Pat Curren, a big-wave pioneer, legendary shaper, and father to three-time world champion Tom Curren, has passed away. He was 90 years old.
Pat Curren was one of surfing’s most revered and mysterious figures. Revered because of his talent. Revered because he, in an age when surfing was young and not an “industry” quite yet, embodied the life that surfers now have put on a pedestal. Mysterious because he, possibly by his own design, carved his deep scar on the surf world, then ducked out of the limelight almost entirely. Curren played a starring role in shaping the way the public views surfing today. Surfing was everything to him, and he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to live it. It wasn’t always glitter and gold, though.
In the late 1950s and well into the ’60s, Curren was thought of by most as the best big-wave rider there was. He was also one of the best shapers of the period, crafting surfboards made specifically for riding big waves.
“Pat was the first guy to produce the ultimate gun,” said Fred Van Dyke. “Others were making nice all-around boards, but Pat made the stiletto, specifically for Waimea, where all you want to do is make it alive from Point A to B.”
Born in 1932 in Carlsbad, California, Curren grew up mostly in the Mission Beach area of San Diego. At 16, he dropped out of high school. A few years later, at 18, he moved to La Jolla and began surfing. Soon, it was all he needed. Curren was one of the first members of the Windansea Surf Club, which would go on to become one of the most infamous surf clubs in existence.
It was 1955 by the time Curren made his first visit to Hawaii, and it would change the trajectory of his life. In 1957, he paddled out at Waimea on a big day along with a group of other surfers. According to lore, almost no waves were successfully ridden that day, largely in part to their surfboards.
“He returned to La Jolla and dedicated himself to making specialized big-wave equipment,” wrote Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “and before the end of the decade he’d become the acknowledged master of the big-wave board.”
Before that decade was up, though, Curren would also hone his talents as a big wave rider. He was famously patient, surfing far fewer waves at Waimea than many of his counterparts, but surfing waves that counted. He “invariably got the one that everybody remembered,” said Warshaw.
Like many surfers of that era, Curren had a style all his own. Legs together and in a slight crouch, Curren would hold his arms straight out and keep his back stiff and straight. It was a stance built to make the wave, and in the process became an embodiment of the style of the day.
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Over the years, Curren became one of the best and most influential surfers in the world. He was featured in many first-generation surf movies, including 1959’s Surf Crazy, 1960’s Barefoot Adventure, 1962’s Cavalcade of Surf, and 1963’s Gun Ho! He was not, however, interested in any sort of fame. Much like his son Tom would grow up to do, he avoided the limelight, preferring simply to tread quietly and surf loudly.
In 1961, he married his wife Jeanie in Hawaii. A year later, the newlyweds found themselves back in California, where Pat worked as a diver and a surfboard shaper. In 1964, Tom Curren was born. Ten years later, their second son Joe was born. Both Tom and Joe would grow up to be surfers, one a world champion. Tom, of course, would collect three world titles, and Joe is an acclaimed photographer.
In 1981, according to EOS, Pat Curren “left the family” and moved to Costa Rica. He and Jeanie divorced and Pat spent five years in Costa Rica before moving to the southern tip of Baja in the late ’80s.
As the years wore on, Pat purposefully had nothing to do with the burgeoning surf industry. He lived the golden years; was perfect example of what surfing was in those halcyon days. But time, as is generally the case, wore on for Pat. And as he got older, things got a little harder.
A few years ago a crowdfunding campaign was launched after it became apparent that Pat had fallen on hard times and was struggling with health issues. The 87-year-old was living in a Chevy Tahoe and trailer with his wife Mary and their special needs daughter. Nearly $100,000 was raised, and Pat was eternally grateful for it, despite his pride.
Pat Curren’s death is a tough pill to swallow for the surfing public. He was a surfer’s surfer; a man who, for better or worse, lived his life the way he saw fit. And for everything he did for surfing and surfers, we thank him. Pat Curren made his mark on this world, and it won’t ever be erased.