Welcome to the second episode of our “Legends” series! Today with us, originally from New York, surfing pioneer Mickey Munoz!
We discussed with him about those early days surfing Waimea, the importance of surfing, shaping surfboards and much more! You can find the episode on all major podcast platforms or read the transcribed version here on our website
A big THANK YOU to Joey Cabell that helped us to make this interview possible! Dear Joey, if you are reading these lines, I hope you will have fun listening to it!
TTOS: Aloha Mr. Munoz, welcome to the show! Where are you today?
Oh, thank you very much! we're in on the East Cape of Baja California, Mexico.
TTOS: Fantastic, it's a great morning, as you told me before, it's a good time to be there, I guess, right?
It's a beautiful morning, I was up early and I did about a mile on the beach before the sun.
My physicality is to run every morning and I take our dogs and we run on the beach and it's beautiful. And I take photographs! I have my camera and I can shoot it one handed and, and so I shoot photos every morning and yeah, watch the sun come up.
TTOS: That's great, fantastic. Today, we're going to talk about many things, of course a long career and a lot of great things, but the first question that I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing?
Just to have fun, very simple…. the ones that come in with the biggest smile is a winner! .
TTOS: And you tried always to have fun, in all your career, I guess, it was a rule for you, correct?
That was the idea, you know, it was for pure enjoyment, pure fun, it is what comes along with all the stuff that surfing's about, that's why it's so fulfilling…..
I never lost the passion for it, I'm lucky!
TTOS: I’m a curious person and I would like to know what was your first proper surfboard….
Luckily my mother got me into swimming very early and, you know, I learned to swim. And then during the time of grammar school, I met my first friend who turned out to be a lifelong friend and great surfer Ricky Grigg. He and his sister that was older than him, had started surfing and, because we were both swimmers and in competition swimming, we hung out together and we decided to start body surfing.
While doing that, we wanted go faster, we wanted to catch more waves, so we started using belly boards, we started using air mats, build them up and rode them. Of course, the next step was surfboards surfing, standup. My mother loaned me the money early on and I bought a board called “Surf King Jr”, which was a lifeguard rescue board, a hollow paddle board made out of plywood. It weighted as much as I did and I had to drag it down the beach and then usually get help to bring it out of the water. In the winter of 1950, my mother loaned me money again and I bought a Joe Quigg board, Joe was one of the few shapers in all of California and surfed Malibu. He had just made a board for his wife and he made it out of the lightest balsa wood, it was a smaller board since I'm kind of small, it fit me perfectly… that was my first real surfboard.
TTOS: Were you able to discover what happened to that board?
You know, I'm a trash man, I don't throw anything away, unfortunately, I don't know what happened to that board, but I do remember some of the dimensions, it was eight feet, 10 inches, long, 24 inches wide, and probably under three inches thick and probably weighed about 18 pounds, maybe 20 pounds, which was pretty light for a balsa board in those days.
Joe was, I would say, a contemporary shaper of the day, he was one of the most up to date and advanced designer of shapes in those days. There were only half a dozen in all of California and I don't think anyone existed on the East Coast…. there were some in Hawaii at the time, but Joe was early on, one of the very, very best.
TTOS: You were one of the first to surf Waimea, correct?
Yes, in the modern days, yes.
TTOS: What is your favorite memory of those times?
You know, we were living on the North Shore, my first trip to Hawaii back in 1954 and it was in the summer, but I went then back in 1957…. we were living there, eight of us, I shared a room with another guy and our rent was $16 a month, split two ways. We were surfing every wave we could all day, every day. We had always talked about Waimea Bay in kind of hushed tones, because as far as we knew, nobody had ridden it in modern times….
There was a story about some years before, one of the very best surfers of the day, he and another guy were out at Sunset Beach and the surf came up and when it comes up over there, it comes up exponentially… every set gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger… sunset started closing out and they decided they would paddle to Waimea because that was the last place to kind of close out on the north shore. They paddled there, one guy paddled out and the other guy, the really good surfer decided he could make it, but paddled around the point and disappeared, he was never found again.
There was legend about that place, one day, it was just starting to close out and we decided to go look at Waimea, we said: “Let's do it”. We all paddled out and started riding waves, my favorite part of that whole first day was after the majority of people surfed and got out of the water, after we were in the water three or four hours.
