"There's an unwritten rule that states you don't leave good surf, especially if it's uncrowded. Mexico had both. Why keep going into an unknown void? Because exploration is what makes the surf world turn. Waves have a way of making us all restless. Some of us get more restless than others, and so the search begins."
-- Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson, "Search for the Perfect Wave"
Picture a surfer, and you're probably seeing a guy crouched on a board, sunlight shining through the water wrapped around his lean body. He zips out of a wave, the wake of his fin leaving a white trail behind.
That moment is what all surfers seek, an eternity in the curl, but so little of the surfing experience is actually spent riding waves. On a really good day, a surfer will spend a couple minutes max actually standing on his board. The rest of the time he's floating in the water, waiting, or sitting on the beach, staring, or bouncing around in a car, getting there.
Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson know that downtime better than anyone. The two Orange County surfers headed south on a series of Central American adventures in the early 1970s, driving Volkswagens through mud and over sand, and the articles they published in Surfer magazine inspired countless others to follow. Now Naughton and Peterson have compiled those original articles -- along with many more anecdotes and photos -- in the first volume of "Search for the Perfect Wave," a gorgeous book that shows life in and out of the water for the two happy-go-lucky misadventurers and their ne'er-do-well buddies.
Naughton and Peterson first met in the late 1960s at their home break, Huntington Beach. Surf City USA was a lot sketchier back then, especially in contrast to upscale Newport Beach. "Even on a bright summer day it still looked a bit seedy," Naughton writes. "This was not your Main Street in America where parents allowed their underage daughters to roam." A popular surf spot in Huntington was called the hot water pipe, a break where rust-colored water from oil operations flowed onto the beach and straight into the ocean. Surfers would stand under the pipe to warm themselves after a morning in the waves, and the water had a very distinctive smell. Naughton's dog wouldn't go anywhere near him after a morning at that break.
One day, Naughton caught a wave on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier and zipped towards the pilings. He should've pulled out sooner, but teenage recklessness overcame reason and he barely missed slamming into a barnacle-covered pole. He washed through the concrete forest unscathed, disoriented, with his board in pieces, and that's when Peterson swam up with his camera and said, "Wow, I just missed getting that shot of you in midair in front of the pilings. Mind trying it again?"
The two soon became traveling buddies, exploring breaks up and down the California coast. They ventured down to Baja, aka "the place where cushy goes to get crushed." But they were inspired to go further. They'd both seen "The Endless Summer," Bruce Brown's 1966 movie about two guys circumnavigating the globe in search of warm water and empty waves, and they were restless. Peterson, a couple years younger than Naughton, was a staff photographer for Surfer while still in high school, and the two entered the publication's office with a bunch of maps and enthusiasm. They exited with advance money and the promise of two or three articles.
Before the Central American journey could begin, Peterson had to secure a letter from his parents. He was only 17 years old, and he didn't want border agents all the way down to Costa Rica to assume he was a runaway. He had enough credits to finish high school, and his parents granted permission so long as he returned for graduation. Peterson did make it back to Huntington Beach a few months later, walking in his cap and gown on a Saturday. He boarded a bus back to El Salvador the following Monday.
With Peterson shooting photos and Naughton handling the words, the duo sent back three articles over six months -- in one package a black and yellow wasp stowed away, causing havoc in the Surfer office. Once published, the articles pioneered the idea of the freewheelin' surf road trip, and many Southern California kids followed in the duo's bare-footsteps. You can read those first two articles in "Search for the Perfect Wave," and what's striking is how little the actual waves were discussed.
"We had an epiphany where we realized the photos say more about the wave than any amount of writing we could do," Naughton tells Artbound. "Surfers look at the photos, and the photos say it best, so let's talk more about the adventure, all the peripheral stuff around the wave."
Those peripheral adventures are expanded throughout the book, and not only do we catch glimpses of Orange County surf life in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we also get plenty of tales from the road. Naughton and Peterson were chased by dogs. They paddled out near sharks. They had run-ins with the cops. They lost weight and made friends. Their vehicles got stuck in the mud. They had a hell of a time.
"Guys down there were living in their trunks 24/7, always ready to go out and surf," says Naughton. "When you're doing it, you sort of know in the back of your head you are on a limited timeframe as far as trips go. I think part of the enjoyment is realizing it's not going on and on like this forever."
Naughton and Peterson eventually made their way back to Orange County, but they weren't done searching. Future trips to West Africa, Morocco, Barbados, Venezuela, Ireland, France, Spain and Fiji were still to come. They're saving those stories for the second and third volumes of "Search for the Perfect Wave." In the meanwhile, the first book's stellar photos and evocative prose just might inspire others to take off once again.
The first volume of "Search for the Perfect Wave" is available on Naughton and Peterson's website.