I met Pat Tobin in 1974 at Rio Nexpa. Totally by fluke, I had come from a shopping trip in Caleta, Michoacan, to the rancho of the friends I’d been staying with, and saw “evidence” of Pat’s presence: 3 huge guns, from 10’ to 11’ range, laying next to the trough where the pigs were eating. I was shocked. I’d been surfing Nexpa virtually alone- for months- since the last crew of Gringos left for the States.
Something about these guns set me on edge: I could tell they were hand-made (funky, truth be told), and had the unusual trademark of “Cerveza Superior” wrappers carefully peeled off the bottles and glassed right on the boards. But beyond that, I sensed in these sticks a sense of their owner: a passion for surfing the post-perfect waves that Nexpa could offer. These boards were worn- really gone through the mill- with stress marks at all the right places, and broken off tail blocks and noses, haphazardly laminated together. I seized up the situation thusly: What I was looking at were the tools of the trade of a surfing Ernest Hemmingway. I wasn’t far off the mark.
“Ahi, en la huerta,” my host Sofia signaled about this “intruder’s” whereabouts. I found Pat in the middle of the coconut grove, along the banks of the river, in worn-out, paint-stained dungarees, staring at a canvas with a paintbrush in one hand and a filterless “Delicado” cigarette in the other. My presence was more of an interruption than a cause for congenial small talk. Pat, as I learned over time, had endured kooks and wannabe surfers for years, and never got too excited about meeting new guys.
All the legendary stories about Pat Tobin are true. I was so lucky to have known him, having corresponded with him for more than 3 decades, despite being half way around the world, either in Europe or the Middle East. I cherish the letters- terse, surf-coded, somewhat obtuse- we had our own language to philosophize about the dilemma of Mickey Dora, the plight of modern man, and the fate of the Aloha spirit. Our exchanges ranged from the sublime, transitioning-oneself-from-the-base-American- materialism to the ethos of life on the French Riviera- and back again to the ‘Bu and Southern California, postulating about which kook characteristics can be most recognizable when wondering whom to drop in on. For decades, it went on like a vibrant, totally hilarious dialog, with just enough irreverence, along with portraits of Pat’s brilliance of character and sarcasm.
Pat was my hero. I learned and appreciated his incredible surfing dance. He didn’t really surf; rather, he soared like an eagle. It didn’t matter- one foot or 20 foot- the approach on a wave was the same: flawless execution, absolute control, and most important, grace and style. Like his artistic roots in Laguna Beach, the incomparable strokes he left on the canvas were somehow transferred to the precision lines he set up on some of the heaviest beachbreaks of Guerrero and Michoacan.
Like any great artist and surfer, Pat wasn’t really of this world. Life resembled nothing of the “real world” for Pat. The only thing that mattered was “the line”- in perfect trim on a clean, tight wave- always completely in the curl- and the deft, eternal stroke on the canvas. Throw in a few-well, lots- of Coronas and Mexican food, and the day was a success.
I had the honor to speak at Pat and Karen’s wedding. It was like appearing next to a titan, humbling. About all I could mention before the huge crowd was my awe and reverence for Pat, along with my friendship, and the knowing that Karen would be the best thing that could ever happen to him.
Perhaps one day, Petacalco, Pat’s homebreak, will get back the sand bottom it lost during those huge swells of years past. And then, in accord with the finest of surfing tradition, a younger generation will talk around the campfire about stories they “heard” about Pat Tobin, one of the most incredible surfers that ever lived.