Surfing Legend Miki Dora

coverwebHe came to Santa Cruz in the summer of 1967 and left an everlasting impression on a 12-year-old admirer

To have been raised along the Santa Cruz waterfront in the 1950s and ’60s—between the end of World War II and the coming of the University of California—was to have been reared in a veritable 24-hour amusement park, a “Coney Island of the mind,” to borrow a phrase from the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a never-ending carousel ride on the midway of life.

Particularly in the summer months, when there were waves, sun, warm sand and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper twisting and dropping into the darkness of night, a Santa Cruz summer provided a nonpareil setting as we local Baby Boomers came of age in the so-called American Century.

Time and place define us. Most of my cousins were born during this window, as were many of my closest, lifelong friends. Summer meant everything to us. I shuddered at its inevitable end and the return of school, which meant dreaded days caught in the classrooms of interminable boredom. Summer was vibrant and vital. The waterfront came alive with flesh and energy. It was a wonderful centrifugal force driving our lives.

From the perspective of nearly half a century now, the details of those golden days tend to blend together. The focus is soft with occasional moments of clarity. The hard miles of a lifetime have, admittedly, taken their toll. But the summer of 1967 was a special one for me, marked by daily romps along the Boardwalk with my two closest cousins, Malio and Billy Stagnaro, as we made our way to the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, where we rode wave after wave in a seemingly endless summer of big and steady surf.

cover_surfing2I had also played Little League All-Stars that summer, with my good pal Rex Nicolaisen as my double-play partner, and had recently scored vinyl copies (what else was there?) of three of my favorite albums of all-time: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had just been released, as well as another by my hometown musical favorites, Harper’s Bizarre (better known to those of us who had grown up here as The Tikis), who had hit the Billboard charts that spring with “Feeling Groovy.” The Monterey Pop Festival took place across the Bay, with performances by Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Jimmy Hendrix. It wasn’t quite the Summer of Love, but it was close.

If you ask anyone who knew me well during my childhood who my heroes were, they will tell you: Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan. But when I recently went through the file-like scrapbook I kept during my adolescence, there was a thick collection of material by and about Miki “Da Cat” Dora, the surfing icon from Southern California whose image transcended the sport. At a young age, even at 12, I found the conservative mindset of old Santa Cruz stultifying and stifling, and in Miki Dora, surfing’s quintessential bad boy and nonconformist, I had found a boyhood role model.

In the summer of 1967, Dora came to Santa Cruz, where he briefly surfed the Rivermouth and perhaps other breaks along the Santa Cruz coast. Dora was the “Dark Knight” of surfing, and I had taken to his iconic image when I first read about him in early issues of Surfer and Surfing, and caught an occasional glimpse of him in surf films that came through town, most notably Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer (which also included a cameo scene filmed in Santa Cruz).

cover_Dora1Dora was surfing’s legendary badass, a rebel with a cause, an elusive and enigmatic figure who would fascinate me for much of my life. “He surfed like a god,” the great surfing journalist Drew Kampion would write of Dora, “with a deific ease and effortless poise, an air of intricate calculation. One felt concentrated awareness and sensed a subtle grandeur.”

I caught two glimpses of Dora during his sojourn to Santa Cruz—one at my aunt’s Sport Fisher Coffee Shop (a precursor of Gilda’s) on the Municipal Wharf; the other on the very same waves at the Rivermouth that my cousins and I had been riding.

Miki Dora at the Rivermouth! It was almost unimaginable, but there he was gliding across the waves, doing the distinctive Dora cat steps on his custom-made surfboard. His style was as definitive as Ali’s in the ring or Mays’ in centerfield—cool and understated and definitively his own. Try as other surfers might to copy his technique, Dora was simply inimitable. On small waves at least, no one could touch him. He was like Charles Mingus or Ornette Coleman doing a jazz rift across a glassy, 6-foot swell.

For several years I tried to find a record of Dora’s time in Santa Cruz. Several people had vague memories of his visit here, but nothing concrete. Then a few years ago I spotted a photo of Dora on the back wall of Pizza My Heart in Los Gatos. I recognized him immediately. The graphic for the image said simply: “Miki Dora—Rivermouth Santa Cruz 1967.” Later, with an assist from ’60s Santa Cruz surf photographer Chic Van Selus, I tracked down the photographic archive of the legendary LeRoi Grannis, whose carefully kept records indicated that he had taken photographs of Dora in Santa Cruz in July of 1967. Bingo. My childhood memory had not only been confirmed, but enshrined.