I think I only made two or three waves in that time, you know, we had no leashes then, so if you lost your board, it was half an hour to 45 minutes before you get it back again and get back out in the lineup. Later on that day, it was kind of a rainy stormy day, the surf kept coming up and Greg Noll was filming on the point. Actually one of Greg's best friends, Mike Stang and myself battled back out and Mike was about my size, we were both, you know, a little crazy and crazed by the adrenaline and all of that.
We're out there aand Mike had taken some drama classes, so he started quoting Shakespeare, one quote I think from “Othello”…. “I took the circumcised dog by the neck and smote him to death”… he said this, and he fell off his board.
He got his hair down to his shoulders and a full beard, I look about the same and I'm, you know, screaming at him while this giant set came along and we both titled out for it and took off in this thing. It was a big, big wave and, of course, neither one of us has made it, but I think that part of the day, the drama and the adrenaline, it was pretty special. I don't think I really appreciated what we had done until years later, I realized it kind of a milestone in our surfing careers and appreciated by big wave riders even today, I think.
TTOS: Yeah, definitely, in a certain way, you are still riding that wave….
What was the best wave of your life if you had to choose one, which one would that be?
Well, that's kind of a tough call, but you know, another story you probably maybe have heard already, I worked for years in Hobie surfboards and he would send me back to the East Coast, I'd rent a car in Miami and drive to Maine and kind of service the dealers along the way, surf with them, get to know them and so forth. I became friends with one of our dealers and he took me surfing one day on a funky blown out knee highway day, just the two of us in the water, we're laughing and riding some waves. At a certain point, I looked in, but I didn't see him, I was wondering where he is…..then I see his board upside down and I look again and I see him in the water with his face down in the water…. I paddled quickly and surf my way in.
When I got to him and I pulled him on my board and he's fully conscious, drowning in three feet of water, broken neck, paralyzed from the neck down…. He was a big guy, weighting over 200 pounds. I can't deal with him, there was a guy on the beach, I called him out, we put him on my board and we carried him in to the ambulance and he went to the hospital, paralyzed. He ended up being a quadriplegic paralyzed from the neck down, we retained our friendship over the years. About 25 years to that date, he's in California with his wife visiting friends and all of us. I had prearranged with him, I said, you know, Bill, you're going to have to come out on my boat! He goes, “great!”. The day came and he's supposed to come with us, but he started saying “oh, I'm too tired”. I go “don't worry, we'll get you on the boat, we'll take care of you”. His wife had only been on boat one other time in her life, Bill had been a pretty good waterman, a diver, a surfer, etc. We'd get him down to the harbor wheel in his wheelchair, I set a ramp up on this catamaran that I had built, we rolled him up onto the catamaran, onto the deck of the boat and strapped him in and off we went to down the coast from our area and Dana’s point. The first place we got to is Cotton's Point, it had a pretty good swell. Bill is watching the surfers and, you know, he's hooting and all excited, of course he hasn't surfed a day since the day he and I were surfing together on the east coast.
Next stop was upper Trestles and we get we're going down to lower Trestles when a set's coming along. I had already pre told, my wife, Peggy, and, and another friend what I was going to do….imagine, Bill strapped in his wheelchair on the, or with a little faring, he's basically on the open, except for this faring that is protecting him a little bit, it was a good size set, I turn around, take off in this wave and we've got surfers in front of us and surfers behind us, and everybody's hooting and Bill hadn't been in a wave since he and I surfed together and now we're riding this wave together, his wife also had never been in a wave ever.
We ride this wave and pull out and for everybody on the boat, except for Bill, you know, if we screw up the boat, crashes turns over, something happens, we walk away or swim away you, but bill doesn't, he is strapped in. Anyway, we pull out this thing and, and as soon as we get out of it and we're in a safe zone, both of us are in tears, laughing and in tears, hugging each other.
I would say that's one of the best waves I've ever been in.
Just as a follow up, he was so excited about it and his wife was so excited. They ended up taking scuba lessons. Bill had done that before, but she had never done that. They haven taken scuba lessons, you know, Bill weights 200 pounds, quadriplegic and being underwater is like being in space. One Christmas they sent a card to us and they're both underwater and they both got their mouth pieces out and they're kissing underwater!
TTOS: Very romantic well is also a great story of perseverance, even if the life is tough, you can still try to do something…. it's very important. In your life, you met a lot of surfers, was there a meeting with one of them that was particularly meaningful for you?
