At the little stretch of beach known as Backside Rincon, north of Los Angeles, the waves were perfect—strong, six feet or more, rolling in syncopated rhythm. The surfer in the electric-blue wet suit smiled as he paddled out into the Pacific, it would be a good day.
On the beach, Sam George, a writer for Surfer magazine, stood staring out at the boy in blue. "Watch this," he said.
Tommy Curren, 21, the most successful American surfer in history, pushed his slender frame (5'8", 150 pounds) up from his custom-made $350 tri-fin board. Then he dropped swiftly and sharply into the wave. At the bottom he snapped off a turn that would take him up, up, up—and almost off—the lip of the wave. With nothing but one fin touching water, Curren recovered the only way he could—with a radical midair 180. Seconds later he did it again—wham!—the same vertical drop, the assault up the face, the 180 spin. And then again, wham! On the beach George just shook his head. "Ever seen anything like that in your life?"
Not too many contest judges have. Certainly not the ones watching American surfers. Since the pro tour was formed in 1976, there have been 80-odd A-rated events, and—except for Curren—Americans have won only three of them. World titles? Nothing but an American dream. The best finish by a Yank was Joey Buran's seventh place in 1983. The world champions have been either Australian—guys like four-time titlist Mark Richards (1979-82) and the current champ, Tom Carroll—or South African, like Shaun Tomson ('77).
But slowly the tide is turning for the Americans. In less than three years on the tour, Curren has ridden from 19th to eighth to fourth in the world. He has won eight A-rated contests and some $125,000—more than all other U.S. board riders combined. "Tommy is definitely one of the hottest surfers in the world today," says Richards. "If he can hold up under the travel, he will win a world title."
"Sorry for the mess," says Curren, opening the door to the well-kept condominium where he lives with his wife, Marie. It's five minutes from the beach, just south of Santa Barbara. Curren bought the condo in February 1984. "We haven't been here much," he says. "We've only been home five months in the last 15."
The rest of the time Curren has been traveling, crisscrossing the globe on the grueling Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) circuit. The season runs 10½ months and includes 20 A-rated contests worth a total of $500,000. The travel, as Richards indicated, plays havoc with a surfer's biological clock. But, hey, you can't beat the itinerary: the beaches of South Africa, Europe, Japan, Hawaii, Southern California, North Carolina and the Gold Coast of Australia.
Curren, wearing baggy pants and shirt, looks a little drained, despite his deep golden tan. It is early spring, and he has just returned from Central America, a two-week trip to Costa Rica where he starred in one of those Endless Summer films and experienced an emotional reunion with his father, Pat, a legend in the sport, who lives there now. In less than a week, Tommy will go to Australia for the three major contests that form the final leg of the 1984-85 ASP tour.
Curren's rivals marvel at his seamless style, his feline grace, how he moves with the daring of a Formula One driver, the artistry of Fred Astaire. "Tommy has a gift," says Kim Robinson, a longtime friend who has surfed with him for 15 years. "He's like Kareem or Magic, a one-in-a-million athlete. What he does is beyond convention."
Curren is also unconventional—for a surfer, that is—in his way of life. He rarely drinks or parties too heartily, and the only bikinied blonde he chases is his wife. Marie, 20, is a stunning, outgoing Frenchwoman. It was love at first sight when, in 1981, they first met in the Channel Islands Surf Shop in Santa Barbara. "He was not—what is the word?—pretentious like so many other surfers," says Marie. They were married on April 26, 1983, in what was a dual celebration of sorts. Two days earlier Curren had won the four-event Australian Grand Slam, a first for an American.