Going back 45 years is bordering on prehistoric at least in terms of surfing. In the early 70’s surfing took on new direction with shorter boards and surfers getting serious about exploring new surf spots.
This was true for the Great Lakes surfers too, including myself. In January 1971, I was looking at my last semester as a senior at a Jesuit and military boarding school in western Wisconsin. My brother Doc who was six years older at 24 said he wanted to head south for the winter. My parents and the school were a bit shocked when I announced plans that my senior trip will be 5 months surfing in tropical waters.
On January 5, 1971 we packed two boards, a few clothes, a Coleman stove and our life savings of $459 and headed south towards Louisville, Kentucky. After camping in a friend’s driveway, we packed up and continued to Fort Pierce, Florida which was our first surf destination. It was great to be in 70 degree water and surfing ocean swells again. Camping at the beach in a Volkswagon van was great until about two weeks into the trip, until the Ft. Pierce Sheriff said we needed to camp out at the local dump. Not wanting to trade our beach for trash we pulled up stakes and headed to the Gulf Coast of Corpus Christi.
The road around the gulf through Alabama was not that pleasant for a couple of long-haired surfers in red neck country in the early 1970’s. We got to Corpus Christi and there were lots of waves but the water was 45 degrees! We stayed for about five minutes and set our sights on Mexico. It took three more days of travel through desert and mountains when we arrived in Mazatlan at the San Bartolo Trailer park in tropical Mexico.
Our budget of $459 worked out to about $2 each per day for meals and camping. Fortunately, the senior citizens in the park were very generous in giving us a plate of food at night. One couple from Connecticut, Sam and Rita, kept us alive with several meals during our first month in Mazatlan. We had rescued Sam from the Federalies because he didn’t know that they liked tips at the border. After Sam and Rita left, it was two pieces of french toast at breakfast and some fruit and vegetables sold on the street for the day. Even though we had little money or possessions we lived on the ocean and surfed every day.
Of course living in paradise has its ups and downs, especially living in a van with your older brother for five months. We were always in agreement about surfing, but other things on land would cause disagreement. Overall, I wouldn’t trade a thing with my senior year as an 18 year old. The opportunity to combine youth and freedom into my passion for surfing is something that can’t be underestimated.