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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.