The Valley Cometh

Miki Dora, Malibu. Photo: Grant Rolhoff
Malibu, 1963
Miki Dora, Malibu, mid-'60s
Miki Dora. Photo: Don James

Miki Dora brimmed over with dark charisma and hypnotic wave-riding talent. For those reasons alone it was hard to take your eyes off him. But surfers—West Coasters in particular—felt connected to Dora for another reason as well: their collective frustration over the decline and fall of Malibu. By the late 1950s, the original perfect wave was fast becoming the sport’s original lost utopia.

While society at large still regarded wave-riding as a borderline cult activity, the surfer population had in fact grown continuously since the end of the war, and Malibu, as accessible as it was well-known, was drawing overflow crowds. In 1950, Dora might arrive to find a dozen surfers in the lineup. Six or seven years later, on a hot summer afternoon with a decent south swell running, there might be 75 or more surfers on hand, rotating from Coast Highway to the beach to the lineup. Few people, on such days, got their fill of waves. There were collisions and pileups, and etiquette violations of every kind, and each surfer at one point or another had the same bitter Dora-like wish that everybody else would go the hell away.

Crowded lineups weren't unheard of in surfing, but the numbers at Malibu in the late-fifties were of a different magnitude compared to prewar scenes at Waikiki, or San Onofre, or Manly Beach. Furthermore, where surfers from past decades would gladly take off together and ride for shore in loose, comradely formation, that was no longer the case. Postwar surfboard design had changed everything. Now, to make room for fades, turns, and cutbacks, the surfer needed all the room he could get, and the unwritten rule became one surfer per wave, with right of way going to the guy first to his feet, closest to where the wave began to break. Any surfer who “dropped in” or “cut off” the original rider was either ignorant or playing dirty.

That was how it worked in theory, anyway. At Malibu in the late '50s—and every other thronged surf break around the world since then—wave distribution actually reflected a complicated, highly fluid, and at times arbitrary hierarchy. Where you stood had a lot to do with ability, but so did tenure, size and weight, toughness, and popularity. In his Malibu prime, Dora wasn’t much with his fists, but he topped out on all other measures, and could thus take any wave he wanted, drop in on anybody, and expect the crowd to mostly stay out of his way. Ray “The Enforcer” Kunze, on the other hand, wasn’t in Dora’s class as a surfer, but he was a certified ass-kicker with a short fuse, and built like a linebacker. Nobody got in his way, either. On the other end of the scale, beginners and young surfers—gremmmies—could be cut off with total impunity. Same with any unknown lesser-skilled visitor, all of whom were categorized by Malibu regulars as “Valleys” or “Valley kooks,” whether or not they actually drove in from nearby San Fernando Valley. Rank and station were never stated outright, but everybody pretty much knew where everybody stood, and order generally held.

But not always. A quick influx of bodies in the water, a slowdown in the number of incoming waves, a few rides taken out of turn by the higher-ups, and the whole thing became a free-for-all: six, eight, twelve people on a single wave; water splashing up like tiny white mortar rounds as surfers lost control and fell; plenty of banged-up shins; and after each set a small flotilla of riderless boards washing onto the rocks along the beach. A surfer would drop in on Dora. Two more would drop on that guy, not knowing who was back there. And suddenly Miki was three surfers in the hole, yelling profanities as he was forced to straighten out in the whitewater.

Dora later claimed that Malibu was over for him as early as 1956. He held a spot in the lineup for another dozen or so years, but only by turning the experience into a kind of running battle. He learned to weave his way through a crowd, using the surfers ahead of him like pylons, overtaking one from behind, then dropping down to pass the next guy with a bottom turn, and so on. Later he became more aggressive, knocking people into the water as he rode by, and occasionally, if his ride was completely ruined, kicking his board at the surfer in front of him. “These guys are thieves and they’re stealing my waves,” Dora explained. “We’re all pushing and shoving, jockeying for position, and if I get the wave first [and] someone takes off in front of me—well, he gets tapped.”

In his lighter moods, Dora was able to turn the whole thing into black comedy. He threatened to bring his lawyer to the beach. He came up with long sing-songy lists to describe the forces arrayed against him: the “senile surf freaks” and “Mussolini property owners,” the “Valley cowboys,” the “goose-stepping inland slave-mentality imbeciles,” and the “nurses from New Jersey going tandem with Encino proctologists.”

But humor, as a coping mechanism, had limits. Surfing was the best thing in Dora’s life, Malibu was the best thing in surfing, and from 1955 onward, as he watched newcomers dividing and multiplying like Fantasia broomsticks in the Malibu lineup, mostly what he felt was loss and anger. Years passed before he was able to quit fighting what was obviously an unwinnable fight and seek out other places, other breaks. Meanwhile, his legacy for sublime wave-riding was bound to a darker, more complicated legacy of ideas, including a rich contempt for other surfers, the unapologetic use of violence, and a belief in the inexorable decline of surfing in general. On one level, Dora was simply pointing out and reacting to problems as they existed. But he compounded those problems, too. He was the first surfer to make aggression, misanthropy, and abuse fashionable. “Localism”—the sport's homegrown form of turf-based vigilantism, introduced in late '60s—may not have been a direct result of Dora’s rants against overcrowding at Malibu. But without him it never would have had the same vogue and cachet.

The realization that any break could be overrun—with Malibu standing as the essential cautionary tale—had a chilling effect on the sport. From the late 1950s onward, surfers learned to view unfamiliar surfers with caution. The fewer people who knew about your home break, the better. This led to the “secret spot” becoming the hot and hoarded new thing, and pretty much every Southern California surfer had one—a Baja pointbreak, a tucked-away reef up the coast, even a rinky-dink overnight sandbar that wouldn’t last through the next big swell. Surfing didn’t become less social, exactly, but the community splintered. Trading waves with a few buddies would always be everyone’s favorite way to surf. Light-treading newcomers, under circumstances that changed from break to break and even day to day, could still find a slot in any given lineup. But after Malibu, the sport atomized. Groups of surfers began to detach themselves from their peers, just as surfing detached itself from the sporting world at large.

Something else changed, too. Given that Malibu was the conceptual starting point for the perfect wave, its decline and fall helped give birth to an impulse that proved nearly as important to the sport: the search for the perfect wave. Wave-riding thus became more interesting, more complicated. The level of commitment went up. Surfers looking for the next perfect wave set out by car, plane, or boat, and returned with a litany of road stories: hotel hijinks, strange meals, sexual conquest, engine repairs in the middle of nowhere, drunken afternoons on the esplanade. Adventure was dependable, even if the surf was not. Travel broadened surfers, just as it did anybody—but the journey itself usually wasn’t the point, at least not the way it was for other travelers. The surfer’s objective was clear and unchanging. They all wanted what Dora had in the mid-'50s. “Every surfer,” as filmmaker Bruce Brown said in his 1966 travel classic The Endless Summer, “dreams of finding a place as good as Malibu.”

As it turned out, there were hundreds of as-yet-unfound breaks around the world, from Sumatra to El Salvador, Durban to the Bay of Biscay, that were as good as Malibu or better. But none of them would occupy the sport’s vital center the way Malibu did for two decades after the war. Not even close.

Surfing was the best thing in Miki Dora’s life, Malibu was the best thing in surfing, and from 1955 onward, as he watched newcomers dividing and multiplying across the Malibu lineup like Fantasia broomsticks, mostly what he felt was loss and anger.