It’s not everyday you get to meet the world’s first ever professional surfer, is it? I’m honoured to have had this chance to chat with American surf legend, musician, author, artist and all-round good guy Corky Carroll from his home on the west coast of Mexico.
And from being named ‘The Best Surfer in the World’ by SURFER Magazine, to joining The Endless Summer premiere tour, to having a cameo part in Spongebob Squarepants, he has some pretty epic stories to tell from his 60+ years of surfing. Here’s how our conversation went.
Hey Corky, how are things?
Hey Chris, I’m fine! It’s another day in paradise here in La Saladita, mainland Mexico.
So what does a typical Corky day look like right now?
Well, I usually wake up around 7, grab a coffee, check my messages and then I’m ready to go surf. I’ll catch a wave or two, come in and have a little breakfast, then disappear into my studio and work on music or paint. I’m becoming a starving artist so I’ve been doing a lot of painting these days [laughs]. I’ll have my afternoon nap after that, which is essential when you get to be 180 years old like me. Then it’s time for a Corkarita on the deck while I watch the sunset, I have dinner with my beautiful wife Raquel, then I go to sleep. And it’s the same again the next day.
Rinse and repeat!
It’s a tough job. Somebody’s gotta do it.
How long have you been living in La Saladita?
Almost twenty years now.
Wow. How have you seen it change over those years?
When I first got down here there were only a few people in the water and no houses…now there’s a lot of people in the water and a lot of houses! But it’s still the same place.
How did you discover it?
Funny you should ask. It was actually from a painting! I was walking up the street in California one day and a restaurant that had closed down had paintings in the window. There was one of an awesome, left-peeling wave with a little cantina and palm trees in the foreground – and I really wanted to know where that wave was. I went there everyday for two weeks but nobody was ever in and eventually when someone was, it turns out he didn’t know either. I asked him if I could get hold of the artist and he said ‘If you buy the painting’…it was a great painting and it was only $300, so I figured I’d buy it! He didn’t give me the phone number of the artist but a couple of weeks later the guy called me up and it turned out to be by one of my friends, Peter Schworer, who told me the painting was of mainland Mexico and that I should come and check the place out.
Then a couple of months later, a guy that I had met at a surf school in Costa Rica called me up and said he’d like to take a surf trip somewhere that was warm and had good lefts. He was a beginner and Peter had told me that some of the spots in Mexico are pretty easy, so I said ‘Hey, let’s go to see Zihuatanejo!’ We both flew in and Peter picked us up and drove us out to La Saladita.
It was about four to six feet that day, an amazing wave and we were the only guys out. I was digging it. The guy I went with loved it too so from then on he hired me for a week each month for around five years, to meet him there and teach him how to surf.
One day this property became available and it was too good of a deal not to take it, so I decided I’d live here and bring people to me to surf instead. And ever since then I’ve had people come to stay with us, I teach them how to surf, I give them a lot of drinks and I tell them stories… some of them are true!
Amazing. That break is exceptional isn’t it? It was home to the Mexi Log Fest for a number of years as well.
Yeah, that kind of contributed to the lot-of-people-in-the-water thing. All the pro longboarders who didn’t know about this place came and realised what a cool spot it is. Then they started coming and sending all their friends too. So yeah, there’s a little bit more congestion in the water but it’s still ok!
There are some really great local longboarders in Saladita too aren’t there?
Absolutely. Some of the kids growing up here have become really good surfers.
You’re very well known as the first ever professional surfer in the world, after Hobie put you on a full salary. What do you think of the current landscape of surfing, specifically longboarding?
Well, it’s amazing that it’s come as far as it has. Back when I started there wasn’t money in surfing. I was lucky to be the first one to get paid but I think in my best year I made around $40,000. Now the guys are sometimes making that in five minutes in one heat. I’m happy that that’s happening! And longboarding… it came and then it went and then it came back, and now it’s right up there. There are some amazing longboarders now, who’ll get up on the nose and stay there for weeks. When I was young I used to say ‘Ah, no girl could surf better than me, but I ate those words a long time ago.’ Patty Ornelas and Ilianet Nuñez Valdovinos, in particular, are awesome.
