At once both the hero and the anti-hero, Tom Curren was the Golden Child of American surfing. Masses of fans loved him, yet the underground somehow still praised him. His effortless style and precision lines defined and era. His surfing has always encompassed a brilliance only someone raised in the ocean could possibly capture. For everyone else, it was mind-surfing—the way a wave is supposed to be ridden.
I remember sitting and watching Taylor Steele’s daily North Shore screenings. It usually went down in Benji Weatherly’s living room. We’d jockey for a good view of the TV, and we’d ask to rewind our own best waves—but we’d watch especially for Tom’s. He was the only guy over 24 years old who made Taylor’s cut session after session. Laird Hamilton got the occasional shot also, because he did these cutbacks with his arms looking like Jesus on the Cross. But when it came to surfing, in our minds Tom was Jesus.
He basically won everything he set his mind to—from the World Amateurs to his first pro event at Trestles, to numerous OP Pros in front of tens of thousands at Huntington. He was our first modern American World Champ. He won four straight events in a single World Tour season (something that will probably stand forever), taking the title in a comeback all the way from the trials. He married his childhood sweetheart, moved to France, and redefined big-wave surfing on a Fish in Indonesia. He later stripped off his logos and won his first Hawaii event at Haleiwa, turning his back on his long-time sponsors while winning in the process. Tom just always seemed to do things that—even if they may have been wrong—somehow just seemed right.
In ’91 I was traveling through Japan with Tom Carroll. It was my first year on the Tour trying to qualify. A huge typhoon swell sent perfect 20-foot surf our way in Miyazaki, but the contest was at a beachbreak that was just a reform five times over. Curren paddled out in his heat and never caught a wave in silent boycott of where it was being held. He never publicly said a word about it either. Up and down the coast perfect reefs were firing unridden. One, in particular, caught everyone’s eye, but no one would man up and paddle out. The next day, Curren was out there by himself on a 6’9”. Way under-gunned, he caught one 18-footer, somehow made it, and headed for the nearest surf shop to find the biggest board they had. He found some 8-foot-something that looked just terrible and headed out again on his own.
Tom Carroll and I showed up and paddled out after seeing the ice was broken. The wave was like perfect Haleiwa, but bigger, with no current or humans. I caught one wave and was scared, so I went straight in and watched TC and TC go head to head, frontside versus backside, in one of the best displays of surfing I’ve ever been lucky enough to see. The next day the swell dropped to about 10- to 12-foot and just flawless. The three of us spent the day surfing Uchiumi, which became known as Curren’s Point. I hear it’s never been nearly as good since then—must be some sort of Curren-mystique.
There are millions of stories of Tom leaving uncashed contest checks under car seats, getting on planes but not arriving at the destination, walking off of photo shoots after someone’s flown around the world to shoot him. Or even just not showing up at all. There’s a part of Tom that is at odds with having surfing cheapened by some sort of work obligation or misuse, as if he just happened to find out that the thing he found most peace with could cause a great headache, or could make him a living, but just to the level that was necessary for basic needs.
There is a sort of unspoken thing going around that we should give Simon Anderson a dollar for every thruster ever made. Maybe we could start another one and give Tom a little something for all the seeds he’s planted in our surfing minds…maybe a little house on the point at Rincon? I’m just throwing it out there.—Kelly Slater