After 90 years of circling the sun, iconic board builder and big-wave pioneer Pat Curren died on Sunday, Jan. 22, with his family by his side.
Father of three-time world champ Tom Curren, Pat’s star burned brightest in the late 1950s and early ’60s before he became more reclusive, largely shying away from a much-deserved spotlight.
“From the fall of 1957 through the spring of 1962—the first five seasons of Waimea Bay’s (post-World War II) history—nobody rode the Bay bigger, better or with more calculated precision than Pat Curren. He also shaped the finest big-wave guns of his time,” recalled journalist Bruce Jenkins.
And while he didn’t have much of a local connection to the San Clemente or Dana Point surf scenes, Curren’s impact can be directly linked to the heavy-water strategies applied today by someone such as Greg Long.
The quiet stoicism and knack for putting themselves on the biggest, best waves of the day are hallmarks of both surfers. And, of course, son Tom influenced pretty much every aspiring surfer in the ’80s and ’90s.
Born in Carlsbad in 1932, Curren ran with a hardscrabble group of misfits from La Jolla early in his surf life. Among the first to stake a claim on Oahu’s now-famed North Shore, it was in the big surf of Hawaii that Curren really seemed to have found himself.
At the end of the ’50s, Curren and his La Jolla crew settled into what would come to be known as Meade Hall. A three-bedroom, fully furnished joint on the North Shore, they rented the place for a paltry $65 a month.
“He lined up everybody for a meeting and the plan unfolded. Two days later, they had completely gutted the place. Just tore the insides out of it. With the leftover lumber, they built surfboard racks along the side and a giant eating table down the middle. Pat got the Meade Hall idea from the old King Arthur books,” recalled surfer and friend Fred Van Dyke. “That was the meeting place for all valiant gladiators.”
“When it was finished, Pat stood back. ‘I think this will do; I’m going surfing.’ With that, he strolled into the backyard, picked up a machete, and hacked a couple of branches from a Hale Koa tree. He tied these to the top of his battered car and secured his board to the new rack. Pat disappeared in a cloud of fumes, headed toward Sunset,” continued Van Dyke.
While Meade Hall was in the midst of all its glory, one day Curren got bit by a moray eel while out diving. Filmmaker Bruce Brown later recalled their conversation.
“Pat, I heard you got bit out there?” Brown asked.
“Yup,” answered Curren, who was famously tight-lipped.
“Yeah, well, what happened?” continued Brown.
“I guess I scared him,” Curren answered.
“Is it bad?” Brown asked.
“Umm … naw,” Curren said.
“All the while, Pat’s holding his hand in his pocket,” Brown described. “I asked if I could see it, and he begrudgingly pulls it out, just a piece of hamburger, covered with old tobacco and pocket lint, unbelievably bad.”
“(Mike) Diffenderfer and those guys tried to get him to a doctor, but Pat just sat and rocked in a chair for a couple of days,” Brown continued. “Finally, he just fell out of the chair with blood poisoning. We had to drag him to the hospital.”
In the ’90s, Curren settled down in a beat-up old trailer down in southern Baja Mexico. Every so often, he’d reappear long enough to shape a board for a collector or just to remind the world that he was still alive.
In 2000, Pat, Tom and younger brother Joe Curren took a trip together to Ireland. It was the only “surf trip” the father and his two sons would make together.Jake Howard is a local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation