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Pat Curren's Passing Begs the Question: Where Are Today's Surfing Rebels?

Pat Curren, left, and Al Nelson on the North Shore, 1957. Photo: Surfing Heritage and Culture Center


The Inertia

What are the odds that Pat Curren’s passing happened on the same day the Eddie went? Almost unbelievable. Then again, Pat Curren’s life as a surfer is almost unbelievable. And as surfers and writers across the web share their varying memories of Pat Curren, the sheer number of shocking stories about the man and his life makes one thing clear: he was quite a character.

Beyond the classic soul surfer traits Curren possessed, like “showing no interest in surf media,” refusing to respond to most questions in a 1963 SURFER interview, and surfing Waimea on his wedding day on a board he shaped himself, Pat Curren was actively, and entertainingly, rebellious. 

The Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center posted a photo to their Instagram page of Pat Curren and his friends from La Jolla drinking and smoking cigars on a boat. The post was accompanied by a story about how Pat, modeling the idea straight from the King Arthur books, gutted a three-bedroom condo on the North Shore to create Meade Hall. Fred Van Dyke, a friend of Pat Curren’s, said that, with Pat’s direction, in just a few days “they had completely gutted the place. Just tore the insides out of it. With the leftover lumber they built surfboard racks along the side and a giant eating table down the middle. When it was finished, Pat stood back. ‘I think this will do; I’m going surfing.’ With that, he strolled into the backyard, picked up a machete, and hacked a couple of branches from a Hale Koa tree. He tied these to the top of his battered car and secured his board to the new rack. Pat disappeared in a cloud of fumes, headed toward Sunset.”

Another anecdote about Pat Curren, shared by Richard Anton St. Onge, remembers Pat as a subversive presence in surfing. Refusing to partake in the healthy North Shore lifestyle, Curren, “enjoying a cool two-beer afternoon buzz, took a long draw on his cigarette, stubbed the butt into the sand and challenged the plucky teetotaler Tommy Zahn to a paddle competition. The vivacious Zahn laughed in his face and accepted the dare with a dismissive snark. Curren proceeded to smoke the vainglorious jock, leaving Zahn sucking wind in his wake as Pat pulled hard across the Ala Wai. Chastened and defeated, Zahn was mortified, on the verge of tears. When Pat got back to shore, he kicked back, cracked a cold brew, and sparked another Lucky Strike.”

But his life, lived with no regard for social norms, raises another question: where are these types of characters today? Have they tread so far off the beaten path that surf media simply doesn’t know about them? Do they even exist? 

Initially, I’m inclined to believe surfers as intriguing as Pat Curren do still exist. But the logic is similar to my belief in aliens: I don’t really know, it seems possible, and it’s more fun to think about it that way. But, in a more real sense, I’m not really sure. Part of Pat Curren’s allure lies not just in what he did, but the fact that he did it and didn’t care who saw. That right there rules out most sponsored surfers: their life may be a movie, but it’s one you can watch on YouTube. 

Now there are, without a doubt, still surfers who go against the grain. Fairly recently, Joel Tudor was banned from the WSL after publicly (and perhaps brashly) opposing the organization. In ‘91, Christian Fletcher told SURFER he could “give a fuck about being world champion” but he liked to “go out and fuck with people during heats.” During the height of his surfing career, he was also sponsored by a porn shop and fled to Bali in order to avoid jail time. 

But compare the average standout surfer today to the average standout of the decades past, and there’s just less… shock value. Take any surfer from the WSL’s list of Championship Tour surfers (which, to be fair, is not the final say on the topic of the world’s best surfers) and you’ll find an incredibly talented, dedicated individual. But not necessarily an outrageous or entertaining one. 

John Peck, uber-talented surfer with an especially impressive presence in the ’60s, walked around with a shirt that read “YES, I’M JOHN PECK,” and later told people, with full conviction, that he could levitate. I don’t doubt that even some of the CT surfers get up to shenanigans after hours and do some crazy things with their friends. But do they walk around with a shirt that has their own name on it? I don’t think so. 

I’m not implying that everyone needs to exist for shock value alone. In fact, that’s arguably worse. Authenticity trumps entertainment tenfold. But maybe there’s a balance to be struck in there somewhere: surfers should feel free to act as they please and speak their minds (hate-free) without worrying about getting dropped by sponsors or losing their status as “athletes.” 

Pat Curren’s life, like many of the more compelling rebels in surfing history, is riddled with issues. Ethical dilemmas are produced. Hard times were fell into. People around him were affected. But, to some extent, these things ring true for all of us. Pat Curren just took many things, good and bad, to an extreme.

 Complexity makes life interesting. As lame as it sounds, it makes for better viewing, too. While surfing should be a counterculture of sorts, it should still be fun, right? Pat Curren certainly made it seem possible. Maybe we can all take that page from his book. 

 
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