At the little stretch of beach known as Backside Rincon, north of Los Angeles, the waves were perfect—strong, six feet or more, rolling in syncopated rhythm. The surfer in the electric-blue wet suit smiled as he paddled out into the Pacific, it would be a good day.
On the beach, Sam George, a writer for Surfer magazine, stood staring out at the boy in blue. "Watch this," he said.
Tommy Curren, 21, the most successful American surfer in history, pushed his slender frame (5'8", 150 pounds) up from his custom-made $350 tri-fin board. Then he dropped swiftly and sharply into the wave. At the bottom he snapped off a turn that would take him up, up, up—and almost off—the lip of the wave. With nothing but one fin touching water, Curren recovered the only way he could—with a radical midair 180. Seconds later he did it again—wham!—the same vertical drop, the assault up the face, the 180 spin. And then again, wham! On the beach George just shook his head. "Ever seen anything like that in your life?"
Not too many contest judges have. Certainly not the ones watching American surfers. Since the pro tour was formed in 1976, there have been 80-odd A-rated events, and—except for Curren—Americans have won only three of them. World titles? Nothing but an American dream. The best finish by a Yank was Joey Buran's seventh place in 1983. The world champions have been either Australian—guys like four-time titlist Mark Richards (1979-82) and the current champ, Tom Carroll—or South African, like Shaun Tomson ('77).
But slowly the tide is turning for the Americans. In less than three years on the tour, Curren has ridden from 19th to eighth to fourth in the world. He has won eight A-rated contests and some $125,000—more than all other U.S. board riders combined. "Tommy is definitely one of the hottest surfers in the world today," says Richards. "If he can hold up under the travel, he will win a world title."
"Sorry for the mess," says Curren, opening the door to the well-kept condominium where he lives with his wife, Marie. It's five minutes from the beach, just south of Santa Barbara. Curren bought the condo in February 1984. "We haven't been here much," he says. "We've only been home five months in the last 15."
The rest of the time Curren has been traveling, crisscrossing the globe on the grueling Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) circuit. The season runs 10½ months and includes 20 A-rated contests worth a total of $500,000. The travel, as Richards indicated, plays havoc with a surfer's biological clock. But, hey, you can't beat the itinerary: the beaches of South Africa, Europe, Japan, Hawaii, Southern California, North Carolina and the Gold Coast of Australia.
Curren, wearing baggy pants and shirt, looks a little drained, despite his deep golden tan. It is early spring, and he has just returned from Central America, a two-week trip to Costa Rica where he starred in one of those Endless Summer films and experienced an emotional reunion with his father, Pat, a legend in the sport, who lives there now. In less than a week, Tommy will go to Australia for the three major contests that form the final leg of the 1984-85 ASP tour.
Curren's rivals marvel at his seamless style, his feline grace, how he moves with the daring of a Formula One driver, the artistry of Fred Astaire. "Tommy has a gift," says Kim Robinson, a longtime friend who has surfed with him for 15 years. "He's like Kareem or Magic, a one-in-a-million athlete. What he does is beyond convention."
Curren is also unconventional—for a surfer, that is—in his way of life. He rarely drinks or parties too heartily, and the only bikinied blonde he chases is his wife. Marie, 20, is a stunning, outgoing Frenchwoman. It was love at first sight when, in 1981, they first met in the Channel Islands Surf Shop in Santa Barbara. "He was not—what is the word?—pretentious like so many other surfers," says Marie. They were married on April 26, 1983, in what was a dual celebration of sorts. Two days earlier Curren had won the four-event Australian Grand Slam, a first for an American.
More and more, it appears, young surfers are using Curren as a role model. His success and his lifestyle—a solid marriage and strong religious beliefs—seem to have spawned a new wave in this country: Fresh-faced kids from California, the Atlantic Coast, Florida and the Gulf Coast of Texas are growing up more choirboy than beachboy. Mike Doyle, 44, a surf star in the '60s, has seen the change. "I still attend Surfer magazine awards dinners," he says. "When I first went, we dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Today the kids have on sports coats and ties. Kids today look at our laid-back life-style and see it as a dead end."
"Tommy has affected so many kids who have looked at his life," says Al Merrick, 41, a former San Diego surfer who owns the Channel Islands shop and is Curren's business manager. From the time Tommy was 12, Merrick has shaped both his boards and his life. "The last three or four years, parents have started taking their kids to contests," Merrick says. "The kids seem to be saying, 'Maybe we can gain some of the things Tommy did.' "
Curren has been fascinated by the ocean since he was two, when he and his family first lived in Santa Barbara. "Tommy would push a skiff out to where his dad was diving for abalone," says his mother, Jeanine Curren. At six the kid rode his first board, a $10 bargain his father bought in Hawaii. A couple of years later Tommy got a drum set. After school he would surf Hammonds Reef, then run home, pick up the sticks and bang away for a couple of hours. He would pound to Deep Purple, the Beatles or his favorite group. The Who. "Sometimes," says Merrick, "when a family's not quite right, kids turn to other things. Maybe that's what pushed Tommy."
In the late 1950s Pat Curren risked life and limb riding the biggest waves in history, the 30-foot walls of thundering water along the north shore of Oahu. A restless, moody Irishman, Pat had dropped out of La Jolla High School at age 16. His love was the ocean. He had met Jeanine at a surfing movie in La Jolla. They were married in 1961 in Hawaii. "The waves were 20 feet off Waimea that day," remembers a friend.
