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The Searchers: Two Orange County Dudes Who Pioneered the Surf Road Trip

Craig Peterson Costa Rica
Craig Peterson
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Craig Peterson Costa Rica
"Kevin in the clear waters of Tamarindo, Costa Rica, 1972. The beach was empty (we slept under palapas we made in the sand), the road was non-existent (dirt and mud), the living was meager (no restaurants to speak of), but we made do with nice little waves all to ourselves." -- Kevin Naughton  |  Photo: Craig Peterson.

"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.

Craig Peterson Salvador
"La Libertad, El Salvador, 1972. Aside from a few Peace Corps volunteers, no one knew much of anything about El Salvador. All that changed when our first dispatches to Surfer hit the news stands. This shot of Kevin racing down the line at Libertad Point as the sunrise stretches over the bay is the stuff that surfers dream of waking up to. It was a tranquil time in that country, and La Libertad was a particularly idyllic place, where surfers could live on the cheap, within walking distance of great waves, and not worry about a thing if you left your gear on the beach while you surfed (such are the advantages to being the first ones there!)." -- Kevin Naughton  |  Photo: Craig Peterson.

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.

Craig Peterson Petalco
"This was a cover shot of Surfer magazine in 1973 with the heading, 'Discovery on the Way Home from Central America.' It rocked the surf world. It was proof positive of what surfers had always suspected: great, empty waves were to be found in Mexico if one had the bravado to get out there and look for them. (Surfers did, and Mexico would never be the same.)" -- Kevin Naughton  |  Photo: Craig Peterson.

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." 

Craig Peterson Van
"Bluff top surf check somewhere in Baja, Mexico. In the '70s, the vehicle of choice for hippies, wanderers, surfers and pretty much anyone out to make an anti-establishment statement without veering too far off the road was the VW bus. Here was a set of wheels that could circumnavigate the globe while giving you the feeling that you were riding along in a big toy." -- Kevin Naughton | Photo: Craig Peterson.

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.

Craig Peterson Chart
"In the pre-Google-Earth days of the '70s, surf hunting for good waves in remote areas, we came up with the idea of using nautical charts. Pictured here is our original surf map, which dates back to Ancient Mariner times. It's all we had to go on -- that, and guesswork. Trying to figure out potential surf spots among all the lines and squiggles became a constant pasttime." -- Kevin Naughton |  Photo: Craig Peterson.
Craig Peterson Salvador
"Jay, from Santa Cruz, and his newfound pet in Costa Rica. When surfers first came crashing over the borders of the countries in Central America, the local populace didn't know what to make of our long hair, our surfboards, our threadbare dress and our gringo ways. Fortunately for all, it was a quick learning curve. As befit the times, we came in peace, with some coin to spend on the local economy, and once we had our fill of surf, we were harmless." -- Kevin Naughton |  Photo: Craig Peterson.
Craig Peterson Petalco
"You'd have to look long and hard at a map of Mexico to find the tiny fishing village of Petacalco. But once this shot appeared in Surfer magazine the secret was out. Photos like this one, of Eric Penny, fueled a whole generation of surfers to get out there and explore for waves beyond Hawaii. It was the first inkling that big, perfect waves could be somewhere off the map." -- Kevin Naughton |  Photo: Craig Peterson.
Craig Peterson Mexico
"Mexico in the '60s and '70s was surfers' 'moon walk' -- a not-too-distant place with a lot of unknowns that we could explore in our own space capsules. The VW Bug had about as much room as the tin cans of the Apollo space missions, and improvisations, discomfort and bits of duct tape kept the craft going towards its ultimate destination -- perfect uncrowded surf! Whether it would make it back home was another question, one we didn't think too much about. Seen here is the road into Punta Mita, Mexico, circa 1973, before it became the resort destination that it is today. Surfers were trailblazers into remote spots that would later become world class tourist resorts. The list goes on and on, from Bali to Mauritius to Mexico. All of us were just searching for that mythical perfect wave, which led us to places that the rest of the world would find to its liking years later. Here, the muddy dirt track disappearing into the jungle is now a paved super highway leading to high rises and golf courses." -- Kevin Naughton |  Photo: Craig Peterson.


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