Jimmy Buffett Wasn't Just a Musician – He Was a Surfer

The man lived the surfing life. For real. Photo: Jimmy Buffett and the Corral Reefers

The Inertia

Reports on the death of 76-year-old Jimmy Buffett, who following a long struggle with cancer passed away on Friday, September 1, almost ran out of appellations when describing the master of Margaritaville’s particular areas of expertise: singer, songwriter, Academy of Country Music Award-winner, two-time Grammy Nominee, best-selling author, wildly successful entrepreneur, billionaire (#18 on Forbes’ list of “The Richest Celebrities of All Time”), pilot, sailor…just to name a few. But so far as I’m concerned, as well meaning as the many tributes to this beloved entertainer were, they overlooked one of the man’s most longstanding, passionate forms of self-expression.

Jimmy Buffett was a surfer. 

The real thing, not some celebrity dilettante with Kelly’s private number and their own Airstream in Lemoore, but a full-on, lifelong, committed-to-the pursuit surfer. Want proof?  Look no further than the lyrics to “Hey, That’s My Wave,” from his 2020 album, Life On The Flip Side:

“It used to be so easy
Life was so well-defined
Walk to the beach and ride the ocean
Any place, any time
The ocean’s always been my mother
Salt water is the perfect cure
But now my home break’s on a website
That’s got me thinkin’ Ecuador.”

Jimmy Buffett certainly earned that authentic aesthetic, having spent decades chasing waves from Montauk to Malibu, from Cocoa Beach to Costa Rica, from the islands of Caribbean to the coast of France; the East Cape in Baja and atolls in the South Pacific. Which means that when he wrote about surfing, which throughout his long career he did so much more often than he’s recognized for, Jimmy was drawing on personal experience. A great example can be found in his bestselling 2004 novel A Salty Piece of Land, in the passages following an affable troubadour named Willy Singer who, while flying across the South Pacific in his Grumman Albatross seaplane, finds himself on the fictitious island of Dalvalo, discovering, along with a bizarre WWII cargo cult, a perfect right reef break. And wouldn’t you know it, Willy just happened to have his 9’0″ Stewart longboard stashed in the Albatross’ cargo bay. 

Strange, then, that the surfing media, which has so often crushed like a high school sophomore over various non-endemic surfing musicians and writers, has, over the course of numerous eras, virtually ignored Jimmy Buffett’s existence. Not that this seems to have ever bothered “Trop-Rock’s” progenitor – apparently he was too busy doing it all to worry about being part of it all. In this way his carefully cultivated, laid back, ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’ lifestyle belied the intensity in which Jimmy went about his fun. Consider “Surfing In A Hurricane,” from his 2009 album Buffett Hotel:

The waves were hard, the seas were high
Wicked thunderbolts flashed in my eyes
We swam out to the sandbar in the dark
Howling at the moon, cussin’ at the sharks

I made the first drop and my cajones were in my throat
The second wave launched me like a rocket, that’s all she wrote
Upside down, water on the brain
Hand on the bottom but feelin’ no pain
Screamin’ like a demon, paddlin’ out again

I feel like goin’ surfin’ in a hurricane

It wasn’t just clever and, to be honest, often corny lyrics Jimmy applied to expressing his deep-seeded, existential relationship with the sport. A consummate waterman, having mastered sailing, saltwater fly fishing, actual flying (know many others who’ve landed a seaplane on the ocean?), paddling and, as of late, foiling (again, know many other septuagenarians who ride an E-Foil), he obviously contemplated surfing not only in metaphorical but metaphysical terms. As in  “Einstein Was A Surfer” from 2013’s Songs From St. Elsewhere:


There’s a photo of a genius standing by the ocean
In a pea coat and cool hat, in 1943

On a beach in Santa Barbara, he’s looking quite contented
His world is only matter and energy
Past the Channel Islands, out into the cosmos
There are worlds in motion that only he can see
He’s smiling as he’s thinking, the harbor lights are blinking
He’s the smartest cookie ever was, ever will be
Einstein was a surfer
There really is no doubt

‘Cause the universe was his home break
And we’re still all paddlin’ out”

Thanks Jimmy, for everything. Photo: Matt Dunbar

I had the privilege of paddling out with Jimmy Buffett quite a few times after he’d bought a tiny but very stylish beach shack in my Malibu neighborhood a couple years back. As busy as he’d become juggling his myriad endeavors (described in one obituary as a “genuine mogul”) the time spent in the water seemed more important to him than ever; pure stoke after every ride, regardless of wave size or quality. I couldn’t have known at the time that he was fighting the loneliest battle, holding back the ravages of a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel Cell Carcinoma, which as it insidiously advanced had begun to significantly sap his strength.  Canceled concert appearances were the first sign that something was seriously wrong, although these rare occurrences were attributed, simply, to “health issues.”

The last time I surfed with Jimmy, back in late spring, he confided to me that the health issue was, in fact, cancer, but that he was “Still in the fight with the sunuvabitch.” And he was, too. But as I carried his board down to the water’s edge, watching him gingerly making his way across the sand yet with eyes still bright with expectation, still gazing out at the waves as toward a long cherished friend, I couldn’t help but think about a song I’d recently heard on Jimmy’s Sirius Satellite channel “Radio Margaritaville” titled, more poignantly than ever now, “The Oldest Surfer On The Beach”:

“I stopped searching for perfection
Many waves ago
What really matters is the here and now
And that’s about all I know

Catch me a big old roller
Sun setting on the sea
Riding in on her glassy shoulder
The water going gray like me

There’s nothing that I want to do
No place I’m trying to reach

Only time is now more precious to,

The oldest surfer on the beach.”

As you were to us, Jimmy. Thanks for the sweet ride.


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