Hmm. Such a tough question.
Here another story, I like, one day I got a call from a friend that I knew years before, she said “I'm working with cystic fibrosis people, I don't wanna sell you on this…. we talked a little bit. And she said, I'm working with these people, that have fibrosis, do you know anything about it? I go “no, not really” . She said, okay, I don't wanna sell you on this, but you go online, watch this video. I go online and I watch this 17 or 18 year old girl, very attractive who has fibrosis, she said “I am a surfer” and the reason I surf and why is because surfing has prolonged my life.
In that time, the average age for fibrosis people that were born with it, would be 17 or 18 years old before they die.
Well, an Australian doctor had cystic fibrosis patients, kids that had it, the ones that surfed did way better than the ones that didn't, and not for the obvious reasons. Cystic fibrosis is a problem with the lungs. You can't expel the bacteria out of your lungs and consequently, they become an incubator for everything. This doctor discovered that because surfers were breathing atomized, salt air, they were able to clear their lungs better. He developed a therapy that prolonged their life for another seven or eight or 10 years, which is a big deal, almost doubled their lives. So I call my friend back and I said,”sold I'll do anything, but I wanna be able to surf with this girl at some point” , she said, no problem. The first time I get to surf with this girl, we're paddling out and she's wheezing and taking a half an hour just to get out through the waves. and then she's hit out there and she's got this smile on her face and she is like, radiating so much energy and so much positive life. Riding one wave, it was like a life changer for me, we became good friends and good friends with my wife, Peggy, we've kind of been working, you know, helping as best we can raising money for research.
You know, I know a lot of the very famous contemporary surfers now and stuff, but yeah, that was Emily, that was very meaningful. Emily was fantastic, she's gone now, she lasted to about 25 and after double lung transplant and everything.
TTOS: It's a sad story, but at the end whatever we can do to help people, even just to bring that smile for a surf session is important…
My God, it's so important. It's worth for sure…..
TTOS: You told me many stories, tell me more about that trip sailing with Joey Cabell….
It was a real adventure, I had flown to meet Joey and Joey had one other friend that he was sailing with he was going to sail from Tahiti back to Hawaii. We were going to travel through the Tomoko islands and marquees on the way back, just three of us. I had never met this other friend of Joey's and he is a big boat sailor, high level sailor racer, not a surfer. Joey and I were of course surfers.
You know, Joey has two speeds. either he is asleep or he is wide open, full throttle at all the time. And so, you know, we've got a big spinnaker up on his catamaran, it's a fast boat…. we're out in the water, a thousand miles in the sea. We're out in one of the least traveled stretches of oceans in the world and we he had devised a little game where after we kind of slowed down, first two days, we were hauling, the wind was blowing hard and we were going fast. The third day it was a beautiful day, more moderate, we're still moving right along, but not at 20 knots, at 10 knots…. he had kind of rope ladders going up to the foray in between the halls, you know, you're about 15 off the water. When you get up to the peak of these and you would dive off in, be dive off there into the water and let the boat go over you, then we had a line stretch between the halls on and you would come up from underwater and you'd grab that line and then twist around and body surf behind the boat and then pull yourself aboard again.
You know, we're out there, we're nude, no reason to have clothes on right?.... I dive off the front of the boat, you know, up there, but I come up a little too soon and he had an outboard motor with a bearing in front of it that was kind of low in the water, down close to the water.
And that's aimed right in my head and I went “oh, oh”, and I duck under, as it goes by me, and then I reach up to grab the line behind, just at that moment, the boat went a little bow down and up and that line just went off my fingertips. I’m now out the boat and it is sailing away. a thousand miles from Hawaii and shredding water naked watching the boat sail away. Luckily we had this we had this what they called it fish with a little propeller on it. That was what gave us a speed, we didn't have a GPS or anything, we were navigating with a Sexton and we had this fish that was telling us approximately how fast we were going or how many miles we had gone.
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TTOS: From a negative experience, you can have a positive one and, of course, now a beautiful memory We talk about surfing, we talk about sailing, let's talk a little bit about shaping, right. How is the experience of shaping boards for you?