So, here’s a question for you… having won the US championships five times, the international championships three times and over a hundred odd other surf contests, where do you keep all your trophies?
When I moved to Mexico I sold everything, including all of my memorabilia and paraphernalia. So they’re in someone’s house somewhere… not mine!
Probably in someone’s man-cave somewhere then. Is there one reward that’s really stood out for you over the years?
Winning the SURFER magazine poll was one of my favourite things because that was about what other people thought of me. Winning a contest is one thing but when people voted for me in this, I felt ‘Hey, I’m cool’ [laughs].
Let’s talk a little more about your artwork and painting. Can you tell what got you into it?
Corky: I’ve always been quite into art and painted with watercolours when I was young. Then surfing took up all of my time. A little later on, when I was working at SURFER magazine though, I got interested in using air brushes. We’d just moved into a new facility that had a lot of space in the warehouse, so I set up a little air brush studio and started selling my paintings in galleries down at Dana Point Harbour. It went pretty well! But when I moved to Mexico I stopped painting because I didn’t have an air brush, I didn’t have any space to do it and it was too windy.
Then one day one of my guests was a painter. He brought some acrylics and left them behind for me, in case I wanted to try it out. So I went and bought a couple of canvasses. I’d never painted with acrylics before but it was really fun, and when I put them up on the walls people started asking to buy them.
It’s never been a big deal…I was selling maybe ten a year. But then recently, as I’ve gotten a bit older and I can’t put the hours in the water that I used to, I have a lot more time and less money, so I’ve got a little more serious about doing my paintings and selling them. Recently I have been working with a fantastic artist, Jerome Gastaldi, at Villa con Cuore, his art retreat. He has been helping me get my art career to another level. People often buy from me on Facebook now, including custom orders. I’m doing a lot of those right now so if any of you want an original piece of art, get hold of me on [email protected]!
I love some of the line up ones that you’ve painted, and the dog playing the guitar. They’re great.
So aside from being the first paid professional surfer in the world and a painter, you’ve got nine music albums, written several surf books, and I believe, you’re a professional tennis coach… is there anything you haven’t done??
[Laughs] There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t done. Although I think I’ve done pretty much everything that I want to do.
What has driven you to keep on pushing all these different avenues to such a high level?
Well, I think if you find something that you like to do, putting the time into doing it is the best thing. I never wanted to get stuck into one of those jobs that I hated and had to go to every day, and so I’ve always tried to position myself doing something that I enjoy. Many times this means sacrificing monetary gains. It’s more lifestyle over substance. In my case I’d rather be free to do what I want to do and get by, than have to do something I don’t want to do and be rich. I mean, it would be nice to be rich! But at the same time I’d rather get up in the morning and know I could do what I want. And what do I do? I surf, I paint, I play music. I’ve got a beautiful wife and we live in a tropical paradise. Things are good! I want to keep doing this.
Exactly. And even if you were super rich you’d probably end up wanting to do what you’re doing now anyway. It’s the dream of a lot of financially successful people. The real success is doing what you want to do, right?
Yes. Although I’ll still keep buying Lotto tickets so I can try and retire. No luck so far. Buy some paintings folks, I need to eat [laughs].
I’ve been surfing since I was nine and I’ve always known of you and have shared the line up with you a couple of times in Mexico. But one thing I didn’t know until doing the research for this interview, was that you’ve featured in Spongebob Squarepants! How did that come about?
Well, I had been the voice model for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before! When they were scripting that they hired me to go in a studio and talk surftalk for three hours, like ‘Cowabunga dudes’. So maybe someone at Nickelodeon knew about that because I got a call one day saying ‘Hey, we’ve got a spot on Spongebob for you. Do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘Sure!’. I was there at noon the next day. They had a little one line script for me saying ‘Grubby is going to go catch some gnarly pounders!’ And that was it. That was twenty years ago and I’m getting residuals. About every three months I get like twenty dollars.
