baker's turntable and an awesome record collection from another cat on the North Shore, and I had a recording studio set up, just to do some guitar stuff. It was a particularly great winter and there were terrific waves the whole season. One magical night, after a day of solid 8- to 12-foot surf, I had a girl over. We're up in the loft just getting it on when I hear somebody let himself into my tiny place. I look downstairs and it's Tom. My girl's making plenty of noise and Tom kind of acknowledges me; he sees what I'm doing, but he puts his head down and keeps walking in. He turns on the light by my four-track and starts looking through the albums, looks at my guitar, and just starts making himself at home. He spent a good two hours laying down tracks, listening to music, and making a whole mess of the place. And then he just let himself out.Over the course of the next couple of months, he would let himself in at his own will. Occasionally he would leave one of my books opened to a certain page, or just leave behind a book for me to keep and read. Over time, I just kind of got used to it. It was like there was a small animal in my place making a mess of things.
That season, there was this really famous guitar that had been part of the Allman Brothers family. I think it was later valued at, like, $20,000. Somehow Tommy had gotten ahold of this guitar. He had either bought it in an auction or worked with somebody in the studio. Whatever it was, he'd brought it with him, and it was sort of drifting around the North Shore. The last time he used the little studio, he left the guitar at my place. It wasjust this unspoken appreciation.
1978 World Champion
I was staying in a house on the beach at Hossegor in France with my wife in September 1981. The surf had not been great, so we were about to go out for dinner and dancing when there was an unexpected knock on the door. Standing there with a surfboard bag and backpack was a 15- or 16-year-old Tom Curren. I had met him a year earlier when I'd shared a flight to France with the USA team for the 1980 World Champs in Biarritz. The team was heading up the wrong tube at the Charles de Gaulle Airport and I kind of rescued them.
Now, a year later, here he was. He had flown to Paris and jumped a train to Bayonne, then mysteriously found his way to my doorstep. Tom sheepishly asked if he could stay with us, and I said, "Sure, kid, you can make camp in the spare room."
In the previous days, I'd observed a sandbar near my house that had potential. In the pre-dawn I heard a little whispered voice. I looked up from bed and Tom was pointing toward the ocean.
I walked up the sand dune and saw 6-foot lines wrapping onto the sandbar. It was corduroy, perfect, like Kirra. As I went back to the house, Tom came tearing up the dune with a Merrick twin-fin under his arm.
For three hours, we were the only two out in flawless perfection. Tom was tube savvy beyond his years. We didn't talk much, but hooted every barrel. When the tide dropped, the sandbar was exposed, the wave closed out, and the crowd showed. It was like it never happened.We surfed the same bank for a week. The magic was never quite repeated, but something else happened. I was one of the last holdouts on the single-fin, and one session Tom suggested we swap boards. I loved his twinny and he rode my Gill Glover Hot Stuff like he had surfed one his whole life. I was leaving for a contest at Malibu and Tom told me to take the twinny. I took the board, which was kind of beat, and when I got to the States, I tracked down Bob Hurley and asked him to
make me one just like it.
I didn't win the Malibu event, but I did win the next Tour event in Japan and another in Australia on the Hurley twin-fin. Tom gave my career a second wind.
The 2000 Quiksilver Masters in France was full throttle. Tom and Gary Elkerton were in the final. It was a grudge match. It was a super hard-fought final at good-sized Lafiténia and Elko got the edge. At the end of the contest, each finalist had to make a big speech to the audience. They had a lot of people there supporting them because they had families in France. And Tom's speech was in completely perfect French. Now, I took five years of French in school, so I knew that he was speaking absolutely eloquent French with no "um's," "er's," or pauses, like he famously uses in his English. His French was better than his English.