By then, Dora’s legend had taken on mythic proportions. He was the James Dean of surfing. When he died of pancreatic cancer in January of 2002—35 years after his visit to Santa Cruz—the London Times described him in a lengthy obituary as a “surfing hedonist” and “everything a surfer ought to be: he was tanned, he was good looking and he was trouble. West Coast archetype and antihero … he was above all the siren voice of a nonconformist surfing lifestyle. … Indeed, he was so much a rebel that he rebelled, in the end, against surfing.”

Dora was also embraced by Whitmanesque contradictions. The more mainstream surfing became, the Times accurately noted, the more Dora “felt marginal and alienated.”  Dora “was a Kerouac in shorts … a subversive, restless wild man.”

There have been a pair of brilliant books published about Dora in recent years: “Dora Lives: The Authorized Story of Miki Dora,” by C.R. Steeyk III and Drew Kampion (T. Adler Books); and “All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora,” by David Rensin (Harper Books). While neither of them mentions his Santa Cruz visit, the two books perfectly complement one another and, taken together, construct a compelling—and complex—portrait of Dora as both living flesh and legend.

Born in Budapest, Hungary in the summer of 1935, Miklos Sandor Dora III emigrated to Southern California as an infant, where he was raised primarily by his stepfather, Gard Chapin, himself a pioneer lifeguard and surfer in Southern California. Chapin would prove to be a powerful figure in his life. “My own father taught me a gracious manner of living,” Dora once wrote, “while my stepfather showed me how to survive when confronted with adversity. Which was the better? Which was the worse? One father showed how to atone for indiscretions and the other demonstrated how to commit them. I was able to live to tell the tale because of the imbalance inspired by both.”cover_FunHouse1950s

By his early teens, he was already a fixture on the waves of Southern California, most notably at San Onofre in Orange County. As the sport of surfing emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, Dora expanded his haunts north to Malibu, where he reigned as king of waist-high waves that rolled into shore. As the crowds grew (much to Dora’s resentment), he took to an aggressive style of surfing in which he shoved those who dared to share a wave with him off their boards.

The stories of how he burned people became legend. Living off his reputation, charm and good looks, he scammed a living on the fringes of Hollywood—he reportedly worked as a parking lot attendant and as a glorified delivery boy—but the center of his life was clearly the beach and good waves. It was a lifestyle—one that was about to be lionized (and hence bastardized) by both the film and music industries centered in Los Angeles, forcing Dora even farther to the margins. In order to pay his bills and float his lifestyle, he was not averse to ripping off friends and others close to him.

“Miki’s natural course, the logical path for his mercurial and aesthetic temperament,” writes Kampion in “Dora Lives,” “was the Gypsy life—resisting, challenging, debunking, undermining, outfoxing—using the tools of cynicism and high comedy in a truly iconoclastic revel of a personality. Someone you might describe as incorrigible, a sociopath, or maybe a hedonist. Your perspective depended on where you stood with Miki—whether he toyed with you, stole from you, lied to you, or opened up to you made all the difference.”

cover_booktitleBy the time he came to Santa Cruz in 1967, Dora’s less-than-sterling reputation had preceded him.

It’s hard for those who arrived here later to imagine how much Santa Cruz changed in the mid-1960s. The construction of the Small Craft Harbor at what was formerly Woods Lagoon forever altered the dynamics of the Santa Cruz coastline. The opening of UC Santa Cruz augured not only a major spurt in growth but also forever changed the intellectual—and political—zeitgeist of the town.

By the mid-1960s the surf bug had already taken over Santa Cruz. It was huge here. The roots of surfing in Santa Cruz, of course, stretch back to the 1880s, when the legendary Three Hawaiian Princes first rode the waves here, and there were later revivals locally in the 1930s and 1950s. But in the 1960s, with the advent of wetsuits and polyurethane foam boards, the surf scene absolutely exploded.

cover_endlesssummerIn 1966 my cousin Kenny Lamb had won the junior division of one of the first big surf contests in Santa Cruz, and as a young boy still in grammar school, I thrilled in watching him and a coterie of his friends—Denny Moung, Carston (“C.J.”) Johnston, Alan Souza, the Jones and Carey brothers, Eddy James, Kim Stoner, “Hicko,” Jon Foster, Johnny Lusk, Chic Van Selus, Steve Scofield, John Craviotto, Gary Venturini, another cousin John Carniglia, and my fourth-grade teacher’s son, Tom Hoye—ply the waves at Mitchell’s Cove, Steamer Lane, Indicators, Cowell’s and, on occasion, the Rivermouth. The energy was dynamic.