Still getting cheques from Spongebob all these years later. That’s amazing.
I know music is a big part of your day to day life too. My favourite song of yours is Suicide Chicken. How did you come up with that?
Well one day I was on my way to go surfing and this chicken was standing at the side of the road starting to walk out, so I stopped to let it go by. Then it stopped too. Then when I got ready to go again it started walking out again, then I stopped and it walked back to the side. So I was thinking, this chicken’s trying to commit suicide! And I thought… oh that’s a good idea for a song. It was in my head for years but I never wrote it until I got an album deal from Darla Records a few years ago and needed more songs. It just came right out because I’d been thinking about it for so long. Now it’s on my newest album, Blue Mango.
Yeh, I found it on Spotify. We have chickens and I played it to them and they seemed pretty impressed as well!
Do you want to tell me a little more about Blue Mango Surf?
Yeah, that started after the album came out. A good friend of mine, Joel Saltzman, was visiting and said ‘Blue Mango is a good name, you ought to do something else with that, maybe boards or clothes or something’. I thought it was a great idea but living in Mexico, how would I do it? He suggested that he runs it in California, so now we’re partners. I give him designs and ideas and he runs the business. We have tshirts and we make great boards with a great shaper, Jose Barhona, on Hermosa Beach and it’s going pretty well! You can check us out at bluemangosurf.com.
So, now I’m going to take us all back to 1964 when you were sixteen years old and you were asked by Bruce Brown to join the The Endless Summer promotional tour. How was that?
Oh, I had a great time. Nine of us drove to the east coast in a big mobile home to surfing exhibitions that premiered The Endless Summer. We went to eleven different cities, I think. It was really fun for me but I’m not sure everyone else had as much of a good time! They were all older and we were crammed into this mobile home, and it was a lot of work for them. I just felt like we were rock stars though, showing up for forty or fifty thousand people to watch us surf and clap and stuff.
And one of the stops was New York wasn’t it? That must have been pretty exceptional.
Actually that had the worst surf! We were at Gilgo Beach for the surfing exhibition and the waves were about 6 inches. There were thousands of people there watching and they waded into the water with cameras and stuff, so I’d be sitting waiting for a wave and there were people standing right next to me talking to me. I was taking off and almost running people down and I was like, ‘woahhh, get out of the way’! That was pretty funny.
What’s been one of the scariest moments in your life?
Well, I ran into a giant octopus one time diving in Puerto Rico on a flat day. This huge thing was like the Kraken. That scared the heck out of me.
Also, I paddled out on a huge day on the windward side of Oahu one day with Chris Prowse and Peter Johnson to a reef that was breaking way out. We thought that it was about 12 or 15 feet but it turned out to be a hell of a lot bigger and we almost died. That was really scary.
Talk me through the feeling of surfing Pipeline on your own back then.
I remember being out there for a couple of really good days thinking, it’s kinda gnarly being out here alone. It would be really cool if somebody else would come out! Sometimes I’d see people checking it out and I’d think, I’ve got to get a good wave so that they’ll come join me. Then I’d take off and eat it like a rat and they’d disappear [Laughs].
One last question for you Corky. What advice do you have for surfing into your seventies?
It’s not easy! The whole deal is, you’ve got to keep surfing because if you stop it’s hard to get it back. I have a lot of friends who that happened to but I’ve never stopped and never wanted to stop, so I’m able to keep doing it. I look at guys like Mickey Munoz…he’s a lot older than I am and he’s out there shredding, surfing as good in his mid eighties as he did in his mid twenties. He’s my inspiration. Jerry Lopez too. He keeps himself in amazing condition doing all of his yoga stuff, and he’s incredible. I’ve let myself go a little more than those guys.
But you’re still in there!
Yeh, always a wave a day.
Thank you so much, Corky. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and learning more about your incredible life and I’ll hopefully bump into you again in Mexico soon.
Thank you. Cowabunga kids!