Childhood Friend, Rincon Local
This was during the 2000 Quiksilver Masters at Lafiténia, and they had the banquet at the Quiksilver place there in southern France. So everybody's there—old school, new school. Tons of people. I was there with Rob Gilley, Joe Curren, Pat Curren, and Tommy, and we were all just drinking beers. Up on the stage they'd put up a bunch of replica world championship boards, including a copy of Tommy's Channel Islands Black Beauty. I asked Tommy if he'd seen the replica, and he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "Yeah, it's pretty good." I was kidding around and told him he should grab it, that it was better than the board he'd brought to surf.
Next thing I know, Tommy's on the stage with the board under his arm. A bunch of the French Quiksilver guys were standing around him asking what he thought about it. But they made it clear that once they were done talking, he had to put it back on the stand. At the end of the night, I told him, "Go get that board and let's get out." He went and grabbed it and we got out of there. The next day he surfed the board at the contest and ended up getting second. At that point everyone still believed that anyone over age 35 was over the hill and couldn't rip anymore. Tommy put a stop to that.
We were in the Mentawais at the huge right-hander they called Fish Bowls at the time. It's almost a Sunset-type break with a grinding barrel on the inside. It was 8-foot barrels, with 12-foot-plus sets on the outside. Frankie Oberholzer had brought this little Tommy Peterson–shaped fish, the Fireball Fish, and it was like a micro-board, barely 5 feet long. The second session at Fish Bowls, Tom grabbed the fish, and I thought, "Oh, my God, he's going out on this matchstick in giant surf." Sure enough, he got barreled off his nut on that board. He can
Former Pro Surfer, Writer, Filmmaker
We were on Isla Natividad—me, my brother Matt, Dave Parmenter, Carl Weiser, Marie Curren, and Tom. It was the summer of 1986 and Tom was at the zenith of his career. He'd just won his second world title, so he reserved the entire Scorpio Tours Natividad Surf Camp for us exclusively. Unfortunately, we hit the worst flat spell I'd ever experienced on Natividad. I mean it was flat, as in nothing breaking at all. Great conditions, but no rideable waves.
One morning we were down at Punta Arena, beating the heat by standing next to our boards in waist-deep water, occasionally pushing off in the 12-inch shorebreak on our bellies. I noticed that Marie, who'd been floating on a bodyboard, was being pulled out by a current sweeping around the island's corner.
I said, "Tom, you better go get your wife. She's not wearing fins." Tom glanced her way. "Oh, yeah," he said. "I guess I better." He paddled out toward her. He'd gone about 50 yards when from out of absolutely nowhere a 4-foot wave came right to him. Without sitting up or even breaking his cadence, he took off, pulled in, and rode the tube all the way back to where we stood. He kicked out and settled back on his board like it was no big deal. There were no waves behind it. In fact, it was the only rideable wave wesaw the entire trip.
Former Editor of SURFER
The late Sonny Miller told me this story and it stuck with me, partly because Sonny was such a great storyteller. Since then, I've heard different variations of it, all from people who say they heard it from Sonny. Some say it took place in South Africa, but the version I heard took place in Australia, back in 1990. That was Tom's comeback year, when he won his third world title.
Anyway, Sonny and Tom traveled together a lot back then. They rented a car for the Australian leg of the tour and drove from the Gold Coast, where Tom won the event at Burleigh, down to Torquay, where Tom won again at Bells. (He ended up winning seven events that year.) So they were in this rental car for weeks, Sonny driving the whole time, and Tom's side of the car ended up being covered in trash. A full-on dumpster. I've traveled a little with Tom, and I can attest to that; he's a bit of a slob, especially on the road.
When they get to the airport to fly home, Sonny drops Tom off at the curb with all of the surfboards and camera equipment, then goes to return the rental car. At the last minute, he decides to look through the trash to make sure Tom hasn't left behind anything important, and he finds both of the checks from the two contests Tom had just won. Thirty-two thousand dollars in prize money, down there with the trash.
I've never had a chance to ask Tom if that's a true story. I hope it is.
[Editor’s note: This feature appeared in our October 2015 Issue]