Back to my first real surfboard made by Joe Quigg well, Joe was a Malibu surfer and one of the things that Joe used to do would be to bring balsa blanks to the beach, set up his horses on the beach and in between surf sessions, shape his boards. It was all hand tools, he'd start with, what's called an ads, which would be like an ax, only the head of the ax is turned sideways and you would swing it and kind of plow pieces, big thick pieces off the balsa of blanks. Then the next tool would be a draw knife, which was a two handled knife, basically that you literally are towards you, and you can pull shavings off the false of blank. Well, it's a lot of drag on the blank.
My first job in the surfboard manufacturing, your building business was being a paperweight. And that's sitting on the blank to keep it removing on the horses while Joe would drawn it . I big shavings off the blank shaping, shaping the board and then he would use Japanese pool plains and block plains to fine tune, contour it and shape it. I became so enamored by the process that I couldn't wait to shape my own board. I got into shaping kind of that way. Finally I got into production shaping where it was a whole different level of shaping and you know, kind of from the late sixties in, through all through the seventies, into the eighties, I was pretty much production shaping.
I got to bridge from, you know, the hundred pound board era, you know, through balsa wood, into the early stages of foam and then of course, you know, production foam making, where, where the blanks got closer and closer and closer to the finished product, because, you know, bottom line is, the business got accelerated more and more people wanted boards. You needed to make more boards quicker. I love the acceleration. I love the planting, I love the carving. I was lucky enough to be kind of among the forefront of that, that design era, where we were not afraid to try different ideas and different designs. And, you know, if you look at the pendulum going out to, you know, we'd, we'd take it out to one way out, radically in one direction, and then back into the other one. And finally come into the, back into the middle where it worked, you know, pretty much for everything.
TTOS: If I put your name in google. the first thing that comes up is “surfing legend” , Do you consider yourself a legend?
I don't know what that is exactly, but, you know, I have the people that I grew up with as my gurus, as my, you know, the people that I respected and all of that. I don't know, you know, I'm just happy to be able to still be doing it and, and you know, surfing and kind of trying to stay update, I watch WSL, I watch every event, you know, streaming, I've been into surfing and competition by judging. I don't ever consider myself that great of a surfer, but I understood the game pretty well and so I was able to play the game better than some of the better surfers.
TTOS: we are going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up in your mind. The best surfboard that you ever ridden….
I made a twin fins balsa board that I wrote thousands and thousands of waves, it was probably pretty advanced for its day and I think that might have been one of the best, I don't know, they're all good…
TTOS: do you still have that board?
I do. I still have that board. It was six, four and 19, half wide and two and a half inches thick. They would packed the balsa, they would cut thin pieces and, and surround the bundles of balsa wood with these thin pieces of balsa wood so when they put the straps around, it wouldn't hurt the, the inner cores pieces. And I would save those outer pieces until I finally had enough to make a board…..I glued all those together…..
TTOS: Favorite shaper of all time.
There are a lot of fabulous shapers, incredible shapers, but I'll go back to my friend, who's gone now, Joe Quigg, as I think I learned more from him about design concept, how to go about design and Joe was an artist, I just loved his approach and how he approached the design.
You know, the other, I love Dale Velzy because he had a great sense of aesthetics, didn't care about so much, he was a salesman.
There are also a zillion, contemporary shapers that are excellent and some of the best boards I've ridden have been other shapers boards.
TTOS: Personal question, your favorite song.
This is pretty funny, our dog that barks at buzzards, he's also really good at singing happy birthday. When, people's birthdays come up, we sing happy birthday and he sings along.
TTOS: what is your favorite surf spot?
Oh, I can't tell you that.LOL
It all depends on the day and the place and all of that. Of course I grew up at Malibu and Malibu is one of my favorite waves for sure, and I got to ride Jay Bay and I've gotten to ride some really, really high quality waves and, you know, each place has its magic moments.
TTOS: Best surfer of all time
That's, that's a really tough question, I've been watching, I going back to the judging part and the fact I stream all of WSL, I stream about all the contests and competitions, highlight days and all of that. There are so many incredible surfers in the world now I'm just stunned.
How about Gerry Lopez? I get to surf with Gerry quite a bit and actually I got to shape a lot of Lightning Bolts and got to work with Gerry shaping, he is still shaping and he is still putting huge amount of time in the water. He has learned to become a great person.
TTOS: And the last question, I would like to know your best relationship advice.
You kind of get back what you put into it, you put in love, you get love back.