RIP Pat Curren, enigmatic icon of surfing’s golden years

Pat Curren has died aged 90. I’m not sure there was a more mystery-soaked surfer in the world. Or a more impenetrable one. Most of us, even those with a serious nose for surfing history, only know the Cliff’s Notes version. A Mission Beach, San Diego, kid, he was there that day in 1957 when Oahu’s Waimea Bay was first surfed. Started shaping surfboards and discovered he was Michelangelo with a planer. Within a few years, Curren was the world’s best big wave surfboard builder. “Pat was the first guy to produce the ultimate gun,” said big wave surfing legend Fred Van Dyke. “Others made great all-around boards, but Pat made the stiletto, specifically for Waimea, where all you want to do is make it live from point A to B.”

In the early 60s, Curren spent a few years as a mainstay in huge Hawaiian surfers. Then, in 1964, the thing he’s probably most famous for: He fathered Tom Curren. Every surfer between 55 and 30’s favorite surfer. Tom is arguably the coolest surfer in history. Quiet, reverent, a Buddha with a shortboard, albeit one with a strange dark streak. He is the embodiment of the kind of embattled, tortured genius that just attracts hearts. He was also a chip off the old block.

Pat was the template. Surfing was everything, but it wasn’t enough. Two pictures of Pat Curren appear first. One is him slumping over the face of a monster from the late ’50s at Waimea, broad-legged, back stretched, arms like an Egyptian heiroglyph. Absolutely complete and total commitment to ride a radical wave as soon as possible. Nothing else mattered. The other is of him shirtless, face down in the dirt, sleeping next to a car, empty bottle of liquor in his back pocket.

Hawaii in the 1950s was the kind of place where a young surfer could live on a 50 pound bag of rice and a box of ketchup, sleep 8 to a cabin, surf all winter with no responsibility for anything but their own whims. There was an innocence then, rooted in the huge wave of relief that swept over the world in a post-war euphoria, that has all but evaporated from our culture today. Pat Curren was one of the demigods of that period. Sometimes it seemed like that was all we needed to know about him.

His legend grew over the decades as the sport became more tainted with commercialism, became more jock-like, more reined-in. Pat Curren lived and thrived and shone in surfing’s absolute golden years, a period of discovery and uncrowded waves and surfing that is still a relatively small, unique subculture, and for that he will always be a mythical figure. He either never cared or never knew how to live outside the moment. Curren was never one to try to cash in on what could have been a serious goldmine of “weren’t those days” nostalgia.

His later years are mostly a blur. We know he had Tom, and a decade later his second child, Joe Curren, also a phenomenally talented surfer, was born. He lived in Costa Rica, then Baja, and maybe built boats, shaped surfboards for those in the know, and pretty much avoided any kind of outside scrutiny. In recent years he had been known to live in Southern California, but he still remained almost completely absent from the prying eyes of the surfing media. Certainly the way he wanted it.

Nevertheless, he goes down as one of the absolute greats. There were shapers who made better boards and surfers who rode bigger waves, but like Tom Blake before him, Pat Curren showed us all what it really meant to put surfing first, showed us what it made possible and what it costed. Because he was a hero.

Top Photo: Via Encyclopedia of Surfing. Credit: unknown

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