While Kenny had taught me to surf at Cowell’s on one of his friend’s boards, my other cousins and I were still relegated to riding the wives daily on blue-and-red canvas mats that cost about five bucks. None of our parents would spring for a surfboard, and the new rage—a neoprene O’Neill wetsuit—was simply out of the question. Nor were they about to drive us around to various breaks toting surfboards. That wasn’t how they rolled.

My memory of riding the waves those summers goes something like this: We started the day with whiffle ball in my cousins’ back yard, then sometime around noon, depending on when the fog lifted, we would make our daily trek from Gharkey Street on Santa Cruz’s West Side down to the Rivermouth, our canvas mats in tow.

cover_OttoSleeping1979We would stop and pump up our mats to the maximum pressure possible at Otto Meyers’ Surf Spot (located at the site of the Marine Sanctuary Center presently under construction). Otto was a fixture on the Santa Cruz waterfront, and he could be ornery and cantankerous. Years earlier he had closed down his gas station and switched it over to a rental shop for surfboards and other beach paraphernalia. While most people recall him today in the context of surfing, baseball was really his sport. The top of his roof had a sign that proclaimed, “Follow the Washington Senators,” because Otto, for many years, had been a West Coast scout for the now long-defunct baseball team. Otto had played serious minor league ball for a dozen seasons during the Great Depression and World War II, and in 1936 he batted .339 with 26 home runs for a Pirates farm team. I loved talking baseball with him—and he let us use his air pump for free.

Once done at Otto’s, we crossed Front Street, and either stopped by Beach Liquors, then run by the Pappas sisters, Mary and Ethyl, both longtime friends of my mother’s, or we’d skip across the street for fries where Sis Olivieri held court. She was also a family friend, and on hot days we would finish off the afternoon with a 15 cents Sno-Cone from Sis to cool us down.

As you walked along Beach Street, you could see the slant of the wharf stretching out from the beach, and beyond, the cream colored crest of Mount Toro across the Bay. There was the Ida, the sardine-seiner-turned-tourist-launch on which I would work for parts of three summers. From all along the ocean side cliffs and beaches you could hear the skipper call from a microphone:

cover_mickydoradacatHi-dee-ho and away we go, the next 40-minute cruise on the Ida will be leaving Nichol’s Landing at two o’clock. Forty minutes of sight seeing around the Bay, leaving every hour on the hour from Municipal Wharf. See the Bay the Ida way …”

The Ida went around the northern curve of Monterey Bay like clockwork, so much so that you could nearly set your watch to it. At 15 minutes after the hour, it was out near Seal Rock. At the half-hour, it was just passing the Whistling Buoy on its way to the newly built Yacht Harbor, and by quarter-to-the-hour it had pulled along the Main Beach and docked alongside the wharf, at Nichol’s Landing 100 yards from shore.

Once completing the bare stretch of Beach Street, we headed into the bowels of the Boardwalk Casino, where one is immediately hit with an orgy of sensations—the sounds of pinball machines and other arcade games, colorful lights flickering, the breeze carrying the smell of the ocean and seaweed and saltwater taffy from Marini’s—as we made our way along the Boardwalk, past the Pokerino and Skee-Ball games, the Fun House and Fascination, the Wild Mouse and Bumper Cars, Walking Charlie and the Giant Dipper. There were new rides that year, too—the Sky Glider and Flying Cages. For young boys approaching adolescence, it could hardly get any better.

We had started our mat-surfing days at Cowell’s, and soon realized that we were both quick enough and light enough to ride the mats on our knees, and eventually even stand up on them. As we got bigger, we worked our way down to the Rivermouth, where the waves broke much bigger and large powerful sets that seemed like mountains formed outside, especially at low tides.

Waves always seem bigger to young kids, because you have a tendency to judge the size from the face that is about ready to crash on top of you, but my memory now is that there was a steady swell of 3- to 4-foot barrels that summer with occasional sets coming in at 6 to 8 feet (my cousin Malio says they got as high as 10 feet on occasion). These were monster waves that broke out near the orange-and-white buoys that ran along the waterfront, and since hard surfboards weren’t allowed at the Rivermouth between noon and six in the evening, we pretty much had the big waves to ourselves.

When it got big like that, people used to line up along the shoreline and watch us. In addition to riding on our knees and occasionally “getting a stand,” as we called it, we had developed a technique on the bigger waves of  “catching a slant” or “slanting” down the face, so that when it crashed we would be horizontal at the bottom, inside the tube or “bowled,” and if we were lucky and could hold on, reemerge and ride the swell up towards the river. We lived for rides like that.

