Heroes are often not what they are made out to be. Their actions are trumped up; glorified for the story’s sake. And for the most part, it’s not the person in the story that is important–it’s what they represent. In surfing, Miki Dora is one of the most obvious representations of that phenomenon.
Since surfing laid its groundwork as the global phenomenon it is today, it has been thought of as a counter-culture activity. And while it seems that the professional surf industry is trying desperately to shed that image and rewrite how the masses view it, its history is unchangeable.
The stories of surf are interesting ones–from the Duke’s exploits in the Olympics and Da Bull’s infamous wave to the Endless Summer and Andy Irons’s tragic passing, surfers, and people in general, are drawn to stories of paradise and the interesting characters that play the defining roles.
But of all of them, Miki Dora’s story might be the most sugar-coated. Hailed as a hero of the industry hating, anarchist outlaw movement, Miki “Da Cat” Dora’s legacy is one of a man who surfed a perfect wave perfectly, lived with reckless abandon, and who hated, above all, surfing’s move into the mainstream. He was king of his era; in a time when surfing was all Beach Boys and Gidget, Dora was the dark haired, sullen face that most vocally scowled at the burgeoning industry’s foray into his world. But his actions didn’t always line up with his words.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1934, Dora’s style was established as the style of longboarding. After his parents divorced when he was six-years-old, Dora’s mother married a man named Gard Chapin, who, at the time, was leading the California surf charge. But, like Dora, although Chapin’s surfing skills were nearly unparalleled, he wasn’t always a face you wanted to see in the water. His quick temper made him into one of the most disliked California surfers of the time.
In the first years of the 1950s, Dora found himself at Malibu, already made famous in the surf world by his predecessors. Although all the top surfers at the time congregated there, Dora was never one to socialize. “By 1956,” writes surf-history guru Matt Warshaw, “Dora, along with Dewey Weber, Mike Doyle, Mickey Muñoz, and young Lance Carson were setting new performance standards in the water, while Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy and Billy “Moondoggie” Bengston invented an easy-going but elitist surfer-nomad way of living. Dora interacted with the regulars at Malibu, Windansea, Santa Monica, and elsewhere, but the surf scene was never a big part of his social life. ‘Living at the beach isn’t the answer,’ he once said. ‘Guys who live at the beach get waterlogged. I’m there for the waves, nothing else.’ Through the decades he remained something of a loner.”
As the crowd at Malibu (and all of Southern California) increased, Dora developed into “the angry young man of surfing”, a moniker given to him by the media. But despite his protests against the influx of surfers–in the late ‘60s, he wrote a long, fuming piece for Surfer Magazine in which he condemned “kooks of all colors, fags, finks, ego heroes, Amen groupies and football-punchy Valley swingers”– he wasn’t always the industry-hating, attention-shunning anarchist he was made out to be. When the starry-eyed Hollywood scene began making surfing movies, Dora was a big part of the machine he claimed to despise. In Gidget, he doubled for James Darren, who played Moondoggie. After Gidget’s box-office success, a spate of surf-inspired movies hit the silver screen, and Dora landed roles in all of the major ones, including Ride the Wild Surf, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and more. He posed for surf ads and had a signature line of surfboards made under Greg Noll’s line, all the while verbally crucifying the industry he was working for.
In one of his most famous exploits, Dora entered the 1967 Malibu Invitational–a contest that, given his previous convictions, should have been one that Dora would want no part of. In the semis, he mooned the judges and took off, leaving the beach and story that would cement his reputation as a contest-hater. “I ride for pleasure only,” he once said. “Professionalism will be completely destructive to any control an individual has over the sport at present. The organizers will call the shots, collect the profits, while the waverider does all the labor and receives little. Also, since surfing’s alliance with the decadent big-business interests is designed only as a temporary damper to complete fiscal collapse, the completion of such a partnership will serve only to accelerate the art’s demise. A surfer should think carefully before selling his being to these ‘people’, since he’s signing his own death warrant as a personal entity.”
Although they were full of noble intentions, Dora didn’t always subscribe to those words. Both before and after they were spoken, he earned a living from surfing, along with other, less legal ventures. In the early ‘80s, Dora was paid an astronomical (by surf publishing standards in the 1980s, at least) $10,000 for an essay called Million Days to Darkness.
As the ‘60s waned, Dora’s heyday began its final act. The evolution of shorter boards pushed Dora out of the limelight, and although he was still regarded by many as the king of Malibu, Dora began a slide into a dark, illegal hole. By 1973, Dora had a warrant out for his arrest for fraud. Although he earned only probation, more charges followed, and by 1975, Dora was on the lam. Dora stayed on the move, evading arrest until at last, in 1981, he was arrested in France. After spending three months incarcerated, he stood trial in California, and spent nearly a year in prison.
Although his life on the run added fuel to the fire of Dora’s contradictory lifestyle, it is merely a romanticized telling of what is, in reality, a very sad story: one of a lonely, angry man, who actively helped grow an industry he claimed to hate so vehemently. When he died in 2002 of pancreatic cancer, he was called a “West Coast archetype and antihero, the siren voice of a nonconformist surfing lifestyle.” A correct obituary, if taken on only those words, but when taken in the context of how he lived his life, things become a little more complicated.
Miki Dora is a hero of the surf world. What Da Cat so fiercely railed against became one of surfing’s most important foundations–and even if Dora didn’t back up his words with real action, he is responsible for shaping a big part of the world of surf that we know today. But it wasn’t just Dora that had a hand in shaping it–it was all of us, the ones who love a good story. And if anything, the story of Dora had all the elements: a dark, handsome figure fighting for what he believed was right with a fiery passion; a graceful anarchist battling against a world of conformists–but that’s all it was: a great story.