Through the years, Pat fed his family the only way he knew how: with his hands. He dived to 50 feet for abalone. He designed surfboards, a prototype of a diving mask now used by the U.S. Navy, and bikinis for his wife's shop in Montecito. But shortly before Christmas Day 1974, the day Tommy's brother, Joe, was born, Pat and Jeanine decided to close down the bikini shop and sell the house in Santa Barbara. "Pat never had a home before," says Jeanine. "I don't think he could handle the pressure."
In the spring of 1975 the Currens bought a Mercedes van and began to travel the countryside, searching for the boat Pat always wanted, the one good enough to sail the world. They never found it. So Pat picked up some wood in Oregon; he would build his dream boat himself. But by the summer, money was tight, and the Curren family began to show signs of stress. Voices were raised. Says Jeanine, "I think Tommy got caught in a communications problem between Pat and myself." While in sixth grade, Tommy began drinking bottles of premixed cocktails. The next year he was a chronic runaway. Jeanine, a very religious woman, didn't know what to do as she heard one horror story after another: Your son is terrorizing the neighborhood with his skateboarding friends; your son is smoking pot.
By seventh grade Tommy was getting high by 9 a.m. He would get high again at lunch, then after school before surfing. "The only time I was happy," he says, "was when I was getting stoned."
Pat didn't say much. "I figured it was a phase," he says from Costa Rica. "He would either grow out of it or get himself killed. I went through the same thing, just not as young."
Jeanine recalls the rough times while standing on a beach in Santa Barbara watching a local contest between Channel Islands and another surf shop. She has spent many hours on the beach over the years, cheering and critiquing Tommy. She drove him to contests up and down the coast, The Who blaring from the car radio, Tommy drumming away on the dashboard. During his most troubled times, she never let her son out of her sight. "We would sit in church and cry together," she says. "He would say, 'Mom, I can't even go to a movie by myself.' But I couldn't trust him. Pat said there was a 90 percent chance it would backfire, and I would lose Tommy for good. But I had to try."
It worked. In 1978, at 14, Curren won the Boys' 14-and-under Western Surfing Association title. In 1978 and 1979 he won the U.S. Boys' Nationals. In 1980, he won the World Junior Championship and in 1982, at 18, he took the men's world amateur title.
As Tommy paddles out toward the horizon, Jeanine takes a step back to get a better view. "Tommy doesn't quite understand it," she says, "but he's community property now." Marie walks up the beach to talk. Jeanine whispers a question to her daughter-in-law: Can Tommy and Marie make it to church tomorrow?
"I really don't want to go," answers Marie. "I tried it before, and I really didn't get anything out of it."
"But Tommy does."
"I really don't think we can make it," says Marie.
Pat Curren left home in August 1981, tired, he said, of Jeanine pushing her religion on him. "I just couldn't take it anymore," he says on the phone from Costa Rica. Father and son, so into their own worlds, were never close. "Maybe it was because I didn't make the effort," says Tommy. "But he'd work all day, have dinner and go to sleep."
Before Tommy's 1985 trip to Costa Rica, they had last seen each other in 1982, between contests in Hawaii. "He and Tom hardly talked," Marie says of that Hawaiian meeting. "It was like they were never really father and son."
Now 53, Pat lives on a banana and cacao farm near the town of Pavones. A friend from California owns the place. Pat passes the time building a 14-foot boat and taking long walks in the jungle. Does he plan on coming back? "I like it here," he says on the phone.
Tommy has many good memories of his Costa Rican visit. One is of father and son surfing together. "My dad surfs better now than he did 10 years ago," Tommy says proudly. "He's surfing small waves better than I've ever seen him."
Pat and Tommy talked while they were out on the water. "It's been hard for us to communicate," admits Tommy. "I understand now what was happening, why he left. He was having a lot of trouble and had one opportunity to change it. It's a shame he had to leave the family, particularly for myself, my sister and brother. But in the end, I think that it will be good."
In Curren's first year on tour, 1982, he won three contests, the Op Pro at Huntington Beach, the Marui Pro in Japan and the Straight Talk in Australia. But during the 1983-84 season he struggled. He finished ninth overall in the world standings but frequently lost in quarterfinal and semifinal heats. He dropped close decisions to his main Australian competition for the world title. Curren says he was "in a bit of a funk," but Merrick sees it differently.
"There were so many mental adjustments to make," Merrick says. "To peer pressure, to being newly married, to being away from home for so long. And when it comes to money, those guys can be ruthless.
"But Tommy's right on schedule—we said it would take three full years. He has to remember that being a great surfer requires clarity of mind. You need to make split-second decisions, whether to take a wave or wait. It's instinctive, flowing. Tommy had lost his sense of balance. He was grasping for things, taking waves he shouldn't, passing up ones he should."
But Curren came out of his "funk" in style. He returned to Australia in March and won the first event of '85, the Stubbies Classic in Burleigh Heads, Queensland; finished third at the Beaurepaires in Sydney; and then closed the season with another victory, in the Bell's Easter Classic in Victoria, for a second Grand Slam title. To be noted: At the Stubbies, three of the top four finishers (Curren, Mike Parsons in second place, and Hans Hedemann, tied for third) were Americans, an ASP record.
In surfing, the New Wave has finally landed.