It was on a pretty big day at the Rivermouth that Dora arrived in Santa Cruz—not monstrous, but steady overhead rides. He went out by himself and the place cleared. He wasn’t supposed to be out there during the afternoon, but no one said anything and I don’t remember the lifeguards demanding that he leave. In fact, hardly anyone paid attention to him. I’m not even sure if my cousins were there or knew who he was. But I was in awe. Absolute awe.

It’s not like there was a Santa Cruz welcoming committee for Dora. There was a real chasm in those days between Santa Cruz surfers and those from Southern California that went beyond mere provincialism. “They were different,” says Santa Cruz native Chic Van Selus about So Cal surfers from that era. “They just were.”

cover_1966RiverWhen I ran into a couple of Santa Cruz surfing legends, Doug Haut and Richard Novak, recently at Ristorante Avanti, Haut recalled that Dora had once tried to get him to shape a board for him. Novak, who surfed with Dora in Biarritz, France in the early 1970s, never bought into the Dora legend. “He was bad news,” he said. “The ultimate scam-artist. A total rip-off. Always on the hustle. He was a product of the Southern California surf culture. I always kept him at arm’s length.” So did the rest of the Santa Cruz surf scene—which was close-knit and provincial to a fault.

The very physical difference between Santa Cruz and Southern California necessitated a completely different approach to the sport. The cold water, harsher waves and generally more strenuous conditions of Northern California separated the men from the boys, as it were, and there was also a Hollywood and Gidget-meets-Beach-Blanket-Bingo sensibility to the Southern California crowd that never played well here. Dora, who had appeared as a stunt man and extra in several of the Hollywood surf flicks, was viewed as something of a poseur.

But the thing I remember most about Dora during his Santa Cruz sojourn was him appearing with a few of his friends at my aunt’s chowder house on the wharf. And what I remember vividly was him engaging my nearly 80-year-old Italian grandmother who spoke not a word of English and who spent her afternoons in the restaurant bagging soda crackers and helping to clear tables. With her grey hair and aging demeanor, she looked like she was from another place and time. And she was. (Later I learned that Dora had lived with his own immigrant grandmother from Hungary when he was a teenager.) What I remember about Dora was that he caught my grandmother’s attention and made her smile. It was a small gesture—but I never forgot it.

About the time I was 16, I heard that Dora could still be spotted on occasion at Dana Point in Orange County, and when I went down there to camp and surf with some friends at Doheny State Beach, I had hopes of spotting him there. No luck. He was long gone.

cover_surfingBy the 1970s, no one quite knew for sure where Dora was living. Rumors ran rampant. He had gone to South America; to France; to South Africa; to Australia. All of the above. In fact, he had left the country in pursuit of his own endless summer, one that was intended to last a lifetime. “Waves are the ultimate illusion,” Dora once wrote. “They come out of nowhere, instantaneously materialize and just as quickly they break and vanish. Chasing after such fleeting mirages is a complete waste of time. That is what I choose to do with my life.”

In the mid-1980s, when I was living on the Italian Riviera in my family’s hometown of Riva Trigoso, I made a trip to northwestern France and the Bay of Biscay partially in the hopes of finding him there. It was October of 1984 and the sun was warm and there were great swells, but no Dora. Only his ghost. As I was later to discover, he had long fled France, returned briefly to the U.S., where he was arrested by the FBI for writing bad checks and several credit card scams. He served six months in a federal prison.

For the next two decades or so, Dora pretty much fell off my radar. I heard that he had returned to France, but the legend had lost its luster. Then in late 2001, word hit that he had been diagnosed with a deadly case of advanced pancreatic cancer and that he had moved in with his father outside of Santa Barbara. He died in January of 2002, still as elusive and enigmatic as ever. But his quest for an endless summer had ended—as it does for us all. Miki Dora was mortal.

A few years later, as I was recovering from my own bout with cancer, the Dora legend caught hold once again and I became engrossed in reading the two biographies of his  life. I recalled his brief presence here in Santa Cruz and the grip he once had on my boyhood imagination. Perhaps he provided an escape from my own encounter with mortality. Or perhaps I felt that I had finally found him.

To this day, there’s graffiti on the wall at Malibu that boldly proclaims: “Dora Lives.” It’s a legend that will die hard.

Photograph of Dora from Dora Lives: The Authorized Story of Miki Dora
Santa Cruz Surfing Photographs by Chic Van

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