Many “Waves of Pain” stories are about merciless thrashing handed out by the ocean when it’s in an angry mood. Not all. Some come from a wholly different kind of pain. I remember thinking, oh… what a load of bullshit, the first time I heard the expression “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” To me, an emotional beating has always been way worse than a physical one. This “Wave of Pain” story is very much about an emotional beating… and it was inflicted upon a bloke who had suffered (and handed out) more than his fair share of both physical and emotional beatings in his short life-time.
Miki Dora was one of the best surfers in the world throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. He wasn’t the greatest nose rider, nor the most aggressive, nor the most graceful, nor the slickest walker, nor had the most powerful turns, nor had the most tricks but as a complete package of skill and style in the small and medium sized waves around Southern California, no one was his superior. Introduced to surfing by his surfing stylist father, Miklos Dora II, then drawn into a more aggressive style of surfing by his hard-man, rough-neck rebel step-dad, Gard Chapin, Miki’s surfing and lifestyle around his home break of Malibu came to reflect both the darker and lighter sides of his personality and the complex upbringing that he experienced.
To “lie, cheat and scam” to surf
As surfing historian Matt Warshaw has pointed out, while many contemporary surfers worshipped Dora like zealots (and considered it right and proper that a true surfer should “lie, cheat and scam” to enable his surfing life) and others considered him little more than a “charismatic sociopath,” lovers and haters alike felt a kinship with him. Admirers and detractors alike agreed that the bloke could surf and was committed to his surfing!
Strangely, it was a monster that Dora helped to create that brought out the worst demons in his own personality. In the early sixties, books and films about the skill and lifestyles of surfers around Southern California, launched the once esoteric sport of surfing into the public consciousness big time! Dora’s fame as the King of Malibu and the role he played as a stunt double in numerous box office hit films drove the popularity of surfing to craze proportions thus crowding out California’s best surfing breaks. It wasn’t long before Dora’s reputation as a wonder surfer was matched by his reputation as an aggressive and foul-mouthed surf bully dropping in on and heaping abuse on lesser mortals who annoyed him at the beach. Ironically, while he was always happy to accept the pay cheques from the people who were driving the new sport’s popularity, he was the surfing world’s most aggressive critic of the sport’s growth in popularity and commercialization.
As the 1960s progressed (and Californian surf became more and more crowded), Dora, like many other elite American surfers before him felt the lure of the magical waves of Hawaii. Dora knew that it was one thing to be considered one of the world’s greatest surfers by the hoi polloi of the surfing world but to be truly respected among his peers, he had to prove himself in the much bigger and more dangerous waves of the islands. While Windansea, Malibu and San Onofre might offer near perfect point break waves at between three and six foot in size, Makaha, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay don’t even start to get interesting until the waves were double or triple that size, so, by 1963, Miki Dora had left the safe shores of Malibu and was plying his trade on the much more challenging breaks of Hawaii’s North Shore. While Oahu’s North Shore has handed out more than its fair share of physical hidings to unwary surfers it saved its worst kind of caning… an emotional thrashing… for one of surfing’s most emotionally fragile citizens.
On a beautiful North Shore winter’s morning with a solid swell driving into Sunset Beach, Dora found himself paddling out with fellow Californian elite surfer, Rusty Miller. Away from the ever-increasing crowds of Malibu and mixing with a group of big wave specialists, Dora must have been feeling pretty good about things. No longer considered just a small wave specialist, Dora had earned his stripes in the world’s most challenging waves and was considered part of the elite crew of Hawaiians and Californians who ruled the waves in the nirvana of surfing.
Brothers in arms! Peers!
While Dora and Miller ripped on the challenging Sunset peaks on this blissful 1963 winter’s morning, pioneer surf photographer, Don James, was not far away, bobbing up and down in the channel and happily snapping images of the two as they dropped into the huge waves. Knowing that their morning was being recorded might have felt good for Dora. He may have felt that this was what surfing was all about. Brothers in arms! Peers! Facing a challenging ocean together and a photographer there to record the event! One moment grabbed by James for posterity might have been particularly pleasing to Dora. It showed Miller taking a ferociously late drop into what looks like a solid twelve to fifteen-foot bomb with arms spread and feet firmly planted to survive the approaching massive curl. In the foreground of the shot Dora is seen paddling out as Miller passes by on the set wave and it seems that Dora is pausing in his paddle to admire the craft and courage of his brother big wave surfer. It’s a beautiful shot. Two water men, in their element! What a story the beautiful photograph told.
Not long after, James managed to sell the photograph to a Californian advertising agency. This was not surprising. Close up images of surfers challenging and surviving huge waves was something relatively new in the world of sport and photography and this photograph told the story about what Californian surfers were up to better than most seen before. Some months later the photograph began to appear, first around Los Angeles, then around California and then across the rest of the United States in the form of a huge roadside billboard advertising Hamm’s Beer. What better way of selling beer to athletic young men than to show the exploits of two of America’s finest and bravest water men?
Miller and Dora should have been excited and proud of their appearance on the huge roadside commercial. Imagine taking a road trip across the United States and every couple of hours seeing a thirty-foot tall image of yourself doing only what the gods can do, laid out in vivid colour, to be admired by all Americans. Young Rusty probably was thrilled. Miki Dora wasn’t. Miki “Da Cat” Dora, the “Black Knight of Malibu,” one of the greatest surfers on the planet, had been unceremoniously deleted from the spectacular image by an advertising company artist and in his place had been inserted an enormous can of beer! If Miki had already been an angry young man, pissed off at the world and even more pissed off at a commercial world determined to cash in on his beloved surfing, no doubt this insult made matters a whole lot worse. The man had payed his dues… proved he was much more than a just a small wave stylist. Miki Dora, one of the world’s finest surfers and proven North Shore water-man, playing second fiddle to a can of beer. Now that is a “Wave of Pain!” I bet that hurt!